Angel of Light, Angels of Mercy
By Anne Wilson - La Mesa, California, USA - 24 May 2015
My sister Nancy was eighteen months younger than me. She had entered a religious order of teaching and nursing sisters at the age of sixteen, two years after my father refused to allow me to enter a Carmelite monastery where I had been accepted, just after my sixteenth birthday. The night before I was to enter Carmel, my father tore up his permission slip and my plane ticket. The abuse that followed plunged me into a tragedy and ensuing despair that lasted more than a decade, and it mistakenly resulted in my turning away from God -- at least, that’s how it seemed to me -- even as I attempted to hold onto whatever faith I had left.
Then followed a total nervous breakdown, the annulment of a marriage that should never have taken place but which I had undertaken in despair when I turned eighteen, and more than a year in a mental hospital and intensive psychotherapy. After all this, I began years of intense and difficult work to rebuild my life.
In the pre-Christmas season of 1974, my mother had called to ask me if I could get time off and bring my two children to join her and my sisters in Fresno for the holidays -- with a festive trip to Yosemite and the Ahwahnee Hotel thrown in for New Year’s. This was to be an amazing reunion! I was especially delighted by the idea of spending time with my sister Nancy, who had left the convent several years before and was instead pursuing doctoral studies at University of Iowa. She and a friend were driving across the country to join us for the holidays.
Fresno was not only home but also a place of reconciliation. My mother finally had had the courage to leave my abusive, alcoholic father, but she remained true to her Catholic conversion and never remarried. She had obtained a job on the nursing faculty of Fresno State University. She had also bought a lovely house near campus and wanted all of us to share in her newfound understanding and celebration of life, which was being nourished at the open and welcoming Newman Center at the university, under the direction of Father Sergio Negro. For my sister Nancy, too, who had left her beloved religious congregation but had never stopped grieving for the loss of community she had known with the sisters, Fresno was the place she had come to in order to complete her masters degree and continue serving God, but as a laywoman.
Fresno is a sweet, quiet, agricultural community in the central valley of California’s “salad bowl.” It is chilly in December, but pungent with the scent of firewood, cherishing its simple title as “the gateway to Yosemite.” In the '70s it was an exciting place for us, with various opportunities opening up at both Fresno State University and at the Newman Center, which was progressing along the lines of Pope John XXIII’s new thinking. Fresno was a symbol of reconciliation indeed, especially for those of us who had felt abandoned in the past.
Then, on the day before Christmas Eve, as my children and I were packing for the drive to Fresno, my mother was suddenly on the phone with a raspy and shaking voice, telling me she had terrible news. My sister had called her the night before to tell her that due to the stormy weather that she and her friend faced on the long drive from Iowa to California, they were “seeing the USA at 25 miles per hour” but were at last on the last leg of their journey. That was the last Mom had heard before the police called with the news that my sister’s car had hit a patch of black ice when they had almost reached California. The car had flipped several times, and my sister had died in the crash just outside Elko, Nevada.
A young pilot in Nevada gave up his day off on December 23 to fly my sister’s body to Fresno at his own expense, so that we could have her funeral Mass at the university's Newman Center.
My children and I were utterly silent on the long drive from Los Angeles to my mother’s home in Fresno. What was to have been a delightful Christmas reunion had turned to tragedy. Our grief was nearly unbearable, and when the news was announced during Mass at the Newman Center on Christmas Eve, there were audible cries of disbelief, as Nancy had been known and loved there before moving away for her doctoral studies.
The night before Nancy's funeral Mass, relatives had come down to stay overnight, so our mother had given up her own room and made up a bed for herself on the living room couch. She brought out her little alarm clock that had a light on it and set it next to the couch on a small table on which rested a carved ivory statue of the Kwan Yin, whom we later learned was a Buddhist goddess of mercy. Although we were neither Asian nor Buddhist, our mother loved this carving that had been a gift to her. The summer before, Nancy had dropped the statue, which was wrapped in a blanket, when helping Mom move into her new house. Later, unwrapping it, Mother discovered that the head had broken. She had it repaired so that Nancy would never know.
As Mom switched on the little lighted clock in the dark living room, we all gasped. The light reflecting off of the statue cast a shadow upon the wall that was the perfect representation, larger than life, of my sister’s silhouetted face in profile. All of us saw it and were amazed.
My sister’s death was a turning point in all of our lives. “Do it for Nancy!” soon became a rallying cry as we each attempted to live with my sister’s ideals and goals in mind, each in our own way. But only years later did I discover a deeper meaning of the Kwan Yin moment in the living room that night before the funeral.
I had gone to make a retreat in a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico and discovered it was the place where the famed Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Merton, had spent his last night before leaving on his final trip to Asia, where he died. I had always loved Merton’s writings and now, as I perused them in the monastery where he had stayed, I learned the story of Kwan Yin.
Kwan Yin, or the goddess of mercy as she is known in several Asian cultures, was once a noblewoman in China who had entered a monastery and had taken final vows. After a time, her father sent for her, determined that she should marry the man he had chosen for her. Kwan Yin was distressed. She longed to remain in the convent. However, in the China of that era, to disobey one’s father was considered to be a grave sin. But so was breaking one’s final religious vows. Not knowing what to do, Kwan Yin prayed for an answer and had set out for her father’s home. But on the way, her carriage overturned, and the young woman died when her head hit a stone. It is said that upon reaching heaven, its Lord welcomed her as a holy one. But instead of entering into that place of bliss and peace, she asked first to be allowed to remain at Heaven's gate with a lantern, in order to show her sisters the way home.
The similarities between my sister’s life and Kwan Yin's startled me, as did the remarkable way the ancient Chinese noblewoman died after wrestling with a dilemma over whether to remain in religious life. During the tumultuous time in which my sister decided that she must leave her order, she mourned the loss of convent community life that would result. But she could not reconcile herself to staying, although I never learned of her reasons. Also, when my sister died on that fateful journey to our mother’s house, she had sustained massive head injuries, just as Kwan Yin had. And the changes that we her sisters experienced as the result of her death caused each of us to rethink our lives’ purpose and renew our spiritual commitments.
How remarkable that I learned of this Buddhist story in that Catholic monastery, as told by Merton. How remarkable too was this odd parallel to my sister’s life! Whether an angel or my sister’s own soul, in an effort to console us, had helped me toward the discovery, only God can know. But I do believe that an angel of light that sorrowful night decades ago in my mother’s house gave me and my other siblings a message from heaven, and inspiration that would guide us the rest of our lives.