Summer 1984, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 162-171.

Clare Wagner:
      Current Trends: Life to the Full

Sr. Wagner, O.P., is currently serving in the Office of Education of the Archdiocese of Chicago after several years of preaching and retreat ministry.

THIS year, 1984, has been full of death -- and life. I asked myself if there had ever been a time when wakes and funerals and notes of consolation and friends in grief played such a major role in my life. Two of those were deaths of my Dominican sisters. Both of those deaths had a powerful impact and led me to choose reflection on the experience of those deaths as the content for "Current Trends."

Margaret Lyons and Mary Mahoney died in consecutive weeks in January. Margaret, in her fifties, had been suffering from terminal cancer; Mary, in her forties, was a missionary in Bolivia who was drowned with two other sisters and a young Bolivian boy. A freak accident with a flash flood near a small river, a hideous debilitating disease -- and two energetic, committed, delightful women are gone from this earth.

These two women, each very conscious of her discipleship, lived a mature Christian life immersed in what that means in this country at this time. By reflecting on and naming major breakthroughs in the conversion, or spiritual awakening process, that had to be theirs, it is possible to discover some characteristics of believing that are emerging as typical of late twentieth-century Christian faith.

The fullness of the Spirit present in the way they had lived their lives was apparent to us as we sang and prayed our farewells to Margaret and Mary. They had, indeed, attained the fullness of life which, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus had promised: "I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).But how did they reach this "life to the full"? How did they respond to God's loving initiative?

Faithful disciples, we may assume, are consciously involved in a listening and responding relationship with God. They are involved in a process of continual conversion, or spiritual awakening. Though this awakening is most often a gradual process, it is possible to name at least three breakthrough events essential for spiritual maturity. They are a conscious relationship with Jesus Christ, the discovery of neighbor love, and freedom from fear of death. We struggle to describe these perennial events of Christian growth in terms appropriate to our moment of history, when we have in view, not the cultivation of personal perfection, but the liberation of the world as the goal of the spiritual life.


At the center of the Christian quest for meaning and life stands the person of Jesus. Before, during, and after the breakthrough event of awakening to Jesus, there is the critical reflection which is essential for a developing Christology. The liberation theologians call for a two-pronged reflective search, including a more careful rereading of the historical accounts of Jesus and a return to the lived experience of Christian communities in the present as the source for theological reflection in the context of the entire history of the Christian community.(1) But even such serious and valuable reflection does not constitute the relationship with Jesus capable of changing lives. Who is the Jesus that Margaret and Mary encountered and related to? The relationship for each woman was particular and personal, and, as with all of us, in some ways private. What is certain is that the relationship was real and powerful in their lives.

An initial step in the conversion to Jesus is realizing that such a relationship is possible. It is not uncommon for believers to question the possibility of bridging the historical, cultural, and temporal distance between ourselves and Jesus and being open to relationship. Rahner insists, after considering all the difficulties, that a genuine love relationship is indeed possible.(2)

Hence we must say: one can love Jesus, love him in himself, in true, genuine, immediate love. To be sure, we can and must unhesitatingly stipulate, in this case, that the one who is loved is really alive with God. To be sure, we may stipulate and grasp by faith that it is this Jesus, on his own initiative, out of the depths of the divinity that is his and that preserves him in life, who seizes the initiative of his love for us, and through what we call grace -- the divine gift of love for God and Jesus -- makes this love for him possible for us.(3)

I think one can and must love Jesus, in all immediacy and concretion, with a love that transcends space and time, in virtue of the nature of love in general and by the power of the Holy Spirit of God.(4)

Because of life's circumstances, some are more conscious of this possibility than others. Yet the breakthrough comes not through thorough understanding of this possibility, but on the condition that we want to encounter and love Jesus and have the courage to pray for that.

When desire gives way to some deep realization of call and presence, the believer, each according to her or his own style, begins to internalize the way of Jesus. Rahner suggests that "we read the Holy Scripture in the way two lovers gaze at one another in the living of their daily life together."(5) We take a stance of open receptivity to what God has to reveal to us in Scripture, community, work, nature, and friends. We glean all we can of Jesus' life and life-style; we notice his way. We assume Jesus reflected on his experiences, so we attend to our own and connect ours with his. Monika Hellwig collects the images in Jesus' speech as a result of his experience: "The observations of the breathtaking beauty of the short lived wild flowers, of the lovable simplicity and frailty of the despised and ubiquitous sparrows picking a modest living out of refuse, of the grandeur of the skies over the sea of Galilee eloquent with promise or threat to fishermen and herdsmen and farmers -- all these speak of times of quiet contemplation of the world."(6) Our contemplation may salt our speech with different images than the ones Jesus used, but the call to speak out of a contemplative stance is inherent in pondering the early accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus.

To internalize Jesus' way of life is to become intimately bound by choice to Jesus' being and to his life's intent. Jesus was preoccupied with the vision of his God -- the vision of one human family, of the lion and lamb lying down together, of killing being "out" and caring being "in," of the poor being happy and the lame not only walking but dancing, of the beatitudes come true in all the world. The all-consuming passion of the historical Jesus was the reign of God. It is utterly important for followers of Jesus to espouse the understanding he had of that reign and its implications for our day and our lives. "He attempts to share his own clear-eyed vision of the Reign of God coming by trying to coax others into the experience out of which his vision comes -- the experience of truly living now as though God reigned and there were no other consequences to fear."(7) Mary and Margaret were among those "coaxed" by their relationship with Jesus to own his vision and life as though God reigned.

What immediately comes of claiming Jesus' life-energy and vision as one's own is the impulse to share in, and work for, the vision. There is the need not only to grasp how Jesus lived, died, and rose, but to experience being and doing that with him now, in Bolivia, in a hospital bed, or anywhere. And to do that is a very demanding and costly decision.

It moves the follower to ask at times, "Where is the power of God in life as we experience it?" In the gruesome jeep accident which killed four people, in the excruciating suffering of Margaret's last weeks, where was the power of God?

Such realities challenge our faith and make the depths of us cry out for some consoling fact of life here, though mystery will always remain. To focus on the compassion of Jesus gives some insight into Resurrection, which is the realization of God with us. We can call ourselves to believe that every kind of human suffering is a place where God is. By means of a radical compassion, God enters into the situation of suffering, fear, addiction, frustration and is an "ever present and most extraordinary companion in the human dilemma and diabolic trap."(8) Someone once said to a mental patient who pointed to the sky and spoke of God: "God is not out there for you. God is in the very place in your being where you are fighting mental illness, agonizing with you, sharing your frustrations." If we believe that where God is present, hopelessness cannot dominate, then by the very fact that God is there with people, there is some hope.

A word that expresses the kind of compassion that seems to best name Jesus present in our time is solidarity. Ministers today confront massive suffering in work and life among people. To envision God as protector from evil, or as rescuer, or as solicitous lest we dash our foot against a stone simply does not correspond to our predominant experience. There is a growing awareness of, and desire among, contemporary Christians to be in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, and the suffering. This grows out of, and contributes to, our understanding of nonexclusive compassion -- the solidarity of Jesus with God's people. Where is the power of God? This compassion of Jesus is the power of God. Encountering and relating to Jesus turns thinking upside down to make it possible for his followers to recognize this. The power of God is this utterly compassionate solidarity which, except to those who are willing to enter into Jesus' way, is mere powerlessness. Awakening to the person of Jesus gifts his followers with consolation and challenge.


The spiritual awakening to Jesus and the growth of that relationship is intimately related to love of neighbor; these two loves are continually affecting one another; genuine love of God can be assumed to indicate true love of neighbor, and vice versa. What is essential is that the follower of Christ experiences a breakthrough that in some unique way takes her, beyond the obligation and the command to love neighbor, to naming the others sister and brother, children of the same God who is intimate with all.

Their ministries brought Mary and Margaret to live among different neighbors; that was evident even in the celebrations of their deaths, but that is not important. Mary's death was in the midst of distant neighbors, while Margaret's was very close to home; the grieving of sisters and brothers in both places evidenced deep love. Margaret's suffering was consciously in solidarity with her brothers and sisters in Central America and other troubled world spaces filled with pain. In Mart's wake service, one hymn was in Spanish, another an American folk melody, and the third a moving gospel spiritual -- each reflecting her ministry to a different culture. She was buried in a beautiful Bolivian mahogany coffin covered with the bright "aguayo" (typical weaving of Bolivia). The bishop of Bolivia asked that the "aguayos" be sent with the sisters' bodies to the United States to tell the people how much loved these missioners were. It was evident in the "gospels" of these women's lives, and symbolized in their death rituals, that they had experienced conversion to neighbor and had learned to see neighbors as brothers and sisters. They saw and related in a way that is essential to further the ultimate communion of humankind.

History has brought us to a new phase of our existence as church in the world. Hints of the global perspective are there in what was just written of Margaret and Mary. The world has become, in a sense, one community. "It is the situation of a global, unified, 'standardized' humanity, and it is the situation of a new kind of interiority for human beings."(9) Something of significance that happens at any place on the globe affects all others sharing the globe, in a positive or negative way. A collection of circumstances have made human beings a closely related global group long before hearts are open to the possibility of world community. The implications for neighbor love are broad and challenging. It may not be too bold to say that conversion to neighbor for individuals, churches, nations may be crucial for the earth's survival. As we earthlings become more interdependent apart from our choice to become so, and nations refuse to recognize the fragility of each one's situation, the more precarious our life together on the planet is. What needs to happen within individuals and communities and Christian churches so that we may begin to become brothers and sisters?

A movement needs to occur that involves new attitudes, genuine encounters, enemy love, and evangelization. These seem to be those things which constitute a developing neighbor love. Individually, people are responding to God in magnanimous ways so that their hearts are changed and their spirits awakened whereby love of neighbor in all its dimensions is a way of life. Mary and Margaret are examples of that, as are many faithful followers of Jesus.

An attitudinal change needs to come about in which neighbor love includes all the people on the earth. If, in fact, those far and near, rich and poor, of all races are my brothers and sisters, how serious then are the demands of Christian nonviolence, caring for the earth's environment, reversal of the feminization of poverty, respecting human rights in all lands? An all-inclusive compassion insists that the earth be preserved for the children to come, that those of us on this earth reverence the lives of one another, that mothers have enough to feed their children no matter how little money they have. Churches need to become communities of equals if they want to work together for the unity of all peoples. A cup of cold water given in his name is a reign-of-God gesture, but what if the water is not fit to drink -- is polluted by nuclear waste or other dangerous elements? In these kinds of situations, how do we love our thirsty neighbors? There are new demands on neighbor love.

No matter how much we develop attitudes which are consistent with a world -- community consciousness, they are useless unless we actually encounter brothers and sisters with whom we relate in love and with justice. It is such an honor for people if we choose to attend to, listen to, and empathize with, them as human beings in their own unique life's experience. It is a profound thing to stand in solidarity with a sister or brother; the very power of God is expressed in such solidarity. Yet love occurs in humble and ordinary everyday events. An old woman in the art workshop for senior citizens in Uptown said she was hungry, which she always says; a sensitive Indian man with almost no money took her to the Burger King for something to eat after the art lesson. It was a holy encounter; he honored her by his empathy. Margaret graciously received people who spoke or wrote to her in her final year of life, often consoling them and sharing the wisdom and faith of one who had courageously accepted her vocation as a cancer patient. On Mary Mahoney's memorial card was a picture of her smiling and standing in the center of a small group of Bolivian adults and children. A sister, looking at it, remarked, "Everyone in the picture is touching." It was a joyous group embrace of brothers and sisters who knew and encountered one another's lives and persons. Our Christian faith tells us that only freely given love for God and human beings brings people to salvation.(10)

There is great difficulty in extending neighbor love to include even the enemy, but this is the ultimate challenge of God's kind of loving. An appropriate symbol of all the estrangement in the world is evident in the Newsweek cover of several months ago which had Reagan and Andropov back to back on the cover. A symbol of an attempt to build a different attitude is the effort begun by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. This group provides Russian and American teachers with addresses of organizations in both countries which will arrange for picture exchange and penpal correspondence between elementary school students. It will be a while before representatives of the great powers share table fellowship, yet every reconciliation event makes that one moment closer. Families, community members, women and men in our churches need the grace of enemy love, the extraordinary desire to forgive as Jesus forgave. Only then is peace possible and the breakthrough to neighbor love complete. "Authentic biblical peace is experienced only when those who have been enemies are able to have a change of heart and become reconciled to one another. Short of that profound transformation, there is no peace."(11)

Just as the healing of estrangements through reconciliation cannot stop with family members or the person next door, neither can the call to evangelization be limited or excluded from neighbor love. Since we are a world "community" in the concrete, though not in our attitudes and feelings, the church's mission is to the world and toward a communion of brothers and sisters. We are connecting with people the world over for business, study, politics, and leisure; this isn't enough. Converted to Jesus and neighbor ourselves, there is a conviction that this good news must be shared. Our brothers and sisters deserve access to God's love as expressed in Jesus. A commitment to human rights and justice must be step one in evangelization today. A share in Jesus' passion for the reign of God and extreme reverence for our neighbors will dictate the next step. For those not called to evangelization in distant lands, love of neighbor challenges us to the proclamation of the reign of God by who we are and what we say wherever we live and minister. The breakthrough named "conversion to neighbor" empowers Christians to be and do what would be otherwise impossible. "A love of neighbor as one's brother and sister, a communion of brothers and sisters having a love for God both as its vehicle and as its consummation is the highest thing of all. And the highest thing of all is a possibility, an opportunity, offered to every human being."(12) Imagine that!


This breakthrough in the conversion process called freedom from the fear of death is possible only after the other two have been lived awhile. It comes, and not easily or quickly for most, out of being faithful to God and to sisters and brothers; it comes when the love is strong enough that risks can be taken. Fear of death is enormous and plays a major role in the way we live. Bernard Cooke points to its magnitude when he says: "There are strong indications that the fear of death is at the root of a human's entire structure of fears; in one way or another, all other evils that we fear share in the ultimate evil of death."(13) Love is the power that can shake that "structure of fears" and make necessary risk taking possible. The vision of God's reign sustained Jesus; he was transformed to the point of being free from fear of death by intimacy with God, his "Abba" God, and by his mission. There were external circumstances and reasons of the heart involved in Jesus' death; both were there in the deaths of Mary and Margaret too.

Both of these women had spoken and written of death to friends. Something was there in the mystery of their lives that made death lose its power over them. That was key to the way they lived since, as Cooke states, "if the meaning of death is altered (to be seen as a passage to fulfillment of all that life was meant to be), the meaning of every other experience is radically altered."(14)

When, toward the end, the enemy, cancer, crucified Margaret, as the enemy, concretized evil, crucified Jesus, she would ask her friends on what day they thought the Lord would bring her "home." All else had to have been radically altered by having death mean going home. Already the enemy was losing its power.

Mary had told friends that she would die in the not distant future and on Saturday, too. She had said she did not fear death. It was certainly on her mind when she spoke the following words on tape to a friend:

Death is something that is very much on my mind. I always make it a point to never mention the crucifixion without mentioning the resurrection because it has impressed me that the people here are extremely conscious of the death of Christ . . . and very unaware of the resurrection. I think that I probably make the hook up not only for their sakes, but because I myself don't like looking at the crucifixion and what it entails. It's like I want the resurrection without too much pain before that comes.(15)
On January 21, 1984, Mary and her friends experienced Resurrection by surprise "without too much pain."

Two comparatively young women, Margaret Lyons and Mary Mahoney now know life to the full, and it has been hard to let go of their physical presence among us. Though I did not know Margaret or Mary very well, I knew enough of each one's spirit to write these words with confidence. Their lives, in one sense, were not terribly unusual; their deaths were. Their deaths forced me to ask again, "What is life's meaning?" What is essential? Did they have enough time?" They had enough time to complete the process of living and growing in faith -- enough time to experience the three significant breakthroughs in the spiritual awakening described here. Their deaths caused me to notice, and to remember out loud, how God loves us and transforms us.


  1. Monika Hellwig, Jesus the Compassion of God (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983), p. 55.
  2. Karl Rahner, The Love of Jesus and the Love of Neighbor (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 16-24.
  3. Ibid., p. 21.
  4. Ibid., p. 23.
  5. Ibid., p. 22.
  6. Hellwig, Jesus, p. 79.
  7. Ibid., p. 83.
  8. Ibid., p. 107.
  9. Rahner, The Love of Jesus, p. 76.
  10. Ibid., p. 103.
  11. Donald Senior, "Enemy Love: The Challenge of Peace," The Bible Today 21 (1983): 163.
  12. Rahner, The Love of Jesus, p. 104.
  13. 13 Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1983), p. 21.
  14. Ibid., p. 21.
  15. Published in Mission Letter of the Chicago Archdiocese.