Early in Luke’s Gospel we encounter Anna and Simeon, two special, almost grandparental figures, perfect models for those of us in the winter years of our lives. They are blessed with the holiness and wisdom most of us seek but too few of us attain.
But this passage about Anna always calls to mind my Dominican eighth-grade teacher. I’m certain Sister Francis Jane looked exactly like Anna. From my perspective as a 13-year-old they were both old – very, very old. And they both saw their mission in life as one of announcing the Good News to everyone they encountered.
How did Luke put it?
“…she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”Yes, Anna was telling everyone who came to the Temple to prepare themselves for the gift of redemption. What wonderful news! And it was the same message we eighth-graders received daily from Sister Francis Jane.
“Be prepared,” she’d say, “You and I don’t know when the Lord will summon us into His Holy Presence.” And so, for Sister Francis Jane, readiness just made good spiritual sense.
Over the years I’ve taken a lot of courses in spirituality, but despite all the deep theological insights I learned in those courses, I found myself ignoring most of them and going back to Sister’s four basic rules – rules she repeated again and again as we made our way through eighth grade en route to high school.
Her first rule was to pray.
That’s right, pray – pray every day. “Talk to the Lord,” she’d say. Nothing complicated about it. If you don’t have a prayer life, you can’t be Jesus’ friend. After all, what kind of person never speaks to his friend?
Her second rule was to watch.
Now she didn’t mean spending your time looking for the Second Coming. Too many people today seem to think the end is near every time there’s an earthquake, a flood, a war, or a rumor of war. In the words of the good Sister, “If you stand around looking at the sky watching for Jesus, you just might get hit by a truck – and then you’ll meet Him a bit prematurely.”
Yeah, she was a pretty funny. But what she meant was something a little more subtle. “Keep your eyes open,” she’d tell us. “Watch what’s going on in the world around you. Watch for opportunities to bring Jesus to others. Watch for the good things, and praise God for them. And watch out for the bad things, and then wait...and you’ll be amazed how God will use you to bring good out of the bad.”
“Don’t hide from the world,” she’d say, waving that bony finger at us. “God made the world. It’s good. It’s people who’ve made it bad. And you can’t change it if you hide from it.”
Her third rule of readiness was to avoid sin.
Too many people, she said, make friends with the devil, who dresses up sin trying to make the ugly attractive. I would hope as Catholic Christians we’d all want to be in a state of grace, a state of friendship with the Lord, so He will greet us as a friend when we meet. For this, the good sister said, we should be willing to sacrifice everything.
Her fourth and final rule of readiness was to use everything in our lives to fulfill our calling to serve.
By this she meant that parents should be good parents. Children should be good children. Brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, priests and nuns, deacons and bishops, doctors, lawyers, flight attendants, plumbers, salespeople, soldiers, carpenters… whatever we do in life, we should do it to the best of our ability.
But it also means we must be good Christians, that our work in the world is important only to the extent that it supports and furthers God’s work. Our preparation for eternity, then, must include using this world’s goods and pleasures for the glory of God and for the good of others. After all, what good is it to achieve great things in this world if they don’t help us achieve the salvation God wants for us in the next? We are all called to serve.
That, in a nutshell, is the late Sister Francis Jane’s program of spiritual direction.
Now, being always ready to encounter Jesus isn’t as easy as it might sound, especially in today’s world, a world that seems to place so many superfluous demands on us. In the days to come there will be a lot of talk about turning over new leaves and making resolutions for the new year — talk of diets, and exercise, and volunteer work, and watching less television…all good things.
But maybe you and I can do something a bit more meaningful. Why don’t we get ready for the Lord and start living each day as if it’s our last. Put away the old person with sin and weakness and live in a new spirit of grace and gratitude.