As usual, my monastic Christmas, celebrated with the community of St Cecilia Abbey, Ryde, in the Isle of Wight, brought me many graces, but chief among them was to assist at the death of one of the community: 93-year-old Mère Stéphanie Mathieu.
On Christmas Day at the end of Mass I left the altar with the Blessed Sacrament and passed through the monastic choir into the enclosure to take Holy Communion to the infirmary. As I was returning through the cloister I was told by the infirmarian that Mère Stéphanie was dying, so I hastened to her cell where I gave her the Anointing of the Sick and the Apostolic Pardon and prayed the Commendation of the Dying, with some of the community kneeling round the bed. She lingered for the rest of Christmas Day, the Abbess having predicted that she would go home on her feast day, St Stephen’s. Sure enough, not long after Mass the following day her soul departed her frail body and I was summoned to her cell again. The community filled the room and the corridor outside, kneeling. There was something serene and peaceful in the sight. Kneeling is the language of acceptance; of worship before some greater mystery than what is merely human; of being awed by the recognition of one’s need for love. Then the nuns began to sing the Subvenite, calling on the saints to aid her and the angels to take her soul and present it in the sight of God’s majesty.
As a teenager I was hugely moved by Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and the way Newman conveys the drama of the Four Last Things. The real crisis of death hinges not on the life which is inevitably being emptied out, but on the question of salvation. In his passage towards judgment Gerontius is surprised that he can hear the voices he left on earth. “It is the voice of friends around thy bed who say the Subvenite with the priest; hither the echoes come,” the Angel explains.
This came to me as I heard the Subvenite chanted for the first time. And I thought of Mère Stéphanie hearing the echoes of her Sisters singing the Subvenite as she neared God’s presence, she who had spent the greater part of her life singing his praises with this same choir. I felt the truth of Newman’s intuition. Such time-honoured Catholic rituals rescue dying from sentimentality so as to allow for genuine sentiment which can beget faith, hope and love. (We need to recall this in our pastoral practice). Bodily death is the natural end of Everyman, including those standing round the deathbed. It is our transcendent finality, the extent to which we have allowed God to own us, which defines our personality in that dread moment. “Uphold me, Lord, and I will live,” Mère Stéphanie sang at her monastic profession 70 years ago. Her passing re-echoed the same song.
Minutes later the bell was sounding for Sext and the community were assembled in choir to sing the praises of the Saviour of the World at the hour he mounted the Cross. One can understand Auden’s anguished plea to “stop the clocks”, but to do so in the face of death would be an admission of defeat. There was no need to, for what we had witnessed was a transitus, a passing beyond this realm of time.
Mère Stéphanie was not lost in the toils of time and tide. The tide that claimed her was one of ecstatic love pouring from the Father’s heart and taking Flesh to draw all flesh with it in its return to source.