Sister Jeanne

When my great aunt was 19, shortly before the end of WWII, she became a nun. For 72 years, her life’s work has been serving others. She has traveled the world, going wherever her God and her Order have called her to go. She has taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But, as far as I can tell, what governs her life most is love.
I spent the last two days with her in Indiana asking her every question I could possibly think of. (Did you have boyfriends before you became a nun? Do people ever annoy you? What is your morning routine like?) As she talked, I tried to remember every single word she said, but I couldn’t. I asked her the same things over and over again in the hopes I would find some new nook or cranny in my brain to hold her answer forever.
In her room, she showed me the back pages of her Bible. There are hundreds upon hundreds of names listed, dating back to 1981. They are the names of people who have shared their stories with her, people who have come to her for spiritual direction and comfort. They are the names of people she loves. Each day she prays for many people, but once a month she prays for the entire list, starting back at 1981. It takes her several hours. At 91, she is one of the oldest women in her retirement community yet she seems younger than most. I wonder if when we comfort others if we aren’t somehow reversing time. Maybe for every comfort we give someone else, we get a second, an hour, a day back in our own lives.
She and I drink coffee. I show her a book I am reading. We both like to highlight passages and write in the margins. She introduces me to all the staff and residents. I continue to lob question after question. We go to an Applebee’s nearby. We order the same thing—French onion soup and half a turkey sandwich. She questions why Applebee’s has taken to calling sandwiches “handhelds.” She holds onto my arm when she gets in and out of my car, and it feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done. There’s no question she doesn’t answer.
Toward the end of our visit, I say, “Please come to Nashville. Please come see us.” But what I really mean is, “Please don’t die. I haven’t memorized your story yet. I need to hear it a hundred more times.”
I think about if there is any greater act of human love we can express than to give and receive our stories. To say, “Tell me about you,” if we’re listening to the answer, is like saying, “Tell me about me.” The characters and details are different. Time periods may have shifted. But there is a measure of joy, a measure of suffering, a desire to reach destinations we can’t know ahead of time, and the strangers we meet along the way. Our stories—the ones we tell and the ones we receive—are our comforts.
When terrible things happen in the world, when I am shocked and saddened by things I don’t understand, I come back to our stories. I come back to the great equalizer, the mechanism for understanding and compassion. I come back to the belief that two people swapping stories is a salve for our deepest pains—fear, anger, anxiety, resentment, pride, hopelessness—and love and comfort are left in their places. Tell me about your life and you will know about mine.