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I thought it might be harder to sing the Easter “Alleluia” this year, since our dear Sister Janet Gildea died on April fourth. Instead, amid grappling with the surrealness of Janet’s death, the power of Christ’s Resurrection intensified. The Paschal Mystery became acutely real. Because He rose, Janet is gone, but she isn’t. I felt her as sunlight bathed the Motherhouse altar on Easter morning. “Alleluia!” seemed to gush from deep within me, tested but truer than ever. This is the paradox of our faith: we hope always. In life and death, Janet showed us how.
At the outset of Advent 2018, Janet got word that her brain tumors were growing back. Awaiting news about treatment options, I experienced waves of terror and waves of trust. Some days, as much as I wanted to think differently, I admitted silently that this relentless cancer could kill Janet. Despair engulfed me as I tried to imagine life without her. Some days, I found faith in my heart that nudged me to believe this didn’t have to be the end. Miracles can happen. “Come on, God,” I’d beg. “You can do anything. Please, cure her!” I wrote in my journal that I felt I was swinging between realism and hope.
One Advent day as I prayed quietly for Janet, an awareness broke over me like an epiphany. I’d been confused about hope, associating it with only the positive outcome of Janet’s full recovery. Hope, I realized at that moment, does not depend on results. Hope comes from knowing who God is and what God has done for us. Hope is the sure, steady ground that anchors us beneath fears and wishes. Hope is fully trusting God smack dab in the midst of reality, fraught with beauty, horror, pain, possibility, and even the ordinary. I couldn’t choose hope or being realistic: the two necessarily go together. Whether Janet died or was cured, she was in God’s loving hands.
Janet knew that and embodied it. She endured her third brain surgery in December and despite the circumstances kept living each day with her characteristic zeal. When in early 2019 she learned that her cancer had returned and treatment options had waned, she wrote a blog entry called “Coping with Hope.” Surely she would have loved to keep on living, as she did with gusto for eleven years since her first cancer diagnosis. But she accepted what came to her with wisdom, openness, and graceful surrender. Even in her suffering, she delighted in the goodness of life, loved fiercely, and expressed sincere gratitude frequently as she always had. She believed with all her might in this Easter mystery we celebrate.
Janet showed us that hope isn’t vague optimism. It is a profound knowing that in our God, love is stronger than evil, and life is stronger than death – no matter what. Nor is hope a futuristic assurance that permits us to sit back, sights on the afterlife, and let the world go by. Hope calls for dynamic action. We await the full irruption of the Kingdom when Christ comes again, and we simultaneously work to make that Kingdom present here and now. All will be well, but it isn’t yet. And so, we carry on Jesus' mission, radically committed to building a just world and lifting up the crucified people of our time. Easter people enter into suffering. We hope, yes, and we give ourselves to those who have little reason to hope. Janet did that through precious years poured out in service, even until her last weeks of earthly life.
Hope does not depend on results. It depends on our eternally faithful God with Whom Janet now lives. I miss her already, and I haven’t even begun to process her monumental impact on my life and the gaping hole left by her departure. The journey of grief will be unpredictable. But I know she is with us. I hear her whisper words of courage and care in my heart, and I feel her zeal and love urging us toward hope. In this season, we again embrace the power of the Paschal Mystery. Jesus’ resurrection echoes throughout history. Janet clung to that hope all her days, and now she knows the Easter truth in fullness. I imagine her smiling radiantly, crying out joyfully from the heavens with all the saints, and I can’t help but smile, too, and join the chorus: “Alleluia!”