“She’s been waiting for you,” her daughter smiled as she opened the door of the cozy Chicago bungalow. Nothing had changed since my last visit years before. Curtains hung crisply on the front windows and a delicate lace cloth covered the dining room table. Lamps, bookshelves, and even the wallpaper seemed to be welcoming me home. But it was the warmth of Erika’s eight children that really set me at ease.
Most of them were gathered in the kitchen, around the tiny table, replete with a hearty, homestyle buffet. I smiled. Erika would have no guest or child of hers come into her home without being nourished.
“She’s back here.” Her son nodded a welcoming gesture toward the tiny room where Erika was waiting.
Over a decade earlier, I had met Erika at daily Mass shortly after I entered religious life. Her love for Jesus was palpable. At that point, she was well into her 70s, yet still eager to rise early in the morning to attend daily Mass. She always had her missal with the Mass readings, which she reviewed prior to the liturgy. She treated those moments before Mass as sacred, really and truly desiring to be ready for the great Mysteries we were soon to encounter. After Mass, she would always greet my community and me so warmly. I can’t remember seeing her without a smile. Jesus is light, and his light was always with her.
There was another table where I’d often encounter Erika, and that was the table of our senior Bible study and luncheon every Tuesday at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. I especially loved to help get her coffee before the Bible study began and listen to her stories of growing up in Germany. When she was a young woman, she’d met an American soldier during World War II and had fallen in love. They were married, and so she came to Chicago.
Circumstances were not always kind to Erika and her young family, yet despite many struggles, she never lost her faith. Even when her husband struggled to be faithful to her, she was always faithful to him and to Jesus. As she shared her memories, they would always include how the Church was there for her all her life long. She recalled fondly the young seminarians who’d come to visit the low-income housing she lived in with her family, and how they shared not only Gospel stories, but Gospel joy. With her “widow’s mite,” she was a longtime supporter of our seminary system in Chicago, and she loved receiving updates about the men in formation for the priesthood. One of her own sons even spent some time in seminary discerning a call.
Erika loved music and was well-versed in classical composers and pieces. She especially loved sacred music, and if she’d been to a special Mass since last I’d seen her, she would glowingly share about the beautiful choir and accompanying musicians who helped heighten the solemnity of the liturgical celebration.
In the Gospel and in the Paschal Mystery that we relive every Mass, we encounter both joy and suffering. So, too, do we encounter suffering and joy in our Christian lives. Now as I stood at the threshold of her tiny bedroom, I saw for the first time how suffering had worn my dear friend. I came close and spoke her name softly. She recognized me right away and smiled. My heart was deeply struck as I realized in that moment that she truly had been waiting for me. I held her hand and told her how much I Ioved her and how much Jesus loved her too. After a while, she feebly whispered, “I’m thirsty.”
From the other side of the bed, her son told me I could give her some water. I felt so unworthy to offer her this drink. And yet, as if I were caring for a precious child, I dipped the tiny spoon into the glass of water and lifting it out, gently placed it in her open mouth. I repeated this ritual a few times as my whole body felt warm with emotion and love. It didn’t take long for her to be satisfied and gently fall into a sweet sleep.
Oh, those words, “I thirst.” Spoken by her Savior 2,000 years ago, they’d echoed softly from her parched lips. As I reflect on Erika’s life, it is so clear to me that she was always thirsting—not a physical thirst, but a spiritual thirst for the sacred banquet. And she always knew the One who would one day satisfy that thirst. How blessed I was, in the privileged time that I spent with her, to witness her longing for the banquet to which her beloved Jesus was drawing her, where she would finally be home.