A friend just sent me the link to an eulogy in the Huffington Post, The Atheist and the Nun. She sent it to me with the note “Thought of you … your kind of nun!” It is a tribute to a nun whom the columnist, Alice McManus, had known as a student in high school.
Alice was routinely expelled from classrooms and clubs for defending gay rights in the Catholic schools where her parents hoped she would get a good education. But Sister Pat was different from all the other teachers. She did not teach me to love God, says Alice. She taught me to love people.
“I’m still an atheist,” she writes. “But Sister Pat wouldn’t have minded. … Ironically, she also taught me to have faith. Not in God, but in people. Because there are people out there who are just amazing through and through. Who do good everyday for all the right reasons. And for me, that’s even more impressive than an all-powerful being. Sister Pat herself was a beacon of light and hope — but one that you could touch and hug. She will be missed.”
I am deeply moved that someone sees Sister Pat as the kind of person I admire, whom I would like to be like.
I do not call myself an atheist. I do totally dismiss the popular demagogue of a supposedly all-loving, all-forgiving God who can somehow be placated by the tortuous crucifixion of his son, but whose forgiveness nonetheless includes sending people to eternal hell fire for eating meat on a Friday. But atheists too often in my experience are just as intolerant of believers as some believers are of those who disagree with them. I prefer to live in the amazing mystery of the universe with the knowledge that understanding it fully is beyond the bounds of human capacities — even those of the great genius.
What I do find astonishing is that praise of people like Sister Pat is so rare. How did Christianity ever become so distorted as to assign to itself the right to judge which sinners are not “one of us,” to cast them out, to refuse to break bread with them? How did doctrine ever become more important than loving one’s fellow human beings?
Today, becoming a saint isn’t nearly as popular an ideal as it used to be. The achievement of sainthood, marked by inexplicable miracles seemingly beyond natural causes, is broadly seen as superstitious unscientific ignorance. It is being replaced by a desire for celebrity, to be very beautiful, acquire great wealth, or possibly die as a martyr (also known as freedom-fighter or terrorist, depending on your point of view).
But in some deep and terrifying ways, aren’t they are all self-seeking goals for self-aggrandizement?
The older I get, the greater becomes my appreciate for those who love others. Period. They don’t need praise or recognition. Love of those around them is what their lives, ultimately, are for. I cannot think of any other achievement that I value or admire, however significant, if it is not at the same time imbued with this love of neighbour.