Discover more from Letters from a Catholic Feminist
From Death Unto Life
My friend Emma shares her story of refusing to look away from grief.
Every so often, we have guest articles on Letters From a Catholic Feminist. I met Emma Dickinson a million years ago, when we were both FOCUS missionaries, but we were able to reunite last fall for the Catholic Feminist Pilgrimage. Emma is a treasured soul and fantastic blogger who left the convent + lost her father in the same handful of months. I asked her to share her story of grief with Letters subscribers and she graciously accepted.
This is a free edition of Letters From a Catholic Feminist. If you’re interested in women and the church, feel free to upgrade now and join the full experience: 3 issues just like this in your inbox every month, as well as subscriber-only roundtables, guest posts, podcasts, read-alongs, and more.
How My Father’s Tragic Death Brought Me Back to Life.
It’s the working subtitle of the book that I may or may not ever write. The memoir, that is. Dramatic though it may be, it is indeed true.
It was a Tuesday morning. I happened to be the portress that day, the sister in charge of answering the phone and checking for messages at the convent. I was surprised to see a voicemail from 11:31 the night before–generally, people wouldn’t think of calling the sisters so late. I had my pen poised above a piece of scrap paper, ready to write this mysterious caller’s message.
It was my sister’s voice–my real sister, the one I grew up with, not a fellow habited and veiled one.
Dad fell down the stairs and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and is not in a good way.
Through tears I delivered the news to my superior who sent me to call my mom right away. In the blur that followed, I threw some clothes in a duffel bag, said goodbye to my worried sisters, and got on a bus home. I nervously clutched the flip phone I’d borrowed from the convent, on edge as I waited for a call from my mom at the hospital. The first I’d heard, my dad was stable and there were signs of hope. But as I sat in my window seat whizzing down 95, I learned that he’d taken a turn for the worse, and it wasn’t looking good.
The next night, surrounded by my mom, my sister, and me, my dad breathed his last.
It’s been nine months since that harrowing night, since I stumbled out of those hospital doors, freshly fatherless and aching with unspeakable sorrow. And as we know, a lot can happen in nine months.
I never went back to the convent. That certainly wasn’t my intention when I rushed away that fateful day, but as soon as I stepped foot in my parents’ house, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I am not myself in the convent, and I need to leave. And as I stood at the foot of my dad’s hospital bed the next day, watching my mom tending to him with such gentleness, affection, and care, the cry sprung right from the depths of my heart: I want a marriage like my parents’ marriage. God couldn’t possibly have made His will clearer.
My dad made his sudden departure from this world after 63 years, and I made mine from the convent after two. They were two long, hard years. They had their share of joys and graces, to be sure, but from the start I had my doubts, a gnawing suspicion that this wasn’t the life for me. I was in awe of the sisters who made it look effortless, who joyfully submitted to our extraordinary way of life and seemed to be blossoming. I, on the other hand, felt as I were slowly withering away.
But I am certain that it was God’s will for me to enter the convent—there is no doubt in my mind of that. And while I could list a dozen beautiful fruits that have come from that trying season, I’ll share my very favorite: my father’s salvation.
You see, my dad was away from the Church for most of his adult life. He was a natural cynic, a skeptic, an aspiring “literal know-it-all” who wanted to find concrete answers to each of his burning questions and was never satisfied with the necessity of embracing mystery in a life of faith. He enthusiastically supported my vocational discernment, but still a chasm lay between us.
And then he came to the convent.
It was April, just two months shy of his death, and my mom and dad came to visit me for Parents’ Weekend. We spent 48 hours just living our life as usual–praying a lot, telling stories around the dinner table, sorting cans in the food pantry–and my dad’s life changed. Unbeknownst to me at the time, God was breaking open the long-shut door of my dad’s heart.
The day after they returned home, my mom found my dad weeding in the front yard with tears streaming down his face. I want Emma’s life, he told her. I want that peace and that joy, and I don’t know how to have it without faith. There I was, living in quiet desperation, feeling trapped within the convent walls, and my dad was having a radical conversion that would prepare him to meet Jesus face to face sooner than any of us could have expected. In the days and weeks that followed, my dad wrestled his way through this surprising grace, asking my mom questions like, What do you believe happens after you die? and confessing through tears, I want a redeemer.
I can’t imagine what more God possibly would need than an open heart, than my dad’s wide-open, aching, yearning, burning, searching, stubborn, wounded heart, to work a complete miracle. The agony of my dad’s death is like a knife to my own heart, yet the mystifying truth that God was at work so concretely and profoundly and wildly in the last months and days and minutes of my dad’s life on earth is a consolation that is out of this world.
I could never have imagined what God was doing in my dad’s heart during those 48 hours at the convent, and I will never know, this side of heaven, what He was doing in those other 48 momentous hours–from the time of my dad’s fall to the time of his death, as he lay unconscious in a hospital bed. All I know is that our God is a God of mercy. Extreme, extraordinary, earth-shattering mercy.
And that brings me to the cross.
As I stood there watching my dad labor to breathe, his head cocked to one side, I thought to myself: This must have been how Jesus looked on the cross. It wasn’t the clean, stoic image from the beautiful crucifixes that adorn our churches; it was messy and raw and real, a man I love dying right before my eyes. And while I’m often compelled to look away during those bloody scenes in The Passion or rush through my imaginative prayer as I accompany Jesus on the road to Golgotha, I fixed my eyes on my father and couldn’t possibly look away.
This week, let’s not look away. Let’s fix our eyes squarely on Jesus, unafraid and unashamed to meet His gaze, to take in His pain, to linger with love as He suffers and dies for us. Let’s not rush ahead to the resurrection unthinkingly, but rather savor what comes before. Let’s not wish away those hours or years of acute suffering we may find ourselves in, for through them, God can carve great space in our hearts for unimaginable fulfillment, salvation, resurrection.
This week, and always, let us not fear death.
For it is His death that will bring us back to life.
On My Nightstand
Here are some things I’ve been reading lately that have made me think!
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim: If Sarah Clarkson tells me to read it, I read it. I’m enjoying this classic about a group of women who spent a month in Italy in search of beauty.
The Taliban Tests Biden’s Commitment to ‘Basic Rights’ for Women: Women in Afghanistan continue to be abused, belittled, and discriminated against. Are we watching? “‘We inform all girls high schools and those schools that (have) female students above class six that they are off until the next order,’ the relevant ministry declared in a statement. You see, the regime had not yet decided on female school uniforms that comply with ‘Sharia law and Afghan tradition.’ The teachers and students who had already eagerly assembled on their campuses to resume education were abruptly informed of the heartbreaking news that their schoolhouse doors would remain closed. Students were left broken and in tears, according to reporters on the ground. ‘We all became totally hopeless when the principal told us,’ one unnamed student told Reuters, ‘She was also crying.’”
‘These Children Were Murdered’: I’m having a hard time deciding where I land on the recent issue of a pro-life activist taking fetuses from an abortion facility. I’d love to know your thoughts on this case. I see so many angles: the knowledge that abortion is murder, the morality of theft of a body without the parents’ consent, the sharing of graphic abortion photos and the way it can both open peoples’ eyes and traumatize those who’ve been affected by pregnancy loss…it’s complex, y’all.
Learn more about my books:
In case you missed these Letters:
We Don’t Talk About Short Term Missions - for subscribers
What is a Catholic Feminist? - for subscribers
What the Pro-Life Movement Needs - for everyone
Would you consider sharing this newsletter?
Almost 100% of my newsletter growth comes from recommendations from readers. This includes people sharing both the newsletter itself and the individual articles I write. Chances are that if you’ve made it this far, you care about women and the church and know others who would enjoy Letters From a Catholic Feminist. Taking just a few seconds to forward or share on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook can make a huge difference.
Please consider upgrading to the full subscriber experience, where you’ll get access to two extra newsletters a month, our summer book club, our Advent podcast, roundtables with special guests, and more.