Ten years ago, while I was doing graduate studies in Belgium and still on faculty at a theology college back home, I received a letter from one of the students at that college. She shared with me, rather excitedly, that a new student had registered there. “And she’s a poet, a genuine poet,” she wrote. “A big surprise awaits you on your return, we’ve got a real poet here at the college!”
I returned there a year later and met our poet, a young woman named Mary Lynn Jones. For the next two years, though, she never shared any of her poetry with me, nor, as far as I know, with anyone else at the college. I soon forget that she had been introduced to me as a poet. What I noticed instead was her keen intelligence, her diligence, her gentle spirit, her shyness, her quietness, her faith, and her physical disability. Mary Lynn was already walking with the aid of a cane, a victim of scleroderma, a rare connective tissue disorder that slowly debilitates and then kills its victims.
For two years I was one of her teachers and, during one of those semesters when Mary Lynn found it too tiring to attend class regularly, I had the rare privilege of giving her a guided reading course, a process that required that occasionally we would have long discussions together. Still she read me no poetry, nor even hinted that she had some to offer. Then, one night, after having dinner at her house, with her husband and myself near killing her with cigar smoke and Mary Lynn pouring the cognac, she suddenly announced: “Tonight I want to read you some poetry!” She did and I was deeply moved. Her poetry, was good, very good. It carried all of her intelligence, shyness, gentleness, and faith.
When she finished her reading, I suggested to her that she should try to publish it, not just in a book, but also in some ongoing way, in a column in some newspaper. There was no false modest refusal – “Oh dear, I don’t think it’s that good!” No. She knew that it was good and that it was worth sharing. She too thought that publishing would be a good idea and it is her comment on this that I most want to share here: “If some newspaper or magazine would accept the idea, I would very much like to write a regular column, both of poetry and commentary, and I think that I would like to call it Broken and Distributed since, when you have a disease like mine, when your body is falling apart and you cannot hide that fact, when your debilities and vulnerabilities are so public, when you are 39 years old and walking around with a cane, when your physical beauty is wasting away in a world that values mostly that, and when you are daily becoming more helpless and there is nothing you can do about it, then you are broken and distributed – a little like the broken body of Christ in Eucharist.”
Mary Lynn never did get to publish her column. She died a month ago, bedridden and physically broken. Those of us who loved her, and there were many, gathered to say our good-byes and, especially, to reflect upon what a gift her life had been for us.
It was a joyous good-bye. All of us felt it. We were at a double Eucharist. Christ’s body was being broken and distributed, but so was Mary Lynn’s, just as it had been during those years of her illness. Sick, she gave us her life, not her sickness. Her sickness was only a prism through which it was sometimes easy for us to see her gentleness of soul, her trusting faith, and her deep beauty. Now with her passing, and we all felt it, she was also giving us her death. What a gift that can be.
Henri Nouwen suggests that there is such a thing as a good death. We choose the way we die. We choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure to keep on living or we choose to let go of life in such a way so that we can be given to others as a source of hope. Death can be our final gift to others. Mary Lynn’s death was this kind of gift. Everyone who knew her, everyone who had ever dealt with her, and everyone who gathered to say good-bye to her felt nothing in the way of guilt, unfinished business, or heaviness towards her life or her death. She left us peace and at peace.
Like the Eucharist too, she left us grateful.
When Therese of Lisieux was dying, she promised those around that, after her death, she would shower the world with roses. Mary Lynn Jones was a person of extraordinary gentleness of soul. Those of us who knew her are already experiencing a shower of gentleness. I am sure that, given the mystery of the body of Christ, many others who didn’t know her will receive that same rain. She died and it is us who are now resting in peace.