When we think of a saint we tend to think only of someone who has been officially canonized by the church, but I have a few patron saints who have not been formally canonized.
One of these is a former teacher of mine who died five years ago. Her name was Sister Shirley Christopher, an Ursuline nun. I was fortunate enough to have had her as my homeroom teacher for three years of high school. She taught History, English, French, and Religion and was an extraordinary teacher, both in talent and in dedication, and she influenced me more deeply than any other teacher whom I have ever met inside a classroom.
She taught the content of her courses with wonderful clarity, but that was only part of her giftedness. She taught us how to learn, how to study, how to outline materials, how to memorize the parts of a French verb, how to teach, how to inspire a student, how to give yourself over as a teacher in a both a personal and professional way, and, most important, how to fix your life on what is important.
Her influence in my life is incalculable. After leaving high school, I went on to seminary and college, then to graduate school, to post-graduate school, and then became a teacher myself. In all the classrooms I have been in since, I haven’t met anyone who taught as clearly as Sr. Shirley. Moreover, the methods she taught me, way back in 9th grade, served me well right through my PhD studies and my doctoral dissertation. I did my research for and outlined my doctoral thesis using her method. Today I teach using her pedagogy. She knew PowerPoint long before it was invented.
However, back in high school when I sat in her classroom, I was too young to have much sense of what all this must have been costing her. She was just my teacher; I didn’t give much thought to her life, never for a moment thinking of what this might be asking of her: She was a gifted educator, but was spending the prime years of her life teaching in one of the most isolated, rural areas of Saskatchewan’s prairies. Our high school, long since disappeared, wasn’t exactly the place where academic careers were launched, nurtured, or discovered. We had access to her exceptional talent only because she was a nun, vowed to serving the poor, to teaching in areas like ours.
Moreover, as a high-school student, I had virtually no sense of what this might have been costing her in terms of her personal life, as a nun and as a woman. What’s it like to sacrifice husband, children, and family in order to do this? What’s it like to live within the strict community enclosures of pre-Vatican II religious life? What’s it like to live with five or six other women inside of convent in a very isolated rural community where everyone treats you with a respect that also includes a radical distancing from you? What’s it like to approach menopause and not have children?
As her student, I was only beginning to have a sense of the complexity of life and of how even the deepest faith doesn’t necessarily take away your humanity with all its fiery needs and how inside of even the most dedicated nun there remains a woman who, every day, would want to take back from God what the nun gave over.
Whatever the cost, she paid it, and did so without ever losing her graciousness, her intelligence, her faith, and her sense that personal ambition is secondary to serving others.
I left high school at graduation and never saw her again until many years later. She was semi-retired by then, had grown grey, and had put aside her religious habit for simple lay clothing, but she was wonderfully happy, much happier than when I had known her as a teacher. She looked like an elder now, a magus, a wisdom figure, Sophia in an aging body. But she radiated the kind of peace that comes when we are enviably beyond the painful neediness of youth. She was a celibate, a nun, old enough now to have her own grandchildren, but, even without them, a fulfilled woman, happy, without the need to make some assertion with her life.
I visited her several months before her death, when she was already in palliative care. I told her what she meant to me and thanked her for her dedication. And she was ever the teacher I’d studied under 40 years before: gracious, professional, dedicated, self-effacing: “I just did my best.”
When the military in El Salvador threatened Archbishop Romero with death, he responded by saying: “If you kill me, I will rise within the Salvadorian people.” Sister Shirley Christopher OSU died on November 19, 2004, but she is alive still in many of us, her former students, who were blessed to have had so talented and selfless a teacher. Her life goes on.