Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.  — St. Teresa of Calcutta

A s  family and friends rolled-in, the church was filled with conversation, laughter, and quiet tears. The casket was placed at the foot of the altar and immediately reminded one of the purpose for this gathering. However, the environment held less of an element of sadness than that of a reunion. The candles, the pall, the incense served to reinforce the reverence and dignity of the moment while those attending wrestled with the awkwardness of interacting with family members long unseen, the memories of a long life, the finality of death, and its sobering implications for those still living.

Death provides the ultimate opportunity for showing up. Rarely pleasant, a funeral presses us against that darker side of existence, a path we all must follow. Though this funeral didn’t shield attendees from the reality of death, the tenor of the Mass, and its subject, provided an example to all in attendance of what it meant to lead a good life, and to embrace a good death.

A Good Life

The stories of a person’s life frame her existence through the lens of those who loved and lived with her. In this case, her 96 years of life provided plenty of anecdotes. Funny ones describing her motherhood. Touching ones about family and devotion. Inspiring ones about overcoming obstacles. Entertaining as they were, the power of the eulogy came from the themes invisibly connecting each story. Sacrifice. Commitment. Dreams. Service. Faith. Family. This woman was strong. Her life was very long and she lived it fully, faithfully, and expressively. Decades of marriage. Decades of family life. Decades of service through and with her church.  She played the long game by living in small steps; committing to her priorities every, single, day.

Listening to the stories, the expression virtuous existence came to mind. Goodness. This woman lived goodness. Devoted to her immediate and extended family, as well as her community, she exuded virtue through the patient example of someone seemingly aspiring to sainthood. We don’t talk much about virtue these days but we still recognize it when we see it. The Catholic Church defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” She loved in a visible and expressive way for decades. Like the river cutting through a mountain, time gave her convictions force and impact.

We all encounter people like this. The quiet ones blending into the background of our institutions: schools, churches, hospitals, food pantries, shelters, clinics. They are the saints among us quietly going about their business. Humble. Kind. Patient. Diligent. Certainly not perfect but definitely seeking to make the world better in some way every day.

A Good Death

The final weeks of her life were marked by joy. How is this possible? She knew her time on earth was coming to an end and she accepted it gracefully. Family and friends visited and all talked about walking away feeling better than when they arrived. How is this possible? Because she wasn’t done giving. The light and joy that marked her long life shone to the end. The stories continued. The togetherness continued. She passed quietly and comfortably.

Hurt and loss are for the living. The pain of loss marks our experience because we go on without something we previously had. Our world is a little less bright because one shining element is no longer there. In this case, the goodbyes were said. The final moments shared.  And this woman managed to give until her own light went out. That is a good death.

I knew this woman only through the words of those who knew her and loved her. But that is enough. Hers was a good life. We know because of those left behind to share her stories and legacy.

Saints Among Us

We’ve all known a few saints in our time. Perhaps we didn’t recognize them in the moment but their absence always makes clear what we’ve lost. Theirs is the force of goodness applied over time. Theirs is the power to change hearts, heal wounds, comfort the lost, and remind the rest of us of what we might be should we choose virtue. They don’t make their mark in grand gestures; they show up every day and touch one person at a time. Hers was a life worth emulating.

A good life.