Sr Mary Helen Diosana, O.P. (1955-2021)
“…we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
—2 Corinthians 4:18
When you look at the biography, the curriculum vitae, and especially the obituary of a religious, you see mainly one thing: a list of assignments or responsibilities. You see the names of places where they served, of offices held. But it remains a list—a list of beginnings and endings. What you do not see as clearly is what the religious brought to those assignments or apostolates. You do not see the impressions created, the hearts touched, the changed lives of the people whom the religious served. For that, you need to talk to the people whom he or she served. In Sr Mary Helen’s case, her last assignment was St Michael’s Abbey Convent, and specifically the kitchen of the Norbertine Fathers. It was there that most of us came to know her. In the words of her fellow sister, Sr Mary Alphonso, she was “kind, calm, understanding, and quiet, but with a sense of humor to make the sisters laugh.”
In between the bullet points of beginnings and endings and responsibilities, there arises what St Paul calls a “fragrance” or the “aroma” of Christ. “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved … a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2: 14-16).
Last week before the Lord called Sr Mary Helen home to Himself, I already had a very special kind of fragrance on my mind: fresh, aromatic basil. I had already been thinking a lot about her patroness St Helen (or Helena) in preparation for a homily for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross at the Armenian Catholic Cathedral where I celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Sundays. Of course it was St Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, who found the relics of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in the early fourth century. The true cross had been buried for safekeeping during the times of persecution and she found the place of its burial overgrown with sweet, aromatic basil. In the eastern churches there is a special blessing of basil leaves or plants on this feastday.
And so when the Bridegroom came for Sr Helen I thought the image of sweet, aromatic basil concealing a cross was just about the perfect image for her. Beneath the sweet basil of Sr Helen’s personality, there was the cross. She always had poor health that required a lot of tiring maintenance. And yet looking at her life as a religious, we see that poor health did little to hold her back: a long list of schools from Roxas City (on the island of Panay) to Gallup, NM and Wyoming, at each of which she spread the fragrance of Christ. She taught young ladies who, inspired by her example, eventually became Rosarian Dominican Sisters (such as Sr Mary Martha), and was also involved in the formation of the Sisters under temporary vows. With cross in tow, she served the Lord and young people for her entire religious life, spreading everywhere she went the “fragrance of the knowledge of Christ.” If we do not always see the full fruit produced in the life of a religious, there is yet an unmistakable fragrance that cannot be concealed.
There is something else we cannot see: the inner self being renewed day by day (cf. 2 Cor 4:16). You do not see the soul keeping vigil for her Lord. God alone sees that. And God alone decides when the vigil has gone on long enough and it is time for Him to come as both Bridegroom and Thief and escort her quickly into the marriage feast. All of the ten virgins are identical until the arrival of the Bridegroom shows their wisdom or folly. The wise know that His delay is not unforeseen, but calculated. It is exact, precise, and personal. And just as calculated is His coming, sometimes very quick in those cases when the Lord grows impatient for a certain soul. The wise know that the Lord’s ETA is always. And our estimated time of departure is any time.
What produces the aroma of Christ in a religious, the ingredients of the fragrance, is an external gentleness and sweetness combined with a private carrying of the cross. Together, they signal a heart wide awake in keeping vigil. When the Lord came for Sr Mary Helen, He did not knock. Others of us knocked, but the Divine Thief had already come and snatched her away. He passed through a closed door, as you would expect a Resurrected Master Thief to do! And He was neither too early nor too late.
And what seems like an ending is really the ultimate beginning. She was found “asleep,” in the posture of one who has been called to enter into the Lord’s rest: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8). May Sr Mary Helen indeed dwell in safety with the Lord, now and forever, where there are neither beginnings nor endings, but only the endless increase of life and love.
We can say that a feast day like today is one much needed in this contemporary world, a day on which the liturgy expounds Catholic doctrine concerning the angels, an exposition which will be continue and be completed in the near future with the celebration of the feast of the guardian angels.
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