Sixteen Easters ago I entered the Jesuits in Boston, in a neighborhood that was then rapidly gentrifying after years of blight. Just a few weeks after I settled in, my novice master sent me to volunteer at a public hospital. Shattuck State Hospital was more Saint Elsewhere than Chicago Hope, a pretty poor and broken place, but one where important, life-giving work took place every hour, every day. Since I had no experience or training in pastoral ministry, I would simply visit the patients and talk with them.
One patient in the geriatric ward stood out. Bernice was an African-American woman and very nearly 100 years old. When I met her, she no longer spoke aloud and was mostly blind, yet she still seemed totally aware of what was happening around her. And I noticed right away that Bernice was always smiling. A broad and gentle smile, it conveyed that sense of inward serenity that elicits righteous jealousy, that makes the heart say, “I want what she has.” For weeks I sat and looked into Bernice’s ancient, smiling face and we talked. And while she never responded verbally, I felt as if I got to know her in a very deep and truthful way through these encounters.
The nurses filled in for me what little biographical detail they knew: Bernice was from somewhere down south and had migrated to Boston a thousand years before. With nowhere else to go, she had lived at the hospital for years. The nurses said that in her early days on the ward, she was known for her folksy wisdom and quiet piety, which she generously shared with her fellow patients.
A broad and gentle smile, it conveyed that sense of inward serenity that elicits righteous jealousy, that makes the heart say, “I want what she has.”
One weekday morning while I was visiting, a nurse came in to feed Bernice. “Bernice and me, we’ve been friends a long time; ain’t that right, Bernice?” the nurse said as she went about her work. I looked up at the nurse and said, “I’m always asking Bernice why she seems so happy, why she’s always smiling.” The nurse stopped what she was doing and looked straight at me. Her eyes widened and she tilted her head in that way people do when they really want you to listen. “Bernice knows Jesus,” she said. Then again, with gentle emphasis: “Bernice. Knows. Jesus.”
Suddenly, somehow, this made sense to me. And I felt somewhat ashamed. “How awful,” I had thought when I first met Bernice, “to be stuck on this ward, in this crappy hospital for all these years.” Yet Bernice’s smile belied that thought. She. Knows. Jesus.
Bernice was smiling because she was free. Her horizon, which was her hope, was not her bed, or the ward, or the hospital—not even this world. Bernice’s eyes were fixed on the hope of heaven. For that reason she was freer than I was then and freer than I have often been in the years that followed. In a word, Bernice had faith, a faith that gave her the strength to live in a fallen world because she knew, really knew, that there was more than this world.
Bernice’s eyes were fixed on the hope of heaven.
People like to say that certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. True enough. But the great enemy of faith is actually fear. It is the fear, known or unknown, that this world is ultimately all there is, that there is no life beyond here and now. This makes our choices harder. It makes life harder. For if this life is all there is, then every choice is a choice between life and death. That is a high stakes gamble, and the fear of how the dice might land can paralyze us in a way Bernice did not know.
But in those moments when we choose in light of our faith, then other choices, real choices, free choices, become possible, because being wrong does not necessarily mean certain death. Faith is not easy. It is just easier than the alternative. Faith does not rob us of our choices, or make them for us, or even always make them clear to us. Faith simply lowers the costs of our choices, for someone else has already paid the ultimate price for our mistakes, and he does not measure the value of our choices by an earthly standard. Life, in other words, will go on.
That’s what Easter is about. Bernice had that Easter faith, which finds God in all things. Her heart beat with the living hope that everything in this world has within it the potential to call forth from us a deeper response to God and to his creation. In that sense, to paraphrase a lyric by Stephen Sondheim, while our choices might be mistaken, the choosing is not and never could be.
We profess every Sunday that the Holy Spirit has “spoken through the prophets.” Well, he spoke to me through a prophet named Bernice, in order to tell me simply, very simply, as Bernice might have put it: “Choose faith, Matthew. Life is hard. And there ain’t no sense in makin’ it any harder than it needs to be.”