Right here at the start, let me just say that this is a story about a nun. Before we pack her story away in a box labeled “holiness, unattainable,” though, maybe curiosity can nudge us to peek inside her experience. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ, didn’t survive 92 years of life without learning a thing or two. She didn’t survive 74 years in a religious community without being stretched into something new. She didn’t survive the amputation of her leg without learning to put her life in God’s hands. This is what happened with her leg: Sister Roberta went into the hospital for a heart valve procedure when something went wrong with the blood circulation in her leg. Resting in bed, she remembered a doctor leaning over her bedside to tell her they needed to amputate above the knee. “You do what you know you need to do,” she said, and the next thing she remembered was waking up with one leg, not two. This happened when she was 86. She was already losing some of her mobility, and with an amputated leg, we could imagine her grief or anger or confusion at the situation. Age and deteriorating health were stealing her abilities, and she would have been within her rights to rage at the loss, but listen to how she talked about it instead: “I’m really at peace with what happened to me. It changed my life, but God’s the one who changed it for me so I figure God’s okay with it,” she said. “I feel fortunate that God preserved my life and gave me a home, a place to go, and I have a community that cares for me. I have so much to be grateful for. God has taken care of me.” Take another look at those words. She may have spent three-quarters of a century as a religious sister, but that’s a remarkable statement for any human being to make, let alone someone who suffered the loss of a limb. What magic does she use to turn disappointment to gratitude? Like a judo wrestler, she takes the force of complaint and flips it to trust. What’s her technique? She has faith, we could say. She trusts God’s will. Okay, fine – but what does that mean? How do we actually place our lives in God’s hands like she did? When suffering finds us, how could we say, like her, “I’m really at peace with what happened to me; I have so much to be grateful for; God has taken care of me”?
Freedom in commitment
When she was growing up, Sister Roberta went to schools that were staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and she saw something in them that spoke to her. They were “filled with the Lord,” as she put it — “I felt drawn to them.” She could see something in those sisters that she wanted. So, two weeks after turning 18, she joined the convent. And that’s an amazing thing for a teenager to do, if you think about it. She had just reached adulthood, and the first thing she did with her freedom was to give it away. “For ten days, I was my own boss,” she said. From that point on, she hitched her life to the work of her religious community — teaching — which is maybe our first clue in our search to become the kind of people who can find peace in suffering. It has to do with joining something bigger than ourselves. Sister Roberta’s example would argue with the accepted wisdom that we need to keep our options open as we make our own way in the world. She did just the opposite — at the earliest opportunity, she climbed in a boat with a community of women and began rowing. Committing to this community, which defined her life and work, didn’t limit her freedom — it enhanced it. Her commitment gave her specific, concrete ways to share her gifts and talents, which freed her to become who she was created to be. She’s at peace with herself and God because she knows who she is.
A helping hand
After seven decades as a teacher and school counselor, Sister Roberta is retired, but still looking for ways to contribute. She lives in an assisted-living community, but this doesn’t mean she feels confined or diminished. “I’m now looking around for other people God wants me to help,” she said. “I can’t go out on mission.” She sees her mission field as the hallways of her assisted-living facility. One elderly man in her hallway sits in his wheelchair for most of the day, full of anxiety. He constantly rubs his hands over his hair and arms. Every day, Sister Roberta connects with him. She steers her scooter near him to get his attention and asks how he’s doing. “I’ll pray for you,” she says. “You pray for me.” He nods his head. “Little things like that make people feel like someone cares for them. Some people think they don’t have much to offer,” she said. In effect, she handed the man an oar — something to do with his anxiety. Someone to be. Let’s mark that down as our second clue: if we want to find peace, we can’t sit back and wait for it to come to us. It is the fruit of joining God’s work in the world. We’re always out on mission, even if we stay home.
As a school counselor, Sister Roberta realized that she wasn’t going to help any of her students by telling them what to do. “I learned to listen — to let them come out with whatever they need to say,” she said. “Let them talk it out — usually, they’ll solve it themselves, they just need someone to talk to.” So maybe this receptivity is our final clue to finding peace — listening has formed within Sister Roberta a posture of openness. You see it in the way she describes prayer, too: “I try to go as deeply as I can into my heart. Doesn’t matter if I use the name Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. I just try to be open to whatever God places in my mind — to be present to the Presence. If we dig deeply enough we can feel that Presence.” Listening anchors Sister Roberta in the presence of other people and in God. That presence has taught her a radical openness, even to the possibility that suffering and tragedy doesn’t have to define or diminish us. When someone has lived 92 years, you can connect the dots in her experience, which lights a way. Hearing the stories of our elders can help us better navigate the journey we’re traveling. There’s much more to Sister Roberta than what we’ve surfaced here, certainly, but her experience reveals a pattern for finding peace: it comes from trusting God. And trusting God is not just a one-time decision. It’s not something we do with our minds. It’s not even something we do by ourselves. It comes from the accumulation of small, daily, repeated actions that add up over time — actions that nestle us in God’s presence and deploy us into a community that is walking toward heaven and, at the same time, building heaven as we go.