“Sorry for the short notice,” our pastor wrote in a recent email. “Regina has died. Her funeral will be this Thursday.”
My heart sank. Regina had been something of a legend in our parish, an elderly woman with an uncertain past, long white-blonde hair and a stubborn, solitary disposition. She always carried a tote bag filled with papers, snacks, clothes, prayer books, water bottles, bus passes, tissues — the luggage of a life on the streets, an existence to which her mental illness had driven her.
Although she was rumored to own a house, she traipsed through the city, sleeping on the back porch of our convent, attending Mass and spending hours in our perpetual adoration chapel, her refuge from a world with which she often warred.
Over the years, several parishioners had tried to help her, imploring her to take her antipsychotic medication and to reconnect with her family. Regina usually spurned this advice, often with some degree of hauteur. She even rejected a well-intended offer of new socks from a few of our daily Mass regulars. “Those are white,” she sniffed. “I only wear black.”
Her arguments with unseen opponents were sometimes waged in the midst of prayer, yet schizophrenia could not vanquish her undeniable faith. In Regina, darkness and light battled moment by moment, but light increasingly emerged the victor.
One afternoon in the chapel, Regina had sensed that a fellow adorer was upset and asked what was troubling her. On hearing the woman was worried about her mother’s health, Regina rummaged through her bag, pulled out a box of cookies, and gruffly advised the woman to share them with her ailing mother, while promising to pray for them both.
Given the contrasts of her life, how fitting it was that the first reading at Regina’s funeral Mass described the souls of the righteous as safe in the hand of God, where they would “shine and dart about as sparks through stubble” (Wisdom 3:1, 7).
Perhaps the writer of these verses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had gazed into an evening fire against an ancient sky, and had seen there our spirits in all their fragile brilliance, amidst the stubble of our suffering. Yet the image for him was one not of despair, but hope. Sin, sickness, confusion, loss — these are actually kindling in the fire of God’s love, which draws light from the unlikeliest of fuels.
The mental illness that had cloaked Regina’s truest self ultimately made her faith shine more brightly. Even a former pastor, now a bishop, called from his new diocese hundreds of miles away to assure us of his prayers for Regina, whom he still remembered some 10 years after leaving our parish.
Walking in the procession after the funeral Mass, I thought of my mother, who had clung to her faith during a lifelong battle with schizophrenia and addiction. For her and for Regina, the darkness had indeed been fierce, but ultimately it had not overcome them.
Through Christ, “the light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5), and as Regina’s casket was borne out of the church into a luminous spring day, I thanked God for the rays that had touched my life through these two women.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com and host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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