A go-getter comes to terms with mortality

Growing old and getting sick. We can fight back with yoga, vitamins, and lots of leafy greens, but how can we face these realities gracefully and with spiritual honesty? Sister Thelma-Anne McLeod, Sisters of Saint John the Divine, has some wisdom to share. This wise Anglican nun has written a book on the subject: In Age Reborn, By Grace Sustained: One Woman’s Journey Through Aging and Chronic Illness (ABC Publishing, October 2007).

Sister Thelma-Anne at the Sisters of Saint John the Divine Convent in North York, Ont.
Sister Thelma-Anne at the Sisters of Saint John the Divine Convent in North York, Ont.

In 2001, Sister Thelma-Anne was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder. It was a tough blow for the go-getter sister, who has served as archivist, editor, choir director, composer, and assistant to the Reverend Mother over her 79 years. Someone once said to her, “Having Parkinson’s is a full-time job.” Sister Thelma-Anne quickly replied, “Being a sister is full-time job, so how do I reconcile that?”

It’s this duality that makes Sister Thelma Anne’s story unique, that she sees Parkinson’s through the lens of totally committed religious life. The daily rhythm of the convent—prayers, meditation, hospitality—shape her response to this disease, which has bent the once-sprightly elder and sapped her energy.

“I realized there was a spiritual aspect to Parkinson’s,” said Sister Thelma-Anne in an interview at the sunny North York, Ont. convent, where she lives in the infirmary.

One of her many spiritual insights is that Parkinson’s helps one reconsider the balance of works and faith: “I was always a hard worker and thought I had to justify my existence so to speak, and that’s been hard.” With a debilitating illness, “there’s the letting go and at the same time realizing that you’re a person of worth.”

She describes the ups and downs—and the funny parts—in In Age Reborn, from her active 70s (when she marched 10 kms from convent to harbour to celebrate her 70th birthday) to dealing with memory loss, a less responsive body, and mental powers that are diminishing, but clearly not gone yet. This line in the book’s introduction captures Sister Thelma-Anne’s spunky tone: “What can I say that has not been said before? Plenty!”

The book is one way for the former retreat and meditation leader to continue sharing her wisdom outside the convent. At the end of each chapter, she’s crafted discussion questions for individuals, groups, and care partners, as well as a list of practical suggestions. Sister Thelma-Anne hopes the book will be useful to a wide range of people, perhaps pinpointing issues for those who have trouble reflecting, or affirming others who doubt their worth.

In Age Reborn, By Grace Sustained can be the spiritual accompaniment often missing in these journeys of aging and illness. As Sister Thelma-Anne puts it, “Recognizing that you’re mortal, it’s something that only God can help you accept.”

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