Love and Devotion

Do cemeteries fascinate you as much as they do me?

I enjoy walking through graveyards, reading the tombstones and wondering about the stories of the people buried there. There can be a lot of social history packed into simple inscriptions.

You can see family relationships, names being passed along for generations. Reading between the lines you can discover heartache and tragedy, the ravages of war and famine. There is also love and hope on display.

Sometimes you get surprised. I remember walking a forest trail in Wakefield, quebec and coming out into a cemetery. There I discovered the grave for former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson. I knew he was buried there, but hadn’t realized the trail would bring me to the location.

Sometimes you just get surprised by a grave of a famous person. That has happened to me occasionally in Europe.

Then there are surprises like the cemetery I visited recently in Heitersheim.

If I had thought about it, I would have probably figured out that the graves would all be of women. After all, it is beside the castle which for three centuries was the headquarters of the Knights of St. John of Malta, which more recently has housed a convent (among other things). I have seen elderly nuns on the street or on the bus.

Seeing the rows and rows of headstones commemorating the lives of women who had dedicated their lives to serving Christ and his church, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Even though their stories are not revealed by the rows of identical monuments.

It takes a special commitment to dedicate your life to God, to take up holy orders and enter a convent or monastery. Such a life was once esteemed by society, but it seems to me less so these days. To dedicate yourself to the service of God and those around you appears old-fashioned in a world where every person is out for themselves first and foremost.

The nuns of Heitersheim are dwindling. The convent is being sold, and the graves tell the story. Each year it seems there are more of them, as vocations have dwindled and the nuns are aging.

Looking at the names on the gravestones I was moved by the implications. Here are women who answered God’s call, who gave their lives to service. We don’t see much of that these days.

That expression of faith, once so common, is exceedingly rare. Christians express their faith differently these days. The church is growing worldwide, even as the number of those taking holy orders are shrinking.

A name, birthday and date of death. Not much information to sum up a life.

As I gazed on row upon row of headstones, I found myself wishing for more information. Each of these women lived a life in the service of Jesus Christ, his church and those around them. Some may have lived “ordinary” lives – but I suspect there are many fascinating stories that could be told.

Those women buried here though probably weren’t too concerned with amazing stories of their adventures. In choosing to become nuns they put aside ambition or seeking worldly fame or fortune.

Their reward would be to hear the words “Well done good and faithful servant.” What more could anyone ask?

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