A Reflection for the Funeral of Sister Judy Shoff

All life has a beginning and an end that takes us back home to a new beginning.

Let me state that again: All life has a beginning and an end that takes us back home to a new beginning.

As Sister Mary McCormick stated in her reflective letter about Sister Judy, we often use the metaphor of journey to describe our lives. And for most of us, as it was for Judy, it’s a long and winding road. But we don’t travel alone. We travel with family.

We gather today as family to celebrate Judy’s life journey with us. And to celebrate the fullness of life promised when our creator breathed into Judy’s fragile, imperfect body the Spirit that would take her on a lifelong journey of awakening, discovery and fulfillment.

I often remind myself that the funeral liturgy is not for the benefit of the deceased who have reached fulfillment, but rather, for us – to be more mindful and attentive to our own life journey. A journey of awakening to who we are. A journey of discovering whose we are and why we are. And in the end, arrive at that place where Jesus promised to take us and be at home in the Family of the Trinity.

This was Judy’s three-fold journey over these past 75 years – coming to know who she was, whose she was, and why she was.

She arrived in this world unknowing and searching, like each of us, and began to discover who she was in relationship with family: a daughter, a sister to Linda and Robert, a wife, a mother to Debbie and David, a grandmother to Debbie’s children, Steven, Brianna and Kristina, a nurse, an Ursuline Sister of Youngstown, and a beloved friend to many.

Spiritual writers Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolhouser have written and lectured about the first and second halves of life. In the first half, we focus pretty much on ourselves, our needs and desires. Our focus tends toward who we are and why we are in our search for meaning and our place.

But in the second half of life, we come to know whose we are, and the eternal why we are in the family of God.

We come to understand what Jesus said to His disciples: “I am the way, the truth and the life. I will lead you home.”

When Judy transitioned from her vocation as mother and nurse to her vocation as an Ursuline Sister of Youngstown and hospital chaplain, her discovery of who she was evolved into an understanding and knowing of whose she was – God’s beloved. And she understood why she was – to make a difference in the lives of those she served, much like Jesus did.

In her chaplain ministry, Judy had the good fortune to minister to the sick and dying.

Many people ask chaplains, “What is it that you do with patients?” “Do you talk theology or religion?” “Do you talk about God?” “Do you pray?”

I think Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain and author of a collection of hospice patients’ stories put it right when she said, “I talk to patients who are sick and dying mostly about their families.”

This may appear to be a weak understanding of faith or a sign of a shallow spiritual life, but as Egan writes in her book On Living: “People who are sick and dying talk with chaplains mostly about their families because that is how we talk about God, that is how we talk about the meaning of life, that is how we talk about the big questions of our life journey.”

As Judy’s life would attest, we live our lives not in our heads, in theology or theory. We live our lives in our hearts. In families. In families we are born into, the families we create in our journey through our service to others, and in the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

Families are where we first experience love, and where we first give it. They’re probably the first place we are hurt by someone we love and where we learn to overcome obstacles and rejection.

And it is in the crucible of love where we begin to ask the spiritual questions that move us into the second half of life, where we begin to ask the ultimate question of whose we are, and how we end up at a new beginning.

In reflecting on Judy’s second half of life journey, it was not through a study of theology that Judy came to know the meaning of life, death and new life.

By offering her patients in their journey a loving presence and a compassionate heart, Judy created a sacred and safe place for them to share their stories and helped them find meaning and strength for their journey.

That is why she was so loved and appreciated by her patients and spiritual care co-workers.

In her patients’ stories there was a wisdom to be found, kindness to be found, that enabled Judy to face the hardest things of life and her own struggle with sickness and dying.

It is through Judy’s own story of her journey with her many families that we can find wisdom and the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of the Three-fold Family of God.

Jesus promises us, as He did Judy, a place in God’s House. That place of knowing who we are, whose we are, and why we are, and there dwell forever in the fullness of life promised to those who believe and follow him.

May Judy now rest there in peace in the Family of the Trinity, with our Creator and Source of Being, the Eternal Word and our Redeemer, and the Sanctifying Spirit.

May she watch over us as we make our journey back home to our new beginning.