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Vigil Reflection for Sister Helen Kilzer, OSB
Wake for Sister Helen Kilzer, Monday, June 5, 2017
Given the gift of sabbatical time, it is from Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, SD, that I greet you, Sister Nicole and Sisters, and all gathered this evening in prayer and remembrance of Sister Helen.
Summer chaplain Abbot Adrian’s morning homily on John’s Gospel the day I received the invitation from Sr. Nicole to provide a reflection for Sister Helen’s Wake explored the question: What is it that is prayed for when God prays for us?
Abbot Adrian expanded on God’s prayer—that is Christ’s prayer that we may be one--through chapter 71, “Mutual Obedience,” in the Rule of Benedict. As Benedictines, he explained, the call to mutual obedience is to the process of conversion and transformation and, he added, it is as “living stones.” He reminded us that as stones are placed together there is a grounding, a settling, including some cracking. In community, as “living stones” grow and settle together, there is the chaffing and rubbing against in which imperfections are “sanded down” in this mutual obedience to conversion and transformation.
Stones are familiar to us - in our chapel spaces, in walls, as well as in defining our labyrinth path. These familiar stones give testimony to variations in combinations of colors, shades, textures, and shapes while remaining “stone.”
“Living stones” are familiar to us in scripture as First Peter (2:4-5) invites us to come to the living stone, Christ, and, “like living stones,” to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house. This invitation becomes a reminder in the stone given us with our names on it as Sisters of Annunciation Monastery and which is placed among the stones of the other Sisters who have gone before us at each Sister’s Wake service.
Also in scripture, an altar – typically of stone – was built as testimony to significant encounters which people like Moses, Noah, and Abraham had with God. After Jacob wrestled all night with an angel - some say with God – after running away from his brother Esau, he was instructed to build an altar to the God who was with him “wherever he went” (Genesis 32:23f and 35:1-3). Its been observed that as “living stones,” our very bodies, our very lives, are markers of encounter with God, the God who is with us wherever we go. For Benedict, it was the Christ within each person.
Sister Helen carried this awareness in the scriptures she chose for this service—of finding a home at the Lord’s altars in the loveliness of dwelling in God’s house (Ps. 84), at worshipping in God’s holy temple (Ps. 138), paying vows in the courts of the house of the Lord (Ps. 116), and in the confidence of “having a dwelling provided by God” (II Cor. 5:1). Sister Helen Kilzer was a “living stone,” a testimony to encounter with God.
Not only was Helen “marked” by God in her baptism, but “being Benedictine” was part of her Kilzer-Schnell heritage in growing up with the twin towers of Assumption Abbey on the daily horizon of life in Richardton. While she delighted in telling early family stories, bringing a sense of particular regard for her father, Helen was “her own person” as were her siblings. Like the variations we notice from one stone to another, and as “living stones” each, Sister Helen and her sister, Sister Martha Clare, both members of Annunciation Monastery, were of different convictions while remaining devoted to each other as sisters among the 12 children of Joseph and Beata Kilzer.
Life in community, exchanges with students and colleagues, and sometimes an individual Sister’s welfare “in mutual obedience” brought a characteristic approach from Sister Helen as she’d ask: “Say…what’s this I hear about…?” or “Say…have you thought about…?” One such question grew out of her conviction about growing raspberries “just down the hill.” Her characteristic passion for projects brought dogged devotion to their care and harvesting until they didn’t survive or she couldn’t tend to them anymore.
Even as a student at St. Joe’s in Mandan, when we called her Sister Marmion, I knew what an excellent teacher we had in Sister Helen. Particularly memorable was a unit we did on “the Roarin’ 20s” as eighth graders. History was given the perspective of interrelationship and aliveness as we researched and gave expression to various facets of life in that decade ranging from politics to arts and entertainment including learning the Charleston! Our delight became her delight. For students of Sister Helen’s, including those studying French or German or Spanish, learning was about relationship and life’s interrelationships in the gift of being alive as a citizen of this world. Hers was not only passion for the subject before her, but for the students and the lives they had before them. Her interest and care carried the invitation to “promise yourself that you’ll have a great life, no matter what.” It was what she did. Students knew the significance Sister Helen had for them and relationships became lifelong. That significance influenced my response to God’s call as a member of Annunciation Monastery.
For Sister Helen, being Benedictine in “the school of the Lord’s service” was a lifelong passion. It was context for her interest in current events, history, art, music, literature, cultural heritage, church affairs, social justice issues, and growth in God.
In visiting further with Abbot Adrian about “living stones,” he reminded me of a scene from the movie, “Schindler’s List.” It was a scene in which those Schindler saved or their surviving loved ones placed a stone on his monument as a gesture of gratitude and tribute.
Sister Helen Kilzer, was a founder of Annunciation Monastery and embarked on a full life in the ongoing encounter with God. Sister Elizabeth Novy remains now as the only founder among us.
I close with an adaptation of lyrics of a song written by Benedictine Sister Carole Etzler of Fort Smith, Arkansas, in tribute to them both:
Standing Before Us
These are the women who throughout the decades
have led us and helped us know,
Where we have come from and where we are going,
the women who've helped us grow.
These are two of the women who led us.
We know there have been many more.
We name but these two, yet we honor them all,
those women who went on before.
Standing before us making us strong,
lending their wisdom to help us along.
Sharing a vision, Sharing a dream,
Touching our thoughts, touching our lives
like a deep flowing stream:
Like a deep flowing stream.
Life-giving water. Living stone. May Sister Helen, precious in God’s sight, now abide in the fullness of God’s life and in the passion of God’s love forever and ever.
-Sister Janet Zander OSB