An Ode to Sister Anne

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spiritual writer and Dutch priest Henri Nouwen wrote, in his book “Letters to Marc About Jesus”, “it is very important for you to realize that perhaps the greater part of God's work in this world may go unnoticed

Sr. Anne Higgins, with her quiet reflective demeanor, fades into the background – wandering the former Provincial House in Emmitsburg, tending her garden, writing poems, watching the birds eat from her birdfeeder – yet I count her as one of the most influential Sisters in my life. When I think of that quote by Henri Nouwen, I think of Sr. Anne and how God truly worked (and works) through her in practical obscurity.

I first met Sr. Anne in August of 2003. I was a soon-to-be college freshman on a retreat given by my future alma mater, Mount St. Mary's College. Despite my adventurous self, I was nervous to be attending a college where I knew no one. Sr. Anne, an English professor at the college, was one of those giving the retreat, along with others in Campus Ministry. I don't remember much about that retreat, but I do remember how truly approachable and friendly she was. While older, it seemed like she fit right in with the college students. Yet, even more than “fitting in”, she seemed to understand them.

Just a few months later, she invited me to my first discernment retreat – which turned out, perhaps to the surprise of Sr. Anne but mostly myself, to be my first step in my discernment journey with the Daughters of Charity. I wouldn't have Sr. Anne as a professor until a few years later for one of her few non-English courses, Christian Spirituality. We read everything from St. John of the Cross to the poet Rilke. It would turn out to be one of my favorite courses at the Mount. Somehow, Sr. Anne made the readings come alive and led me into understanding the significance of these writings in my own life. Without her even knowing, she held my hand through a rough spiritual patch and walked with me on the journey to discover my own personal spiritual charism. Many of those books I never gave away, including my copy of “Dark Night of the Soul”, which is still full of highlighted passages and notes in the margins.

May you never take the attitude of merely getting the task done. You must show them affection; serving them from the heart; inquiring of them what they might need; speaking to them gently and compassionately; procuring necessary help for them” (St Louise, A.85) Although St. Louise was speaking of caring for the sick, one of the first ministries of the Daughters of Charity, I feel her advice exemplifies Sr. Anne's attitude in her ministry as a college professor.

Sr. Anne takes her job of teaching English seriously and she takes her second unofficial job of being a published poet seriously as well, but most of all, she puts charity for the students above all else. When I say “charity”, I don't mean this in the superficial academic sense – deadline extensions, excused tardies, etc - but rather charity in what the Daughters of Charity believe it to be and practice – love, love you would give Christ Himself. Sr Anne listens to the students, not just about their academics but about their lives. Former students, even from her days when she was a lay teacher at Seton High, remember her with affection and most still stay in contact with her. More than any other professor, it was Sr Anne who made time to teach me guitar or have coffee chats with me, a good almost-five years since my graduation.

Sr. Anne's own poem, “Elizabeth Seton: Light and Grace” (found in her book “Digging for God: Praying with Poetry”) reminds me of her physical example as a continuation of Mother Seton's dedication to her students. The last stanza reads:

Her words to a student far away:
“My heart has gone home with you”
Home with us, with
light to know,
grace to do.

While Sr Anne may not have intended it that way, I like to think of the “us” as the Daughters of Charity – always with the heart of Mother Seton, with the light of faith to know deeper every day, with grace to do through their works of charity. Perhaps I feel an even deeper connection with Sr. Anne because we basically have the same personalities (INFJs) and we are both teachers and writers (though I am admittedly not a good poet!) but mostly it is because she was the first Daughter of Charity I ever met and it was her who introduced me to the approachability and compassion of the Daughters, not by inviting me to a discernment retreat, but rather by her own personal demeanor of charity.

Because of her quiet nature and her simplicity, Sr. Anne usually blends into the woodwork. After all, teaching English and writing poems isn't as “glamorous” as founding a homeless shelter or being a social worker in an inner-city hospital, but her work is amazing all the same. While her ministry isn't the norm for the Daughters, it has done a wonder for me, vocations to religious life, and all Mount students throughout the ten years she's taught there. And for that, I think St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and all those before her would be proud.

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