Our Sisters – Sr. Bernadette
Circumstances are God’s Sealed Orders
When Sr. Bernadette Stone joined the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, all she knew was that “mission is a call to God”. And that she must answer this call. She set her foot courageously on the road to Him but little did she dream where the road might lead her. Sr. Bernadette tried to carry out God’s will made known to her in the daily circumstances of her religious life. As a registered nurse of many years’ experience she served God in her patients, first in Canada and from 1990 onwards in Mariannhill, the birth place of the Congregation in South Africa. She liked working with the student nurses and staff and had great plans for the future. There were so many needs, and Sr. Bernadette was ready to play her part.
“My life was perfect in my own mind,” she recalls years later, as she gave that occasional muscle spasm in her right leg hardly a thought. However, the chief physician, when his attention was drawn to her limp, did not think that this was something to be taken lightly. He ordered an ultrasound examination, and it showed a 15 cm long mass in her thigh. This was clearly a case for a specialist. After a CAT scan had been done a biopsy became necessary. The case was referred to a neurologist because the mass surrounded the sciatica nerve.
“But I did not cue in yet,” says Sr. Bernadette. “What the doctor was saying made, of course sense to me as a registered nurse, but my heart did not accept it. I asked him, if he could do the biopsy under local anesthesia.” He said, “Sister, this is serious. If it is cancer (sarcoma), it may have metastasized to your lungs and liver.”
It was cancer. “The truth now hit me!” Sr. Bernadette, who had lived the religious life for over 25 years, had known God’s unconditional love mainly through the love people gave her. She had found God in serving others, “but essentially,” she says,” I had become a doer. I loved to see results” Now she had to learn to depend on others. She had to stop doing and start being, as she puts it. It was hard. She had come to South Africa only three years earlier; now she found that people were serving her. It made her feel horrible: “I can’t stand this!” she blurted out in severe anguish. It was a prayer wrung from her in utter helplessness and frustration. And God heard that prayer and answered it once again with that unconditional love that Sr. Bernadette had come to cherish.
A fellow sister, taking pity on her, was able to put God’s love for Sr. Bernadette into words that were like balm for the tortured mind: “Sister, don’t worry. Our service is love. And your sickness has made people love. You may be the recipient of that love. It may be more love than someone could do in thirty years of mission work.”
Sr. Bernadette pondered this deeply. She came to see her situation with different eyes. She was not doing something for God, but God was doing something for her. The lesson she learned was humbling but necessary. It restored her peace of mind and gave her joy in the midst of suffering.
Except for 2 cm to save the sciatica, the tumor was removed and followed by radiation. All seemed well until two days before Christmas when a lump on the right clavicle signaled that the cancer had metastasized to the lymph system. It meant that Sr. Bernadette needed chemotherapy… and five days after the treatment the lump was gone, and so was her weight and hair. She was flown to Canada to be with her family. Her prospects were all but bright.
In Canada, the doctor ordered a series of chemotherapy treatments. Sr. Bernadette consented willingly “just to get it over with”, but after the third treatment she became all ulcerated and woke up bleeding profusely. On Holy Thursday she had an MRI scan of her leg. “It was like a tomb-experience,” she recalls, “and very meaningful to me in Holy Week.” One thing was certain – she could not take any more chemotherapy. But what was she to do? A senior physician at the hospital, who was just as devout as he was experienced, gave her this advice: “If you want to go by the textbook, Sister, go to bed and wait to die; if, however, you want to trust your Maker, go home and live.” Sr. Bernadette chose the second of the two options.
It proved to be a day-to-day exercise in trust. She says, “I just surrendered, carried up by the love and care of my community and friends.” She went up-country to spend time close to nature, close to God. She let Him take over completely. And as she was gradually learning what it means just to be rather than do, she began to feel better. She convalesced all during the summer months. Her hair grew in and she gained weight. By the end of December, fourteen months after the outbreak of the disease, she was ready to return to South Africa. It was not to be. A scan showed a tumor on her thyroid. A decision was made that she should stay in Canada. Two month afterwards a biopsy revealed that the tumor was benign. Sr. Bernadette now understood the truth of the saying that “Circumstances are God’s sealed orders”. By February 1996 the node had disappeared. The leg was alright. The 2 cm of tissue left in her thigh had become scar tissue. The tumour was completely gone.
“With God all things are possible.” – Mathew 19:26