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Like Saul on the Road to Damascus: Life after Death-Reflections of a Roman Catholic Woman Priest

This week in the readings of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations we experience the totally dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 9:1-22). Saul, a very devout Jew was zealous in persecuting the followers of Jesus, followers of The Way. On this day he was going to Damascus to capture Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains for their punishment. But God had other ideas. Saul says “about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me:’ I replied ‘Who are you, sir?’ The reply came “I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’ My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me. I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir’? The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus and there you will be told about everything appointed for you to do’.”

Saul was blinded for three days and ate or drank nothing until the disciple of Jesus, Ananais, was sent to him and explained what was happening to him. Ananias laid hands on him to receive his sight and said “be filled with the Holy Spirit”. After recovering his sight and strength Saul (who became the Apostle Paul as we know) stayed a while with the disciples of Christ in Damascus and “began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. All who heard him were astounded…” and “confounded” as he convinced them of the living Christ.

How amazing was this experience of Saul! The living resurrected Jesus appeared to him as he was on his way to do still more persecutions of Christ followers. And, indeed, with the power of this experience he immediately turned his life around and followed Jesus, the Christ ,he had met on the road. The rest of his life was testifying to his experience with the living Christ. Saul became Paul and was the major instrument of opening the Good News of Jesus Christ, to people of all religions , races and nations-to the Jews and to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, throughout the known world.

Now, I am a Priest and a Pastor, I have known faith and the love of Jesus since my childhood and youth. For many reasons thereafter I had a steady but bumpy road in faith and service. God held on to me on the roller coaster life can be, and I held on. I grew closer to our loving God once again in my forties. But I have never been one to seek such “inexplicable” experiences like Paul’s or to fully understand them. I am aware how hard they are to believe- but know first hand that they do indeed happen as God finds ways to reach us and turn our lives around and prepare us for next chapters.

Now, I will share with you an amazing experience of my own.

On January 1, 2018 my beloved life and ministry partner of 29 years, Rev. Judith Beaumont, peacefully and beautifully went home to our loving and waiting God. Her faithful sister, Jill Bergner and I held her hands as she blessed us with her final breath . Our cat Timothy who also had cancer remained at her side. Within moments of her dying Jill and I said to each other , “she has gone home–she is risen”. We knew this.

Judy Beaumont, a former Benedictine Sister of 34 years, was a peace activist imprisoned for her Trident Nein Plowshares actions, and the Executive Director of My Sisters Place in Hartford, Ct, a four tier program for homeless women and children as well as mentally ill women and men. She was a selfless worker with the church in Fort Myers including administrating a large Hispanic parish and a being a revered Faith Formation Director in another large parish. She was the most courageous, holy, and amazing woman I would ever know. With deep ingrained humility she would never want me to sing her praises, but others may be challenged and changed by knowing her story. A selfless, untiring, dynamo for God’s loving service all her life she also had experienced four cancers in the last fifteen years. Treatment for the first three probably led to the fourth which was AML, but she was faith filled as ever and so thankful to get through those cancers. After the first one, a rare Leukemia called APL, she was well again and by 2007 was moved to start and develop Good Shepherd Ministries with me. Her presence as we served the homeless and poor in Fort Myers, in the local park and then in a home we bought for a church and transitional shelter called Joshua House was nothing short of holy. She touched life after life that was turned around. She was dearly loved by all.

By 2012 she felt the call to Sacramental ministry and was ordained a Roman Catholic Woman Priest in the company of nearly 400 people who joyfully attended her ordination.

Her Ordination was just in time as she then had to carry our Good Shepherd Church alone for periods of time as I experienced two cancers from 2012-2016. Finally we were both healthy , but this did not last long. In later 2016 she was diagnosed with MDS, a blood disease that could turn into cancer. For many it does not. For her the diagnosis of AML (Acute Myeloid Leukemia) was in full force by 2017. Yet even as she fought for her life she continued to serve and until her end she blessed others. If you like you can read about her amazing life in her own words and mine in The Courage to Love and Serve: The Life Story of Rev. Judith Ann Beaumont–A Roman Catholic Woman Priest And a Saint For Our Times. (Judith A. B. Lee, 2020, Outskirts Press).

It is an understatement to say that I was devastated by losing her though I was relieved that her suffering was over and her new life with the risen Christ had begun. While I felt like I had lost my life and inspiration, with God’s help and the help of the Good Shepherd Community and my sister priests, Rev. Judith McKloskey of Kansas City and Rvda. Marina Teresa Sanchez Mejia, formerly of Colombia, who served with me ,and some close others I was able to keep Good Shepherd going even after Covid 19 hit. And I kept going as well. But in many ways I was running on empty.

Chapter 18 of The Courage to Love and Serve is called “The Long Walk Home”. I will summarize, excerpt and reflect on the part of Chapter 18 that relates to my understanding of what happened to Saul on the road to Tarsus-and on life after death. .

Fr. James Martin, SJ in his excellent book Jesus: A Pilgrimage ( 2014:Harper One) discusses “unexplainable encounters with the divine”. He is describing the Annunciation to Mary in this context. He notes that metaphors are often used to try to explain the mystical experiences some may have that are difficult to explain (p.46). I am not going to use a metaphor here and I will try to explain, but I will fall short unless you can read with the eyes of faith. I tell this in the context of faith. This is my experience of seeing Judy fully alive and blessing while I was at an Ordination of two deacons ten months after Judy went home to God.

Judy Stood Blessing the Deacons Fully Alive

“In October of 2018, while participating in the Ordination of two deacons in the Eastern Region of the Roman Catholic WomenPriest Movement, I was given the most special and unexpected gift that assured me of Judy’s life and of eternal life and resurrection beyond a doubt or worry.”….

“This was the first time I gathered with our group of priests since her transition home and it was a very hard time for me. Judy and others had been remembered in a Memorial Mass the day before. I was pleased to be with my priest sisters and at the Ordination especially,but being there without her made me feel lonely and sad.

When we sing the Litany of Saints as part of the rite of Holy Orders our deceased priests are added to the list of saints. When I heard Judy’s name in the Litany I began to cry quietly but visible enough that the priests near me, Marie and Marilyn, comforted me. When Judy’s name was prayed so beautifully by the cantor, Karen Murphy, it was clear that she was now among our saints and we were imploring her and them to pray for us. My heart had to realize: she is really there among the saints. And then I realized she is really here praying for us.

I went up and joined the group in laying hands on the deacons-to-be, Fran, a former Sister whom I would be mentoring, and young and brilliant Celie. I sat down and prayed for Celie and Fran. Fran was in my direct line of vision, maybe fifteen to twenty feet away, and suddenly I looked up at her as there was a long break in the line of people blessing her. The sun from the window was very bright around Fran but it became immeasurably brighter and whiter as our beloved Judy Beaumont, fully alive and whole, full of health, and very much herself as if in the prime of her years, stepped forward and placed her hands over Fran’s head. She was her best self with clear skin, not etched in lines or badly bruised and marred as at her end, with short dark rich wavy hair and bright hazel blue-green eyes shining, twinkling. She was in a startling white robe, maybe her alb, or another robe, no stole and no glasses. Her outstretched hands had no discolorations of the awful AML Leukemia. Her smile at Fran was beautiful and she and Fran were gently glowing. And then she turned directly toward me and smiled at me, her eyes loving and joyfully happy, looking at me and giving me her wonderful smile. Judy was so close I could easily move forward and touch her but I remained fixed in my seat. I was immediately filled with her love and life as her smile was just for me and I smiled back. I gasped aloud and felt the joy that she lives now, whole, beautiful, and joyful and full of blessing-even more fully blessing others now than when she lived on earth.

And suddenly I knew what Paul felt like when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus as he saw, heard and encountered the living Jesus engulfed in the brightest of lights. The experience could not have been more real for it was the essence of reality. I was so reassured and so happy that she blessed the Deacons and appeared to me for those few moments, fully alive and whole. I was amazed, stunned and so deeply happy. She lives! She lives and blesses us!”

And so it was that God bestowed on me in the midst of my grief the gift of seeing my loved one, fully alive and whole and blessing our deacons. And so it was that a miracle occurred on that ordinary October afternoon in upstate New York. I had not wavered in my belief in resurrection but it was affirmed and made real to me a thousand times over by this experience. And from then on, I would give testimony to the reality of eternal life , from then on Jesus’ promise of eternal life for believers and doers of his word was completely real here and now-not something in the “bye and bye”. In John 11:25 Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life, s/he who believes in me will live, even though s/he dies.” And there she was fully alive!

” I was not surprised that she appeared in the holiness of the Ordination and not in a dream as I have had no dreams of seeing her and no other moments with this profound level of reality. Judy was holy and perhaps it was also all of us praying and the prayers and the holiness of the moment that brought her through the thin space that separates us from the other side. She came to affirm the ministerial priesthood of women that she so loved. She came to bless Fran and Celie…. And , she came to assure me in the depth of my faith and grief and missing her during the holy times that we shared together, that she is fully alive as Jesus promised she would be.”

“THANKS BE TO GOD for this great and unexpected gift!”

“I shared this experience in an email the following day to the other priests as I could not speak of it right away. Another priest present, Rev. Theresa Chabot wrote me that she too experienced a special and amazing white glow around Fran when there was a lull in the people blessing her. She thought it was when I saw Judy. And our sister priest Rvda. Marina Teresa Sanchez Mejia who was there but could not see me during the Ordination, told me that she too was overcome with tears during the sacred ceremony after the Litany of Saints and she thought it was because of Judy’s presence.

And so, by faith in Christ, in life eternal and the resurrection, and by the power of this experience I affirm joyfully that eternal life is real and “she lives” once again.

Judy’s life was totally fruitful and her death was the same. She imparted her spirit of love and seeking peace and justice to us to cherish forever and give to others. The full fruits of her life and death are yet to be reaped. They will be fruits of faith, of service, of justice and activism for peace and for the least among us-for inclusion. Perhaps those reading this will take hold of Judy’s love and the rich fruits of her life and carry it on-into their own lives and their families’ lives, into other places and lands. Yes, carry it on! ….

What a gift , for all of us, forever! AMEN!

Take heart, especially if you have lost a loved one!

Be blessed as you hold on to life and serve one another,

Pastor Judy Lee, RCWP

Good Shepherd Ministries of Fort Myers, Florida

This week in the readings of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations we experience the totally dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 9:1-22). Saul, a very devout Jew was zealous in persecuting the followers of Jesus, followers of The Way. On this day he…