Keeping Vigil: a wise virgin watches through the night

"Silk" (Samuel Hayes Johnson)
October 20, 1946- September 14, 2016
Silk died, early on the morning of the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. I appreciate that to most people that sentence probably seems funny, like a typo or a strange grammatical error. It isn’t. Silk was my friend, and more than that – he was Christ for me, in a very unique way. For over a year, I had the privilege of caring for him by shopping for him each week. The last year or so, this also meant I brought his groceries to his apartment, as he had become too weak to carry anything of any weight. I was not there when he died, though I was quietly awake, wondering why I was awake at 4:30 in the morning. But my sister was there, was able to be present to him at the end. She, like the wise virgins of the Gospel, kept vigil for the bridegroom as he came to bring Silk to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Who was Silk? This question has plagued me for my whole time in community, but extends even further, to my time as a student at Franciscan University. I used to see him at St. Peter’s Church, where he attended 8:00 Mass every day for more than three years without an interruption (he was quite proud of the statistic, and actually knew the exact number of Masses in his “streak”). In those days, I knew him without knowing him – he was the shabby, skinny guy with a wispy gray ponytail who wore cutoff jean shorts and a blue sweatshirt every day and always waited until the end of the line to receive communion. He was a mystery to me then, but not a personal mystery – more like a curiosity. I think I would have been afraid of him, had he ever come up to me to speak.

I got to know Silk the summer of my first year in community, when I first spent some time at Samaritan House, our thrift store. He was a regular volunteer at Samaritan House, where he was a perpetual nuisance – arguing with and occasionally frightening other volunteers, insisting that he ran the place, and often keeping us late at the end of the day as he would insist on praying for the dead (especially dead celebrities! I have a sharp memory of praying for Shirley Temple when she died a few years ago). Actually, we all thought that we were doing him a favor, letting him come in to close the store. We realized when he first got sick and didn’t come in for a few weeks that we actually relied on him to remind us of many of the little tasks involved in closing up: every day something would be forgotten, whether it was cleaning some area or emptying the till or cleaning out the coffee carafe. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure we still forget the coffee sometimes.

I’m not really sure how I started shopping for him, but that’s the way it was with Silk – only after he’d talked you into doing something did you realize that you’d been roped into it. And the fact is that he just didn’t seem to have anyone else he could rely on. He had great charm beneath his rough demeanor and vague, cryptic language, and a way of bringing you into his world. After time with Silk, I would find myself referring to things in his special lingo, where sisters all had nicknames, St. Peter’s was “the basilica” (it’s not a basilica!), and any activity – however mundane – was a “run” (as in, “we need to run on this one!). Shopping for Silk was totally mortifying for me. If that seems like a funny statement, allow me to paint a picture for you: imagine a lone religious sister, shopping at Walmart. In her first order, she has typical “nunnish things” – frozen vegetables, generic cereal, and discount meat. She quietly pays with her debit card. In her second order, she has chocolate donuts and milk, a variety of candy bars, Hostess cupcakes, and two or three large containers of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. She pays with a hundred-dollar bill. Do you see now why it was an awkward experience? Afterward, I would bring Silk his things and chat with him for a few minutes about whatever was on his mind: usually something related to his car (he always had a car that was on death’s door); to the sisters and their assignments (he truly believed that his opinion about these things carried great weight with Mother Mary Ann and the council and was deeply grieved when sisters were moved away or when he felt they weren’t in jobs they liked); or the Blessed Mother, who was the great love of his life. We would sometimes pray for the dead, but Silk did not think I was an especially good pray-er, so he usually omitted prayer time if I was the only one there, sometimes adding commentary about the excellence of Sr. Carrie Ann and Sr. Magdala Marie’s prayers.

My time with Silk was usually exasperating, frustrating, and totally heart-warming. He was intractable and impossible to reason with: I’ve often modified Paschal’s quip to refer to him, “Silk has reasons of which reason knows nothing”. He was like that to the end, scheming about how he could get a new car the last time I saw him, a week before his death. I guess he was his usually querulous self even in the hours before he died. When the sisters saw when they stopped to see him that he was dying, one stayed with him. Apparently, he kept telling her to leave. But she stayed, waiting like the wise virgins for the coming of the Bridegroom. In a sense, though, she was also waiting with him. Silk was Christ for us all in so many ways, so as Sister sat by his side, she kept watch not only with a lonely old man, but with Jesus himself. There is no way to explain this mystery, but it is the truth: Silk was Christ’s presence for us, and Jesus gave us so many opportunities to love him in Silk that I am overwhelmed by the privilege I had in knowing him.

And I can’t believe he is actually gone, now the object of my (apparently mediocre) prayers for the dead. Perhaps, then, I will borrow Silk’s prayers. Please join me in praying for my friend with the prayers he used each time he prayed for the dead:

Mary’s gonna take him for a ride.

Gone but not forgotten, forever in our heart.
-Sr. Agnes Therese Davis, T.O.R.

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