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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Witness of Betty Suppes -- farmer from Delta, Colorado

Guest post by Richard Ziegman Last Summer our parish of St. Michael's in Delta CO joined the Suppes family in laying their mother, and matriarch, Betty Suppes to rest. She was 90 but everyone was surprised that she died so "young" because she was so full of life, spunk and vigor. Betty was a local. She was raised by farmers and along with her late husband Lawrence, raised her family by farming.

I only came along eight years ago to Delta from Denver and moved into the same housing complex as Betty, just down the street from St. Michael's. Being very much a big city boy, small town living and especially a farming community, was very new to me. Betty, with her outgoing friendliness was just the person to help me make the adjustment. I first met her one day coming home from daily Mass. She waved her cane at me and said something a little bold for a stranger, speaking as if she knew me, and we became fast friends.

Befriending an elderly person wasn't new to me. It began with one of my grandmothers, Helen, who was very bright and whose knowledge and love for the Church helped me to mature. Something she once said changed, or perhaps awoke my view of the aged, especially Betty. She said, "you know, Richard, on the outside I may be old but inside I dont feel any different than when I was about 35". I never looked at an aging person the same way and have had many of them as friends. Everyone who knew Betty would say that she was very young on the inside.

In fact, Betty became an important part of my spiritual growth and a real gift from God. Betty, ever curious, used to knock on my door with what I might call the "question du jour" about some aspect of the faith she found perplexing. I am fortunate to have a very good Catholic education, packing in some extra years in Theology and Philosophy. Her Catholic generation usually have the articles of the Faith down pat but often desire a fleshing out of the details and finer points. I was able to do a little of that for her. Over the next few years, question and answer sessions blossomed into a mutual love of things Catholic, old and new.

Besides being a "daily Masser" Betty was also committed to an hour of Eucharistic Adoration each week and we met there at the same time for about 7 years. And in those times we shared only silence before the Blessed Sacrament, each seeking His presence in our own way. Sometimes afterwards we would speak but not much was said, nor was it needed. Holy silence engenders holy silence. It is its own reward when it is acquired in the loving presence of God. But, we did often mention to each other a shared experience, we both realized that we often came out of Adoration different than when we went in, completely changed, peaceful and confident. And, we agreed that it was the work of God. After that we always went to lunch together. Over the last year Betty's health began to decline enough that she wasn't able to live in her own home anymore. She moved into an assisted living faculity where I continued to visit. She wasn't able to go to Adoration anymore. It took a greater act of faith for her, and for me, to recognize the presence of God. This is when I witnessed what I later realized was to be her last spiritual work. I believe it to be a great thing in God's eyes.

Betty had been given a difficult neighbor to share living space with by the facility's staff. This was someone who had been moved around the home because apparantly, no one could get along with her. The situation was no less difficult for Betty. However, over several months, I watched Betty set her personal preferences aside and befrend this troublesome neighbor. I also know, first hand that the neighbor was deeply touched by her kindness. No one knew that Betty would soon die, and what a beautiful, selfless gesture to offer to God at the end of your life than a kindness done selflessly.

In less than a year, everyone was surprised to see Betty decline so quickly. I think her many years of really hard farm life simply wore her out and caught up with her. This is when I believe she gave me a great gift. As Betty's mental capacity faded, It was painful for her to struggle but also for me. She simply wasn't able to engage in conversation anymore. And then, Mother Teresa's famous saying came to me, "this is Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor." That realization impressed on me the importance of continuing to visit her. I think that it was only the years of shared, silent holy hours between us that allowed me to understand just how necessary Mother Teresa's words were. I came to see Betty, but even more, I came to visit Jesus in Betty and the silence was the same.

The world, especially now, wants us all to believe that at this point a person ought to give up, even to take into one's own hands the power of life and death. But life does not end with the memory, at least the brain's capacity to remember. Life is where God is. And, in my friend Betty's fading memory, Jesus was still very much living. And, what happened soon after was astonishing.

The week Betty died, I felt urged to visit her again. On my way to work I stopped in to see her for the last time. Some of her family was sitting around the bed. When I entered the room, her son, Jake described to me how the night before, Betty had had her last battle. We know that at the end of life, our great Enemy tries one last time to convince a Christian that his or her life was a waste, tempting to despair. During that time our Pastor arrived and gave her the last Sacraments. The battle ended and she began to rest peacefully though unconscious. That day I went in with the intention of praying with and for my friend one last time. So I knelt down and laid my hand on her arm. But, instead of praying, what I felt was that prayer had entered into me. I suddenly had a profound peace and the awareness of the presence of many souls, even angels attending to her. The holiness was so profound that it stayed with me for a long time after leaving her room.

Reflecting on that moment, I can understand that what I was caught up in was a kind of reward, or better, the natural result of many years of having helped each other in growth and maturity in God. Here I had thought that I was stopping to help my friend Betty in her last struggle but, in fact I was caught up in what was already going on: a holy death, a death in Christ who is our life. Instead, she was helping me. I consider that gift one of the greatest of my whole life: a gift from God and a gift from God and Betty, born out of a friendship in Christ.

I have a Saint-friend, Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose writings have helped me for 33 years. She is the Saint of friendships, friendships in Christ. In her writings you can find this teaching; when two people in this life have shared a holy friendship and one of the friends dies, when that soul is purified and comes before the face of God, what we call the beatific vision, that soul's vision benefits the friend left behind. This is true because love never ends, it unites and continues to unite souls across the divide until all are united. My friend Betty and I shared our hour before Jesus for many years. And now, we still share his presence but more profoundly than words can tell. Today, I came from Adoration knowing and even feeling that as I was before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, she was also Adoring Him in Glory.

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