It sounds like the kind of thing you’d see in a movie, but it really happened to Sister Ave Clark, a retreat leader, pastoral counselor, and founder of Heart to Heart Ministry. Sixteen years ago, a 120-ton runaway train slammed into her car while she was driving in Queens, New York. Hospitalized for close to a year, Sister Ave endured a lot of physical therapy before she was able to walk again.
During that time, she was sustained by the Scripture from Romans 8: “Nothing will ever separate us from the love of God.” And she kept telling herself, “Small steps will get me back up again. [I’m] going to do it. Have courage.”
Tapping into “holy courage,” as Sister Ave calls it, is an ability many people need right now in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges it’s created. That’s why Sister Ave has written a new book called “A Heart of Courage: The Ordinary and Extraordinary Becoming Holy.” We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Recalling her time in the hospital, Sister Ave said she felt sorry for herself for a few days and asked, “Why, God?” Soon, she decided to ask a different question: “God, what am I going to do now?”
God provided an answer.
While she was sitting around waiting for therapy, waiting for lunch, or waiting for dinner, different people would come into her room and have conversations with her. Instead of traveling to different churches to give retreats, she was listening and offering guidance to the people around her.
Somebody observed, “Oh, you’re doing ministry from the bed now.”
Sister Ave realized, “I guess this is where God wants me. So there was a struggle, yes, but I think that’s part of life, too. Struggles make us stronger sometimes in broken places…Holy courage is opening your heart up to new ways of resurrecting in life, just like we’re doing now with the pandemic. We’ve had to adjust our lifestyles to different ways of being.”
Though some may associate courage with bravado, Sister Ave points out that it can be exhibited in a variety of circumstances. She writes, “Like love, courage is not conceived in the mind, it emanates from the heart…And it comes in many forms. It was the courage of devotion that inspired Mary when she accepted her calling from Gabriel…It was the courage of humility displayed by Jesus, when although battered and beaten, He told a bewildered Pilate of the limitations of his power, thereby sealing His fate on the cross. In more recent times, it was the courage of loyalty that climbed the cliffs of Normandy with those soldiers in the fight against tyranny. It was the courage of dignity that rode the bus with a young Rosa Parks as she refused to give up her seat in her struggle against racism. It was the courage of dedication that willed the first responders up the stairs and into the fire to save those they never knew. Yet courage need not be so extraordinary. We can find it in the times and places of our everyday lives. In hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and in our own homes.”
For many years, Sister Ave has done her best to help others find their holy courage. She offers pastoral counseling to post-abortive women, parents who have lost a child due to miscarriage, people with post-traumatic stress, victims of crime, survivors of suicide, survivors of abuse, those dealing with depression or grief, and more. The secret to her success is listening.
Sister Ave said, “There are people who will call me on the phone that had gotten very depressed during this pandemic. Some of them had lost loved ones. What I found in my life is the holy courage to be able to listen. Not to tell somebody else how to feel, not to diminish what they’re sharing, not to give them false hopes, and just to say to them, ‘I’ll be there with you.’ I have found that with so many people, that boosts them up. That encourages them. And I think I would want the same done to me, somebody not to say, ‘Do it this way and everything will be fine,’ but to be able to listen to the heart of someone else and know that you’re going to learn something about yourself in listening, too.”
Acts of kindness can also be courageous, notes Sister Ave: “For my mail carrier, I would leave different things in the mailbox for him. One day, I get a thank you note from him saying, ‘You made my day.’ As I’m reading it, I’m smiling that his card made my day. He’s across the street clapping and waving. We both wave at each other. Kindness comes from the heart. It’s never selfish. It’s not self-absorbed. Kindness wants to give, not from the wallet or the pocketbook, but kindness can give the word of charity, the word of hope, the word of compassion. That’s kindness, to me.”
Among Sister Ave’s greatest teachers of holy courage were the young people with special needs that she used to teach. Though they ranged in age from 15 to 17, they were mentally on the level of six-year-olds. Yet they had the kindest hearts.
She recalled one student coming up to her and asking that another student be given two stars on a test despite getting most of the answers wrong. When she asked why, the boy responded, “He has the biggest heart in the world. He is the kindest boy on the planet.”
Sister Ave observed, “He didn’t see the boy’s disability. He saw the beauty of the boy’s being. And I think so often in our world, if we would listen to people with special needs, we would grow more in touch with our own humanity.”
In conclusion, Sister Ave offers a few ideas for people who want to tap into their own holy courage: “The first thing is to take some quiet time during the day. Put your worries, and even your loss, not aside, but hold them in your heart. Hold your worry, hold your loss in your heart, and know that the Creator’s love is there with you and He’s holding them with you. I think the second thing we could do is get outside a little more. Call a friend, or of course, they can call me, if they go on my website, just to chat. I have people across the United States that call me, and I just listen and let them know, ‘I care about you.’ I think the most wonderful gift we could give to anybody to help them understand their own courage is, ‘I care about you.’ I can’t take away your loss or your problem, but we can say, ‘I care about you.'”
Sister Ave’s website and book can be found at www.h2h.nyc.
(To listen to my full interview with Sister Ave Clark, click on the podcast link beginning at 14:34)