The words “peace and compassion” may elicit images of softness or even weakness, but Sister Ave Clark knows from experience that they reflect the strength of God and the best of humanity. In fact, she says, “Compassion walks the road to Calvary.”
That theme is present throughout her books of reflection “Peace and Compassion…Holy Threads” and “A Light on an Angel Wing” – and it was present in the many stories she shared during our recent “Christopher Closeup” interview (podcast below).
As the founder of Heart to Heart Ministry, Sister Ave holds retreats and personally counsels those enduring dark times, including domestic abuse, the death of a loved one, PTSD, disability, and more. Her experience with these types of situations goes back many years, to a time when she was a second grade teacher. One of her students, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with cancer and wouldn’t be able to make her First Communion with the class.
Elizabeth’s parents asked if she could receive her First Communion in the hospital, so Sister Ave arranged for a priest to come and hold a small service there. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s health continued to go downhill, so Sister Ave brought her a little angel doll to hold on to for comfort.
Some time later, Elizabeth’s parents called Sister Ave to say the end was near and asked if she could come with them to the hospital. Despite feeling emotionally devastated herself by this news, Sister Ave mustered up the emotional and spiritual strength to accompany them because she realized that “compassion walks the road to Calvary.” During the car ride over, Elizabeth’s mother quietly held Sister Ave’s hand.
Upon entering Elizabeth’s room, they saw she was holding her angel doll. Her mother broke down in tears, so Elizabeth told her, “Mom, don’t cry. I’m going to go to heaven, and you said it’s the best home I could ever have.”
Elizabeth’s mother hugged her, and her father told her, “You’re our little angel,” then they both left the room in tears. Elizabeth turned to Sister Ave and said, “Sister, I don’t need the doll anymore, ’cause I’ll have all the angels in heaven. You take it, you give it to someone else.”
Sister Ave agreed. Elizabeth passed away an hour later.
Sister Ave recalled, “I never forgot it, Tony…When they drove home, the mother said, ‘Sister, your being with us gave us peace.’ Did it take away their sorrow? No. But our presence can [bring] peace.”
The presence of a stranger brought Sister Ave peace at the most difficult time in her life. Nearly 20 years ago, she survived a debilitating accident in which a runaway train hit the car she was driving in Queens, New York.
After a year of hospitalization and rehab, Sister Ave was giving a talk in a parish when a man approached her and said he was glad she was doing well. She didn’t recognize him, so he revealed that he was a volunteer ambulance worker who was on the scene of her accident. The paramedics told him that she was in shock and her blood pressure kept dropping, so he needed to talk with her to keep her spirit going so she could fight for her life. He kept telling Sister Ave, “I’m with you. You’re not alone. You are going to be alright.”
Sister Ave believes that message must have registered in her subconscious because she survived the experience. She now sees that man as having been “a light on an angel’s wing” in her life. It’s a phrase she coined, noting, “What is the light that we all need that comes down? At times, hope, comfort, encouragement. I think mine was resiliency. I needed the light of, ‘You can do this, you’ll keep on. It might be difficult at times, but you’ll keep on.’…I still limp with a lot of pain…If I keep thinking about it, I’ll become that pain. I just limp along, go on out, or adapt as well as I can…I can hear my guardian angel saying, ‘You better do that. You want to keep going.’…So I think that light on that wing gently comes to earth through all of the words, deeds, and actions that you and I have.”
Teaching a special education class many years ago became a formative experience in Sister Ave’s own development as a person of peace and compassion. She taught 15 children whose IQs ranged from 48 to 56 and recalls, “They taught me to be kinder, more compassionate, more accepting, and even to be vulnerable.”
Sister Ave carries those qualities into all aspects of her ministry because she believes they can help create a more peaceful world. She said, “Peace, to me, is [experiencing] God’s love no matter what you’re going through. Peace is an extension of God saying, ‘Love one another into life.’ Does that mean we’re going to disagree [sometimes]? We can, but I think we need to disagree in a much better way without this harshness, cruelty, putting people down, or whatever’s going on…The whole idea of peace and compassion, you can’t have one without the other, because when you’re compassionate, you either give or receive peace. If you’re getting compassion back, you feel peaceful inside. And again, that doesn’t mean that all your problems or worries are gone. Maybe we learn to carry them better, and maybe we learn to bear them and be that little beam of light in the world that we can be.”
None of this is easy, however. Sister Ave notes, “You have to be bold to be a peace giver. You can’t sit back…A peace giver is a person of truth. And the truth that you bear is that everybody should be respected in life. No one is discarded.”
As an example of living that truth, Sister Ave points to a formerly homeless man named Albie. He lived in College Point, New York, and made sure that his homeless friends all had a bench to sleep on. If there were any homeless women around, he made sure they got “the safe bench” and that everyone looked out for them.
“One of my [fellow] Sisters in that town helped Albie,” Sister Ave continued, “and he’s now in an apartment down in Brooklyn, with a nice big room and everything. But Albie was just diagnosed with cancer. [The Sister] put him in New York-Presbyterian Hospital getting care. And all the doctors there say, ‘This is an extraordinary man.’ Now who is Albie? He’s the man that was on the street that drank vodka a lot. But who is he? He’s a peace giver. See, I think sometimes we think you have to have it all together in your head, [but] I think it’s more in your heart. If you have it together in your head but it doesn’t move down to your heart, [that’s a problem]. I think you start with your heart first. That’s where compassion is born, because then not only do we transform the world, we’re transformed too. We get better and better.”
Ultimately, Sister Ave holds these hopes for people who read “A Light on an Angel Wing” or “Peace and Compassion…Holy Threads“: “I would hope that people can open the book to any page and some word or line will touch them, and they’ll look at that word, and they will feel inner peace. I hope that they’ll know, at times, they are a light on an angel wing, or when somebody else is [a light] for them. [I hope] that they realize that they can be a peace giver with the compassion that they have in the world. Because God has loved us into life, and now he wants us to continue doing it for one another.”
(To listen to my full interview with Sister Ave Clark, click on the podcast link):