“What are the ashes? … These are the wounded parts of our lives. God uses all of it and makes it into beauty as only God can,” writes Mary Hilger in the concluding pages of her memoir, “Finding Beauty in Ashes: Angels Sent in our Darkest Hour.”
For most people, the losses and suffering they experience are difficult to discern as beauty or gifts from God. It’s a struggle to find meaning and purpose through the ups and downs of life, and sometimes a person must settle into the mystery of uncertainty about the trajectory of his or her life.
Hilger is no stranger to such struggle. Yet her faith, evidenced in the chronicles about her husband, Deacon John Hilger and his final days, grew in powerful and unimaginable ways.
Despite the couple’s plan to enjoy a Viking cruise to Germany, God had other plans, as Mary often writes in her book. The very first evening on board the cruise ship, Deacon John suffered cardiac arrest and never recovered.
Mary, in shock but hopeful that her husband might survive, was surrounded by compassionate people whom she referred to as “angels.” These were initially hospital staff, such as nurses, physicians and social workers. She broke the news to their six daughters, who rallied together to find a way for them all to be by their father’s side in what would become his final moments.
In those moments, beautiful and holy blessings unfolded. Even in the midst of her grief, Mary saw God’s hand moving through the conversations she had with the medical staff, in the prayer of blessing she extended to her husband’s ailing roommate, and in the tenderness of the privilege she experienced in washing her husband’s body shortly after he died.
The journey was not over yet, as the Hilger family would discover following Deacon John’s death. Everywhere they went they felt his presence, especially as they entered a spring festival in the Netherlands that reminded them of the fall festivals at Hilger’s Farm Market.
Heartfelt condolences poured in through emails, text messages and phone calls from family and friends. Most of these were firsthand accounts of how Deacon John had personally touched their lives – or even changed it for the better. Even the Hilger daughters found their faith strengthened with new resolve to return to the sacraments regularly as they thought of the example of their Catholic faith instilled in them by their father.
Mary Hilger’s book is not riddled with depressing tales of melancholy as one might expect from a death memoir. Instead, she is honest and real but ever joyful, reflecting the truth all Christians share as a Resurrection people who believe that death is not the end, but the beginning, of life.
“Mourning is deep, pervasive and seemingly endless, even as I plumb its depth in writing,” she writes. “On the other hand, writing this has brought me to share the special things I miss about John. I take joy in writing about the sort of person he was, the activities we enjoyed together, and memories that trigger both laughter and tears. These are the golden nuggets that glitter in the sand and mud of grief.”
Excerpts like these are common in Hilger’s book. She found the snippets and snapshots of life that were worth living, in which God touched her with His intimate presence and comforted her in her darkest moments. Grief can be very heavy and intense, as Hilger acknowledges openly, but she looked for and listened to the ways God was speaking to her – sometimes through her daughters, sometimes in nature, and sometimes in spontaneous conversations with long-lost friends at the grocery store.
Ultimately, Hilger discovered that her husband is still with her in a deeply spiritual way. Through his prayers for their family, and in the family’s prayers for him, their faith in our perfectly loving God has shone in the witness they carry to others in their workplaces, communities and neighborhoods. Hilger, who is also an artist, continues to share her gift of creating in order to bring healing to the lives of those who are still in a place of mourning and woundedness. She has found her own sense of healing through her loss by giving back to God the gifts He has given to her.
Parting thoughts from her book will leave the reader lingering on his or her own understanding of how suffering can be transformed by God’s love: “Every memory, however sweet, is tinged with sorrow, I suppose, just as shadows fall from light …How ‘flat’ our lives would be – how lifeless our spirits – without the contrast of joys and sorrows.”
“Finding Beauty in Ashes: Angels Sent in our Darkest Hour,” by Mary Hilger. Self-published, 2018. $15.
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