During a pivotal crossroads in my early thirties, some rare grace led me back to my small hometown of St. Marys, Pennsylvania, in search of a simpler path. There, I discovered an unlikely mentor, Sister M. Augustine, O.S.B. At 87 years old, the reclusive nun—barely over five feet tall and wearing a traditional habit, including a bib apron smeared with paint—quietly worked six days a week in the ceramic shop she had started in the 1960s on the grounds of the oldest Benedictine Monastery in the United States.
By the time I met her, Sister and her shop had been long forgotten by a frenzied world that is so often blind to the tiny miracles sitting right there under its nose. Although I had passed the convent a thousand times throughout my life, I never knew the shop and Sister Augustine were there, waiting for me, when I was most in need of her mercy.
No topic was off limits during our conversations: forgiveness, death, love, evil, success, creativity, cruelty, sin, and even the existence of God and the pathway to Heaven. She was friend and therapist, a confidante and guardian of answers. We shared laughter and tears and moments of glorious silence. In the process, I glimpsed the divine, right here on earth. I came to think of our precious visits as borrowed time, as an immeasurable gift I had been given during the final years of my new mentor’s life.
Proverbs 27:17 assures us that just as iron sharpens iron, so, too, can one person sharpen another. Sister Augustine was iron to my iron, the new rock on which my feet were no longer bruised and bloodied. She was the rock where my feet became firmly planted and where I healed. She not only taught me but she emboldened me to unlock many answers myself to further define my guiding principles.
In that humble and colorful place, I witnessed how mentorship is next to Godliness. It is the bridge between our before and after. The relationship of mentor and student is one that flows two ways at once, like the shimmering sheet of seawater that races down the sand back to its source, intersecting and empowering the frothy wave building momentum above it. Mentorship is meant to be continuous motion, balanced forces, one dependent on the other in infinite give and take.
Sister Augustine’s artwork ignited me in a way I had seldom experienced before, or since. I was particularly inspired by the clayware pieces she created by simply cleaning her brushes off on them while she painted other items. She put them in the kiln for the fun of it and what emerged were abstract masterpieces, which she eventually named Gussie’s Specials.
I became Sister Augustine’s self-appointed publicist and invited reporters into the studio, which had never been done before. The visits were followed by front-page headlines (“90-year-old nun creates art from clay,” “Sister crafts her own niche”). I then greeted crowds who came to discover for themselves what I deemed my best kept secret. They, too, met a new friend and mentor.
Look around you. The elderly gentleman who lives down the street to whom you wave as you pass by; your grandmother whom you don’t get to visit often enough; the lady who always smiles when you see her; the guy who owns the mom and pop store on the corner; that special person who seems to totally get where you’re coming from, despite the differences between your generations. Each of them is a tree of knowledge, an atlas, a blueprint. Allow them to become your tour guide, friend confessor, beacon in the darkness. Then, return the favor.
One of the main reasons I wrote Five Years in Heaven about my friendship with Sister Augustine was to illustrate how her mentoring can be extended to the four corners of this world. Her divine intervention will continue to inspire and uplift others long after I, too, have passed. The collection of lessons and guidance wrapped in the story of a friendship is Sister Augustine’s planted tree in whose shade she knew she would never sit. She was the consummate messenger who shared unconditionally. After all, as she would remind me, the passing along of wisdom and knowledge, light and laughter, is what ensures there truly is no beginning and no end to life.