Published on June 11-12, 2011 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
It was a picture that I had never seen before. Titled “Angels of the Battlefield,” it is found in the archives of the Daughters of Charity and portrays five nuns attending to the wounded and the dying in the Battle of Gettysburg. I was struck by the silent drama it captures: the sky, darkened by the heat of battle, makes the white of the sisters’ French habits stand out amidst the gloom of the scene.
As I later surveyed the many monuments in that battlefield, it struck me that the one corner left unmarked in Gettysburg was the site where these women braved the gore and the gunfire to minister to many a mortally wounded soldier boy. Only a stained glass window at the town’s Saint Francis Xavier Church, a makeshift hospital during that battle in July 1863, commemorates the heroism of those nuns who never failed to speak of Heaven in the midst of such hell on earth.
I suppose that is why I found that picture to be so compelling. History has a way of making us remember the victories and the losses of men at war, but this lithograph gives us a glimpse of what history often forgets in its retelling: how, even in that field of horror, hope was seen walking in the guise of these women of God.
To this day their names are unmentioned, their deeds unacknowledged in history books. Yet, for those soldiers who needed that look of love as they lay dying, these sisters already had made a difference. In a strange way, I find it appropriate that their efforts had gone unrewarded by men; truly no government can match what God has in store for those who love Him (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9).
I bought a print of that lithograph and had it framed to hang in my office. It reminds me every day that much of what we do in the charity of Christ will be untold, unremembered, and unrewarded by men. Yet, as George Eliot remarks at the end of her novel Middlemarch, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
History is full of undiscovered heroes; the Church is filled with countless uncanonized saints. Their lives remind us that much of what is good and holy often goes unnoticed. Yet, their unheralded holiness at every unmarked corner of this world still assures us that the Kingdom of God is that close at hand.