Remembering Therese Saulnier

“She got a little too good at welcoming!” So Thomas Keating said about his dear friend and colleague Mary Mrozowski after her death in 1993. We might say the same about our dear friend and colleague Therese Saulnier, who died on Easter Monday, April 5, of pancreatic cancer.

No nonsense, all business, straightforward, honest and direct. Even a little severe. Remembering first meeting Therese, some have used words like these to describe her, but over time they add other adjectives to the list: authentic, compassionate, devoted, joyful, purposeful. The serious, intent expression that could be a little intimidating at first would break into her crooked smile accompanied by twinkling eyes and a reassuring chuckle that seemed to say “we’re all in this human condition together”.

Therese’s prayer life—her whole life—was a full complement of contemplative practices—Centering Prayer, lectio divina, forgiveness, and, of course, Welcoming Prayer. We on the Welcoming Prayer team were privileged to witness up close the power of the Welcoming Prayer practice in her journey.  What Therese shared with us—the authenticity of her prayer practice, her boundless faithfulness, her own transformation—these were immeasurable gifts and blessings.

A “certain spiritual transmission takes place during presentations of the introductory and formation workshops,” Thomas Keating wrote in 2016. (See the full article here). “The depth of one’s personal commitment to God is the basis of this transmission. It is not so much the letter of the teaching, as the being of the one who teaches that is most important.”

Therese was a “transmitter” who gave with her whole being. This gift of herself is also what made her a quintessential servant leader. “If you don’t know what that means,” Welcoming Prayer team member Mary Lapham said, “Therese is it!” It was Therese putting contemplation into action, presenting workshops, helping form new presenters, serving on teams, facilitating retreats, and taking on other roles as needed. All this she did selflessly and humbly.

Therese died as she lived, a very private person, observed longtime colleague and Welcoming Prayer team member Mary Dwyer. She revealed few personal details. But in the interest of serving others and of transmitting her deep contemplative practice and experience, she told stories on herself as examples. “I’m just a low-tech person in a high-tech job,” she often said about her job at AT&T as a website developer. Many situations she encountered at work became anecdotes to illustrate the practice of Welcoming Prayer or forgiveness.

When Therese invited Mary Lapham to join the Welcoming Prayer team, Mary said, “I don’t know how it works.” “Neither do I,” Therese replied. She didn’t need to know how it worked because she had experienced it working in her life, had seen it in others, and guided by faith, was comfortable to dwell in unknowing and to walk in the dark. What she did know was that God is in charge of the inner workings, not us, and that all we are called to do is be faithful. Surrender deepens into “radical invincible trust” that is “a deep knowing. Not with the top three inches of our head, but almost with our whole being,” Therese said in one of her last recordings. She continued in words that mean even more in view of her death. “We’ve all had curve balls. The unexpected illness, the sudden death, a lost job, whatever it is, the awareness that [in] what we are experiencing, we are being held, we’re being companioned by our Beloved. And that experience is not an intellectual experience. It’s an act of faith which deepens our trust in the one who calls us to a deeper life.”

She continued, “One of the joys of aging is that as we journey with our God, we’re called into deeper intimacy and deeper union. Wow. What an invitation. And all I need to do is consent as best I can in the moment. Not worrying about success or failure, but just being faithful.”

Therese made this process of transformation look easy!  In true humility, she accepted her own flaws and was realistic about her own gifts. As Fr. Carl Arico remembered in his eulogy for her, she often said, “I want to be the best Therese I can be.” She wasn’t interested in some abstract concept of perfection, but in being the unique individual God created. By her own being, she gave the rest of us permission to be who God made us to be.

To those who don’t like meetings, it might seem odd to hear that Therese always seemed to enjoy our Welcoming Prayer team meetings, whether in person, over conference call, or via Zoom. Team member Jim McElroy remembers her contagious enjoyment; it made him look forward to our meetings too! Every meeting was bookended with a check-in and check-out from each member. Endearingly and unvaryingly, Therese insisted upon utmost fairness in this common practice by calling on each one of us—in the order in which we signed on to the call! It was a small gesture but significant in maintaining the egalitarian tone of our team. On any agenda item, she made sure that each person had an opportunity to contribute and that all were satisfied with the discussion before moving on.

The diagnosis she received in spring of 2020, she faced courageously and matter-of-factly. Even through her treatments and our demanding preparations for last October’s monthlong online Welcoming Prayer course, she continued to shepherd the Welcoming Prayer team. She let go into trusting our process, did her part, allowed us to do ours, and then generously stepped in to take up the slack when one team member’s mother died at the beginning of the course.

How appropriate that Therese’s last recording for the online course was “Deepening Consent.” She shared changes that may take place as consent deepens, changes she knew firsthand: letting go of the need to be right or perfect; growing less judgmental and more forgiving; becoming less reactive. At the last, her consent undoubtedly deepened into surrender to God’s final call to her and her welcoming yes in reply.

“I have heard how transformed and radiant Mary Mrozowski was in her later years,” Welcoming Prayer presenter Sue Kahalekulu wrote after reviewing Therese’s video on fruits and gifts of the Welcoming Prayer. “Therese seemed that way to me. I feel Divine Light all around her. Such joy in heaven with her arrival. Such sadness here as she will be missed.” Sue and fellow presenter Bob Mischke dedicated to Therese the workshop they presented on the day of her funeral.

“How much this woman impacted my life,” Jim McElroy said. And how many other lives she impacted—from her own New Jersey chapter to places around the country to Iceland and finally through cyberspace. From among the Welcoming Prayer team, Jim McElroy has been called to succeed Therese as team leader. He plans to maintain her tradition of calling on each of us in order! As we have known the presence of Mary Mrozowski with us blessing our work, we will continue to know Therese’s presence with us. Her words will echo in our hearts. Her stories will continue to make us smile. Her faith and her spirit will continue to inspire us. Even as we miss her earthly presence, we will celebrate the gift of her life as it continues to bless her fellow Welcoming Prayer teammates and the whole contemplative community.

Creator and maker of humankind, we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created us, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
– The Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church, 1979 

~ by Cherry Haisten, on behalf of the Welcoming Prayer Service Team: Jim McElroy, Mary Dwyer, Mary Lapham, Dave Dierig