When Sister Mary Jacqueline Pratt began experiencing vision problems in her late forties, she was surprised but not unprepared. She has a family history of genetic glaucoma and had seen many family members, including her mother, struggle with the disease. At 49, though, she was the youngest in her family to get it.
“It’s just a fluke,” she says, “but I have been fortunate to have had a long time to prepare for what would happen, and as each new challenge arose I had help meeting it.”
A native of Festus, Missouri, Sister Mary Jacqueline entered the Ursulines in 1958 and made her vows in 1964. She has served in Missouri, Illinois, Louisiana and Wisconsin and ministered as an elementary school teacher; religious education teacher, coordinator and consultant; novitiate director; academy president and retreat house associate director.
“I taught one year in a classroom and from there my ministry has mostly been a progression from religious education with children to adults, faith formation with adults and to spiritual direction,” she says. “I have done them all at once and progressively.”
Since the onset of glaucoma in 1996, there have been several occasions when a change in her vision precipitated a change in her ministry, she says. “With acute glaucoma, there are times when your vision is stable, and then something happens, and you experience more vision loss.”
Spiritual direction already had been a part of her ministry, but after she began losing her vision, Sister Mary Jacqueline asked to go to Aquinas Institute in St. Louis to get formal training while she still had her sight. When she began offering spiritual direction in St. Louis, she put notices in parish bulletins; now people find her through word of mouth.
As a spiritual director, Sister Mary Jacqueline serves as a companion and resource on her clients’ personal journeys of faith. It is a ministry that she believes has been enhanced by her own difficulties.
“In Second Corinthians, Paul says he believes all the things he had gone through strengthened him to help others. My own experience has helped me to really listen to the fears and anger of others when they are diminished. My listening so intently allows them to hear what they are saying and understand more fully how God is at work in that.
“Spiritual direction is about listening to a story and helping a person come to grips with life, fears, hopes, love,” she says.” People need a safe place to tell their story. “My greatest joy is when someone says, ‘Dd you hear what I just said?’ I say, ‘Yes, did you hear it?’”
Sister Mary Jacqueline says the way the loss of one sense makes the others so much more intense continues to amaze her. “There are many more ways to see to see than by the eyes. My heightened sense of touch allows me to see around the house. And I’ve learned to listen to the tone of voice since I can’t see body movement. Sometimes you also see by what is not said.”
Besides the senses of touch and hearing, Sister Mary Jacqueline’s sense of humor also has become sharper throughout her journey. “I’ve learned that if you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry,” she says. “I’d rather laugh.”
Among the many changes she has experienced due to vision loss is her concept of God. “I—and many people I’ve dealt with—have a concept of God giving us difficulties to cope,” she says. “I don’t believe that now. God is strengthening us and encouraging us to manage through our difficulties.”
Thirty-two years after being diagnosed with glaucoma, she continues to find new ways to navigate her life and ministry and discover blessings that accompany the loss. Resources such as the Missouri Council for the Blind, the State of Missouri and computer programs are crucial to her well-being. “I can’t imagine what I would do without them. And there are a lot of Ursulines here to help, too,” she says with a smile.