Friday, October 24, 2008
“Jesus said, ‘This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.’” (John 6:39)
“SOUL-SURFING” – November 2, 2008
All Souls Day
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
Long-time friend Rev. Natalie Shiras, pastor of Church on the Hill in Lenox, Massachusetts, had been planning her sabbatical leave for some time before she actually hit the road this past summer. Wanting to keep her friends and congregants informed of her progress, she created a blog, whose initial entry read, “I begin my sabbatical journey on August 3rd, a cross-cultural exploration to deepen contacts with two sister churches in Russia and Ghana, to revisit my childhood home in Turkey, and to journey to India and Nepal for spiritual renewal.”
Indeed, Natalie’s photo-enhanced entries from far away places have been both informative and inspirational. Her August 25th posting from St. Petersburg, Russia is particularly intriguing for what light it sheds on today’s liturgical celebration. Natalie writes:
“St. Petersburg is a city with a beautiful and careful layout of open parks and squares, great palaces and boulevards which are the same width as the height of the buildings along them. And yet to get from one space to the next requires threading one’s way through narrow passageways. There is only a tiny gate into the Summer Garden which you must know ahead of time how to open. Instead of entering the Russian Museum through its massive front doorway, one enters through a very small portal off to the side and up through a confusing maze of narrow corridors into the great hall. Even doorways between some rooms are partially closed, forcing museum goers to line up to go into the next rooms. I have discovered that the entrances to many museums listed in the guide book are actually around the corner on another street and reached only through a narrow unmarked door. In the metro, entrances may be closed, and even the local people get confused. Narrow and long escalators take passengers down 20 stories to the bedrock below the canals and the Neva River that opens up to grand and impressive metro station stops. To reach Palace Square from the main boulevard, one must take a narrow alleyway that then opens up through a magnificent arch onto the Square and the Winter Palace.
“What is the point? Well, I have had many laughs as I persist in finding my way. And when I find the portal, it is exhilarating to come through the narrow passage into the open space.”
Today, as the church celebrates All Souls Day, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, Natalie’s reflection on narrow passageways invites us to consider a question that has caused anxiety and worry ever since that first bite of an apple in Eden. The wisdom of every generation, culture and religious persuasion has attempted to answer the big question: What is death? And each year on All Souls Day, the church reminds us that every answer given is left lacking, for it’s only in heaven that death will be fully understood. Until then, while we yet walk the earth, the question must remain couched in imaginative simile and metaphor, hinting, we hope, at the real truth. But until the great day of resurrection, we walk by faith, trusting in God’s promise that he will bring us safely home.
Quite a few years back when I first began ministry as a hospital chaplain, a wise pastoral supervisor likened death to birth. She said that the process of dying was very much like the process of birthing. In both instances, a person inhabiting a place of security and comfort is suddenly propelled through a dark, narrow passageway to who knows where. For a child struggling to enter the world, the passage through the mother’s birth canal is, no doubt, violent and terrifying. All the child ever knew is coming to an end, powerful contractions thrusting the child away from the security and comfort offered by the nourishing womb. Thinks the child during the process of birth, “Surely, this is the end of me.” Of course, how could that child ever know what a wondrous new world is at the end of the narrow passageway? What seemed at first to be the end turns out to be a new beginning.
So, too, with the process of dying. A person is suddenly propelled from a known place into the dark unknown. A human life comes to its earthly conclusion, the contractions of death coming gently, as with the ripening of old age, or more violently, as with an unexpected demise. Either way, the known must be forfeited for the unknown, a person’s whole life seemingly wrung from him or her as birth contractions squeeze one through a narrow, dark passageway to who knows where.
In the gospel passage we hear on this All Souls Day, “Jesus said, ‘This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.’” (John 6:39) Indeed, Jesus assures us that it is God’s intention that not only will nothing be lost as we pass from this mortal life to eternity but that what awaits us is wondrous beyond imagination. We are to be raised up! It’s only going to get better!
If Jesus had preached these words to us while we were still cramped inside our mothers’ wombs, we’d have said he was crazy. “Doesn’t get any better than this!” we’d have boasted. Then came sudden contractions squeezing us through the narrow birth canal, threatening to end all we ever knew of life. It’s over for sure, we thought. But it wasn’t.
As she navigated many a narrow passageway in St. Petersburg, having left open vistas in hopes of entering onto expansive beauty, Natalie wrote, “I have had many laughs as I persist in finding my way. And when I find the portal, it is exhilarating to come through the narrow passage into the open space.” May such be our experience as, laughing, we pass into eternity.
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