From Death into Life

(On November 2 the Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. This is an essay that came to me last week, about beauty, life, impermanence, death, and eternal life.)

1384871_10201644674212350_529133338_nThe air was crisp and cold as I arrived at work that day, a slight breeze that made my cheeks tingle. I shivered slightly and gazed upward as I exited my car, feeling awe as I glanced at the towering maple at the edge of the parking lot. Its shimmering gold and red leaves determinedly clinging to branches that extended like an extravagant and colorful awning over my vehicle.

At the end of the workday a still-blue sky greeeted me, but it was showing hints of dimming, and the breeze had stilled. Pausing at the door, I inhaled deeply and took in the feeling that comes from that certain scent of autumn.  As I walked to my car, I noticed the carpet of fallen yellow leaves at my feet. Crunch, crunch, with each footfall, crunch crunch. CRUNCH. Must have been an acorn that time! It was as if nature had installed an early warning system, to alert my car to my presence.

Looking skyward, I found that the brilliantly colored canopy of maple that had captivated me earlier in the day was a bit more sparse. A bit?! All those leaves that seemed to tightly grip the branches a few hours earlier had finally accepted the decision to let go. The image of them floating down to the ground, like jewels cast from the hand of a generous monarch to the peasants at their feet. At that moment, all I could feel was sadness that the remarkable palette of color that has been spanning the sky for a few weeks was almost gone.

1421635_10201684585690112_2062429808_n-1Almost to my car, with fallen leaves fanning out in every direction underfoot, I heard the words these words in my heart:

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. John 12:24

That gorgeous towering maple has been growing for more years than I can imagine. Once part of a forest, it remains, sitting at the edge of a church parking lot.  The tree, God’s patient and loyal sentinel, continues to keep watch with patience and dignity.

My sense of sadness began to lift as I stood next to my car. The fallen leaves, like the grain of wheat, remind me of the impermanence of one aspect of life, and the eternity of all life. A sense of remarkable beauty, consolation and peace encompassed my being. Life into death into life.

In November the Church remembers its saints and its beloved deceased in a special way. I am grateful for the reminder of how death is a part of life, seen on that day through the lens of fallen leaves, and wheat.

An Interuption to the Stones…

(No Small Stone today… I need to write about what is going on here.)

Our dog Gracie has had some health challenges in the past 3 weeks. One day she was her fine, jumpy, silly self – although clearly she has been aging. Then I came home from work and found her almost unable to walk. She was frightened and in pain.

After a night at the Vet ER, I picked her up and we were optimistic. She spent that next day at our vet’s office and then I took her home. We live in the 1970’s style house o’ stairs. There are 4 that go from the foyer to the living room, and on the foyer level, but in the family room, there are another 4 that come up into the kitchen. Another slightly longer staircase goes up from the living room to the bedrooms.

In any event, the stairs were off limits as were the love seats in the family room. She was not too happy about that. Worse yet was that she needed to be crated if unattended. Mark was off from work, so this was not too hard to manage and she had a lot of care and company.

There were days, December 31 being one of them, where she really rebounded and seemed to be headed back to normalcy. Please don’t even ask me about January 1, which was one of her worst days. So her healing was inconsistent.

Then January 3 came and the combination of either Mark, Erica or me being home came to a halt and Gracie would be alone a lot. A kind and generous neighbor helps, as did my friend’s college age daughter, when we needed some extra check-ins. Part of the challenge includes a lot of urination, due to the medication, so she really needs someone to take her out every few hours.

We were able to set up an area in the family room, using Continue reading

You May Say That I’m A Dreamer, But I’m Not The Only One

I left this as a comment on Lisa’s blog, but I reprint it here too. Where were you when John Lennon died? What do you remember?  Here is another thread, from the New York Times.

I was in a bar on the Upper East Side of NYC. I had recently turned 23 and I felt very adult. I was there with my boss and one of our clients. My boss was about 34, he seemed so old to me! The client was in his 50’s but very handsome, suave and had a mad, sexy voice. We had all been out to dinner and then went for some drinks.

It was one of those bars, ubiquitous at the time, brass rails, ferns and lots of well-dressed people, all on the prowl. Men in 3 piece suits and with moustaches, women with hungry eyes and sunken cheeks. I think my eyes were that, my cheeks- not so much. I can tell you that I was wearing a teal dress with a multi-colored teal belt that was woven. There was a slit on the side and my thigh showed through. Mad sexy.

The two guys were getting drunk and I was bored and thinking that I better get in a cab and get to Grand Central. They decided to play pool – another ever-present symbol in these bars. I was alone at the bar, feeling slightly sorry for myself and like I did not belong.

Monday night football was on but I was not really watching. Then the special report came on – John Lennon was shot! I ran over to the guys, but they were drunk now for real and playing pool. They did not care. No one seemed to care, save a handful of us misfits who sat at the bar, where we were now getting free drinks from shocked and saddened Irish bartender.

I felt so sad and so raw but I could not exactly identify why. I kept thinking of a kid that I had worked with during HS and college who was obsessed with Lennon and wondering where he was and how he was taking this all. And I kept wondering who would shoot John Lennon and why.

By time I came out of my gin-infused tv watching I had realized that I missed the last train. Now I had to admit to myself that not only was I a misfit, but that I lived at home. I had to (gulp) call my mother and say I wasn’t coming home. She was pretty pissed off- to hear this and to be woken up at 2am.

I went over to the now very drunk boss and client. The client wanted me to go to his hotel room with him. Suddenly I felt revulsion – how did he not feel this pain of Lennon’s death? How could he think of sex? I also suddenly did not feel as old and adult as I had when we strode in there a few hours earlier.

My boss got very protective and took me to his apartment. I remember being shocked that he was the big sales manager but his bed was a mattress on the floor, just like college. Complete with milk crate night stand! He let me sleep in his bed and he took the sofa, but I couldn’t sleep. I listened to WNEW-FM and cried.

Many images were shattered that night, many.

The next day I felt overtired and shameful, showing up at work, looking a bit disheveled and wearing the teal dress again.

And John Lennon was dead.

What is it to die well? Some thoughts on St. Scholastica, my friend Carol, living and dying well – all on a snowy February day.

I awoke today remembering that it was the feast day of St. Scholastica. Then I looked at my email and found these words of wisdom from the Henri Nouwen Society, entitled Dying Well. Subsequently I recalled that I was having a mass offered in memory of a woman I knew named Carol. She died a few months ago, a long, slow death from cancer.

Carol was a parishioner at the parish that I work at and I only met her in December 2008. She was a remarkable woman with a big, round moon of a face that showed her weariness but showed her presence and love much more profoundly. These matters are of course connected – weariness and love. With her soft, soft voice she would enter the office and begin speaking to me in Polish. I know about 5 words in Polish, but that did not deter Carol, who would carry on a whole conversation while filling me in with a few words of English.

I would sit at my desk and watch her with wonder and delight, the round softness of her face, the light in her eyes, her brilliant smile and the ever-present turban that reminded us all of her cancer. It was the only reminder; she was ever bubbling over with life and spirit in her words and presence, even through this weariness that manifested itself as a light also, just perhaps slightly more dim.

Carol often spoke to me about her brother, a very erudite man who is a Catholic priest in another part of the country. If I were to publish his name, you could easily google it and learn about him. He is a scholar, a teacher and a writer. Carol was very dedicated to him.

Over the months Carol would dip down and come close to death. She would often call me from the hospital to say hello and give me an update. She knew exactly what was happening and I never heard or saw fear in her. She had a rich quality that combined deep and ancient wisdom with a childlike wonder. And Carol had no fear about meeting the God she adored.

It seemed that Carol might never die – a hopeful thought for those who knew her. Yet that was not to be the case. She kept dancing with death, but with a bit of a polka beat, as her Polish heritage dictated. Carol neither rushed towards nor avoided her death in my experience, she was in relationship with her life through her relationship with God and God’s people. It is utterly impossible to live well without being able to have some insight that this also means to die well.

That is pretty much the essence of Jesus’ life and death and also of our Christian faith. This is not static, this is not a strictly here or there proposition, but rather a dynamic. It is organic and alive – living and dying are elements of something much larger.

The time finally came, Carol was slowly going home to God. Her brother came to town and stayed for awhile, but God was not yet ready and Carol lived on a short while longer, maybe a week, with no further signs of active death.

It was in these days that I began to learn more about Carol’s brother and I learned that in a book he wrote, he dedicated it to “his Scholastica.”

The day came and we all wept. Carol was only in my life for less than a year, but she touched me deeply. The entire community came together and wept and wept.

Carol lived with intention and she died with intention. It was a gift to behold.

Today I remember Carol as I reflect on Saint Scholastica and on dying well. I am not sure how this is done, this dying – or living – well. I do know that I long to do both in their right time.

Rest in peace dear Carol. St. Scholastica, please pray for us.

(Our great friend Padre Mickey has some fine words for the Feast over at his place today.)

Requiem – Resurrection (Part II of the Requiem Eucharist for Rev. James M. Jensen)

There is so much that I want to say about the Requiem Eucharist for The Very Reverend James M. Jensen and finding the right words is a challenge. (See part one here.)

This liturgy was extraordinary in every sense of the word.

Grace Church is gorgeous, a fine old church with an amazing organ. It was quite full as there were many present to pray with Kathy and her family and to celebrate Jim’s life.

The music was sublime; I knew that this was important to Kathy and that a lot of effort went into choosing the right pieces. There was a beautiful prelude before the service began.

The crowd as I mentioned, was large and also quite diverse. As I sat there praying and listening to the prelude music, I was aware of so many different kinds of people who had come together for this moment.

The entrance hymn was 379, “God Is Love, Let Heaven Adore Him” and that was followed by 208, “The Strife is O’er.” The processional made me weepy as I watched the choir and the many clerics and others make their way up the long, center aisle.

And did people sing! I sang as loud as I could as singing is a powerful prayer.

The numerous priests and deacons really struck me because there were men and women and it was quite a diverse group. That changes a church very much, something that I will comment on more in another post. Then the bishop, The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III,  made his way up last, with his mitre and crook.

The first lesson was the one I plan to have read at my own funeral, Wisdom 3:1-9. No I am not planning on going anywhere, but I do have clear thoughts about what I want to have happen when I do.

This was followed by Psalm 46 sung by the choir and it was transcendent.

The second lesson was from Revelation 7:9-17 and I was also reminded of where we are in the liturgical year. Kathy had mentioned on Facebook that the theme of the eucharist was Easter and the sense of life into death into life was most profound in song and word.

The Holy Gospel was from St. John 5:37-40 and I did cry as it was proclaimed. I wondered about Kathy and her family up in the front row, how were they doing? I thought of all those who loved Jim and who worked with him and prayed that consolation would come. It will, but not in any easy way.  I also love how the Gospel is proclaimed in TEC, right from the center aisle – that is very beautiful and moving to me.

The Rev. John A. Wingert was the homilist and he spoke about this soul, taken away and how Jim’s family and friends will mourn freely. He talked about how Jim had many relationships as Rector and how in his various roles, he touched so many people. It was also noted that Jim’s passing will be felt profoundly at the deanery level and also at the diocesan level. Jim’s gentle spirit and abiding faith were brought up and how he had a sense of humor – but never at anyone’s expense.

Ultimately Rev. Wingert reminded us all that Jim had become one of the “great cloud of witnesses” and that those who mourn will draw strength from “sacrament and scripture,” especially the Gospel which reminds us that “I will raise him up,” as we are taught in John.

Again my thoughts were with Kathy and her family as they heard these words about their beloved husband and father, plus any other family that might be present. Of course the staff of Grace Church and all those in TEC who worked with Jim are mourning this loss and I pray for them too.

Communion was beyond words. As we all approached the Table of the Lord, the choir sang. As we slowly made our way up, I found myself standing in between the choir stalls waiting and surrounded by music. I had chills and I had a sense that this was what the Kingdom must be like.

My heart and mind were also infused with thoughts of Roseann that were so strong. It felt like she was passing at that moment, but of course she had not yet done so. My prayer for her was so strong and I wept as I slowly went to the altar to share in the Eucharist. (I am not sure if she has entered into the heart of God in death yet, but if not, it will be soon.)

The Holy Eucharist was nearly over. There was the Commendation and the prayers to give rest to Christ’s servant, James as he went on to life everlasting.

Jim’s casket, covered with the funeral pall slowly passed by on this part of the final earthly journey. Kathy and her family made their way down the center aisle, their sadness and pain was visible.  The hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” one normally only heard at Easter was resounding through the church.

While I am deeply grateful to have been there, I was struck by such sadness. Yet I was also moved that we have such a profound community online, one that stretches far and wide.  It is great that we walk in joy from our distant outposts, connecting on blogs and Facebook but it is also a tremendous gift to be able to hold and support one another in our sorrow and loss.

Our hearts are united in prayer with Kathy and her family and all who loved Jim at this sad, sad time.

Grace Church, Utica, NY – Thursday November 19, Part 1

This was a blogger meet up of a different natue….While having met others before, last night’s  was of a different nature, as it was occurring because of Rev. Jim Jensen’s Requiem Eucharist. For those who do not know, Jim was the husband of Klady or Kathy(I hope that Kathy does not mind that I am using photos from her blog for this post. I especially love the baptism photo below – and as we all know death is a part of our baptismal promise, an act connect to death but filled with hope.)

The church, which you can see at the top, is quite stunning. I entered and got into a line of people waiting to pay their respects to Fr. Jim. As I did not know him in life, I could not say if he looked “good” – whatever that means. I do know that a body remains, but a soul has already gone onto the Kingdom and is deep within the heart of God. However, Fr. Jim did look exactly as his photo shows him, a handsome man and vested for his last Holy Eucharist.

After a brief prayer, in which every member of our community was in my heart I took a few steps towards Kathy. She took one look at me and a huge smile covered her face as she said “Fran?!” We embraced tightly. I am not typically at a loss for words, even at funereal events – tonight I stammered a bit and said that I was there on behalf of everyone, especially Jane, Mimi, Shelley and Doxy – as well as so many others. Kathy told me how grateful she was for what we all have out here. She felt so much love and support during the time from Jim’s death forward. I quickly moved on.  (Shelley aka PseudoPiskie, was at the funeral of George Bland, father of blogger Janis Bland and couldn’t make it to Utica.)

A few minutes later I saw someone I knew would be there, Rev. Lauren Gough who blogs as Muthah+ both here and here; what a joy to meet her even under these circumstances. She has the most beautiful smile and I further felt the enormous generosity of heart and spirit that I had experienced on her blogs and in email.

The place was awash in Episcopal clergy and I will write more about that at another time. The entire church hall was very, very busy as you can imagine. Seconds after meeting I looked up and saw the Rev. Mark Giroux. You are right to say “who?” Mark is not a blogger, but in a crazy small world thing I actually know him otherwise. It was at St. Mark’s that Jim Jensen fell ill on Saturday. We chatted for a moment and I was further moved by how, as Fr. Mark had written to me in an email, “It astonishes me how the internet seems so often to expand the circle of God’s love.”

A little while later I had the chance to meet another blogger, one who is anonymous on his blog, but who I have gotten the chance to know via email. That would be none other than +Clumber. He was very discreet and The Right Rev. Gladstone B. Adams III who is the Bishop of CNY did not even realize that another bishop was present! I love that kind of clerical humility, that is all I can say.

I am going to break this up into more than one post, so this one will close here; more to follow.

The Wordless Place Where Only Our Hearts Can Speak – Updated

I was writing about Roseann the other day, as she navigates the pathway towards death.

Death is the one inevitable thing we must all face.  I used to read the blog of an atheist (and I have no problem with atheists or atheism in general; just because I don’t agree, doesn’t mean I have to stop exchanging ideas or having discussions) who believed that death was a disease that could be cured. This person thought I was delusional. I thought that maybe they were. We all have our delusions, don’t we?

In any case, here we all are, praying for Roseann – and we are – not expecting death to come forth elsewhere.

Of course, it always does.

Yesterday, quite unexpectedly, the Very Rev. James M. Jensen died.  My heart goes out to Kathy, who blogs at Lady of Silences and to her entire family. There really are no words.

Yet I am reminded of what does bind us together, often in faith. This wordless place where only our hearts can speak.

Rest in peace Rev. Jensen. Peace, consolation and healing to his family and friends.

***Update: I neglected to add the tragic and sudden death of Terra Lyn Swinney to this post. Terra died when a gust of wind blew a tree onto her car last week.   She was 29 years old and the mother of a baby. Terra was a member of the community that Jane R. was working with last year.  Elizabeth also has a post up about this.

Show up. Pay attention. Speak your truth. Don’t be attached to the outcome. Forgive. That is the key to all.

Show up. Pay attention. Speak your truth. Don’t be attached to the outcome.

Forgive. That is the key to all.- Roseann Allen-Matthews

Roseann blogs at Give Peace A Chance, Please! I know Roseann from the community that formed at OCICBW and also at Wounded Bird. While I always followed what was going on with Roseann and her numerous health challenges that were so frequently outdone by her extremely positive nature, I was never in much contact with her. I don’t know why- no real reason.

However I did always want to know what was up and I always kept Roseann in my prayers.

What always struck me most was how fiercely she seemed to live her life but yet in such a freely surrendered manner.

There have been so many ups and downs over the course of these two years and I think that most people would not have made it as far as Roseann has.

Roseann always reminded me of my friend Cathy. Cathy also had kidney disease and like Roseann, had a distinct lack of them. Cathy was on dialysis for almost 30 years!

Cathy taught me a lot about life; I wrote about her recently for All Souls Day. She had a certain sort of detached determination that I would see glimpses of in Roseann’s postings.

Roseann is near the end. She is very peaceful about the whole thing. I find her whole attitude and outlook to be grace unleashed. It looks like her passing will be in a week or two and it will be very peaceful.

And I am much more emotional about this than I might have imagined, given my knowledge of but distance from Roseann’s life.

If you are a praying person, please pray for Roseann and also please pray for her beloved Gary. (Gary will not only lose his partner but has his own health challenges.) 
And please – listen to her words that are used in the title of this post and that I put here for you once more – she is onto something.

Show up. Pay attention. Speak your truth. Don’t be attached to the outcome. 

Forgive. That is the key to all. -Roseann Allen-Matthews

Go in peace Roseann.

All Souls Day – Remembering the Dead

NB: This post is a variation on something that I wrote for my parish blog.

On Monday November 2, we remember our beloved deceased on All Souls Day. Let us pray for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. We wait in joyful hope always, in prayer, in love and in community.

I think of the dead all the time. This does not always make me feel sad, it makes me feel comforted. Now I am not morbidly sitting around obsessed with the dead… No, I rather think of them in the Kingdom, freed from this mortal coil.

My mother had so much physical pain and I like to think of her as free from that. Whenever I see a blue jay I think of my mom and I think it may be her checking in on me! My father had so much emotional turmoil and I imagine that is not the case any longer.

My friends Darlene, Cathy and Suzanne did not know each other in life, but I am certain that they are connected on the other side.  I miss them terribly, but I never forget them.

When Darlene died, I was about 30 and she must have been 28. She was my first close friend to die and I took it terribly. That was almost 22 years ago and I never stop remembering our short but powerful friendship. I still have a collage that she made for me.

Cathy lived way longer than any doctor predicted. She was given a death sentence by her physician at 19. She looked him in the eye and told him that she had a baby daughter and that she had no intention of dying until her daughter graduated from high school. Cathy died at age 53, with her daughter married and settled in life. Cathy taught me so many things that I will never, ever forget.

Suzanne and I had a brief friendship but we grew close quickly. She was on the brink of really living life after a long period of stress when she died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances. The death could not be determined a homicide, but that is one theory. I was in Callistoga, CA when I heard of her death and I can recall exactly how I felt when I got the call and how I spent the rest of what was supposed to be a nice day.  I drank a lot of Red Zinfandel that night.

Last week my friend who lives in another state called me to catch up. He spoke of another friend who had been on a cruise and several people died on this cruise. The next day I got a call from another friend, living in California. He told me that a mutual friend of ours had died. On a cruise. I soon figured out that I knew two people on that cruise ship and one of them did not get off alive.

I will think of my friend who died on the cruise and remember him too.

Death is sad but it is also a part of life. Sometimes people think I am unfeeling or obsessed with death in some other way, but I accept it in a particular way. Ask me how I feel however when someone close to me goes… That will be another story, won’t it.

I miss my funeral ministry, but I do get to work on a lot of funerals at my job. Last week Father was away and I spent time with a family who had just suffered a loss. It fell upon me to help them plan the funeral liturgy for their beloved one. What a privilege, what a grace.

Who have you lost that touches you in a particular way? How do you remember them?

Please leave your prayers for the dead along with their names in the comments if you wish. Let us all pray for those who have gone before us on this day and always.

From the Preface for Christian Death I: [The hope of rising in Christ]

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In him, who rose from the dead,
our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way
to the bright promise of immortality.

Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.

And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven
we proclaim your glory
and join in their unending hymn of praise:

Holy, holy, holy Lord…