"In Absentia: Relationship With Those Gone Before"
When I was little, I believed in ghosts. I still do in a way in that I am comfortable with the possibility of ghosts, and I talk respectfully about them just in case there is something or someone listening. We talk about our church ghosts around here a lot: our "saints gone before" -- those people known either in person or through our shared history whose presence we still feel acutely, and whose concerns and tasks we have taken on as our own.
When I was little I used to wish to really see a ghost. I read in a book on witchcraft that if you put your face up real close to a dog or cat' s ears and look between them, you can see real ghosts. I would sit for long minutes cuddled up to our golden retriever, Pippin, looking for ghosts while she napped on my bed. I do it to the cat sometimes, even today. I' ve never seen a ghost, but the cat seems to like it.
What are children looking for when they seek communion with the spirits? What is a middle-aged minister looking for? Or any of us? A sign from the other side that everything is going to be alright? Maybe. Evidence of the immortality of the spirit? Probably. I think most of all we just want to see our beloved dead again, smell their perfume, hear their voices, even in phantom form. We, who are so invested in life, who cling so passionately to it, cannot imagine how we are translated to spirit after our death. We seem to have been designed not to know; we seem to have been intentionally created with this limit to our understanding. We, such intellectually hungry children of the Cosmos, keep running up against this one thing we simply DO NOT KNOW. Century unto century, with all that we do come to understand, we have yet to know the first thing about that realm beyond this life. Why not, then, envision our spirit being as similar to our living being? Why not? -- just transparent, and maybe with wings?
"When I was a child, I spoke as a child," wrote Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. "I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things." Part of the most difficult and dreadful spiritual issues adults have to deal with in our faith development is coming up against the absolutely inscrutable mystery of the nature of death. It is so very, very hard for humans especially intellectually-curious humans to deal with the existential reality that when it comes to death, we just don' t know. We only have glimpses, guesses, intuitions and intimations. Every culture around the world has its own guesses. When it comes to death we are all children wondering what' s behind that door.
We may think it' s a childish thing, looking for ghosts through a cat' s ears. There is the story of a minister who had some congregants come to him for permission to bring in a medium (a psychic) and to hold a séance in the big cemetery adjoining the church property (as our does). They wanted to seek the advice of their departed relative on a financial matter. The minister refused permission. "We' re Christians," he said, "And we don' t believe in stuff like that."
I wondered, when I read this, what I would say if I ever received such a request. (Probably "Go ahead! Let me know what happens!") But then it occurred to me that we are always communing with the spirits around here, actually, and with one in particular. How many times have you heard it said of our benefactress Helen Fogg, "Helen would have definitely supported that" or "I can' t think that Helen would have wanted her money spent on something like that." The thing is, if we put ourselves in touch with the living spirit of a loved one who has died, we won' t feel such a need for a medium to tell us what they would have said. If we really focus on pulling them close to us if we fill our hearts with them we will do a pretty good job knowing what they would have said. No need for psychics there.
We do not know what lies beyond, in that far country beyond life. What we do know what we know for sure is that life is a thing made of memory and love as much as it is made of anything, and that, as the poet May Sarton writes, "memory makes kings and queens of us." In her poem, which I often read at memorial services, she says,
What has been once so interwoven
cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven.
Now the dead move through all of us
What has been plaited cannot
only the strands grow richer
with each loss.
And memory makes kings and queens
How much interaction did you have with the dead today? I don' t mean in some supernatural way, I mean in the ordinary way that we have relationship, inspiration and affiliation with the dead.
Did we not awake this morning and turn on a light invented by a man whose bones are dust by now? The houses many of us inhabit were built by those whose lives are long finished. You bend to tie your shoes and how did you learn it? From a woman long departed from her body, leaving you all manner of practical wisdom. You turned on the radio and started your day with music by Schubert or Chopin or Elvis or Judy Garland or Kurt Cobain or Shirley Horn -- all ancestor spirits by now, all passed beyond the worries of the human struggle and they gave you their spirit right through the radio or CD player. You tuck a hankie into your pocket that belonged to your friend Jessica' s great-great-aunt Florence -- long gone, but there caring for you in some gentle way.
The books we read, the beauty we find in poetry, the heart-strength we find through stories, fables, legends, the cinema almost all passed along, crafted, given to us by previous generations. And yet we fear death, we stand together shivering in its presence as though it is something foreign, something to be dreaded, something that leaves us alone and forsaken. Death does no such thing. We are never alone and forsaken. We are not the only ones who have to travel that quiet valley, we are one of everyone who does. We walk always in good company with all the mortals who have gone before, and whose fears and worries were just about identical to our own. What has been so woven cannot be unwoven.
I have always respected and admired religious traditions that pay specific homage to the ancestor spirits, for those practices normalize what is a truth for all of us : with every thing we do, we are dancing with the dead. There is nothing exotic about this. Oh sure, Hollywood and novels and poetry will try to tell you otherwise, filling all our heads with dramatic tales of hauntings and wispy figures appearing at the stroke of midnight, and old friends or fathers showing up all powdery white and clanking chains (I am thinking of Hamlet' s father and Scrooge' s Marley), but our relationship to the dead is so ordinary it' s as common as your morning oatmeal.
This is not an earth-shaking message, this simple reminder that the dead are around us and that our lives are naturally and eternally intertwined, plaited, interwoven. But this All Soul' s weekend we don' t need earthshaking messages, do we -- for haven' t we had enough actual earth-shaking lately? Haven' t we had enough dramatic destruction that brings death and grieving to too many of the Earth' s children? We have indeed. May we hold faith this hour that they rest in the peace that passeth understanding; a bliss that awaits us all.
I will close with these words from our Minister Emeritus, the Reverend Richard Fewkes. Dick writes,
"On All Souls, we remember our beloved dead not as ghosts who haunt, though haunt our imaginations they may do, but as members of the Beloved Community, whose precious life is Life of our life, Soul of our soul, Heart of our hearts, lingering thought of our minds. We count up the treasures they have left gifts of life, and love and wisdom and consecrate them to our continued use and progress, that we in turn may add them to the ever-growing treasures of the common life."
May we extend our beloved community today outside the boundaries of our own church and out into the world. Please gather around the sanctuary to form our Circle of Remembrance, taking your Orders of Service with you.