WEARING OUT OUR SHROUDS

November 3, 2002
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


"Immortality's happiness is to be realized only through our own struggles with ourselves, only through our own reaching forward to new virtue and piety."

In past centuries in our churches, it was a sign of a minister's religious integrity if he could preach without notes, from the Holy Spirit. Congregations would sit as you are sitting now, patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit to give their minister words that would minister to them. I have always wondered what happened if the Holy Spirit never showed up.

These days most preachers await the Holy Spirit at our computers and word processors. I was aware over the past few days at how silent the inner voice of spirit was in regard to this topic, this Big One.

I have spent the past week at a Carmelite monastery in Canada, and there was a lot of silence there. The Carmelites have a ministry of prayerful silence, and while I was learning about the arts of spiritual direction, I was also learning how much silence can teach us. But as we are not Quakers or contemplative Catholics, I have prepared some remarks for this occasion; all with the understanding that many of these things are best realized in a shared silence. So I encourage you to seek out that silence at some point today, and listen to your soul and to what God may be saying to you.

It's the damndest thing, death. Like the proverbial "elephant in the living room" - the metaphor for the carefully avoided Something that we don't wish to look at it, but which is terribly much present, death is the biggest elephant of all. It's the darndest, biggest elephant, death. And it's the most blessed thing, mortality. Would you really want to live forever? If you had the chance for immortality, would you really take it?

I had a roommate once who truly wanted to be a vampire for the chance at eternal life. We argued about this after having seen "Interview With a Vampire." "No, you wouldn't want to live forever," I said. He insisted he did, and not just for the great wardrobe. "Well then, you must have an incredible ego," I thought. Or perhaps, in the style of William Ellery Channing, he considered eternal mortal life an opportunity to perfect his character; something that Channing and other earlier Unitarians believed happened for us in soul form after death. At any rate, there isn't one human being who has ever existed that I would nominate for eternal physical life. That would utterly destroy their singularity and preciousness. But beyond that, my roommate's fervent wish seemed to me blasphemous or just plain spiritually wrong. We're not meant to last forever. We're not intended for it and we're not designed that way. We're intended to live a story that has a beginning - and an end.

Consider your favorite novel. Would it have any meaning if it went on and on and you could never close the book? How radically out of sync with the natural world we would be if we did not, like all other living creatures, have our season and then our demise, leaving room for new life to rise in our place. What is lasting about us is not our bodies, but rather the regard the living continue to hold for us after we are gone; and it is possible that some earn their eternity in this way.

The other night in Canada, I attended a worship service in a chapel that holds a relic of St. Therese of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun who lived in the 19th century. I am fond of Therese, who is also known as the "Little Flower." I find her to be a good instructor of spiritual truths and I think she was an adorable person (in the sense of being worthy of adoring). But that's not what makes her a saint. What makes her a saint in my book is not any of the things that the Catholic Church in Rome require for canonization: three miracles and appropriate suffering and the like. What makes her a saint to me is her sincere vow to be with the living always, even beyond death. "I will spend my heaven doing good on earth," she said.

That millions of people think she is, in fact, doing just that is a testament to the power of her promise and the success of her vocation. Therese was such a non-achiever in her monastery that her sister, also a nun, cried out when she died, "What are we going to write in the obituary? She didn't do anything!" No, Therese didn't do anything in terms of our usual competitive definition of "anything." What she did was live purely and with single-minded devotion to perfect love, and she lived on after her death (she died a terrible death from tuberculosis at the age of 24) in ways that I don't think we can attribute to mere superstition or folklore.

The Protestant church did away with veneration of the saints way back in the Reformation era, and I've been a little bit sorry ever since. The saints are often neurotic and their stories are disturbing and violent, but looking beyond the horrid martyrdoms and other bizarre details of their lives, they are men and women who spent their lives making sure that their love would outlast their mortality. And I can appreciate that kind of devotion.

This kind of devotion was what Jesus was expressing when he said, in so many ways to his disciples, "I am with you always." This vow to love is what the Boddhisatvas are about – those blessed and enlightened ones of Buddhist tradition who postpone their own entrance to the blissful non-being of Nirvana - and are reincarnated in human form so they can bring compassionate Buddha nature to the world.

Most of us are not called to that level of sainthood, but we do achieve it in less dramatic ways. Those whom we love and who influence us achieve it, and that is why we grieve their passing. They are with us always because of the immortal character of their love. We are called, in turn, to live in such a way that others would desire us to be with them always. We are called today, on All Saints Day, to recognize that we are creating our own immortality in our actions of today.

A dear friend and I were talking about the afterlife recently. I had asked him if he believed that anything of the personality survived in the afterlife, or did we completely absorb into the blissful unity of God, as I have tended to think. "I have faith," he said, "that I'll see you in heaven. We will know each other. I believe that God loves us in our individuality and something of it survives after death." I cried not because I necessarily share his vision, but because he loves me well enough to include me in his heaven. He thinks I will be there in his eternity, somehow recognizable. That is heaven enough for me right now.

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn, as Mary Oliver writes, I am glad that I will have a fat little envelope on file in this church to let everyone know what I want them to do for me. It's perhaps the control freak in me that likes to update my funeral and burial wishes every couple of years, but it is also the minister in me. I love my family and my community too much to make them guess what I would want done after my death, knowing that they'll have enough to deal with at that time, and that they will be tired from grief.

Also, I don't want anyone to choose all the wrong hymns for my memorial service, or to forget to read that Mary Oliver poem we just heard. If you would like to fill out your own Life Crisis File, and I hope you will (whether or not you file it in the church office), you may find these forms on the altar today, along with a brochure about our Memorial Garden.

By now, I have been present at a number of deaths. It is a profound privilege to be able to be one of the few allowed in the room at this sacred moment of ultimate transition, and of course these events have greatly affected me. I am constantly astonished by how natural an act death is, and constantly saddened at how avoided and dreaded a topic it is. It strikes me as incredibly strange that we so carefully avoid speaking of the one thing that is certain we shall all do one day.

I have asked around about this. Why is it that it seems somehow rude to talk about death? Why is it a subject we tiptoe so carefully around? On one hand, I appreciate that in a world where hardly anything is sacred anymore, death still is. When we speak of death we walk on holy ground. I hope we never lose that sense of awe. But on a practical level, death is a certainty for every one of us, and yet there is no class that I know of, and not many books or teachers, that guide is in how to do it well. The Hemlock Society may help us address issues of dying with dignity, and hospitals and attorney's offices may have helpful forms to help us determine what will happen to our worldly goods when we are gone. But what of the rest, the infinitely more important issues that accompany death? That, I have concluded, is a central function of the church, the mosque, the synagogue, ashram and temple.

If spiritual preparation for the reality of death isn't a key ministry of the religious institutions, where else will we have the opportunity to explore this enormous truth? Death is going more and more out of our sight and out of our homes and more and more into the invisibility of the hospital, nursing homes and hospices. That's a shame, and a loss to us all. So please know that this church, in celebrating all of the rites of passage, can also provide a respectful and non-anxious place for you to bring your concerns and questions about end-of-life issues. Was it Benjamin Franklin who said that death and taxes were the two certainties? Well, we won't do taxes for you but we should certainly be helpful regarding that other certainty.

Mary Moody Emerson was a powerhouse, brilliant woman of her age. If you have read and liked any of the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, you have read and liked the ideas of his Aunt Mary, whose influence on him was tremendous. His works are full of her direct quotes (unattributed, of course). Miss Emerson was a singular woman but also a product of her age, an era of romantic ideals about mourning and consolation, and she was a Puritan who looked to the next world for transcendence and purification by God's grace.

Mary wore her shroud out traveling, to the church meeting house, and her nephew Waldo casually mentions in his diary in 1847 that "MME went out to ride horseback in her shroud."

It is that last image that captivates me. We could certainly see it as a morbid image, or evidence of one woman's flair for drama and attention-getting. And we could dismiss Mary as an eccentric. Or we could consider the sense of humor, of wisdom and of balance invoked by this woman flying across a field on horseback, comfortably wrapped in a white, woolen garment, silently proclaiming that she belongs not only to this moment of physical presence, but to eternity.

"Did someone say that there would be an end, an end, oh an end, to love and mourning?" asked the poet May Sarton. No, we answer, not likely. There will be an end to mourning when there is an end to loving, and that's not a world any of us could live in. "What has been once so interwoven cannot be [un]raveled, nor the gift ungiven." continues the poet. "What has been plaited cannot be unplaited - only the strands grow richer with each loss, and memory makes kings and queens of us."

Kings and queens we are, in memory and in the love that exists among the living, and which is woven between us and those who dwell among us only in spirit. In this hour we weave the strands ever more closely together and call into our circle of faith our friends and loved ones of blessed memory.

[The congregation is invited to join in a circle around the sanctuary for the Ritual of Remembrance]