I think God is doing marvelous things all the time. I also think we often don’t even notice them. Recently, I had one of those rare, perfect moments of clarity when I absolutely noticed.
My life coach had been encouraging me to find a way to “actively grieve.” He explained that it might be healthy for me to pick a day to just concentrate on allowing myself to feel the difficult emotions related to my brother’s death. He suggested that it is easy to hide those emotions away in some toxic part of my heart when I am running around bobbing and weaving through the normal activities of everyday life. The idea had merit. The idea of planned and scheduled grieving appealed to me. Of course. I wanted to try it, but my calendar was pretty full. I wanted to try active grieving but could not figure out how I was going to squeeze it into my already crammed schedule.
Right after this conversation with my life coach, God did one of those marvelous things.
The three local Episcopal parishes were holding an All Souls’ Day evening service at the church in Eustis- about fifteen miles from where I live. My pastor was going to give the sermon. I had been debating about going but decided to attend for two reasons: to support my pastor and to hear what he had to say at an All Souls’ Day sermon. I have a logical and theological conundrum with the idea of praying for the dead. If they are dead, surely their fate is decided and do not need our prayers? I understood the concept from my life as a Roman Catholic because the Roman Church has the doctrine of purgatory. The doctrine of purgatory seems to me to be a scriptural stretch. If I had to guess, I’d say God probably takes care of the “purgatory process” while the person is still breathing. I am not so sure this “purgatory process” is about punishment or even purification in the sense of making us “good enough.” I think it might be more about the person coming to a regretless and joyful feeling of readiness in body and soul to leave this life. I trust that God has some elegant, perfect way of sorting all this out, so I have never worried too much about it. Determining how God works out the whole balance between justice, love, and mercy is way above my pay grade.
At any rate, if one believes that there is an actual place or state of purgatory where people go after they die, as the Roman Catholics do, it makes sense to pray for those people. However, Protestants do not subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, so I was interested to observe how Episcopalians experience All Souls’ Day.
The main point here is that I went to the service to be supportive and to benefit intellectually. I did not go to the service with the intention of grieving. As improbable and clueless as it sounds, it never occurred to me that I was going to have any sort of personal emotional experience.
When I arrived at the church and perused the Order of Worship, it was clear that the service was more about healing the grief of those of us who are still living than praying for the deceased. There was a candle-lighting service, recitation of the names of the lost, individual anointing for those of us who are mourning, communion, and an opportunity for individuals to talk with clergy afterwards if difficult emotions bubbled up during the service. My pastor’s sermon was about the relationship between sorrow and hope… the gift of learning just how much we need and rely on hope when we experience grief.
The whole thing was a bit “high churchy,” which is usually not my “go to” worship. Even when I was a Roman Catholic, high mass did not speak passionately to me. I can and do appreciate the beauty in observing a formally, poetically crafted liturgy the way one appreciates a painting in a museum. It never felt like an active, experiential worship immersion for me, though. However, the formal, somber tone of the liturgy on All Souls’ Day was absolutely perfect. Maybe for the first time, I experienced “leaning in” to that sort of worship experience. I was no longer looking at the picture on the wall. I followed willingly as the Holy Spirit led me into it.
Actually, everything about the evening was absolutely perfect.
The lighting in the church was very low. Candles provided almost all the illumination. There were only about thirty-five people in the pews, so I did not feel a lot of energy coming from other people. The mood was somber and respectful. It was like my very own interior, homogenous, private experience even though it was a public forum. I was not picking up on other people’s divergent emotions at all, even though I am usually finely attuned to other people’s moods. I noticed that I regularly closed my eyes unconsciously and simply listened, focusing on what I was hearing in an almost meditative way.
Before the service, ushers asked us to print the names of the people we wanted to remember in prayer. In this type of situation, I usually list all my relatives and all Max’s relatives who have passed from this life. This time, I listed only the names of my father, mother, and brother. It was instinctive. It was something I had to do just for me.
When the pastor read the names- Ernest Goodness, Dorothy Goodness, and Ernie Goodness- I felt this intense pain inside of me. It screamed, “You left me. You all went away and left me all alone.” I could almost see them together- happy, without conflict or brokenness- watching me. I needed a hug desperately- I needed touch. As it happened, I ended up kneeling at the communion rail right next to my pastor’s wife. We were shoulder to shoulder. Without my even asking, she reached her arm around me and hugged me. It felt so good.
The sermon, which I expected to enlighten me theologically did nothing of the sort. My pastor did not even really talk about the concept of “praying for the dead.” Instead, he talked about grief. As I listened, I experienced some feelings that have come up inside me regularly. I have struggled to describe them. My pastor’s words helped me to understand. I felt somehow small and innocent, enrobed in a strange kind of purity- like the bedraggled psyche I usually carry around with me was fresh and clean. I also felt lost and alone in the dark- vulnerable. It was a weird combination of despair and hope steeping in a stew of acceptance. It occurred to me that perhaps this emotional state is what it feels like to let go of the past and start exploring the future with a new frame of mind.
Tears oozed out of my eyes periodically throughout the service. The organizers of the event were clearly much more aware of the purpose of the event than I was. They provided boxes of Kleenex at the end of every other pew. Since I was not expecting emotion (improbable, clueless, etc.), I did not come prepared with tissues. I gratefully pulled a generous handful of Kleenex out of one of the boxes as I got in line to light my candle. I used them all throughout the evening. As I walked to the altar to light a candle in memory of my father, mother, and brother, I noticed that one candle lit by someone before me had gone out. I reached over and relit it. I found that action inexplicably satisfying and calming.
As I write this, I am not sure how to stop. This experience has embedded itself in my soul and I doubt I will soon forget it. I think I may be having trouble ending this story because the experience has not ended. It is still living inside me, as, I am sure, my father, mother, and brother are. The experience continues because grief continues. My gratitude to God for giving me this perfect evening continues because my walk with God continues. My confusion and chaos continue, even if a gossamer blanket of grace now covers it, because life and death are confusing and chaotic. Someday, I will join my family where there is no confusion and chaos. Until then, I am clinging to that gossamer blanket of grace.
Have you ever experienced one of those rare moments of clarity when you are sure you have seen God do something marvelous? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a reflective day!