I caught the shade of a large tree as I waited for people to arrive at the cemetery. A gentle breeze blew through the branches of the oak. We gathered on the sunny July morning to commit my mother to her grave. Her sister and brothers and their spouses sat in the folding chairs near the large hole in the earth. Large bouquets of white flowers were propped up against the casket waiting for us to say goodbye. My stoic body straddled the green artificial turf covering the mound of dirt that created the opening for my mother’s grave.
The warm breeze felt refreshing after wearing heavy vestments during the funeral at the church some miles away. The moment caught me in a loneliness that I will never forget. Here, in this time and place, this cemetery, I had to say a last goodbye to my mother, the person who birthed me into the world.
After praying the rite of committal, we all waved to my mother with both hands. This was a gesture she used in all her goodbyes. I stood silently in this solemn moment that connected heaven and earth. I tried to feel the light breeze on my skin, the fake grass under my feet, and the ancient prayer book in my hands. I absorbed the vision of her siblings’ aching faces and the empty expressions of my brother and his family.
In that quiet second, something amazing happened. An African-American woman wearing a bright red dress darted up to me. She grasped my right hand and took my arm to her breast. Looking me in the eyes, she told me that she was a seer. She whispered in the breeze that she felt my mother’s passing. Holding tight to my arm, she told me that my mother told her two things to pass on to me.
The stranger told me that my mother enjoyed the white flowers, but she preferred pink ones. She then bent even closer to my face and said that my mother wants me to persevere in my priesthood. The strong-gripped sage told me that I did not need to know her name or anything about her. She let go of my arm and drifted into the crowd, got into her car and drove out of the cemetery.
I could not believe my ears or my eyes. No one overheard that she felt my mom’s passing and no other mourner experienced her grip or felt her words. When I arrived at the luncheon after the services I asked everyone if they knew the red-dressed guest. My relatives and friends assumed she was another friend of mine especially after hearing her sing during the rite of committal.
I reminisce about my experience in light of the gospels proclaimed during the last weeks of our liturgical year. As I look back on that sacred moment, I feel deeply the promise of Paradise. Standing on artificial grass that morning I experienced the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth. The line between this world and the next blurred with the words of a stranger. I never try to guess the sage’s identity or wonder from where she came. I take her at her words. I want to live in the mystery that I do not have all the answers nor can I control how the end of life will take place.
Standing under the shade tree at the cemetery also takes me to the time of Zacchaeus risking his life climbing a tree to glimpse Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells Zacchaeus he wants to stay at his home. On that July morning, I felt the invitation of Jesus to feel the shade of the oak and know that all of life was in his hands. I believe on that sunny morning salvation came to our family’s house.
I felt the humility of the tax collector praying in the temple. He humbled himself and was exalted. He knew his place in prayer in light of his life and sinfulness. Leading my mother’s funeral was indeed a humbling experience, especially hearing the red-dressed woman remind me to persevere in priesthood in good times and bad. Her words were especially humbling knowing that they reflected my mother’s intentions.
I do not know the real identity of the woman at the cemetery or the legitimacy of her words. However, I do know I always sent my mother white flowers, but in fact her favorite color was pink. I always felt my mother’s support and love in my priesthood when she was alive, even on days when I wanted to give up. In these November days, I carry myself back to the moment under the shade tree and remain grateful for my mother and my conversation with a red-dressed stranger.Albert John Raab, Jr., Ronald Patrick Raab, C.S.C., Bishop William McManus, Rosemary Raab