We remember our dead in the month of November. Twenty-five years ago today, my mentor died whom I mention in this article from 2008.
Originally published in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, September 2008
The autumn sun burns most deeply into my room. Every year the hours of daylight shorten but the rays of sunlight lengthen to stretch beyond the windowsill to the crystal vase on my bookshelf. My mother passed down the crystal heirloom to me when my grandmother died. The first arms of this light bring back fond memories of my grandmother and now my parents as well. I see my past more clearly every year when the crystal seduces the sun.
The soft light so often surprises me because I always forget it will appear again. When I finally settle into the memories, the late autumn light also brings the darkness of my loneliness and the reminder of the rapid pace of my adult life.
I first noticed the friendship of the sun and the crystal when my spiritual mentor, Richard, told me he had AIDS. He sat at the piano bathed in this light and for the first time could not play Mozart because of his dizziness. This light cracked open a new experience for me of delicate conversations with a dear friend who was dismantling his relationships, discovering a soulful and physical dying. The devastating news wore in me a new place of vulnerability and fear.
A year after sitting at the silent piano, he died. I preached his funeral in autumn after sunset. The roles of friendship reversed that final year. I mentored Richard through extreme physical suffering and letting go of all life. Now every year, I begin to fear the earthly change of cold air, shorter days, and the autumn memories of all the dead. I frolic in reminiscences like a lost child in a pile of fallen leaves. I feel the cold regrets and pray through the emptiness.
This autumn ritual catches me off guard. Yet, my body senses every year the deep experiences of all the loss in my life. No one autumn contains all my fear. No one crystal vase receives every regret or memory. Grief lives within the confines of our earthly life forever. The human heart calls for this flow of ritual, the current of memories, and the natural course of sorrow to find healing.
Every parish community in autumn must prepare people to feel their grief and connect their memories to faith. There is no way around death. We must find new ways to ritualize what is most common, the fear of loss. We must sort out ways to help people ritualize within in their own families and circles of friends the grief that keeps us numb to new ways of relating to people.
Death keeps every community honest. However, we must risk telling the truth about life. Naming real issues and celebrating loss breaks through much of the narcissism and pretense that strangles most communities of faith. This truth cuts into our natural instincts of thinking that money, power, education and fear create community.
These are the days to create this awareness of loss. Gather grief counselors, professional spiritual directors and liturgists from your assembly to facilitate discussions for parish staffs and liturgy committees on death and grieving. When we build a network of openness and honesty about what is most important, a new vital energy emerges to help people deal with sudden grief, sustained depression and the release of anger.
Create forums where the Gospels ignite genuine discussions in preparation for homilies during the months ending the liturgical year. Connect elderly people in the parish and school parents by creating opportunities to pray in silence for the dead. Instruct school age children to write follow-up letters to grieving families a month after losing a loved one in death. Suggest that volunteering among the poor is a way for every family member to memorialize a loved one. Create an opportunity in the church lobby for parishioners to write down not only names of the dead but how they grieve them at home and with family members. Organize discussions and name rituals for home reminders that grief needs to be ritualized within everyday experiences.
Ritualizing our grief comes in the everyday awareness of living life. Members of our communities need the assurance that they are not alone in the simple ways grief becomes articulated and lived. We need to live an honest life to lovingly grieve other people’s death. I wait for this autumn, when I will be reminded of those I love in death, when the sun shines on the crystal again.