Friday, July 16, 2010

Do Not Go Gently

I wrote this during Lent — when I reread it today, I just felt like there was someone out there who needed to read it, too.

During the eight years I served a small country church in Kansas, I did a lot of funerals. During one six-month period, there were seventeen.

Each funeral was different—once I presided with a priest at the local Catholic Church. That funeral had the rich smell of incense, the sweetness of bells, the familiar words of Mass. My first service at the local mortuary chapel had favorite old hymns and bouquets of wheat and sunflowers, the deceased with the look of a dedicated farmer even there in that place. A service for an elderly man I’d never met had the delightful gift of a piano concerto from a teenaged grandson, his fingers rippling across the keys, and once three young girls said goodbye to their grandma with sweet high voices singing “Jesus loves you, this I know.”

But those solemn services were alike, too—music, stories, an unexpected and painful kind of joy, the kind that comes from sharing treasured memories that will live on as long as there is one person to tell them. And of course, sadness, deep sadness that closes the throat and brings tears long after you think you have no more tears to cry.

And, the hard thing is, life does go on—even in the midst of planning a service, choosing a casket, of writing thank you notes, life goes on. A little girl’s voice calls you away from your tasks, “Grandma, Grandma…” and you go, knowing that this too is a precious and holy moment that will quickly pass and be gone.

Or you force yourself to fix breakfast, breakfast for one, and sitting at the table, your toast growing cold, you sip dark coffee. Suddenly there’s a bird on the windowsill hopping brightly back and forth, peering at you with a shiny dark eye. You step outside to get the paper. The air is fresh and cold and the old dog comes to lean against you, hoping you might stop to rub his ears while he groans with pleasure.

The days pass pretty much like always and that is the way of things, the way of life. I think of the people, the families I spent so much time with in those days. I held them in my heart and in my prayers as they went through these first months. Know, too, that God holds you, each of you who has lost someone, whether recently, or years past, because though it becomes easier, there is always that sad, sore spot in your heart that never quite goes away. I know that spot well. Sometimes it’s strangely comforting when I feel it, remembering dear ones who at that moment are as clear in my memory as if I’d seen them only yesterday.

Perhaps it’s the season that has me thinking of death and loss. In these weeks as I ride over West Side Road to the church, there are enormous oak trees that stand stark and leafless against the sky. The vineyards are bare, the workers hunched in the cold as they prune back the vines. As I write, the temperature has dropped and heavy, slushy flakes fall outside the window.

But sitting in the recliner this morning drinking my coffee and finishing the Sunday paper, something caught my eye—rosy buds on bare limbs, dark and velvet soft, the flowering quince outside the front window. My first thought was that it was too soon, that they will only perish in the next hard rain that is sure to come. But still I am cheered by the thought of them there, waiting to burst forth into bloom, waiting to announce that winter has once again moved on, that the cycle goes on, life goes on.

Lent is almost upon us, the season that seems harsh and spare, the time when we are called to look within, called to question what is going on in our minds and hearts, what is going on in our life of faith. We prepare for Easter by preparing for death, for loss. Then I think about Jesus’ teachings and I wonder. Is that what he taught? It seems to me that until the end, Jesus lived life to the fullest. What did he do the night before he died, the night scholars say he knew well that the cross was waiting? He ate dinner with his friends, he drank wine and told stories, he called them together to say one last time, “I love you… I love you.” And even Judas sat at that table.

I think of the Dylan Thomas poem, the words,

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

We don’t get a guarantee of time—a year, twenty, four score and ten—all we get is the opportunity to live life to the fullest as long as we can, until the very last moment, the very last breath. When we hold back, when we refuse to give our best, that’s the sin, the shame.

Winter and Lent—time to slow down a bit, time to think of what’s going on, what’s coming, where life’s going; time to look forward to the change spring will surely bring. I pray that whatever the season, whatever the circumstances, we each find it within us to refuse to live halfway, to refuse to live anxiously, tentatively stepping through our days. No, it is far better to rage…to rage against the dying of the light wherever we are… sometimes that’s all that keeps the darkness away.

Blessings to you and may your days be filled with grace, Pam