“Saint John Chrysostom says in one of his writings that the terrible thing is, when someone dies, that we look at the person whom we loved and say, ‘And yet, I have been unable to love him, love her to perfection.’ But then we must remember that life does not cease with death, that life continues, that for God all are alive, and that our mutual love and our mutual power to forgive go beyond the grave and beyond time. This is what Father Lev Gillet called a certainty of hope.”
My whole church is bereaved, because one of our strong young men, the only son of his parents, grown up for 35 years in the parish, suddenly sickened and died. It happened so fast, it seems unreal to us. This morning I attended a prayer service in advance of the funeral proper.
One of the lines that is repeated in song is, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord; teach me Thy statutes,” and I mused on what God might be teaching me right now. Certainly, we should all “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” But I don’t want to forget something else that our rector reminded us of, at the end of the service, that even in our grief we have joy, knowing that Christ has overcome death — that’s why we could pray that our brother will be granted rest “with the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”
Every time there is another death or funeral, my own soul’s griefs are awakened, acknowledged and comforted. And our pastor also kindly included in our church bulletin today an encouraging passage (an excerpt from this article) from Father Alexander Schmemann. He starts out explaining why death must be understood as an evil enemy. But keep reading:
God created man with a body and soul, i.e. at once both spiritual and material, and it is precisely this union of spirit, soul and body that is called man in the Bible and in the Gospel. Man, as created by God, is an animate body and an incarnate spirit, and for that reason any separation of them, and not only the final separation, in death, but even before death, any violation of that union is evil. It is a spiritual catastrophe. From this we receive our belief in the salvation of the world through the incarnate God, i.e. again, above all, our belief in His acceptance of flesh and body, not “body-like,” but a body in the fullest sense of the word: a body that needs food, that tires and that suffers. Thus that which in the Scriptures is called life, that life, which above all consists of the human body animated by the spirit and of the spirit made flesh, comes to an end — at death — in the separation of soul and body. No, man does not disappear in death, for creation may not destroy that which God has called from nothingness into being. But man is plunged into death, into the darkness of lifelessness and debility. He, as the Apostle Paul says, is given over to destruction and ruin.
Here, I would once more like to repeat and emphasize that God did not create the world for this separation, dying, ruin and corruption. And for this reason the Christian Gospel proclaims that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The Resurrection is the recreation of the world in its original beauty and totality. It is the complete spiritualization of matter and the complete incarnation of the spirit in God’s creation. The world has been given to man as his life, and for this reason, according to our Christian Orthodox teaching, God will not annihilate it but will transfigure it into “a new heaven and a new earth,” into man’s spiritual body, into the temple of God’s presence and God’s glory in creation.
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” And that destruction, that extermination of death began when the Son of God Himself in His immortal love for us voluntarily descended into death and its darkness, filling its despair and horror with His light and love. And this is why we sing on Pascha not only “Christ is risen from the dead,” but also “trampling down death by death…”
He alone arose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality. Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of the universal resurrection. “The dead shall arise, and those in the tombs will sing for joy…” Christ is risen, and life abides, life lives… That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: “And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures.” According to the Scriptures, i.e. in accordance with that knowledge of life, with that design for the world and humanity, for the soul and body, for the spirit and matter, for life and death, which has been revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. This is the entire faith, the entire love, and the entire hope of Christianity. And this is why the Apostle Paul says, “If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.”
–Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, 1980,
Translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent
From where I sit at my computer I can’t see the vast expanse of naked hard dirt that makes up most of my back yard now. All I can see is an unchanged view which includes the manzanita, and the conifer branches hanging above the fence.
The Landscape Ladies said that my manzanita is a nice shrub and worth keeping. That has been a very comforting word for me to play over in my mind, as I wait for something material (I wrote “concrete” first, but I have had quite enough of concrete for a while.) to be created in the yard. It means that I succeeded in pruning it in such a way that it kept its natural twisty shape.
The last few days I have been feeling unsettled more than my usual, excepting the splendid day when Soldier and Joy and the little boys came over and my capable and willing son did so many handyman things. He helped me prune the strawberry bush into a tree shape.
I read stories to Liam, and a visit to the world of Benjamin Bunny with him snuggled against my chest was the most nurturing activity – for the grandma! I actually cooked that day, too; I baked a frittata. Joy brought a peach pie, and I am heating the last slice in the oven as I type, for my dinner. Having friends J&C around for a couple of weeks has been good; C. is a professional nutritionist — how convenient, eh? — who cooks healthy things, and they have been modeling for me the kind of cooking-and-eating behavior I hope to learn again.
For several nights I haven’t been sleeping soundly. Today marks five months of widowhood, and I attended the funeral of a man in my parish, and felt that I was keeping a memorial to my husband at the same time, so that was good, but heavy.
I drove the grandfather of little Mary my god-daughter home after the reception, and that put me in the neighborhood of my favorite thrift store. I went in and tried on a few things, but it was too stressful somehow. I didn’t have the emotional energy. Trader Joe’s is also in that neighborhood so I stopped by there…buying food is more soothing, right? After loading my groceries into the car I sat in it and phoned some friends who want me to come for lunch soon, and I told them I can’t do it this week, because I am “in a slump.” They are people who want to love me, but they are too needy themselves and don’t know how they drain me instead.
On the recommendation of a blogging friend, I am reading Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss by Sameet M. Kumar, a book that tells me to pay attention to what is going on and not to try to escape it. A quote: “Like suffering and grief, resilience — which means having the elasticity and buoyancy to recover from the experience of enduring suffering and pain — may also be a part of the natural order.”
As long as the speed of resilience we are talking about is along the lines of a memory foam pillow, and not a foursquare ball, I think I can believe in it. And I trust it is a natural thing, or at least a supernatural thing….in any case, I can’t make myself “bounce back,” if I even wanted to, which I don’t. There is no getting back to Before, anyway.
Kumar writes, “Mindfulness can help you get reacquainted with the vast potential of each moment of your life — it is the antidote to the endless waiting for tomorrow.” This attitude is what I learn from Orthodoxy, to be present with God all the time, everywhere. Now that is potential! But for now, being present in the moment means accepting my grief, and accepting that my emotional resources are fairly used up by this kind of activity. As the author says, “…come in full contact with yourself and learn to ride the waves of grief.”
Working in my garden never drains me, even if it makes me physically tired. Last night I sawed and lopped the dead parts of the osmanthus, and trimmed back the Raphiolepis next to it. I’m running a soaker hose on the osmanthus (Sweet Olive) to encourage its recovery from drought, and the faucet is whining from the backed-up pressure. It’s not a nice noise, but most of the time, now that the yappers are gone, I live in a very quiet neighborhood. As I think back over the 25 years I’ve lived here, so many things have evolved and developed on and around the property.
Thirteen years ago we had to replace all the pool decking, and we took out the diving board to give us more room in our patch of ground at the end of the pool. We leveled out the raised bed and went outside our comfort zone to build some brick paths. We found lots of bricks from a previous patio or something, buried under the pool decking, and we added gray concrete bricks to tie into the colors of the patio.
The back yard design I am working on now includes a different sort of path, and we are going to remove this brick walkway so that the whole yard will be of a piece. I think the bricks from the Glad Paths might be used to expand the patio into the area where the plum tree was.
The homemade paths served a good purpose for quite a while, but they were never ideal, and I’m not sentimental about them. The manzanita — I should name that bush, perhaps something rhyming like “Juanita” — surprised us in growing steadily north and away from the midpoint between the paths. We came to understand that it was trying to grow out from under the canopy of conifers to the south.
That path that was slim at the outset soon became impossibly narrow on the side that the shrub — I will call her “Margarita” — was growing toward. The only reason I had ever thought of pruning a wild mountain bush like this was to make the pathway passable, but as Margarita grew and grew, there was no way I could both maintain her nice curves and keep the path open.
When Mr. Glad retired we expanded the path a bit on that side.
The book on mindfulness makes some very good points, but coming from a Buddhist foundation it is lacking an understanding of why we suffer, and of all the riches that are available to us humans. The author says that people “have a tendency to associate suffering and distress with something being wrong,” but that “Grief has always been part of the order of things, and always will be. As part of suffering, grief too is a natural law.”
I can’t mention this book without saying how sadly wrong he is about that. Death and suffering and grief came into the world through sin, but Christ died to put an end to death. Because it is wrong! It was not in His plan. When He comes again in glory He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor sighing, nor pain. For the former things are passed away.
We will do more than bounce back then; we will be given new bodies for our souls to be reunited with, and we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is. Now things are cloudy and blurry, and we walk in faith, with His loving presence and grace always offered to us. He is constant and unchanging, a very present help in trouble.
In this world, on the other hand, we have constant change, often for the worse. Sometimes just the change itself is hard to bear, even if it is objectively an improvement. In the little realm of my garden I have lamented the lack of sunlight, but now that I have taken out one tree and thinned another, the area that was fairly shady will now be able to support more sun-loving plants, and I’m happy about that.
But I’ll be a little sad to see the rhododendron go, thought I didn’t care for its color. And the campanula, and sweet woodruff! They will probably be history. So just for memory’s sake — which of course is the purpose of all these pictures — here is a last view of the Woodland Garden patch of yard.
I’m looking forward to some new garden scenes to take pictures of, but glad to have Margarita Manzanita still in view. And come to think of it, I am waiting for tomorrow, waiting in Hope of the Resurrection. But as Martin Luther said, “If I knew that Christ were going to return tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.”
Youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, in Charles Dickens (1906)