Events this week have exposed that I am in the midst of a season of losses. I find it difficult to put into words the emptiness that I feel when having to say goodbye to loved ones, to realize that I have to let go of commitments that I cherish but can no longer keep, and finally to accept that the world is changing faster than I would like and that I find it increasing harder to make adjustments to the new realities I am facing.
At times like these, I rely heavily on my Christian faith to see me through.
When I cannot put into words what I am experiencing, I look to others to speak for me. Throughout the years I have repeatedly turned to spiritual guidebooks to help me through such painful times.
“Praying Our Goodbyes” has been a staple for me for several decades. Today I picked it up, once again, to help me pray through the goodbyes I am having to say this week. First, I had to say goodbye to a dear friend and treasured colleague as he lay near death at Hospice House. We are very close in age, Chuck and I, so his passing was even harder for me than I anticipated. We truly enjoyed working together. We shared deep theological discussions, planned exciting church events and beautiful liturgies, and partied like we would live forever despite the fact that we were aging and health issues were arising.
His death on Friday coincided with my last Quiet Day at the church he had served for over 25 years. A few weeks ago, I decided that I could no longer keep my commitment to return to this church every year to lead their annual women’s quiet day. Even though I retired from St. John the Divine 10 years ago this Eastertide, I still felt a strong bond with this community of faith, and the Quiet Day served as a way for me to stay connected. Every year, as I prepared the Women’s Quiet Day agenda, liturgy, presentations, and sacred arts, I felt like I was called to be with these beautiful “sisters of my heart.” But sadly, this year I had to admit it was time for me to move on, and on Saturday I said my goodbyes after our 13th Annual Quiet Day together.
When I left active parish ministry in April 2006, I struggled to discern how I would live out my vocation as a priest apart from serving in a parish. For a few years I taught college theology and church history classes, and then served as a volunteer hospital chaplain, and finally I felt increasing called to be a writer. As my spiritual director reminds me: “Our vocations are organic and evolving.” So true.
In “Praying Our Goodbyes,” author Joyce Rupp, OSM, describes four elements of saying goodbye: “recognition, reflection, ritualization, and reorientation.” (p. 78) We recognize our loss, reflect on its meaning in our lives, go through rituals that help us say goodbye, and then reorient ourselves to life after our loss. I have been experiencing all these things, and I give thanks for the ability to have someone put words to my personal process of grieving.
One of my professors at Virginia Theological Seminary, The Rev. Edward S. Gleason, wrote a book called “Dying We Live.” As Episcopal Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia said: “This book is powerful, evocative, and difficult.” Over the past two and a half decades since I first read it, I find this to be true. Here is just a short excerpt from Gleason’s introduction to his work:
“Death happens, despite what we do to avoid it. Everything that begins, ends. The fact may not be welcome, but it is realistic. Death is a central part of life, and despite everything it takes from us, so too it enriches and strengthens.” (Dying We Live, p. 6)
Towards the end of his introduction, he gives us these words of comfort:
“Once we own up to death, grief is the process by which the losses of death are transformed into new life. It is a process we all frequently experience, every day and in small ways. It is an experience we have known from childhood. The experience is always unwelcome, but the process is consistent. When the time comes, sooner or later, when we face grief, it is always as it was for that unknown friend wearing a hat in the downtown parish. Grief is the process by which loss is transformed into new life.” (Dying We Life, p. 12)
Even as I prepare for the funeral rites of the church for my friend Chuck, I now find myself making plans to attend another funeral…that of a colleague and sister priest The Rev. Alice Sandler. Alice+ and I came to know each other when we both lived in Naples. She served at the wealthy parish of Trinity-by-the-Cove and I was at the new church start just a few miles away but a world apart in East Naples. Alice+ had a passion for Christian Education and so did I…that was our connection. It was just a short time ago that she moved up to Tampa Bay where she continued her role as a pastor, priest and teacher here in the Tampa Deanery. Her death was sudden and unexpected.
The deaths of Chuck and Alice+ serve as a reminder to me of the words I heard on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 265) Yet, there is more to our Christian faith than reminding us of our mortality. We also hear the words of “Easter Sunday”: “Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.” (Book of Common Prayer, Easter acclamation, p. 39)
In between Ash Wednesday and Easter, during our Holy Season of Lent, we ponder anew the mysteries of our faith…the life, death of resurrection of Jesus. Through these days, may our faith be renewed, our grief lessened, and our hope restored.
I long for Lent to be over, but there are still weeks before the church will celebrate Easter. In the meantime, I will daily live into the promise of the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer, Burial Office, p. 501.)