One of my favourite authors is a man who died in 2008, but who continues to have an influence in my life, and in the lives of people around the world. His name is John O’Donohue. He was a poet, and a mystic deeply rooted in Celtic culture and spirituality. He often spoke about the thin places between our earthly lives and the life beyond.
The ancient Celts believed that certain places, and certain times of year were like that. The change of seasons, passage through a cave, or a doorway. The top of a hill, where rising warm air hits the cold, and mist, or fog may result. The place where a stream or river enters a lake. Energetic places where transformation happens, where things are changed from condition to another.
We can hear this as a spooky idea, that the spirits or souls of those who have died can cross that thin veil, and come back, if only as sound, or feeling, or in a dream, or in a certain smell. That’s the stuff of campfire tales and horror movies. It’s also the stuff of quiet conversations that usually begin with- something happened the other night, that I don’t know what to make of…
These persistent stories remind us that we don’t know everything, and that our lives are surrounded by mystery. The Lazarus story from John’s Gospel is like that. Mysterious.
When I was growing up, the emphasis at Hallowe’en was always on the dressing up in costumes, and collecting candy. We didn’t really dwell on the spooky bits- the tombstones, graves, skeletons, and ghosts.
In some cultures, particularly in Mexico, families gather in cemeteries, and celebrate the day of the dead. They may have a meal at the grave of loved ones, and take time to remember them, pray for them, talk with them, and give thanks for them.
That may seem a little spooky for us, but one positive effect is that children in those families literally grow up around death. It is not hidden from them, and the fact of human mortality is embraced, normalized. I think that can be a good thing.
When I was growing up, children were often kept home when there was a funeral in the family. I encountered that in my earlier years as a pastor. Families would often say they didn’t want the children to be frightened by what they would see at a funeral home. I think there was truth to that, but that folks were also projecting upon their children, their own anxieties about death.
Death is something we still seem to find difficult to talk about in our society. The culture around is sometimes described as death-denying, and age-defying. Whole industries make billions of dollars helping us look young, as if there is something wrong, unnatural about aging.
About twenty years ago I was in a class at the Queens School of Theology, and the teacher made a statement that has stuck with me, which usually means I am still trying to understand it, and sort out how it is true in my own life.
She said that for many people, the dread and fear they feel when they think about dying, is not totally about being afraid of death. She believes that some of it is actually fear of dying without having truly lived, or having discovered the part of themselves they were meant to contribute to the world.
Have you seen the movie Soul? If you haven’t, I recommend it, if only for the music. Jon Batiste, one of my favourite jazz musicians won an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack.
In the movie, there is a place beyond the earth, where souls come from, and where they go back to, when their earthly life is complete. It is a good place, and the beings in charge want each soul to discover their spark, their passion, the thing they will bring to their earthly life that will make a difference.
Our hope, as people of faith, is that each soul, that has its origin with God, returns to God. In the movie, those souls that have returned to the place beyond Earth are recruited to help nurture the souls who are just starting out, to help them discover their spark.
It’s a lovely idea, that beyond this life we would have opportunity to use what we have learned, to help others.
Most of us, I hope, can think of people they have known who have nurtured them, encouraged them, helped them be better at being themselves.
Every person we’ve ever known adds something to our lives, for good or for bad.
When we hear the word saint we may think of certain special people that through history have been recognized as especially holy.
Earlier in the fall I talked about Saint Francis. People who knew him felt better for being around him. His presence was a blessing, and he inspired others to be better versions of themselves.
That’s not a bad measure of success in this life. A different way to counting our blessings:
How have we been blessed, by the presence of people who helped us to be better humans?
How have we been a blessing to others, by helping them find their own spark, their way to be faithful, loving, helpful to others?
One of the lessons I think we are meant to learn in this life is about paying it forward.
As we grow and mature through the stages of life that we are invited to take the opportunities that come up, to nurture the spark of life in others.
One of the best things about a faith community is that those of us who are in the later stages of our earthly journey can now use our experience, gifts, talents, wisdom, to help others.
The word for this is generativity. It’s related to the word for generation. Those of us who live into this generative stage of life, have a lot to share with the generations who are younger than us- and when they get older, and wiser, they in turn will have much to pass on to those who come after them.
On All Saints Day we take time to remember those we’ve known, and loved, and whose earthly journey is complete, but who have made a difference in our lives. We hope that when the time comes, those who follow us, will remember us.