Archive for November, 2009


I read somewhere that prayer is an invocation. Through prayer, you invoke into being the presence of God as you need him, and remind God of the aspects of himself that he has forgotten. It’s an act of keeping faith that maybe sometimes you need, maybe sometimes God needs.

I pray for peace tonight, because my home and my community seem pretty shattered with discord and violence and sadness, and because I am at the end of anything I can do about it, physically, tonight.


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We had our annual Day of the Dead celebration at my congregation this Sunday. I teach Sunday School, and our class did the decorations- weeks of sugar skulls and intricate cut outs of dancing (and smoking) skeletons, and paper marigolds. Beauty. Lit with candles, honoring the pictures and words of our loved ones who are dead, the altar was tremendously moving (though, clearly, I’m biased, since it was my kids and I who made the altar decorations).

The Day of the Dead celebration is always a strange one for me- fraught, I guess, with richness and problems. My church isn’t Catholic. We aren’t even Christian. As far as I know, few people in my congregation actually believe we are invoking our ancestors, that our deceased loved ones are coming to visit us. (As far as I know, few people in my congregation believe there is any kind of anyone who could come and visit in the first place). Being such individualists, I am sure there are people in my congregation who do believe those things, but the point is that as a corporeal entity, the community is agnostic, leaning towards atheistic, about an afterlife.

Yet the rituals, the traditions- they whisper an underlying unspoken *something* that points to, if not that belief, than that hope. We place on the altar tokens of our loved ones who died, and tell their stories, and they feel present to us for a moment, we feel held. We feel, (as the kids story which we read said) the unbreakable bond of each other’s love.

I’ve experienced recently the death of a very dear, very important woman to me, and then, more recently, a very traumatic death in my community whose reverbrations seem to be harsh and scary. I’ve also watched my best friend lose her father. With my aunt’s death, for me it is as if the world has suddenly lost some of its color, its vitality. It is hard not to give into despair over that- I love her and I miss her, and whatever happens after death is utterly unknown.

In the Christian tradition that I grew up in, it was considered a mark of serious lapse in faithfulness to God to doubt or question the afterlife. I’m glad, I think, that I no longer feel that anxiety of having to conform my inner world with- well, with a tradition, I guess. I’m glad to lose that anxiety, and I feel that my faith in God is greater (and richer, and deeper for me to experience) as I let go of the need to be certain about what happens next, as I let go of the need to know. But I miss being surrounded by certainty. My cousins are Catholic, and I am grateful for them that, in so far as I know, they believe that their mom is in heaven (and, if God is a Catholic God, my aunt is definitely in heaven!). I believe in my heart my aunt is somewhere that is beautiful and warm, somewhere in the heart of God, but what does that mean? I have no idea. I know the outlines of what that means emotionally, but does that mean her memories, her outline, her opinions- the way we knew her in this world- are contained with her?

I have always believed in the soul. Maybe I believe in the soul more than I believe in God. That’s a kind of possibility. And I’ve always believed in the eternity of the soul. It seems there was a time when the conventional wisdom was that the soul was a self evident thing; our language is embedded with the assumption that the soul is both a real thing and a thing that points to a higher, deeper meaningfulness. I go into my own soul when I am sad and troubled, and filled with self doubt and uncertainty about how to be brave and loving and strong, and that centerness contains me, stills me. I look into the eyes of the man I love and see in him his beautiful, warm soul. I go home and spend time under the trees that are hundreds of years old and feel the presence of a different kind of soul, and feel blessed. Those experiences for me- they are mysterious, and I don’t understand them, but there they are.

There was a song that the choir in my church sang, whose chorus was something like “Listen more often to things than to beings/listen more often to things than to beings/The dead have not gone away/The dead have made a pact with the living/They are in the woman’s breast/They are in the baby’s cry/They are in the fire’s spark/” I think about that, the strange peacefulness that things which are not human offer. Are the tree branches animated by the breath of our passing loved ones?

My mom speaks to my grandmother, who passed away more than ten years ago. My brother (the atheist), did cartwheels on my grandfather’s grave, because my grandfather was so vital, and so loved vitality. During a very hard year in my life, I dreamt almost continuously of my aunt and my grandmothers- all deceased- laughing at me, teasing me in a loving way, coaxing me out of my despair with their irrelevant (and, frankly, obnoxious) mirth. In my life, the dead are unreliable- at least they don’t conform with my desires or expectations of them!- but they certainly aren’t absent.

I miss my aunt. I miss both of my aunts, and my grandparents. I miss my friend who died last year, and my mom’s best friend who died the year before, and I miss my best friend who died when I was 14. I hate that I am not going to see them again in this life. I hate the loneliness of that, and the pain, and I hate the idea of my partner dying, or my parents, or my brother. But I also believe- it’s a really useless word, believe, but what other word is there- that there is something beyond that. I move towards that something like the poor blighted rubber tree in my bedroom moves its leaves towards sunlight.

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