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Loss and Beyond

The big vase of white carnations sits on the desk in my office and, in the early gloom of evening, almost glows.

Last Sunday was All Saints Sunday. Forget the part about ďSaints.Ē

Each first Sunday in November, lots of churches pay homage to those who have died.

Iíve always thought that, among all the Sundays in the church year, All Saints was particularly emotionally honest. We all know the unfiltered pain of losing someone we love. We donít have to use our imaginations or project ourselves back into first-century Palestine or the mythical realms of Eden.

We know about losing. We lose over and over. We know about deathóand of course, weíd rather not think about it.

But each year on All Saints Sunday we do. And Iíve always thought it important to focus squarely on sorrow and not let us play a game of emotional dodgeball with our grief.

This year, the congregation seemed especially silent during the sermon. I could hear the silence, if that makes sense. And I was glad that my contact-lens prescription needs updating so I couldnít clearly see any of the faces showing their pain.

Later on in the service, we said the names of each of the people we wanted to remember who had recently died. People had given me names last week and before church Sunday morning. And I had added names of my own. So we had a long list.

And as each name was spoken, the bell tolled and we added a white carnation to the slowly filling big crystal vase.

All Saints is not a dry-eyed kind of day. By the time I got done with all the names, my eyes were brimmingósomething I think of as bad form in a female pastor, and charming in a male. But I couldnít help it. I knew most of the people whose names I read. Iíd baptized and buried some of them.

I was glad when it came time for the ushers to come forward for the collection plates and the choir to sing. I got a little break before it was time for communion.

And something seemed to start happening inside me. Maybe I was simply overheated in my long, white robe. Maybe I was getting a delayed half-caff rush. I donít know. But something was happening.

I started thinking it was possible to make too much of loss.

I donít mean that in a glib way. I would never minimize the impact of human tragedy. Even though pain is both relative and absolute, for the person feeling the loss, ďabsoluteĒ is all that holds any meaning.

But I started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, on the other side of loss there was not simply more loss, but hope, too.

Sounds obvious, I know. But Iíve been more or less trained up through lifeís experiences to count on loss as a given and not to be surprised by pain. This is a strange admission for a pastor to make, but I suppose I figured other people could do their hoping, Iíd hang onto my certainty about misery, thank you very much.

Slowly I had this feeling that maybe I was wrong about the certainty of misery.

Not that there isnít misery and wonít be more, but that there was something beyond misery, as well.

There was a young married couple I knew in graduate school who edited a literary magazine I worked on. During my second year, Richardís 5-year-old nephew drowned in a pond in his backyard. Because Kate and Richard had no children of their own, Andrew had been like a son to them. Their grief tore them apart. And Richard began to write poems that were so full of pain it hurt almost physically to read them.

Eventually they divorced. Each moved to different parts of the country. Kate remarried and had a baby.

Years later, Richard came to stay with me when he was in town for a workshop on small-press publishing. He was still brokenóbut instead of simply losing Andrew, it was as though Andrew was with him, somehow. And he was in love with someone, crawling out of the sorry arms of loss that had had him pinned for so long.

Just this year I bought a book of his collected poetry. I hadnít seen the newer stuff. Through these poems I discover he has a child now. He has a wife. And the words of the poems bear witness: He has come through his loss not more lost still, but more loving.

By the time we got to singing ďFor All the Saints,Ē which is the Ralph Vaughn Williams chestnut for All Saints Day, I wasnít sure which way my spirit was going: out into the day with a sense that thereíd be plenty of loss to come to tide us over to next year, or the sense that loss isnít all. That less is not more.

But I donít mean that fatuously or glibly.

Fairy-tale endings ring reliably false: In the book of Job, after all of his miserable trials, weíre told that Job gets a bunch of new daughters to make up for the children that Satan had previously smitten. I donít buy that. You canít replace a loved one the way you can a stolen library book.

But maybe the reach of love exceeds the grasp of loss. I donít know. In the middle of All Saints Sunday, it seemed I began to think so.

óJo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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