‘Saint’ is a word i don’t throw around much. I often find it trite, empty, and too dang precious. But in the case of Dorothy, I can say many things things that I don’t normally say. Like the fact that she has “crossed over,” or “gone to glory.” And yes, that she is a saint of the church. Dorothy was from Kentucky. From the same small corner, in fact, that produced me, and every woman of faith who raised me. In many ways, Dorothy was my ‘people’ long before we met as two mountain women, set in a foreign desert by God’s own hand.
Like me, Dorothy met her husband in Lexington, KY. They even worshipped at Central Christian Church, where i would serve more than 60 years later… Their love story is one that would put any Nicholas Sparks kind of writer to shame. But that’s not my story to tell. I only share this to say that we shared a thread of narrative before we even knew each other, and that we also shared a homesickness for green mountain places and people who knew their neighbors.
When i came to Phoenix for my interview weekend, i met many people in different configurations…it was all a blur. But I remember, at one of those gatherings, being introduced to an elderly couple that clearly held a place of authority in the collective heart of the church. “This is Richard and Dorothy,” someone said. “They won’t be in church tomorrow, but they wanted to come and meet you.” I got the distinct impression that, if i passed approval with these two, the job was mine.
I could not tell you what we talked about. I only know that, after about 10 minutes, Dorothy said, “Honey. I think you’re alright.” They left the building, and I felt that I’d just been given all the blessing I needed. For the job to come, and quite possibly, for the rest of life in general.
In the years to come, I would learn just how much authority her blessing carried in this church. I would learn how she had greeted every guest, taught every child, prayed for every sick person, and showed up at every door at just the inexplicably right moment, for as long as anyone could remember. I would learn how she and Richard sat vigil and prayed, for two hours, as plans were made to move the old downtown church to the suburbs, and rename it as Foothills. I would learn that everyone who’d ever crossed her path felt as blessed, affirmed, and beloved as i did in that first ‘interview.’
Several years after that first meeting, I showed up at Dorothy’s door with a 3-month-old baby in-hand. At that point, Dorothy was no longer able to come to church on a regular basis. I thought I was making a pastoral call, bringing my baby for a visit to cheer up the elderly. But the minute I handed my daughter into Dorothy’s arms, I realized what my heart had known all along…I had come for a blessing.
Dorothy, though frail, took Harper in her lap for a moment. I am not even making this up–a charge went through the room, and I felt it in the very soles of my feet. She was Anna in the temple. She was Woman Wisdom. She was Sarai, mother of all, as she held my baby and kissed her perfectly bald head. “I approve,” she said, and handed her back over. I felt my child had been blessed for the world; in fact, that she had received all the blessing she would ever need.
This is how Dorothy blessed her church, and every person to ever pass through its doors, however briefly. That benediction is in no way diminished by her passing. Preaching her funeral will be a challenge. Not because there is nothing to say–I mean, we could all talk for hours–but because, when someone has so utterly transformed the heart of a community, we are in danger of canonizing them, worshipping them, making them an altar and trying to keep them for ourselves.
This is why the word ‘saint’ sometimes bothers me. It sets someone apart as wholly other, not entirely of this frame. Or it diminishes them to a sort of ‘goodness’ that, in literature, would make for the flattest of characters. It also excuses us from trying to be more like them. I mean, we are mere mortals, after all…
But having known Dorothy, I now know that a saint is one who carries our story; one who blesses us in simple acts of presence; one whose life bears telling; one whose faith reveals something of the holy that lies within us all, but that we often have a hard time seeing within ourselves. A saint is one who sees that holiness in every single person she meets, and touches it, and blesses it, and calls it good.
I am not the only one remembering Dorothy right now, and certainly not the only one to receive her benediction. She was the keeper of our story, and always, she was the bearer of good news. We will not make her a mascot, or build her a shrine, or try to somehow keep her for ourselves. Hers was a light to be shared, and we will do our best to reflect it.
And then the light changed…so the light that was in just one time, and one place, could be in every time and every place. The light came into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it.