Because today is All Saints’ Day, I’m remembering my best friend who died just over a year ago—a Trappist monk for sixty-plus years, with whom I’d been close for 20 years. I miss him. Since his death, I’ve thought more about the afterlife than ever before, and its caused me to ponder more the ancient Christian celebrations of All Saints’ Eve (All Hallows Eve or Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day—which stem from belief in enduring bonds between those in heaven, living pilgrims on this Earth, and the penitent (ie those in Purgatory, honored on All Souls’ Day as traditionally conceived by the Catholic church). Though I roll my eyes at the baroque theological constructions behind these traditions and for most of my life found them grating (self-assured ideas about the afterlife generally grate; I mean, who among us knows about the great beyond?), my heart embraces afterlife—and a continuum between here and there, now and then, before and after. This mass of cells cannot be all we are. And I trust the more-than-these-cells, or the spirit, goes on. How exactly? Beats me.
For weeks after Martin’s death, I had a number of what I call “sightings” by a cedar tree along a path I walk on our farm, experiences I narrate in detail here. At first, it was a flock of mourning doves taking off from that tree and a butterfly following me until I reached it. Then a flock of mourning doves again. After that, I saw a huge swarm of starlings whipping across the field as I reached the cedar, then two strikingly marked birds perched on fence wire next to it. I kept having these distinct, interesting experiences at that one spot, until I sensed Martin was near me, perhaps making himself known. Stunning, surprising sights—one after another. I could go on about other occurrences I have not mentioned. I also had a vivid dream of Martin in which he came to visit.
Then—almost as suddenly as these experiences began, they stopped. And have not returned.
In the gospel reading in this Sunday’s lectionary (Luke 20:27-38), some officials try to trap Jesus with a scenario about a widow, asking whom she will call “husband” in heaven—which of her many husbands. Basically, Jesus turns the tables on them, challenging their small thinking. He says that in the afterlife, things will be different, values will be different. How can the Earth-bound begin to understand? What is important is to trust. We are children of God. Even in the afterlife, we will have work to do as children of God. Trusting is what matters.
For a long time, the silence at the cedar tree saddened me because Martin seemed gone. But someone I know pondered aloud the possibility of “life-beyond” as an extension of the work we did on Earth. Martin’s gift or life’s work was hospitality and connection, the ‘ministry of presence.’ What might it mean for him to continue that work? What might it mean for any of us to maintain the bonds between living and dead that we commemorate with All Saints’ Day? How might we keep our hearts open to experiencing those bonds? Not in a doctrinaire, clingy way, but in openness to the mystery of the continuum between here and there, now and then, before and after? I miss the felt sense of Martin near me, making himself known through the elements of nature at that cedar tree, through wing and wind and firelight. Or maybe it was the elements of nature conspiring to help me pay attention. Who knows? I do know that I trust. I trust Martin is near, even if I cannot see and understand the kind of presence he is now. I trust he continues to do the work God gave him to do in Earth-bound life, including maintaining bonds with those he loved, including with me.
So Happy All Saints’, my friends. May we experience a bit of the continuum.
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Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal