Part of the blessing being a parish priest is that you are invited into some of the most intimate moments of a family’s life. There is perhaps none more intimate and intense than the moments when illness passes through uncertain diagnosis, to one which blurs into the final days of a life. It is part of a life of ministry to be into a family whose loved one’s days are numbered. It is a privilege to journey with the family are they prepare for the loss that surely and steadily this way comes. In those times, Hope can seem more tentative, more distant; perhaps hovering on the edge of disappointment.
It seems to me the families that best journey this path are the ones who tell stories, not waiting for the wake and funeral service, but begin the telling at home, in the hospital, or in hospice. Those stories are the one that are snapshots of life, wonder, and bring an easy laughter to the soul even as they bring a moment of joy to the dying person. For just a moment, a good life is recalled and one is transported away to another time and place. It is a comfort and a reminder of a life filled with love, family, and friends. A good life.
It is at the wake and funeral that we glimpse into best part of the now faithful departed. These stories reveal that within each of us is the work of God, even if perhaps unfinished. Stories which reveal the love of God poured into the world through everyday people. I have heard stories of deep, abiding love, holiness, and sacrifice that are akin to the lives of the Saints.
All these good words are more than our social convention not to speak ill of the dead. Stories of the best of days paint a life, connect events, and point to the days when the love of God and neighbor were as radiant as the noonday sun – even in the flawed and brokenness that accompanies life lived large and small. I think such eulogies are our petition to God, our arguing the case for life eternal in the company of all the angels and saints. It is our way of giving voice to the Hope we all hold within.
But life waits for no one. After the pause to honor and remember our loved ones, we settled into our on-going lives. For many that means finding a new normal. In time, other stories arise. When I was growing up, these later stories were told on the porch, in the small gatherings of family and friends. They were told on benches, told to the rhythm of a rocking chair, told in love, and sometimes ending with “God bless their heart.”
It is part of the tradition of the old South that you can tell the tales of the now faithful departed that reveal someone who was irascible, stubborn, recalcitrant, ornery, headstrong, and sometime wayward – but the tale must always end with “God bless their hearts.” I used to think of that expression as a “free pass” that allowed one to speak freely and with candor. But in time I have gained a new perspective.
If we indeed are that people of hope, then we are called to believe that death is not the end, not a last sentence on the story of a life, but simply a chapter’s end. A respite before turning the page. We believe that a grain of wheat must indeed die to give new life. A life in which our inclinations to irascibility, stubbornness, recalcitrance, orneriness, and all the rest will be cleansed from our hearts.
We believe that God indeed will bless our hearts.
That our good and loving God, the divine potter, will finally shape and mold us into the person He had always called us to be. With life’s tension released we will finally relax and be open and malleable to the hands of the Divine Potter. That at long last, with our restlessness behind us, we will finally rest in God, rest in His hands, and be at last formed into our own perfection. This is the Hope within.
“Brothers and sisters: Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
I think that all the stories we tell speak to that Hope. Our celebration of All Souls is a celebration of that Hope. Our words of eulogy for the faithful departed echo St. Paul’s words; they are as though a prayer: “And Lord, listen to our stories, for we surely saw your Love poured out to us in the life of the one we send to you. Good and loving God, please finish the work you began in our loved one.”
The “bless her heart” tales we tell later hold a two-fold purpose. They are an acknowledgement that we are human and thus broken, flawed and unfinished. Not just our departed friend, but ourselves. They too become prayer. “And Lord, listen to our stories, for we too are surely unfinished works. Good and loving God, please finish your work in us. God bless our hearts.”
All Souls is a day we remember our dearly beloved. We lift up them to God in the sure and certain hope that He will finish the good work He began in them. It is our hope for them and ourselves. Indeed, “Brothers and sisters: Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”