Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Norris' "Emily in Choir"

One of the great joys of coming to the Ecumenical Institute is following in the footsteps of those scholars who have preceded me. One of my favorites is the poet and novelist, Kathleen Norris, whose book, Cloister Walk, was largely written while here. Along with Annie Lamott, Norris is at the top of my list for trying to help students understand something of the permutations of the spiritual journey. As I walked through the cold to Evening Prayer, I was reminded of her poem, "Emily in Choir," which captures something of a child's perspective of a worship service and always reminds me how my own daughters have taught me much about the character of God. Here is Norris' take:

"Emily holds her father's hand,
she dances in place
through the Invitatory
and refuses the book with no pictures
'This is boring,' she whispers,
in the silence between psalms.

Candles lit in honor of the guardian angels
make rivers of air that bend the stone
walls of the abbey church. 'Why are the men
wearing costumes?' Emily asks.
'They're the brothers,' her father
explains, and Emily says, 'Well!
They must have a very strict mother!'

The Grave is strict, says another Emily;
Emily here and now plays with the three
shadows her hands make
on the open page. While the clergyman
tells Father and Vinnie that 'this Corruptible
shall put on Incorruption,' it has already done so
and they go defrauded.

Brimful of knowledge, Emily shakes my arm:
'They're the monks!' she says,
'The men who sing,' and she runs
up the aisle, out into the day.

to where the angels are:
In the name of the Bee--
And of the Butterfly--
And of the Breeze--Amen!"

Kathleen Norris, Journey (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), 116.

Learning to Live in the In-Between Places

Today, the seniors back at Greenville are teaching the rest of the campus about the problems of poverty at home and abroad. Some have focused on the global issues of wealth distribution, clean water, and agricultural development--particularly in countries like Rwanda (where we have a college presence). Others have chosen to focus on the local context--the county ministerial alliance, a near-by shelter for battered women, the public education system. Having read Ron Sider's classic, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, my hope is that students have captured both something of the complexity of the problem as well as the hope that the gospel of Christ can bring to bear on specific cultural issues.

In choir at Morning Prayer today we read from that wonderful canticle of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 where the "upside-down" revolution promised by a just and holy God brings an eschatalogical vision of what might yet be. It was this same hope that permeated all of the leading characters in the Gospel of Luke's opening chapters. Each of them is found waiting and hoping--from Elizabeth who desires a child to Simeon who longs to see the advent of the Lord. "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace," he is able to say at long last, while we are told that the child in Elizabeth's womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy when she hears Mary's good news.

The difficulty for most of us is that we either confine the coming of God to "pie in the sky, in the sweet bye and bye," or we expect it to be completed today. Advent beckons us to live in the "already, but not yet" of expectancy--neither giving in to the pessimism that pervades so many that nothing can happen this side of glory or the militancy that insists on immediate change. Learning to live in that liminal place is perhaps the biggest challenge that faces the Christian community.

But, nonetheless, my prayers are with the seniors today (including my own daughter who has labored passionately on her project). I pray that they will not forget all that they have learned nor abandon their passion when the going gets tough. Most of all, I pray that they will be willing to learn to live in the "in-between" places of which Advent speaks, where we come to understand something not only of the heart of God but about both the pain and hope that pervade Kingdom work.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ruminations Sparked by a Fire

The recent news of a tragic fire that swept through the Guest House in Anderson, Missouri, has set me to reminiscing about the times I made my way through that little town with my family. Nestled snuggly in the southwest corner of the state, Anderson feeds old Highway 71 down to meet the winding Missouri/Arkansas #59 which snakes its way into the cliffs of Noel, finally emptying out onto the Ozark heights of northwestern Arkansas. When I was a kid, Anderson was one of the first spots in the road with much light as we made our way north from Arkansas headed towards my grandparents' home. Later, when I had my own family, they would groan not to take that winding road--despite the nostalgia I associated with it.

Unfortunately, the early word is that there is a possibility of arson associated with the blaze that claimed ten lives so far--nine residents of the home for the mentally ill and disabled and one brave worker who did his best to save some of his charges. Because the reading for today from one of my books is written by Henri Nouwen, I am reminded afresh and anew of all that these special children of God have to teach us. This morning, numerous families who had given family members over to the care of this institution are in mourning. Perhaps there is even a sharper grief in realizing that those who are so helpless were caught up in such a conflagration.

Because both my father and grandfather were small town pastors, they made regular rounds to this type of institution--oftentimes taking me along. I remember sometimes being scared by the aged or infirm, but I also remember the sense of being "special" in their midst. I fear we have done seniors and those who struggle with mental illness an injustice by denying them contact with the young. When I pastored in Toronto, I would oftentimes take my own young daughters with me, following the model that had been set for me. They, too, learned to open up and receive the hugs of those who were so hungry for human contact.

As we prepare to enter the Advent season, we will thrill to the promises of a faithful God--particularly to the "anawim," the pious poor, and especially to the marginalized. In our culture those who fight the stigmas of mental illness or physical disability are oftentimes confined to the margins of our society, warehoused away from those considered more "normal." Our embracing them as a significant part of our culture is not just about justice for them, it is also about our need to be changed. We, perhaps, need them as much, if not more, than they need us. We need them to teach us about the expansiveness of the love of God and the depth of our own need. Though the Anderson Guest House is no more, there are plenty of other places that could use the warmth of a visit by those of us who need to be reminded again of just what the Advent of our Lord is really all about.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Giving Thanks

Being away from home for a period of time has the advantage of making one appreciate it even more. Such, at least, was the case for me over the last few days as I journeyed from Minnesota back to Greenville. Not only did I enjoy the usual repast of turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, vegetables of assorted varieties, and pies to make the mouth water, but especially the company of my wife and daughters in our recently-acquired brick home at our relatively-new dining room table. As I thought about all of those people in worn-torn countries around the world (especially the children whose eyes break your heart), it was clear that we who have so much need to engage in not only giving thanks, but also giving of ourselves and our resources.

Making the trip on Tuesday and Sunday proved to be an adventure in and of itself. Special kudos go to Northwest Airlines who checked me in quickly and professionally. Security checks in Minneapolis were fast, friendly, and efficient, while St. Louis kept us moving with far fewer TSA personnel. Flying to St. Louis I was surrounded by three returning deer hunters who had had far too much to drink. As they fought over the stewardess' last beer and drooled over the female passengers, I was glad that it was a short flight. Coming back, I was surrounded by young children, most of whom did fairly well, given the circumstances. The "Bad Dad" award goes to a young man caught up in his own video games while his daughter banged a singing, dancing Elmo against the tray table. By the end of the flight I was wishing one of those drunk hunters could take out Elmo (whose high-pitched voice for hours on end could profitably be put to better use in interrogating potential terrorists!).

As I returned to the familiarity of the choir at St. John's this morning and the faces of my fellow sabbaticants, it occurred to me just how much I have to give thanks for: for a loving wife, who supports me on this semester-long sabbatical; for children who love God and are committed to the classroom as a place for shaping young lives; for friends who are truly "kindred spirits" here at St. John's and back in Greenville; for work that gives meaning to life and offers privileges most will never know; for economic well-being and a new home to use for Kingdom purposes; for students who encourage and often surprise me with their insights; and, for the God above who has taken me down roads I could never have imagined and given to one from humble origins experiences never to be forgotten. For all of this, and more, I give thanks.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Worshipping with the Copts

This morning I left at 7 a.m. with Susan, Andrew, and Kate in order to drive to St. Paul where we joined the congregation of St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church for the morning service. The divine liturgy was from St. Basil and lasted approximately 2 1/2 hours in length--much of it standing, in typical Orthodox fashion! I wish some of my students had been along for the experience--they would probably have fainted upon seeing the 130 page printed liturgy (in three columns, no less, for the English, Greek, and Coptic languages).

As usual, hospitality was one of the signatures of Christian worship with folks joining in to help us with the liturgy. One of the great modern innovations in the service was a small digital electronic screen which constantly displayed the page numbers so that you were never quite lost. My Greek actually came in handy here, helping me make sense of several sections. I couldn't help but chuckle inwardly whenever we would come to a section where we would say innumerable times something like, "I believe, I really believe!" It was evangelical passion set to Coptic liturgy.

Much of the praise throughout went to those saints in the third, fourth, and early fifth centuries who had kept the faith orthodox. For instance, we not only remembered John Chrysostom and Athanasius, we also praised the 318 representatives who were present at Nicaea, as well as those who followed them at Constantinople and Ephesus years later! Keeping up the chant was not only the bishop and priest, but an all-male choir in their white gowns which were a cross between the Muslim prayer group from Friday midday prayer and the Krishna Consciousness instrumental band--complete with small hand cymbals and triangle. The guy on the triangle could really boogie.

Afterwards, we retreated to an Egyptian restaurant--the Blue Nile--which happened to be closed. So, we settled for a breakfast menu at a rather funky bar/cafe attached to a local co-op. Lots of eggs and hashbrowns were consumed by all. It also gave me a chance to get to know my traveling companions better. Suffice it to say that I came away with a greater appreciation for the eclecticism that makes up St. John's School of Theology. Even the ride back to Collegeville was much appreciated--thanks partly to having stood for over two hours and needing to rest a bit.

Friday, November 17, 2006

An Early Thanksgiving Celebration

One of the joys of this sabbatical has been the wonderful Benedictine hospitality which has pervaded the entire semester. This applies not just to the monastery itself, but especially to the School of Theology and, more particularly, my colleagues at the Ecumenical Institute. We all seem to gravitate towards regular cycles of food and laughter--perhaps to offset the intense experience of research and writing which makes up the majority of our time here.

Last night we were treated to a wonderful Thanksgiving Dinner by the School of Theology, served up for us by the faculty members. When you are cooking for one, as many of us do, and time is of the essence, you usually don't spend much time on cuisine. The tables tended to be somewhat international. Ours had several folk from Australia, a New Zealander, and a Korean. Fr. Patrick Howell (the other "token male") sat at the head and kept the drinks moving around while the Australians carved up the turkey and distributed all the trimmings--dressing, corn, potatoes, squash, etc. We even had a choice of pecan or pumpkin pie to close out the repast.

Though the theology is different, the climate colder, and some of the regional and ecclesial assumptions different from mine, there has been an acceptance that has allowed me to let my guard down and enjoy the range of emotions--from tears at prayer to laughter at table. Reading through Gordon Lathrop's new book, The Pastor, I have been reminded how important the table is to the Christian community and the sense of hospitality that we establish around it. In the midst of all of the tribal warfare in American politics--even ecclesial politics--my faith has been renewed in this place, largely because others have made room at the table for this guy from a small rather sectarian Wesleyan background. I never forget the humble roots from which I have sprung and give thanks, especially during this season, for the privilege to struggle and learn with Christian brothers and sisters from such different backgrounds than mine.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Living Amongst God's Critters

I awoke this morning shortly before 3 a.m. to the sound of rapid pawing on the roof over my bedroom. I never did figure out exactly what it was, whether a squirrel looking for nuts, a chipmunk in heat, or a raccoon looking for someplace warmer to bed down. It was one of those times when you sit straight up in bed wide awake--in this case pulled from the lull of a dream where I had been conducting a funeral and we couldn't get the lid on the coffin shut. The sound of the scraping and scratching was probably not that loud but, in the context of almost complete silence, it had a sobering effect.

We are surrounded here by the better part of 2500 square acres of state woodland: property off-limits to pets but protective of the native flora and fauna all around us. There are trails that lead off in several directions from our Institute apartments and it is not uncommon, especially at dusk, to see several deer grazing outside in something of a serene manner. Now that deer season is in full stride, the animals seem to almost inherently know that they are on safe ground. With the faint sound of gunshots in the distance, particularly on the weekend, the occasional deer seems somewhat skittish but glad to be where it is safe--a bit like I used to feel as a kid whenever I would slide home in a baseball game and could stand up and greet my mates, knowing that some crazed catcher (substitute gun-running teenager here) would not be after me.

About ten days ago as we were turning out onto the main road, a hunter came driving by with a dead buck sprawled across the roof of his SUV. One of my colleagues here (who is from Australia where guns are essentially banned) became almost apoplectic. With her head buried in the back seat, she screamed that she would never be able to get the picture out of her mind. Though I was never much one for going hunting, I realized that this was a sight with which I have grown familiar. After all, one can reason, if the herd isn't thinned many of these deer will simply die of starvation in the course of the long Minnesota winter. But, then, we Americans (at least in this part of the country) have grown up with hunting as a natural part of our world--unlike the vast majority of people in other first-world countries.

Next week, I'll be returning home to enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving repast. At our table will be turkey and probably some ham--meat with which we've all become familiar. We eat it with nary a thought about the animal's life which was sacrificed on our behalf. Our increasing distance from the land assures that we have no real connection with the death of this creature, unlike our ancestors just a generation or two ago. So, on this Thanksgiving at least, let us give thanks for the abundance of food with which most of us are blest and let us remember that we are a larger part of the cycle of life that goes on around us.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Bane and Blessing of Technological Innovation

The news on MPR this morning was of a new academic program at USC called "Interactive Entertainment"--a glorified way of saying that one can now earn a B. A. in computer gaming. "Oh, no," I thought, "this will surely bring out the screed against higher education." But the interviews with students and profressors were quite revealing. One student spoke of how he had built in a Foucaultian exercise that posits a world in which moral choice must be made in a less than black-and-white universe.

But then I remembered the release earlier in the year of a game which is based on the "Left Behind" series in which violence takes place in the name of religion. I must confess that I know next to nothing about computer gaming. Though many of my students spend countless hours with them, I'm a bit scared to begin learning lest I find myself caught up in the loss of what little valuable time I have. In fact, I understand that there is a relatively large segment of the population that finds such entertainment addictive and can wind up spending ten or twenty hours a week "gaming," losing all track of time.

My propensity, when it comes to technology, is to understand that there is both a positive and negative side to any new invention. My biggest concern is that it creates an artifical environment and cuts us off more and more from one another and from the world around us. One of the worst examples of this is watching students "IM'ing" one another while they sit literally feet from the recipient of their messages. On the other hand, stuck here in the middle of nowhere Minnesota, this blog, e-mail, and the internet have helped me to remain in contact with my own community back home.

This is partly why I find myself so immersed in Sixteenth Century studies--a period of time when there was radical dislocation and an enormous change of paradigms in the culture. The advent of printing and the splintering of the Christian faith forced individuals, families, and cultures to adapt in new and different ways. Much was lost but, with the advent of modernity, much was gained, as well. Perhaps, by looking to the past, we can find some ways of navigating all of this technological change. In the meantime, I'll remain thankful for all of those religious texts from the 1560's which I've managed to collect and read . . . stored safely away (where else) on my computer.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Giving from our Poverty

Yesterday's lectionary texts posed a particular problem for the American preacher. They featured two widow women, each lifted up by the biblical narrator for their willingness to give out of their poverty. As such, they provide marvelous examples of giving "with an open hand"--willing to give when one has little.

The difficulty for most of us is that we usually don't give in this way. Instead, we give out of our abundance. Whether it is giving a tithe (10%) or dropping a few dollars into the offering plate, church goers in this country usually feel very little pain when it comes to giving. Whenever we are actually faced with a situation which challenges us instead of opening our fist and giving freely we tend to grasp all the tighter. We can clearly see this in the wake of 9/11 over the past five years. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to open up and give more, like children we have chosen to cling, said Fr. Kevin Seasoltz in yesterday's homily. Whether it is clinging to the myth of security or drawing the tribal lines ever tighter, we have largely reverted to infantile behavior.

The Gospel, however, provides us with a very different model through these two remarkable women. As Fr. Kevin maintained, "real giving has a certain recklessness about it," as opposed to our tendency to want to keep back somthing from God. This may range from power, to security, to prestige, he claimed. Journeying towards God challenges this tendency in human nature. "It costs us nothing to give of our surplus," the homilist announced, "but it is always costly to give of our lives."
As Americans, such narratives come to us "from another country." We can't imagine such selfless giving. We are more like the religious authorities of Jesus' day: "Look at what we've done for you, God!"

Benedictine hospitality hearkens back to this gospel precept, inviting the recipient to begin asking, "What would it really mean for me to give back to God in the same way He has given for me in Christ?" As someone who is at his "peak earning power" privileged to be spending a semester away from my typical duties, I find myself faced every day with the many riches which confront me. Sure, I can complain about how I sacrifice to teach at a small Christian liberal arts college where the pay is less than I might receive somewhere else, but the reality is that I have so much more than I could ever have dreamed--and certainly much more than the vast number of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world. As I prepare to return home to my family for Thanksgiving, figuring out where I am at in the gospel lesson and what I am being called to do will be front and center.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Practicing One's Craft

My senior year in high school, we designed a tee-shirt for our percussion section which prominently displayed in a logo, "Stick it!" Six of us in that section spent countless hours working on ensemble pieces which we would take to divisional and state competition. Though quite different in our personalities, we learned to become "one" whenever we played together. This afternoon I attended a concert by the Ethos Percussion Group which took "sticking" to new heights. Over fifty different percussion instruments lined the stage from traditional snares and toms to African and Indian drums to the more bizarre Japanese bowl, gongs dipped in water, and even fenceposts broken up to create different sounds.

What was so wonderful about this group was the breadth of their work--from Steve Reich's incredibly syncopated, "Drumming" to Samir Chatterjee's, "Rite Rhythm." Sounds from Guinea, West Africa, merged with the offbeat work of John Cage and Lou Harrison. Each member of the group looked like one of my friends: Yousif Sheronick was a more slender version of Alex Schmidt, David Shively was a dead ringer for Dan Strickland with an afro, Eric Phinney was a stouter, quieter Rick Stephens, and Trey Files looked like Louis Gibberson with my haircut from the seventies. Together, they created a unique sound honed in the studio.

In my experience, many drummers are just that--drummers. A number can't read music and they are trained simply to keep a beat and sometimes to show off when on stage. But these guys were all classically trained as chamber musicians, totally dedicated to their craft. Eric, for instance, had given himself over to a decade of study to Indian drums--just so he could play pieces like Chatterjee's. Their understanding of their instruments was equalled only by their careful attention to one another: at one point in "Drumming" they had to pick up the speed, at another to carefully slow down. These four guys gave "drummers" a good name.

Careful attention to one's craft is in short supply these days. The speed of our culture, the accessibility of goods, has made people impatient of anything not quickly acquired. But good percussionists take decades to develop, carefully and laboriously learning rudimentary skills, practicing their instruments, and hopelessly practicing hour upon hour in a kind of solitary confinement. The result is a thing of beauty--something that looks easy to do. But, like all good craftsmen, the appearance of ease belies the reality: great music (as well as anything of great beauty) takes a lot of hard work which the audience never even sees.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Post-Election-Day Liturgy

Several of us dragged ourselves to Morning Prayer today, despite the late night election results. Minnesota managed to elect its first female senator and the nation's first Muslim congressman. While the Democrats clearly took the House, the Senate remains a bit up in the air with a couple of races still extraordinarily close in Virginia and Montana. The nation's despair over the President's bellicosity and seeming inability to deal with both the reality on the ground in Iraq and the continuing loss of security and economic power by the lower middle-class, seems apparent to most of us.

Yet, as Christians, we must be very careful not to put our primary allegiance in any party or candidate. It was refreshing this morning to begin Morning Prayer with the familiar hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy," followed by the Psalmist's proclamation, "The heavens are telling the glory of God!" The liturgy has this tremendous capacity to bring us back into contact with our primary allegiance: to God alone. This is but one reason why much of the pablum that passes for worship in American Evangelicalism is so bothersome. There is a sad irony that the wing of the Christian faith that is so often preoccupied with issues of theological authority has become so captive to the whims of the popular culture. The pronoun "I" is front and center stage in much of the praise music which is so ubiquitous.

Perhaps, given the toxic culture of American politics (both right and left), we need the "sameness" of the liturgy today more than ever. There is a tendency to get swept up in whatever the issue of the day is and to forget that there is but one faith, one Lord, one baptism. It is the baptismal waters that provide for us our primary sense of identity as a people--not the ballot box. So, while we remain thankful for the rights of citizenship, we remain even more cognizant of our primary calling as a people who dare to stand over against a culture which remains self-absorbed and committed to politics and economics as the ultimate source of reality.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sorrowful Songs

I did not grow up at home with classical music. I came to discover it as I was trained as a percussionist in school. It was there that I learned something of the canon of the classics--particularly those like Wagner or Tchaikovsky who had a soft spot in their hearts for the men and women in the back who liked to make noise. Attending symphony concerts, then, has always brought pleasure to me because I can watch how the various sections interact and swell with pride at the sound of a drum roll, tympani crescendo, or cymbal crash.

I also tend to associate the orchestra with my first forays into the world of dating. When I was in high school, being a bit of a nerd, the band provided a social network for getting to know members of the opposite sex. I admired young women who could lean into the violin with passion, create a melodious peal from the small mouthpiece of a french horn, or get one of those awkward reeds on a clarinet to actually make sweet-sounding noise. So, when I look at certain instruments in the orchestra, my mind normally associates them with teenage girls who did their best to make "melodye" on them.

But, yesterday, it was Nicole Cabell who held my full attention as her melodious soprano voice sang the haunting notes of Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." Composed in 1976, the Polish writer's three hymns bring together a 15th century lamentation, a 20th century prayer written on a prison wall by an 18-year-old, and a poem based on folk poetry using part of a church hymn. It is hard to describe the power of these three movements. Whatever Gorecki intended, Cabell (under the direction of Osmo Vanska) teased out deep sorrow from the notes on the page. Her repetition (in Polish) of the line, "He lies in his grave and I know not where though I keep asking people everywhere," was enough to bring tears to your eyes.

These songs were pieces of maternal pain in which mothers and children create a bond, despite the horrors and deep wounds that separate them. I have stood at the bedside of parents saying goodbye to dying children and even wept at the loss of a daughter stillborn with my wife. But Gorecki somehow has managed to capture in the combination of words and music the deep searing pain of a child taken too soon. Cabell, who won the 2005 BBC World Singing Competition in Cardiff, was like no singer I've heard yet in Minnesota. She pulled me into the music in a way I rarely have been before and reminded me of the power of music to capture human emotion, desire, and deep sorrow.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All Souls' Day

The moon is quite bright tonight and has cut through the clouds that hung over central Minnesota throughout the day. The call is for our coldest night yet--perhaps single digits for the first time this season. We never quite made the freezing mark during the day. Coming home from Evening Prayer tonight I was glad for the respite from the wind which has blown incessantly the last few days.

The psalms were quite familiar tonight as we completed the cycle from the Common for the Dead. Psalm 23, 42-43, and the reminder from Lamentations that "God's love is new every morning." Noonday prayer took place in the cold blast at the top of the hill at the monastic cemetery. Abbot John led is in a special remembrance of the dead, as participants whispered the name of their loved ones. The graves of the monks were sprinkled with water and we especially remembered the four monks who had died since last All Souls' Day. Complaining about the temperature, I was told of the celebration 15 years ago when over thirty inches of snow lay on the ground, to which my colleague, Kathleen, reminded us that last year it had been seventy degrees.

All of this reminded me that, though the weather changes, life goes on. The cycles of the seasons can reinforce for us the fact that life, itself, is cyclical. From life to death, we all must learn to cope with this cyclical nature. The scriptures have this wonderful ability to embrace these realities of life--good and ill--and offer them back to God. So, on this day when we remember those who have touched our lives and continue to exercise an influence on us, I give thanks for all of those who have gone before. May God give me the ability to hold in trust what they have passed on and to live a life of faithfulness, even as did they.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All Saints' Day

As a person whose primary strength is "context," All Saints' Day has become, more and more, a favorite day in the church calendar. Somehow, for most of us Protestants, it seems a rather odd celebration and yet, because of our theological amnesia, its role has become central in my own classroom instruction. As was revealed even at our sabbaticant gathering last night, the memories of those who have been close to us and are now gone remain ever fresh--hidden just below the surface. Though they may have been dead for years, somehow their presence seems all-too-real even yet.

In Morning Prayer, we were surrounded by candles and reliquaries holding holy remains--something considered somewhat macabre by many Protestants. And yet, I found it somewhat comforting to think of being surrounded in choir by tangible reminders of those who had gone before. When our daughter, Hannah, died quite unexectedly in the process of trying to be born, my wife and I found quite helpful the opportunity to not only hold her in our arms but to take clippings of her hair and pictures of her precious little body. The nurse who walked us through this grief clearly understood the need to claim the presence of even a child who had never been able to draw a breath this side of the womb.

Last night I received an e-mail from one of the members of my high school graduating class, informing me of the death of one of the prominent members of our class. Karla was an energetic, bright, and warm human being who married the Student Body President, Jason, and followed him and his dreams to Yale. They had four children, two of whom preceded her in death, and now Jason is left alone to grieve this wonderful wife who was taken too early at age 49--another victim of the ravages of cancer. No one can walk the way of grief for him (as C. S. Lewis points out poignantly in his A Grief Observed). For weeks, months, probably for years, he will turn to address her--forgetting that now she is gone.

But, as Christians, we hang onto the hope, not only of seeing our loved ones again someday (in the sweet-by-and-by), but that, somehow, they remain here with us. The early Christians even went so far as to have something of a picnic on the grave of the loved one on the anniversary of their death (so, tomorrow, the monastic community will process out to the cemetery at noonday prayer). Their presence remains ever tangible--separated only by a veil that seems impenetrable to us, the living. In the meantime, during the month of November, we choose to remember and celebrate. In the words of Jesus ben Sirach (chapter 44):

Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. 2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. 3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; 4 those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people's lore; they were wise in their words of instruction; 5 those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; 6 rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes -- 7 all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. 8 Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. 9 But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. 10 But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; 11 their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children's children. 12 Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. 13 Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out. 14 Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.