A friend of mine died this last week. She stepped into the next life, for she was and is a Christian. She knew the way to Heaven for she had spent a lifetime inside the warm ark of the Church. Through joy and sorrow, through health and sickness, she was surrounded by the guidance and love of the Body of Christ.
We were not close friends, but we were longtime friends. Somehow the years (thirty-seven) sharing a pew in our parish church, kneeling and praying and singing together, created a mysterious, miraculous bond. Our sons served together as acolytes, and oddly enough both boys ended up in Colorado a few hours away from one another, with their own families. When my friend began working in the small publishing office where I work too, it gave me great joy to see her more often. We compared our Rocky Mountain sons and counted the days until our next visits to see the grandchildren. We compared photos and shared Facebook postings. Now, as I write this, I see her smile and I hear her laughter.
Now she is gone, or rather, she has gone ahead of me.
It was not a surprise, for she had been dying slowly of cancer and the treatments were no longer working. Yet it was a surprise, a shock, and I still can’t really believe she is not on this earth, that she has moved on, to be with Our Lord in Heaven and sing with the angels and saints. There will be an emptiness in the office now.
I’m so glad we have the Holy Comforter, the one who strengthens us in times like this, the Holy Spirit of God given us at Pentecost. And in the many churches we visited in Italy last month, this strengthening sense of God was present. Italy is full of haunting, beautiful, intoxicating churches alive with God’s Spirit, sometimes dating to the fourth century and earlier. They teach me about Heaven and earth as I enter and cross the threshold into the sacred. I gaze up the central aisle, focusing on the high altar with its potent tabernacle. Everything in the church points to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in that tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, even the domes dance above, linking Heaven to earth through this church rooted in the ground, whether the church be small or large, humble or grandiose.
I find history fascinating, at least history that explains my present, helps me with the riddle of me, so the history of the Western world in particular is the underpinning, the foundation for our American life today. It is useful history, events and people that formed us as a culture molded our thought patterns, directed our assumptions. It explains, solves the mystery of life.
And so it is even more so with the history of Christianity, particularly visible in Italy’s churches. It was this fascination that led to my novel, The Magdalene Mystery, for the mystery of Mary Magdalene is the mystery of history, how we know what we know, or do we know anything? Is life meaningless, are we dumb beasts, and is all of life merely chaos spinning into a void? What did the Magdalene see that Easter morning two thousand years ago? Was it just the gardener after all? Were the early accounts of the resurrection of Christ true?
I cross the threshold of a church and I know I can know. I know I can find the answers if I want to. All of the imagery explains what happened and what it means to me today on my own journey. All of the faithful who have gone before have added to the great wealth of knowledge we have concerning exactly what happened in those first decades of the first millennium.
The churches speak to me, again and again. They speak of God’s love, what our lives mean, who we are meant to be, where we are going. Through the churches, God speaks to all of us. We need only listen.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the festival of the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples and baptizing them with fire. Thus today is the Birthday of the Church. It is a day to watch and listen, for as our preacher said, God’s Spirit weaves through us in spectacular ways. We simply need to pay attention.
I agree. In Rome, as I chatted with other Christians on fire with God I sensed the Holy Spirit weaving among us. Sister Emanuela at St. John Lateran was alight with God’s love as she recounted her experiences sharing the Christian art of Rome with English visitors (you might recognize her joy in The Magdalene Mystery). Father Paolo of La Maddalena, an exquisite golden Baroque church, included us in the celebration of the birthday of San Camillo, the founder of his Order of the Ministers to the Sick, the Camillians. We met Camilliani pilgrims from Great Britain, from the Philippines, from northern Italy, each alight with God’s love, each dedicating their lives to easing suffering and giving hope to the dying. Father Paolo blessed their hands, for their hands are healing hands.
Christians the world over carry the Holy Spirit within them, for they say yes, they are open to God working in them, weaving them together into a beautiful tapestry. The Holy Spirit bonding is greater than kinship, greater than friendship. It is a quiet bond, for we are linked by the still small voice of God. But it is strong and it is faithful, and it is intoxicating.
And one day, I shall join my friend and we shall share our stories and our lives. We shall sing alleluia with the angels and the saints, praising God for all he has done for us.