It was a warm sunny Saturday at Queen of Heaven Cemetery where we gathered for the Bishop’s Vineyard wine tasting. Broad umbrellas and old oaks cast shade over a sweeping lawn. A fountain burbled in the center of a patio. The large buffet was inside, the wine tasting outside, the tables circling the patio. Tickets had been placed in wine glasses for those who registered as they arrived, five tickets exchanged for five samples. The glasses were to take home, a nice touch for this free event.
In addition to the food and wine, a Planning Tour table encouraged us to plan our future residence, with both under-ground and above-ground destinations, our last resting place, as they say. Indeed, cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion, dormitory, a place of sleeping.
But on this Saturday, above ground, folks sipped wine and nibbled from small plates, mingling, chatting, and possibly planning their final rest, gazing over the flowery meadow where some family were already sleeping. In this way the living and the dead danced with one another on this sunny summer afternoon, the linking enlivening the living.
Knowing one’s days are numbered gives those days rare value. Present time is gilded with past and future. We are “present” more fully in our present moment; we value it; we pay attention. It is good to be reminded of winter on a summer’s day. It is good to be reminded in a Christian cemetery that death opens a door to life.
My second chapter in my recently released literary suspense, The Fire Trail (eLectio, 2016), is set at Queen of Heaven Cemetery, and I was honored to be invited to read the chapter and sign copies of the novel. I sat at a shaded table between the wine and the Planning Tours. Appropriate, I thought, for my heroine, Jessica, likes the planning involved in preparing for one’s death. She likes the orderliness, although not yet a believer in the Christian promise of resurrection.
Jessica sits with her mother at the foot of a giant statue of the Risen Christ, and they speak of the dead, her father and sister resting beneath. She has been called to this place and this moment by duty, the discipline of love. For it is love that brings her to the cemetery, that commands her to be faithful to her mother and this monthly graveside visit. It is love that prompts her to pause in her busy life and remember her father and sister.
On this summery afternoon near the splashing fountain, as I read aloud words from the pages in the open book, a wind came up. I pressed my fingers down upon the rippling edges, continuing to read, trying not to pause in this dance of life and death, of love and loss, a dance that skipped and bowed and twirled within the words and phrases. I tried not to disrupt the rhythm, the rhythm of the language beating time to Jessica’s heart, and I hoped my listeners, holding their wine and gazing toward me, could hear the rhythm and join in the dance, now of wind and words and wine.
Speech is such a precious thing – language expressing thoughts and feelings, a sharing with one another, a connection. When speech is spoken between us, among us, conversation is born, and love touches us in the birthing. The conversation between writer and reader, between speaker and listener, reflects the divine, for it draws us close to one another, that is, if our hearts are open and we respect one another’s freedom of thought and belief. It draws us together, if we speak civilly, if we speak with love. And so love begets love.
Jessica’s journey through the pages of my novel follows a path through darkness into light. Just so, our own life journeys do the same, following paths through sunlight and shadow, all the while knowing this life is but a dim reflection of the one to come. We see through a glass darkly, imperfectly. We gaze upon the cemetery meadow and its sleeping forms beneath. We look up to the open arms of the risen Christ, the windswept skies and golden hills. The cemetery speaks to us of life not death, of light not darkness. It helps us talk to God. The cemetery, with its stones and statues, its sacred sacraments, invites us into a conversation.
The Fire Trail considers these things. It asks where the borders of love lie, where it is we no longer love, where it is we no longer speak to one another. It considers our freedom to speak, not only to one another, but to God. The firebreak in the Berkeley hills (useful a few days earlier in the Grizzly Peak fire) protects civilization from the wilderness. It is a border that protects life and those innate freedoms given to us by God our Creator – freedom to speak, to civilly express our thoughts and desires. It is a border worth defending. For the trail, in turn, defends us. It is a boundary that secures our peace and freedom, that allows us to love one another.
As the wind rippled the pages of my little novel and I said the words printed on the paper, I danced with my listeners. The bodies of the dead were beyond in the meadow, under the grass, but I knew the souls who had once lived in those houses of flesh and bone were no longer there. The bodies were disintegrating, returning to the earth, ash. Those souls who had lived in those houses were beyond, dancing with angels, and touching from time to time the outstretched hands of the Risen Christ.
And from time to time, they touched us all as we gathered together on this sunny summer Saturday.