My good friend, wise counselor, and sacrificial priest, is dying of terminal cancer. He is ninety-one. He will be leaving us soon.
I owe him my life, at least my reborn life, after returning from Canada to the Bay Area where I grew up. I was twenty-nine, wounded from a disintegrating marriage. On the third Sunday of January 1977, I climbed the broad steps of St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Oakland, holding firmly the hand of my towheaded, bouncing, four-year-old son.
I was already an Anglo-Catholic, having come from Vancouver’s St. James, so I had high expectations as I entered the hushed nave, but my expectations were surpassed on that Sunday morning. The beauty of the liturgy with its fragrant incense, flaming candles, chanting responses, poetically profound hymns, pulled me into the heart of God. The sixteenth-century language – Shakespearean and Elizabethan words and phrasing – restored my soul and renewed my heart. I had come home to beauty, truth, and goodness, to the family of God, the Body of Christ. I had entered Love incarnate.
The rector, a simple priest of large frame and thick hair, who preached earnestly about the love of God from the central aisle, welcomed us. The families of the parish adopted us. Over the years I traveled in the faith, learning its language, the necessary art and parts of prayer. I began to glimpse heaven, in the daily faithfulness of an Our Father and Glory Be, and in the increased faithfulness of Morning and Evening Prayer, in the joy of receiving the Eucharist into my body and soul, in the “parting of the veil” at the altar.
I remarried at St. Peter’s, before that same altar. My son served as an acolyte and was confirmed before that altar. In the course of time, my priest and his wife traveled with me and my husband to Western Europe, to the Christian foundations of Western Civilization in Italy, France, and England. We visited monasteries, memorials, great basilicas and humble hermitages. We journeyed from abbeys to cathedrals to healing waters to shrines of the saints. My priest was a wise mentor, showing me how God worked in and through history.
My first three novels were born of those travels. They explore our history through the journeys of Madeleine and Jack Seymour, a present-day couple who climb a ladder of Christian challenges – healing of body and soul, penitence and forgiveness, redemption and salvation, sacrificial love versus narcissistic lust. These stories comprise Pilgrimage, Offerings, and Inheritance, set in Italy, France, and England. My priest is the genius behind these stories; where they sing in key they do so because of him; where they sing off-key they do so because of me. They are given depth with his words, his beliefs, his ways of seeing and understanding that settled into my soul.
The stories in turn gifted me with the joy of writing, and for this gift I must be ever in my friend’s debt. As he lay dying he turned to me with half closed eyes, my novel-in-progress on his mind. “The new book – don’t forget the changes,” he barely breathed. “I won’t,” I said. “They’ve already been made.” It was true, I had rewritten portions as he suggested after his reading an early draft, making The Fire Trail richer and more powerful in its consideration of barbarism and civilization. He won’t be able to read the new version until later, at the river.
Christians never really say goodbye. They say God be with you (the origin of goodbye) or Till we meet again. My priest says he is leaving us, not that he is dying. He often said that we will “gather at the river.” I asked him one afternoon as he lay dying, “Which river? I need to know where we are gathering when we meet in heaven.” His eyes opened wide and locked on mine. “Why, the one that flows by the throne of God.” I laughed. “Of course,” I said. “Now I know where to gather.” I later looked up the lyrics, and sure enough, the refrain was just as he said:
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God. (Robert Lowry, 1864)
When I left him that day, I kissed his forehead and said, “Till we meet again.” He barely nodded and smiled as he drifted off to sleep.
We worked together on many projects, my saintly priest and I. I always considered it an honor to do what I could, as best I could, with the time given. I prayed about what to do next, listened to Holy Spirit nudges, trusting that the Holy Spirit, that Breath of God, would breathe me along the right path. When I made wrong turns, I prayed I would return to the crossroads and choose again.
Sacramental Christianity, the faith taught me by my priest, is woven with these wonderful truths – the turning, the changing, the leading, the following the star. Life is a dance, a sacramental dance between heaven and earth, and through Christ, in Christ, the two – the invisible and the visible, God’s world and man’s world – waltz with one another. Without the Incarnation, that first dance two thousand years ago, we would not be dancing with the angels. We would not know how.
All this and much more I learned from my prayerful and penitential priest. I sing with gratitude for his life, so thankful that I could share a small part of it, and now, as he leaves us, he is teaching us how to make a “good death.” For one day I will follow him. I will leave; I will die. The best way, it seems to me, is to have made a “good life.” Then, leave that goodness in the hands of those you love and who love you. For love unites us all – the love of God, the love of Christ, the love of the Holy Spirit binding us together. And my priest loves each one of us, as we love him, binding us together in this God of infinite love.
In my freshman year in college in 1965 one of the final exam questions in my Western Civilization class was: “What is the good life?” It was of course a reference to the classical philosophers, but today I know the true answer. The good life is to know God, to be redeemed by Christ, and to live the life of a sacramental Christian. There is nothing better than that. Such goodness defines everything else.
And I owe the answer to my priest, who, in time, became bishop and then archbishop. At this writing, on Ascension Sunday 2015 celebrating the ascension of Christ to heaven, this earthly shepherd of souls lingers in his love for us, even after last rites. In my ongoing prayers for him, the river is never far from my thoughts, beckoning us, calling us to gather by the throne of God. And I realize now it is the river of life, eternal life and eternal love.
Deo Gratias… Safe travels, dear friend.