Thursday, 1 November 2007

From All Saints to All Souls' day.

Reformed Christians don't pray for the dead, nor do we pray to saints but at this time in the western liturgical calendar I recognise in myself an almost physical call to remember those who have died, friends, parishioners, family, aquaintances and "witnesses" from history. People whose lives continue to speak to me even though they themselves no longer can.
Until my close friend Yvonne Workman fell ill with cancer and then began to die I had almost never thought about the meaning of all souls' day. I was living in East Germany when the news reached me that her cancer was incurable, the Berlin wall had not yet fallen and I felt trapped by this personal tragedy, putting away the letter which spoke of death as if this could change her sentence.
A year later, two months before Yvonne died she preached and celebrated communion at Mansfield College chapel on all souls' day. I can still feel the radiance on her face as she preached and then broke bread and poured wine. Now this memory makes me smile with something like understanding - for many years it made my cheeks wet with tears. This seemingly not very Protestant festival gave her gave her confidence and trust in the future, it lent further meaning, strength and brightness to the remaining few weeks she had left. She too would be part of this mysterious crowd of all who have ever lived and be rememebered and celebrated on that day; through bread and wine and remembrance she would remain part of the feast. On that day in the early morning of the cold chapel I began to glimpse something like understanding of what communion of all the saints might be, for a moment I may even have really believed in life after death - and believe me for a rationalist, doubting Christian such as me this is quite something!

Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia, we sang that day as she radiated hope and joy.

Yvonne died just after the feast of epiphany. The tiny United Reformed Church in Wheatley was packed for her funeral, Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford who had preached at her ordination had to stand in the church kitchen.

Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia, we sang again at the funeral.

This week I learnt with real sadness that Grace Jantzen had died last year. She and Yvonne had been close friends in London. I met her at the funeral, we led the prayers together, wept together and exchanged letters afterwards about singing alleluia - which she didn't like much. I don't know whether she was already a Quaker by then. Looking belatedly at her obituaries I'm really interested in her idea that Christians should be less obsessed with death and more committed to life - less mortal more natal. A feisty, feminist and profound philosophical theology from a woman who despite knowing cancer early in her own life challenges Christians to live, to live, to live. In memory of her, in memory of Yvonne and in celebration of their great intellects I shall buy Death and the Displacement of Beauty, part one of what should have been Grace's 6 volume opus.
The dead still speak to me of remembrance and living life to the full. I suspect this is what Mexicans have been doing on the Day of the Dead for many generations.

1 Comment:

Michael Rowe said...

Thanks, Jane. You echo my feelings. We live in a continuum with those who have already passed this way. One year, "au Desert", I realised that I had indeed been accepted into the great family of Reformees (the year of the first female predicateur (predicateuse?) there) and that I felt an indissoluble link with my predecessors in that Family. Even more so than as a Congregationalist always conscious of our history.