big vase of white carnations sits on the desk in my office
and, in the early gloom of evening, almost glows.
Last Sunday was All Saints Sunday. Forget the part about “Saints.”
Each first Sunday in November, lots of churches pay homage
to those who have died.
I’ve always thought that, among all the Sundays in the church
year, All Saints was particularly emotionally honest. We all
know the unfiltered pain of losing someone we love. We don’t
have to use our imaginations or project ourselves back into
first-century Palestine or the mythical realms of Eden.
We know about losing. We lose over and over. We know about
death—and of course, we’d rather not think about it.
But each year on All Saints Sunday we do. And I’ve always
thought it important to focus squarely on sorrow and not let
us play a game of emotional dodgeball with our grief.
This year, the congregation seemed especially silent during
the sermon. I could hear the silence, if that makes sense.
And I was glad that my contact-lens prescription needs updating
so I couldn’t clearly see any of the faces showing their pain.
Later on in the service, we said the names of each of the
people we wanted to remember who had recently died. People
had given me names last week and before church Sunday morning.
And I had added names of my own. So we had a long list.
And as each name was spoken, the bell tolled and we added
a white carnation to the slowly filling big crystal vase.
All Saints is not a dry-eyed kind of day. By the time I got
done with all the names, my eyes were brimming—something I
think of as bad form in a female pastor, and charming in a
male. But I couldn’t help it. I knew most of the people whose
names I read. I’d baptized and buried some of them.
I was glad when it came time for the ushers to come forward
for the collection plates and the choir to sing. I got a little
break before it was time for communion.
And something seemed to start happening inside me. Maybe I
was simply overheated in my long, white robe. Maybe I was
getting a delayed half-caff rush. I don’t know. But something
I started thinking it was possible to make too much of loss.
I don’t mean that in a glib way. I would never minimize the
impact of human tragedy. Even though pain is both relative
and absolute, for the person feeling the loss, “absolute”
is all that holds any meaning.
But I started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, on the other
side of loss there was not simply more loss, but hope, too.
Sounds obvious, I know. But I’ve been more or less trained
up through life’s experiences to count on loss as a given
and not to be surprised by pain. This is a strange admission
for a pastor to make, but I suppose I figured other people
could do their hoping, I’d hang onto my certainty about misery,
thank you very much.
Slowly I had this feeling that maybe I was wrong about the
certainty of misery.
Not that there isn’t misery and won’t be more, but that there
was something beyond misery, as well.
There was a young married couple I knew in graduate school
who edited a literary magazine I worked on. During my second
year, Richard’s 5-year-old nephew drowned in a pond in his
backyard. Because Kate and Richard had no children of their
own, Andrew had been like a son to them. Their grief tore
them apart. And Richard began to write poems that were so
full of pain it hurt almost physically to read them.
Eventually they divorced. Each moved to different parts of
the country. Kate remarried and had a baby.
Years later, Richard came to stay with me when he was in town
for a workshop on small-press publishing. He was still broken—but
instead of simply losing Andrew, it was as though Andrew was
with him, somehow. And he was in love with someone, crawling
out of the sorry arms of loss that had had him pinned for
Just this year I bought a book of his collected poetry. I
hadn’t seen the newer stuff. Through these poems I discover
he has a child now. He has a wife. And the words of the poems
bear witness: He has come through his loss not more lost still,
but more loving.
By the time we got to singing “For All the Saints,” which
is the Ralph Vaughn Williams chestnut for All Saints Day,
I wasn’t sure which way my spirit was going: out into the
day with a sense that there’d be plenty of loss to come to
tide us over to next year, or the sense that loss isn’t all.
That less is not more.
But I don’t mean that fatuously or glibly.
Fairy-tale endings ring reliably false: In the book of Job,
after all of his miserable trials, we’re told that Job gets
a bunch of new daughters to make up for the children that
Satan had previously smitten. I don’t buy that. You can’t
replace a loved one the way you can a stolen library book.
But maybe the reach of love exceeds the grasp of loss. I don’t
know. In the middle of All Saints Sunday, it seemed I began
to think so.
can contact Jo Page at email@example.com.