Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Souls Day 2001 and 2009: In a rural French cemetery: Part I. "My steadfast love shall not depart from you...."

Written during late Advent 2001 and extracted from "Gardening with God" (Jane Mossendew -Continuum 2002).

" 'My steadfast love shall not depart from you and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.........' (Is. 54: 10)

On a slight rise to the west of our house lies the village cemetery, and in it grows a cedar that must be at least two hundred years old. Whether in flesh or spirit I will, during the mild, cloudless clarity of a brief December afternoon, make my way up the straight road from the house carrying tools for grave tidying. and a bouquet of rosemary, bay, eucalyptus and tricolour sage.

Heavy iron gates closed behind me, the intermittent noises of the outside world are muffled and distant. In more ways than one I stand at the boundary separating two worlds. Ahead of me lies a wide gravelled avenue with the cedar in a central circular clearing. To my right and left are the graves, ornate and simple alike, strewn with the faded tributes placed on them at All Souls by fathful families. I pass across the ground beneath the cedar branches, bone-dry and comforting whatever the weather has been.

As I approach my mother's grave it seems to me that the tree is breathing out strength, security and tranquility. I settle to the work I have come to do, the prayer I have come to offer, and even though my sorrow for her suffering is undiminished, there is no morbidity in my regret, nor desolation in my loss.

An habitual memory comes of visiting the cemetery with my mother in the early 1990s. She confided that during my long absences at work in London, she would often come here after a hard stint of gardening, to rest and think, sitting on the bench in the lee of the cemetery wall. She had been a widow for fifteen years, and I asked her if she did not find the place depressing. 'No,' she said, 'I think of happy times with Daddy and you. The cedar makes it so peaceful. There is nothing upsetting here.' As I hugged her I am certain we both knew she would be buried here, close to the cedar. The thought was unspoken, but she seemed contented in the acceptance of this place as the edge of her eternity.

We were happy together that day, and I feel it is then that we said goodbye, not seven years later, when her mind had been destroyed by disease, nor when she could no longer swallow, nor just before she sank into a final coma...................Her grave now tidy, I rest on the bench and, looking toawards the cedar, as she so often did, begin the day's meditation.

The first prayer is of thanksgiving for the love of my parents for each otherand for me, which like the cedar was strong, wholesome and unshakeable. And then, what else has the tree to say on this late Advent afternoon? It speaks of Balaam's poem in Numbers 24: 'The tents of Jacob....like cedar trees beside the waters!...A hero rises from their stock, he reigns over countless peoples.' And Balaam prophesies, 'I see him, but not in the present. I behold him, but not close at hand - a star from Jacob takes the leadership, a sceptre arises from Israel' (24: 6; 17).

Balaam's eyes were opened, albeit dimly, but later in Matthew 21, it seems that those of the chief priests and elders are deliberately closed. They will not see and will not accept the authority of Jesus. He exposes the chicanery of their questioning and they remain in the dark. William de St Thierry (c. 1080-1148), in his Treatise 'On Contemplating God' shows how we should contemplate Him in love, not interrogate Him in arrogance. We should not ask Christ, 'What are your credentials for authority?' but, 'How are we to be saved?' He loved us first and although he is stern against obduracy, he is gentle if we respond to his sacrifice of love, with love.
I began by thanking God for human love, which is good, and capable of withstanding much, but the cedar has reminded me that it is but a shadow of the love God proclaims through Isaiah, and the merest tiny reflection of the love shown to each one of us in Christ's redeeeming death.

It is time to go. I pause beneath the tree and reflect that even the 'incorruptible' cedar will eventually know decay. But the decay of our dead is temporary. My mother has not fallen into a bottomless cavern of oblivion. She is somewhere sentient with all the dead waiting for this 'corruptible' to put on incorruption, and this mortal to put on immortality.' As I reluctantly reopen the iron gates, my heart echoes Isaiah and sings with joy for the living and the dead,
'He will not hide Himself. Your eyes shall see Him, your ears hear Him. Blessed are they who wait.' "

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