Monday, November 20, 2006

Life after death

Saturday morning held an unexpected treat.

I went across to St. Paul’s basilica on my way to the market, only to find that there was unusual activity around the area of the ‘confessio’, or sunken area that encloses the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles. There has been a collapsible wooden screen propped up in strategic places for the past couple of months, plus some unexplained planking in front of the altar.

When I approached the tomb in order to pray for a few minutes, I discovered that the screen had been removed and so had the planks. There was a woman in a red overall, carrying a bucket of hot water so that she might begin to clean the very dirty marble floor. (Isn’t it intriguing the way in which workmen never clean up after themselves?) Turning towards the altar so that I could pray, I discovered that there is no longer any marble there! Instead, a large sheet of very heavy plate glass gives an uninterrupted view down to the actual tomb itself!

Okay, in one sense, the view is not very exciting, but it wasn’t meant to be. St. Paul was buried in the same cemetery as uncounted numbers of his contemporaries, predecessors and successors.

The wall of any grave is not meant to be special or exciting. What makes it precious is its connection with the person inside. Even a brick wall can be a focus for reverence, for prayer and for love. We visit graves probably long after there are either any or many remains of the one who was buried there. That doesn’t matter. They are sacred by association. That is why we treasure them and spend time beautifying them.

Visiting the English cemetery in Rome recently, I wondered why it is commonly known as the English cemetery when, in fact, apart from such people as Keats and Shelley, there is a surprisingly wide range of nationalities represented. Some of the tombstones are very beautiful: there’s one, for instance, of a little boy sitting on a stone. I’m sure that each and every site could tell a unique story of the individual who rests there. Yet, what strikes me is that, in the midst of the tangle of weeds, bushes, trees and headstones, there is peace.

A graveside is not meant to be a place of sadness and despair. It is a place of peace, whatever the story might have been.

In 1982 I stood at the grave of an elderly Jesuit, who had achieved his ambition to travel to Australia, but who dropped dead as he reached the front door of the house where he was to stay. It must have been a terrible shock for those who had been intended to be his community. Yet, as I stood at his grave, one of, I think only two or three people in the whole of Australia who knew him, the sense was not one of loneliness… except for me because I’d been looking forward to seeing him… the grave was bare, except for a single red flower, a scarlet pimpernel.

In the midst of death, there is life and there is hope. Resurrection and new life are fact, not fiction. We might shed tears because we are the ones left behind, but those whom we have loved are enshrined forever in our hearts. Nobody can take them away and our own death is only a reunion and a presence that will last for all eternity.

God bless,
Sr. Janet