Summer, 2008 will end for me in much the same way it began—with my serving the funeral of a friend.
In May, I served the funeral of Khouriya Joanne Abdallah, the wife of Fr John Abdallah. The service itself was large, 8 bishops, 20 (or more) priests, several deacons, and over 200 people in the congregation.
Tomorrow I will serve the funeral for another friend, Charlene Cannon. Like Joanne, Charlene lived with cancer for many years—for almost the whole of the 15 years I've known her in fact. And like Joanne, Charlene was usually cheerful and optimistic in the face of her illness.
Unlike Joanne's funeral, tomorrow's for Charlene will not be as grand. There will only be two priests serving Divine Liturgy for her funeral, her pastor Fr Jonathan Tobias and me. And yet, for all the service will be smaller, it will be no less significant for that fact. In the Gospel Jesus challenges us: "Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" He then asks us more directly: "Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?" (Mt 6.26-27)
The great paradox of the Gospel is that our trust in God arises not out of intellectual reflection or study, but from the living sense of our own powerlessness:
The "garments of skin" are all of those experiences of my own contingency that I would turn away from; primarily sickness and mortality, but also failure and my seeming insignificance in the eyes of the world.
Both Khouriya Joanne and Charlene lived for many years with a more intense experience of the "garments of skins." Bearing up under their own illnesses as they both did with grace and good humor, allowed God to use their illnesses to transform them those around them.
Thinking about both women, I realize that they were both open-hearted and hospitable. Certainly they were hospitable in the sense of welcoming others into their homes. There was also in a more fundamental hospitality that both embodied however.
This more basic hospitality is one that welcomed people into their hearts and allows their presence there to shape their lives. Hospitality of home allows the host to do for the visitor; hospitality of the heart allows the visitor, to transform the host; to allow visitors in their need and with their own gifts to become someone through whom Christ can redeem their host.
These two hospitalities are not opposed to each other; far from it. But of the two, it is the hospitable heart that is the more demanding ascetically. Why? Unlike a hospitable home, which in Charlene's case was always welcoming, but cluttered, a hospitable heart must always remain empty of the passions and any hint that I would impose my own will and desires on you. This certainly was the case with both Charlene and Joanne's hearts—their hearts were always empty in order to make room for others.
Years ago I heard a tape of a lecture given by Fr Henri Nouwen on the spirituality of marriage. Reflecting on the Ark of the Covenant, he pointed out that the cherubim that God ordered to be placed on the Ark faced each other. And it was there, in the empty space between them, where the Glory of God dwelt. Charlene and Khouriya Joanne each in her own way and in a manner compatible with the circumstance of her own life, where able to create in their own hearts that empty space in which God's glory was able to dwell among us.
These women whose death serve as bookends for the Summer of 2008 embody for me the great mystery of the Christian life—it is only by self-emptying that I am able to fulfill my own unique vocation. How could it be otherwise? What else does the example of Christ tell us but that the Glory of God dwells among us only in human poverty? For me at least, it is easy to lose sight of this. To forget that the failures, the disappointments, the miss opportunities, are all part and parcel of how God makes room in my heart and life for His Glory.
Thinking of how Summer 2008 began and now ends, I am put in mind of the hymns sung at Matins for women martyrs:
Except for those who knew them, and unlike to the women martyrs of old, Joanne and Charlene, wives and mothers both, lived and died in relative obscurity. And granted as well, the "lawless tyrant" that caused their deaths was illness and not Caesar. But for all these and other differences of time and place between those ancient women martyrs and them, I think Joanne and Charlene both stand now before Christ wearing a martyr's crown. Not because they suffered Caesar's lash, but because they suffered with nobility and charity under their long illnesses and in so doing bore witness to
As we sing in the Funeral Service: