I was stunned to hear about the death of a former parishioner. Mel was a cantor at our parish, and I had known her for about twenty years. Those familiar with Eastern Christianity know how important the cantor is to the beauty and prayerfulness of it’s services. The Divine Liturgy is a thing of beauty, unless the cantor is having a bad day. Then it is a train wreck. During one Divine Liturgy when the cantor was having a particularly rough day, the celebrant leaned over to me and whispered, “Who can pray?” Mel never had a rough day when she led the responses. She sang like an angel.
Having an engaging personality made her one of the favorites of the parish. Mel always had a smile on her face, maintained a pleasant and positive demeanor and never made a mean comment about anyone. The latter was simply not possible since she did not have a mean bone in her body. After she had her first child, Mel further clinched the love and admiration of the parish by bringing her daughter to the choir loft to sing. I can still remember Mel holding her precious baby daughter as she sang at a service.
I was particularly hit hard by Mel’s Falling Asleep in the Lord not only because of her many endearing qualities but also because she had befriended my elder daughter in high school. I had an even more crushing realization as I remembered Mel began dating her husband in and around the time I started a Bible study at a local college. Mel “forced” her boyfriend (later husband) to drive her to the study. We spent many fun hours together. I became familiar with her future husband, who also is a stellar person. They married and had two young children. Everyone believed this was a match made in heaven. It surely was, but the earthly marriage ended prematurely. Their world crashed as Mel developed cancer and passed away without reaching her 40th birthday. She left two young children behind, who are now in the care of their very capable and loving father. Everyone that knew them, including me, was devastated.
At times like these, we look to our faith to sustain us. The Book of Job attempts to show why bad things happen to good people. Job suffered a cruel loss of his family, his possessions and even his personal dignity as he was put through his trials. At Job’s breaking point, God appears to him and essentially tells Job to mind his own business (Job 38-42). God reminds Job that he is only human and not capable of understanding the vastness of God’s designs. Job is only capable of understanding there is purposefulness to God’s activity.
I have some sympathy with this position. I understand the concept and accept it but don’t totally comprehend it. Let me give you an example of a similar phenomena. God, who is considered to be omniscient, does not see time in a linear fashion as we do. It is laid out for Him as He sees all at all times. I accept that as a matter of logic but have a hard time making sense of that. As Kant points out, human comprehension is rooted in time and space. We can’t even imagine anything outside of the spacetime continuum. Given this, it is difficult to see how God has constructed and manages the universe. In a similar fashion, I find it hard to understand how such tragedy as Mel’s death can play into God’s plan.
I intellectually understand this theology, but I find it to be insufficient. It is, well, cold. God gave us an intellect and I believe He wants us to use it. The priest I mentioned earlier had a saying I adopted: “God loves an honest doubter.” I adopted the attitude of one of my favorite Biblical characters, Elijah. Unlike Job, Elijah did not passively accept the Word of God. He would shake his fist at God, challenge Him and demand an answer. Nowhere was this more evident than in the story of the Widow of Zarapeth (1 Kings 18). We are all looking for that answer after Mel’s departure.
God would answer Elijah, but perhaps not in the way Elijah expected or wanted. We are all familiar with the story of the theophany Elijah experienced in the cave (1 Kings 19). He did not experience God in the cataclysmic events but in a whisper. I understand that even while I shake my fist at God over this tragedy I still have an obligation to listen for that whisper.
While I am waiting, I also remember another tenet of Eastern Christianity. I often hear many people say they are spiritual people, whatever that means. When I press them on this subject they often can’t explain their answer in any detail. They respond with some vague platitude or bromide. Their “spirituality” is simply a crutch for their psyche. If you are an Eastern Christian you do understand what spirituality means. As Archbishop Joseph Raya suggests, Eastern spirituality is your belief and your actions that will eventually enable you to see the Face of God. Remember, those who saw the Face of God in the Jewish Scriptures feared for their lives. If you saw the Glory of God you would die since it is so awesome. Even Moses was denied seeing the Face of God. Moses had the privilege of seeing the back of God’s head as He passed by (Exodus 33). As the Sessional Hymn of the Canon of the Encounter of the Lord in the Temple proclaims: “In the Days of Old, on Mount Sinai, Moses saw the back of God, and was counted worthy in darkness and a storm of wind faintly to hear the Divine Voice.” We long for much more.
Christians believe their eternal reward will be to look directly upon that Holy Face. I understand if there is an afterlife (which I believe there is) there is no one who deserved to see the Face of God more than Mel. I believe she has achieved what we all desire: to be in the presence of the Almighty and to gaze for all eternity upon His divinity. I also know the Bible speaks of the higher order of angels singing “Holy, Holy, Holy…” continuously in the presence of God (Rev 4,Isa 6). I believe she now is part of that heavenly choir, singing the eternal praises of God.
My belief does not explain why Mel was taken from her family and her parish now. Why was such a wonderful bright light taken from this Vale of Tears? Perhaps the very question provides an answer. Perhaps God decided to remove her from this Place of Pain. However, we just don’t know. We also have to keep in mind the answer Jesus gave when he was confronted with a man blind from birth. Jesus said this was not the result of sin or an evil committed by the disabled person. It was to show the works of God.
We await a demonstration of how the work of God Jesus promised in such situations. We await that Whisper Elijah received. However, until I see that in God’s own time, I reserve the right to shake my fist at the Almighty as Elijah did. While we wait, we continue to pray the Creed: “I expect the Resurrection of the Dead, and Life of the World to Come.” I expect to see Mel at that time, as all Christians do. It is our common spirituality and core of Christianity. The Lenten season is a special time to remember those who have gone before us. There are the All Souls Saturdays and the Lazarus Saturday commemorations during the Great Fast. This year, I will sing all the louder (and hopefully in tune) as I remember someone who I am sure went to her eternal reward.
In Blessed Repose, Grant eternal rest to your handmaid Mel, and make her memory to be eternal!