Anne Lamott, in her well-known book about writing, Bird by Bird, reflects on an important moment for her, when she was losing her best friend, in the prime of life to cancer. She desperately wanted some thing to happen that would change things once and for all—to reverse the course—and make things normal and promising once again. She did not want to lose her friend, Pammy, and she certainly didn’t relish the thought of having to live without her—for after all, her close friend had been the one who had been the strength for her, when the world seemed to be coming apart. Anne picked up the phone one night and called a doctor. She said, “This was a doctor who always gave me a straight answer. When I called on this one particular night, I was hoping she could put a positive slant on some distressing developments. She couldn’t, but she said something that changed my life. ‘Watch her carefully, right now,’ she said, ‘because she’s teaching you how to live.’”
In so many ways, that is Susan Alexander’s story; her gift to us, if you will, in the midst of a moment that she did not choose, would not choose, yet given to her, nevertheless, and thus, to all of us who loved her. In those long months of dying, we watched her closely—listened to her voice, her thoughts about this transitory life and life eternal—we admired her remarkable courage, her truth, her certain faith and her doubts—and we prayed that for her, there would be that peace which passes all human understanding. Through her dying days, she taught all of us how to live.
Like you, I’ve thought a good deal about Susan, through these late spring and summer days. That wonderfully stoic presence—that “can-do attitude—brought to whatever task was at hand—if you don’t need for me to run the Dean’s office, then I’ll handle the development program, while taking classes that would prepare her for come what may—to Seton Cove, where her natural teaching skills would make themselves known—thus, came the joy of professional fulfillment, and then like a thief in the night, so unexpected and anticipated—life became a series of diagnoses, medications, tests, treatments, and the realization that her time, however measured, would be shorter—and so, in some mysterious and remarkable way, she filled that time with teaching us how to live. Through it all, Susan carried within her an extraordinary juxtaposition of acceptance; coming to terms with what is and will be, and an embrace of Dylan Thomas’ refrain, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” That is the mark of deep faith; a time-tested spirituality, shaped and formed by one who had seen both the mountaintop, and walked through the valley of the shadow. She experienced both, and she knew the inner truth of the psalmist’s words, “If I take the wings of the morning; and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.” When we talked about selecting a psalm for this service, she didn’t ask for several from which to choose—but rather, from her bed in Christopher House, said clearly, “I want Psalm 139.” (Of course, even though I had brought with me several selections from which to choose, I immediately said, “That’s the very one I wanted to recommend!”)
The Apostle Paul assures us that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God—neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God. For Susan, Paul’s words are not just for those longing for eternity, life beyond the boundaries and horizons of this earthly existence, but for life in this world, in this moment, time and place. God’s tent as a dwelling place is large to include the whole world—and so she could hold firmly in one hand the wooden cross, given to her by a friend, and which helped her endure uncertainty and pain, and look, at the same time, at a playful and bobbing image of the Buddha, placed on her bed table, and given to her by a fellow pilgrim on life’s journey. There was space for both in the room—and a place for both within her own heart. Thus, she lived in the wisdom of two great Catholics—Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day once said that if we could just remember that each and every one of us is created in God’s image, then that, in itself, would make us want to love one another more. And, Thomas Merton, who when asked why he was going to see the Buddhist monks, simply replied, “To learn a little more about God.” (Two great contemporary saints, who also pushed the envelope a little bit, and often got into trouble!) Susan was very much a part of that spiritual and theological conversation—she would have been very much at home with mentors like Day and Merton. Through her life, and in her dying, she invited us to become a part of the conversation as well.
And so, we now offer to God, for all eternity, God’s own gift to us, in thanksgiving for who and what she was, child, mother, wife, teacher, and friend. We often speak of life eternal, life with God, as occurring in heaven. We long for it, but words fail us in our attempts to describe such a place; an experience. St. Augustine wrote these words, long ago, which come as close as any ever written about what heaven might mean, and do justice to that life for which we have only now seen a glimpse, but will be seen in all its fullness, in the life to come.
Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security…We shall have no enemies in heaven…we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever, here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here, they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country. So then…let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing but continue your journey…Sing then, but keep going.
Sing then, but keep going.
Susan would like that; for she embraced it fully.
She would want us to sing, but keep going.
After all, in her life and death, she taught us how to live.
Delivered by the Rev. Charles James Cook, Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin.
The Holy Bible. The Letter to the Romans: Chapter 8. NRSV
——————–Psalm 139: 1-11. NRSV
The references to Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Dylan Thomas are all well known expressions of their work. I particularly recommend The Dorothy Day Book (Templegate Press); Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday); and the poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.