One week ago today, a friend of so many, Maria (53), transitioned from this life into the next. Last night, Maria’s sister and our Care Team, part of a larger village of lovers of Maria, met to recount stories of the past six months since her pancreatic cancer diagnosis. The living room tales were tender and funny alike, and I left pondering how the last two weeks had revealed, amid the voice-snatching pain of Maria’s suffering and the unsung service of so many, the gritty beauty of holy ground—ground where one senses the veil between this life and the next begin to thin.
I remember the memorial services for my nephews who died, 3 ½ years apart, in shocking accidents (Jude (2); Tommy (19)). In each service, as my family stood singing, though grief was rippling through us, there was a simultaneous knowledge that we were praising a God whose presence was palpable. I longed to live forever in that moment, with all of those people, worshipping the God who gives and takes away, even as I knew that when we did stop, which we would, God’s presence would remain but sadness would rush in to fill the silence. Still, for one strangely timeless moment, in each service, I recognized that our abandoned worship was itself a foretaste of what one-day would come.
In the hours I got to spend with Maria, particularly in the last 10 days of her life, I realized I’d stumbled into a strangely familiar place—a “take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground” kind of place. To sing with one of Maria’s long time friends, “It is well with my soul,” and feel Maria’s hands squeeze ours—that is holy ground. To ask Jesus to make the sight of his welcoming face within more vivid than all the chaos without—and to see her subtle nod—that is holy ground. To place my hand on the heart of my friend whose pain-induced anxiety is starting to kick in and to pray the peace of Jesus—and to watch her calm—that is holy ground.
It makes me pause. Much of the conversation in my broader faith community is around questions of faith shaping vocation or faith’s relationship to the broader culture. Are we agents of transformation? Exiles? Both? This makes sense. Death and dying aren’t on the forefront of most people’s minds. Questions about work, community and culture press on us all and perhaps particularly on DC’s many gifted, young adults beginning to build their lives.
But in the privilege of walking with Maria and this amazing Care Team (those volunteering nursing skills, taking her to medical appointments, doing art with her, coordinating meals and visits, opening their homes to Maria, or just “being” with her), I’ve been reminded that the decay of flesh, the often slow and painful return to dust, remains the path along which the Son of God, mysteriously, ushers his beloved followers into eternity. I know that this reality is core to the Christian faith—that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, the One by whom we come to the Father—but in practice, I forget it.
So, thank you, Maria. Thank you for inviting so many of us to accompany you, shoeless, onto this gritty and beautiful holy ground. In your vulnerability, you’ve left many of us, decidedly including me, standing on our tiptoes, with salty smiling eyes, longing more deeply for Him to haste the day when our faith shall be sight.