On today’s feast of All Souls, we remember and pray for all of the faithful departed, and especially our own family members and friends. And many of us gathered here today are still grieving a recent loss.
Some of our losses are loved ones who lived a long time, losses that came at a time when everyone could see clearly that the time had come — the person’s mind and body were all used up. Such deaths are sometimes even longed for and, in any event, come as a welcome release into the next life, the happy death that we traditionally pray for. Surrounded by loved ones, having received all the sacraments of the Church and at peace with everyone.
Others of our losses come suddenly and when we least expect it, the kind of death that we are warned always to be prepared for, yet never really are. Young or old, physically fit or a couch potato, a peaceful passing or as a victim of violence, we’re all on death row. None of us gets out of here alive.
My brother Michael died March 15 after a two-and-a-half year struggle with leukemia. He was very much on the way to a full cure due to a stem-cell transplant and heroic efforts on his part and that of his wife, as well as the highly skilled efforts of the medical professionals at M.D. Anderson in Houston. And, of course, lots of prayers. But surprisingly, he did not die of his disease. As a consequence of his treatments, his immune system was highly compromised, and so when he got a chance fungal infection in his lungs, he had no resistance and the fungus killed him in just a few days. After all that effort. An otherwise easily treatable infection. You just never know.
But what I do know is that God used those years of illness and struggle to develop in my brother qualities of character — especially patience and perseverance — and a deepening sense of God’s presence and his dependence on God, which prepared him well for that day when it came.
Some of you have had the same experience as you journeyed with a loved one in a time of illness and physical decline leading up to the death. For others of you, it may have been mainly after the death had already occurred, especially in the case of a sudden death. But in any event, the Lord uses our times of loss to draw us closer to himself as a source of strength and comfort and wisdom as we prepare to face the future without the departed loved one.
That is why I almost always suggest the 23rd Psalm when people ask me for a Scripture passage to help them with their grief. In this psalm, we find a very interesting progression. The psalm begins with beautiful pastoral scenes, green pastures, still waters. In these verses, the psalmist speaks about God in the third person, “he”: “The Lord is my shepherd. He makes me rest in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He gives me new strength; he leads me by straight paths.”
When things are going great, he speaks about God, in the third person, “he.” Then, in the middle of the psalm, there is a change. The writer enters into a difficult experience, which he calls “passing through the dark valley.” And there he changes from the third person to the second person, saying “you” instead of “he” — that is to say, he changes from speaking about God and begins to speak to God, as with a friend, as with a source of strength. He says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me. You anoint my head with oil; you fill my cup to overflowing. Your goodness and your love accompany me throughout my days, and in your house, Oh Lord, I will live forever.”
It is obvious that this psalmist felt closer to God in the dark valley than in the green pastures. And it is always that way. For our loved ones, “the strife is o’er and the battle done,” and we pray that they may now be in those green pastures on the other side of death. And now it is us who remain who still experience that dark valley of grief and loss. But as our psalm insists, the shepherd has not forgotten his sheep. He’s here with us every step of the way.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Nov. 2 at Calvary Cemetery in Little Rock.
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