The language in this post’s title may be a bit off-putting for some of you. It’s a Christian term used in the Apostle’s Creed and in other churchy places. Many of my readers, I know, have bad associations with “churchy things,” but please, read on.
I flew to St. Louis two weeks ago to attend the memorial service of a friend. She was 51, and for 29 months after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, she tried really hard to live.
For most of those 29 months, I was away from her. She and her husband came to visit us twice here in Wisconsin, and I was not as good as I would like to have been about keeping in touch while she fought through first one surgery and then another one, through chemotherapy treatments and drug trials and then hospice.
But here is what I do know. For those 2 1/3 years, people loved her and her husband and her children well. Hella and her family were part of a church that helped them. Warren, Hella’s husband, taught at a Christian high school where he coached soccer and taught Biology. (The same school where I used to teach.) Many of his students, even the ones that weren’t necessarily the best and brightest, sent cards, reached out on FaceBook, came to events on Hella’s behalf. There was financial help when medical bills piled up. There were countless meals. Hella was able to take a few trips with her daughter. The school gave Warren time off so he could care for his wife..
As the tumor grew, it increasingly affected Hella’s ability to speak, to form words. For the last few months she could respond but not talk. And though most of us would prefer two-way conversations, people kept coming in; people kept helping out. Church members, work friends, and family members visited her, sat with her. They affirmed that she mattered, voice or no voice, words or no words.
Hella was a servant kind of person- a quiet person who preferred more to listen than to assert herself. She preferred to help others rather than be helped, and I can imagine this was difficult for her to let others care for her in her long decline. But she did it, and in so doing she let the compassion of a community encircle her and her family. In doing this, she also showed to the watching world something that mattered to her: there is value in the church, there is beauty in what people of faith can do.
The night she died, the word got out that she was near the end. Students and teachers and friends came with guitars and with candles to stand on the front lawn of Hella’s house to sing, to pray. Seventy-five people gathered on the grass to sing her out of this life and into the next one. Warren told me: “the juxtaposition of that moment was striking: it was all that is wrong with the world right next to all that is right in the world.”
Churches and Christian communities are often filled with wacky people, and though I am a Christian, I shudder sometimes at what some of my fellow believers do and say and believe. Really, we shouldn’t be surprised: Jesus reminded us that it is the sick people who need a physician, not the well ones. I’ve always thought the best analogy for a church community is a hospital.
For a Catholic, the term “saint” is associated with those special people that have been canonized for their miracles or extraordinary spiritual acts, but in my protestant church, I always associated the term “saint” with ordinary Christians who have somehow managed to live their faith well: to love, to do justice, to be humble, to serve.
So back to my title: The Communion of Saints. It refers to the gathering together, or the union of members of the Christian church, both living and dead. Some of you readers are in a church community; some are not. If you are in the former group, I hope you can see the value of staying. If you’re in the camp of those who are not, please read this as a reminder that despite the bad press that Christians get, despite the many mistakes we make, sometimes we get a few things right. Hella believed in Jesus, and this belief bound her together with other believers, and the communion between them was sweet. People will miss her. I will miss her. But the communion of saints makes the grieving easier.