Pray without ceasing.
I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, in that part of the world that is sometimes called Cascadia and sometimes called the Pacific Northwest. (The latter name is testament to the gravitational pull that the United States exerts on those who live to its north: even the most cursory glance at a map of Canada will tell you that Vancouver is situated in it Pacific Southwest.) And while tourists who visit that coastal city in summer remember it for its mountains and its vast bay and its museum full of totem poles, those of us who remained come the fall know it for its damp and short days.
It is a cliché to call darkness inky. But ink is exactly what Vancouver looks like as fall wears on. The whole city is blurry and black, the victim of some nervous squid or of a Victorian novelist having trouble with her pen. While the broad geographical area in which Vancouver sits is called a rainforest, it rarely rains hard in my hometown; the low-lying, grey clouds prefer to drizzle, to leak like a forgotten faucet. Down below, on the wet tarmac, the taillights of the cars are diffuse and the fallen leaves move beneath their wheels.
Unlike in autumnal oil paintings, Vancouver’s leaves are rarely crisp or red or ready to burn. Rather, they are pulpy and damp and brown, well on their way to being mulch.
I don’t know if it is a coping mechanism in the drizzly, inky darkness, but I have heard more than one Vancouverite announce that they love the fall. Maybe I have uttered similar words myself. My guess is that we are not being disingenuous, that we are not engaging in self-deception when we speak this way of our city.
There is a beauty in Vancouver’s autumn.
These days, I hang out in church on a fulltime basis and, as the late Leonard Cohen put it, “[The] Biblical landscape is very familiar to me.” And so I wonder: do Vancouverites love the dark and the wet because we see in it a glimpse of rejoicing always, of praying without ceasing, of resurrection?
When we encounter instructions such as, “rejoice always, pray without ceasing,” and ideas such as the resurrection, it is easy for us to mistake them for facile optimism, for a happy ending. But that isn’t the story that scripture tells at all. Scripture tells us that death is real and awful, that suffering is real and awful, that grief is real and awful. And then it adds at least three things. Scripture says that:
First, God knows from personal experience what these things are like. This is the promise of the Incarnation. The God shares with us in stubbed toes, in stomach bugs, in loneliness, in unfair and unjust and arbitrary suffering, in grief so great that we do not know if we can keep on saying “yes” to life.
Second, death and suffering and grief are somehow necessary to figuring out what it means to become fully human, to become fully alive. I don’t know how to quantify this, how to make intellectual sense of it. I do know that the Bible gets this one right. I have lost track of how many people have told me that getting seriously ill or being in a car accident or sitting with the one whom they loved in their dying taught them lessons that they could learn nowhere else. While love leads us into loss, the opposite is also true: loss leads us into love.
And that leads us to: Third, death and suffering and grief do not get the last word. They are not the end. Resurrection is coming.
When I was last back in Vancouver, I stood in a cemetery on a fall day as my friend Don’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Don wanted his last action on this earth to be as ecologically responsible as possible. And so he found a cemetery that was content to allow him to skip both embalming and grave liners – those odd rituals through which we announce to the darkness that decay is something that doesn’t apply to us. His body, worn down by his long illness, cold with the absence of his breath, rested in a plain pine box.
As Don’s coffin touched down on the earth, six feet below out shoes, the drizzle stopped for a while and the sun cut through the clouds. We took turns gathering shovelfuls of earth and dropping then down into Don’s grave. The earth hitting the pine lid made a percussive noise, a strange drumbeat. When I got home that day, I very nearly wrote that the drumbeat was the sound of finality. And in a significant sense that is true. But that drumbeat is also the sound of a beginning.
In the famous words of the funeral service:
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
What I remembered on that fall day with that shovelful of dirt in my hands is that resurrection is written right into what Richard Rohr calls “the first Bible”: the earth itself. Maybe this is what Vancouverites are getting at when we say that we love the fall, that we love the dark, drizzly days. We love these days because we see in them what it might mean to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing. These days tell the truth about life, they name what is real. And as such, we see in them both an ending and a beginning.
Fall says that the leaves will not climb back onto the trees, that Don will not jump laughing out of his coffin, that things will not go back to normal. And fall says as well that the leaves and the pine box that holds the remains of the one whom we love are turning back into dirt and, come the miracle of March and April, this freshly formed soil will invite the flowers of spring to grow. Those flowers will drink the water that now drizzles down upon us.
With the dark ink of fall, the earth is writing something new