By Jane Graham
A transformational story? Well, maybe or maybe not: I’ll let you readers decide. What seems absolutely true to me is that this is a story of love and community in the church. The experience I am going to tell you about touched my heart with the love and kindness that we as people of God should all be sharing with one another.
If my big boisterous red-headed sister Kathy was getting ready to tell this story, she would have held out her arms, beckoned, and said “Now gather ‘round and here this tale!”
But she isn’t here; she is dead. And this story is about her.
Kathy died in September and there was a memorial service in October that left me feeling pretty empty. It was far too formal and cut-and-dried a send-off for a vibrant, messy, happy soul like Kathy! I was glad when, a short time later, her husband and daughters mailed me a zip-lock baggie full of her ashes, to distribute down at the Florida beach where we grew up. The majority of those ashes never got there; instead, I plopped them into my purse the day we went over to the Seminary of the Southwest to attend a presentation by the Presiding Bishop in celebration of the Seminary’s 60th anniversary.
“Pay attention now,” as Kathy would have said, holding one finger in the air like a punctuation mark. “Somebody/something new is about to enter the story!”
“May I help you?” a young woman wearing a clerical collar asked Larry and me when she saw we were obviously lost. I explained we were looking for the lecture, and there followed a conversation in which I told her my sister Kathy was a priest who had graduated from the Seminary in the 90s and had treasured her time there. I then shyly mentioned that I happened to “have her in my purse” asked if it would be okay if I sprinkled some of her ashes on the grounds. Truth be told, I was going to do it surreptitiously whether she said it was allowed or not because Kathy had found community, real community, at that place.
She replied “I think we can do better than that. Come to the Eucharist after the Bishop’s talk and we’ll have a little celebration.” I handed over the zip-lock, attended the lecture, and then we gathered in the chapel.
At this point Kathy would have said, again using her finger for didactic emphasis, “Can you feel it yet? Who else is in this story?”
The celebrant, our friend from the path, The Rev. Cynthia Kittredge, spoke of Kathy during the Eucharist and prayed for her. She announced that all were welcome to the committal service that would follow, as we committed Kathy’s elements to the earth. Out we processed, vested priest, acolytes, crucifer, and small congregation. The zip-lock baggie was now covered with beautiful white linen. I focused on the embroidered cross adorning the fair linen. My ears began to hum.
Rev. Kittredge looked over at the bystanders and motioned to a young man. “Come over here and dig a hole, please,” she requested. Startled, he gulped and asked “With my hands?” She nodded, and he clambered over the little hedge and crouched by the bird bath, carefully digging the hole.
By now I could almost hear my mirthful sister Kathy chuckling with joy. I felt as if I could just turn my head a little and give her a wink.
The ashes were interred and the prayers were said. The hole was refilled and the digger tamped down the earth and dusted off his hands. The ceremony was over. I was awash with peace, gratefulness and joy. My beloved sister was once again in community, in a place she was meant to be.
As we turned to say thank you, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if Kathy had served in the Diocese of Olympia. I said yes. “My rector knew her; she cried when she preached about her,” said the woman. It soon became evident that she was in the congregation of Kathy’s best friend in Seminary, The Rev. Kathleen Kingslight, who had officiated at Kathy’s memorial service.
Kathy entered the arena once again. “Now do you think all this happened by chance?” she inquires in my imagination, cocking her curly red head and waiting for the light bulb to go off in someone else’s head. “The extra visitor at this occasion is, of course, the Holy Spirit,” she would have explained if nobody else got it.
Yes, it was surely the Holy Spirit, bringing all these things together. Enfolding family members with love at a time when it was much needed, putting the idea of helping us into the head of the woman who is now assuming the role of Dean and President of the Seminary. And if you visit the Seminary of the Southwest, be sure to notice the plaque to Kathy Glenn on the chapel wall by the birdbath.
We all wonder from time to time what it means to be in communion, or in community, with one another and with our church. Now you have one answer. And don’t forget: that extra visitor is always present.