We Are Not Alone

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, November 1, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



My family and I moved recently, and in the last of the unpacking, I came across a sandwich bag containing four small shells. Tucked among them was a card, yellowed and stained, on which was written, in my Grandmother Charlotte’s distinctive handwriting: “Flamingo Tongue, Glovers Reef, 1971.”

I couldn’t remember ever seeing these shells, or this card, among my possessions before. But somehow this fragile bag of treasures from my grandparents’s house in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas has followed me from apartment to apartment, house to house for decades. My grandmother was a great beachcomber, and she and my grandfather would hitch their pop-up camper to the back of their jeep and go, camping along the Gulf of Mexico where she would search both the beaches and the ocean floor for shells. My grandfather built a screened-in porch on the side of their house to hold her shell collection, and she made a little card for each one, like the card I found in that plastic bag, with the name of the shell, and where she found it, and when. My sister and I used to love studying her treasures. In addition to shells of shapes and colors that we never saw on east coast beaches, she had found quite a few messages in bottles, and we were fascinated by those.

I buried my grandmother in 1998, the first graveside service I ever led. I think my aunt must have given me that small bag of shells then, before I left the Valley to return home to Chicago. I have no memory of this gift, none at all — but as soon as those shells fell out of the bag into my hand, other memories flooded in: my grandmother holding a conch shell up to my ear so that I could hear the ocean roaring inside it; the way she knew each shell by name, and where she had found it, and what kind of creature had once lived inside it; looking for sand dollars with her along the surf’s edge on Padre Island in the early morning; sleeping in her shell room on a particularly hot night, the shells seeming to glow in the darkness.

This is a season of remembrance. As the days shorten and the leaves flare and fall, it doesn’t take much to open the gates of our memory; the smallest shell can do it. No wonder these weeks are so full of rituals and holy days that help us stand together amid memory’s flood. Ordinarily, the Peabody Museum would have been crowded over these past weeks with people visiting the Day of the Dead altars that are built there each year, leaving notes for much-missed family members and friends, spending time with their beloved dead, as the altars invite us to do. And we would be gathered this morning in the sanctuary of the Memorial Church to pray over the list of those who died this past year and watch the children of our community parade up and down the aisles dressed as the saints they most admire.

Last week, Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, the Executive Director of the Harvard Hillel, preached a sermon in this virtual pulpit about tears, and how important it is to have time set aside in our life for weeping. He told us about how, at the end of the autumn holidays each year, when his community completes its reading of the Torah and prepares to begin again with the first chapter of Genesis, he always weeps when he hears the story of the death of Moses. Rabbi Jonah told us that he hoped we too would be held in this season by community and by calendar. It’s part of the wisdom of our traditions, he said, “to give us times for tears, moments in which to confront mortality, to acknowledge vulnerability, to mourn, to touch the humanity of our condition from a place and time of steady ritual, with a community to hold us.” We need those regular moments of remembrance and grief that come around every year no matter what else is happening in our lives and in the world. If we’re not grieving when these moments arrive, someone else surely is. And by joining together in these ritual practices, we take communal responsibility for the work of mourning and the burden of grief.

Being held by community and by calendar is a gift at any time. But this year, the feast of All Saints and All Souls meets us not only in a season of remembrance but in the middle of a virulent pandemic that is claiming thousands of lives around the world every day, a thousand a day in this country alone. In the absence of any national acknowledgment of those who have died from covid-19, any attempt by our leaders to render those losses meaningful, any gesture that would help us grieve this wound in the heart of our nation and the world, the feast of All Saints and All Souls arrives like a signpost for a journey on which we have lost our way. If we ever needed practices to help us confront our mortality, acknowledge our vulnerability, mourn our losses, weep, and touch the humanity of our condition, we need them now. If we ever needed a waymarker to reorient us on our shared journey, to point us in a new and better direction, we need one now.

In his account of his mother’s death in his Confessions that will be familiar to anyone who has ever lost a loved one, St. Augustine wrote that “now that I had lost that great comfort of her…my life was…torn apart, since it had been a life made up of hers and mine together.” When we grieve, we know this in our bones: that our lives are not simply ours alone. We become who we are in relationship to each other, and the lives of others make claims on us that we ignore to our detriment. As Paul’s letter to the Romans that Isobel read for us this morning says, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Gathered up in the life of God, where no one is forgotten, we are gathered together. Belonging to God, we belong to one another as well.

And that is the audacious claim of the feast of All Saint and All Souls, as Peter Gomes once loved to remind us: the claim that we are not alone, in life or in death. As Professor Davíd Carrasco put it to us last year, when he led us on pilgrimage to the Day of the Dead altars in the Peabody, “We are all on pilgrimage together, the living and the dead. These altars,” he explained, “are a meeting place along the way.” A meeting place along the way, along the pilgrimage road, where the living and the dead walk side by side. And, as happens on any pilgrimage worth the name, we find are challenged in the encounter to reimagine how we live day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment.

The challenge of this feast is its radical inclusivity — it is the feast of all saints and all souls. This meeting place not only offers space for grieving and honoring the dead with whom we are most intimate, but challenges us to expand our sense of who is included among our beloved dead and our understanding of the community with whom we mourn. We cannot know everyone who has died in this pandemic. Yet our lives are made up of theirs and ours together; we have all been trying to make a home in this world.

If we are not alone along the journey of our lives, we should not be alone in our grief either. This virus has been unfairly borne by communities of color, by those living and working in nursing homes, by front-line workers, by those who cannot work from home. These deaths make a claim on our lives — because while we are all vulnerable to this virus, some are more vulnerable than others because of circumstances that could be otherwise. They remind us that God has placed us in each other’s care.

When we do not live as if that were so, we utterly lose our way. How can we reorient ourselves in these days? The passage from the Song of Songs that Louisa read for us offers a place from which to navigate. “Love is as strong as death,” the poet says. “Many waters cannot quench it, neither can floods drown it.” This is the voice of young lover trying to say how undoing she finds the experience of love — it’s as strong as death she says, it’s as fierce as the grave — it’s that much of an upheaval.

On the feast of All Saints and All Souls, perhaps we can hear another voice as well, one singing in harmony with the lover. A voice that says that not only is love as powerful as death itself, but that love is more than a match for death; it cannot be destroyed by death. If it could, we wouldn’t feel the pain we feel; love is our greatest vulnerability.

But, in this fearful time, with a deeply consequential election ahead, and the forces of hatred so visible and active, love is also our greatest strength, love that pours into us from a God who forgets nothing and no one. It’s a harsh and dreadful thing, as Dostoyevsky once put it, this love. It calls us to live as if the invisible connections between us matter; as if they are eternally true. It calls us to take responsibility for each other’s health and welfare and to share in each other’s grief. It calls us to live as if love is stronger than death, and for that we need courage. Courage for the facing of this hour.

And so we gather up our shells, our photographs and our stories and we lay them on the altar of this world. And when we do, memories from which we might draw courage pour forth. Even now I see my grandmother blowing the sand off a sand dollar to show me its markings. Our dead are beyond us, but they are also moving among us. Thanks be to God.