Somebody once suggested that the words of scripture are like musical scores, mute of themselves, but alive when someone actually plays them.
This is especially true of those texts in scripture which speak about the communion of saints, our contact with those who have died but are still in living communion with us. One such text tells us that we should not search for the living among the dead but, instead, look to find our loved ones, after they have died, by touching those qualities and virtues which most characterized them when they were alive.
Metaphorically, that concept and those words are the score for a good piece of music, a piano or violin concerto just waiting to be played. Often times, though, it is played badly. The notes are right, but the tone is too sentimental, heavy, or exotic.
Recently, however, I heard that particular piece played quite well. I liked the version because the woman who played it gave it just enough of an eccentric slant to bring out its lightness and its depth. In her version, not all the spirits are heavy and humourless and the communion of saints remains a very earthy thing.
So, after introducing a bit of the background, let me share her rendition of this with you.
Recently, I received a letter from a former student of mine, sharing with me how she met her deceased father:
My father died nearly two years ago. During the past year and a half, I have felt his continuing presence in my life in a concrete, if somewhat odd, way. One of my dad’s quirks was that he had a habit of spilling coffee on himself. He was not a sloppy person, but there was just something about him and coffee that meant that a few drops inevitably found their way down the front of his shirt.
I have noticed recently, in the months following his death, that I seem to be dribbling things (tea, soda, coffee, juice) on myself more than usual. Often when this happens, when I spill something on myself, I joke to myself: “Well, Dad lives!” For a long time, I never took the joke seriously, or connected it to the doctrine of the communion of saints, because what was happening was not a noble quality like hospitality or generosity, but a quirk, an eccentricity, that most people would not want to emulate.
Then one day, a few months ago, while attending Mass, I found myself feeling especially close to my dad during the prayers of remembrance for the dead. I always try to remember him at that moment in the Mass, but sometimes am too distracted to do it. I don’t know why I felt his person so strongly on this particular day, but the feeling of his presence was very strong and it continued with me as I went up to receive communion. I have been receiving communion from the cup for years without incident but, on this particular day, I spilled some communion wine on myself. Red stains on my white shirt! Where there had previously been coffee, or tea, or soda, there was now red wine – red communion wine!
I suddenly understood in a very tangible, yet profound, way some of what is contained in that article of our creed which says: I believe in the communion of saints. I felt my dad was right there with me, quite literally, in communion with me. I am not a person given much to mysticism and the otherworldly, but the feeling of my dad’s presence on that day, the incarnation of his presence into something as everyday and tangible as a red wine stain on a white shirt, made me want to laugh and cry at the same time and it made me know, in a way I had not known before, that I had not really lost my dad at all. He is alive and with me.
A few weeks after this incident, I was introduced to some new people and I was asked the question: “Is your father still living?” Without thinking, I said no, but, even while saying it, that answer didn’t feel right to me. Later that day it occurred to me that I should have said: “Not in this world” because I know now, from experience, that he is alive.
My father had many great qualities. He was a great lover of education, very generous, scrupulously fair, and he always gave us, his children, many second chances. I will certainly try to emulate those qualities and find him there, among these things, rather than in his odd quirk of spilling coffee. But resurrected life has its curious character and it was in the spilling of the wine that, like the disciples recognizing Jesus, I recognized my father.