Feast of All Saints: A Reflection by Dr. Laura Grimes
I am traveling to a professional conference this weekend, so I may well miss worship on one of my favorite feasts of the church year, All Saints’ Day. However, I was blessed to celebrate the essence of the day last Saturday when my five year old daughter and I attended the funeral of my great aunt and heard the Beatitudes proclaimed. Baptism, transformation, community, justice, celebration—all these realities were radiantly present in the large and diverse group of people, not all explicitly spiritual, gathered for the Eucharist in a small and lovely building in South Central Los Angeles.
Aunt Marian, who died at age ninety-two, was my paternal grandfather’s youngest sister and the last of her siblings to die. I hadn’t seen her since her husband’s funeral eight years before, and Katie had never met her at all. Of the many far-flung relatives present, down to second and third cousins, the only ones readily familiar to her were her grandparents and great-grandmother and one of my aunts, especially memorable because she is Katie’s godmother. I spent much of the day explaining who each person was in relation to me and therefore to her, but the one thing she knew absolutely was that they were family and so she was loved and welcome—and that Marian and her husband, and Katie’s deceased oldest and youngest siblings, and her beloved name saints and Mama Mary, and all the rest were equally part of that welcoming family.
Transfiguration Church is especially precious to me because it was where I was baptized forty-three years ago, in my parents’ last act of faith while they were living in a tiny, beat-up house in the neighborhood. My grandparents lived on the same lot both before and afterwards, so my dad and the older siblings of their large group attended school and received the sacraments there. I also visited my grandparents there as a young child, served as a velveteen-clad flower girl for one of my younger aunts, and babysat her children as a teenager when she and her husband were the final family members to dwell there. Every time I walk through its doors I feel again the miracle of being chosen and loved and called by God, from before my earliest memories and through so many people and relationships—easy and painful--throughout the years. Are those who aren’t baptized, or who no longer believe, chosen and loved and called by God? Without a doubt—it is a deformation of Christian faith in an endlessly merciful God to see it as the only path to truth and love and union with the divine. But it’s my path, and I find it such a privilege, despite the suffering it sometimes brings, to spend life laboring in the vineyard with Christ and with his friends. I also visited my grandparents there as a young child, served as a velveteen-clad flower girl for one of my younger aunts, and babysat her children as a teenager when she and her husband were the final family members to dwell there. Every time I walk through its doors I
When Uncle Glenn died eight years ago, I was living in the Midwest. My mother called to let me know the news, but I wasn’t close to him, so both of us were rather surprised when I was moved by a strong inner urging to come home on a grueling red-eye for his services. The main thing I knew about my great-uncle was that my father had worked in his land surveying business before founding his own, and I was blown away to learn that both he and Marian had spent decades as dedicated civil rights activists. The rejoiced when the court overthrew the housing restrictions that had kept black families from living in the neighborhood, threw block parties to welcome them, and ended by being virtually the only white family in the parish, which now features a rousing Gospel choir. They marched and picketed, and Marian wrote fearless letters challenging successive bishops, among others, to more faithfully proclaim and live Christ’s teaching and example on racial justice. As Grand Knight, Glenn integrated the local Knights of Columbus over the vocal objections of some, and the two of them were honored for their tireless activism by being among the few white people ever made an honorary Knight and Lady of St. Peter Claver.
Like all holy people, canonized and uncanonized, they were far from perfect. Glenn was a harsh boss with rigid high standards in many areas of life, including religion. If they arrived at mass five minutes late, he would turn the car around and return for the next service, and he once declared that his family weren’t really Catholic because his wife and nun daughter believed in women’s ordination, while his other daughter, a mother of four, practiced birth control. (He held himself to the same cruel standards, acknowledging that he didn’t deserve the name either since he had doubts about the Assumption of Mary!) Marian had an equally strong personality—she regularly disregarded “No Trespassing” signs while hiking, which once led to a broken back and months in a body cast, and spent much of the seventies and eighties in major conflict with one of her daughters. But, as in the lives of all holy people—all sinners dependent on God’s grace—that grace worked in amazing ways to heal as much as possible in this life, give consolation where that was impossible, and didn’t stop working at the grave. My father experienced a major conversion around his own parenting during Glenn’s service—I am convinced, through his intercession--and his heartfelt apology for showing me the same harshness was one of the things that moved me to move home to the West Coast with my family. And the daughter who had been in conflict with Marian shared in her eulogy the joy of their hard-won and precious reconciliation, urging all present to reach out and heal fractured relationships while there is still time.
The centrality of grace and the dignity of every human person, as well as the blessings Christ promised to the meek and the poor in spirit and the suffering, was emphasized by stories of the last years of Marian’s life. These were marked by severe dementia but lived with utter joy in the smallest pleasures and a loving and grateful presence to all who visited and cared for her. In one of the fates many of us fear most, she enjoyed and modeled the gift of living absolutely in the present moment, an elusive spiritual goal. The eloquent, talkative woman of earlier years was reduced to the simplest of conversations. The same daughter would visit her and say “I love you, and I’m so glad you’re my Mom.” Marian would reply, “I love you, and I’m so glad you’re my daughter” (on a good day—occasionally the response was “I’m so glad you’re my Mom,” which is poignant in itself). And as she pointed out in her closing words to the assembly, what more ever needs to be said?