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Cemeteries: ‘Thin spaces’ that evoke communion of the saints

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One summer, my husband and I did something we didn’t do when we lived in Alaska: we took road trips throughout 48 states. And in some of those places we visited cemeteries.

Since we both love Abraham Lincoln, we stopped at the Gettysburg battlefield and the cemetery where Lincoln delivered his famous address. We also visited Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln lies buried in an impressive monument. We visited the street near the state capitol that has been preserved just as it was when Lincoln lived there and was an attorney in the city.

Why do graves move us? For me, it combines the Catholic concept of the communion of saints with the Celtic idea of what are called “thin spaces.” Truly, I felt a nearness to Lincoln as I cried at his burial site. But there’s also the sense of history that nearness brings. I feel it whether at the grave of a great man, well-remembered, who saved the Union, or at the grave of my forgotten great-grandmother, whose slave-owning father fought for the Confederacy.

Lincoln's tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Ill. (Robert Lawton/Wikimedia Commons)

Lincoln’s tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Ill. (Robert Lawton/Wikimedia Commons)

Cemeteries remind us, sometimes uncomfortably, that life is short and that our life is limited. Something about a cemetery says to me, “Pay attention!”

There’s a documentary on Sister Wendy Beckett, the sprightly little British nun who made several films about art history for the BBC. The woman truly knows how to bring a painting to life for the average viewer. Now she lives a humble life as a hermit on the property of a Carmelite convent.

One comment she made has stuck with me: “We really aren’t very important, except to God.”

When one views the graves at Gettysburg, stretched out in a semi-circle around the spot where Lincoln once uttered some of the most revered words in the English language, one realizes how not very important we are. The gravestones are tiny and many of them are marked simply “unknown.”

Some of markers around the site said 51,000 men were killed, wounded or missing in three days at Gettysburg, and when authorities saw the carnage and the corpses rotting in the sun, a cemetery was established. Who remembers those individuals?

No, we aren’t very important.

But in the eyes of faith, that caveat of Sister Wendy’s is important and consoling: “except to God.” That makes all the difference. And it should rivet our attention to God’s presence now in our lives. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in her early 20s from tuberculosis, was declared a doctor of the church in 1997. That’s a big deal. That means she has some important things to teach us.

I used to be puzzled by that. Reading her autobiography, “Story of a Soul,” I didn’t quite get what made her such a special saint. She grappled with simple things, like trying to get along with crabby old nuns who irritated her. She lived a short and obscure life in a French convent; what did she ever do that was, as Sister Wendy would say, “important”?

As I’ve gotten older, I realize that St. Thérèse’s sanctity lies in the fact that her life was important only in relation to God and the struggle she made to find him in all things.

“Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude,” St. Thérèse wrote.

As we grow older, most of us recognize our lives have been blessed and full, hopefully, but probably not particularly “important.” Except, of course, to God. And that makes all the difference.

 

Caldarola writes for Catholic News Service.

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