Absence-minded

cemetery“Are we missing anyone tonight?” roared Bruce Springsteen during his September concert at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. A spotlight fell on the empty seat of Springsteen’s longtime saxman Clarence Clemons, who died last year. Another lit the flag flying over the ballpark bearing Ron Santo’s retired number 10. Santo, a Hall of Fame third baseman who is my husband’s all-time favorite Cub, was the team’s heart-on-his-sleeve, everyman radio broadcaster until his death in 2010. Cubs fans wept at his passing.

When you’re older, said Springsteen, ghosts walk alongside you—and that’s good, because they remind you of the preciousness of time and of love.

It should surprise no one that Springsteen was raised Catholic. Many of his songs sing it loud and clear. Here’s “We are alive” from his latest album:

We’d put our ears to the cold grave stones

This is the song they’d sing

We are alive

And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark

Our spirits rise

To carry the fire and light the spark

To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.

The Catholic imagination shines forth boldly as we head into the dark months of winter. In Advent we embrace the mystery that God became the child of a virgin, born under a star. But first we honor our holy men and women on the feast of All Saints, November 1, and next our own blessed dead on the feast of All Souls.

I went to a memorial service once, not a Catholic one, where the presider said of the deceased, “He will stay alive as long as we remember him.” I wanted to raise my hand to offer a counterpoint. “Everyone is always alive to God,” our retired pastor would say. With confidence in the both/and paradoxes that Catholics cheerfully embrace, let me say that yes, our loved ones are certainly dead, and yes, they are also very much alive. Doing what? Doctor of the church St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, insisted, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”

Catholics believe that when we celebrate Mass, we raise our voices in prayer not only with the living present, but also with all those who have gone before us. Consider, that’s way more than the 40,000 who lined up to see Springsteen.

This unseen throng, this communion of saints, features stalwarts like Kate and Marian, two whip-smart, lively women from our parish who volunteered at the parish food pantry into their 90s. One day, while contemplating whether their various ailments would someday make it impossible to get around, Marian said to Kate, “Well, if I couldn’t work in the pantry, I’d just as soon die!”

It includes the young man gunned down a block from our church last year during Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the tragic roster of more than 300 children who have died violently in our city since 2008.

It includes our neighbor Elsie, who doled out ice cream to the kids on the block and who, stone blind in her late 90s, still gamely made it to church. And what about Gilbert, who for nearly a decade gave me great haircuts and always asked, with interest and endless kindness, about my family goings-on?

Let us slow down in November to give thanks for them all. Our society wants us to hurry past death, to dodge it with memorial services instead of funerals, to keep our children at a distance. What a poverty of imagination, of faith. Instead let’s ask ourselves along with the Boss, “Are we missing anyone tonight?”

By Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the pages of At Home with Our FaithClaretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2013 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past four years running. Here’s a sample issue.

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Photo: © istock/Claudia Dewald

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