“The Spiritual Life of Children” is, of course, the title of the rather famous book by Harvard physician and professor, Robert Coles. I’ve read in it, but I can’t say I’ve read it all. It is available as a Nook book for about $10.00. But I want to tell you about an experience of that – the spiritual life of children – in our own family. And I couldn’t use that phrase without due homage to Robert Coles.
Before I tell you of the incident, I have to describe the physical setting, a memorial garden at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, our church home before St. Alban’s. The garden is a lawn area, about forty feet square, encircled with azaleas and other low growing flowering plants, with a couple of openings in the stone wall around it and a bench where people can sit and be with their loved ones whose ashes are interred in the lawn. There are no markers. Before an interment, a small amount of earth is lifted out with a shovel, and in the committal service, the ashes are deposited directly in the hole, the dirt is shoveled in over them, and the sod replaced. When the grass has grown back, there is no trace that anything was ever done. With the passage of the years, there are probably few areas of the lawn where you could walk and not be on or near an interment spot. There is a board in the entrance to the office area with brass plates, each about one inch by four inches, with the names of the people interred in the garden. The north wall of the Common Room is glass – floor to ceiling and edge to edge – and looks out on to the garden, beyond which is Lorcom Lane. It is quite a lovely spot. Here are a couple of pictures of it.
This garden and the incident I am about to relate to you all came to mind in the course of meeting with the St. Alban’s Columbarium Expansion Planning Committee. I had gathered for the Committee a list of parishes in the Diocese of Washington that have a columbarium or a garden, and I added to it some in Virginia about which I already knew.
About twenty years ago, when he was about five years old, our second grandchild, was visiting us from Southern Maryland, where he lived. He came to church with us on this particular Sunday. Although baptized, his parents were virtually unchurched, and he knew nothing of death and dying, of funerals or burials, much less of memorial gardens. He and Jonnie Sue arrived and came into the Common Room on the way to the nave. They didn’t go straight through, but she stopped to greet and visit with people on the way through. Grandson wandered about, looking at everything, and when Jonnie Sue went to take him in hand to go into the nave, he was at the glass wall, looking out at the lawn. He asked her:
“Where are the tombstones for all those dead people?”
She could scarcely believe her ears and asked him, “What did you say?” and he repeated his question, whereupon she explained that there were none, but there was a plaque with their names, and so on. He was satisfied with that, and into church they went.
She was amazed. We both still are. She even felt privileged to have this glimpse of a child’s world. Sad to say, I think grandson has outgrown that innocent awareness that Coles writes about, displaced for the rationality that characterizes the intellectual life of the western world. Oh, if only there were some way to have both. Some people manage it, but they seem the rare exceptions. Or maybe it is something we can all recover if we just open up to the possibility and pursue it.
I close with one of the prayers from the Burial Office: “Help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting. Amen.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 06-May-2014.