A friend is reminiscing. A chance remark reminds her of her mother’s sudden death, many years earlier. At the time, she herself had been far from home; but her mother had stayed in touch by means of regular letters. She pauses in mid-sentence. “There’s something I would like to show you,” she tells me. She opens a drawer of her desk and brings out a yellowing envelope. “My mother was actually writing this letter to me when she had a stroke, which proved to be fatal a few days later.” Her voice falters as she hands me the half-written letter. The poignancy of this legacy stuns me into silence. I think of how death took its author without a moment’s warning, leaving a grieving daughter with half a letter.
As we think, in this season, of the “last things,” I will be carrying this memory especially in my heart, not only in prayer for my friend and her mother, but also because this incident has made me think about some of the things I would still want to say and write to people I love, or even to people with whom I have had serious differences. But of course, none of us ever thinks that time may suddenly run out, leaving us without even the chance to finish a sentence.
My reflections eventually take me back to the memory of my own father. His death was not a sudden one, but there was unfinished business in his life, nonetheless. He always described himself as an atheist. I never believed him, and neither, I think, did God. What he was rejecting was not God, but merely a series of flawed and sometimes damaging images of God. Such is my conviction on this point that I often feel very aware of his continuing presence in my life, and that presence is always close to another Presence.
I had a powerful reminder of this conviction not long ago during Mass. Nothing in the liturgy was sparking in my soul, until the cantor, a young girl, began to sing “The Holy City,” and all at once I was spellbound. My father had always played this beautiful hymn on Christmas Eve. Almost without thinking I walked forward to receive Commu-nion, just as the hymn reached a crescendo and the cantor’s powerful voice echoed around the church: “and all who would might enter, and no-one was denied.” And there was my doubting, questioning father, so vividly present to the moment. It was an unforgettable experience of communion. In my heart I was not only able to rejoice in the resounding inclusiveness of grace, but also to become profoundly aware that that sacred moment enfolded not only my father and myself, but also my mother, my daughter and her child, their great-granddaughter. Something unfinished had reached its moment of ripeness.
Thirty-year-old Claire Squires was denied her moment of completion. She participated in this year’s London Marathon; but just a mile short of the finish line, she collapsed and died. Claire had been running for the Samaritans, a charity that offers support to those who are contemplating suicide or are otherwise in the depths of despair. Her sponsorship promises would have raised £500 for this very deserving cause. But when people heard the news of her untimely death, hearts were stirred all around the world. Within a week, £1,000,000 had been pledged to the Samaritans, in memory of a girl who had steadfastly run the race but not quite finished.
Perhaps such a memorial could stand for each of us, in our own way. We run the race, we do our best, we try, but so often we fall short of completion. We don’t quite get there. We fall at the last fence. We want to bring a masterpiece to God, but all we manage is a child’s drawing, a rough sketch, an unfinished dream. If we think of our shortcomings as a failure, then thinking of the “last things” may well fill us with dread. But what if we could think of them not as something we didn’t finish, but rather as a seed whose blossom and fruit we cannot yet see or begin to imagine?
Seen in this light, my friend’s unfinished letter becomes an invitation. Is there a letter I need to write, or a call I need to make, to tell someone how I really feel, before it is too late? Advent is a very good time for turning vague regrets into conscious acts of love. And we can be sure that whatever we bring to God in the small change of our lives will be multiplied over and over in the flow of grace with which God responds to the slightest stirring in our hearts.