Saints and Souls

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster
and their going from us to be their destruction,
but they are at peace. 
     (Wisdom 3:1-3)

Last week was the week the Church celebrated all saints and all souls. This past weekend, Mike and I participated in an internment ceremony for one departed soul in Trinity Cathedral’s Memorial Garden and went to a memorial service for another in Bellevue, Washington. Both services were for friends who were honored for their intelligence, humor, faith, graciousness, and extreme kindness to others.

Their passing followed what seems to have been a season of death, not due to Covid but during Covid. My mom was the first, followed by a wonderful piano teacher, a former high school teacher, and a dear clergy friend. I have recently learned of the life-threatening illnesses of three other good friends and good persons. 

At Sunday’s evensong for All Souls, friends brought photos of loved ones they have lost in the last few years and placed them around the altar. As the choir sang the beautiful and moving anthem “Souls of the Righteous” by Lewis Geraint, tears ran down my face. The cumulative grief for all our departed loved ones had finally caught up with me.

I suspect that many of my friends think it’s somewhat quaint that I believe in heaven. It’s not a childhood image of heaven based on Biblical metaphors (streets of gold, gates of pearl, angels with harps floating around God’s throne). But Jesus talked about heaven as a welcoming place in the life that follows our current existence on earth. The Gospel of Matthew alone has over sixty references to heaven. In his Rule for Monasteries, St. Benedict describes heaven as a place where the Lord is always looking down on the children of earth “to see if there be anyone who understands and seeks God” (Ps. 14:2) (RSB 7).

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis portrays our next life as a natural extension of our life here on earth, carrying with it the consequences of choices we make while on earth. If heaven, like God, is eternal, why can’t it flow backward as well as forward and be part of our life on earth as well as our experience after death? As Dwight L. Moody once preached, “We talk about heaven being so far away. It is within speaking distance to those who belong there. Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people.” Father Frank, my first priest after joining the Episcopal church, said that our spiritual path as Christians is preparing for that life we will live when we are united with Christ.

The reason I believe in heaven is that, like many others, I have experienced something of heaven on earth. I might be overcome with emotion, feeling a Divine presence as I sing the words to an especially meaningful hymn in church. I might feel inexpressible joy sitting next to the Chama River in the profound silence and beauty of a New Mexico canyon.

I feel chills up and down my spine when hearing the Sanctus from Fauré’s Requiem. I might think of heaven when I’m sitting around a dinner table with a group of people who love God, love life, and love each other, experiencing a foretaste of a heavenly banquet. It is in these thin places where the veil between earth and heaven seem very porous and one can keenly sense the sacred.

I don’t maintain a faith practice in the desperate hope of going to heaven someday. I maintain a faith practice because I experience heaven now. We are now in the hands of God, just as we will be when we depart this life. I cannot think of a richer and more gratifying way to live. 

Published by Stephen Isaacson

Stephen Isaacson is Prior of the Cornerstone Community, a lay Benedictine group within Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He has served in many other roles in the Cathedral and is currently the Co-coordinator of Outreach Ministries at the Cathedral. Prior to his involvement with Outreach or the Cornerstone Community, Steve was Professor of Special Education at Portland State University, where he also served as Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Education. During his career in academia, he authored a number of juried publications and instructional materials.

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