This fierce, feisty, fun, fabulous woman is beloved church member Helen Louise. She died yesterday morning, peacefully and surrounded by family, after a long and difficult illness. She was a retired American Baptist pastor married to Dick (also a retired American Baptist pastor) for just shy of 60 years. She was a mother and a grandmother and a mentor. She survived breast cancer twice. She was a sharp thinker, an eloquent writer, and a passionately engaged human being. She was amazing, and I loved her, and she is gone. My heart hurts.
Paul and I got the news of Helen Louise’s passing late yesterday afternoon, just as we were headed out the door to see the Strasbourg Cathedral. As we walked from our hotel, my heart was so full and heavy. My grief over Helen Louise’s death wove itself into my grief over the loss of my dad. Even though my family and I are having a beautiful trip, my grief is also always present. Walking through Strasbourg yesterday afternoon, I felt it keenly – there was so much I wanted to share with my dad about what the city was like, what we were seeing and experiencing. He would’ve been so interested. I found myself also wanting to tell him about Helen Louise’s passing. Of course he and she both know everything they need to know now. But it’s not the same as sharing it with them. I looked up at the sky and tried to imagine the other side of life, the wholeness, the transcendence, the beauty and grace and peace, the great community of the beloved on the other shore, Helen Louise and my dad among them.
We spotted the spire of the cathedral over the city center in the distance, but the route to get to it wasn’t obvious. We kept moving forward, by zig and by zag. We would lose sight of the spire, and then it would come into view, and then it would disappear again. I started to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn.
We stopped for a moment on the corner, in the shade, to regroup. I looked at the map on my phone and it seemed like maybe we were still headed in the right direction, so we decided to press on. We rounded the corner … and we all gasped. There she was. Not just the spire, but the whole cathedral. Absolutely stunning. Truly, there are no words for it. Pictures also cannot do it justice.
Built in the Middle Ages, it was the tallest building in the world from 1647 until 1874, when it was surpassed by St. Nikolai in Hamburg. Unlike the many, many limestone cathedrals we have seen (all gorgeous), the one in Strasbourg is built from sandstone from the Vosges Mountains. It stands over Strasbourg in a way that seems, to me, not domineering but sheltering, embracing, nurturing. Goethe referred to this cathedral as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.” I felt that. When the four of us came around that corner and the cathedral caught us by surprise even though we had been looking for it – it was an encounter that felt so deeply joyful and invitational and powerful. It was as if this wide-spreading tree of God was reaching towards us. It was as if someone we had been running after had actually been running towards us, only we didn’t know it until we bumped right into each other.
And then we heard music.
It was a street violinist and his wife on keyboard, playing a song we recognized but couldn’t quite place it at first – we were still disoriented by our confusing walk into town and the startling confrontation with the staggeringly tall cathedral. And then it dawned on us – it was ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.” Rob had a trumpet solo in this piece when his high school band performed it in May.
We were loving the music and the plaza and the people and of course the cathedral when everything kicked up a notch….
The violinist started playing “Time to Say Goodbye (Con te paritò).” This was the song played at my father’s funeral (the Sarah Brightman/Andrea Bocelli version), at his request. I haven’t listened to it since his funeral two-and-a-half months ago, and now here we were, standing in front of the towering, wide-spreading tree of God called the Strasbourg Cathedral, thinking of Helen-Louise, thinking of my dad, and listening to a stranger suddenly start playing my dad’s song. For a moment, I felt it – the wholeness, the transcendence, The grace and peace and beauty, the great community of the beloved on another shore – I felt it all reaching through, reaching towards me. I felt myself reaching back.
The music ended, and the moment ended, and we walked to the cathedral entrance and discovered it had closed earlier than we’d been told it would. It didn’t matter. We’d found what we’d come for, and it was enough for the day. We decided to come back first thing the next morning.
That was this morning. We went back, and even though the cathedral was exactly where we expected this time, and even though there was no street violinist, we were still blown away all over again by the size and beauty of this gorgeous sacred space. And then we went inside and contemplated the unbelievably beautiful rose window, along with all the other stained glass, and the huge astronomical clock, and a compelling art installation by a contemporary artist.
It was a beautiful morning.
And then we lit a candle for Helen Louise and Dick and their daughters.
When Helen Louise came through the line after worship on Sunday mornings, or when she was just saying good-bye, or when she was signing off a Facebook post, she would always end by saying, “Grace and peace.” Those words were her parting blessing every time, and I loved it. She herself was a blessing, and I loved her.
Grace and peace to all of you reading this, and especially to all who are grieving, most especially tonight to Dick and his daughters. We are sending so much love from here to there.