Margaret Edson’s use of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” in her play “Wit” offers a most helpful lesson in grammar. And I feel that theologians are in a unique position to appreciate the lesson. Donne writes and Edson portrays, “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” Theologians can speak to the necessity of Donne’s punctuation; his use of semicolon and comma. Theologians understand life as a sentence, pun intended, but it does not end at death. Death is not a period. For those who believe in resurrection, regardless of why it happened or how it happened, life can never end at a period. A semicolon or a comma, now that is another matter. Resurrection translates one’s life sentence to being rather open-ended. When death comes, we pause. Death comes, we mourn. Death comes, but life continues. As a theologian Donne uses punctuation to communicate continuation. Theologians can only speculate or dream about what comes after that punctuation.
First as a pastor and now as a chaplain, I feel that it is my calling to help persons and their loved ones approach “punctuation.” It is my calling to frame such punctuated moments in a way that allows others to conceive of how a life-a sentence-continues. Continuation can be in a literal heaven or something more akin to the deceased person being resurrected in memories shared by those who survive them. As a pastor I felt an urgency to say something when folks reached the punctuation of another’s life sentence. As a chaplain I am growing in my comfort and ability to simply abide with a person(s) in their experience of the pause.
I am reminded of how ritual helps in such pauses. According to our Book of Worship, United Methodists celebrate “Services of Death and Resurrection” and not funerals. Theologically and pastorally we are, as are other traditions, compelled to recognize both realities. We talk about death. We respect and honor the “sting” of death. We do not dismiss its painfulness and feeling of finality. However, we talk about the deceased in such a way as to invite those gathered graveside to start mourning and remembering the deceased. And in our words, we resurrect the dead. Metaphorically, we roll away the stone that blocks the deceased tomb. Through ritual we not only give permission to grieve, but also permission to celebrate a person’s life. We give the grieving permission to celebrate resurrection. All clergy should be able to address the mourning of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. However, it occurs to me that chaplains are called and are the best equipped to spend the uncertainty and pregnancy of Holy Saturday with souls struggling with another’s punctuation.
While I may not share such metaphors and conceptualizations with grieving families, I do comfort myself with the necessity of semicolons and commas. It allows me to be present in dark tombs. It allows me to roll away great stones. It gives me confidence to step into the light of resurrection.