Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
It was August of 2017 and I was in a large convention hall in Albuquerque, NM, with about 500 other people. I had nearly finished my first, in-person week of study in the two-year Living School of the Center for Action and Contemplation. The school is an immersion into spirituality and mysticism, drawing from Christian and other traditions. I was watching the Sending Ceremony for the class that was finishing their course of study. It was not considered a graduation ceremony, which implies that something has been accomplished or completed. Rather, it was a sending ceremony, signifying that while one stage of the teaching was ending, a different setting for the learning was emerging. It was not the end; it was an end. As with all endings, it was also a beginning. These souls were being sent out to continue their education and work, both through study and through living a life that would draw others to the reality of God within everything.
The school’s founder, Father Richard Rohr, was at the podium. I assumed he would share some of the common platitudes one typically hears at graduation ceremonies – congratulating the students for their accomplishments, telling them to be proud and to know they were now well-prepared to make a difference in the world. Rather, the tone adopted was like a funeral. He shared the five things we should say to those we love before they (or we) die. It was clear that this man, revered by so many of us, was modeling how to say goodbye to the in-person phase of the Living School. I, like many other Living School students, felt I had entered heaven when I received notification of my acceptance into the school. I would have the opportunity to study under some of the most admired, living contemplative teachers, as well as studying insightful spiritual writers from the past several thousand years. Fr. Richard’s blunt (but gently presented) words of closure felt harsh. Had I been a member of the class being sent, I would have been sobbing (some were). In his wise way, Fr. Richard was making clear that it was time to say goodbye. The purpose of the past two years had not been to create a destination where the students could rest for eternity, as many of us would have desired. Rather, the school was a temporary stopping point along a never-ending journey. It was time to say goodbye and move on, taking what had been taught out into the world to make life better, more just, and more abundant for everyone.
The funeral-like tone of the ceremony made me wonder, “Who died?” Of course, no one died, at least not physically. A third of my colleagues, however, were being sent away from the school – expelled from this Garden of Eden – and back to their homes for the next phase of their lives. Clearly, we cannot fully enter into a new phase of life without letting go of and moving on from the previous phase. It was death – not a physical death, but a death nonetheless. The parallels to our physical death were profoundly present in the imagery. Our physical death, and the deaths of those we love, are not endings as much as sendings to a new phase in a greater life. Our life on earth seduces us into believing it is a complete unit, is all that matters, and there is nothing worthwhile beyond it. I was sent from the Living School in 2019, and I confess, my school experience felt like a complete unit, like it was all that mattered, and like there was no other study so worthwhile. While my cohort’s Sending Ceremony did not feel like a funeral, it was clear that we could not return there anymore than we can return to our physical lives after our death, anymore than we can return to anything in our past.
The sending ceremony reminded me of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene at his tomb on the morning of his resurrection. He told her not to cling to him. The earthly phase of their relationship was over, and it was time to let it go.
Saying goodbye is a vital part of moving on. No experience lasts forever, although our experiences do imprint on our souls and, I am certain, remain with us on our post-death journeys. Next week I will share Fr. Richard’s five things to say to those we love before they (or we) die. It is a powerful way to help bring closure to difficult times of sendings.
This is the 52nd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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