Do I Know You?   Leave a comment

We sang “Hail Thee, Festival Day” on Pentecost as the procession marched from the altar to the font to baptize 16 infants and toddlers, but I think many of us felt that the organ should have been piping out a funeral dirge.  The families of the young children were smiling in excitement, but most of the faces around me reflected sorrow and shock.  It’s hard to sing “Blest day that art hallowed forever” when a beloved member of your community has died 36 hours earlier.

I’d like to say that Nick, the man who had died, was a friend of mine.  But to be fair to the many people who were genuinely close to him, it’s probably more accurate to call him an acquaintance.  We greeted one another warmly by name every Sunday with a handshake and arm clasp, maybe the occasional hug.  We had shared several small-talk conversations and served together in church governance.  But when I heard the news of his death, one of my first thoughts was, “I know so little about him.”  I knew how involved he was in church, his sense of humor and his warm spirit, and what company he worked for, but that’s all.  We never hung out together outside of church.  I didn’t know what he did for that company, or anything else about his life.

But somewhere in my mind was an assumption that this would not always be the case.  Nick is such a great guy; surely at some point we’ll have that conversation in which two people go from being acquaintances to friends.  There’s plenty of time for that.  Only now there isn’t.

But isn’t this usually true when someone we know dies?  A friend of mine died last autumn, and while I was close enough to her to be asked by her family to speak at her memorial service, it occurred to me as I prepared a eulogy that there were many things I didn’t know about her.  And every day I come up with new questions I wish that my dad, now dead three years, were around to answer.

So why didn’t I ask Nick more about his life?  I think part of it is some social stigma against seeming too nosy. Despite our confessional nature on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, we still have a strong boundary against anything more than small talk, and paradoxically, we have to get to a certain level of intimacy before we can ask even mundane personal questions.  And then there’s the added awkwardness of asking something I suspect I should already know.  I’m pretty sure Nick had told me at some point what his job was, and asking the question would be admitting that I couldn’t remember.  And part of it is just that assurance that there would be time for the friendship to naturally evolve.

Or maybe it’s all due to my shyness; perhaps I’m blaming societal norms for my own reticence.  Whatever the reasons, it’s not enough to wait for these things to happen.  Life is short; I need to get to know the people I want to know better, and let them know me.

Here’s what I did know about Nick: he was a tireless volunteer at Grace Cathedral, involved in numerous committees and ministries.  And cheerfully so! I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face and a kind word or a joke for everyone he spoke with.  I know that when his fatal heart attack hit, he was attending a fundraiser for a church charity.  By all accounts he was in his usual great mood until the moment he collapsed, and he died surrounded by friends.  The Bishop and one of the Cathedral’s priests were there to minister to him while friends and paramedics tried to save his life, and they administered last rites as his life ended.

On Friday afternoon, a few hours before I heard the news of Nick’s death, I watched a video from the wonderful Jesuit writer Rev. James Martin about the 20th Century nun Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.  Thérèse talked of her life as “the little way,” not seeking to be a great saint, but serving God by always doing small acts of love and devotion.  And as I heard the news, I thought of Nick as having lived this sort of life of constant generosity.

Pentecost celebrates the strange day in the early church in which a gathering of Christians, inspired by the Holy Spirit, suddenly began to speak in different languages, enabling people of many nations to hear the Gospel.  My dilemma feels a bit like the friendship equivalent of the moment before that.  How can I find the language to build stronger communication between myself and my would-be friends?

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” says Donne.  The bell tolls, too, for the missed opportunity to better know a fellow human being.

My readership is small enough for me to safely assume that anyone reading this is a friend (or at least an acquaintance).  Are there things about yourself that you’d like me to know?  Are there things about me that you wish you could learn?  Let’s fix that.

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