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Homily for All Soul’s Day

By Sr. Elizabeth, SSJD.

I could never have imagined myself volunteering to preach on All Souls’ Day, if I hadn’t received a long letter from the daughter of an old friend of mine in Vancouver who died recently. Her name was Joy. I will explain why this letter so moved me in a moment, but as I started thinking about what to say in this homily, I pondered the difference between All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. For me All Saints’ Day celebrates all the Saints with a capital “S”—all those who have been considered Saints in the church over the centuries. But yesterday we sang that hymn about all the small “s” saints.  All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, is for me the commemoration of all the small “s” saints. As you know, Paul often referred to the saints in his letters. For example, in the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes:  To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints (Romans 1:7). As Christians, we are all called to be saints.

To make sure I was on the right track, I checked out Stephen Reynolds in For All the Saints. For All Souls’ Day, he writes : “On this day we call to mind all the faithful departed who are now with God in Christ Jesus. We especially remember all those who have touched our own lives, and the men and women of our community whose good works have sustained and enhanced the ongoing life of our Christian community.” Yes, that’s it!  I thought. Joy was a friend of mine who had touched my life. She died at the beginning of September at the age of 95.

I have known Joy since sometime in the 60’s when my family moved to Kerrisdale and started attending St. Mary’s Church, Kerrisdale. She worked in a bookstore near where my parents and I lived. She attended St. Mary’s Church as we did, and her daughter Muriel graduated from Crofton House School although not while I was there.

I first got to know Joy through the retreats she organized for St. Mary’s Kerrisdale at Westminster Abbey (not the one in London); this Westminster Abbey is a Benedictine Monastery in Mission, BC, an hour’s drive east of Vancouver. The Abbey is set on a hill overlooking the Fraser Valley and has lovely grounds to walk around in. I made several weekend retreats there which Joy had organized and we got to know one another better through attending these retreats. We found we both enjoyed going for walks and sometimes sharing deeply, and as our friendship deepened we would go out to dinner together at least twice a year on each other’s birthday. Today I would call her a soul friend. When I was considering resigning my job as Vice-principal at Crofton House School in 1981, she was the one who listened to me and supported me during this anxious time.

When I received this long letter from Joy’s daughter, Muriel, a few weeks after her death, I learned a little more about Joy that I hadn’t known before because Joy never talked much about herself. I would describe her as the “salt of the earth”, the backbone of many parish churches: humble people who do many things in the church and quietly help others, often behind the scenes.

Joy was a member of St. Mary’s Kerrisdale for almost 60 years, until at the age of 90, she moved to a Seniors’ Residence in Ladner to be nearer her daughter. During her time at St. Mary’s, she served the church as a leader for, then coordinator of, the Junior Auxiliary. She was a faithful worshipper at the 8:00 a.m. Eucharist for many, many years, acting as a reader and then a server until she became worried that she might drop the chalice. She was a regular ‘member’ of the Tuesday morning group that met for 8:00 a.m. Eucharist followed by breakfast and then, for the rest of the day, she volunteered in the church office, answering the phone and doing “useful’ odd jobs. Wherever she was, she was always a friendly face and someone who made others laugh, often at her own expense.

After her husband lost his job, she worked part-time for almost 30 years, first at Buchan’s Stationery and later at Woodward’s, first in the stationery department and then at the Book Store. With her friendly face and ready smile, she made friends wherever she was.

According to Muriel’s letter, Joy was a great mother to Bob and herself, organizing special birthday treasure hunts, trips to the A&W for a lunch paid for with returned “beer bottle dollars”; and after-church lunches at the Ferguson Point Tea House in Stanley Park on Sundays. Her son, Bob, remembers his friends loving to come to their home after school; their mum was very funny and loved to kid around. She tap-danced to amuse them, sang great old songs like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” while doing the dishes and kept the kids laughing. “Joy” was a very appropriate name for my friend. While I never saw her tap-dancing or singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, I was well aware of her sense of humour. I can imagine Joy “running like sparks through the stubble”, one of my favourite phrases from the Wisdom of Solomon. 

In 1994, just over a year after Ben’s death, I had a hysterectomy, and had to take time off work for 4-6 weeks. Joy was a tremendous help. After the first few days of resting following my operation, she would walk over each day (we lived only a few blocks apart) and walk with me. We started by walking just to the end of the block and back. Each day we would go a little further, until finally we were walking for a full hour. I looked forward to her company each day.

In Herbie O’Driscoll’s homily which Sr. Elizabeth Ann read on Sunday there was a quotation from Ursula LeGuin’s book Dancing at the Edge of the World. She imagines that a spaceship comes along and offers room for one passenger, one exemplary human being from whom a faraway race could learn what human beings are all about. To find this person she would go down to the marketplace and pick an old woman over sixty who  “has worked hard at unimportant jobs all here life, jobs like cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, selling little objects….” “LeGuin goes on to say that only someone who has experienced and accepted the entire human condition—the most essential quality of which is change—can represent human be-ing.” Joy was such a person, one of the hidden saints of our church.

Muriel noted that Joy was a good friend to others and, therefore, had many good friends whom she kept in touch with by phone and by letter. (She never had a computer). She corresponded with me regularly during my first few years in the community and I always heard from her at Christmas and on my birthday until the last couple of years. Latterly she would say she didn’t have much news to share but loved receiving letters from me. Every time I visited Vancouver, she would insist on taking me out to lunch even though she did not have much money.

All Souls’ Day has also become the day I remember my husband, Ben, who died on November 2nd in 1992. At the time I was not aware that it was All Souls’ Day as that was not part of my low church background but later it seemed so appropriate. Following Ben’s death, I received a few notes from people who had looked after him at St. Vincent’s Hospital. One of them said, “he was truly a saint”. I could only think to myself, if you knew Ben’s background you would never call him a saint, and yet he was, even when he could no longer speak because of the brain tumor. At church on Sundays, before his illness, he would always visit with “the little old ladies” or those who seemed alone. He was generous and kind to others in many ways and faithful to God.  His favourite hymn was “Jesus loves me, this I know”.

We too are called to be saints of God each in our own way.