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Starting Point

A kiss for unknown Kristin at her grave


There is a cemetery in Iowa. I liked walking there in the cool of the evenings. It was early September. It is just across the road from our monastery called New Melleray. The cemetery is on a hill, and you can see for miles all around. Green fields stretch far into the distance. It is as if the lush grass stretches from your feet to the sun and all about you forever. The horizon is dotted with silos and barns and an occasional clump of trees. So still and beautiful, save for a passing 18-wheeler on a distant highway or a rising flock of birds. Telephone and power lines are visible, too, but are hardly noticeable since the sky and fields are so vast. Things human seem in a more humble perspective. A sense of life, rich life, abounds.

There is a lovely little church across the road from the cemetery. A Trappist monk was once pastor. Our monks still celebrate Mass there on Sundays and Holy Days, but it is closed the rest of the time. It was built a long time ago and is in good condition.

One evening I went for a walk with Chaminade, a good friend and monk of Conyers, Ga. I wanted to show him some of the old headstones. There was yet enough light for us to read the inscriptions. The cemetery is divided into two sections, though there are no definite markers indicating such. But there is a point where the graves are more recent. We made our way slowly through the older section.

The section is mostly Irish. The headstones were old and looked it. So many young people died in the 1840s, through the remaining decades of that century, and right through the first decades of this century. I was astounded by how many perished from roughly 1845 to 1910. Some families were decimated. Carved names testified to the loss of as many as five, six, even seven children in a single family. Women died noticeably, painfully young. There were many graves of infants, marked simply “Baby John” or “Baby Mary.” Surviving members left behind poems of sadness and hope, faith and longing for a better life for the departed. Some graves had old metal crucifixes atop them. The years had taken a toll on these and other statuary. The crucifixes were rusted, some missing legs, arms, the head. Concrete angels were everywhere, many missing wings, noses, hands. So many things went through my mind as we quietly walked along and read inscription after inscription. The young men and women, the children, young wives, husbands. Row after row telling of a time when, as a matter of course, longevity was not something taken for granted. One grave listed four sons, none of whom reached the age of 15. I wondered if they had run and played on the very field in which they were now interred.

There were many graves of those who lived long years. They seemed heroic, like survivors of some terrible, tragic siege.

We slowly moved into the section with the more recent graves. There were large and impressive stones. Many had fresh flowers. Some even had lights with sensors on them that caused them to turn on in the darkness.

Chaminade is peaceful. He is easy to live with, easy to be with, easy to walk with. He was just a few feet ahead of me, and I saw him lean down to read something on one of the stones. “Look at this,” he said. I went and stood next to him, and there on the gravestone was an etched image of a young woman. Her name was Kristin. She was born in 1962 and died in 1988. And beneath her image there was a poem, written by her parents. It was a poem of hurt, loss and a hope for Kristin’s peace. The last words were “we shall see each other again.” Kristin’s stone face gazed back at us, with her slight smile and short hair, parted on the right. She was pretty.

Chaminade said something but could not finish because he filled up. He wiped away tears and said, “She was young, so young.” He put his hand to his lips and placed his fingers on Kristin’s image. We prayed for a moment in silence and then moved on. I could feel deep things stirring in Chaminade, but he was OK. I did not want to distract him from a certain place in his heart where he wanted to be and needed to be.

There are times I look at my life, my days here in a Trappist monastery, and wonder how I got here and why I am here. I suppose that there are so many satisfactory answers that I bring to bear upon my own questions. It is a “calling,” a “good life to live,” a “way to seek God” and so on. They last for a while, quieting the voices within me. But every now and then an experience hits me from the outside and so grounds me in who I am and where I want to continue to be.

I look back on that night and remember feeling the words of the psalmist, that life “is a passing breath.” It was so still. We walked and wondered at all the gone life around us. Everything pointed to and yearned for an eternity, a hope, a life that we cannot give to ourselves or to those we love.

Then a man read with love some words and gazed at an image of a dead woman, cried and kissed her as best he could. It was a gesture that spanned years, and yet I believe it reached its tender mark. Then he prayed. Whatever is in us that so moves us to embrace finality with a kiss and a prayer and tears: That is beautiful. I want that life and want to live from that kind of love and goodness.

In the last talk he gave before he died, Thomas Merton said, “We are a living incompleteness.”

We think and do so many things to settle once and for all that gnawing sense of feeling incomplete. And yet the experience persists. There is no putting it to rest. We ponder, we move, we wrestle with who we are, whom we want to love, where we want to go.

But go we must. There is no choice in that.

I believe that all humans are invited to an experience similar to the walk taken by Chaminade and me. We are all invited to a place set apart, a green and fertile place, beneath the stars, where birds can be seen rising to the sun and traffic is far away but, like all things, going somewhere. Where is it all going? It goes fast. To nowhere? The trucks and their riders head to ultimate oblivion. The birds rise to a sun that will someday perish, putting an end to all days and nights and the ways we move and love in them.

I believe that God will kiss all things back to life.

It is said that death is a final place of rest, that it is our journeys’ end. But I wonder. Do the dead move among us, drawing from us our prayers, our hearts, the very meaning of our journeys? I think so. I saw such a mystery that night in Iowa and trusted that the trucks have to move, and the birds take flight, and that all things living and moving shall reach a home. It is all passing, moving along. Pause for a moment and say a prayer and love as best you know how.

Chaminade was moved by beauty long gone. Kristin’s lifeless body may have been sealed in a tomb, but Chaminade’s heart offered a better and more lasting seal, that of a prayer, his sorrow and a kiss.

Somehow I like to believe that she kissed him back.

We have years left, places to go, things to see, people to love. Yes, we are restless, seeking something of God and the good through it all. A God who lives in us and so moves a man to kiss a life that died young, but still lives and takes to heart those who pause enough to love her.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His latest book is Be Gentle, Be Faithful: Daily Meditations for Busy Christians(ACTA Publications, 1999).

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000