One of the most influential people in my life and the life of my family was a Roman Catholic nun, who founded a contemplative monastic community in France some fifty years ago. She is “dead” now, no longer visibly with us. But we don’t need photographs to remember her face and her words. She had no formal theological training, yet she could speak theology to her sisters and to gathered laypeople with an unmatchable eloquence. She spoke from personal experience of the living Christ and His Holy Mother as friends and companions she cherished and loved. In her presence, they were present, too, more really, more concretely than through iconography or even services of worship. Her name, like that of so many anonymous nuns, was Marie. Just a few minutes with her, and the veil that so often covers spiritual reality in our daily life was lifted. She was a theologian because she prayed. And that prayer somehow enfolded the rest of us and lifted us, for a moment, to the heights we longed for.
There are so many others we have been blessed to know, even if their depths of faith and expressions of self-giving love leave me feeling empty and spiritually bankrupt. What has become clear over the years is that people like this exist virtually everywhere. We simply need to look for them and pray God that He will enable us to discover them.
It’s easy to see hell in other people, at least it is for me. Maybe first of all it’s easy to see it in myself: in my faithlessness, my doubt, my impatience, my neglect of people I love. That hell is merely the absence of God (merely!), an absence I provoke sometimes, I suspect, on purpose. I create it in myself, and I allow myself to create it, as it were, in others, or rather in my perception of others.
The miracle is that those same people really do bear God’s image, and it’s always possible to discover that image, in them and in myself. Yet it is special people of the kind I’ve mentioned who convey to us the real truth, both about God and about ourselves. In their simplicity and depth, their inner silence and eloquent wisdom, they make Christ present to us. Most of them have made their own journey out of darkness and into light. Like Adam and Eve, and other Old Testament saints in the paschal icon of the Descent into Hell, they have reached out and been grasped by the hand of Christ, then lifted by Him from the realm of death into the glory of His resurrected life.
These people have known, even in their earthly lifetime, what it is to live in, with and for Christ, in the beauty and splendor of the communion of saints. Their gift to us is to call us back to reality, to what is essential. When they do, their simple words and silent presence lift us out of our ourselves, to set us, gently and firmly, on the threshold of heaven.