Love Letter to an Old Man – Rev. Emilie Smith

January 27, 2011

Dear Friends,

Standing close in beside me the woman cries, her tears pouring down into her purple dress.  Once in a while she carries her apron to her face, and wipes it crease by crease.  For a second I wonder if it’s culturally the right thing to do, but to hell with it, my arm wraps around her, her stained-damp eyes peer into mine, we understand, and we love one another.  So we lean together, holding each other, looking out, forlorn, lost, the two of us, the ten thousand of us here gathered –  bereft, orphaned, undone.  Before us, not ten feet away, he lies, or his body does, in a simple wooden casket, draped with the embroidered cloth of those he loved, those who loved him.  The world has turned a different colour, now that he has died.  Don Sam.  Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia.  jTatic Samuel.  Canan Lum.  The clouds gather over and threaten, but do not release, and the men up above on the platform say their prayers.

Bishop Ruiz with Emilie Smith

Bishop Ruiz with Rev. Emilie Smith

What did jTatic Samuel mean to this gentle woman?  How can I know?  When did he take her hand in his, listen to her suffering, uncover with her the hardcore truth – although the world denies it –  of God’s most precious love for her?  As she cries I can only wonder, again –  how did he, with utter quietness, speak, almost without words, flooding into the hearts of God’s troubled children, a breath, a light, a fire, the Holy Spirit. . . What did he do to make this world more bearable, wonderful even, a place worth fighting and dying for?

I remember sitting at his table in Queretero, nicely asked to lunch by his niece, Rosy, and later, in his living room under a dusty charcoal drawing of the young Zapata, already wearing a wide sombrero.  He was telling me about the horror of attending the funeral of his colleague, and dear friend, Bishop Oscar Romero, gunned down while saying Mass, with the Holy vessels warm in his hands.

Don Sam told me about the day of that funeral, in the cathedral in San Salvador, when the army opened fire on the mourners, and so many more died, and his witnessing of one woman, in particular, and her agony.  He spoke as if in a clouded dream, as if I had been there too, and together we were remembering and mourning.  Later, they took me to the bus station, he insisted on coming, and climbing out of the car, he blessed me, marking me with the sign of the cross on my forehead as one of Christ’s own, forever.  He was 84 then, a few weeks shy of 85.  For years he had been struggling with heart problems, and diabetes.  I remember hearing about how much he loved candy.

Ours was a delightful brief friendship between an old Mexican Roman Catholic Bishop, and a Canadian Anglican priest, with a fierce love for Guatemala.  I was invited into the circle only a short five years ago, first when I visited Mexico City and his team of peace builders at the SERAPAZ offices, where he had a little room, and a narrow cot, a place to rest from his full agenda, and then a few months later when he came to visit Vancouver for a peace conference.  He came, and stayed as a guest in the rectory of my church, he, and his assistant, Martin (whose finger I later broke – by mistake! — slammed in a car door).

St. James’, if you don’t know, is the fuddy-duddy Anglo-Catholic parish in Vancouver, and there was a slight stir when I – a woman – was added to the team.  Don Sam enjoyed his days with us, and at the High Mass on Sunday, said he was amazed, not so much to see a woman celebrate Mass, but to see that we did it all eastward, facing the altar and God, not the people, and that we still wore maniples and amices.

His life and mine, thereafter crossed over, intentionally and unintentionally – we were on the same path, though mine was forty years behind, and running to catch up. Oaxaca, Queretero, Mexico City, Guatemala, his own beloved San Cristobal de las Casas, San Salvador, in each place a gathering of the family on fire for a world built on justice and righteousness.  An end to violence and to greed.

My memories, though few, are tender and formative.  After hearing the news of his death in my house in Santa Cruz del Quiche, I sat in the chapel, lit candles and sobbed, alone.  My friend, Don Juan Ixchop came by, and then went out and gathered some town elders, and we burned candles and pom, and kneeling prayed together.  Word went out, and a few other people came – former refugees, some of the 250,000 Guatemalans who had fled the genocide.  It had been Don Sam who met them at the border, and short and stout, wearing gum boots, stood before the ravenous Guatemalan army in pursuit.  They remember and we gather here in gratitude, and together we spread rose petals around his picture, and leave him yet more candles.

The next morning before sunrise, I am on the five-bus trek to San Cristobal de las Casas to say goodbye.  My friends are all coming, down from the City.  He is lying in the yellow cathedral.  I kneel and talk to him, alone, and then go looking for my friends, I know exactly where to find them.  And there they are.  We embrace, and throughout the evening and the night and finally in the morning over a three hour breakfast we cry, and talk.  I mostly listen to these who loved him, who lived close to him, their innumerable stories, echoing mine, but so many more of them, of this man, who refused to hate, even those who clawed and ruined and did damage to others.  And then the final Mass, we gather in the plaza, many, many more of us than before.

After the conch is blown for the last time, and the younger priests gather around his coffin and carry him inside the cathedral for burial, we stagger on, gathering to break bread and to continue to reweave this tragically rent garment of our lives.  Miraculously, it will be possible, we will go on, the work is not yet done.

Don Sam, abuelo.  I never knew my own grandfathers  —  who are my family, asked Jesus, but those who gather around me and do my Father’s will?  Don Sam never said as much, didn’t need too, that he loved me, approved of me, trusted me – when I didn’t even trust myself –  that God was calling me to live and witness and to work.   There were no grand fireworks about him.  When he invited me to con-celebrate with him, and the other Bishops and a multitude of priests, in that cathedral in San Salvador, it wasn’t with banners and proclamations.  Thirty years had come, and gone, since the terrible death of Romero.  And there we were, not destroyed, simply living and refusing to go away.  God’s love and beauty burst forth among the nations.  I was there, but it had very little to do with ME.  I was there, I am God’s priest, and my place was at my Bishop’s side, serving at the table.

Before the sun slid through the high mist in the mountains of Chiapas, my friends all went home to the City.  I gathered my things, heading down to the bus station.  Passing by the yellow Cathedral, I thought to slip in, one last goodbye.  The crush had been too great the day before to visit his final resting place.  But then I thought, no, no need to.  He is no longer there.  The Spirit that ignited his heart has not died, but beats in the breast of all who loved him.  Of all who love that simple man from Nazareth, God’s Son.  Don Sam’s hand is forever blessing gentle, on my forehead.  I can feel it resting there.  Well done, God’s servant. Descansa en paz.


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