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Readings: Romans 8.35, 37-39 and Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”; names have been changed for privacy.

On my drive out to my last visit with Minnie, the air was full of butterflies. The swallowtails, it seemed, had emerged from their cocoons all at the same time. For the whole half-hour trip, the swallowtails fluttered around my car. Like a blessing, a sign of new life, a revelation of one of the ways that destruction turns into creation. In the cocoon, the caterpillar liquefies; it’s not a pretty transformation. Few transformations are. But the metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly signals that improbable and radical change is possible, that surrendering to helplessness and the unknown can give us wings.

In Celtic spirituality, a “thin place” is one where the boundaries between heaven and earth, between time and eternity, between us and God, narrow and even become permeable. A thin time, then, is when we mortals sense and touch what is eternal, what has gone before, even what is divine.

For me, the Christmas Eve and Easter Vigils—when we come before God in darkness—are thin times. Hospital and sickbed vigils are thin times. Times of waiting in darkness, times of uncertainty and fear, times of celebration all open me to a different kind of awareness, a not-taking-for-granted. They open me to what is truly important, life-giving, and holy. Even when full of anguish, such times can catapult us out of business-as-usual and into the in-between spaces. We become aware of our uncertainty, our vulnerability, our relatedness to every other human being who suffers, worries, loves, hopes, and prays. In the thin spaces and the thin times we begin to act as if the Kingdom of God were right here with us. As painful as the thin times can be, we can find the sacrament in them.

Everyone goes into the thin times at some time in their life. At some point, everyone feels pain. Everyone knows the razor-edge sensation of waiting on hospital benches. Everyone knows the suddenness of sudden loss, and how long a long illness feels. We will all experience these things if we haven’t already. We will all die.

What grace, what sacrament can we possibly see in this? Only the sacrament of the Kingdom of God. The grace of this sacrament is our common humanity, which we cover over so often with ultimately meaningless distinctions such as wealth, ability, age, education, or race. And the grace of this sacrament is the way we gather to treat one another as we would want to be treated: by providing food, company, help, love, and listening silence. We make our hospitals and sickrooms into God’s Kingdom simply by showing up with love in our hearts.

Minnie was a true priest of this sacrament. I don’t know how many hug pillows Minnie made in her life—maybe a hundred—but they are sacraments, too. If you don’t know, a hug pillow is a colorful, quilted pillow with the word “hug” on it, and it is given to people in the hospital or undergoing treatment for an illness, or someone going through any other kind of hard time. Jack tells me that it started as a way for folks who had undergone surgery in their abdomens to brace themselves when they cough—you’d hug the pillow against yourself, like this, to help control the pain. So the hug pillows have a practical component, but they are also a physical representation of the love and support we feel for someone who’s suffering. Even when we can’t be physically present for that person, the hug pillow can.

A few days before I last saw her, I talked to Minnie on the phone. She told me she had received 26 hug pillows, and that they were making her room very colorful. When I came to visit, there they were, filling a bookcase, covering a bureau, propped up on the floor against the wall, brightening the room with color. When she was gone, Minnie said, they would be sent on to folks at the hospital. In the meantime, she was feeling surrounded by love.

You could tell just by looking at her that she was full of love, love both given and received. She told me she felt waves of love from her children, neighbors, friends. And of course from Jack. People were stopping to visit, bringing food and flowers, telling stories, helping out. Generally doing the things that transform a random bunch of people into a community. In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, we pray that we may be “Christ’s hands and heart in the world.” The people surrounding Jack and Minnie were being just that: Christ’s hands and heart in East Barnard.

And this is one of the gifts Minnie gave us: the opportunity to care for her as she had cared for so many. Generous people don’t only help us by what they give away; they also help us as teachers, showing us the beauty we can create in our communities by what we give, showing us the joy we can experience by being giving people.

I keep thinking of the swallowtail butterflies that seemed to be my guides on my last visit to Minnie. The butterfly is one of the clearest symbols of the thin times, because they experience what appears to be the end of everything, but then come forth with new bodies. The transformation—from grubby caterpillar to graceful butterfly—is so much like death that many cultures believe that butterflies are the souls of human beings who have passed away from this life; the ancient Greek word for butterfly was psyche, the same word for “mind” or “soul.”

There’s one thing I know for sure about God, and that is that, in God, love never dies. And that means that those we love never die. We may not see or recognize them, just as a child may not recognize that the butterfly that emerges from the cocoon is the same being as the caterpillar that went in, but they go on in some beautiful new form that is unimaginable to us. The great priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote, “Imagine that, in the center of your heart, you trust that your smiles and handshakes, your embraces and kisses are only the early signs of a worldwide community of love and peace! Imagine that your trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles—just as a little stone thrown into a still pond. Imagine, imagine . . .” Such people, Nouwen says—those whose love ripples out far beyond them—they die, but never die. They leave us, but at the same time they are with us always.

Imagine: Minnie died, but never died. Her spirit is alive and well, and we will know her presence if we keep letting ourselves learn from her and love her. All those who have lived and died in love have never died, but their actions keep rippling outward like the waves from that little stone. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel grief. It doesn’t negate the fact that loss sucks. Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, just before he awakened him from death. Grief is something no one can escape, and the only way through it is to keep forging through it. But if we remember and let ourselves be changed by the love we have received from those who have gone before, we too will begin to send out those loving ripples. We will be like those hug pillows, sent out as colorful ambassadors of love, changing those who receive them, just like we have been changed.

A Blessing for the Brokenhearted, by Jan Richardson

There is no remedy for love but to love more.
– Henry David Thoreau

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still

as if it trusts
that its own stubborn
and persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us