A few days ago a friend asked me to imagine what God is like, and he encouraged me to set aside my usual ideas. Don’t think about God as Father, Son, Spirit. Stay out of the Sistine Chapel. If I alone could describe God, what would God be like?
An image immediately came to my mind: Audrey Hepburn in a white sweater. My friend recognized the image right away. “Oh, you mean in the film ‘Always’?” he said. “Yeah.” My friend smiled. “That’s pretty gay,” he said.
We talked about it some more, and the image has endured in my mind and heart since then. I went back and watched Audrey Hepburn in “Always,” a little feel-good film from 1989, in which Richard Dreyfuss plays Pete, a cocky, daredevil firefighting pilot who terrifies his girlfriend Dolinda (Holly Hunter) by taking unnecessary risks in the air. His plane explodes after he saves a friend from certain death, and that’s where Audrey Hepburn comes in.
She plays “Hap,” a serene, seemingly angelic figure who tells Pete he’s dead and sends him back to inspire his friends, to share “spirit” with them. He meets her in a burned-out forest, but she is surrounded by leafy green trees, and they sit and chat in a lovely green circle of grass and white flowers.
Hap is wise and kind, she doesn’t tell Pete everything or explain all of the mysteries, she understands him immediately, she is gentle but wise: she is, in my eyes, irresistible. She represents for me what I imagine my beloved dead might be like. My mother is no longer suffering in a hospital bed at our home in St. Paul, Minnesota, dying of cancer; perhaps she is now in a delightful place, made more delightful by her presence there. She has her full Irish auburn hair again, and it’s pulled back (a style I never saw her wear, but it works), and her impossibly blue eyes sparkle with humor and kindness. I imagine my mother as mostly the woman I knew here, but also someone else: in a strange, intriguing way, as we chat in the cheerful yet oddly lonely forest clearing, I realize that she is not really my mother anymore. And I’m surprised to discover that I’m not bothered by that.
Her sweater is light blue.
And so I realize that when my friend asked me to imagine what God was like, I missed the goal a bit: I imagined not God, but our beloved dead.
Saint Paul offers a mightier, more muscular vision of our encounter with those who have died. He doesn’t imagine a kindly forest scene, a quiet green circle of heaven designed for one person. Paul gathers all the people together in a triumphant reunion with God in the air, trumpets sounding, archangels crying out their joyful songs.
Isaiah, centuries before Paul, had an apocalyptic vision of this world (not an other-world) restored with justice and peace. We all get to climb to a great mountaintop and bliss out at a kind of cosmic wedding reception, all our tears having been wiped away by God, who, instead of eating the rich foods prepared for us, swallows up Death itself.
These are wondrous visions, and I love how communal they are, for that is the key feature of our religion, the one thing that we offer above all else that makes us useful: we believe that God appears to us when we gather together. We believe that God is present in community. When I die, if I encounter my mother, she will no longer really be my mother, because she was only circumstantially my mother here on earth: her identity in God is much less about me, and much more about the vast cloud of souls who share enduring life in God’s presence.
But I want to insert a little protest here: I want to say that I believe Audrey Hepburn knows all this, and so my vision of her in a little forest clearing is still valid. I want to stand by it.
Hap sends Pete back, not as a ghost and not as a resurrected person, but as an unseen inspiration, and a dead person who still has a few lessons to learn. He goes back to inspire a young pilot, just as Pete himself was inspired (without knowing it) by dead pilots who had gone back to help him. Hap tells Pete that when he flew for the first time and discovered to his delight that flying came easily to him, he was not alone in the cockpit. The dead had been there with him, showing him the way. And now, “it’s your turn to give it back,” Hap tells Pete. “That’s how the whole thing works … When you get the hang of it, they hear you inside their own minds, as if it were their own thoughts. Isn’t it clever?” she asks, her eyes alight.
But Hap then gives Pete an important warning: “Remember, Pete,” she says, “you’ve had your life, for better and for worse, and anything you do for yourself now is a waste of spirit.”
Anything you do for yourself now is a waste of spirit.
In our own tradition, which doesn’t always line up nicely the way things do in the movies, we are meant to understand that the sharing of Spirit really is how the whole thing works, this vast community of living and dead, this cloud of witnesses who meet the Lord in the air, this mountaintop feast with a table large enough to seat everyone. It works when we share the Spirit with one another. It’s never all about one pilot, or one mother restored to life and health.
If you ask me to imagine God, I instinctively aim lower, imagining our beloved dead, and I see God in the Spirit they share with us, the Spirit we share with them. Hap is beautiful and wise, but one need not die to participate in beauty and wisdom. In our Anglican tradition we pray for our beloved dead, a practice which leads me to wonder if the film “Always” only had it half right: yes, the dead “go back” to help us, to inspire us, but we also share the Spirit with them: we help and inspire them, too.
If the whole thing works properly, then we meet the whole communion of saints here at this feast of thanksgiving, this Eucharistic table set out for us on the mountaintop of God’s presence, right here in this room.
If the whole thing works properly, we recall that anything we do only for ourselves is a “waste of Spirit.” We find God in the sharing of beauty and wisdom, the free gift of inspiration we share with our neighbor, and the free gift of inspiration our neighbor shares with us.
If the whole thing works properly, we will name our beloved dead tonight, asking God to remember them, praying for the repose of their souls. We will share the Spirit with them.
If the whole thing works properly, in all this sharing of the Spirit, we will meet God.
Isn’t it clever?