The graveyard entrance looms as I approach the top of the street in the steady summer heat.
Silent and immovable, it is like a sentinel that’s seen it all. A few plant creepers stealthily make their way across its rugged surface, their wiry green vines spreading out like the veins on the back of my hands.
Inhaling slowly, I relax for a moment and savour the air. Wisteria and the fragrance of wild flowers mingle together, tainted with salt and the pungent smell of bare earth. I love that it’s less polluted here.
There are few places in this ambitious city where one can escape to be alone, but the graveyard is one of them – sprawled out over an entire hillside, it extends all the way down to where the land meets the sea – iconic in this area for its historic array of headstones. This is the place I have chosen to seek solitude.
I stare up at the great pillars before me, fascinated by the years they have weathered, years of keeping watch over death; despite the despondency one would associate with such sombre outposts as theirs, I don’t feel depressed standing here. Instead, I somehow feel like I’m stepping on sacred ground, like there are many things to be learned from this place.
A car horn interrupts my reflection, blaring rudely in the distance. Sighing and trying to quench the rush of exasperation that shoots through my brain, I glance back over my shoulder at the skyscrapers puncturing the skyline behind me, so angular and awkward. It’s hard to escape the reach of the city even here on the outskirts! Traffic is like an impatient young steed that champs at the bit on the day of its first race, startled by every sound and sudden movement. You never know when he might just snap and bolt.
Why do people always have to be in a rush? I ask myself, and it dawns on me simultaneously that my biggest pet peeve is literally other people getting irritated. Sighing again, this time in defeat, I remind myself that today is about solitude. Remember?! Just focus on that.
Stepping determinedly through the entrance, city hubbub thankfully fades behind me and I stop for a moment to look around. It’s so peaceful in here, like another world! But not in an eerie way, just in a still way… the kind of stillness that soothes noise-scratched souls like mine. I can see the ocean sparkling below me, beyond the rows of crosses and headstones gracing the slope, and my irritation melts like fog dispersing at sunrise. After growing up in a seaside town where much of the commerce and export revolved around marine industries, the ocean has always represented ‘home’ for me. It sort of acts like true north. If I can get a glimpse of that wide blue sea, calm and serene beneath the sky, no matter where I am or what’s going on, I am always reassured that everything is going to be ok. And there it is, in all it’s sapphire beauty. Sunshine, ocean, wide open space… this is my happy place! Slowly exhaling all residue of frustration, I inhale rest with the salty air and feel the tension in my neck and shoulders easing. This is going to be a good day. (Despite what it may have been up until this point).
Before I can take any further steps, movement in my peripherals arrests my attention and I turn to see a group of nuns making their way back up one of the winding concrete paths toward me. Outfitted in crisp black-and-white habits, they walk in peaceful camaraderie that begs to be left undisturbed. One of the younger nuns lingers behind the rest of the group, preoccupied with the clouds and the view they are leaving behind. She is casually sporting a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses which, paired with her religious garb, introduce a sort of postmodern edge to her appearance that results in an outfit you’d expect to see featured on the cover of some overpriced style magazine. But apart from this there’s no other indication of the 21st century about them and I feel like I’ve just stepped onto the set of the Sound of Music or something. I consider capturing the scene on camera, already anticipating all the ‘likes’ I would get on instagram before I realise where my mind has gone. Already! It doesn’t take long to rear its head, does it – that bottomless appetite for validation of tastes and approval of opinions by others. It’s never satisfied.
I inhale another lungful of fresh ocean air and realign my priorities. Today, I am going to seek the validation and affection of one who is unseen; one who graciously and patiently allows himself to be discovered by those too often engrossed with the brass shine of cheap popularity to bother, including myself. Yet whenever I decide to lay aside such distraction for even a moment and pursue Him, I find myself reoriented by an acceptance and peace which the world and all her shortcuts to fame cannot offer, an intimacy that only grows with intentionality. Most of the time, I wonder why I didn’t seek Him sooner.
I watch as the nuns draw closer, murmuring amongst themselves now in quiet conversation. They are a strange yet comforting sight here, of all places – surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of graves. Dialogue dwindles to silence as they draw nearer to me and I move sideways on the path to allow room for them to pass, catching the gaze of one young woman as I do so. She smiles warmly at me and I smile back. Her eyes are kind, full of depth. Maybe they came here to seek Him, too, I muse, watching the women disappear from view over the hilltop, leaving me alone.
Turning back to the glittering ocean below me, I wander down between rows of sandstone and marble, slowly pondering worn inscriptions. Words like “beloved father, brother and husband”, “gone too soon, remembered forever” mark headstone after weathered headstone. All around me, engraved words are the only remainder of what were once living, breathing individuals, and I find myself dwelling again on this mystery: the fact that someone can be alive one moment – full of thoughts and ideas and personality and soul, and the next – nothing but an empty, unresponsive shell. It is such a strange thing.
I guess that is the reality of life, though. Just as it has a beginning, it also comes with an end.
Pop’s face floats into my memory once more, his eyes closed, lips set in a serious, thin line. I will never forget seeing him for the first time as he lay in his coffin. He seemed much smaller than I remembered him to be. The struggle with cancer had taken a definite toll. People were paying their respects – some with silent tears, some with regret-laden words, others with fond tales of his dedication and genius. His hair was still mostly black when he passed away – combed back from his intelligent forehead in rippling waves. That serious face, in death, was just one of the many expressions I had become familiar with during his lifetime. My fondest memories of him swim together from childhood, pooling into one big recollection: his bushy eyebrows dancing a jig whenever he laughed – that great, hearty, hooting laugh that no one could really resist, even if they were angry with him; His prickly moustache stabbing my skin whenever he greeted me with a kiss; the customary pat-pat-pat on his grandchildrens’ heads as they said goodbyes after a visit… his renowned stubbornness. All of it, now nothing more than treasured memories. Intangible.
Death is difficult to reckon with.
Here, the daily challenges of life that so easily wear away on my nerves or grind down my patience seem petty and insignificant in the face of its reality. I’m suddenly aware of everything I have to be thankful for: A husband that loves me. A stable job, a home to live in, friends that believe in me and encourage me. A family. But mostly, to be alive – seeing, hearing, feeling and breathing – seems like the richest blessing. It’s crazy how death always puts life in perspective – and really, it only serves to highlight how valuable the simplest of things really are. Yet, there is also an interesting tension here.
While the graveyard reminds me personally that I have much to be thankful for, and that life may really be bright and beautiful for the majority of us, it also reminds me that countless others have only known existence to be dark, broken, painful and filled with hardship. Often because pressures and tragedies have become so heavy they are literally crushing – pressure to earn a living, pursue a career, pay bills, support a family on one income, improve a tarnished criminal record, overcome addiction, trauma, a mental condition, loneliness, poverty, war or illness. The list goes on. For some, death has maybe become more appealing than these pressures, and that breaks my heart. Yet the reality is, life involves challenge, hard work, frustration, pain and tragedy for all of us at times; they were just never meant to define or dominate us.
Sitting here amongst the headstones, I have no idea what decisions these people made while they were alive – whether they were honorable or dishonorable; whether lives were taken tragically or unexpectedly, or whether they lived to a ripe old age before passing on. But what I do know is that every moment we each have on earth holds the same purpose and opportunity for all of us – the opportunity to recognise what we have rather than what we don’t have, to treasure it and steward it and learn from it, and build upon it. There may be more to overcome for some than others, but it can be overcome! Peace is possible, even in the middle of trials and hardships. Rest is possible, even in the midst of intense labouring. In this solitude, I am reminded that there is a refuge available for all of us – just as this graveyard is a refuge for me, from the noise of the city.
His name is Jesus.
I climb up onto one of the large stone platforms that serve as a memorial, savouring a renewed sense of gratitude for life and salvation. Sunlight bathes the skin on my arms, causing each little hair to glisten golden. A few birds flit about nearby, preening themselves and stretching delicate wings whilst eyeing me keenly, inquisitively. Salt air gently cools my face, and I turn toward the ocean once more, sprawling unchallenged below me. There is the horizon – a straight, undeniable line dividing mysterious deep from pastel blue sky… a mirage that keeps disappearing the closer you get to it, I muse; the line that has taunted adventurous souls for centuries past with it’s attainable allure. Just as the horizon disappears when we reach it, I will forever be chasing air unless I am anchored in You.
So many people chase horizons of fame, money, possessions, beauty or influence, only to find that the closer they get to attaining them, peace, purpose and joy recede further and further into the distance. With an obscured view of the wide open sky, I too am so often found guilty of thinking life revolves around me. Spending too long in the city narrows my perspective until my eyes have tunnel vision and life becomes about right here and right now, getting what I want, when I want it. But here in the graveyard, I’m reminded that all the rushing to and fro doesn’t add a second more to the length of our days, or lives! It only acts as an anesthetic, numbing us to the reality that life is fleeting and it can actually end at any moment! That’s a sobering thought, without the hope that Jesus offers, the hope of eternal life.
Some words I learned when I was young suddenly swell to the surface of my mind and echo in my heart:
“So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom” – Psalm 90:12
There’s a hope that supersedes the things we spend our lives grasping for.
The truth is, all of our searching and striving does not ultimately save us from death, whether we find ourselves living the dream or going through hell. Humanity is in constant need of this hope. Here, the ocean reminds me of it – calm and unchanging – always there no matter what part of the world I find myself in. I can always run to it, I can stake my life on its existence.
This hope is the real treasure of life, the real diamond in the dirt. It will enable you to persevere through trials and hardships with purpose, to find contentment no matter the circumstances, in the simplest and smallest of blessings; to find peace amidst the greatest challenge and heartache. To live wide-eyed with wonder, soft-hearted and receptive, yet resilient, bold and victorious at the same time. To live openly and honestly, truly free.
This hope is a refuge when the world gets too loud, and it is found in the person of Jesus, the only figure in history who’s grave was found to be empty…
I close my eyes, heart at peace, thankful for this moment, this day. For Jesus.
Though death comes to all, it will not have the last word.