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The Communion of Saints: A Reflection on Jessica Danson's Death
by David M. Denny

Our circle extends beyond the living. Many Christians understand the Body of Christ as a family that includes the dead, the communion of saints. In his first encyclical, God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI writes:

“The lives of the saints are not limited to their earthly biographies but also include their being and working in God after death. In the saints one thing comes clear: those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them.”

Surely this applies not only to canonized saints, but to all who live and die in love. No one, not even a saint, is perfect. But anyone may be, by the grace of God, transformed by God’s forgiving love.

In 2005, the world lost two saintly figures: Bro. Roger of Taizé and Rosa Parks. Roger, the founder of an international ecumenical community of prayer in France, was stabbed to death. And Rosa Parks, whose refusal to comply with segregationist customs catalyzed the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, died in Detroit after a lifetime of witnessing to the dignity of all human beings, regardless of their race.

Many of us recently suffered losses closer to home. On January 11, 2006, Jessica Danson of Sedona, Arizona died at home surrounded by loving family and friends. Since the 1970s she was a friend and benefactor of the Spiritual Life Institute. She was also a loving supporter of the Desert Foundation. Last July she wrote in her own hand, despite her macular degeneration: “You are so dear and thoughtful to keep me posted on your new Desert Foundation! We are thrilled to hear how everything has unfolded so beautifully. I think Loren [her son-in-law] will love to contribute. I wish I had money to give but you know that my heart and my prayers will be flowing your way.”

When Tessa and I learned on January 1 that Jessica was dying, we immediately drove to Sedona. Shortly after our arrival, we celebrated a Mass at Jessica’s bedside. Tessa wrote an account of accompanying Jessica and her family through Jessica’s final days.

In January 2005, Tessa and I had traveled to Sedona for the Feast of the Epiphany. We cooked a Middle Eastern meal at Jessica’s and laid out a sumptuous feast fit for the Magi and their desert caravan! Jessica was a “faith-based realist.” She knew that she would not live forever and, at age 88, she was eager to talk about dying before the feasting began. Tessa had recently participated in a conference on death and dying, and Jessica asked us to read her some passages that addressed the mystery of death in a mystical way.

It was a cold wet January. Sedona’s Oak Creek had flooded once, and threatened to overflow its banks again. It even snowed. Late one gray afternoon, as I walked down the snowy lane to Jessica’s from my room at her neighbor’s house, I suffered a bittersweet vision. The poem that follows is a stammering requiem for that moment when the neighbor children’s laughter rang out, and a child’s red coat flashed between the tree trunks across the street.

One year later, we had hoped to repeat our Epiphany feast. Instead, Jessica had embarked on her pilgrimage into the final desert. She did so with the wonder and passion of the Magi.

Beneath the Cottonwoods

Your home is a hearth
beneath the copper cliffs.
Your home is a heart.
Beneath the copper cliffs
December snow is melting
beneath my feet.
December sun is dying
behind the cliffs.

I go to read to you
about your dying.
I go to learn from you
how lovers die.
Before I enter your home
I hear the children,
Hear the children’s dusky
snowfall laughter.
Between the cottonwoods
I see a red coat;
Beneath the dark limbs
a red coat darts.

Your home is a hearth;
I go to read to you
And heaven laughs
beneath the cottonwoods.
The Word wears red
beneath the cottonwoods.

(16 January 2005)

May the example of Jessica's holy death in Tessa’s reflections strengthen you, whether you are near the threshold of death yourself, or close to someone who is.


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