The Common Good
January-February 1999

One Committed Lifetime

by Gordon Cosby | January-February 1999

Remembering Elizabeth O'Connor.

In 1 Corinthians 15, verse 35, we read: "But someone may ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?'" And the writer says, "How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies."

Elizabeth O'Connor, known intimately to many of us, died on Saturday, October 17. I would like for us to savor her life amongst us, to be thankful for what she has meant to us, and to be equally aware of what we have meant to her. All real love is mutual; it's never one-sided.

Henri Nouwen said often that our death is our greatest gift to others, and he wrote convincingly of death in his book Our Greatest Gift. Nouwen almost died when struck by the mirror of a passing automobile in Toronto, and his reflections, titled Beyond the Mirror, have helped to prepare many of us for this time of our transition.

About three weeks before she died, I went to see Elizabeth while she was still alert. She was alone as I walked in and had been for some time, and I said, "Elizabeth, what do you think about during the many hours that you have to be alone with nothing to do but reflect? What goes on within your deeper being?"

She said, "I have been thinking about my heavenly home," and then she turned the conversation to something else. A while later I brought the conversation back to her earlier statement. "Elizabeth," I said, "give me some particulars of this heavenly home business." She said, "You don't really get down to the particulars until you know you are up against it. You will have to wait for the particulars." I am sorry we didn't get back to those particulars.

IN MANY WAYS Elizabeth prepared for death, and through her life and death she has given us a great gift. This is a rare time for us to be with her, to do our receiving of the gift. Elizabeth thought of herself primarily as an educator. She constantly moved out into new areas, which she felt were to add depth to the church, and would always share with us her reflections. She helped us with the integration of the spiritual and the psychological. We came to know that they were not opposed to one another. The psychological could be an immense tool in the service of our faith. She started her own compassion groups, honing her skills, and has been immensely helpful to hundreds of people.

Elizabeth came to feel that journaling was an important tool for spiritual growth, and it has become a practice for many of us and a discipline for some groups. Elizabeth was always attending workshops of various kinds and adapting them to serve her own classes in the School of Christian Living and the Servant Leadership School.

She was also interested in the classics. In recent years introducing people to the great books of all time became a passion for her. Because of her insistence, I've read more great books than I ever intended. Elizabeth felt that to ignore the classics and the eternal wisdom of the ages was to deprive oneself of one of the greatest resources in the world. She opened these resources to many of the groups of ministers she was asked to meet with. Elizabeth felt a special call to the elderly poor. She used to wander around to different homes for the poor in the city, and her heart got connected.

Elizabeth felt that every local congregation should be a seminary preparing its people for ministry, and she felt that one of the deepest challenges was that of teaching. She believed that the local congregation should spare no expense in preparing its core people to teach.

Elizabeth was also a writer, and in this area she was conscious of her responsibility. She didn't think of it as just a call to write, but a call to interpret church and its meaning in terms that the uninitiated into the faith could understand. Many who have been alienated from the church began their journey home through her writings.

For Elizabeth, everything was geared to personal growth leading to outward work, all in the context of faith communities. Her books were deeply supportive of our missions, interpreting them for a larger public. She connected us with many important people who have helped us in our journey.

This is just the beginning of what Elizabeth gave to us. All of our reflections are important to get a rounded view of a remarkable life. It's amazing what can happen in one committed lifetime.

GORDON COSBY is a co-founder of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from the sermon he preached there on October 18, 1998.

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