We are taught that life continues after death, but when we envision this truth, we imagine the next life in an altogether new, shining world completely separate from the muggy physical existence through which we currently slog.
But the lives of the dead continue in the physical world, too. We leave seeds of ourselves inside of people long after we have passed through the veil. These seeds take root, bear fruit, and pass from relationship to relationship, uniquely cross-pollinating with other plantings, twining into little gardens cultivated within our souls.
M. James Young died in the Spring of 2012. I never knew him during his lifetime. A professor of theatre for fifty years, he spent the last twenty at Wheaton College, where he founded the faculty-student theatre ensemble known as Arena Theater Workout in 1973. Today, the ensemble continues to be the central theatre-making instrument on campus, and generations of students have had their souls profoundly rearranged under the tutelage of Jim and his heirs. I became a member of this ensemble in 2008, one in a long ancestral line of artists.
Although Jim died in April, students chose to have a memorial service in August, planning a weekend of reunion in honor of Jim’s life and our common inheritance as his students. Attendants ranged in age from graduates of 1974 to upcoming sophomores in college, with many of the children of the older generations also present.
On an uncommonly bright Saturday morning, my husband and I attended this memorial. At the door, we were each given a calla lily. As we entered the auditorium, we carried our waving white blooms down the sloping aisles to the stage, placing them in one of four overflowing vases. Returning up the opposite aisle, we located our old classmates and sat down, attempting to appear nonchalant as we peered curiously at the few hundred strange faces around us. Those who saw us staring exchanged small, secret smiles of recognition.
As the first strains of the processional hymn dribbled forth from the piano on the stage, the veil between the physical world and the spiritual realm became suddenly thin. The circling sounds of the processional spiraled upwards, arching out over the gathered bodies below, and it seemed there were more voices than bodies, though it was not clear where they came from. I felt an unknown (yet strangely familiar) presence pressing against the back of my skull. I somehow understood that Jim had joined us, and that he was pleased.
One of the readings during the service came from the 1 Corinthians 15, the famous passage that asks death where its victory is. Despite being brought up with biblical text continually humming in my ears, I listened with the stillness of an animal that has heard the snap of a twig in the night.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
“That’s from the Bible, right?” I asked my husband.
His well-shaped hands, speckled with white paint from a week of drywall installation, responded by tightening his grip against my arm.
After the service ended, my husband pushed through the crowd to purchase Stages,Jim’s paperback autobiography.
We read most of the book in tandem seats on airplanes in the proceeding weeks. Illuminated by that single gold stream of circular overhead light, Jim’s words sprang from the page with the vivacity we now knew to be his signature.
Jim wrote of theatre as the most heightened of art forms. Instead of dealing with life through a medium of paper, clay, or screen, artists deal directly with human beings sculpted out of other human beings. As a director and an acting teacher, Jim always dealt in the medium of the breathing, stumbling body, reveling in the marvel and pain of primal interaction. And as he worked, and as his students watched him, he was pressing seeds into their ears and eyes.
At the memorial, I had seen the evidence of these seeds, now grown to oaks and willows and even redwoods, each piece of Jim uniquely shaped by the soul that nurtured it to life. The divine impossibility of it made the hairs on my arms stand at attention.
As a student of Jim’s friends and students Michael, Mark, and Andy, I have some of Jim in my soul garden. Tendrils of his fruit tree curl through my veins and flutter their leaves against my bones, and I try to understand how my body and soul and spirit makes this particular species of Jim’s teaching unique.
And when I wake suddenly from the immobile stillness of sleep, feeling the nearness of my own death, I think, What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
I think of Jim, too, and I am a little less afraid.