All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
John Donne, Meditation XVII
On a visit to a retreat house in Shillington, Pennsylvania, I took a walk that led me to a hill overlooking a large cemetery.
On the flank of this cemetery, which I later discovered was originally founded as a cemetery for German immigrants, mostly Lutherans, there is a small Orthodox cemetery containing fewer than 30 graves. And just over the hill, separated by woods littered with No Trespassing signs, are the graves of Roman Catholic nuns from a nearby convent.
I walked among the rows and soon came to a thick, impenetrable boxwood hedge, well-tended and very much a barrier between this cemetery and a smaller but equally well-tended Jewish cemetery.
The boxwood hedge was very old. Older than itself. Thousands of years old. As old as the divisions among people, a division played out thousands of times in thousands of ways, from Cain and Abel to today.
Here, on a Pennsylvania hillside, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish cemeteries reminded me of the ways I plant and nurture hedges in my life.
As I surveyed the rows of stones, I considered the oneness I shared with every single person there. They were, as you and I are now, actors in a play that is at once a comedy, a tragedy, a farce, a drama, and occasionally, a musical.
They laughed, cried, worked, played, cared, loved, and hated, the same as you and I.
Some were poor in spirit. All probably mourned. Some were meek and hungered and thirsted for righteousness. Some were merciful, pure-hearted and peacemakers.
Some were hard-hearted souls, who offered curses rather than blessings. Some sought vanities over right living, and some, even though buried in a churchyard, saw no real need for God.
Some had crippled bodies. Some had crippled minds, souls, or spirits.
Some had many friends; some lived alone, voluntarily or not. Some died in the company of others, and some died alone.
Some were transparent, open to all. Some lie under stones that mark not only a final resting place, but also a secret.
Some of them feared death; others embraced it as the solution to pain or the portal to something better. Some died slowly, some without warning, and a few, no doubt, by their own hand or at the hands of another.
Some were mourned in death by many, some by only a few, and a few by no one but Father McKenzie. There are no stones there bearing the name Eleanor Rigby, but she is there nonetheless.
Each grave represents a paradox: someone who was unique and common at the same time. Just as we all are.
Many barriers we erect in life are useful and necessary. A fence to keep a child from falling into a swimming pool is a good thing. Its purpose is, in the end, an act of love. Some barriers though divide in ways that are not loving. They highlight differences and are motivated by fear and ignorance. I've erected more than my share of the latter.
The sum of goodness in the world is the sum of the goodness of the people buried in this little Pennsylvania village, on both sides of the hedge and woods. The sum of evil as well. And both are the sum of good and evil in my own heart.
When I ponder the cemeteries of Shillington, the boxwood hedges of my fears and prejudices, start to disappear.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
50 years of photographs and 35 years of keeping a commonplace book.