Thursday, August 9, 2012

The White Cross

One summer morning in Nashua, I took my four little children to a neighborhood playground.  Along the way we drove past the Edgewood Cemetery.  As the children gazed out the car windows, they spotted a bright white cross on a hill on the far side of the cemetery.  Their curiosity aroused, they asked if we could go in and see it up close.  Since we were on a fairly loose schedule that morning, I agreed and turned into the cemetery.

Along narrow winding roads and over gently rolling terrain, we proceeded slowly and reverently through the necropolis.  On the far north side we ascended the hill and stopped at the edge of the property near the white cross.  I got out with the four children and we walked the short distance to the stone.  Steven and Michael, the younger of the four, asked what it said, and I read the inscription to them.  The deceased was someone whom we had not known.  He was Scott Alan Brehm, and he lived from March 22, 1971, to April 6, 1995.  Lower down, near the base of the cross, was inscribed “Forever Young.”

Standing about four feet high and the only stone situated between two large pine trees, this white cross was obviously well attended.  A circle of pine bark formed the base of a garden around it.  Neatly arranged flowers of every color surrounded it, and there were no weeds.  Looking toward the south, the white cross commanded a view of the entire cemetery.  A universally recognized symbol of the Christian faith, it was easily visible from all quarters.

To the right of and in line with the white cross but on the other side of one of the pine trees stood a dark gray stone.  This marked the grave of someone we had known.  Herman Guiterman, described as a “Beloved Husband, Father, and Physician,” lived from April 2, 1938, to June 7, 1995.  The founder of Nashua Pediatrics, he had taken very good care of all our children.  James and Karen remembered him well; Steven and Michael less so.  The sight of his grave stone intrigued them.  Like the white cross, it stood near the top of the hill and beheld a view of the entire cemetery.  Also, atop the family name it bore the Star of David, a universally recognized symbol of the Jewish faith.

The home of these two graves, the Edgewood Cemetery, is an oasis of peace and quiet in a busy and noisy city.  Just outside its front gate lies the traffic-saturated intersection of Broad and Amherst Streets where the din of motor vehicles resounds all day and half the night.  Inside the gate beneath the pines and poplars this commotion seems very distant.  On the hill where the white cross stands the traffic jam is inaudible and, for that matter, mostly invisible.  Standing on this hill and taking in the view, one feels spiritually at ease.  The cemetery serves as a harbor of refuge from the secular world, a place of faith, hope, rest, and quiet contemplation.  One can feel the thinness of the veil that separates oneself from the deceased, and one can feel a closeness to them.  Since my first visit with the children all those years ago, I’ve gotten in the habit of visiting the Edgewood Cemetery a few times every summer.  I like it there.

On another hill far away there stands another white cross.  Overlooking the small seaport and village of Twillingate on the north coast of Newfoundland, this towering white cross was erected in 2003 by the Salvation Army as a monument to all the merchant seamen and fishermen from Twillingate who had been lost at sea.  From the cross’ base at the top of this high hill, one enjoys a magnificent view of the village, the harbor, the open sea, and the rugged countryside that rolls down from the sky to the waterfront.  Not a typical seaside resort, Twillingate and neighboring Crow Head are cold, foggy, overcast, and wet in the summer.  Nonetheless, the natural beauty of a place settled by man but not spoiled by him recommends it to anyone with a love of the sea.  The large hill where the tall white cross stands is a spiritual harbor of refuge, an oasis of peace and quiet, faith and hope, stillness and contemplation.  At the base of the hill to one side lies a small cemetery.  Hidden from view from the street, it is accessible only by a narrow dirt road.  A dirt trail leads up the hill to the white cross.  As spiritual havens, these two spots complement each other very well. 

Not an easy place to reach, Twillingate is very literally “far from the madding crowd”[1] of the commotion-saturated secular world.  From the white cross on the hill it seems that the very edge of the Earth must be nearby.  Indeed, as one looks at the sea from this elevation, the thinness of the veil and the closeness to the deceased become obvious.  We visited the white cross and the cemetery in Twillingate on Wednesday and Thursday, June 23 and 24, 2004, while on a week-long family vacation in Newfoundland.  All of us felt the presence of the Spirit there.  Between this pleasant sensation of spiritual repose and the magnificent views in all directions, it was only with great reluctance that we came back down to the village to get dinner.

Just as Moses had come down from Mount Sinai only to face the problems of the secular world, I expected that we would feel a similar letdown.  But as all of Newfoundland is an island of peacefulness geographically removed from the commotion of the secular mainstream, we experienced no such disappointment.  Instead, the sensation of spiritual repose lingered with us, although less intensely than on the hill.

The deceased, of course, do not share this concern.  They repose quietly in hallowed ground and in a spiritual realm.  They never need to step down from the Mount and experience reentry into the material world.  In praying for the dead, believers of nearly all denominations ask that they be blessed with peace, rest, and light in the afterlife.  We would like these gifts for ourselves, too, for we know that this world is not always peaceful, restful, or bathed in light.  No matter how long we linger at the white cross in Twillingate or at the white cross and the Star of David in Nashua, we know that we must eventually return to secular society and leave the peace, rest, and light of these hallowed grounds behind.

An old Roman supplication for the dead expresses the heartfelt wish of the living for them:

            Eternal rest grant unto them, Oh Lord,           Requiem aeternam dona eis, O Domine,
            and let perpetual light shine upon them.         et lux perpetua luceat eis.
            May they rest in peace.  Amen.                       Requiescant in pace.  Amen.

These beautiful verses also remind us that eventually we ourselves want to share in these eternal blessings, that we want to join our brethren on the other side of the veil.  At the appropriate time we will inevitably do this.  Until then, however, we may visit them in the places of their earthly abode, and on their behalf perform the ordinance work in the House of the Lord.

There are no white crosses on any of the temples, but a few of the older buildings have suns, moons, and stars in their stonework to symbolize the heavenly realms.  From a navigational viewpoint this is beautiful imagery, as a mate aboard ship would use the sun, the moon, and numerous stars to fix his vessel’s position on the trackless sea.  There are no Stars of David on the temples[2], either, yet this is also an apt symbol as one Jewish scholar explains:

Through the Jewish people’s long and often difficult history, we have
come to the realization that our only hope is to place our trust in God.
The six points of the Star of David symbolize God’s rule over the
universe in all six directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down.[3]          

On many transoceanic voyages I navigated by the great celestial lights, and in doing so I recognized “God’s rule” in every direction.  From Polaris over the North Pole to the near-diametrically opposite Southern Cross, every celestial body is both subject to and symbolic of “God’s rule over the universe.”  Infallible as navigational aids, they form myriad parts of the immense universe.  The seaman who follows them faithfully always stays on course.

The Southern Cross has long been one of my favorite constellations.  Comprised of four stars and situated almost but not quite over the South Pole, it appears very distinctly as a bright white cross in the sky looking down upon the Earth.  If a single star can represent “God’s rule over the universe” for the Jewish people, then how much more can four stars in a cruciform constellation represent this for Christians?  In this celestial white cross, then, I see four Stars of David, symbolic both individually and collectively of the Lord’s rule in all directions over all his creation, and also symbolically combining the truths of both the Jewish and Christian faiths.

It is one of the terrible tragedies of history that these two great religious traditions, both of which recognize a Prince of Peace and whose teachings seek after peace, rest, and light, have all too often been mired in animosity and violence in their relationship with each other.  But there is hope for the future.

The Southern Cross shines down on the temples in one half of the Earth.  Atop each temple stands a depiction of the angel Moroni summoning the diverse peoples of the world to the House of their Lord.  At night this statue of Moroni is bathed in a soft white light which produces an aura of peacefulness as people gather and rest from their worldly labors.  As these good people come to the temples and participate in the ordinances for both themselves and their dead, the Southern Cross with its four Stars of David shines down upon them, verifying, as it were, the summons of Moroni to ensure permanently the blessings of peace, eternal rest, and perpetual light for all of God’s children.         

[1] Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1970, p. 489.
[2] Interestingly, there is a Star of David on the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
[3] Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “Star of David,” at

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