GREAT SOULS – A reflection on the death of Maya Angelou

By The Rev. F. M. “Buddy” Stallings, Rector,
St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City*

Maya Angelou died this week. Over the years, I have read her work and heard her rich, sonorous voice at various events, never once failing to be inspired by what she had to say. I have quoted her poem, When Great Souls Die, as part of All Saints’ Day sermons, probably more often than permissible. The poem begins: 

Maya AngelouWhen great souls die,
The air around us becomes
Light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
See with
A hurtful clarity.

And it ends:

And when great souls die,
After a period peace blooms,
Slowly and always
Irregularly. Spaces fill
With a kind of
Soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
To be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
Better
For they existed. 

And now she is one of those great souls gone from us. Our world is diminished for that, not quite as actively good as it was when more than her spirit prevailed: when her voice, even if only through Twitter, as it was a few days ago, could still be heard.

This week I have contemplated what it was about her that moved me so. A woman and a person of color, Maya Angelou and I don’t/didn’t have much in common—though the power of common southern-ness should never be completely discounted. But it was more than our regional connection…that made her so profoundly compelling.

She knew me—without even knowing that I existed. She knew what hurt inside me, the part that I never wanted to share with anyone; she knew what held me back, what gave me hope, what enraged me and what made me laugh. To be known like that is an amazing thing and the rare gift of a great soul, particularly one who can do it through her words from afar. I will miss her, but even as I do I shall give great thanks that because she existed, I can “be and be better.”

*This reflection first appeared in Fr. Stallings’ weekly e-letter, “From my Heart to Yours.”

 

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