For many years (going back at least to when 1F was a small child), I have been, in my parish church, what is called a cantor. It isn’t a terribly demanding role – mainly, I just lead the congregation in singing/chanting a few of the liturgical prayers during Sunday Mass – but it is a pretty visible one. And, from time to time, being a cantor has its wonderful, humbling perks, as when I get to sing the Exsultet, the ancient Christian hymn of victory, at the Easter Vigil Mass (the richest, most wonderful liturgy of the entire Church calendar) – “Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ, our King, is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!”
Because the cantor’s role is so visible, and perhaps because I have always believed that men ought to sing like men – vigorously and strongly – I’ve gotten quite a few compliments over the years. For which I’m always grateful, but the point of being a cantor is not to draw attention to my singing, but to point worshippers toward the proper object of their worship (ie, God). A few times, after Mass, I’ve had a couple grab me and ask me to sing at their wedding, and if I can, I’ve generally been happy to do it; I’ve been tapped to sing at Confirmation masses and First Communions, and various other liturgical celebrations, all of which have been my grateful privilege, and my joy, to be a part of.
A few years ago, a woman (call her Loraine) collared me after Sunday Mass, and asked me to sing at her funeral. At the time, she was elderly – her children are my age, and one of her grandchildren had briefly dated one of my kids – but still very lively and active; by no means ‘on death’s doorstep’. She hastened to say that she didn’t expect to be dying right away, but she was old enough that making plans seemed a prudent thing to do. She liked how I sing, and wanted me to be a part of her moving on from this life to the next. I was sincerely honored, and I told her that, if I possibly could, I would be honored to sing at her funeral.
I’m not sure I particularly expected to hear from her again, or if her family even knew of her request, but every few months, I would see her around the parish, and she would smile, and remind me, “You’re still OK to sing at my funeral, aren’t you?” And I would always tell her that, if I possibly could, I would be there. It actually served to build a bit of a friendship between us. Molly and I were honored guests at her 80th birthday party a couple years ago, and it was actually pretty amazing. Her kids put up a display – sort of a retrospective of her life, similar to (but much richer than) the ‘shrines’ that graduating high-school seniors put up at their parties – and we were amazed to learn where this woman, whom we had only ever known in her ‘elder-hood’, had been, and what a substantial woman she’d been, in her youth, and as a wife to her late husband (who died before we ever knew her), and a mother to her many children.
In recent months, I noticed that I hadn’t seen Loraine at church recently, and then Molly, who’s around the parish on a day-to-day basis much more than I am, told me that she was in hospice care, and probably in the waning weeks of her life. A few days ago, I came home from work to find a message on our phone from one of Loraine’s daughters, saying that her mother had taken a turn for the worse; that they were finalizing plans for her funeral, and they knew that Loraine had asked me to sing at her funeral, and just to let me know, so I could plan for it.
I was crest-fallen. Because of my company’s recent struggles, I couldn’t take time off work for her funeral, like I’d have wanted to do in a second. And even if the funeral were to be on Saturday, I was already committed to visit with my own aging parents that weekend. “Well, is there any way you could sing for her?” the daughter asked me. Well, what’s she doing right now? I asked. And so we arranged that I could go to her house, where a couple of her daughters were attending to her, and sing for her. Which I was delighted to do.
Molly and I arrived, and we were brought to her bedside. I was shocked at how frail, how fragile, how delicate, she looked; not at all like the bright, vivacious old woman that I’d come to know. She was only semi-conscious at best, and labored for every breath. It was evident that Loraine would not be with us much longer. We greeted her, and sang three hymns for her, that her daughters had told us were her favorites.
It was, in all truth, an amazing, transcendent experience. There was very much a sense that we were on something like Holy Ground – that Loraine, for all her evident fragility, lay on the edge of an awesome transition to something beyond our understanding, and we were privileged to be in the presence of it.
It brought to mind standing at my ‘first mother’s bedside a few weeks ago. I have never been present when anyone took their last breath, but everyone I know who has been, speaks in the same awe-struck tones of being in the presence of something awesome or transcendent. Or holy.
The experience also reminded me strongly of something I read in one of my all-time favorite books – Love Is Stronger Than Death, by Peter Kreeft. In it, Kreeft develops an amazingly insightful analogy between birth and death (and one that I have not encountered anywhere else). A child in his mother’s womb, says Kreeft, is warm and comfortable and secure. Outside the womb is – he knows not what (although he might have some inklings of a ‘world beyond’ – muffled voices, and the like). Being born involves some not-insignificant pain, and quite probably a swirl of confusion as to just exactly what is happening to him. Yet he is born into a world infinitely wider and richer than the womb, and he is infinitely freer in the ‘outside world’ than he was in the womb.
Just so, in this world, we are comfortable; and, at any rate, this world is all we know (although we may have ‘inklings’ of a ‘world beyond’). And death, like birth, involves considerable pain and confusion. Is it possible that death, like birth, brings us into a wider, richer, freer existence than we had before?
And consider the relationship of the child in the womb to his mother – he draws his very life from her, and is, virtually unawares, in constant, intimate contact with her, yet he cannot see her face, much less know her as a person. Until he is born. And one imagines that, once he is ‘outside’, his mother’s voice will ring very familiar to his ears – “so that’s what I was hearing!” Is it possible that, just as in this world, we can’t see God, from whom we draw our very life, death brings us into a new, clearer relationship with Him – “Then we shall see Him face-to-face”?
I don’t know if this analogy, suggestive as it is, points to ‘deep reality’ or not; even if it does (or maybe, especially if it does), I’m still ‘in the womb’ – I can’t see ‘the other side’ with any clarity. But it is at least food for contemplation, and perhaps even cause for hope. Isn’t it?
The next morning, I went to work as usual. In the early afternoon, I got a call from Molly, telling me that Loraine had died that morning, only hours after we'd sung at her bedside. . .