Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Dying We Are Born to Eternal Life

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.

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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.

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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?

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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. . .

16 comments:

for a different kind of girl said...

I can say nothing more than this was a beautiful gesture, and I think it's more lovely in the fact that, on some level, Loraine got to hear you, and I hope that gave her a level of peace in her final moments here.

flutterby said...

THis post stirred a lot of emotion in me, Des.

I think it's wonderful that you and Molly were there at her bedside to sing and offer comfort; but an even greater gift was that you two are sensitive souls who could recognize the beauty and profundity of the moment and as such, bring dignity to it.

Thanks for posting this.

Cocotte said...

A sad, but beautiful story. It does seem more important that you were able to sing to her while she was still alive. You and Molly are a gift to your parish.

lime said...

i'm very glad you were able to accommodate loraine in her last hours. i think that may have been a far more significant gift to her than singing at her actual funeral.

the birth/death meditation is certainly one that could be ruminated on for a while. very worthy.

oh, and i'm only 40 but i've already told my middle child what i want her to sing at my funeral.

Sailor said...

This is beautiful Desmond; I love the thought of you reaching to her, giving her that gift- and as you said earlier in the post, as cantor, you help point them to God. Surely, this does just that.

D

Xavier said...

Thank you for sharing this. I have personally witnessed several deaths of the non-peaceful sort in my life and truly appreciate hearing of the better sort when I can.

Seeker said...

Thank you for this story....... which inexplicably made me cry - and cheered me up - all at the same time!

I am sure your singing for her helped to ease Loraine's journey from this life to the next. Which hymns did you sing?

Desmond Jones said...

faDKoG - Thanks; I agree that, all in all, it was nicer that she could hear us before she left.

Flutter - I don't know that we're such 'sensitive souls' as all that (but I'm willing to be convinced ;) ). The beauty and profundity of the moment was actually kinda hard to miss. . .

Cocotte - Well, God bless you. For our part, we just try to be faithful. With greater/lesser degrees of success. . .

Lime - You know, sometimes you just sorta fall into doing the right thing, and you didn't realize until you got there, just how really, really right it was. . .

I'm glad you like the birth/death meditation; that has always seemed to me to be incredibly profound.

And, just 'cuz I'm nosy that way - what's the song? ;)

Sailor - Thanks. We try.

Xavier - Always glad to help out if I can, bro. . . ;)

Desmond Jones said...

Seeker - You snuck in while I was responding to the others; thanks for leaving a comment.

You know, off the top of my head, I don't remember all three. I know one of them was 'Let There Be Peace On Earth', which is one of my absolute least-favorite songs, but at the request of a woman on her deathbed, I could put my own distaste aside. . .

Oh, and we sang 'Alleluia, Sing to Jesus'. But I'm drawing a blank on the other one; if I remember it, I'll come back and let you know. . .

lime said...

well the one i have requested for her to sing is "i'll fly away." there are other pieces I want but that's the one i want her to sing because she'd do it justice. it can't be sung like a dirge it's meant to be spirited and joyfully hope filled.

Desmond Jones said...

The one from 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' That would be a GREAT funeral song!

Every so often, I'll be singing something and think, "I want that sung at my funeral." I'm gonna have to start writing those down, or something. . .

lime said...

that's the one.

The Silent Male said...

Desmond. I imagine the timing was not insignificant for me to read this when I did. After some thought, I have decided to borrow the words from Peter Kreeft for my wife's memorial tomorrow.
I find those words a comforting reminder that she is with our Lord and I'll see her again when my time here is complete.

Desmond Jones said...

TSM - Oh, man. . . you're making me all weepy, bro.

I didn't have you in mind when I posted this, but you're right - it starts to look like Somebody had something in mind with the timimg of it. . .

And as sad as it to be burying your wife, there is good reason to hope that she's in a better place. . .

I've been thinking (and praying) about you and your kids a lot, over the weekend, and I commend you all to the Lord's loving care. I keep thinking of three books I've read - aside from the Kreeft book mentioned here, I think of 'A Severe Mercy', by Sheldon vanAuken, and 'A Grief Observed', by CS Lewis. I don't know if you're much inclined to read anything these days, but if you are, those could possibly meet you where you live these days. . .

The Silent Male said...

Desmond - Whatever brought this timing, this post was really comforting to me. I'll post what I had written down for me to read during the service.

For reading right now, I am leaning a bit more toward escapism. I am slowly working on a John Grisham book right now. I am going to write these titles down so that a bit down the road I'll remember them and give them a look.

Desmond Jones said...

I'm so gratified (and honestly, humbled) that you could take some comfort from this, TSM.

I can certainly understand the 'escapist' impulse. You all are in my prayers. . .