Vigil for the Dead

At 11:40 the church was ablaze with lights, a shining, welcoming jewel in the darkness. I had changed into dress pants and blouse out of respect for the solemn, sacred duty ahead.

I rattled the front door. Locked. Checked the side entry. Also locked. I returned to the front and, being early, waited outside. The warm wind whipped through my hair. It was late, but comfortable enough to spend a few minutes seated on a bench awaiting my time slot. I wanted there to be some overlap in case there were instructions to pass on.

At ten ’til I rapped on the door. Moments later, a woman opened the door, scarf wrapped around her hair, still reading out the Psalms from the psalter she carried.

The deceased lay in his coffin, peacefully facing the altar area, the faces of Christ, the Theotokos, angels and saints surrounding us. Above him the beautiful chandelier, imported from Eastern Europe, is ablaze, brass shining. Candles flicker from candle stands, from tall, narrow jars beneath various icons, and next to the readers stand.

As the clock flipped to midnight, the reader finished one Psalm and handed off to me. As I began, she made her reverence to the icons as we usually do when entering or upon leaving a service, and hurried off into the night.

I enjoy chanting. Chanting in this temple is a delight. The architecture allows the voice to fill the space with little effort. Something happens as I pray, read, chant, or sing. It feels as if my voice is joined by something unseen.

My head turned to catch a perceived movement from the corner of my eye. Though I saw nothing, I felt something there–something glorious, ethereal, warm, bright, otherworldly. At this point, it would have seemed normal to find angels winging overhead.

The newly departed looked peaceful. He had not been embalmed, so I was surprised to find him looking like this. It was an honor to chant the Psalms for him on his last night above ground.

Have you ever noticed how many of the Psalms talk about death? Standing vigil, you become aware in a new way. Reading aloud of God’s goodness, His faithfulness, His mercy, and His glory in the presence of the dead imbues it with a sense of depth, of eternity, of…dare I say, holiness.

There aren’t proper words for what happened last night. The departed, asleep in his beautiful handcrafted casket, resting in this peaceful ceremony, so full of humanity in its best form, and in the divine, the veil between this world and the heavenly so thin it seems a mere breath could pierce it and heaven blaze through…it seemed entirely reasonable and to be expected for the deceased to sit up, to rise from his casket and join in praising God.

I was surprised he didn’t.

This duty, this task, despite chanting myself hoarse, did something unexpected. I went, thinking I was doing a service for the deceased and for his family, but left feeling honored and privileged to have been able to participate. Something happened there that is more than reading, more than praying, simply more. I sense that I am changed in some way. I feel more…human.

Advertisements

Chasing the Sun

Paint the world
Calm the heart, the mind and spirit with a fall drive.

Chasing the sun along fields and forests, the round bales of hay dotting fields against the fiery leafed edges in shades of crimson, gold, mustard, orange, oxblood, chestnut, shades of red and orange of every description, against skies of gray clouds slowly shifting to skies of clear blue. Shafts of sunlight lit the occasional tree with heavenly light, like Moses’ burning bush. The gentle cacophony of bird song carried through the open skylight. Wonder and awe lifted my sorrow. Wrapped in glory, my eyes were lifted from earth to heaven.

This glory, this peaceful glory wrapped around my heart and lifted me in my grief, and hinted, no, insisted that there is more than this.  There is more than this earthly glory and it was almost visible for a time. The veil that separates us from the eternal other was thin. In those moments, grief, so real, so profound, was nonetheless overwhelmed by glory. Comfort in the bliss of colors that came from the hand of God himself, lit by heavenly glow, colors too vibrant, too many to grasp in my finite mind.

Today I am comforted in the fading glow, the residual memories of that glory.  I know that is there, and I long for it again. That thing which seems to be the perfect fall day, but is achingly more than that… I am unable to explain why this is such a comfort, but having tasted this comfort which is also discomforting, this glory which aches for more glory, I must hunt for more.  I must seek more solitary wow.  I must seek more of those glimpses that cause me to cry out, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”  and “Glory to Thee, O God. Glory to Thee!”

Ah, help me in my grief, O my Savior!

 

Waiting…

I need a serious break.  That is, I need a break in a serious way…or, perhaps, I need a break from the serious.  Whichever way…I need a break.  I am running on empty.  My heart, my soul, my spirit, my energy…all fairlydrained right now.  Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings like eagles.  They shall walk and not grow weary, they shall run and not grow faint.  Isaiah 40:31  I’m waiting for the renewal.

Foggy

I am surprised by the physical manifestations of the experience of my niece’s death and the emotional reaction, for lack of a better description.  I am exhausted.  Physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally.  Simply and overwhelmingly exhausted.  I feel as if I am swimming in a fog, but a fog with a density and weight that I have never known.  Every movement feels heavy and strained.  Every word I read a difficulty, every fact impossible to grasp.  Questions in the text make no sense, and my assignments are unfathomable.  May as well have been written in a foreign language.  Oh, it’s a language I studied once and so I can decipher the meaning upon careful and intense reading and re-reading, but once the translation is done, there is the herculean task of gathering together the resources to answer the question.  Was that in the book or the lab manual?  Which chapter?  Which figure?  Everything is ten or twelve times more difficult than usual.  The math comes painfully after working the problem over and over and over.  Am I stupid?  Am I an emotional wreck?  Am I somehow unsuited for managing what looks so easy for others?

I feel ashamed of my weakness.  Embarrassed by my frailty.  I’m behind by nearly a week.  At this rate I will have to drop the course and loose $1000.  I have to catch up.  I have to clear my mind.  Compartmentalize.  Think, think, think.  But I need sleep instead.  No, that has to wait.  I am determined to catch up today.  But it’s already noon and I have spent hours doing minutes worth of work.  Sigh.

Back to it.  Maybe some coffee will help.  I think I will ask my husband to head to Starbucks for me.  I’m out of creamer and so far my attempts to make a suitable cup of coffee without it have failed miserably.

Jagged Edges

I have a picture in my head, burned there, indelible, scribed there.  I suspect if you were to examine my brain scan, you would find this picture.  Standing at the cemetery, one day after the funeral, the beautiful flowers shrunken and fading, the sod patched above the dirt; jagged edges, a poor patchwork of green that appeared to have been ripped into tiny pieces, evidence of the lack of care in the removal and replacement of the grass over my niece’s grave.  I feel the jagged edges in my heart, in a way I can’t understand and can’t fully explain.  I can’t shake it.  I feel the pattern of those jagged edges, that rough, careless patchwork of sod in the fibers of my chest. It’s tight, it’s painful.  I feel like I should be short of breath.

How do we do it?  How do we humans walk away with our loved ones in the dirt?  How do we keep breathing when they close the lid on the casket and turn the key?  How do we walk, talk, move and work after that?  Yet we do.  We eat, we breathe, we sleep, we work, we shower, we keep going.  I do not understand it.  I don’t know where the laughter comes from–but it comes.

The horror of death is overcome somehow with…life!  Life somehow lifts us out of the pit of death.  Perhaps because it must, perhaps because we must go on living…  We have built into us the desire for, the love of, the imperative of life.  I have pondered this before…that the saddest of homeless bum, unshaven, un-bathed, lacking in means, in sobriety, in shelter, in love and in hope, nevertheless keeps breathing, keeps moving, keeps living.

And so…despite my patchwork heart, the aching for my brother’s grief, for my sister-in law, for the other siblings, for the grandparent’s the other relatives, for her friends…we keep living.  We keep breathing, moving, going, working, playing…we keep living.  We pray, we love, we cry, and the unimaginable becomes part of us, the jagged edges remain.

What Earthly Sweetness?

I find this beautiful and very moving:

What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands immutable on the earth? All things are but feeble shadows, all things are most deluding dreams, yet one moment only, and death shall supplant them all. But in the light of Thy countenance, 0 Christ, and in the sweetness of Thy beauty, give rest to him whom Thou hast chosen, for as much as Thou lovest mankind.

~St. John of Damascus~

Core Beliefs

This is not the first place I’ve posted this profession, but I believe it today as I did the day I first wrote it. Today my niece Tiffany, age 15, died of unknown causes and though I am shaken, I still believe:

At my core, underpinning and mocking my questions is the belief–in my very pores, in my skin, in the blood that runs through my veins, it would seem, and in the voice that whispers solemnly in my inmost being, that even if the questions be dizzying, even if the world feels rocked on it’s very foundations, I know…KNOW…that God exists, that he is real, that Jesus is both the Son of God and fully God, that his sacrificial death and exultant resurrection are true and that I believe this. It is the rock of my faith, of my life, of my hope, and none of my questions, none of my doubts, none of my worries can loosen that which is woven into my very being.