Thursday, January 14, 2010

When words fail...January 14

She was 37 years old and was one of the first brides I knew as Rector of St. John's. Just a week or two ago, I talked with her about baptism for her new baby--2 months old, as I remember--and she was deciding on whether the week after Easter worked for her. I'd baptized her two other children over the years. Then, on Sunday, she died. Just like that. Alive one moment and dead the next--the way death works. Death is not something that comes over time. Oh, you can be waiting for someone to die for months, but Death works simply: one moment you are alive and the next moment you are dead.

I did an odd service for her today at the funeral home at 1 p.m. She was cremated at the Medical Examiner's Office in Farmington, after an autopsy to determine why someone 37 had died at all, why that moment came to her.

Even in the cold, the funeral home was stifling because over a hundred people were crowded into a space for 60 or so. A video of her life was running to my right--pictures of her too short life, her children, her family, her friends, things she did before the moment when she was dead and dead for a long, long time. That's the power Death has over us--no matter how long we live, we will be dead for much longer.

The pain and loss was palpable in the room. Her husband and mother and oldest son were in a stupor of sorts, hardly able to react at all to much of anything. The rest of the people there were not talking and laughing and catching up the way people do when an old person dies. There was a pall over the whole room, a blanket spread across them. They were sober, solemn and mostly silent.

Here's one of the reasons I think I am a reasonably good priest: I never try to deceive or lie to people when someone is dead. I have no handy aphorisms or pithy biblical quotes designed to take their mind off the enormity of what has happened to them. Mostly, I say nothing. And when asked questions like "Isn't Daddy in a 'better place'?" I answer, "I have no idea...."

And I don't. That strange and final secret door named Death is something I have no clue about. I simply don't. And I don't reflect on it much because Death is one of the astonishing Mysteries of living. I know all the church's teachings and all the dogma and doctrine and none of that makes the least bit of sense to me.

The best I can come up with and not be telling an untruth is this: I entrust the dead to the heart of God. What that means is beyond me. None of the golden streets and wings and harps and singing the Doxology for eternity speaks to my mind or soul. 'Eternity' as a concept is something I cannot begin to imagine or claim to comprehend. I am locked in 'time'--which we made up to track our journey from birth to death. 'Time' is where I live and move and have my being. Eternity I leave to God.

So, at times like today, words fail--the beautiful and comforting words of the Book of Common Prayer ARE beautiful and comforting--but they fail. And my halting, stuttering words fall short of even failure. Something awful has happened. I am angry with God--which is better, I think, than being angry at the person who died...which we often are. I don't get it, this 'death' thing. I an outraged when it happens and then devolve into broken-hearted and then, usually, hopefully, can come to a moment of 'acceptance', that this horrible thing that has happened does not diminish, in any way, how much God loves us. I know this, when people I love die it doesn't reduce in any way my love for them--that love goes on and even grows. I love my parents much more now, decades after their deaths, than I did when they were alive and with me.

I simply believe the same applies to God. God loves us 'best of all' as we struggle and rejoice through life. Death only increases God's love. At least that's what I believe and hold on to and pray is true. Otherwise, nothing makes sense. Not only do words fail, all things fail.

God's heart, it seems to me--as a priest and a person who will die someday--is where we're bound. God's heart, which is beyond words, understanding, comprehension.

Pain and loss and Mourning and anger and depression we all know when someone dies. What we don't know and can't experience on this side of that strange and wondrous door is this: the Heart of God.

Words fail.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.