The Sacrament of Grief

BCC is thrilled to welcome Nicholas S., known throughout the records of the Bloggernacle as Latter-day Guy, as a new guest blogger.

Note: Among my many deficiencies as a missionary were my journal keeping habits. These habits were deficient mainly in that they did not exist. The events described are true to the best of my recollection, but there may well be some inaccuracies regarding certain details and timing. Also, names have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty.

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Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris… [1]

Both too early and too late, the phone rings. It is after seven o’clock in the morning when Elder Latu picks up the receiver and mumbles a groggy hello.

“Yeah, let me get him, President.”

The magic words. I am suddenly awake. There isn’t much time, so with my hand covering the mouthpiece I run through a few vocal exercises (who knew those lessons would come in handy as a missionary?) making an attempt at not sounding like I just woke up. The success rate of these games is doubtless pretty low, but they are mission etiquette; pretending slightly greater obedience than we practice is really part of how we show respect for Pres. Lawson. He returns the favor by pretending not to notice, and we are both saved from the unpleasantness of chastening. Even now though, part of me wonders if this is what dropped the sheen of awkwardness between us during mission interviews, dangling there like a theater scrim or the grille of a confessional.

“You knew Marta Souza in the Williams ward?”

“Yes, of course. I know Marta.” Spent almost six months in that area.

Had we been up on time, would I have noticed his past-tense? Knew. Maybe the coming shock was part of God’s punishment for sleeping in.

Only three weeks until I go home.

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Domine labia mea aperies et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam. [2]

The sun isn’t quite down yet, but the placement of the windows keeps it dim in the little annex off the cloister. If you lean forward and look right, you can see the white-hooded brothers seated in the choir stalls. It doesn’t seem dusty, but the light that enters the nave has a misty, opal quality, which I can only assume is caused by the glowing shafts’ catching on motes that drift and sail on the viscosity of the air. There is an added amber hue of burning candles, some flickering on sanctuary stands, some on the votive racks. The only artificial light is supplied by a few spots focused on the large polychrome crucifix suspended above the altar’s bulk of concrete and masonry. He looks almost like Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross, floating impossibly in the void.

Visitors are not invited to join in the chanting. A bit disappointing to me, still fresh with a newly-acquired fluency at reading gregorian neumes, but understandable: the cloister is defined by rules as much as by gates and rails and discreet, painted signs. So we listen, drift and sail on the slow undulations of their prayer. Most of the buildings are brick, yet manage to suggest the austere nobility typical of old-world Cistercian monuments, temples as sere and still and pale as I imagine their builders must have been.

The air is deliciously cool here, and feels more so in contrast to the sticky heat outside. We had walked about the grounds talking, listening for the bells to announce vespers, and now in the quiet I begin to nod off. Chin dropping like it used to sometimes while teaching discussions that first summer in an endless succession of slummy neighborhoods. (We call them “lessons” now, don’t we?) The guilt is a different flavor though. I am being a bad guest. Father Simon didn’t drive us those four hours so I could take a nap, but he’ll never say a word about it even if he is offended. Three years earlier, my companion would have elbowed me in the ribs and then laughed on the way back to the apartment. The guilt then was more focused, shrill almost, and it seemed to emanate from the dark plastic of my nametag and the small stapled handbook in the pocket behind it. I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. Why else would my first pair of Zone Leaders have been so adept at that little thumb-flick that sent the tags flipping over their shoulders to land at the back of their truck cab? They used to execute the maneuver in nearly flawless unison, just before making a rude gesture at another driver who’d annoyed them––Pinocchio stamping on that damn cricket. (One of that pair later went on to make the same gesture in a very quietly produced example of missionary cinema: The Second Vision of José [title redacted] was inappropriate, blasphemous, and incredibly funny. It also starred one of my favorite companions. The ZL played our mission president.)

The divine office continues to unroll at its own meditative tempo. When you are just learning, and sometimes later, it is difficult to quiet the pestering voice inside that demands efficiency. For me, I think that voice is part modernity and part Mormonism. It’s really no surprise that constant childhood reminders to be always “anxiously engaged,” followed by a two-year stint evangelizing under perpetual scrutiny, should have this effect. For all the emphasis on spirituality, mission life can hardly be called “contemplative.” There may be some evidence of this tendency too in 2005’s altered initiatory ritual. While changes to the lustration rites likely came in response to a number of different considerations, their streamlining character is undeniable, and something in me rebels at it. Ritual, liturgy, ceremony––these are absurdities, oriented along wholly different lines than the world of budgets and auto-mechanics and the forty-hour work week. Acts of prayer can seem almost seditious [3], undermining the realization of Huxley’s nightmare vision of “Our Ford” and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. [4] Being fair, it isn’t only Mormons who struggle with this. Even benedictine monastics cannot help but joke about their Rule, altering the Latin to better reflect their life’s reality: ore et labore, et labore, et labore…

Twenty or thirty minutes of prayer feels much longer than the same time spent in the rat-race. Those with religious vocations can only maintain such habits because their lives are ordered to enable that prayer, and as an outsider, it can be very challenging to adapt to their rhythms. Father Simon tells me, “These things bear fruit in repetition,” and he is right. For much of the prayer life of my youth, “repetition” was anathema, inseparable from its descriptor, “vain.” I would winnow my mind to find new words to carry my mostly unchanging requests and gratitude skyward: “…nourish and strengthen…” “…give us the energy we need…” “…at least not kill us…” (It depended on who had done the cooking.) But this focus on new verbiage was no reliable prophylaxis against artificiality, and my prayers bounced back off the ceiling no less often than usual.

With time, I have grown to love the traditional texts, never praying more sincerely for the grace of charity than when chanting Paul’s beautiful words to the Corinthians. One favorite, the Magnificat, both soothes and challenges. We sang Finzi’s larynx-slaughtering arrangement in choir, and light glinted off still new facets. Praying the line “as he promised to our forefather Abraham” remains thrilling. (It probably has something to do with singing the tenor part, which cuts through dramatically just then.) This openness to repetition also gives me permission to cherish other phrases. Because he has included it in almost every prayer I have heard him offer, only my father can ask correctly “…that we may discern truth from error…” Heard in his voice, those words are tied up with memories of warm hands on the last Sunday before each new school year, hands––less frequently––bearing a drop of consecrated oil, hands with one familiar slightly-too-short forefinger and a wicked zigzag scar (souvenirs left by a temperamental high-pressure paint gun).

My head pops up again, bobbing like the more sparsely-covered pates of a bishopric from my childhood, who on more than one occasion engaged in synchronized church napping when a High Council speaker was being particularly tedious. (“Studying Lehi’s dream,” an Elder I knew liked to call it.) Blinking, I gaze again at the crucifix. That image never loses its impact. How terrible those poor Brothers must feel if they sleep in! I only had a nametag and a handbook to answer to, but this? It is a slap in the face. An accusation. A reminder that these ritual “absurdities” are really a matter of life and death. A matter of Life Himself.

How strange, I think, not for the first time, that victory should look so like defeat.

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Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ, dies magna et amara valde. [5]

I cannot stop looking at my watch, even though I know we’ll get there in plenty of time. It also seems that I have forgotten how to knot a necktie and must make a third attempt. This one doesn’t see much use, which is probably why I can’t get the length right, but it is the closest thing I have to plain black. The red paisleys are so tiny they look just like spots if you’re a few paces away. The telephone conversation of three or four days ago plays on a loop in my skull.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, Elder, but Marta’s husband, Jose, killed her and Tiago last night. We don’t know why. I’m sorry, Elder.” Pres. Lawson must have been speaking a foreign language, because I didn’t understand a word. While still trying to extract some meaning from those incomprehensible sounds, my autopilot whirred into action. I hung up and found the address and time for the funeral on the inside cover of my planner. It looked like my handwriting, but I couldn’t be sure.

I think it was a Tuesday, because Elder Latu drove us to the library to update the forms for that week’s correlation and Ward Council meetings. He went to work silently and completed everything, almost never asking for my input. He was good at reading people, and I was never more grateful for his instincts. I decided that a double homicide must be newsworthy, and so began to look up local newspapers online. Writing that sounds morbid, but the situation felt so unreal that I needed something solid, something like an anchor. It is tempting to think of this as a part of the “denial” stage in the grieving process, but it wasn’t that at all. It was just bewilderment. It felt similar to those moments while doing homework late at night, when a perfectly common word begins to look misspelled. You try to say the word aloud, thinking that will help the meaning and its symbols to coalesce, but they have become unstuck, and the idea, the sounds, and the little dark shapes on the page seem completely, disconcertingly unrelated.

Now, a few days later, the confusion has given way to numbness. Finally getting the tie length correct, I pull on the jacket of my borrowed suit. My father had it made on his mission in the Netherlands. It has worn remarkably well, but it seems strange that it should fit me. Dad is a couple inches taller than I am, but that really isn’t it. He is just so… big, somehow. It doesn’t matter how old I get, I think that I’ll always feel two feet tall in comparison. In this situation, he would know just what to do and say. He would exude, as he always does, a sense of solidity, sturdiness, shoulders squared to bear whatever burdens life presents. Though we disagree on occasion, sometimes profoundly, I have never been able to understand or sympathize when a peer has said, “My dad’s such an idiot,” or something similar. Don’t misunderstand––their dad may very well have been an idiot––I just don’t know what it feels like to think that. It is possible to be angry with my father, but dismissing him is inconceivable. And today, in many ways, I wish he were going to this funeral in my place. Years back, one of his seminary students killed himself; Dad gave the eulogy. An elderly woman in our stake later requested that he give hers as well, several years before she passed away. My funeral participation has been limited to singing, which is fine. I can believe there might be value in trying to infuse tragedy and suffering with a moment of beauty (though you cannot escape some degree of aloofness or artificiality in this; when a singer is moved to real tears, the result is maudlin at best, and an embarrassing, snot-streaked spectacle at worst). When it really works, the singer’s role is somewhat angelic––a brief moment of brightness, ephemeral but leaving hope in its wake. But no matter how nice the song, it cannot do what my dad can: remind us that there is still dirt under our feet, a sky over our heads, and a sun that will rise in the morning; make us feel safe. And in the aftershock of such incomprehensible brutality, that’s what they need to feel––God knows it’s what I need to feel.

Hours later, we make an odd little group, dark suits and nametags in a neat row, in a church with rather unfortunate 70’s styling. (Imagine the MTC with an A-frame roof, and semi-abstract stained glass. The brick is a dingy version of that yellow you see in a newborn’s diaper while they’re still drinking colostrum.) They will have a Catholic funeral because of their extended family, but Marta and Tiago had been Mormon for years. Watching the caskets process toward the front of the church, I am glad that the service will be in Portuguese. I will be able to follow it generally, but there will be a slight language barrier, making everything (I hope) a bit misty, blurring the edges. The worst for me is noticing the surprisingly small dimensions of the second coffin. An eleven-year-old seems to take up much more space when alive. He is carried by some members of the deacon’s quorum he would have joined in a few weeks. It looks like nothing so much as a broken promise; I suppose the death of any child should feel the same. Following Pres. Lawson’s lead, we stand and sit with the rest of the congregants, but eschew the kneelers. Sitting (sometimes kneeling) next to me is a man with rough hands in a t-shirt and ripped jeans. Somehow, he doesn’t look out of place––more importantly, he doesn’t look like he feels out of place. He reminds me a little of Sister Z from my first area, who wore slacks to church. The similarity, though, is not in their mild sartorial rebellion. I am sure that caring for her severely handicapped daughter was draining––imagine a young toddler in the body of a thirty-year-old––but when she would laugh and clap or blow bubbles, Sister Z’s face was suffused with a fierce joy, like she had bottled sunshine inside her. During the funeral mass, when it comes time to make the sign of peace, my rough-around-the-edges pew mate takes my hand and smiles in just the same way. It is bright.

I look away first.

Read Part 2 here.
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[1] “Grant, O Lord, that I may bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow…” From the vesting prayers of the Tridentine Mass.

[2] “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare thy praise.” Invitatory to most offices of the Liturgy of the Hours.

[3] “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

[4] Though heaven knows that I am not immune to the attraction of something so gloriously named as “Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy.”

[5] “That day, day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness…” From the responsory of the Requiem Mass.

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Comments

  1. Stellar, LDG–just absolutely beautiful relating and writing.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you, LDG.

    This was difficult to read, but also rewarding.

  3. Incredibly touching and beautifully written.

  4. Loved this. Thank you.

  5. Fantastic writing, LDG.

  6. Beautiful. Tragic. Real. Thank you.

  7. Wonderful, LDG!

  8. Steve Evans says:

    Yeah, not bad.

  9. Cynthia L. says:

    We are indeed thrilled.

  10. I’m at Columbia in NY right now, taking a writing workshop. This piece is very inspirational – loved your expression of this moment in your life. It’s very moving.

  11. Latter-day Guy says:

    Thank you guys so much for your very generous comments. It’s quite a thrill to get to post on the blog that was my gateway drug to the ‘nacle!

  12. Awesome.

  13. Very moving story, and tragic. (And really well-written.)

  14. This was so great, we could shut down the blog right now.

  15. No, RJ! This was only Part 1!

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