The Sacrament of Grief, Part 2

This is the second in a series from BCC Guest Nicholas S., known to many of you as Latter-day Guy. Part 1 can be found here.

Iuste iudex ultionis, Donum fac remissionis Ante diem rationis.[6]

The sun is bright for the graveside service, and most of us are melting. Beneath the layers of cotton and wool, my body attempts––unsuccessfully––to cool itself. Whatever heavenly engineer thought up the idea of perspiration must not have considered the effects of high-humidity. The discomfort is not entirely bad though. Like attending a Portuguese Mass with my Spanish-speaking ears, it has a certain blunting effect. I make brief eye-contact with some of the familiar faces around me; a few offer wan smiles. Several of us are surprised that the graves will not be dedicated, but the cemetery is owned by the parish. Their turf, their rules. A brother tells me in a near whisper that the dedication will happen later, very discreetly. The revelation is strangely (and inappropriately) amusing. There is something gothic and Van Helsing-esque about the thought of this genial, balding elder’s quorum member breaking into a graveyard to exercise his ninja priesthood in the dead of night, dispatching a zombie for good measure on the way to a home teaching appointment. Like sawdust on running water, the crowd moves away en masse, slowly separating into smaller and smaller companies. One of the more gregarious young women (her dad used to be our ward mission leader) greets me and Elder Latu, and we talk for a moment. All I can remember now is her confidence that God would mete out justice, and the hard set to her jaw and the gun-metal glint in her eye that this conviction gave her. She is probably right, but the thought is not comforting. Despite the heat, something inside feels cold.

Soon we are alone in the car; Elder Latu and I are quiet. The lull seems to dilate until I have to turn the key in the ignition, if only to forestall the hard thoughts, cauled and bloody, that would have been delivered of our silence. The streets here are always under construction. Cold, wet winters and hot, wet summers are hard on asphalt, keeping it in a perpetual state of crumbling disrepair. This, in turn, results in motorists with formidable skills when it comes to high-speed pothole slalom. Worse––for me at any rate, born with no directional sense whatsoever––is the fact that the foundations for the area’s city planning were laid down by cattle, who, even by bovine standards, were more than usually inept at civil engineering. Water and salt trails became major roadways, and then men, infelicitously touched by the same muse that guided their four-legged predecessors, filled in all the gaps with snarled ribbons of brick and pavement worthy of Gordias. (The only practical Alexandrine solution would involve mushroom clouds.) Slowly I realize that I have not been driving aimlessly. Making the few final, familiar turns, we pull in front of Father Simon’s house.

I had first met him as a result of a missionary set-up. An Elder called me one day during lunch to pass along a “referral.” At the appointed hour, we showed up and knocked on the front door of a handsome home in an older area of town. During the past several years, the neighborhood had begun to attract immigrant workers; one building on the street was little better than a flophouse, crammed to the rafters with many who wanted to send the largest possible share of their earnings to foreign family members. Simon’s house, however, retained much of the air it had exuded since its construction in the 1930s––wide pillared porch, white clapboard siding, double front door. We were soon greeted by a man a few inches shorter than myself, with close-trimmed dark hair salted with grey. He invited us in and offered glasses of glacially cold water, which we accepted gratefully, the insistence of thirst overruling the aching objection of teeth. Chitchat soon dispensed with, (they had ceased calling it “BRT-ing” by this time, and we had discarded [read: ritually incinerated] our copies of The Missionary Guide[7]) we prepared to move in for the kill, when Simon unexpectedly asked us if we’d like to see “the chapel.” Tinkling cymbals of alarm began to sound in my head. Following my companion, I ascended the pleasantly creaky staircase to the upper floor and we were soon ushered into a room dominated by a large white and blue altar with a carved “IHS” on the front picked out in gold. Framed stained glass (reclaimed from a renovated church) hung just inside the sash windows, splashing color on the wall opposite and on a small electric organ. There was a single pew, a crowned two-foot sculpture of Our Lady (much nicer than the ubiquitous examples in backyard shrines[8]), and a small picture of our host. Danger, Will Robinson! Looking closer at the little photo, I could see he was wearing a roman collar… greeting a man who looked suspiciously like… the Pope. (Honestly, who else wears a white zucchetto?) Mayday, mayday! Abort!

Well, we soon laughed, and then finished a very pleasant visit admiring the lovely San Damiano-style cross which a friend had painted for him. So began the most important friendship of my life.

Looking at the house now, I feel something I am not able to fit a name to until much later: sanctuary. The Catholic (and particularly monastic) emphasis on the virtue of hospitality is one area for which I feel Stendahl’s notion of “holy envy” most keenly. That is not to suggest that the Latter-day Saints are inhospitable, but the open and unquestioning reception I have experienced when meeting Catholics called to the consecrated life feels like being blessed, like grace––holy as clasped hands and words breathed through woven white, commonplace and restorative as the smell of the bread Mom used to make in enormous sixteen-loaf batches that left every available surface covered with the steaming, butter-brushed mounds. We climb out of the car and knock on the front door, praying that he’s at home. He is, and invites us in. Soon ensconced in the same kitchen chairs with the same icy water I remember, we talk a little. He asks about the funeral, admitting some surprise that our ward mission leader gave the eulogy (technically not part of a Requiem Mass) reading words from the family members, scrawled on a creased and blotched scrap of paper. After a few moments of quiet, Simon tells us, gently, about some of the comments that have been making the rounds on the Portuguese Christian radio programs, how preachers have suggested that the whole tragedy could have been averted if Marta had remained where the Bible says she should have been: at home, in subjection to her husband.

The little ball of cold I felt earlier uncurls and stretches. Deep in the pit of my stomach its limbs reach and, finding purchase, dig in. My visitor is here for the long-haul, putting down roots. I am colonized.

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“Cristo … brucia e trasforma il male … nel fuoco del suo amore sofferente.”[9]

José had called the missionaries before the murders, telling them they were not welcome in his home anymore; he did not want them to come back. Newspapers later reported that his motive was jealousy of the time his wife devoted to the church. These descriptions, and what came after, still make no sense to me. I had been in their home, shared meals with them. With my questionable Spanish and Tiago’s occasional translation we were able to communicate pretty well, though there was frequent confusion and laughter. We saw them together at church meetings, peeking into the room where the elders in the Portuguese program taught their sunday school class. José was fair haired and worked as a carpenter, bringing to mind occasional comparisons with Jesus that I never did say aloud. During the visit I used to wish I could forget, he had become wistful about his home, tearing up while showing us a video of his mom and the house he’d grown up in before coming to the States. He served us a jelly-like candy he had received in a care package, made––I think––from guava. Cutting translucent wedges out of the soft, dark wheel in the green tin, it was too sweet for me, but seemed to match the exotic flora surrounding the tilled fields of his native soil visible on the television screen.

When we left later that evening, I felt what had become, if not common, then at least familiar during the past year. Talks and discussions of Mormon missionary service frequently mention “loving the people,” which sounds like a general feeling of warmth for the segment of humanity you live with and attempt to talk to for two years. But that isn’t true. At least it wasn’t for me. You don’t love “the people,” you love Matt and Beatrice and Joshua, and worry and hope that the ward will be good to them when you’ve gone. You love Elder Robson both for splurging to go halvsies with you on a proper tree to decorate, and for that strange episode when you dissected the baseball together. (And for deciding that you would accompany him in a guitar/piano hymn improvisation for Zone Conference––which rocked, by the way. And for spending fully half of your MSF one month on parking tickets.) You love Elder Paulsen for eating balut with you which nobody had said needed to be cooked, and for not being vindictive when, after choking them down raw, he got so sick and you didn’t. You love Margie, the less-active sister who was always bubbly and sweet, and also completely out of her mind. You love Gary and Susan and wish they would figure out prayer. Much later, you’ll learn that you still haven’t figured out prayer, and feel a belated sense of sympathy, and hope that someday they’ll forgive you for all your impatience and certainty and immaturity. You love Brother and Sister Blanco for their perpetual kindness and for that amazing Christmas dinner that made you forget the waves of homesickness you believed you would drown under. You love a hundred faces you can no longer put a name to, even though you prayed for them and ached for them until you thought that you had finally run out of places inside that could hurt; a hundred men and women who opened up a sliver of their lives to you. And, God help you, you love José––who wept for his home, as you had––who got up morning after morning, took his tool-belt and his hammer to try to build a new life for his family––who, one day, by only two brutal strokes with the same hammer, shattered that life forever––who turned himself in the same night, cradling his baby son, hands and clothing still wet with blood.

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Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua…[10]

Vespers begins to wind down, though you might just as well say it approaches the climax, as the brothers sing the doxology and antiphon to the final psalm. The Psalms are generally less familiar to Latter-day Saints. We don’t do much with them. In our Sunday School classes they get a grand total of an hour every four years, and it’s a shame. They are a bit wilder than our usual devotional fare, calling on God to pour out judgment on enemies, sometimes even railing at the Lord. Threaded through the lodes of hope and faith there are fine veins of anger and despair. The Psalms, in short, are emphatically not “correlated.” They have a certain emotional heft and gravitas, they bluntly admit to a messy spiritual reality I feel I could never share over a pulpit. That kind of thing just isn’t done; doubts are to be kept on their shelves in the back until they’ve been resolved, at which point we can bring them out, floating in their sealed and labeled jars, showing them briefly to illustrate a point in a talk or lesson. (It’s the confessional grille again though, isn’t it? It is alienating to see these displays, and know that back at your house the little bastards are still armed with teeth and spines and slow venom.) Perhaps this is why we do not engage the Psalms more fully, resistant as they are to the tidy endings and reliable deus ex machina resolutions we like.

When I began learning psalm chant, I was surprised by the sensation of joining in something larger than myself, even if I was singing alone. I think it was (at least partly) the effect of the unflinching honesty, like the rough hands and lined faces that tell the story of those who daily turned their backs on the rising sun and scorched a trail across a continent. You almost feel like you’ve jumped into a river of prayer that has cascaded down the craggy rockface of centuries. Never is that feeling keener than during the Lord’s Prayer.

While always familiar, I actually only memorized the words of the prayer as a fourteen-year-old. Every summer, my grandparents would hold what they termed a “Mini MTC.” All the grandsons between the ages of 14 and 18 were invited for two weeks of scripture study, farm labor, basic music lessons, talk preparation, Grandma’s home cooking, a little fishing, and the attendant insanity of a herd of teen boys under one roof.[11] I will never understand what possessed two otherwise sane individuals, who had already raised and married-off ten children, who had each served missions in their youth and then two more as a couple, to decide that this was just what they needed to spice their golden years. It must have been a logistical nightmare, and an utterly exhausting ordeal for both of them. And that’s only considering the official schedule; rest assured, there was a whole other list of unsanctioned activities that we engaged in with equal enthusiasm. (One year, eight of us nearly drowned––long story––to say nothing of the eyes and digits we ought to have lost pursuing our aggressive, and fairly successful, firework-cannibalizing/bomb-crafting program.) When we weren’t busy making ourselves generally uninsurable, we also memorized a number of scriptures, among them, the Lord’s Prayer. After those summer sessions, I never really thought much about it. I certainly did not use it in my personal prayer life.

Now, though, there is something moving about saying the same words that have been formed by so many lips, words passed from parent to child, words whispered at deathbeds, at burials, at weddings, at births. The same words in a thousand different languages, repeated in time of joy or sorrow, in the face of fear or with gratitude for averted disaster, or just to count away the minutes. Words of a long-gone Jewish mystic, or of God Himself, history buzzes with them. When wondering at the Restoration, puzzled by why, of all the searching souls in the world, this uneducated fourteen-year-old should have his (not uncommon) question answered with light and fire, I think perhaps it was also an answer to the billion pleas: “…thy kingdom come…” Even more encouraging, at the beginning of the prayer we find that in spite of all our weakness, in spite of the evil we commit and the evil we allow, Christ is still willing to say with us “Our Father…”

The whole atonement in two words.

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[6] “Just judge of revenge, give the gift of remission before the day of reckoning.” From the sequence of the Requiem Mass.

[7] A more loathsome document I have rarely had the misfortune to read. Those who will never be forced to use it cannot understand why, for me and some of my companions, the term “more effective” raises hackles to this day. In the MTC we quickly discovered a foolproof method for identifying which of the canned series of responses to a given hypothetical situation was deemed the best: it was the one that made you most wish to knee the speaker in the groin. Every. Damn. Time.

[8] Though very disrespectful, I still think the missionary slang term was pretty clever: “Mary on the half shell.”

[9] “Christ … burns and transforms evil … in the fire of his suffering love.” Homily of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 18 April 2005.

[10] “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done…”

[11] As far as I can remember, there was a parallel program for some of the granddaughters, but it took place only once or twice (in spite of the family’s strong tradition of sister missionary service), and then not during any of the years I attended. Defense of patriarchy has been robust in the extended family, but seems to be losing ground with the current generation. That’s just how Gramps and Grammy roll, I guess.

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    Latter-Day Guy, thank you again for your post. There is so much to like about this.

    Even though I served my mission on a different continent, your words bring back memories I didn’t know were still there.

  2. Lots that resonates. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  3. Nicholas,
    This entire post awoke so many wonderful and bitter memories of my own mission, and the final paragraph provided more devotional release than my entire Sabbath services today.

    Bless you.

  4. Beautiful and haunting and painful and redemptive. Thank you.

  5. Left Field says:

    BRT-ing?

  6. beautiful

  7. Building Relationships of Trust–extremely prominent part of the old Missionary guide.

  8. BRT-ing = Building Relationships of Trust

  9. Er, what Woodboy said.

  10. Left Field says:

    Ok–It must have been after my time.

  11. Wow. Wow. I’m stunned. That was beautiful.

  12. Cynthia L. says:

    Beautiful, LDG. A uniquely vivid view of things that are in many ways foreign to me (I didn’t serve a mission), but are full of familiar emotions.

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