05 January 2009


Days like this one don't come along with any regularity. And, for that I am grateful. Not that I wouldn't do it all again. Officiating funerals is something I am trained to do and one of the things I do well. But, this funeral ranks among the hardest and most sad in my memory. The two young women closest to the deceased, his daughters, were vividly strong one minute and bereft the next. Staying somewhat detached and professional in the presence of emotion that intense was nearly impossible.

I always find it odd, from my perspective as a priest and a liturgist, that I can do one thing and think about another -- at the same time. That's not precisely right. I can be in the process of carrying out some duty, quite focused, in fact, and all the while another train of thought is developing, coming to life. I can even observe myself in action, another self, it seems, another aspect of myself, watching carefully, even providing commentary.

Today the older of the two young women spoke during the time in the liturgy set aside for the homily. Strong, clear-voiced, controlled, then wavering, then regaining control, she related memories of her father and thanked the assembled congregation for their presence and their support. At one point the younger daughter, unable to remain composed, simply put her head on her knees and wept.

There is nothing to say to make it better. Absolutely no one understands their father's decision. But, I read all the words anyway. I spoke of that I know for sure. I cried, too.

Through it all, through the entire half hour, though, I was trying to work out fragments of a poem, phrases I had heard somewhere. Ceaselessly. There I was offering confort and in the back of my mind I kept countering "consolation" with "desolation."

Once home the only word I can think of to describe myself is saggy. But, as I sagged, it came to me. The countering word wasn't actually "desolation." And, what I'd been working to remember were words written by Thomas Moore, the words of an old hymn. "Oh, yes," I sighed. Then, I laughed when I looked it up and saw the name of the hymn tune, written by Samual Webb: Consolator.

These are the word of the first stanza, the one I'd heard somewhere before and was working to remember.

Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts; here tell your anguish;
Earth has so sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

While I didn't have those words to offer the grieving this afternoon, I don't think that's what I was supposed to do with them anyway. The working of my mind while I officiated that funeral was offering me something, not them. And, I wasn't to make me strong, either. Whatever it is that has me officiating liturgy and thinking about something seemingly unrelated at the same time may well serve to help me become more deeply involved, not serve as a distraction. Today I guided a room full of people through an official observance of a life lived and a life ended. But, a part of me was suffering, precisely what I was supposed to be doing.

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