Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: II

This is Part II. Read Part I here.


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 nearby stands. 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, borne upon 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 all this way 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: ora et labora, et labora, et labora...

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...” “ 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.


[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.”

No comments: