Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: IV

This is Part IV. Read Part I, Part II, and Part III.


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), 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.


[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.

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