Thursday, September 21, 2006

(Re-) Ordering our Life towards Death

Last evening began the Vigil of the Mass for the Dead. Father Bartholomew, one of the few African-American monks, will be remembered throughout the day and interred in the cemetery this afternoon. The service last night was very moving, beginning with the procession by the pallbearers lifting the simple wooden coffin through the large double doors leading into the narthex. As the body was brought in, it was sprinkled with water from the flowing font--Bartholomew receiving the church's baptism at his mortal end as he received it at the beginning of life. After prayer, we proceeded into the church, down the nave and up into the chancel--bowing to the altar and to one another as we ascended into the choir. The coffin was led by a large white paschal candle and once the body was laid in state at the altar, the coffin was opened for all to gaze upon the deceased mortal remains.

Benedictines take death very seriously, but they find ways to embrace it as part of life. One of the most interesting parts of last night's service (which continues today through Morning and Midday Prayers) is that members of the monastic community come forward at the end of the service to gaze upon their dead brother, to touch his body, and to pray for him and one another. This behavior stands in strong contrast to the larger culture's attempts to hide from death--to keep the deceased "covered up" and to discourage children from viewing the body. Several of the monks demonstrated great tenderness as they looked down upon their friend and it was clear that he would be missed.

It is said that Fr. Bartholomew loved rich spices. He even kept a prized spice rack and was famous for a gumbo he would stir up for his brother monks. On a chilly day, like we've been having lately, such a meal alongside some of the fresh bread from St. John's could stir back to life the most forlorn of souls. These kinds of remembrances help us to hold dear the loss of a loved one, providing a unique portrait of the peculiarities of the one who is no longer physically with us.

When he re-ordered the liturgy for the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and 1552, Thomas Cranmer moved forward the Prayer of General Confession as a means of helping the congregation understand their need for reordering. At its best, liturgy assists us in coming into alignment with God in order that we might be made whole. (Unfortunately, many of us in the Evangelical tradition are much more concerned with getting God lined up with our perceptions and purposes. We even manipulate our services of worship so that we become the primary frame of reference--not the Creator of the Universe.) However, it is only in death that the ultimate "re-alignment" occurs and we are ushered back into the arms of a loving God. Our task, then, is to continue coming together as the people of God, so that our life is re-ordered towards Him and His purposes. That begins by remembering that there is a God, and we are not He.

"Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that be penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind, in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name,"--from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.