Once upon a time, some years ago when I was serving in diaconal ministry, the pastor under whom I served at the time had given a homily in which he said something to the effect that people guided in the spiritual way of life often had periods of difficulty in managing everyday, mundane affairs. It is perhaps the one thing I remember him saying that had special meaning for me.
While my biggest role in ministry has been as a church musician, it has often been eclipsed by the role just below it, that of a minister of consolation at a time of loss. While in formation for the ministry over 20 years ago, my wife and I suffered the loss of our first child in the 19th week of my wife's pregnancy. The ensuing weeks following this sad event opened my eyes to the level of grief that can be experienced when tragedy occurs. I believe that through this process God pointed the way to a level of service I would carry out, and I desired to do so to honor my lost child's memory for as long as God would allow me.
When my active diaconal service came to an end, the door to this ministry did not close completely. It was not long before I was asked if I could be available for singing at funeral services, which I have been able to accept most of the time. On the occasions when I serve in this capacity I do my best to leave my ego far removed from my duties; to be simply present and let God work through me.
There have been four other occasions when the role took on a significance outside what I might consider normal, if there is such a thing when death occurs. These four have all involved members of my extended family. The first was when my father-in-law passed, just over seven years ago. He was never much of a church-goer, so it was no stretch of any rule to officiate at his rites of passage. That safe passage to the next life being our hope is almost universally accepted; so it becomes a matter of celebrating the good moments and experiences we shared in this life.
Having said that, it's still not simple. The target audience - the living survivors and friends of the family - know who you are, so it can be difficult to put into the best words what hope and consolation I am consigned to convey. Further, as a minister, those closest to you know the pattern of your life both during and apart from service. I have to put the situation at hand in the best possible and meaningful light on one hand; and on the other, take out the trash, wash the laundry, and do my best at my secular day job. Somehow I manage.
My grandmother passed six years ago this month. Being a devout Catholic, her funeral was set according to the formal rites of the Church. This is kept pretty well with regards to the Mass itself; but the elements apart from it vary depending on the local parish and the communication between the parish staff and the family of the deceased. My grandmother knew the Rosary and the verse about the angels meeting her and taking her to Paradise; neither of which were mentioned at either the wake or the funeral Mass. When my father and uncle finally let it be known I was a minister, I was asked if I wouldn't mind leading prayers at the cemetery where she was to be buried. I agreed to do it, and at that moment I knew what I had to do. I had to invoke those things she would have expected to hear and had not.
Three years ago, the father-in-law of my wife's sister passed away. At the time, I had already contracted to sing at another funeral Mass in my parish of service, but I agreed to meet the family at the cemetery and lead prayers there. I had the fortune to catch up with them toward the end of the Mass, so I was able to talk at length with my brother-in-law (the procession to the cemetery being another long drive). I really wanted to convey hope and consolation to him, because his life was changing in a way which could prove out harmful to his loved ones and himself if left unchecked. Something tells me he is still struggling with this loss, as well as that of his mother a couple of years earlier.
The most recent of the four happened just this last week, when my wife's uncle passed away. There was the usual wait to discover the arrangements, and another wait to determine what, if anything, anyone wanted me to do. Complicating matters was the ongoing recovery my wife was enduring from an injury she sustained late last fall. Between aches and pains and the winter weather, she had not been out of our home since just before Christmas. She was determined, however, that she was going to make it to see the family. She had been close to her uncle during childhood.
Before the time came for the wake service, I still didn't know exactly what I was supposed to be doing; only that I was going to do something. And at the appropriate time, we prepared to leave to attend the wake, only to discover that the moment my wife put any shoes on her feet, she lost her sense of stability and couldn't move without pain and uncertainty. Not knowing what to do, and having no time to explore an alternative, I had to attend the wake alone. I know my wife was heartsick, and so was I. However, she was going to explore potential solutions and if anything was possible, she would contact me.
Contact me she did. A department store chain with a store in the area carried ballet-style slippers. Just enough of a sole to protect the feet from pebbles and such, but with the give she needed to have the near-barefoot feeling she had while walking about the house. I was able to find a pair in her size which did the trick. At least now she would be able to attend the Mass and see those in the family who would be there.
At the same time, I also discovered what it was I would do for the funeral. I would serve as a deacon at Mass, something I had not done in twelve years. I weighed on this for some time. I felt this was appropriate as my wife's uncle, a devout Catholic himself, had offered his home to us on the day I was ordained to celebrate the event. I would also lead prayers at the cemetery, which I'd done before.
Even though I knew what I was to do, and did it without difficulty, I have had this strange feeling of wandering around in something of a daze; it's been around since the wake Thursday night and still hasn't quite cleared up. Part of it can be rationalized away, I suppose. It's a busy time for me; I've had to step in and do more since my wife's injury which takes away from time spent on other intellectual pursuits (not complaining at all; it simply is). But there was something about vesting again after twelve years, something I can't put into words. For some reason, time is turning faster right now. Life in general, which had been more or less quiet, has become busy. I've not been able to sleep well for some time, but I manage to do what is needed. I have much over which to pray and often find myself unable to focus on prayer itself; this disturbs me a little. At the same time, my wife and I are still very much happy and in love with each other for who we are.
I sincerely hope and pray that whatever the destiny of my life is as I grow older, that I am granted the strength, perseverance, and love to endure it.