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Read an Excerpt
In Times of Grief
By Francis Wagner
Abbey PressCopyright © 2013 Saint Meinrad Archabbey
All rights reserved.
Joy in the Midst of Grief: The Catholic Funeral
By Fr. Vincent Tobin, O.S.B.
It had been a terrifying week. His mother saw it coming. The once adoring crowds were quietly disappearing, the authorities more insistent on conformity. The mock trial was held, and savage punishment ensued. Finally, they nailed him to a tree. She stood there numb, watching it all, her heart wounded from the heavy sword of sorrow. She was there when they took him down, wrapped the torn body in a linen cloth, and laid him in a stranger's tomb. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had experienced the first Christian burial.
Through the tears and stunned grief, the mother began to remember some of the things he had said: I will rise again. I am the resurrection and the life. These thoughts were incomprehensible, but they wouldn't go away. They attacked the grief with searing sparks of hope. This couldn't be the end.
On Sunday three days later, two of his moping followers were complaining about how their high hopes in the man Jesus now seemed so foolish. A stranger came up and began walking beside them, quietly leading them to a hopeful understanding of the Calvary tragedy. Their hearts were burning. They came to an inn. Inside, at the table when he broke the bread, the flash of recognition almost blinded them: He was alive! The world had changed forever.
Working your way through
When a family member is at death's door, it is normal to resist reality: "Dad will get better; there are all kinds of new treatments; there is an experimental miracle drug; I'm making a vow to God; we're taking him to Lourdes." We can—we must—look into every possibility in heaven and on earth of restoring to health the ones we love. Having done all that can be done, we watch, cry, pray, hope, and wait. Then, we accept.
* "Come forward, receive the gift of life-giving water." The priest comes bearing God- for-the-Journey, the Bread of Life. Candles give soft light. We cross ourselves with the blessed water sprinkled on us, its splashing purity a reminder of Baptism. The family joins in the prayers that speak of here and hereafter, of tears, and of a Father's hand drying them. The holy oil—Spirit-strength poured out for health of body and soul—touches forehead and hands.
And then, with unstoppable tears, we bend the ear to those journey-words, "Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the Almighty Father, who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured forth upon you, go forth, faithful Christian. May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the angels and saints" (Roman Ritual, Prayer of Commendation).
* "The victor will be dressed in white." We follow the cross into the church, leaning on each other as the clouds of pungent incense sweep over us. The music breaks through the numbness: "Alleluia. O Risen Lord, all praise to thee, who from our sins have set us free, that we may live eternally. Alleluia." We watch as the white pall—sign of innocence restored—is draped over the coffin. The Easter candle burns brightly. The eye catches the sturdy baptismal font, "that mystic bath, that grave of sin" (Easter hymn). Something deep inside whispers, "Yes, this is good. It's not the end."
The priest in white vestments—sign of joy—gives voice to the ancient hope: "O God, almighty Father, our faith professes that your Son died and rose again; mercifully grant, that through this mystery your servant, who has fallen asleep in Christ, may rejoice to rise again through him" (Roman Missal, Mass for the Dead, opt. A).
"Our certain faith?" I need to think about that. I wasn't there that Easter morning. So many of the people I know say that once you're dead, you're dead. They say stories about heaven were made up to scare kids into behaving, and it doesn't make any difference what you do here. Whether you're an angel or a devil, they say, when the curtain comes down, it stays down.
Still, a lot of fine people I know and respect say it really is true—he lives! And that's the way I grew up, what Mom and Dad believed. At a time like this, believing means everything to me. I'm not a theologian, Lord, and there are things I don't understand, but I want to believe that there is a real life after this one, and it has to do with a loving God who knows my name, who's calling Dad's name right now. I want to believe that when I die there will be a grand family reunion "up there." I do believe; help my unbelief.
* "I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me." Here in church surrounded by family and friends crowded into old polished pews, I think and I feel that we're all going to do more than get through this. Many share kind words and funny stories. A wrinkle-faced, former fourth-grade religious sister told me the rollicking story of 9-year-old Dad's "atheism" when he proclaimed he didn't believe in God: "Just to see the look on my face," she says.
Hearing the first-century words from Paul, the one who fell into the dust on the Damascus Road because he was hurting Jesus, called me back to the moment. My favorite aunt, with a lump in her throat and sticking out her dimpled chin, threw down a challenge to the pews and the whole world, "Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Dad told me one time that a quote from Clement of Alexandria stuck with him all his life. Now, as I looked at the Host as the priest raised it during Mass, I remembered those words Dad passed on to me: "We who are baptized have the eye of the Spirit." My faith-eye at that moment saw God and not bread. Thanks, Dad.
The hymn at Communion brought happy tears with the sure knowledge that Dad was on his way home: "I am the bread of life. This is my body, given up for you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, I will raise him up on the last day." I breathed a prayer of thanks to God as I looked at the gold cross above the altar, hearing a silent whisper: "This Friday is Good because of what happened on Sunday. That's why this cross is gold. Hang in there."
On our way back from Communion, I took hold of my sister's hand and squeezed. We both felt life pulsing through us like electricity.
* "Let them find rest from their labors." After the final prayer, the priest came down and faced us with words the heart understood, "Before we go our separate ways we take leave of our brother. May our farewell tell of our love for him, ease our sadness and strengthen our hope. One day we will joyfully greet him again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys even death itself" (Rite of Christian Burial).
As we followed the casket down the aisle, the choir was singing more journey words: "Saints of God, come to his aid! Hurry to meet him, angels of the Lord! May Christ who called you take you to himself; may the angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him" (Rite of Christian Burial). All this for our Dad? Wow!
But there was even more: "May the angels lead you into paradise. May the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem. May choirs of angels welcome you and lead you to the bosom of Abraham, and where Lazarus is poor no longer, may you find eternal rest" (Rite of Christian Burial). Thanks, God.
* "They will look upon his face." Suddenly my mind moved away from the tolling of the bell, the candles and incense, the sad-happy hymns, and turned to my first memories of Dad, smiling at me. I must have been about a year old, riding on his knee.
He went out to work just about every day, but I felt that he was always there when I needed him. And I needed him a lot. He and Mom were at my side at First Communion. He explained what it was all about. He said you're letting someone into your body and soul, someone who is just crazy about you, someone you can always count on to be there for you. Love him back by loving what he loves. I thought of that as I received him this morning. Thanks, Dad.
They put him into the hearse, and the priest quietly prayed, "Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our brother in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, he will rise again with him on the last day. Merciful Lord, turn towards us and listen to our prayers. Open the gates of paradise to your servant and help us who remain to comfort one another with the assurances of faith, until we all meet in Christ and are with you and our brother forever" (Rite of Christian Burial).
"Sure and certain hope"? My Amen came from deep inside me: Yes, yes. YEEEEESSSSSS!
Fr.Vincent Tobin, O.S.B., is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana. He has been a seminary administrator, professor, and spiritual director in the United States, and in Rome from 1986 to 2005. He is the founding director of the National Federation of Spiritual Directors, and currently serves as manager of Saint Meinrad Arch-abbey Guest House and Retreat Center.CHAPTER 2
Finding Dignity and Meaning in the Midst of Personal Tragedy
By Vicki Reineck
The doctor left the room abruptly after completing my ultrasound. I looked at my husband Tim in alarm. "Don't worry," he said, "There's probably just an emergency with another patient." My mind raced as I wondered if something was wrong with our unborn baby. We held hands and prayed that everything was all right.
After an eternity of uneasy minutes, the doctor returned to the room with a grim look on his face. "Let me show you some things on the sonogram," he said. He was kind and patient and answered all our questions, but my mind had become numb and my thoughts, dark. Tears began to flow as I heard our new baby was unlikely to survive.
The ultrasound showed that I was carrying a little girl. But it also showed—though her heart was beating strongly now—there was a great chance she would not live many more weeks. Her lungs were not developing properly. Most children with her condition did not survive to the end of the pregnancy. It was news we did not expect or want to hear!
Working your way through
Our lives were disrupted by this tragic forecast. We went through the classic stages in reacting to loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. We questioned why this was happening to us. We grasped at straws in an attempt to explain away the image on the ultrasound. We clung to stories of other women given dire prenatal news who had delivered normal babies. We felt lost and hopeless and our pain seemed unbearable.
But all this simply delayed us from doing what we must. We had to calm ourselves, accept the situation, and search for its meaning. We could either retreat into a cocoon of despair or search for some glimmer of hope. But it was difficult to find even a spark of optimism in the bleak prognosis. We felt like the father of the epileptic boy who said to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).
Rachel, our first child, was just four years old, and she was proud to be a big sister. We gradually let her know that her unborn sister may never use the crib waiting in our room. Rachel was just happy to hold her hand on my belly, laughing with joy every time she felt a kick. We struggled to approach our predicament with the same untroubled innocence.
* Valuing the moment. Realizing our time on earth with this child would be very short, we began making decisions we thought we had months to make. We chose the name Angela, since it seemed our precious baby girl might soon be in the presence of the angels. I often talked to her, sang to her, and cried. Daily I prayed for strength from God to carry the cross of knowing Angela might die before she was ever born.
We came to realize we would have to settle for knowing Angela now, not for what our hopes and dreams had foreseen her to be in years to come. Our dear friend Dave helped us come to this realization. He pointed out we had done what God had instructed Adam and Eve to do. We had joined in the post-creation, the ongoing miracle in which a husband and wife and God bring into being a new life, a new soul. The ultimate destiny of this new life was never meant to be an earthly existence. For Angela, her stay on Earth might be only a short time in my womb before she would be delivered into the merciful arms of God.
This was not an easy thing to accept. It meant many of our plans would melt away before our eyes. We tried to find some comfort in knowing Angela would be spared the tribulations of earthly life. She would never know sorrows like we were now experiencing, yet she had our same hope for eternal bliss. Our loss was her gain. We recalled the words of John the Baptist about the advent of Jesus: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). We needed to humble ourselves, abandon our expectations, and embrace the circumstances with love.
* Finding wisdom in Church tradition. The Church honors Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the title of Theotokos. This is the Greek term for God-Bearer. It refers to the fact that, like the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, Mary was the vessel in which God dwelt during his first nine months of being human. Wonderful as the accounts of Jesus' birth are, his real sojourn on earth began at his conception. By allowing his early human life to depend upon Mary, Jesus validated the role of motherhood and the process of pregnancy. By experiencing even the helpless state of prenatal life, he sanctified and dignified this period of existence.
At the Annunciation, Mary must have known the thrill that meant her son, Jesus, was stirring in her womb. I felt the same thrill, knowing a new life was growing in me! This new little being had a place in my heart as well as in my body. I could understand how Elizabeth felt when her unborn son John "leapt for joy" in her womb as he recognized in Mary's greeting the mother of his Savior. I knew my own unborn daughter had been in the presence of Christ when I received the Eucharist at Mass, that her precious soul had begun to know the joy of the Lord through me!
Knowing the Church honored the time of Jesus' pre-natal life helped us to value the early existence of our own unborn child. We valued her as a part of our family now despite how fragile her life might be. Life is precious, no matter how many days we live in the world or in our mother's womb. Each and every child is a gift from God!
* Finding comfort in sorrow. Pouring our hearts out in prayer, Tim and I turned to the Psalms to find comfort and strength. Their poetry of anguish and hope, despair and praise expressed what we were unable to articulate. They reminded us of God's faithfulness and everlasting love and helped us to find a thread of hope in our darkest moments.
On our own, we could never have borne this trial. We had to place everything in God's hands and pray for the strength to struggle through it all.
Despite what the medical community told us, we never had a choice in the matter. As Catholic Christians, we know all human life is sacred—from conception until natural death. Our doctors were good men—some Christian themselves—but faced with the legal climate of our secular society, they felt obligated to present us with our "options." We told them our only option was to lovingly cherish our baby daughter, Angela. We would honor God as the Lord of our lives and love Angela throughout her life, however long or short it might be.
Excerpted from In Times of Grief by Francis Wagner. Copyright © 2013 Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Excerpted by permission of Abbey Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsJoy in the Midst of Grief: The Catholic Funeral,
Finding Dignity and Meaning in the Midst of Personal Tragedy,
We Will Meet Again: Living the Resurrection Now and Forever,
Praying for the Dead,
Nurturing the Gift of Hope,