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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Confessions of a Protestant Girl at a Catholic Funeral



This is not what I was going to write about this week, but sometimes life happens... and sometimes death happens... and sometimes plans change... and sometimes we change...

One of my extended family members passed away earlier this week after a long battle with cancer.  I do not often have the opportunity to gather with relatives.  Although the occasion was somber and the drive was long, Phil and I decided to attend the funeral. 

I have now been to exactly two Catholic funerals in my life.  The first one was a little over 18 years ago, when my Nana died.  Because I did not understand anything about Catholic traditions or sacraments, it was terrifying.  And when I write that, please do not take it lightly.  It was not a simple matter of feeling weird, because everything was unfamiliar.  I was really scared.  Mostly, I have impressions about this day as opposed to solid memories, but there are things I do remember which include desperately wanting to kneel and pray by the casket but feeling ashamed to do so, since I had been taught it was evil to pray for the dead and having a near panic attack at the end of the funeral, because I had no idea what incense was or what the priest was doing with it.

My experience, this time around, was very different.  This was the most beautiful funeral I have ever attended.  When we were leaving, I told Phil, "If I die before you, that's the kind of funeral I want," and I meant it.

We arrived early, which afforded me the opportunity to greet my precious great aunt Tina in a very quiet and near empty sanctuary.  She was mourning the loss of her daughter, with a few silent tears on her face.  I had not seen her in many years.  I love her, and I have to be honest, hugging her is a little bit like having a piece of Nana back.

Since we came into the sanctuary at the wrong entrance (you know it's not really my story if there aren't some anomalies, and just wait... there are some...), we exited through the other doors in order to sign the guest book and connect to other family members, including my parents. 

Upon re-entering the sanctuary, I noticed a bowl of water and the person ahead of me dipped her fingers in it before making the sign of the cross.  There were too many people coming in behind me for me to take the necessary time to consider what I should do, so I just went in and sat down, but as I did so, I turned to Phil and said, "I think we just missed our opportunity to touch the holy water."  I know, I know, this confusion and compulsion probably sounds crazy to anyone who's spent his or her whole life with things like holy water available to them every time they enter a church, but it's very new to me.  The sense of loss was so profound that I briefly considered exiting and entering for a third time, but I do have some semblance of normalcy left, so I just stayed put.

And I began to soak in the imagery...

Did you know that you can tell the entire story of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection on walls and in stained glass windows?  Why did we move away from this?  Why have we moved away from the telling of stories, altogether?  This funeral told a story.  It told the story of a life well lived, but it also told the larger continuing story of God.  But then the priest used some words that were very powerful in light of death.  "She is lost to all of us."  This caused me to consider the role that each life plays in this story.  Everyone is important, particularly if we believe in humanity working in partnership with God.  Because of this, death is a profound loss.  And yet... 

There was something really amazing about the way in which corporate prayer brought things... and people... together in these moments.  To pray for the dead is, in many ways, to commit them into Jesus' hands.  In contrast to my limited Catholic funeral experiences, I have been to a lot of Protestant ones.  There I have experienced weeping, wailing, falling on your face kind of grief.  I am not, in any way, going to tell people how they should or should not grieve... how they need to grieve... what is appropriate...  But these people, this week.  They embodied I Thessalonians 4:13.  They grieved as people who have hope.

I have to admit that although I tried to participate as fully as possible in this experience, there were some quirks.  For example, the truth is I just didn't know all of the right words to say.  There might have been some ad-libbing and delayed repeating going on, but I did my best.  I took as many cues as I could from my Aunt Mary, and it might have been slightly encouraging when she literally flashed a peace sign at the passing of the peace.  I don't know if she recognized how hard I was trying to get it all "right", but that took some of the pressure off.

Of significant importance to me was the Eucharist.  The last time I was at a Catholic service (a wedding), it was announced that Protestants could not participate in the Eucharist, so I was sort of expecting that again, but nothing was ever said.  My mom (as Protestant as it gets) was getting more and more nervous by the second as the Eucharist was approaching, and this reminded me of another childhood memory...

I must have been about eight years old the year Nana managed to get the entire family to mass on Christmas Eve.  I remember it was fun, which is sort of ironic.  Anyway, when the time for the Eucharist was approaching, I wanted to fall in line with the rest of my Catholic family to participate.  I stood up, but my dad turned to me and told me no, and my mom quickly pulled me back to where she was... where we sat watching as everyone else partook of the sacrament.  I remember feeling very alone, left out, unworthy of sharing in this very important moment.  Having just seen the latest Pixar release, Inside Out, I think you might even call this particular instance a "core memory"...

So, when the priest gave no indication that Protestants were to be excluded from this celebration of the Eucharist, I leaned over my mom, to my dad, and asked, "Can we take communion here even though we're not Catholic?"  And my stomach was in knots as I waited for him to say no again, except he didn't.  Instead, he said, "I don't see why not," and as I literally hurdled my parents, he added in a whisper, "Just don't drink too much wine."  Mercifully, I managed to only smile, because it could have been a laugh out loud moment.  (As a side note, no wine was offered, only bread).

As we neared the end, the priest actually used the words, "the last paragraph," which, of course, brings us back to the narrative.  These words cause me to consider the paragraphs of my own life.  I'd like more of them to be about grace.  We only get so many, you know. 

And then it was time for the incense.  Did you know that incense is used to signify purification and sanctification?  Not frightening this time around, friends...

While you're still listening, I have one confession.  After a meal with my family, as Phil and I were getting ready to leave, it occurred to me that we were the only ones near the sanctuary, and we had timed it just right so there was another opportunity at the holy water.  Every Catholic friend and family member I have must be laughing at me, right now, but I just had to touch it.  Please don't misunderstand, though.  It's more than curiosity.  I'm learning. 

L.

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