I was sitting in the nave of the church near the sanctuary. My friend’s final words, “allow yourself to be loved,” were printed on the front of her funeral leaflet. Just below is a picture of her on a trip she took to India, between scheduled bouts of chemotherapy. The photo shows her hugging her sponsored child. My friend’s pale and thinned skin is in stark contrast with the teenage girl’s glowing dark complexion and black hair.
It was her Requiem Mass, though her body was in a lab somewhere donated for research. In front of the altar was her picture and a few floral arrangements strategically placed nearby.
While attending her Mass I felt odd and out of place, something I rarely feel at church. I couldn’t put my finger on the discomfort, but something was amiss. Was it because the usual muted reverence before a service was displaced by loud conversations among huddled groups?
Entering the church I was greeted by the needy and the misfits whom she befriended, who were there with all their quirks to show their love for her. They paced nervously in the back vestibule and left long before Mass had ended.
There was lamenting and tears as people greeted the widower. Mass began and the readers for the service struggled to maintain their composure. The seven priests and three deacons crowded the sanctuary in white and gold chasubles and stoles. They extolled her virtues and contributions to the community as each took his turn eulogizing.
I became increasingly uncomfortable, squirming in the pew, when a long-past-middle-aged Liturgical dancer took to the floor in her overly revealing white leotards, tights, and long flowing skirt. Music began to play loudly over the speakers as she stepped and leapt about the altar, arms up and then expressively lowered.
Her appearance and movements jarred harshly against the backdrop of the gothic architecture of the church and the formalities of a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. The priests were sitting stoic and secure near the tabernacle and averted their eyes, choosing to look past the dancer at the congregation. Much of the congregation was watching the priests. I felt sad for the dancer whose gift to our departed friend was lost in the traditional rituals of Catholicism.
The Mass ended and a few final words from the pastor indicated a special farewell from the husband of the deceased. The widower stood in the middle of the church and sang flatly a capella to the picture of his wife. I’m not sure why I rolled my eyes and felt embarrassed. All I knew is that I needed to leave, and quickly, and bypass the luncheon following the service. The whole funeral Mass felt more like a carnival midway with all its strangeness temporarily displacing the dignity of the Requiem.
I had heard my friend say on more than one occasion “allow yourself to be loved.” She allowed us to love her through her cancer. She allowed the marginalized to love her through their oddities. She made arrangements to allow her friends to love her with their “special” gifts at her funeral. She allowed herself to love and be loved in a marriage I never understood.
Her final words were a challenge, and fitting for a consummate spiritual director pointing us towards God. To heed those words and follow their calling is to embrace the very basic teachings of our Church, to embrace charity and all that it means as Christians.
She allowed more than I can imagine tolerating. Maybe this is where my discomfort comes from. I am embarrassed by my own shortcomings when it comes to receiving imperfect love.