My mother died eleven years ago. My father died on January 27 and his funeral was held in my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. His funeral service got me back in touch in a fresh way with why I am an Episcopalian.
There was no urge to hold the service in anything more vaguely sacred than a funeral home chapel. The service music consisted of "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art"—which I have only heard sung 8.2 million times (or, at least, it feels that way). His former pastor, who is a gentle, devout soul, delivered not one, but two funeral sermons, accompanied by an extended exposition of John 17 and five altar calls. Liturgically this had an accumulative effect not unlike saturation bombing at Dresden—only without the drama.
The only salutary effect was that it prompted my wife and me to discuss yet again, what we do not want to have done, said, and sung at our own funerals. In fact, I promised her that if either one of the aforementioned hymns (or "Just As I Am") are sung at my final service, I will be waiting on the other side with more than a few things to say.
It was only celebrating and preaching at a Requiem Mass in my father's memory that day that allowed me to make some significant progress in grieving. That experience also made me realize that losses of this kind prompt a layer of spiritual discovery that we don't explore often enough.
That's not unusual, of course. Americans are deeply devoted to denial when it comes to death. Woody Allen captured our cultural default mode, when he observed, "I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." None of us do and the only way to reinforce our defenses is to devote as little attention as possible to the death of others, even that of our parents.
As hard as it is, however, it is important to pay attention, even if our relationship with our parents is complicated or broken. And there are spiritual benefits to be achieved, even if they are hard-won. So, here are some thoughts I hope might be helpful in preparing for that place in your own life—or in praying through some of what you may have already experienced. I would describe them as the spiritual opportunities that lie in what is otherwise one of life's more difficult passages.
First: the loss of parents reminds us of our mortality.
The death of anyone can remind us of our mortality, if we are alert to it. But, as I said, most of us would rather not be. Men, in particular, take a long time to concede that they are not bulletproof. This is why we are able to watch endless hours of fairly improbable action scenes in which people absorb injuries that would destroy any real human being in the first few moments.
Losing a parent, however, gives that reminder special point. We lose not just the ability to be physically in touch. We find ourselves in a world that is forever changed. The horizon that they hid from view is suddenly evident. We are (not so) suddenly the older generation. The day of my father's Requiem was the last day it was necessary to use the designation "Sr." and "Jr." to distinguish between my father and myself. And, as I told one of my cousins, we need to find a way to get together without the prompting of a funeral, or at the next family gathering one of us will need to "phone it in."
Being reminded of our mortality is not a bad thing. We all know that the ending of a story has a way of shaping what the whole of the story has to say.
The trick, spiritually speaking, is to avoid waiting until the end to ask how it shapes the story. Without that grounding there are far too many alternative narratives that become the stories we tell with our lives:
- I was always the promising young woman or young man, but I wandered through life.
- Life scared me, so I drowned it or drugged it.
- I was so dependent upon others that I never lived my own life.
- Life never gave me what I deserved, so I spent my time trapped by envy.
- There is always tomorrow.
- What's new on television?
- The one with the most toys wins.
To let the lessons at the end shape the way in which we tell the story is one of the most effective ways to make some of life's most important choices.
Wisely, C. S. Lewis once remarked that heaven is the presence of God, hell the absence of God, and we get in the next life what we most wanted in this one. We get sidetracked by the question of what happens to us after we die and forget that one of the most important points that the New Testament makes about the character of eternal life is that it is both present as well as future possession, and that the essence of that possession is the intimacy with God that we are offered.
Living into a sense of God's presence, not the goals we can achieve, the points we can score, or the fights that we can win are at the heart of this journey we call life. The deaths of those with whom we have shared our childhood are deeply imbedded in the dynamics that have shaped our own lives to that point—whether by affirmation or dissent.