Concerning Them Which Are Asleep

I just got back from the funeral of a friend, Father T., who was a priest of the Eastern Catholic Church. I call him a friend even though I think we only met once. But I’d like to think we were friends.

When the missus and I moved back to New Hampshire from our brief stint in Michigan, some friends invited us to one of Father T.’s private Masses. It was the first Mass we attended in four months, thanks to COVID. Afterwards, I asked if he would hear my confession, also a first in four months. I wish I could be as grateful to every priest I was to him that day. I wish I could be as grateful for every Mass, every confession.

Afterwards, we got to talking a little. He was the most visibly holy man I’ve ever met. For over twenty years he suffered from a chronic illness, which took his life last week. His face was marked by this beautiful mixture of suffering and joy.

At his funeral, the Bishop said he was devoted to the Jesus Prayer. Throughout the day, he’d take out his komboskini and meditate while praying: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer dates back to the first centuries of the Church and remains widely used in the East. It’s supposed to cultivate inner stillness and, for many of us in the West, epitomizes the “everyday mysticism” that defines Eastern Christianity.

You could tell by looking at him that Father T. was a man who spent hours every day in the presence of Christ. He suffered and rejoiced with Christ. He loved Christ.

Almost the entire service consisted of the Bishop and ten priests gathered around Father T.’s body in front of the iconostasis, chanting. St. Augustine is supposed to have said,  “To sing is to pray twice.” To chant is to pray thrice, at least. You hear the words differently. You form every word more carefully; they linger, ringing, in your ears. If you’ve never heard Byzantine chanting… well:

The priests at Father T.’s funeral chanted the Beatitudes. And, boy, did those words ring.

I was struck by one in particular: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It’s not the same as the rest. You can cultivate spiritual poverty. You can practice meekness. You can strive passionately for justice. You can show mercy. You can work to purify your heart. You can try to make peace. You can face persecution with courage and resolution. But mourning? That’s just something that happens.

Isn’t it?

I’ve always found Christian funerals a bit weird. If we believe that our dearly departed lived a good life, loved God, and all that—well, why should we be sad? After all, they’re Heaven-bound. Isn’t it a sign of bad faith to be sad? Christ Himself said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

And yet, in the Beatitudes, He tell us the mourner is blessed.

I’ve been to funerals where a lot of folks ain’t mourning. You know what I mean. Some sit in the back and chat. Others get wasted at the Mercy Meal—and not “my mom just died, so I’m going to do tequila shots and cry and laugh with my my siblings” wasted, but “Bertha and I were in the same class in high school, and I never pass up an open bar” wasted.

I’m sure they don’t come to the funeral expecting to be irreverent. That’s just the way it is. They don’t empathize with others very well. If it was their mother’s funeral, they’d be incensed by that kind of thing. But when it’s not their mother’s funeral, they can’t imagine how anyone else is feeling. They can’t imagine other people’s pain. It just doesn’t register.

I’m not saying they’re sociopaths, either. All I’m saying is that love is hard. It’s really, really hard. And empathy is only a kind of love. When you love someone—even just a little—their absence from your life is painful. When you love someone, and that person loses someone they love, you share their pain.

Because of the Fall of Adam, death is the fate of all mortals. So, if we ever open our hearts to love, someday we’ll have to mourn—if not for someone, than with someone.

That’s why so many of us choose not to love. We’re afraid of the wounds that love will leave. Then funerals become another kind of party—a chance to catch up with distant relatives and get drunk on someone else’s dime.

But a life without love isn’t worth living. And that’s what Christ means when he says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” He’s saying, “Love is hard. It’s scary. But do it anyway. Be brave. Trust Me: it’ll be worth it.”

And it will. What does John say in his first epistle? “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” Love is the way to Christ, and Christ is the way to eternal life.

What comfort will be given to those who mourn? It’s the assurance given in the Book of Revelations: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

When we mourn, we exchange our mortal love—here, in the City of Man—for an immortal love in the City of God. And there’s no other way to come by that immortal love, except by passing through the valley of the shadow of death. Our love has to die before it can be raised in glory.

Yes, love is hard. Charity is a virtue, and all virtues are hard. They can only be perfected through practice. Mourning, then, is like shin-splints in our heart: if it hurts, you know it’s working.

Requiescat in Pace, Father T. God love you.

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