Sunday, May 10, 2009

(Non) Committal

The church had been full, and all had gone smoothly.
E was a local man, who had never moved far away, though he had seen wartime service across the world and had been an enthusiastic supporter of any and all reunions that reconnected him with hig golden age. In their turn, friends, neighbours and old comrades had come to support his widow, and to say their own farewells. The widow, frail but determined, had coped well with the service, but had chosen not to attend the committal, which followed at the crematorium.
The funeral director had assumed I would not be attending either, but I have never forgotten the lecturer at vicar-school who told us
"From the moment the body arrives, it is your responsibility. Whatever else is going on, that is your primary committment"

His words had challenged me during one particularly sad and dramatic funeral last month, but generally I'm pretty clear that this is non negotiable, so there's no question about my not attending committals, even when the family prefer not to.
This time was different, though.
Whether they were making a point, or just had other plans, the bearers withdrew as soon as they had placed the coffin on the cataphalque.
The organist at the back of the chapel seemed, as quite often, to be in a separate world as I launched into Common Worship text
"The Lord is full of compassionand mercy, Slow to anger and of great goodness..."

To whom was I speaking?
Both God and the departed presumably knew this for themselves...
I hear the words, as I read them usually, as one further reassurance to those left behind - but this time they were not there to hear.
Sometimes, of course, prayer can feel akin to whistling in the dark - but proclaiming into a void is something quite different and rather strange.
Even the words of commital seemed to be simply stating the obvious.
Remembering, commending and entrusting had taken place. Now all there was to be done was a simple act, simply described...Perhaps I should have stayed silent, - but that would have given rise to more insistent questions as to why it mattered for me to be there at all.

Methinks I need to find something else to say for these occasions, though I hope they won't become the norm. I've never fully answered the familiar question "Who is a funeral for?" and it becomes pressing in a different way when the priest is the only living soul there...


Ostrich said...

Speak to God and the body, and change any we to I, and you'll have been the priest til the very end. I think it's a bit like marriage. We are there to ensure that it is done decently and in order, with the comfort of mother church. And then you go back to the widow and tell her how peaceful and calm it was, so that she can feel the same.

Song in my Heart said...

As usual my response comes with the disclaimer that I may make massive context errors.

Also somewhat typically I have more than one response...

How would you feel if you didn't say the words and go through the motions even with nobody there?

Last Sunday I couldn't get to church. One response I got from a friend was the reminder that praying the Daily Office (or the bits of it that I manage) unites me with the universal church. It was a useful and very welcome reminder that physical presence is not always necessary for relationship.

In this situation you are connected with the rest of the church through the liturgy, through turning up and participating, even if nobody else is there. And maybe in doing so, on some level you are praying not just on behalf of yourself, but on behalf of every one of the official or unofficial, recognised or unrecognised members of the Body that is the Church. I think this relates to what Ostrich said, too, though I cannot connect the dots coherently.

The other thing that struck me is that as clergy you generally have to deal with many more funerals than the rest of us do. I don't know how that affects you, but I think there's something to be said for standing there and telling yourself that "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, Slow to anger and of great goodness..." just in case you need to be reminded. Certainly no harm in it.

Mary Beth said...

It mattered that you were there. I know this is true, although I don't know all of the ways in which it is the case. But here is one very small way: it matters to me. Thank you for your witness. Bless you.

Crimson Rambler said...

oh my dear Kathryn. You were telling the world, all those humble, mute, patient created things around you...
I feel that way about the "Hear, O Israel"...the Lord opens our lips, and we show forth his praise. And the world hears.

Anonymous said...

K - you were voicing the prayers from the whole church for this one saint - you were present for all of us. Thanks be to God for you.

DogBlogger said...