Six years ago today my grandmother passed from this life into eternity. Having been very close to her, this day always passes with a twinge of sadness. Yet today also happened to be an excruciatingly busy day, and I had hardly a moment to think of the anniversary or utter more than a couple of brief prayers until the business of the day was concluded. By the end of the day I was both physically and emotionally drained, but I scurried back to my rectory, uncovered a couple of recently discovered antique vestments and went over to the church, locking the doors behind me.
Silence. Stillness. Peace.
I lit a couple of candles and prepared the altar to celebrate a private Requiem Mass according to the usus antiquior, as is my custom for the anniversaries of my loved ones' deaths. The church was still, and every click of my heels on the marble floor echoed through the cavernous, vaulted space. Though I have celebrated Masses privately in my parish church many times, there is something about the tone of a Requiem Mass that makes the solitude of the act far more pronounced. My voice echoed in such a way that it made it clear that I alone was present (physically) to mourn and offer sacrifice. Perhaps it was appropriate.
Six years ago, I was joyfully ministering to a work group in Webster Springs when I got the call from my father that I needed to come home immediately. I explained the situation to the Deacon overseeing the group and made some hasty goodbyes. I got in my car and drove the dark, abandoned mountain roads at speeds that were, in retrospect, unwise and unsafe. But I didn't want to miss the opportunity to say goodbye. A couple of wrong turns burned precious time, and I pulled into my grandmother's driveway shortly after 10:00 p.m. My mother's cousin met me at the top of the stairs, and with a tear rolling down his cheek, hugged me and said simply, "She's gone." I moved down the hallway to the bedroom to find the rest of my family--some crying, all looking grieved. And I felt alone. Alone, because I was the one member of the family who didn't get to say goodbye.
I reflect on this occasionally, but never so much as when I offer a Requiem Mass for her. Maybe it didn't matter that I wasn't there at her bedside when she left this world, because unlike the rest of my family I have the singular privilege of meeting her at the Altar of Sacrifice in eternity. It's little consolation to one who misses the one person whom he spoke to almost every day of his life. But at Mass this evening, in the stillness of the church, I was struck so profoundly as I turned toward the crucifix and most especially by the starkness of the words that issued from my mouth: "Requiescat in pace." "May she rest in peace." The words echoed briefly behind me, almost as if I had not been the one to say them, and the tone--though I didn't intend it--was one of grief...of petition...of resignation. And I felt that sense of being alone, but not in the sense of abandonment, but more in the sense of being set apart.
As I moved from the altar and began to extinguish the candles my mind immediately began to jump back to the thousand things that typically fill it on a daily basis, and I felt joy as I remembered that this weekend I have the privilege of celebrating not one but two baptisms. Even in contemplating death, there is new life to be found. And I contemplate that perhaps one day years from now, long after I have passed from this life, there will a priest who will be offering Mass for the souls of the children that are about to become beneficiaries of the very salvation that compels me to pray for my grandmother, who received the grace of baptism almost a century before these children will have.
I am not completely immune to the sadness of death, despite that Faith tells me so clearly that with death "life is changed, not ended." So many view death as an end, an absolute cessation of activity. If that works for them, so be it. But I can't be satisfied with that because what unites my grandmother to these perfect strangers that will be baptized this weekend is not me--it's the life they will share through the death of Baptism, a life that unites all believers from generation to generation. And that gives me hope.