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Posts Tagged ‘creative liturgy’

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With a rich and diverse history dating back to around 800 AD, the practice of saying the rosary (or a  place where roses grow) blossomed rapidly.

Over the centuries, many forms  emerged. It was St. Dominic who first referred to the practice of reciting  three bouquets of  fifty prayers each (prayers tracing back to the lay Medieval practice of prayer after  monastic chanting of each of the 150 Psalms of David).

The symbolism is deeply rooted in Western consciousness.

As most species of roses have five petals each, it came to represent the five wounds of Christ and became quickly associated with the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven. The rose is the national flower of England and the U.S. state flowers of New York, Georgia, North Dakota, and Iowa. It is the recognized flower of Valentine’s Day and is often associated with love. It’s fragrance too has come to connote transcendent self offering, humility, grace and peace.

A walk in a rose garden with a set of rosary beads in hand is a wonderful way to invite all of one’s senses to open to the sacred mysteries.

It is the very essence of simplicity: walk slowly through the garden, slow down your breathing. Stop on each bead and breath peace. Bathe in the silence. No need to use a lot of words or any in fact.

Simple, easy, open and thankful.

© The Harried Mystic, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Great (Holy) Saturday – April 3, 2010

This is the solemn day on which the Church recollects the time during which Jesus is entombed. It is the time before the bulb re-emerges after a dark winter’s incubation. It is the dark cloud obscuring the Sun that surely will burn brightly and warm the planet once again when its cover moves by. It is the potential within the kinetic, the pause before your next breath, the time of sleep just before re-awakening, and that ever so brief silent pause between two waves arriving at the beach.

The Orthodox reference to the “harrowing of hell” captures the theological import of Christ’s passing into the netherworld to redeem and carry into paradise the souls of the deceased, most significantly, the archetypal Adam and Eve. The presumed stain of Original Sin is cleansed at His incursion into Hell, bringing Light to the darkest of places. Altars world-wide remain stripped of linens and vestments shift to pure white. Mass is not performed until midnight ( or the symbolic start of Easter ( Resurrection Sunday) at another late Saturday night appointed time). The world waits.

The entire Triduum is about preparation and expectation. Waiting is a core theme across all spiritual teachings. On this day before the most Holy of days in Christendom, what is it that we await? How does the mythology of the church relate to our lives and the realities that we construct around us? Where is the relevancy of such mystical events for a post-modern scientific society?

Firstly, that I use the word “mythology” is not meant to suggest that the events we celebrate are any less real. Quite the contrary, it only attests to my intent to apply anagogical reasoning to these events as we must when it comes to mysteries that we know tacitly or in poetic and non-experimental ways. That I love my wife, daughter, and son requires no proof though, were you to ask me to do so, I would resort to the lexicon of the Heart. It is a thoughtful phenomenological detailing that presents the clearest and most robust path to understanding the “mysteries.”

The “Free Online Dictionary” ( thefreedictionary.com) defines anagogy as: “A mystical interpretation of a word, passage, or text, especially scriptural exegesis that detects allusions to heaven or the afterlife.” It defines “mystical” as:

1. Of or having a spiritual reality or import not apparent to the intelligence or senses.
2. Of, relating to, or stemming from direct communion with ultimate reality or God: a mystical religion.

Heaven and the afterlife are metaphors for infinite consciousness, non-mortal being, the Platonic realm of forms ( or the inherent matrix of foundational archetypes that prefigures and predisposes the created to coalesce in its diverse forms), the well of souls ( or the unknowable place from which our individual consciousness came and to which one day it returns), and the ground that informs our deepest dreaming, our prayerful intentions, our moments of insight, epiphany and enlightenment. With this framework in mind, then, I ask: What is it that we await on this “Great Saturday”?

It is summed in three words: the inexhaustible Light! Light plays a major role in all of scripture, Western and Eastern. Light is a powerful and intrinsic need of all living things and it plays a very central role in the story of the life of every human being. We experience the light in very similar ways. After a long winter, few can resist the allure of a surprisingly bright day. People move out of their homes and take to the streets and the open markets and cafes. In the United States, college students from the North, Midwest and Northwest move in a great exodus toward the more direct sunlight on Spring break. In Europe, many head south. In the East, the same applies as people move toward the equator and further south of it to enjoy the beneficient sunlight, the warmth, and the penetrating rays that are so deeply restorative.

The light plays a key role in consciousness and experience from very early in life. We open our eyes after birth for the first time and light streams in. After a period of adjustment, so much of our learning and the development of language and thought is based on vision. As young children, who among hasn’t had a bad night with fears of things emerging from the darkness; those compelling fears that take archetypal monstrous forms. The cure for such moments is pretty much always the same: turn on the light.

Some years ago, while traveling on business, I was awakened around 2 AM experiencing a frightening shortness of breath. I was momentarily terrified. My first thought was to turn on the light after which I dressed and went to the lobby of the hotel where other people were present. On doing so, everything settled down. On long-distance car trips, there are stretches of road across farmland in the U.S or mountain roads where there is very little light. Such driving late at night is especially unnerving and I always find myself less tense when I see lights in the distance: the sign of civilization and the presence of other people.

As I write this, my daughter is on the road somewhere in Illinois on her way back to college after her Summer break. I spoke with her last night and she was stopping in a small town for the night. Her comment was simply: ” It is so dark here. I can’t see a thing. It’s time to stop, get something to eat and turn in. I’ll continue in the morning.” I’ve said before that we are made of the same stuff as stars. Indeed, all that exists ultimately came from the stars. We are light-centric creatures and this need is expressed in many ways in all the corners of our lives. Our language is replete with light references: enlightenment, to light on a flower, alight, delight, daylight, earthlight, light headed, light-hearted, limelight, highlight, etc. We are capable of contemplating the Infinite and so we routinely do in our visions, including the perfect and infinite Light: a light that knows no evening, the Christic Light. That is what we await on this Great Saturday.

How does the mythology of the Church ( and this phototrophic disposition) relate to our spiritual lives and the realities that we construct around us in this post-modern, scientific age? Maths are axiomatic, based on faith in certain logical propositions, and maths can and do arrive at conflicting conclusions. It appears that in this most regal of the logical endeavors of humanity there is more than one right answer. Non-euclidean geometries deviate in key ways from the axioms of Euclid and arrive at justifiable and verifiable conclusions that simply do not square with Euclidean propositions.

So, are there multiple realities and diverse possible worlds? Absolutely. And what about scientific certainties? There are few of them actually. In fact, the uncertainty principle and the two as yet irreconcilable forms of lawfulness (Newtonian and Quantum mechanical) cause us to continue to search for new unifying theories. New maths arise all the time, and have especially done so over the course of the last century. This raises the bar on what it means “to know.” There is a mystical character to number theory. Science applies rarified and esoteric methods and a language of its own ( filled with poetry, by the way) to study the mystery of being. So, in fact, science and mysticism intersect all the time. It is dogma that gets us hung up.

The big objection from many is that scientific truth is “verifiable” and the tenets of religious belief are not. That is so. However, the foundations of “religion” are rooted  in verifiable experiences. We experience the dearth of light and rejoice at its return and that motivation is observable and verifiable. Reductionism to the absurd is illogical and fruitless. One should always avoid the tyranny of one method to study the phenomena around us. Experimentation has its proper place, but historical and phenomenological methods do also.

In focusing less on belief and more on experience, such days as this Holy Saturday present us with archetypal mystery. In our services and prayers, we use poetry and anagogy to know from the inside out, to use intuition and to share something that arises from the collective unconscious. The divine flows through us and the mystery of the Crucified God is emblazoned in the consciousness of Christendom. In Buddhism, similarly, the tension between clear sight and real suffering is the pivot around which engaged Buddhism revolves.

Anagogical reason must and will never take a back seat to logical analysis and experimentation. To even attempt doing so is to do violence to what it means to be who we are. We must ever strive to tell the story of insight, intuition and experience remembering the difference between our models and the real thing. We dress up G-d in many ways, but that the human condition is always searching for the Supreme Ultimate is undeniable. The diverse manners in which we adorn the Mystery are beautiful, but we need to remind ourselves that it is an adornment.

Beneath all the dressings, the liturgies, and the scaffolding of beliefs erected along-side, what matters is at the heart. It is the raw experience of the Presence of the Light that splits the darkness of death. It is the Light of the resurrected Christ that we await. It is the annihilation of the dual nature of thought and the redemption of the world of creaturely selfishness and the sense of being alone. It is all about remembering who we really are and from whence we really come.

Let us await the Light giving ourselves the time today to also study our own inner darkness.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Great ( Holy) Thursday, April 1, 2010

A day also called “Maundy”  Thursday in the Anglican tradition, or the “mandatum”, the mandate to perform the “Lord’s Supper.” This is also the day of the washing of the feet. Traditionally, the Pope washes the feet of priests and priests do so for parishioners. Together, these ritual jewels of the Church celebrate the central mystery: the Presence of the divine savior among us in the intimate acts of washing and eating.

A good friend and fellow Bishop refers to the “Mass” as “Divine Alimentation.” We are fed by the Prince of Peace. We are directly privy, without need of any intermediary, to the sanctum sanctorum. Celebrating the savior in an act of eating is to continue in the path of total conversion; the transfiguration of mind-body and spirit from the inside out. We literally become the Temple of the Lord.

The word “Mass” is telling. It derives from the latin word “missa,” which means dismissal, or, put differently, a going forth in accordance with a great commissioning. In the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, we are fed with the expectation that we will then go and likewise feed others. We are given the mandate to be fishers of men and women; to bring them the great comfort and consolation of the truth that the Kingdom of G-d rests within them.

It is traditionally on Holy Thursday that the bishops consecrate the oils of chrism, the catechumens, and the sick. In addition, the Holy Thursday celebration also calls for a gathering of the priesthood so that priestly vows can be reaffirmed. Looking at the day in its entirety, we recognize in it a call for deep personal and transpersonal renewal and a resetting of purpose. It is a time for blessing, cleansing, and the reinvigorated zeal to serve the Gospel. We are reminded of our sacred identity and our calling. It is a beautiful celebration and it is an alchemical re-enchantment.

I am a priest. I vowed to serve for the rest of my life. My service is different from that of a parish priest as I do not have daily celebrations to officiate but mostly ad hoc ones. As the Abbot of  a “monastery without walls,” the role is that of spiritual facilitator, teacher, friend, and the sacerdotal functions come as they may.

What does it mean to be a post-denominational priest? It means that one’s identity is wrapped in continuous and diverse prayer, and the readiness to fulfill the mandatum in nontraditional ways. It means finding new paths for engaging the teaching in dialogue with people while maintaining a less visible or pronounce priestly profile. It  also always calls for celebration of the sacraments as living vehicles for conversion and epiphany when there are two or more gathered with a yearning to do so.

I enter into this Holy Thursday evening as I have earlier ones, with a deep sense of awe and gratitude. I feel honored to have been called to witness to mystery and to be a voice for spiritual living. I rejoice in the meditative time in which I can hold up all those I love and know, and the world around me with profound hope of an enduring illumination. I rest tonight in the firm conviction that a powerful force is present to synchronistically guide my next steps and words.

I am a child of the stars, of the wind, of the stillness and of the laughter. I am a child of the Eucharist and a minstrel singing about the depth and breadth of our capacity for love. I am a humble poet searching for the right words and phrases to give sound to my heart.

I am a simple priest. I open myself to the next mandate, the next need, the next chance to touch the fabric of the Son of Man. I am one who is ever searching for His face among all the writing, all the poetry, all the religions, all the cries and tears and laughter, and the rich tapestry of human thought and scientific discovery.

Maranatha!

Amen.

1 Corinthians 11- 23-26, New American Bible

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread,
and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. 12
A person should examine himself, 13 and so eat the bread and drink the cup.
For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment 14 on himself.
That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.
If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment;
but since we are judged by (the) Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.
If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that your meetings may not result in judgment. The other matters I shall set in order when I come.
[I am separately uploading a Liturgy this evening that emerged from my scholarship and passion for ritual over the years. It is the Liturgy that I use in the Order and at the High Masses that we celebrate here. I hope you find it a helpful complement to your Eastertide meditations. You can find it on a page linked to the “Garden of the Christos” page in pdf format.]
© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Norman’s Woe is a coastal reef in Gloucester Massachusetts immortalized by the tragic poem ” The wreck of the Hesperus” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells of the captain of a ship, the Hesperus, who met a fierce storm off the Eastern coast of New England. His daughter was onboard. Other senior crewman offered their good counsel but the captain was filled with hubris and refused to hear it.

In trying to save his daughter from the ravaging seas, he had her strapped to the mast to avoid the threat of seeing her swept overboard by the tall and ferocious waves crashing on deck. Horribly, all perished, including the girl, who drowned as the ship capsized and, having been tied to the mast, was unable to free herself and possibly survive the calamity.

The tale of an innocent’s death and that of all crewman on the reef is a cautionary fable loosely based on a devastating blizzard that in fact did occur off the coast of New England in 1839. The story rings in my ears as I read the wonderful just published book, Breakfast with Socrates, by Robert Rowland Smith.

In this breezy and very accessible retelling of the legacy of philosophy, Smith places each of many of the great philosophers in the midst of our everyday experiences, and we get an opportunity to briefly “dine with them” and imagine conversation on the questions with which we struggle as we navigate the mysteries, triumphs, and travails of our lives. All of this got me to thinking about the enormous treasure trove that is the classics.

Each of the great books, treasures that have withstood the test of time, offer enlightened and ever fresh commentary on our condition. Each of the voices from the ancient choir of the lovers of wisdom offer free counsel to anyone with the courage and mental fortitude to embrace it. Yet, the overwhelming lack of interest, generally speaking, in the classical library remains an undeniable reality.

The cry for relevance, practical plug-and-play utility, and small-minded self-help prescriptions is deafening. It is as if two meals are served: One a banquet of culinary genius, gourmet foods and great wines, and all for free, and it is rejected; while the other,  a grease-stained bag of fast food burgers costing far more than it’s worth, offering unwholesome calories, and containing excessive undisclosed filler materials and meat shot full of antibiotics and hormones, is the one hastily chosen and enthusiastically consumed.

It is time to go back, all of us, regardless of how well versed we are in the classics in general and the writings of the great philosophers in particular, and set up a renewed daily diet of wholesome calories. Furthermore, here’s the irony, like the free gourmet meal, the classics can be downloaded for free.

It is time to learn the lesson of the Hesperus and listen to the counsel of elder sages who speak to us from the deep recesses of recorded history. We can still save the young girl,  the archetypal Sophia, who is the the very soul of Wisdom. We can still rescue her from drowning in the turbulent and vicious seas of postmodernity and 21st century egoism and spiritual consumerism. We can resuscitate her and so revel in the sweetness of her voice, the alertness of her sight, and youthful embrace of the real.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe!

Excerpted from the poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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January 1, 2010

As part of our New Year’s Eve celebration, we built and decorated gingerbread houses together as a family. This was itself a memorable and shared spiritual exercise. It was a mix of great fun in spite of, or, actually,  because of the natural tensions of different personalities on full display loosened up by the night’s merriment.

My wife and I worked on one house while our daughter expressed her artistry on a gingerbread home all her own. Being fond of spontaneity in her art and life, her house emerged from a series of decorative flourishes, one creating context for the next, and so on, until she declared it finished. It was a fine specimen sporting a  well fortified fence made of small chocolate bars.

My wife, herself a very talented artist and crafts-person, joined me on our shared project. We had the task of first mending roof pieces that we found broken. Some royal frosting as mortar, dabbed on each broken segment, and roof repairs were well underway. However, as a perfectionist, my wife’s dismay about the broken pieces raised her blood pressure and impatience from the start. Adding insult to injury, after running out of royal frosting, she went about preparing more but, for reasons unknown, the second batch turned out very runny, and things simply wouldn’t adhere to it.

More like my daughter, and very much a fan of “throw all caution to the wind and let’s see how she comes out,” I started to sprinkle, to my wife’s horror, various small candies on the roof, having coated it first completely with the freshly made imperfect frosting. Since it wasn’t thick enough, it ran down off the roof and, I thought, this would make for a fine array of serendipitous icicles: a calm and accepting sentiment my wife didn’t quite share. No, this prompted my wife’s further sense that all was truly lost and that it was best to toss it all out and just try again another time. For her, the gingerbread house-building business had become another exercise in futility with a failed outcome.

As a firm believer in self organizing systems, I thought it would all turn out great anyway, in spite of decorative mishaps, once the fluid frosting hardened. The sheer serendipity of it all was the real fun since I know nothing about how it’s “supposed to be.” It was more of a free-form watercolor like experience for me than a work in oils demanding heightened attention to fine detail and structure. In my naive mind, and perhaps nowhere else, I had turned our candied house into a fantastical piece of impressionistic playfulness. I liked it! By morning, my wife too agreed that our house looked surprisingly “o.k.” ( her code for pretty good).

Maybe these gingerbread houses won’t take awards, but the family that came over later in the day saw and enjoyed both creations. What I will long remember of this new holiday ritual is the dance and play of personality from structured to unstructured, ordered to random, planned to spontaneous, serious to just plain goofy and fun-loving. Our differences added drama to the process that we spoke of with far more pleasure on reflection than we appreciated in the heated, tired, late night moments during which we became embroiled in our art project and its attendant challenges.

More than anything else, what made this a marker moment of this year for me, was that we three were doing this together in the same space without any post-modern distraction whatsoever. There were no iPods, iPhones, blackberries, televisions, or laptops to distract any of us away into the more solitary self-stimulation that we see all around in our technology obsessed culture.

This was a corrective for so much of the typical Holiday hype and fevered rushing. We built two gingerbread houses that are now storied works. We have already enjoyed them twice over in retelling the story of their creation and putting them proudly on display for others. This time spent together in our makeshift atelier was a sacramental.

We were each focused and intent, and were fully and unapologetically ourselves in the process. This communion took place in sacred time as creative expression is always an outgrowth of Spirit in motion. Our differences in approach also made manifest the many faces of the Beloved, the dynamical spectrum of aspects of the One.

Whenever we are engaged in the arts, amateur or professional, trained or untrained, skilled or simply bold and hopeful, we enter the orbit of the Beloved. So, let us boldly paint, sculpt, draw, compose music, dance, sing, write and, yes, build gingerbread houses to the glory of Beauty, Love and the Sacred Heart. Ideally, let us find the space, place and time to do these things together more often.

Even writing, ordinarily a solitary endeavor, can be a shared exercise in active imagination. Interactive storytelling (wherein a story begun by one person is carried forward by another who begins where the first person left off) is a wonderful practice. One of the cleverest things I’ve seen in the last several years was an interactive novel where pages were left blank for the reader to fill in at the close and beginning of certain chapters.

We are all artists in action, whether we are aware of it or not. Our creative moments and the spiritual inducements to put pen to page, brush to canvas, or frosting and candy to gingerbread, are all gifts that arise from the deep well of the Spirit.

I recall in closing, on this first day of 2010, the inspired prayer of Miriam:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.

Amen

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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As is the case with so many rituals and symbols, the Christmas tree has undergone significant evolution in its use throughout the centuries. The practice of decorating an evergreen goes back to pagan roots as a ritual in celebration of the Winter Solstice and in hopes of a good harvest in the season ahead among ancient druids, Egyptians, Hebrews, pagans and Chinese.

The choice of the evergreen revolves around the allusions to eternal life, so its later adoption by Christians was quite natural as the adornments took on the symbolism of the faith: an angel atop the tree and not the Norse practice of the spear signifying the God Odin. The German Lutherans decorated their trees with apples and wafers symbolizing the crucified God. Victorian ritual saw a shift from live fruit to the glass balls we are now accustomed to along with candles, allusions to the fire of life and Genesis, now more safely represented by the strings of multicolored lights.

It is among my favorite traditions of the season along with modest use of outdoor lighting. The colors red and green capture the mysteries of Divine love, the Presence of the Holy Spirit and the greenness of the biome. What we place on the tree matters a great deal. There are archetypal images along with those specific to our own sense of meaning and personal unconscious.

We always leave the decorating until the day before Christmas eve; today, as it turns out. With music playing and a wood fire in the fireplace, we each place decorations on the tree, and there are always more decorations than the tree can accomodate.

What images find their way there, first:

  • the ornaments with the name of our two children inscribed along with the year of their birth,
  • ornaments that are old, and go back to the earliest days of our marriage,
  • those hand-made by my wife’s late Aunt who made them each year as gifts for the family,
  • many delicately made images of angels,
  • ornaments of saints,
  • nativity scenes,
  • many beautifully crafted song birds and parrots,
  • small cottages dusted with snow,
  • and the untold number of glass baubles and balls, flutes, and stars, and a goodly number of ballerinas.

Throughout the central room where the tree resides, there are the many nutcrackers, larger angels, a separate smaller tree for special bird ornaments, and other seasonal objects far too many to list. What matters is what they all say and create. In this moment of family artistry and creative decorating, the point is to suspend time and allow the system unconscious its full expression.

We delight in the rainbow display of color, in the symbols of dance, movement that celebrates being alive and conscious, joyfully surrounded by imagery of nature, mystical union and spiritual vitality, the memory of loved ones and things past, and loved ones in the here and now engaged in the high play of celebrating the deep mystery of the Incarnate G-d.

For a few days, time has no meaning. The past is alive with us in the quickening of memory. The present bathes in the deep roots to which color reaches into our personal and collective unconscious, and the symbols dance like so many sugar-plums on the stage that we construct together.

We are artists in action. We awaken the creative muse that whispers in our ears of simpler times. We stimulate all the senses and prepare for the mystical rebirth that surely happens, beyond ritual and Liturgy, in the timeless realm of soul and spirit, in the Heart of the Cosmos that continually renews itself.

The Evergreen miracle, the moment of the Star of Bethlehem, the end of our waiting, and the spark of inner knowing are upon us.

Rejoice!

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Eulogy is literally the saying of “good words” about a deceased person. I delivered one for my mom when she passed away. It was a profound threshold experience for me to craft it and deliver it.  I then officiated at the site of her internment, and later at a mass in her honor.

In writing the eulogy, I considered the story of her life, her challenges, how she overcame them, her strength and resolve, her love of family and what each person meant to her. It was an homage to character and legacy. It was a portrait of courage and commitment and of a life in love with life.

It’s interesting what doesn’t go into a eulogy: the smaller moments that seemed so important once. No mention is usually made of the fumbles and foibles, unless in jest and illustrating the person’s idiosyncratic nature of which our fondest wish is to have it back in our lives. The focus is on the arc of a life. What makes the person so special to us, and why the world was better for having him or her in it.

Today, my client lost a brother very suddenly. It is still not known what took his life. Again, our conversation went to the things that endure.  In our mourning, all those daily things that nibble away at our heels in ordinary time become insignificant. The “Lion of the Senate,” Ted Kennedy, passed on having had the great blessing of time to complete his memoirs: a gift to all who knew him and loved him, and one to anyone who may read it.

All this has me thinking about the place of eulogy in our lives. We wait until a person is no longer around to write such things. Some practice the living eulogy at which the person about whom they are writing is in attendance at the reading.

More significant and powerful is writing your own. Autobiography is an exercise in self-analysis. It looks at our adventure from the standpoint of a future time. It provides the necessary moments, often not taken, to look at one’s life in the sweep of our history. What is the story-line? What are the side-trips off the planned path that shaped us the most? Whose are the shoulders on which we humbly stand?

While unrelated to eulogy in its origins, elegy (ἐλεγεία) captures the meaning of a person’s passage and the large hole it leaves in our lives. It gives voice to lamentation and it, too, has a place in the work of the living, though, regrettably, it is most often nowadays talked about as a quaint antiquity.

The elegy has a  rhyming structure: a couplet with a line in  dactylic hexameter followed by a line in dactylic pentameter. The poem of Thomas Gray in 1751, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” is a prime example of the few elegiac poems written in English. To quote one well-known stanza:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Today, as I prepare to attend a wake for my wife’s great-aunt, who passed on earlier in the week, and the funeral service tomorrow, my thoughts turn to the place and importance of eulogy and elegy in our spiritual lives. It also suggests the value of the practice of writing one’s own elegy to life’s mysteries as part of a broader autobiography, as a gift to ourselves, and those who see less of us than they would like owing to our frenzied activity and travel.

None of us know the time when we will breath our last. There’s no time to waste. As we live large, and extract the full measure of what it is to dive head-long into the great adventure, it is a wise practice, I think, to pause regularly and  get down in writing one’s own thoughts about the meaning of life. In handing it on to those who matter most to us, and to whom we matter so much, we also stretch our own consciousness toward the transcendent and eternal verities.

The eulogy stands as a testament to our effect on and need for each other. The elegy stands as witness to the primacy of deep feeling and longing which is emblematically human. Together, they help make sure that these moments in our lives are also the  stuff of epiphany.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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