Issue 5 - 03 Nov
A Silver Lining by Fr Richard Leonard
Commending those we love into the loving hands of God
Because the feast days of All Saints and All Souls kick off November, for centuries in the Church this month has been dedicated to praying for, and more recently also the celebrating the memory of, those we have loved who have gone before us: the saints and the sinners. It enables us to confront our own mortality in a healthy way too: “none of us is getting out of life alive.”
The first funeral I ever did was a week after arriving as a deacon at St Canice’s, Kings Cross, the red light district of Sydney. I was asked to do a ‘pauper’s funeral’, an appalling Dickensian name for a state-funded cremation.
Karl was an alcoholic and homeless man who had died on the street. The two saintly religious sisters who had cared for him for years organized his funeral.
The nuns thought it was unlikely that anyone else would turn up. On the day there were three more mourners in attendance. After the readings and prayers, and because I had never met Karl, I invited the congregation to share their memories of their deceased friend. Towards the back of the chapel, the sisters shook their heads. It was too late. A short stout woman was on her feet and was next to the coffin. “Thank you very much Father”, she said deferentially, and then she let loose. “Karl,” she yelled, pointing at the coffin, “you were a bastard. You were a bastard in the morning, a bastard in the evening and a bastard at night time.” And this theme, and that word, went on and on. The sisters started crying with laughter and gave me a look that said: ‘You got yourself into this; get yourself out of it.’
After two minutes I stood up and moved towards the eulogist, she took the cue and said, “So, in conclusion, I’d like to say, Karl, you were a spherical bastard, because anyway we looked at you, you were a bastard.” And with that, turned to me and said sweetly, as though she had just delivered a loving tribute, “Thank you so much Father,” and sat down. The sisters were in hysterics.
Esme had been Karl’s wife. They had both been lawyers. I knew by her sophisticated use of the word ‘spherical,’ that she was an educated woman, but they had both been co-dependent alcoholics and they blamed each other for the way their marriage and their adult lives fell apart.
This was quite a way to start my ministry to all souls. I wondered if all my funerals were going to be this action-packed. Luckily since then, I have mainly buried spherical saints.
Encouraged by the author of 2 Maccabees, All Souls Day has its roots in the 6th Century Benedictine tradition of praying to the dead. It was a way of recognising that human bonds go beyond death. By the 10th Century this feast was about praying for the dead, that they might know the merciful love of God. St. Odilo of Cluny fixed this feast on November 2 at his abbey at Cluny in 998. Rome adopted and mandated it in the fourteenth century and ever since we have been praying that our dead would be a better place. Until recently they needed all the help they could get.
These days there is a major change in the way we conduct funerals. The ritual hasn’t changed, but our language has. Catholic funerals were occasions for praying for our deceased relatives and friends that they might not be in hell or have long in purgatory. If it was the first option, there was not much any of us could do about it. Mind you we have never had to believe any human being is in hell. Most of our prayers at funerals asked that they soon be “released” from purgatory and admitted to heaven. Things changed after Vatican II. Where we once spoke of “commending our sister or brother to the mercy of God,” or, “praying for the departed’s immortal soul,” we now sound much more confident about where our sister or brother is.
I was struck by this theology during the homily delivered at Pope John Paul II’s Requiem Mass in St Peter’s Square on the 8th April 2005. Some people there were chanting ‘santo subito’ – ‘sainthood now’, and indeed he was canonized, along with John XXIII, by Pope Francis on April 27 2014, but the eminent theologian Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who two weeks later became Pope Benedict XVI, said in his homily that Pope John Paul II was already enjoying heaven. “We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” But that means he was already in heaven, which is what canonization says. I didn’t disagree with him in regard to Pope John Paul, but at no stage did he say that we “commended him to the mercy of God,” or, that we had to “pray for his immortal soul”. Cardinal Ratzinger was perfectly in line with the recent change of emphasis at our funerals.
After Vatican II we re-discovered a new-found confidence in God’s compassion toward the dead. In the best sense if we really believe in the power of Easter then God’s love at work in the world is greater than our sinfulness and our human limitations. As Christians because we know that love took human form in Jesus Christ, we have a God who not only entered into our life, but also was subjected to and embraced the alienation of death. We are the only world religion to believe that. Johannes B. Metz in Poverty of Spirit summarised it perfectly: “Jesus did not cling to his divinity. He did not simply dip into our existence, wave the magic wand of divine life over us, and then hurriedly retreat to his eternal home. He did not leave us with a tattered dream, letting us brood over the mystery of our existence. Instead, Jesus subjected himself to our plight. He immersed himself in our misery and followed man’s (sic.) road to the end. He did not escape from the torment of our life, nobly repudiating man. With the full weight of his divinity he descended into the abyss of human existence, penetrating its darkest depths. He was not spared from the dark mystery of our poverty as human beings” (1998, New York: Paulist Press, p.12).
In our increasingly secular society it’s interesting to note that the word “soul” persists in ordinary conversation. Many non-religious people use this most religious of terms to describe another person. We often hear how others are lonely, distressed, or lost souls. It can be said that someone has a “beautiful soul” or that a piece of music, a painting or other work of art “stirred my soul.” We describe mellow jazz as “soulful” and still alert others to distress by an SOS, “save our souls.” These uses of the word reinforce St Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that the soul makes us human, and set us apart from other animals.
Nearly all the great religions of the world believe in a soul, or its equivalent - something that survives the annihilation of the body in death. I have come to the opinion that whatever else might characterize the soul, memory is an integral part of it. For example the funerals of Alzheimer sufferers are rarely sad occasions because the family invariably says that they “lost” their loved one months or years before because he or she couldn’t remember anyone or anything.
Memory as a constitutive element in my soul means that when I meet God face to face, I will remember who I am and how I lived, and God will remember me. It’s also a comfort for us to think that we will be reunited with those we have loved who have died before us, because we will remember each other.
And what’s best about a “remembering soul” is that it is purified. If we think of purgatory as a stage rather than a place, then it’s possible to reclaim it as a moment where our memory is purified so we can be at peace with God for eternity.
So as we remember our ‘departed souls’ lets never forget God’s saving love, live lives worthy of it here and now, and become the person who, at our funeral, might be termed a spherical saint.
Richard Leonard is an Australian Jesuit and author of Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments (Paulist Press).
A film that has stood the test of time in regard to death and grief:
Ordinary People. Starring Mary Tyler Moore. Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton. Directed by Robert Redford. 1980. Rated R 124 mins.
The Jarrett family is in crisis. Last year Beth and Calvin Jarrett lost their son, Buck, in a boating accident. Their second child Conrad survived the accident and although he was not responsible for it, blames himself for his older brother’s death. Conrad’s depression has seen him admitted to a psychiatric hospital following an attempt on his own life. He is not long of out of the hospital and feeling ill at ease at home, and at school. He believes that his mother Beth always preferred his older brother Buck and that she blames him for surviving the accident. Conrad starts therapy with Dr Berger and as he inches toward a recovery, his parent’s marriage falls apart.
Based on Judith Guest’s novel, Ordinary People was a huge and surprising hit in 1980. Surprising only because the material is so dark, the drama so intense. But that’s what gives this film its power. In 1981 it won Oscars for Best Actor for Timothy Hutton in his debut feature film role, Best Director for Robert Redford in his directorial debut, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for Alvin Sargent, and Best Picture.
It opens with Conrad singing with his school choir. “O Lord we contemplate your peace”. The text is sung to Pachelbel’s Canon. This c.1690 instrumental music has now become so synonymous with this film that it is sometimes popularly called “Ordinary People music”. The words chosen for this music are instructive. The entire film is about three people who are searching for peace. Conrad externalises the trauma of the family’s grief. He is the most publicly fragile, but we soon discover that all three are emotionally brittle.
The title of the film is of course ironic. In a sense, the Jarretts are not ordinary people. They are wealthy, educated and socially connected. Conrad goes to an exclusive private school. Beth Jarrett, especially, is conscious of keeping up appearances and pretending that what problems they are having can be dealt with inside the family unit. She wants business as usual. A tagline for the film runs, “Everything is in its proper place... Except the past.”
But grief is no respecter of class or privilege. The Jarretts are ordinary in the tragedy that has struck them, and in their inability to cope with it. Conrad wants to opt out, either in suicide - his cry for help - or by living in his own inaccessibly painful world. Emotionally he wears a “Keep Out” sign around his neck. His father Calvin is well practised in keeping the peace, or at least negotiating the icy, delicate truce between his wife and son. And then there is Beth. Only Katherine Hepburn could have beaten Mary Tyler Moore for the Oscar in 1981, and even then I think it was a misjudgement. Ordinary People sets us up to dislike Beth and to blame her for the family’s pain. Beth was the one who fussed over what tie Calvin should wear to Buck’s funeral. Beth immediately scrubbed the bathroom floor clean to get the blood off the tiles after Conrad’s suicide attempt. She is the one who on seeing that Conrad has broken a plate holds the pieces together and declares, “Oh, I think it can be saved.” Cold and aloof, in a lesser actress’ hands, Beth would have been the villain. Tyler Moore’s performance is of such depth, however, that we come to empathise with all three principal players, including Beth.
“Calvin Jarrett: He just wants to know that you don’t hate him. Beth Jarrett: Hate him! How could I hate him? Mothers don’t hate their sons! Is that what he told you? You see how you believe everything he tells you? And you can’t do the same for me, you can’t! God, I don’t know what anyone wants from me anymore. Ward: Beth, we don’t want anything from you; Audrey, Cal, Connie and Me, we just want you to be happy. Beth Jarrett: Happy! Ward, you tell me the meaning of happy. But first you better make sure your kids are good and safe, that they haven’t fallen of a horse, been hit by a car, or drown in that swimming pool you’re so proud of! …. Then, you come and tell me how to be happy!”
The truth teller in Ordinary People is Dr Berger. “Dr. Berger: A little advice about feelings kiddo; don’t expect it always to tickle.” It’s hard to imagine now that expressing one’s feelings was once considered indulgent or at least impolite. The English have carved out a national identity partly built on the “stiff upper lip”. Modern psychology, however, has shown us the down side of emotional repression. Feelings don’t go away, just because we will or wish them to, but that they come out to play in other, often much more destructive ways. Repressed feelings lead to role playing and us using work, busy-ness, social success, recreation, drugs, alcohol and endless other addictions as narcotics to ward off the pain of our feelings. “Calvin: I don’t know who you are (Beth). I don’t know what we have been playing at.”
This film was part a of a turning point in western consciousness when we recognised the importance of expressing our loving and darker feelings, dealing with grief, anger and resentment and choosing life in all its forms. “Dr Berger: What was the one wrong thing you did? Conrad: I hung on. I stayed with the boat. I lived.”
In the Christian tradition one of the Christian virtues is self-care. With all the things we now know about the complexity of the human personality, we understand that a healthy exploration of our feelings is an essential ingredient in caring for ourselves. The thing Christians need to be alert to is that this form of self-care does not trip over into self-absorption – where the world revolves about my feelings, my needs, my wants. Then, it is can be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
And what’s our tradition’s anecdote to that happening? Have as ordinary life as possible in touch with ordinary people with ordinary hopes, joys and anxieties. That usually puts our feelings and issues into perspective, makes them more manageable, and means we have other ordinary people with whom we can share the burden.
Moving films on death and grief you may have missed – but worth the effort.
The Road Home. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honyei. Directed by Zhang Yinou. 90 mins. Rated G. 1999.
In the middle of a fierce winter, Luo Yusheng’s father dies and he returns to his village for the funeral. He is now a successful businessman in the city. His mother, Zhao Di, and his father, Luo Changyu, have lived simply in rural villages all their lives. Zhao Di insists that her husband be buried back in the village where they met, and where Luo Changyu was the teacher for forty years. The procession from the city morgue to the village means a full day trudging through the snow. Luo Yusheng tries to explain to his mother that the family is not wealthy enough to pay the pallbearers for such a long procession, but Zhao Di will take nothing less. “Luo Yusheng: The funeral procession is all that matters to her now.” Luo reflects on the loving marriage his parents have enjoyed, how they met, and his father’s life of service. Throughout the valley the word goes out that Luo Changyu’s body is to be brought home for burial. Former students volunteer their services for the procession. When the day comes there is a blinding snowstorm, but everyone turns up as expected. Moved with devotion the son fulfils his father’s last wish – Luo becomes a teacher, if only for a day, in the same schoolroom where his father taught those who have just borne him home.
This film is worth seeing if only for Zhang Yinou’s unaffected direction, Hou Yong’s stunning cinematography, and Bao San’s masterful musical score. All the performances are deeply moving, especially Zhang Ziyi as the young Zhao Di.
On a deeper level, however, if ever there was film on the fifth commandment, The Road Home is it. Given China’s communist rule and official atheism, it may not be intentionally so, but it proves again the universality of the truth. This gentle and warm film opens up all the reasons why most children honour their parents, and not just in death. Luo Yusheng wants to honour his father, but he is also practical. He knows the limits of what they can do. His mother, however, knows the veneration with which her husband was held by his students in the valley. She gives them an opportunity to be generous in return.
The Road Home captures the respect with which teachers are held in China. Teaching is among one of the most revered professions there, and in many other Asian countries as well. This respect for teachers in Asia has a spiritual basis in Confucius. He taught his disciples that they should, “educate all without discrimination, and teach according to the abilities of one’s students.” Well before the value of it was widely recognised, Confucius saw the need for the education of the whole person. He devised a syllabus of religion, music, archery, chariot driving, reading and writing, and mathematics. This persisting value in Asia is something we have lost in many parts of the West. In certain circles, and with good cause, education is now seen as a commodity rather than a service, and so teachers at every level are accorded less respect. They are seen to be doing their job – delivering value for the educational dollar. Luckily for us, there are still dedicated teachers who inspire their students and help them see the priceless gift of being educated.
What Luo Yusheng fails to appreciate is that Luo Changyu’s students share the affection and respect he holds for his father. It is remarkable that of all the commandments in the Old Testament, over time they were distilled down to ten. Indeed there are 613 Commandments in the Old Testament. 365 of them refer to things that the Israelites cannot do, and 248 refer to things they should do. The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is the Readers Digest version of the Jewish law. It’s brevity makes it memorable and it provides a framework for daily living. The Fifth Commandment is the first one to move beyond our duty toward God. It is also in the positive form, it is something we should do, or more hopefully something we want to do. This commandment was not unique to Israel. A similar requirement can be found in nearly every law code of other ancient civilisations. In these times parents died at much earlier ages than now. This obligation enshrined the importance of families, memory and social cohesion.
Some people find it hard to honour their father or mother today. Some have good reasons for not doing so. We cannot cloak in sentiment criminal neglect or harm done to some children by their parents. These children do not need an order to honour their parents. They need assistance so to deal with the scars of their childhood, and to try and love more peacefully as adults, and be good parents.
The word honor in Hebrew means, “to give glory”. It is a verb, something we do, a gift we keep giving to our parents. It is not just a given. Our parents receive it from us because they earn it. In modern parlance, then, the Fifth Commandment is about mutual obligation. Zhao Di knows that many of the villagers loved her husband like a father, so even though her request is outrageous, she knows they will want to bestow this glory on Luo Changyu.
The Road Home shows the importance of farewell rituals. Many of the symbols and ritual actions used in the film are easily identified within the way we farewell our own dead. In this film they bind up the coffin in a special cloth. We place a pall over the coffin to recall the white robe of baptism. They hold symbols of Luo Changyu’s life dear, and these evoke stories about him and their relationships with him. We equally value mementoes of the signs of the deceased which often trigger memories and eulogies. They have a procession for the mourners. So do we. Meals play a central role in remembering Luo. We have the Eucharist, Holy Communion or a Wake at which we remember both the life of Christ, as well as the one from whom we are taking our leave.
Apart from the theme of travel - walking, running and processing - which is central to the story, the colour red dominates throughout – in a piece of cloth, a scarf and a jacket. Through the Legend of Nian, red in Chinese mythology represents the warding off of evil, and the fertility of spring. In the Christian tradition red symbolises the flame of the Holy Spirit and the blood of the martyrs. It is not by accident that feast of Pentecost took the place of a pagan spring festival. We hold that Spirit brings fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Fruits we see so clearly lived out and celebrated in The Road Home. Luo Yusheng comes to realise why the procession back to the schoolmaster’s village was so important to his mother. “Luo Yusheng: The road is part of their love story.” May our love of the road be part of our Christian love story too.
Richard Leonard SJ
As it is in Heaven (Så som i himmelen). Directed by Kay Pollak. Moderate coarse language, moderate themes, a sex scene, moderate violence. 127 minutes.
A drama about exorcising demons and discovering love. Daniel Darius an internationally recognized Conductor, drops out of international celebrity after a heart attack and steps back into his childhood village in far north Sweden. A film all about obedience- attuning the ear to listen – from which comes harmony and balance. Keep your eye out for the angels in this film. They are everywhere.
Richard Leonard SJ
The Last Days. (1998). Documentary film directed by James Moll. 88 minutes. Adult themes.
One of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen. It is not just about five Hungarian Jews who were children when they were deported to the death camps. It is like a biblical narrative: the story of scapegoat theology, purification of memory, handing on the story, “They are not going to take my soul…. I am not going to ashes”, “Where is God? God is in your strength”, “God did not create the Holocaust…God gave us free will. I blame men not God.”
Richard Leonard SJ
Departures (Okuribito). Starring Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Ryoko Hirosue, Masahiro Motoki. Directed by Yojiro Takita. Rated M (mature themes). 101mins.
A fine, often beautiful, film that can be recommended. It won the 2008 Best Foreign Film Oscar over Waltz with Bashir and The Class, strong competition.
However, you might be wondering during the first ten minutes. It begins slowly and solemnly with ceremonial and ritual for the dead. The, without warning, it becomes quite farcical and you wonder where you are. This is pre-credits. And immediately after the credits there is an orchestra playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy with a full choir. What is this film? What are the departures?
Actually, the central character of the film, the young Daigo, a cello player whose orchestra is shut down, wonders about this same question when he applies for a job on returning to his home town. He thinks he will work for a travel agent or be a tour guide. The Japanese title of the film is said to mean, 'the one who sees persons off...'. But, he is to be a 'coffinator', an embalmer of the dead who performs his duties with religious atmosphere, reverent ceremonial and a decorum that enables the grieving family and mourners to pay their respects to the dead and experience the solemnity of the final rite of passage. Death is seen, in Buddhist and eastern religion terms, not as the end but as the gateway to the next stage of existence.
We are fascinated with the repetition of this ceremony, the ritual meticulously the same, but the response of the mourners so different – and we realise that the manager and Daigo are contributing to a sense of human dignity and an acknowledgement of the life of the dead person as well as the survivors.
That all sounds very, very serious, and so it is. However, the film is interspersed with a great deal of humour, especially in Daigo's personal journey from being very sick at his first case to a final ritual which brings the whole drama, the embalming, his marriage, his family and the absence of his father, to a very satisfying conclusion.
Masahiro Matoko gives a finely nuanced performance, just the right seriousness and comedy, an acute sense of timing and facial expressions indicating the depths of the character. Tustomu Yamizaki brings a blend of the offhand and the dedicated to his role as the manager.
Beautiful to look at (which is sometimes rather challenging through our tears), it is a wonderful combination of the realistically mundane, the sadness of life and its uncertainties, yet the funny side of human foibles, the emotion of music and an opportunity (without being preached at) for the audience to really respond emotionally to and intellectually think about the deeper aspects of life and death.
Departures won the SIGNIS Prize (the World Association of Catholic Communicators) at the Washington DC Film Festival in 2009.
Peter Malone MSC and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.