Bright Sadness: Learning Who We Are

Bright Sadness: Learning Who We Are

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During the summer I’ve had the bright sadness of experiencing the deaths of five people close to me who I respected. In many cases, some of us didn’t learn significant details about the reposed until after their death. Peter, a longtime member of our parish, had been a rocket scientist and improved space shuttle safety.

I hadn’t realized how humble another parish stalwart was until people spoke about the many activities and ministries in which Tim had been involved. Uncle Jack, too, was a faithful man of God. It was inspiring to read how beloved he was and the many ways he had loved his family, church, and community.

My mother wrote in her high-school yearbook that she had wanted to be an Air. Force nurse (she became a civilian nurse). We found photographs of her as the quintessential 1950’s teenager with rolled-up blue jeans and her hair in a ponytail with scarf.  

The first death this summer was dear Colette Elizabeth, the nicest person you could know, and I was told how she had clung to an icon of the Resurrection in her hospital bed as her health deteriorated. Colette’s literal clinging to the hope of the Resurrection helped me endure the subsequent deaths which were to follow.

As Mom was dying, she quoted St. Paul in Philippians, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” 

Uncle Jack was Catholic, and I’ve always appreciated the way the Catholic funeral mass provides comfort by calling to mind the beloved’s baptism and identity as a child of God.

I’ve become regrettably familiar with the Orthodox funeral service these last past few months. In it is a confirmation of the beauty of our faith, and it reminds and perhaps even teaches essential truths we may have forgotten or perhaps not learned in catechism or Sunday School. I would like to share some of these truths so that we may reflect upon them and learn from them at a time when, hopefully, many of us are unmarred by grief.

The initial funeral hymns, addressed to God, describe our condition as humans. They are in the first-person “I,” personally reminding us of who we are. Of course they also apply to the deceased, but it is even more important for mourners to recall our identity:

“O Thou who of old didst create me from nothingness, and didst honor me with thine image divine, but because I transgressed thy commandments hast returned me again until the earth from which I was taken: Bring me back to that likeness, to be reshaped in that pristine beauty.”

We were created by God in His divine image, and throughout our life on this earth we struggle to achieve union with God and to reclaim the beauty He has given us. It’s a powerful message.

The following verse strengthens this plea:

“I am an image of thy glory ineffable, though I bear the brands of transgressions: Show thy compassions upon thy creature, O Master, and purify me by thy loving-kindness; and grant unto me the home-country of my heart’s desire, making me again a citizen of Paradise.”

It’s so important that it’s repeated: we are an image of God’s glory, and our desire is to be reunited with God in this life and the life hereafter. These hymns precede our prayers for the departed: in order to fully grieve our loved one, we must first know what it means to be human.

Living in the Flesh, Sowing to the Spirit

Our identity as humans fashioned in the image of God is repeatedly stressed throughout the service. We were given life to be like God, the Life-giver. To fully know the tragedy of death, we must first appreciate the mystery of life. St. John of Damascus composed the eight-tone funeral hymns in which he proclaims that God gave us nature “visible and invisible.” God’s “divine and quickening breath” gave us our physical bodies and invisible souls.

We have physical, fleshy, corporeal bodies. But we are so much more. Every day we attend to the needs of the body almost without thought: we eat, we bathe, we brush our teeth and take vitamins. As I’m going to work or completing my daily chores, I rarely remember that I am more than a body. I infrequently consider and even more rarely appreciate the mystery of being created by God in His image.

In the days before and after a funeral, as we share stories with one another and look through old photographs, we learn more about who our loved one was. This summer I have learned to appreciate how the funeral helps us learn who we truly are.

Memory Eternal to Colette Elizabeth, to Martha, to Peter, to Jack, and to Tim.

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Cynthia Long

Cynthia Long is a librarian, folklorist, and writer with a focus in Celtic folklore, mythology, and history. She earned her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College in Rosemont, Penn., in May 2016. In August 2017 she presented at Doxacon, the Orthodox Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, on the topic of fairy tales and the famous C.S. Lewis quotation that says, "Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again." Cynthia was Chrismated in September 2012 and attends St. George Church in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she tends the parish library.