Thursday, January 05, 2006

Elegy transfigured

I went to a funeral today. The person whose death it marked, and who had died rather unexpectedly, was the father of a close friend of mine. It was held in a Catholic church in a small northern town and was celebrated by a bishop with 50 other priests and deacons present. The church was full.
It is many years since I last went to mass, a ceremony that I remember mainly for long sermons and prayers muttered with that part of the mind that deals with the automatic functions. It didn't mean very much to me.
This mass today was different. Obviously, I was emotionally involved because of my attachment to my friend. This was heightened by the presence of many people who knew and liked the deceased (I had only met him once, and that briefly) and for whom the ceremony had some (or even great) significance. The most intense moment came, as it should, at the consacration (if you haven't 'been there', it's when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ). It was introduced by a brief plainsong, which climaxed and concentrated the mind as the priest began his blessing. Take this bread ...which earth has given and human hands have made ... Take this wine ...fruit of the vine and work of human hands. The work of nature. The product of civilisation. Transformed.
It struck me then that, even from the point of view of the non-believer, this is a beautiful way to 'live the moment'. This phrase generally denotes a rather facile idea because it lacks the gravity and force bestowed by an ancient religion and all its accumulated custom. Here, today it rebounded and lit up many things - what we were doing that morning; what this man had done during his life - his work, his family; the everyday decent and banal acts of all our lives.
This alternation of the mind is, of course, what most of us seek through paintings, music or books; the 'performance art' that I witnessed this morning seemed a primal formulation and embodiment of our desire not just to live, but to live intensely. All the more so for its commemoration of one man's death and the loss suffered by those around him. The ones who still live and want to live well. This was a way of doing that.

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