By Madonna Hamel
Tonight we gather for prayers at the church, to honour Theresa Laturnus: friend, mom, wife, janitor, singer, dancer, deliverer of birthday, anniversary, graduation and sympathy cards. She also led the hymns at masses and other important healing and celebrating rituals. It does not escape me that the leader of this evening’s singing lays in silent repose. Oh, say some, she’s singing in heaven, you betcha! I don’t know – I imagine she will be one day, soon. But perhaps just now she is resting after such a long journey. Because, although Theresa was not even 67-years-old when she died suddenly, sending us all into shock, she worked constantly.
Theresa was also the sacristan at The Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary, the BVM as we’ve come to say. She arrived early for each mass, preparing “backstage” for the celebration that occurs every Sunday when we do our best, with what we have at the time, to proclaim the Mystery of Faith. And it’s a Mystery indeed – this belief in the complete transformation of hearts from fear, hostility, loneliness, contempt, worry to joy, hospitality, comfortable solitude, acceptance, prayer.
Because, while we are standing, sitting, kneeling for those forty-five or so minutes, we are praying instead of worrying, repeating words of faith, wobbly and prescribed as they may feel, instead of words of nagging doubt and worry. Faith may not even show up in us as a natural adherence to a certain tradition, but as more of a burgeoning trust that we will “discover the deepest truths on which we can rely,” as the Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg describes faith.
We will gather together for prayers tonight, like a small handful of us did when we heard the news of Theresa’s heart attack. We sat in a living room of toys and laundry and fumbling with rosaries and I finally wept, and haven’t since. I always feel like a bit of a fake when I do the rosary. I loose track – “Was that 10 or nine I just did?” The Hail Marys fly by without my total concentration. But then I realize that no one is fully focused or fervent when they pray; but they pray anyway, because it’s better than the incessant chatter of a mind out of control, thoughts banging against the walls of the brain like drunk prairie dogs stung by a bee. We pray to eventually acquire focus and humility; I suspect few of us start out that way. I’ve achieved neither.
“We do not learn to pray from manuals or prayer books,” writes the author of a blog called citydesert. “Prayer cannot even exist in itself: it exists only as the activity of someone at prayer. Simply put, a “pray-er” is a praying person. It is not a text, but a living human being; not a book, but a burning heart. “Prayer” is a relationship word; it can never be thought of in isolation.” Prayer aims to connect; it’s purpose is to have an encounter with each other or with something bigger than this life of pinched and petty worries.
For the pray-er (person who prays) to be aligned with that “something bigger”, (call it God, the Divine, Spirit) the speaker becomes able to listen as well as to pray… “the human heart is able to hear, through everyone and in everything.” The answers to our prayers are unpredictable because we rarely see them coming until they are right in front of us, and then, often we slump back in disappointment because that particular answer wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. But the answers are so predictable as well: whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we are doing to our own selves – and all things we claim to revere. We get out of life – or a relationship, or a job, or a practice or a meeting – what we put into it.
The author of citydesert finds it unfortunate that prayer has been reduced to a private act, an occasion for selfish complaint. In prayer, our concerns ought to be the concerns of others, of the world and especially of those who cannot protect themselves. Otherwise, prayer becomes more than exclusive; it becomes divisive, which is the literal meaning of the term “diabolical”.
So, we are going to sit together and pray for Theresa, but perhaps, as well as ourselves and our neighbours and families. Theresa was a pray-er in the ‘verb’ sense of the word. She didn’t do any “God-talk”, she just showed up. Stepped in. Did what had to be done. It will feel strange, indeed to pray without her voice, sing without her leading us. Everyone who has ever lost a loved one knows how strange life seems, and for a long time. When my mother passed I spoke with the funeral director, asking for pamphlets, books, anything I might read to help me through. He said: Just expect the unexpected. Unexpectedly, I could not read, not for months. But I did write this poem, and perhaps it will help.
The Week Our Mothers Die
Expect to cling to objects like:
Her last shopping list.
The pillow she rested against
while doing her crossword puzzle.
What’s an eight letter word beginning with “I”
that means: ‘to live forever’?
Find it and you’ve cracked the code and she’ll come bursting through
the garage door, asking “could
you get the rest of the grocery bags
from the trunk?”
Expect to hoard relics,
stashing them under your pillow,
like baby teeth
waiting for fairies or numen
to imbue them with powers
of resurrection, of
squeezing a bodies back through a
time-hole left unattended, of giving her back, intact.
“I give you three days,” you whisper
leaning over the body
I the open casket.
“After that, I’m heading out to look for you, out on the open road.”
Expect to ask strangers to dinner.
Across the table you demand proof until, eventually,
you will shatter into gratitude.
Expect to seek out old rooms
and fields where once you “saw God”.
Small as you were then,
you were huge.
You burst into a thousand seeds,
some still drifting on foreign breezes,
still passing through joy or desperation, with no time to pretend.
What you lack now in suppleness
you will make up for in honesty.
your humbled knees will shriek as
you straighten up.
Expect to want to touch everything she touched, to turn your eyes where she turned hers to catch the rays of embedded grace lingering from her gaze.
“Funny,” you’ll say, staring at your hand “I never noticed that before.”
I say goodbye just like she did:
With the wave of the innocent:
palm flat open, held up, until the car rounds the corner and is gone.
The fingers bunch together, then
press into the life line.
Expect to watch your language.
becomes an urgent command, like: “Find the nearest emergency exit!”
You see cars lining the street, and fear
the neighbour has succumbed to his long illness.
In fact, it’s an “open house”.
Their home has been on the market for weeks.
Resentment follows on the heels of relief “How come he gets to live?”
Flailing up and down the shopping aisles you ask the same about a whining woman pushing her shopping cart behind her husband, pushing him over the edge.
And to the sullen young, in the parking lot you want to scream: “Don’t waste that body, this warm spring day,
sulking over the fact he hasn’t noticed your new haircut!”
Expect to promise yourself
that you will never again stand in dorky silence while someone tells you
of the death of a loved one, that you will obey the urge to swallow them in an embrace because, now you know you are perfectly capable of falling apart.
Expect to recall all the things you meant to say, postcards you meant to send, words better left unspoken.
Expect to find souvenirs in drawers.
They might as well be knives or bombs- they will leap onto and into you like bad germs, taking you over, chomping at your neat little system’s immunity to
Expect the weak to turn strong, the stoic to fall to pieces, the tardy to be early, the generous covetous, the vigilant sleepy, the tart sweet, the courteous rude,
the lambs into lions.
Expect to spend a week’s salary on a pair of shoes for the memorial because,
all your adult life she begged you
to buy a “decent pair of shoes”.
Expect to see symbols everywhere:
“Who put this here?”
“Did you see that bird fly by
just as you said her name?”
Expect, by the third week of this,
to be suffering from symbol fatigue.
But expect, nonetheless,
to keep looking to the trees.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.