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I still remember the massive bells tolling from the towers of the St. Louis Cathedral as the remains of my paternal grandparents were rolled through massive doors into the sanctuary for the Requiem Mass. Oatmeal skies, hundreds of mourners in black, long lines of police escort, soggy handkerchiefs—incised their dread upon my psyche. It was my first funeral.

Yesterday’s wake at Donnelly’s was another first, with Mother at my side commenting in hushed tones. It was 1947. It felt more like a cocktail party, similar to ones hosted by our parents in the living room.

Over the years, the culture of death and burial seeped into my experience: family, extended family members, friends, teachers, classmates, co-workers, my former husband, my AA buddies, neighbors, other dignitaries. I learned both Gregorian chant and English for the liturgies and appropriate behavior around the grieving.

 But these “time-outs” from the ordinary were for others. Never, until now, did I consider my mortality—always imagined my transition would be quick like several members of our family. This is not the case.

With my denial decomposing like a minstrel’s tasseled-red jacket in an abandoned wardrobe, I’m slowly learning to befriend the death of my body; only then will it bring surcease to the pesky symptoms hampering my breathing and wasting my body.

I had believed that completing my final arrangements and studying the theology, psychology, and physiology of dying and death would give me a leg up when my time came around, but this is not the case. Expert materials abound on these subjects, but none describe the experience of death itself.

So, prayer for deeper surrender to Creator God twits the terror from death’s edges. This is working out … and the St. Louis Cathedral still stands, though now a Basilica.

It’s a witches’ cauldron: the Pandemic continues, PPE continues, sickness/death continue, numbers continue, experts continue, media continues. Questions thinned to the nub prick the malaise: Is this the new normal? Will life ever be the same? Have we lost it all?

Such an event dwarfs words, leaves unsavory tastes, stockpiles the many faces of grief within the psyche, and crowds everyone into liminal living, if aware of it or not. No amount of distraction can the mask the profound changes, already in place. Such may eventually spawn literary works, dance and musical performances, should there be sensitive artists to compose them.

Yet, history reveals other catastrophes and those who weathered them.

In 587 BCE, the Babylonian general Nebuzaraddan completed the destruction of Jerusalem, raised its Temple, and forced the Jewish elite into exile, leaving only farmers and the old to tend the land. Such devastation, however, caught the religious imagination of the prophet Jeremiah’s disciples who later composed the Book of Lamentations. With great pathos, they describe the mourning of the city and its people. Yet, their wholehearted repentance and unconquerable trust in God shine through the shards left askance atop each other.

Because of the conversion of life depicted in its five parts, Lamentations is a suitable response to any catastrophe: its truth assuages beleaguered spirits and breaks apart strictures that impede life’s development. If properly understood, such produces a new paradigm, far beyond the ordinary.

This is why our hearts are sick; this why our eyes are dim: because Mount Zion is desolate; jackals roam to and fro upon it. But you, Yahweh, you remain forever…Make us come back to you … Lamentations 5:19.

Put together a man with a humble spirit, who for eight years scrapped brilliant compositions until birthing his distinct voice, tintinnabuli (Latin for “little bells”)—and you will thrill with the Estonian genius of Arov Part. I had such an experience.

His Miserere (1992) presents an awesome response to the Coronavirus pandemic, together with a long look at the specter of death in our stunned psyches. Two liturgical hymns comprise this choral work: the Miserere, the great penitential Psalm 51, and the Sequence Dies Irae, found in the Roman Catholic Mass of the Dead. Part’s intimacy with the living Word of God shimmers in each note of the score.

As the piece opens, five soloists implore repeatedly for mercy, accompanied by woodwinds and percussion. Pregnant pauses for reflection follow, slowly building toward thundering drumrolls: Catastrophe has struck—monumental shuddering follows in its wake. With its resolution, the choir ascends to radiant heights over the deep-throated resonance of the organ, tam-tam, and bell. Then it’s over. Earth knows peace.

We open our eyes and blink, then breathe. Mercy’s sweetness enfolds us within humble silence, until the next wave of grief… and the next theophany—the story of our lives.



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