A Virtual Vigil
It was a Monday morning when I received the news that a dear friend of mine had become “unresponsive.” She had battled multiple illnesses in recent years and had just stopped her cancer treatments after being told there was nothing more medically that could be done for her. She had known that the last round of treatment was a last ditch effort—she had long made peace with her failing health. Recently, she had also done so with relationships that had been strained over the course of her illness. She seemed ready to let go. She had told me, “God is calling me home.”
We had been good friends in our emerging adult years, lost touch for a good many of our mid-life years, but thankfully, were able to re-connect over the last six years or so. We were friends formed through our shared faith and heritage. Although we had drifted apart over the years, that foundation was the glue that allowed us to re-connect. Our shared faith had not only sustained our relationship, but provided the spring board from which we could pick up from where we left off. When we saw each other again in my adopted hometown after so many years, it was like all of the intervening years had vanished. I was saddened when she decided to move out west as I knew our physical paths would not cross again very often. As it turns out, they never did again. Still, I was thankful for the time we were able to spend together.
Even though I knew the end was near, it was still hard to hear the news of her impending death. A mutual friend set up a Facebook chat group for her friends from the epoch of her young adult life. Many of us had known my friend in those same years and although we were all separated by great distance (and unable to travel easily due to the Pandemic), for the next two weeks we sat “vigil” (albeit, virtually) by her side. All of us had grown up in the same faith-heritage community, attending church camps at our diocesan center and youth group gatherings together. We shared stories of our friend from those days—the things that animated our relationship, our fun times, our trying times, pictures (we were so much thinner back then ;-)), and comforted one another with prayer and emojis. But this was not the 1970s when we had many years of life ahead of us; it was 2020 and many of those years are in the rear-view mirror. And yet, I was able to experience that out-of-time quality—that eschatological moment—that we believe is constitutive of the Eucharistic celebration. We were between memory and hope; it was all the now. However, as our vigil extended from hours into days and days to weeks, I became more anxious. Why was she hanging on? One of our group posted a prayer for the sick. I have often felt that some of our prescribed liturgical prayers are overly stilted, but, in the best of the tradition, this one gave us the words to express our thoughts and feelings— “…Let her thoughts be quieted with the peace and confidence of final deliverance into the fullness of Your love. Keep her soul and body pure and sanctify them during the time she remains among us that on the last day she may be raised up with all Your saints to live with You in never ending glory. For to You belong praise and worship, to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
A Virtual Wake
Yesterday was her memorial service for her community from what had become her new home. Technically, it was the Service of the Wake (as her funeral and burial are yet to come.) Although I was not able to travel to be physically present for the service, I was (as well as many from our group) able to watch the live stream. There she was, laid out in a casket with the icon of the resurrection at her side. Pictures from her life flashed across the screen on either side of the room. Her icon card was of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint with which she felt a particular affinity, with the words of Psalm 23 and the dates of her life printed on the back. Seeing the final date in print felt like a punch in the gut. It all became so real.
Attending the service virtually was a reminder of our physical separation, frustrating on some level, but it also allowed for connection. I felt both distant from the service but also a part of it. There were none of the smells that I usually associate with liturgy. In addition, I recognized very few people attending. And yet, as the service began, the cantor intoned the funeral hymns using the same melodies to which I was accustomed. The music brought back memories of all of those for whom this music has been sung and, from miles away, I joined in the singing as a member of the extended liturgical assembly. Throughout the service, our group shared comments and displayed our emotions via emojis once again. In a way, this gave expression to our feelings that are not always on display even in a physical setting. It all engendered a sense of solidarity. Our community was virtual, but the grief, sadness, relief, acceptance, etc. traversed the miles. At the end of the service, some members of her new community shared their own thoughts and stories about the life of my friend and what she had meant to them during her time among them. In some ways, they were strikingly similar to our own. It was the stories that connected her two communities—the one from her earlier life and the one from her later life—into one. It was a glimpse of the community of Christ transcending time and space and yet united into the one Body.
Our friend will be buried at the place where we all used to gather in the summers of those earlier years. May she rest among the saints (as we sing in the kontakion of the funeral service in the Orthodox Church) “where there is no pain, nor grief, nor sighing, but life that does not end.”