The Liturgies at the Passing of a Loved One
I have lost three loved ones in the past 18 months. First, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly (and, I suggest, prematurely) of a stroke. Then, months later, a dear friend of some 40 years was diagnosed with a terminal illness and died after a prolonged decline. Recently, my father passed away. Although he was up in years, his imminent death was unexpected. He just woke up one morning, said he wasn’t feeling well, sat down in his chair and died. In all of these instances, the various liturgies at the passing of a loved one assisted in the initial grieving process. I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and wrote about two of these experiences—for my mother and for my friend.
In each case, these liturgies were filled with words of consolation that spoke of death, but also of resurrection and new life; traditional melodies that comforted and soothed the aching heart; and rituals that embodied both the absence of the presence of my loved one and their presence even in their absence.
In each case, these liturgies were filled with words of consolation that spoke of death, but also of resurrection and new life; traditional melodies that comforted and soothed the aching heart; and rituals that embodied both the absence of the presence of my loved one and their presence even in their absence. All of this helped to get me through the initial period of mourning. But, what happens after all the relatives and friends have gone home and everyone returns to their daily lives? Is there anything in our liturgical expression that speaks to this new reality? Lately, I have been thinking about this question in particular.
But, what happens after all the relatives and friends have gone home and everyone returns to their daily lives? Is there anything in our liturgical expression that speaks to this new reality?
My dad was a very accomplished man. He was a lawyer and judge, greatly involved in our local community and especially dedicated to our church and family. (You can read about him here: https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/ocala-fl/john-regule-10124850). He, as well as my mother, were like “surrogate parents” to many, helping to guide the lives of their charges, both biological and “adopted.” He would often go out of his way to help those in need and freely dispensed words of wisdom when asked for his advice. Like all of us, he had his faults; he could have a bit of a temper, but never went to bed angry. If we had argued during the day, he always made amends before retiring for the evening.
Returning to the Daily Routine
After the funeral for my father I returned to my own daily routine. On one Sunday, as I was praying during Liturgy, I was struck by the petitions of the aitisis or what is more commonly called, the “Angel of Peace” litany. In the historical (e.g. Cathedral) tradition, this litany is found at the end of Vespers and Matins. The petitions ask God for daily blessings and to help guide our lives until our earthly end. In the present practice of the Orthodox Church the litany is also found in the Divine Liturgy (sometimes twice), although it is misplaced in that context. As one who has participated in the liturgical life of the church all my life, I have probably heard these petitions over two thousand times. However, it was at the Liturgy a few weeks after the funeral of my father that I really “heard” them for the first time; they were now imbued with a deeper meaning.
The petitions ask God for daily blessings and to help guide our lives until our earthly end…. I have probably heard these petitions over two thousand times. However, it was at the Liturgy a few weeks after the funeral of my father that I really “heard” them for the first time.
The “Angel of Peace” Litany
It is in this litany that we ask God to grant us “A holy, peaceful and sinless day… An angel of peace, a faithful guide, [and] a guardian of our souls and bodies… the pardon and remission of our sins and transgressions… all things [that] are good and profitable for our souls and peace for the world… that we [may] complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance… [and that we have] a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless and peaceful…” It was during this liturgy that I realized that our liturgical expression does have something to say to our continuing journey in this life—how to live each and every day to the fullest with awareness of the fragility of this earthly existence.
I thought of all of the times that God sent me a guide and protector in my father—my “angel of peace, a faithful guide and guardian.” Although we sometimes sparred, if we had hurt the feelings of the other, we always worked to forgive one another. As a good parent, he wanted good things for my life—“all things that are good and profitable for our souls….” Towards the end of his life, especially, he lived every day as if it was his last. He had is affairs in order. He had worked out his own guilt, anger and grief after the untimely death of my mother—“completing the remaining time in peace and repentance.” In general, he was at peace with God, himself, and those around him (although he fretted about the political discord in our country—praying continually for “peace for the world”). He simply longed to spend whatever time he had left with his family. Although he was somewhat isolated during the Pandemic, he was able to attend Liturgy on the Sunday prior to his death and receive the Eucharist. In retrospect, he had experienced some decline in his last months of his earthly life, but the end was (rather) painless and (from what I can tell) peaceful—a “Christian ending to our life, painless and peaceful.” For that, I am thankful.
Continually Praying the Litany
Now, every time I pray this litany, I remember not only his life and death, but all those who have gone before me—may their memory be eternal! The litany also prompts me to reflect on my own life. Am I a model for others? Am I an agent of peace in this troubled world? Do I forgive those who have wronged me or hold onto grudges long after the incident? Do I want the best for others? Am I completing my life “in peace and repentance?” I thank my dad for his example. He lived the petitions of this litany. I pray that, as Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Talents, he has “enter[ed] into the joy of the Lord.” I also pray that, as I finish walking my own path in this life, I will be able to do so likewise.
Memory Eternal, Dad.
** Pictures are from this past Christmas (2020) at Griffin State Park in FL. These are the last pictures I have of us together.