A Dirge for the Living

“O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?”

—1 Corinthians 15:55

Since I am writing about death, I think I may begin with my own life.  Autobiography is, after all, a kind of first-person eulogy for the living.  Here is what I think is my earliest memory: “Now I lay me down to sleep. / I pray the Lord my soul to keep. / If I should die before I wake, / I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Although Maria the sweet old Slovak sitter said vake and ze, my supple three-year-old senses could repeat after her without adopting her fractured pronunciation, as she heard my prayers before bed, one bright summer evening in the Los Angeles of the early 60’s.  She let me say them looking out the window of the nursery at the church across the yard, as my father was preceding a casket out the main door.  There were Santana winds, and so he was billowing in black and white and purple.

In the following years, I would hear my father recite the antiphon from the medieval liturgy found in the burial office of the Prayer Book (an antiphon I later rediscovered in its Latin original in my monastery’s singing of Compline during Lent): “In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased? ...

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