Celebrity Passings and the Memento Mori

Jill Maria MurdyJill Maria Murdy
Director of Liturgy and Music
Saint Frances Cabrini Parish,
West Bend, WI

Since Christmas, I have been involved with seven funerals in the parish where I work. My volunteer choir members and cantors have been out to sing for most of those liturgies. In my profession, death is a constant. Some families have been overwhelmed with grief, others shocked, and others just feeling a sense of grateful relief that their loved one is no longer struggling to live. My own beloved mother has been gone since 1992, and there is probably not a day that goes by when I don’t miss her. Recently I have seen posts of many other friends grieving the loss of a parent, young spouse, nephew, or child, and I have felt the angst with them.

Perhaps this is why I’ve been thinking a lot of all the celebrity deaths that have made the news lately: David Bowie, Glen Frey, Alan Rickman, René Angélil, Dan Haggerty, Natalie Cole, Pat Harrington, and Olympian Bill Johnson just to name a few. Radio playlists and newscasts telling of their life’s work have filled the airwaves, and various organizations have sought to pay tribute in different ways (like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra who has already announced a program of David Bowie’s music as part of their fall concert lineup).

But why should these deaths shock us? Surely it is a loss when each of these musicians or actors leaves us, but what about the countless other obituaries printed each day? Don’t we mourn the teachers, the scientists? The factory workers, the grandmothers and grandfathers? Are not their legacies as rich and important to us all?

In his Instruments of Good Works, St. Benedict wisely told his monks to “keep death before one’s eyes daily.” This is something our society is not very good at: the health and fitness industries continue to grow, while others spend money on Botox, cosmetics, plastic surgery, whatever will “keep us young.” Everything we hear focuses on “living the good life,” so when life comes to a screeching halt, we are often devastated, even if the life was that of a celebrity whom we have never met.

For celebrities are those whom we have galvanized with Teflon, those who are “larger than life,” and it is unnerving for us to learn that they, too, suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, or a stroke. Perhaps the reason their deaths resonate with us is because they bring “death before our eyes daily.” If these seemingly untouchable celebrities are no longer young, are in fact dying, it is a sign that we too are perhaps middle aged, a reminder that this will be us someday, that everyone will eventually face death. This begs the question: are we mourning the loss of these creative artists and their gifts and talents, or are we mourning our own lost youth and inevitable death?

As Bowie himself sang in “Changes”:

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time.

Or, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit have we from all the toil
which we toil at under the sun?
One generation departs and another generation comes,
but the world forever stays.

OCD as Part of Me

Joe Tenaglia

Joe Tenaglia

Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith 2015

University of Notre Dame,
Class of 2018

“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” I’m sure when you read those words you automatically think of certain things. Maybe you or someone you know has OCD, or maybe you’ve never really understood what it means. Regardless, those words have a connotation that comes with them. For me, those words bring to mind thoughts of sweaty hands, a lump in the back of the throat, and a heartbeat that feels like it’s going about five times faster than it really is. Those are the things that I think about, because I have OCD.

OCD works differently for all people. The things that I obsess over are ideas. Thoughts and emotions will get trapped in my mind and it can be incredibly difficult for me to get rid of them, no matter what I might try. I like to use the image of plugging a guitar into an amp: I feel the exact same things emotionally and think about the same stuff as everyone else, but those thoughts get amplified and can overwhelm my normal and rational way of thinking.

The hardest part about my OCD is not feeling like myself. When I first started having feelings of anxiety and fear, I was in the fourth grade. Out of nowhere, I started to become uncontrollably terrified at all hours of the day. When I say terrified I truly mean it. I would be unable to sleep because I was crying hysterically, scared that I was going to get cancer. I’d have a bad dream where I was eaten by a
shark and be unable to get through school the next day because I was convinced that it would come true. As a young kid, I had no idea what was happening to me or why. My parents were at a loss, too. Here I was, the happy and energetic boy they knew and loved, reduced to a puddle of tears. Not knowing what to do, they took me in for help, and I was diagnosed with OCD. Through the grace of God, I have been able to get some great help, and through my therapist and the medicine that I take every morning, I have been able to live a mostly normal life.

However, my OCD is still very much a part of me and it does still rear its ugly head in a big way from time to time. I have had a few really tough times when I’ve struggled with it, and when I’m feeling really anxious like that I feel incredibly lonely. I look around at everyone else and wonder why I can’t be “normal” like them. At those times, it even feels like God has left me.  I ask why this is my cross to carry, and when I get no answer in return, I feel even more lonely.

sad man 2Toward the end of my freshman year of college, I went through a tough stretch with my OCD. I was having trouble with the end of the school year, and this transition brought up a lot of smaller fears and insecurities that I had been bottling up for a while. Altogether, it became really overwhelming. The loneliness I felt then because of the thoughts running around my head was too much for me to handle on my own. So I called Chad, my campus minister from high school, just so I could talk to someone. Over the phone that night, I vented and cried to him and let everything out. Chad helped me by being there for me. He let me know that I was loved and that I wasn’t alone. He couldn’t fix the problems that I was having, but he did so much for me just by listening.

I came to a couple of big realizations when I was talking to him. Ever since I was diagnosed with OCD it had always been a goal of mine that at some point I’d be able to deal with it on my own. I thought that maybe some day it’d just go away.  I would outgrow it, or I’d finally be able to push these debilitating thoughts aside. But when I was talking to Chad, I realized that none of that was ever going to happen. My OCD is always going to be a part of me. Even now, as far as I’ve come, it still bothers me from time to time. And when it does it’s really awful, but it is something I have to deal with.

In that moment I realized that in order to live with my OCD, I need to rely on the community of friends, family, and mentors who surround me. At college, away from my family, I had been trying to keep things to myself. But I found out the hard way that going it alone makes it more difficult.  It led me to feel alone and abandoned by my peers, and even by God.  I felt like there was no one for me to turn to.  Yet when it came down to it, I knew that I had to turn to somebody.  I had resisted being vulnerable with my friends because I was afraid of what they’d think of me, but once I started to let them in they were nothing but supportive and loving.  They helped so much by just being there for me and listening to me.  They were there for me all along, but I had to take the first step and let them in.

Through my friends, I began to feel God’s presence in my life again.  I had thought that God was leaving me alone to fend for myself, but He was there the whole time in the form of my friends.

Not only did my friends listen to me and offer their words of love and encouragement—they were always there for me right when I needed them. One time when I was feeling deeply lonely and overwhelmed, I walked out of my dorm room and saw one of my best friends walking by. I stopped him, and told him I needed a hug. We embraced and then spent some time together. In this brief exchange, I felt loved and knew that I was not alone. At another low point, I ran into a friend from St. Mary’s College (who I usually only see on weekends) and was able to sit down and have dinner with her. She listened to me in my distress and was a calming presence for me in the midst of my inner turmoil.

In these moments, I felt God specifically looking out for me, putting someone in the exact space and time where I needed them. I had thought God was nowhere to be found through my OCD, but here He was by my side, helping me get by. These experiences helped me to be grateful for all of the wonderful people in my life, but they also helped me be grateful for my OCD. I was taken aback when one of my friends told me that he thought my OCD wasn’t entirely a bad thing because, as he saw it, my OCD helped me connect more to other people in a deeper way. I had never thought of my OCD as anything but a hindrance, something that held me back from living the fulfilled life that I assumed everyone else had. But his words invited me to consider the ways that my OCD positively affects me.

I realized that if OCD is and will always be a part of me, it is a part of all of me: good and bad. Somehow, in ways that I cannot even comprehend, my OCD affects me at all times. It affects me when I can’t rid my mind of a worrisome thought, and when I become anxious. It also affects me when I empathize with another person, or when I develop curiosity to learn new things.

In these ways and so many more besides, my OCD is a part of me, making me who I am. And who I am is a child of God, created in His image out of love. My OCD is a part of that image, and I wouldn’t be who I am without it.

Over the years, my OCD has brought me a lot of troubles and has made my life difficult at times. As tough as it can be, it has also helped me recognize the love of God through those around me, who have shown me so much love and shown me that my OCD makes me who I am. My OCD may be a cross that I will carry throughout my life, but with the love of God and the support of those around me, I know that I can bear its weight.

cross

Musical Mystagogy: The Presentation of Jesus

As we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today, we contemplate the revelation of “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5)—the “light revealed to the nations” (Lk 2:32) that “the darkness will not overcome” (Jn 1:5).

In the world today, evidence of the darkness is not difficult to find; it can be much more difficult to discern those places where the light still gleams. Yet, as Christians, we cling in faith to the truth that Jesus Christ is the true light—the light that has come into the world; the light that conquered the darkness of death precisely by entering into it and emerged victorious in a blaze of resurrected glory; the light that remains with us today through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured forth in the Church; the light that we who bear his name are called to share.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the aged Simeon proclaim his canticle of thanksgiving, prayed each and every night at the end of Compline. Simeon, too, lived in times that seemed to be overcome with darkness, and yet he never lost hope that the Messiah was coming. In the midst of darkness, he continually sought and awaited the light, and rejoiced when at last he held that light in his arms.

Arvo Pärt’s 2001 setting of the Canticle of Simeon—the Nunc Dimittis—captures this interplay between darkness and light in the kaleidoscopic change of colors, and it captures something of the patient waiting, the yearning for the light, and ultimately, the light’s triumph over darkness, even as it somehow acknowledges that the darkness is still very much present. It is fitting that, throughout the world, candles will be blessed today that will be used in liturgical celebration throughout the coming year (hence the occasional reference to this feast as Candlemas). May we who received the light of Christ at our Baptism continue to keep that flame burning brightly, setting it on a lampstand so that it might illuminate the darkness around us and draw all people to Christ, the light of the world.

 

 

Nunc Dimittis and the Art of Dying

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Many evenings since my freshman year of college (when I was in the undergraduate seminary), I have prayed before bed the canticle for Compline, the Nunc Dimittis. The well-known text spoken by Simeon in the Gospel of Luke states:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.

Simeon’s words, over the course of years of praying, has become written upon my own memory and shaped my desire. It is no longer a prayer outside of myself, written upon a page, but has become part of my identity. As I prepare to sleep every night, I practice Simeon’s own readiness to die as one who has encountered “the light of the nations.”

In this way, to pray the Nunc Dimittis is a counter-cultural performance in which each day the Christian practices the art of dying. This is not the death of the philosopher, who acknowledges the brevity of life, and seeks to attune the passions to this inescapable reality. Rather, it is the death of those who have seen the very source of salvation made manifest in the weakness of the infant Son. The death of those who have desired to see God enact the definitive plan of salvation and now abide in a world in which God’s glory has taken flesh.  Simeon, who has seen the beginning of this salvation, gives himself over to the Father, already offering the gift of self that is at the heart of the Church’s Eucharistic life.

Of course, the Christian does not pray at the end of every night that he or she may “literally” die in the course of sleep. Rather, the practice of the Nunc Dimittis is a constant reminder that there are innumerous invitations to die each day, to practice that final self-offering each of us will be called to make (sleep being the perfect image or icon of this death). Our death is inescapable but the Christian takes control of one’s death through transforming even these small deaths into moments of self-gift. We take control through losing control. Like Simeon, only those who recognize the gift before their eyes of the Word made flesh, the gift of existence itself, can make this self-offering. Practicing death doesn’t mean denying that the world matters. Only the one who sees the glorious light of the created order can make this offering.

In this way, to pray the Nunc Dimittis everyday is to practice the very art of discipleship, which is nothing less than the art of dying. It is not a morose dying but a Eucharistic gift of self that renews us every evening in the fundamentals of Christian identity: to take up our crosses and to follow Jesus the Christ. It is to receive anew the light of the world in the risen Lord and to offer up the only thing that we have to give to the God who is pure gift: ourselves. The Nunc Dimittis is, in this way, an icon of Christian life as a whole, of our fellowship in the Church. As Rowan Williams writes:

“…we, drawn into communion, into participation with God through the mutual giving of Jesus and his Father, have become part of a fellowship initiated and sustained by gift, and to abide in this fellowship is to learn how we can give, to each other and to God. That we can give at all rests on what we have been given, on the sense of receiving our very selves as gift…If we are to be fully a gift to the Father, given by ourselves yet also by and through the crucified Jesus, by our association with that prior gift, we must bear the cost–which is the loss of all we do and all we possess to defend ourselves against God and others and death…The cost is the loss of images and fantasies, of clear, tight frontiers to the self. If we can even begin to give in this way, it is only because of the depth of the assurance implied in the given given us on Calvary” (Eucharistic Sacrifice–The Roots of a Metaphor, 29).

Therefore, the last gift of the Christmas season given by God through the Church’s celebration of the Presentation of the Lord is a reminder, as we enter into the season of Lent, that the return-gift that God desires is our very selves. Our whole identities, offered to the God who is love. To die into a world that is pure and total gift.