Last week, I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my time at Christ Church, Waltham, where I came to work in 2015 when the bishop asked if I’d be interested in an appointment at a little church west of Boston. Ten years later, I still love these people. I cry at their funerals and their baptisms, trying to thread the needle between having my feelings spill all over everything and being a human person with real relationships. This past weekend was a tough one—a beloved sometime-parishioner died after a seven months long struggle with a series of medical catastrophes from an AVM in her brain.
After having joined with astonishing vigor in 2006, over the years, Paula came to find that she and Jesus were working through some differences that felt irreconcilable to her. The amount of translation she found herself needing to do to be in church was just too much. The mystery of God for her was silence and stillness, out taking pictures of dead weeds. God was harder to find for her in the particularity of Jesus and the practices of church community. We emailed off and on throughout her sojourn away, and she turned up on Sundays once in a while. Last December as we were emailing afterwards she said it felt good, but that she felt like her vocation was in the “outer darkness.” Naturally I chose the prologue to John part for the Gospel at the funeral—“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” She had a lot of light.
The funeral was marvelous. We had amazing singers, full incense and fiery processions. I did cry, sniveling through “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” after communion, a hymn that I love and a particular favorite for a person who was, as her husband said in his euology, “the most beloved misanthrope there ever could have been.” She was indeed happiest when fleshy mortals were silent.
A few people have asked, so here’s my sermon. (you should also look at her blog--www.paulashouseoftoast.blogspot.com, which is BRILLIANT).
In Memoriam, Paula Tatarunis, 1952-2015
There is a section in one of the addenda to the Episcopal Book of Common prayer politely titled The Burial of one who does not profess the Christian faith. You can have whatever reading you want at a funeral, and it really doesn’t matter what part of the Bible it comes from. So the headings are not important. But when I was putting things together to talk with Darrell about what to do today I just kind of caught on that expression. To profess the faith. To believe it, to say it out loud, to identify. Paula’s relationship with the Christian faith was just never as simple as professing it. When she was preparing for confirmation, Paula made a comment about how the cross inscribed on her forehead when she was baptized as a child had endured there, without her knowing it, an invisible claim made by God on her. That claim followed her and held her, when at moments she would have professed something pretty different from the traditional creeds of the institutional church.
Whatever she professed, Paula’s faith, however, I would trust to pray me out of the belly of any whale, as our first opening acclamation from the book of Jonah said. Paula’s faith was in unfathomable beauty and grace and clarity and vision and justice and peace. Paula’s spiritual life was that of a theologian, as in the classical understanding that defines theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Paula’s faith was always, always, always seeking understanding. And as I think about her faith, she was one of the most Christian, most theologically grounded person I’ve ever met. She did not simply believe, as though a crowd of people in a stone building saying words together could make them true. She interrogated and imagined and made poetry out of the most random shards of life. She wrote in her blog once about Jesus as the chimera of eternity and history. The chimera of eternity and history. She was never sure of how, exactly, to believe in Jesus—but I am sure she knew him.
What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
It might be a little weakly transparent to use imagery of Word and light at the funeral for a poet. It might a tad too obvious to talk about how Words and Light are part of the reality of God at the funeral of a poet and photographer. The work of poetry and photography is to hold time still, just for a moment. It’s to say “Look, here! Something important is here!” But that was part of how Paula was a theologian. I remember once when we setting up for Good Friday services. We set up a huge wooden cross next to the baptismal font for Lent, and part of preparing for Good Friday is to cover all the crosses with black veils. So you cover it and tie it at the bottom under the cross bar. And the first year we had the big wooden cross Paula asked me what I thought. This was not long after the photographs had been released of the atrocities in Iraq and I kind of shook my head and said, “I think it looks too Abu Ghraib.” And she said “Well, is that bad? Isn’t that the point?” Which, of course, is exactly the point. She got it, whether or not she always claimed it. The point of Good Friday is to say that God is able to face the worst of humanity, not to shy away from it, but to enter into our violence and say that it does not have the last word. The violence and suffering of the world are always defeated by the love of God.
Paula had an amazing gift for the particular, for the things of life in this world. When Paula found her way into helping with the altar guild, a solitary ministry done for the community, but completely alone—she said it was her anchoress work, like Julian of Norwich having visions in her little church hermitage. She took it on with such astonishing precision and understated grace that when she left, suddenly everyone realized how we’d all be unconsciously leaning on her to straighten us out behind the scenes. Where was the screw that somehow transforms a paschal candle into an advent wreath? Everything, though, came from this amazing core of dedication and rigor. She would get here at 8am in a blizzard, just in case someone else showed up for church and I needed help (not many did).
This piece from John this, too, is a story of creation and origin. It’s not Jesus born in a stable, and it’s not Adam and Eve walking in the garden. Those stories tell us one thing, and this one tells us quite another. This one reminds us where we have come from, and the One to whom we belong. The one whom Paula sought and sought and wanted and desired after, who sought and sought and desired after her. This is the scandalous story of the Christian faith—that God chooses humanity and pitches a tent here with us, in the person of Jesus. Jesus turns over tables and casts out demons and heals and does all of these wild things with all the wrong people. And the powers of empire and the world just cannot handle it. You just don’t act like that with no consequences. The world does not work that way. It still doesn’t.
And all the power of the empire that can’t imagine such love nails him to a cross. And the love doesn’t stop. His friends see him. He eats with them. They find him when they are together. And this love that couldn’t be defeated by death continues. In them, and through eons and days and over years through shadows, and brings us here. To this love and grief, terrifying and beautiful. The same love that moved mountains is the love that catches us, and catches Paula. It is that invisible seal on her forehead, the crown on her forehead, and the bond that will keep our hearts and hers united in God’s love forever.
September 19, 2015.