As regular readers know, I recently returned from vacation in Spain. Part of my motivation for this trip was that it had been a number of years since I had last taken a proper vacation of more than a few days away from work. However a significant factor in the timing of this journey was that I wanted to be there to mark the one-year anniversary of my Mother’s burial at the Poor Clares Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes in Barcelona, on May 25th of last year.
I have avoided writing about the illness and death of my Mother out of a combination of sheer selfishness, concern for the privacy of others, and the fact that it was too raw an experience to put into words. I also did not feel up to exploring a subject which far better writers than I have treated with greater depth and sensitivity. Yet if you are a writer, even if only a mediocre one, you eventually accept the fact that the Spirit leads where He wills, when it comes to how He wants you to make use of the gifts He has given you. So for reasons best known to Himself, I intend to write briefly about what it is like when the woman who gave you life is no longer a sea of kisses staining your cheeks and forehead with fuchsia lipstick away.
Almost immediately following my Mother’s death, I experienced several instances of what I can only describe as spiritual consolations that, paradoxically, were both comforting and deeply painful. Some were immediate and profound, while others were more quiet, realized only after the fact. Some I shared with others, and some I kept to myself. As a rational human being who deals in the concrete realities of the law as my trade, my mind has occasionally rebelled at the notion that such things would be visited upon me.
At the same time, it would not surprise me in the least to learn that my Mother found a way to persuade the powers that be to let me know that she is still with me, since throughout her life my Mother had a way of persuading people to make impossible or implausible things happen. Long before she fell ill, for example, she convinced both the Mother Abbess of Pedralbes and the Mayor of Barcelona to sign a binding agreement guaranteeing that she would be interred at the Monastery as she wished. As a result, she is the very last person to have been buried there in its nearly 700-year history, since no more burials are permitted at the complex, not even for the Poor Clares. That is pretty much my Mother all over.
Being back in Barcelona, it was difficult to believe that all those months had gone by. Much had changed in my own life since I was last there in order to lay her to rest, and I fully anticipated the reopening of old wounds. I wondered when it was going to hit me, that at least part of the reason for my being there was to formally mark the anniversary of her passing. I certainly expected, when I went to the memorial Mass at the Monastery, surrounded by her beloved Poor Clare nuns and members of our family, that I would experience a deeply profound sense of grief. As it was, there was certainly sadness, but it did not quite feel as intense as I had anticipated.
A few days later, I thought perhaps the moment would finally come. I found myself choking my way along with the Escolania, the ancient boys choir at the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat, as we sang “El Virolai”, the hymn of Our Lady by the great Catalan poet Father Jacint Verdaguer. My Mother had a deep devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat, and I went on pilgrimage with her to the Virgin Mary’s shrine on top of the mountain of Montserrat many times. Yet as touching as the experience was, in the end this was not the moment I had anticipated either.
Instead, much to my surprise, the moment came some days later in Madrid, of all places, a city which my Mother came to enjoy more as she grew older, but never really liked. I had not been to The Prado in Madrid for some years, and since my last visit the museum had significantly expanded in size, with many of the works in the collection being shifted to different parts of the building. For my Mother, and indeed for myself and many in my family, the painting of the Crucifixion in The Prado known as the “Christ of Velázquez” has always been of profound personal and spiritual importance. It was featured on the memorial cards given out at the funeral Masses of both her parents, and it was on hers as well; I have prints of it on my desk both at work and at home.
As I made my way toward Velázquez’ masterpiece, “Las Meninas”, I was unexpectedly confronted with his painting of the Crucifixion, framed in a doorway. It was displayed far more prominently than it had been on my last visit, when it had been tucked in a side corridor with poor lighting. My conversation with the friend who had accompanied me to the museum stopped and, as much as one does not want to use the expression, there were no words. Because there, in a single image, was what I had been looking for.
The painting was a reminder that the event portrayed by the artist had to happen on Calvary 2,000 years ago, so that the death of the woman I loved most in all the world a year earlier would not separate her from me forever. All this time during my trip I had been remembering my Mother, thinking about her, wishing I could have shared experiences with her at old haunts with old friends, hoping for some sign of her, but now, suddenly, I remembered God. And God, after all, is really the point.
In the quiet dignity of His suffering, as portrayed by the greatest of all Spanish artists, this canvas served as the visual reminder I needed in order to be able to pick up my own cross. I had to look at Christ’s death head on, His beautiful face covered in matted waves of hair and congealed blood, but still illuminated by a Divine light, in order to remember that He is the reason not only for my hope, but my Mother’s hope as well. I will continue to stumble and fall, sin and fail, as she did, but I have to keep going in imitation of Him. Otherwise, the gifts that I have been given, including the gift that she was in my life for nearly 42 years, will be for naught. Weeping during the suffering and death of those we love is only natural, but with the hope of the Resurrection comes new life and new joy, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who found life and joy in more places, both great and small, than my Mother.
The coda to this experience was, however, my Mother being my Mother all over again. While in Barcelona I had unsuccessfully attempted to find a street musician to play two of my Mother’s favorite pieces of classical Spanish guitar in the Gothic Quarter, the atmospheric area of the old city marked by Roman ruins and Gothic spires. Whenever we were there, she always asked for a piece known as “Romance Anónimo”, a piece by an unknown Spanish composer, and for “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by the 19th century Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega. Despite going to all of the usual places in her home town, I had never come across any guitarist, eventually accepting that I could not reasonably expect everything to be perfect.
As I left The Prado that day however, to my surprise there sat a street guitarist under the shade of a small tree, playing “Romance Anónimo”. There was no reason for him to be there, along the pathway to the back entrance of the museum, rather than performing in a square or some other more prominent spot. As he finished playing, I asked if he could then play “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”. He told me he would do his best, although as anyone who plays guitar will tell you, it is an infamously difficult piece to play well. It is often mistaken for being a guitar duet, when in fact one musician has to simultaneously do the work of two on the same instrument.
In the end the guitarist performed beautifully, as I sat and listened, overcome by the music as I had been by the art. He even commented afterward as I thanked him, that he was rather surprised how well he had pulled it off. While I certainly cannot say so for certain, I suspect that my Mother was pleased, and may even have had a word Upstairs, so that I could have that experience. I certainly would not put it past her, since I cannot imagine in the next life that she is any less fearless than she was in this.
Christ tells us, in St. John 14:18, that we are never left truly orphaned, even when we cannot see Him. For the Christian who is not blessed with great spiritual insights, among whom I number myself, this can be a hard teaching to accept when the pain of separation along the way becomes all too real. This is the moment when believing without seeing moves out of the misty and conceptual, into the stark and the very real. It can be difficult to know how one is supposed to continue going along the path, when someone you love so much has gone so far ahead of you, that you can no longer see them on the road. You cannot make them turn around and come back.
I think this point of realization is where we have to stop thinking about the loss of the beloved, much as we may not want to let go, and start finding God in and through the pain of our loss. For those still in the first stages of grief, or who refuse to let go of their tears, this may seem too harsh a suggestion to be easily considered. Yet as C.S. Lewis observed, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” He will have our attention one way or the other, because in the end He wants us to be with Him, just as those whom we love, who have gone before us while keeping close to Him, are experiencing the joy of His Presence at this very moment, while we fuss over reopening wounds that need to be left alone in order to heal.
We all know that more often than not, God speaks to us not in fires or earthquakes, but in still, small whispers, things that often find expression in simple acts of kindness or works of beauty. The more willing you are to be open to what He is telling you in these moments, to watch for them rather than focusing on what you think you want or need to be doing, the more you become keenly aware that the division between this life and the next is very thin indeed. And the ones we love, who have come to see Him face to face at last, are accompanying us, encouraging us, and praying for us as we make the same journey which they themselves have already taken.