The Vigil


The following was written when I was still working regularly as a receptionist for the lovely ladies of the Priory. I hope they aren’t affronted by my posting this, but it was written with love. I was an outsider, not a participant in the vigil, but the following is what I witnessed from behind the front desk:

The Vigil of Sister —————–

[2010]

Four women in black gather in an entryway. Around them are brightly colored sheets of paper, homemade Christmas ornaments, and beaded prayer bracelets. There is laughter, but none of it is true gaiety. There is a sense of unrest, of anticipation, and of dread. Beneath the small talk and the forced activity, everyone is simply waiting.

Now the lobby fills and all of the guests have arrived. One man stands in the sea of woman. All are clutching programs. Someone in a blue sweater and white veil is holding up a hefty crucifix.  Another couple walks in late. Two men in a sea of women. The young and the old, also the middling—all are united over the loss of one respected woman. One nun. One sister.

There, in the center of it all, ignored by all, are the remains. It is truly indicative of the human condition, that such a loved woman who led such a long life, who touched all of these people, who left a legacy among the living, could be contained in such a tiny urn. Who is to say what lingers among the ashes?

The double doors are open wide revealing rows upon rows of gray-upholstered wooden seats.  They will not all be filled. The voices have blended into a homogenous mass; one would have to listen very hard to hear a different conversation. The visiting priest has just walked calmly in, and the final few guests have arrived. Soon, very soon.

There are moments of accidental silence, quickly filled with more bustling chatter. Then, finally, naturally, the crowd stills and the announcements begin. There will be twelve bells. There is an urn, not a casket. This song will be sung, not this other. Antiphon not Magnificat. There will be refreshments after. The sisters will sit here, the congregation there, family in the front. Chanting with be done all in unison, not call and response. Now. It is time.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Dong.

Twelve  times the bell chimes rhythmically, struck by hand via a long pole with a hook on the end. The woman who rings is almost steady, but hesitates enough before the sixth and the ninth tolls to negate the feel of a metronome. No matter how much planning or practice—this is a human life all have gathered to honor. The bellringer comes back inside. The vigil has begun.

The prioress is handed a golden bucket and out of it she pulls a long handled water-soaked round end. She flicks it over the guests. Water flies through the air. They speak of baptism, of cleansing. This, then, is holy water. The singing begins, started by one but soon joined by most. Not everyone sings. Then, the urn is lifted. They process silently, silently.

After finding their seats the sisters all rise and join together in the Suscipe that they all, including the deceased, sang on the day of making their final vows. The singing does not stop. For over twenty-five minutes the singing does not stop.

They sit. They stand. They sit, they stand. Not like an army, in disciplined unison, but as a family full of individuals who stick together. Gregorian Chant.  It should be rote, but under the circumstances it is not. There is genuine feeling. There is solemnity. There is dignity. There is grace.

Above all, there is Life and Death, together.

The doors remain open.

The cantor leads prayer requests, the congregation responds with, “Pray for us.”

Then, a moment of silence, before another chant.  Words are spoken, which are too soft to hear beyond the open sanctuary, followed by a simple hymn. Please, be seated. They sit. They listen. They hear. They leave. One by one, when moved.

It is over—cake and coffee.

 

 

Sincerely,

Emilie

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