So, I have been reading Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, again, probably for the seventh time. Also, Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal. A daily glance at the Lutheran Book of Prayer. Usually a few poems by somebody. I have also been looking at a lot of photographs. And I am thinking of the elegy, the poetic form that features mourning and remembrance as its subject.
Our church, St. Mark’s Episcopal Parish, has a Blue Christmas service, designed to bless those who have lost a loved one, a home, a pet, or anything significant in their lives. Essentially, it is a liturgical elegaic event. I first attended the service after my father died in 2009, and it is what helped us to decide upon St. Mark’s as a home church.
The ambivalent feelings we have during the holidays when we are grieving are addressed in the service, which also points us to God’s grace and love. Before we had to undertake new responsibilities due to my husband’s aging parents, I was also enjoying being on the Altar Guild and loved setting up the items for the service.
Though it was not a major loss to have to cease working with the Altar Guild, I did feel great sadness at leaving it. I am pondering these and other kinds of losses.
Underneath our experience of the “daily,” the routines and habits that create the collage of our personal identity, beyond our social personas, and even in our solitary internal musings, we are performing a kind of work, an exertion of unconscious energy related to the losses that are embedded in our existence. We are enjoying things, yes, interacting with people, working, imagining, resting, and planning. We are also grieving, often subliminally. The more solemn losses serve to draw out the lesser known ones, blending them with our experience of mourning. Latent grief emerges uninvited sometimes.
I recently atttended a memorial for my dear cousin, Tina Jane Moad, who passed away on October 2 of this year. We were given, as parting gifts, small packets of seeds to plant in her memory. A lovely gift. The symbolism is inherent in our knowledge of seeds. Death, then a kind of rebirth. But looking at the photos of her as a child, a young woman, a mother, then a grandmother, I felt the reality of her absence. Her family is in the deep grief now, and it is painful. We long for our absent loved ones. We cannot have them back.
I also gave the eulogy at the service for my beloved English teacher, Bobby George Rowell. I have written about him before in another blog post. Thankfully, his wife requested a eulogy in the form of an elegaic poem, and although I didn’t make it through without tears, I was honored to offer it for the man who introduced me to so much poetry when I was just sixteen years old. More about that in a future post.
Back to Barthes. His philosophical treatise about photography brings out what we all know without articulation: every photograph brings about “the return of the dead.” That is to say, what was happening at the time of the photograph, is not happening in the present moment. It calls to mind the fact of death: the death of the person in the photograph, perhaps, but always the death of that moment in which the photograph was taken.
I do not see an escape from this element of mourning that occurs each time I look at photographs. As Barthes points out, it is “Sisyphean labor”: we try to capture the essence of the person, the day, the memory, “straining toward the essence,” and we inevitably confront its absence, so we begin again with the same effort. Because the photo is not the real thing, the real moment or person, we cannot ever capture the essence we seek. The photograph “carries its referent with itself,” giving it a kind of “funereal immobility.”
Enough for today. I end with two things. From Martin Luther’s expositon of John 16:23, written in 1537: “By our prayer we seek and find what we are to receive.” And O’Connor’s prayer: Oh Lord . . . make me a mystic, immediately.”
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (Hill and Wang), 1980. O’Connor, Flannery, A Prayer Journal. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.
Lutheran Book of Prayer. Concordia Publishing House, Revised Edition, 2005.