The Elegy – Part One

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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16 thoughts on “The Elegy – Part One

  1. Carla, I’m sorry you are grieving for lost family and friends. I too have had to swallow large spoonsful of grief this fall. Three students and three family connections have vanished since late August. Barthes’ ideas on photos and loss hit me hard. Photos of the dead do have a “funereal immobility” and, might I add, incantatory power.

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  2. Carla, I’m so sorry for your losses (and I include the Altar Guild in your losses). You are so graceful in your approach to loss and grieving. It might not always feel that way to you, but that is the way it appears to me which makes your teaching inspirational. This is true about photographs–a reminder that the subject is now gone. But it allows us to remember faces, and it’s only through photography (and portrait art) that we can do so. xo

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    1. Yes, Luanne, and that is certainly the upside. Barthes also muses about the faces in photographs, though he comes to different conclusions. It is a fascinating book! Thanks for reading the blog post, and for your encouragement about writing it!

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  3. A Blue Christmas service sounds amazing. What form does it take? Is it full Eucharist with hymns, or a mix of readings and meditations? I’d love to hear more about it. I’m so sorry for your losses, Carla.

    Do you know the hymn, Now the green blade riseth? I was just thinking of the last verse, as there’s something so comforting about the words…

    When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
    Thy touch can call us back to life again,
    Fields of our hearts, that dead and bare have been:
    Love is come again,
    Like wheat that springeth green.

    It’s interesting what you said about photographs. Sometimes it’s hard to decide if one’s memories are things purely remembered, or what you’re remembering is something you’ve seen in a photograph, or been told by another person. I was thinking today that I remembered being put outside in my pram in the snow for a couple of hours a day from when I was two week’s old, but I couldn’t possibly remember this, could I? And yet the vision of it is so strong, even to the feel of the cold on my face and the cleanness of the air. But it must be that my mother told me she put me outside in the snow in my pram, or I’ve seen a photograph of it at some point.

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    1. Hi Sarah! I have been thinking about you! Had a few days away, so I didn’t log on much, but I am happy to see your response! What an interesting memory. I did have a friend who recalled the last day of her mother’s life, and she recalled wanting to go into her mom’s bedroom to see her, so at three years old, she pulled a chair to the door to reach the doorknob, and then hands lifted her up and away. She never got to see her. However, when she grew up, she was told that her mother died in the hospital, so she has always wondered where this distinct sensory memory came from! Memory and how it works is a real mystery. Thanks for the hymn lyrics; I had not know that one, but I am going to look in the church hymnal to see if it is in there. As far as the Blue Christmas Service, it is a liturgical service that includes scriptures, prayers, and then a “free-form” type of ending in which people can come up to the altar with a candle to put into the sand (which is in a tall ceramic stand), in memory of a loved one. A beautiful service. I hope you are doing well!

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      1. Carla, that’s an amazing story about your friend. There are so many strange and inexplicable things that have an otherworldly feel to them. I’m convinced I met a dog-whispering angel once, who appeared out of nowhere when I was exercising my old rescue dog (she eventually died aged 17). She was very naughty and disobedient when I first had her, until this “angel” bent down and whispered something to her. She immediately became well-behave and stayed well-behaved for the rest of her life. The angel vanished as quickly as he appeared, with no apparent place to disappear to. He was very tall, with longish blond hair, and wearing a white suit (not your typical park wear!). I’ve had other strange mystical experiences, too, so am forced to keep an open mind and believe that we only know a tiny fraction of the stuff there is to know.
        Your Blue Christmas Service sounds like the annual afternoon Bereavement Service that my church has earlier in the year. It’s followed by tea and cakes!

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  4. I’ve never heard of a “Blue Christmas” service, but what a lovely, lovely concept. Of course the holidays can be so difficult for so many because of loss. It seems only recently that I’ve heard encouragement to even acknowledge the grief that many people may feel. I can imagine that a service dedicated to honoring that grief would be a very healing experience.

    Your discussion about Barthes and photography is very interesting. I hadn’t really thought about how a photograph represents the death of a person. This line particularly resonated with me: “Because the photo is not the real thing, the real moment or person, we cannot ever capture the essence we seek.” I have that experience with photos of my childhood, especially ones of my brother and me. We are three years apart as well as miles apart. We are not close; in fact, we rarely communicate with each other. Long story, and I’ve been fine with our separation for a long time. Lately, though, when I’ve come across those photos, I mourn the loss of someone who seemed at one time to be my friend, my playmate. I have few memories of my childhood; if it weren’t for the photos, I’d have even less.

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    1. Yes, the book by Barthes on photography has provoked so many feelings for me, no matter how many times I read it. The photos are a blessing, and yet they do produce a kind of pain as well and stir up melancholy feelings about people and life. Yet, as you say, they are so important for preserving memories and for revealing things we had forgotten! It’s a big topic, isn’t it? Sorry about the pain with your brother; hope that reconciliation is possible at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I thought that was a nice idea too, and I had never seen it before. The same cousin who lost her mom also just lost her father, but they are delaying his memorial for some personal reasons. Big changes in their lives. I think loss is the hardest thing we endure.

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