"What?" cried Merton in an incredulous tone. "And the Religion of Cheerfulness--"
"It is a cruel religion," said the priest, looking out of the window. "Why couldn't they let him weep a little, like his fathers before him? His plans stiffened, his views grew cold; behind that merry mask was the empty mind of the atheist.
--G.K. Chesterton The Three Tools of Death
My son, who is studying at Nashotah House, has told me of the profoundly disturbing experience of attending a CANA (these jurisdictions change names so often I cannot quite remember what this stands for) Eucharist, where a bishop spent most of the liturgy beating on a tambourine. One priest’s wife, sitting behind my son, had to tell her husband to cut it out, because he had spun completely out of control and posed serious injury to himself and others. The whole congregation was reeling and rocking, having assumed the orans position – or as one female priest once told me the Onans position! I trust that was one thing they did not do.
By way of contrast it was my privilege this morning to celebrate the first Mass of All Souls Day according to Extraordinary Form of the English Missal. There is nothing quite so wondrous as sober Romanitas joined to English reserve.
Black vestments so that we do not have to pretend to be pleased as punch about the brutal reality of the death of those we love.
Plenty of silence because the appropriate response to death is not more noise and more words. Priests of all men should know that the most important thing in visiting the bereaved is not psychological or philosophical discourse but rather simply the priest’s presence.
The Mass for Dead says only what can be and must be said. To acknowledge the problem, in the first place: “deliver them from the lion’s mouth, that hell swallow them not up, that they fall not into darkness”. Secondly, to pray for the departed the rest, which, as St. Augustine said, the restless cannot have until they rest in God. Then in the same breath to seek for the dead the light to see whatever could not be seen in this life. Finally, to offer for the dead the best we have, what Jesus Himself gave us to be our best, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the same perfect sacrifice which Jesus offered for the life of the world. It is finished. There is no more to be said and no more to be done.
Chesterton’s The Three Tools of Death has always been my favorite Fr. Brown story. In the story there are plenty of weapons, plenty of suspects, but no motive. “For Sir Aaron Armstrong was entertaining to the point of being comic; and popular in such a manner as to be almost legendary. It was like hearing that Sunny Jim had hanged himself; or that Mr. Pickwick had died in Hanwell. For though Sir Aaron was a philanthropist, and thus dealt with the darker side of our society, he prided himself on dealing with it in the brightest possible style. ”. But of course Fr. Brown figures it out: Sir Aaron had committed suicide because of all religions “the religion of cheerfulness” is the cruelest.