Funeral February 21 in frozen Minnesota of my first cousin, Jeannine, who grew up in Minnesota, married in Colorado, and died in California, at age 51, of a sudden aneurysm. Didn’t know this first cousin, once removed by time and again removed by place and then by death. Had met her just once or twice, last at the funeral five years earlier, in Minnesota, of her niece Rachel, who died at 21. Jeannine’s visitation and mass were at St. Raphael’s, in Crystal, Minnesota, a large Catholic church, with rich wood, stained glass, brick and stone. A registered ICU nurse, Jeannine had been well loved and admired by peers as well as patients — kind, concerned, empathic, and moved by faith and love.
Father Marty, a family friend, who had married Jeannine and her husband Tom some years ago, presided at the mass. He gave a good homily about faith and mystery, not the usual spiel of a minister who hadn’t known or cared about the deceased. He talked about life’s journey and its mysteries, how agonies like death may open new vistas and opportunities, even for those who suffer great loss. Faith is tested, he suggested, and strengthened by loss.
Still, he lost me, a humanist, inevitably, along the way, as my mind wandered into peripheral pastures, where I thought of life’s journey and mystery. Of the marvelous technological age where most of us live cosseted by technology but ignorant of how it achieves its ends, and so we exist in willing and unproductive mystery. (See March’s National Geographic, “The War on Science,” about the layman’s resistance to scientific evidence.)
If the aim of science and technology is to know, to banish uncertainty, then mystery is where most laymen dwell, whether stubbornly and stupidly or, somehow, productively. For mystery can be productive too, I think, and lead to creativity. I thought of the poet John Keats’ idea of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
We all need creativity in life, whether we think much about it or not. Need to enter into mystery, yes, and question authority — whether priest, president, scientist, parent — if authority asserts certainty and omniscience. Plunge into that kind of uncertainty where creativity can pool and spread. And admit that death too is part of the creative pool, in both a larger biological sense, where one generation makes way for the next (Jeannine and Tom had three children), and a personal sense, in which we mull our own place in existence.
Perhaps we don’t mull so much as muddle our way through life, most of us, or are muddled, like mint in a mojito. We are pounded and stirred (shades of the priest-poets G.M. Hopkins and John Donne!), and come to some sort of resolution if not clarity, and that’s that, without irritable reaching after fact, logic, certainty.
Were the half-pints in church questioning authority, also, when they wandered into play? The two year old girl with a pacifier in her mouth, the four year old reading a jungle story with her mom, the five year old bending over backward in the pew and making monkey shine? I had to chuckle, seeing how lively these kids were, how unformed and unimpressed by ritual and ceremony, how the quality of their inattention differed from that of the adults, many of whom were looking idly around, or holding hands, or staring down at their feet, going through the dull adult motions.
Yes, play is a form of questioning. Just as after the service, at my first cousin’s house and his wife’s, Jeannine’s father, Dan, and mother, Mary Ann, a little boy was playing with a plastic rosary, swinging it around, and his father reprimanded him, saying, You have to show respect for the rosary. For plastic Jesus? Why? To squelch all play? And why make the Jesus plastic? Why make it in the form of beads or balls, which invite our fingers to fumble, our thoughts to stray? For, adult or child, we use a rosary as an abacus, don’t we — counting beads, praying beads that we fumble in order to forget time’s surge and abrasion?
We fumble afterwards, after death, after ritual, with our memories of she who is now gone and can be recovered only via memory. Take out the photo albums. Delve into joke and story. Tell ourselves she’s now in a better place, for this is a line we’ve heard many times and find easy to remember. No negative capability there.