About halfway through a 2.5-hour liturgy at St Vartan Armenian Orthodox Cathedral on April 25, 2021, a giant curtain closed between the congregation and the altar. As I fixed the embroidered cross on the curtain, my heart cried out: “Death is a veil!”
In those same benches a few years earlier, I was sitting with John Aroutiounian, a student I worked with while I was a professor at Yale. John wanted to introduce me to his Armenian Orthodox heritage through the liturgy. A few years later, on May 3, 2019, a few days after turning 26, my heart broke when John died of cancer. About 11 months later, on March 31, 2020, I broke down in tears when I learned that John’s father, Aris, had passed away from COVID-19.
Due to COVID, John’s family had to cancel their plans to remember John on the first anniversary of his death. There was no public funeral for Aris in 2020. Fortunately, on April 26, around 10 family members and I visited John and Aris’ graves to pray for them. Bishop Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church of America, guided us in prayer. We burned incense, placed flowers on the grave, hugged and cried. Then, returning to the home of Rouzan Karabakhtsian, Aris’s wife and John’s mother, we shared a banquet of Armenian food while sharing the stories of John and Aris.
The next day, people of various religious traditions, and some people who do not claim any particular religious tradition, gathered in St. Vartan to remember John and Aris. At the Sunday morning liturgy, I was seated between Rouzan and Maria, Aris’s sister and John’s aunt. I did not understand a single word in the liturgy except “Christos”. But because of my own Catholic heritage, and because I recently taught Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s book The spirit of the liturgy, I knew that every aspect of the liturgy aims to make present the mysteries of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The closing of the curtain stirred in my heart the memory of the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday. Although death is painful, the liturgy continues, reminding us that our mortality is not the end of history. Death is a veil because it is a window to a deeper reality, one where, because of the resurrection, our love for others can be eternal. The desire that our human love be eternal is a sign, a reflection, of the one eternal love, all that can unite us, in God, to our loved ones who have passed away.
Saint Paul wrote: “Neither death nor life … nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39). The sacred liturgy and sacred art give us a glimpse of the eternal reality that is already present, but incomplete, in this life.
As the curtain moved away at St. Vartan and the liturgy continued, I looked up at the image of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, with the Baby Jesus on her knees. My sorrow for John and Aris deepened my desire for that undying love that would reach me from this icon.
Death is a veil, I thought. “Love is eternal.”
Contemplative reading of the classic of Saint Bonaventure The Spirit’s Journey to God as I visited John several times near this death in 2019 helped me recognize more clearly that his bodily death was not the end. As Saint Bonaventure wrote in 1259: “This effective retention on the part of the memory of the things of time, past, present and future, reveals in it a reflection of eternity, which is a continuous present which transcends the passage of time. time.
When death separates us from our loved ones, our desire to find them is an inner light that pierces the veil of death. Mourning becomes a desire to sharpen our memory. The liturgy – with its words, images, gestures, clothing and incense – engages our senses and shapes our memory, leading our minds to contemplate God and his works.
“By the operations of memory, then,” writes Bonaventure, “we are led to see that the human mind is an image of God, an image so present to Him and to which he is so intimate that it really touches him, is potentially able to hold him back, and in turn can become a participant in him.
For all of us who have lost loved ones, the present seems incomplete without them. Family and friends of John and Aris have come together to remember them through the liturgy, precisely because our fellowship with God is what enables us to understand that their lives are not over. In God and through what is called the communion of saints, it is possible that John and Aris are with us. Later that same day, we also celebrated a Catholic Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, where John’s funeral was held. The absence of John and Aris – or rather their mysterious and continual presence in our personal memories and in the liturgies of East and West – united the hearts of those on the benches who did not know each other before John’s death. and his father.
Over a festive meal in a restaurant, as several of us shared our favorite memories of John and his father, we felt like we were completing a puzzle, which will never be quite finished. The more we each share our memories of John and Aris, the more beautiful each piece of this puzzle becomes.
With about two years to reflect on my last conversations with John, I realized that John was so loved because he knew both how to plan a great night of fun and how to be with people while they were in pain. As he neared his death, he suffered physically, psychologically and even spiritually. But he never gave up his faith and his hope in God.
By connecting with others who also loved John and Aris, my grief for them paradoxically makes me feel more complete. Our shared feeling of missing John and Aris allowed us to connect deeply about this shared love, expanding my circle of love to people I have only met two or three times. After so much suffering and isolation, this human bond formed through tears, stories, hugs, but also singing, eating and laughing together, was so genuine. As I let my deep grief come to the surface, I felt my painful memories healed.
On my way home, I gazed at the New York City skyline, savoring memories of walking through Manhattan with John. The blue sky was clear; my heart longed to capture the glow of the sun. When I got back to Princeton around 8:30 p.m., I went to Marquand Park near my home to pray the Rosary.
In the still calm of a spring twilight in a park where I have walked hundreds of times, I felt a presence, as someone was walking with me in the moonlight. I looked at the full moon and felt like John was screaming, “Margarita, here I am! I am here!”
Smiling, breathing slowly, I stared intently at the trees. Suddenly, the beauty of their trunks, branches and leaves elated me. Looking up at the moon, sometimes partially obscured by branches, nature spoke to me, telling me that I needed to trust that the light of God guides me even though his presence is sometimes veiled. “Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for you are with me” (Psalm 23: 4).
Back home, a feeling of lightness and ease came over me. I lay down on the bed, clutching a shiny pink rosary my niece Camille brought me from Rome. My mind was not analyzing, predicting or controlling things, but contemplating. I savored the whole weekend – cry, rejoice, remember, love, watch, listen, hug and cry. Our celebrations have brought me to a place of mental rest that is an anticipation of the fullness of the time to come, a fullness that we can already feel in our hearts. The realization of my inability to remain in this place of comfort at this time is also an anticipation of the fullness of reality to come.
Just as there is no liturgy without remembering the death of Jesus on the cross, so perhaps there is no true joy without suffering. When I sobbed by the bedside of John’s hospital saying goodbye to him, I never dreamed that my grief would deepen my ability to rejoice in ordinary things: a tree, the moonlight, or the clear sky. I love the liturgy more than ever because it engages all my senses, lifts my spirit towards God and brings John closer to me.
Suffering and death remain a mystery to me. We don’t know what can happen next in this life, but that uncertainty doesn’t need to be faced with fear. Knowing that life is unpredictable and knowing that death is a veil has taught me to more naturally express the deepest desire we all have: to give and receive love.
Part of our desire for love is fulfilled in relationships and community. But humans are deadly. Only communion with God can overcome our fear and fulfill our desire for love. As Bonaventure wrote, “Happiness, however, is only possible through the possession of the highest and ultimate end. It follows that nothing that is really desired by man except the Supreme Good, either as part of it as leading to it, or as somewhat resembling it. “
Death is a veil, a sign of a deeper reality of eternal life in God. Likewise, our human loves, our memory, our intellect and our will direct us to God. “Memory,” Bonaventure said, “is a reflection of his eternity, the intellect… postulates its truth, and the power to choose… leads to it as the Supreme Good.”
The beautiful things that we perceive in nature – the sun, the moon, the trees – the desires of our hearts and even our fear of mortality and our grief for our loved ones – are windows to the undying love of God.