My niece was buried a few weeks ago, a wonderful young woman: 36, not sick, suddenly gone. Sudden deaths, they say, are the most traumatic—and certainly sudden deaths of the young. The shock is nearly concussive. When I first got the call that she had died, I was at work. Afterward I returned to my desk in a kind of stupor, moving from task to task with a dull urgency, finding cool comfort in the reassurances of routine. Routine and grammar. I work as a proofreader; the structure of language is my bread and butter, its rules and their exceptions my fetish and delight. But the day my niece died, the day I would never see her again, grammar was nearly salvific to me, a stable mental framework I could hold onto while everything else inside me was suddenly trembling. Grammar and spelling mistakes would carry me safely through the day until 5 o’clock, until the train, until I could get home and cry.
The visitation and funeral were at the parish church where she had gone to grade school and, years later, served as a catechist. Heartbreak and history stumbled about the room, bumping into each other, settling into odd juxtapositions. At one point I found myself sitting near my niece’s coffin talking with the nun I had in fourth grade, and suddenly time and circumstance began to flutter and bat against one another like a moth at a window. Just before Mass started, I looked around the room at a church filled with people who loved my niece and thought, this is who she really was, is: this texture of relationships, these people with whom she experienced connection and love, who now, for her sake, for love of her, comfort one another, hold one another, cry.
And at the Our Father, as I stood hand-in-hand praying with my sister and her family, I suddenly felt everything beneath the text and the ritual shift, everything slip and move into that pure, primal place a funeral conjures, where we are a stone-age clan burying a kinsman at the back of the cave; where we are the builders of pyramids, temple mourners, necromancers; where we are the heartbroken friends of a crucified man getting him to a tomb before the Sabbath. We are all of us in pain, all stunned at the sudden emptiness, all plunged into the mystery at the heart of sadness, all awestruck at the strange life that pulses faintly within the fog of loss. We have all of us been brought to holy ground, thrown to it, dazed, all of us brought to a place beyond words.
In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus lets out a wordless cry just before he dies, a scream into the abyss, the Word made flesh driven to human incoherence. I thought of that cry when I spoke with my sister the day we found out Lauren died. She could barely speak. She only got out a couple of things—a question, I think, a phrase—but they sounded disconnected, new and unpronounceable in her grief. Language had dissolved in feeling; words floated, empty. They could never accurately describe what she was going through. They could not possibly convey her pain. Only the gasps between the words could. Only the wordless cry.
For all the beautiful prayers ever written, it is arguable that the prayers most pleasing to God are those that cannot be expressed in words, the ones whose only poetry is human desire, prayed at times when life has become so overpowering, so expansive, so racked with mystery that the divine is glimmering between the seams. We howl to God in the face of death, and howl just as wildly in the face of life. Our first wordless cry is at birth.
Once the airways are suctioned out, at the first inrush of air, the newborn begins to cry, though many mothers speak of delivering babies who cried as soon as they were out of the womb. As soon as we sense that the world around us has suddenly gotten infinitely larger, vast, terrifying; when we feel human life around us for the first time, all around us, in us, feel its chaos of sensations, its overpowering pull, its demand on us, we scream, we cry, we howl. We are nothing but weakness and hunger and fear, nothing but this squalling, this cry, this plea.
As a human infant, Jesus would have known this wordless cry as well. But within this human infant was also the living spark of the divine; and part of the infant consciousness, part of its trauma, may also have been the Word crying out against the flesh. The newborn Christ may have had a primal instinct that he was born into death as well as into life, that the miracle of incarnation implied the miracle of de-incarnation, and his wordless cry may have been a foretaste of the agony in the garden, the first time he was to ask for this cup to pass. And then Mary gave him her breast.
We cry out in incoherence and are answered in mystery. At the end of the Mass, when they placed the white pall over the coffin and the priest read the final blessing, I could hear behind me the choked chorus of people in tears, its sad crescendos and dissolves. As the priest read the part about the Resurrection, I looked over at my sister, lost in tears, devastated, and thought this was how the women in the graveyard on Easter morning must have cried, still knowing only the horror of their loss. The sun was not up yet. They had not yet reached the tomb. They did not know that once they got there, once they looked inside, once they heard their cries bounce off the walls of the empty tomb, that wordlessness was over, incoherence banished. Not because the Word had become flesh yet again. This time a greater miracle had happened, the greatest: flesh had become pure Word.