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  • Loren Niemi

Less a story than a seed of a story

Recently I went to Milt Barker's funeraI. We entered the Christian Brothers (it’s a Catholic religious teaching order) together. Seven years later I got tossed out for being politically "radical" (which of course, I explore in "Bad Brother"- my most autobiographical performance piece) while he stayed and spent many years at Tortino-Grace high school as a teacher and then as the Principal.


I'm not in Catholic churches much these days, except for funerals and when I do I find myself a curious anthropologist rather than a believer. There were a lot of people there to pay their respects including a dozen brothers, older than me, in their black suits and white collars. I found myself wondering whom I would be if I had stayed but of course that is the wrong question. A better question was why do the prayers, the language of "Milt has been taken into God's arms" seem so utterly false to me?


Comes time to say the "Our Father" and I realize that the only words I can say without hesitation are "give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us..." The first part of that is the statement of being here now and gratitude. I get that. I live that.


The second portion is a variation of the golden rule - the "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" - applied to forgiveness, that most necessary and difficult human act. It is a letting go of the past/hurt that frees the one who was offended and offering resolution as much as the one who caused the offense. I forgave the Brothers for tossing me out and once I did I could bless them in their work and their faith, even though it no longer was my work or my faith.


Then the moment came as in every Catholic service when it was time for the communion I did not partake in, I watched the line of those who would pass the casket to step to the left or right to receive the symbolic body and blood of Christ. I had a thought - a little seed of a story really - come to me.


Jesus is at the funeral. Not the white European Jesus you see so often in depictions, but rather the Semitic Jewish Jesus of dark skin, long black hair, looking very much like an underfed Rabbi. When it is time for communion, he shrugs and figures why not partake of his own body and blood. He gets in line with everyone else and as he passes the coffin, he knocks on it, once, twice, and says, “Are you awake?”


The people in line behind him are upset at the disrespect but to their shock, there comes a knocking back from inside the coffin. Everything stops, the mortician rushes over to the coffin. He opens the lid and Milt sits up, blinks his eyes and says, “S’allright...”


People are gasping, weeping, proclaiming a miracle. While they help Milt out of the coffin Jesus slips out the side door. Why stick around for what will surely be a lot of questions and unbelieved answers?


I like the thought of Jesus coming again and of Milt as Lazarus. But most of all I like the question that follows the knock – Are you awake?


It is not the building or the ritual that matters. Not the priest intoning prayers in the same familiar melody of Gregorian chants or the censer rising and falling as he circles the casket. It is not the prayers or dogma. All that is the stuff of sleep, a kind of dream that comforts some and disorients others.


Being awake is making your peace with death. We live and we die. That is the truth that faith soft pedals. Living in the here and now, not the hereafter. The work of our hands, the charity and compassion we practice, the love and community we offer. Such are my thoughts.


So good bye Milt. Thanks for your life and work. Thanks for bringing me to church to think these thoughts and to let me smell the Jerusalem incense once again. Much has changed since we knelt in the cold formation chapels and sang those same Gregorian melodies. Much hasn't and those scented clouds hanging in the light of stained glass windows are one of the things that remains wholly outside of time and place. That heady perfume is a joy and a remembering of how far I’ve come. Go my absent brother to your rest and I will go to the work of making stories, making meaning from this life and this day I am given.


I put my coat on over my black suit and white shirt. I put on my black hat and walk away.