“music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but
you are the music
While the music lasts.”
― T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962
The year has begun with a theme of loss – with the death of celebrities, a friend and a dear and ancient aunt, my father’s sister, one of the few who remember him well and with her loss, the severing of another strand of connection between us.
Hers was an extraordinary life. As a bright, astute and well educated woman in the 1930s she fought for many years against the calling to holy orders that she’d experienced as a teenager. She trained as a teacher, travelled and lived fully before becoming ordained as a “Bride of Christ” in her mid twenties. This involved being transplanted from her close English family into a closed order of nuns based in France. It was a system of life which nowadays sounds almost inhumane. Imprisoned within a wimple that allowed only marginal vision, she was not permitted to see her family, to eat in public and lived a very secluded life until her latter years when the order, modernised, the habit was cast aside and from it emerged my aunt, blossoming as a talented musician, driver and head teacher of a prestigious London school.
Her death at the age of ninety one was conducted in the same stoical, positive and matter of fact manner as she lived. On being told that she had terminal cancer she requested a hot cup of tea and in her final days, surrounded and cared for by the nuns of the order who had become family to her, she continued to look at everything and everyone through a lens of immense gratitude.
After death for most relatives comes the inevitable painful practicalities of sifting through mountains of possession, the detritus of life which we acquire which such avarice and cling to with a possessive fervour as though it defines our very self. In my aunt’s case a simple life left behind no trail of regret or material wealth. A few treasured photos were returned to us and that apart, only a tiny handful of books and a well tempered and cared for piano remained.
As her coffin was lowered into the ground, the sisters who remained stood peacefully. Many of them are elderly and infirm, walking with frames or on the arms of others, they quietly and reverently said their personal goodbyes before one spoke up:
“The sisters would like to sing”
And they started, in latin in a tune so perfect, clear and soft, it was as though a small miracle had occurred. This tiny gathering so lacking in glamour, wealth and sophistication sung an elegy more beautiful than any I have heard before.
It struck me as we walked away, heads bowed, that regardless of our religious inclination, there seems to be within us a need for spiritual connection. A hole that in this secular age is readily filled with distraction, with work, wine, food, a hectic life. Perhaps this is what so many are searching for with their restless lives. Something meaningful to fill the void.