by Margarita Mooney on May 3, 2021
About halfway through a two and a half hour liturgy at St. Vartan’s Armenian Orthodox Cathedral on April 25, 2021, a giant curtain closed between the congregation and the altar. Staring at the cross embroidered on the curtain, my heart cried out, “Death is a veil!”
In those same pews a few years earlier, I had sat with John Aroutiounian, a student I worked with while I was on faculty at Yale. John wanted to introduce me to his Armenian Orthodox heritage through the liturgy. Just a few years later, on May 3, 2019, days after he turned 26, my heart was torn apart when John died of cancer. Around 11 months later, on March 31, 2020, I collapsed in tears when I heard John’s father Aris died of COVID.
Because of COVID, John’s family had to cancel plans to remember John on the first anniversary of his death. There was no public funeral for Aris. On Saturday, April 26, around 10 family members, myself, and Bishop Daniel Findikyan, had visited the graves of John and Aris to pray for them. Then we shared a meal, and many stories of both father and son. The following day, people of various faith traditions, and some people who claim no particular faith tradition, had gathered at St. Vartan’s to remember John and Aris.
At the Sunday morning liturgy, I was sitting in between John’s mother Rouzan, Aris’s widow, and John’s aunt Maria, Aris’s sister. 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, Iknow more or less what the various parts of the liturgy signify. The liturgy commemorates the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. The closing of the curtain sparked in my heart the memory of the suffering and death of Christ. But although death is painful, the liturgy reminds us it is not the end of the story.
Death is a veil because it is a window to a deeper reality, one where, if we believe in the resurrection, our loves are eternal. The desire for our human loves to be eternal is a sign, a reflection of the one eternal love, the whole that can unite us to our departed loved ones. Sacred liturgy and sacred art give us a glimpse of that eternal reality that is already present, yet incomplete, in this life. As the curtain receded at St. Vartan’s and the liturgy continued, I gazed up at the image of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, with the Christ Child on her lap.
“Death is a veil. Love is eternal,” I thought. My grief over John and Aris has deepened my desire for that eternal love.
As St. Bonaventure writes in the Mind’s Journey to God, “This actual retention on the part of memory of the things of time, past, present and future, reveals in it a reflection of eternity which is a continuous present that transcends the passage of time.” Contemplatively reading that book as I visited John several times close to this death in 2019 helped me to know that his bodily death was not the end.
When death separates us from loved ones, our longing for reuniting with them is an internal light that pierces the veil of death. Grief becomes a desire to sharpen our memory.
Liturgy—with its words, images, gestures, vestments and incense—engages our senses and shapes our memory, turning our mind to contemplate the work of God. “Through the operations of memory, then,” Bonaventure wrote in the year 1259, “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 actually touches Him, is potentially capable of holding him, and in turn may become a partaker in him.”
For all of us who loved John and Aris, the present feels incomplete without them. We gathered to remember them through liturgy precisely because our communion with God is what enables us to grasp their continual presence with us. It was precisely the absence of John and Aris—or should I say their mysterious continual presence in our memories—that united a group of people who did not all know each other prior to their deaths.
After the liturgy finished at St. Vartan’s, we also celebrated together a Catholic Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, where John’s funeral service had been held. Then we walked to a nearby restaurant. As several of us offered our individual memories of John and Aris, it felt like we were completing a puzzle. That puzzle will never quite be complete. Yet the fuller it gets, the more beautiful a single piece of it is.
As I shared the precious memories I have of talking to John as he neared his death on May 3, 2019, I reflected on the lesson he taught me. John was so beloved because he knew how to be with people as they suffered and he knew how to plan a great evening of fun. Although he suffered physically, psychologically and spiritually as he neared his death, he never gave up his faith and hope in God.
My grief for John and Aris paradoxically makes me more complete because it has connected me to others who also share the same missing parts. Our shared sense of missing John and Aris allowed us to connect deeply over our shared loves, expanding my circle of love to people whom I have only met two or three times. That human bond expressed in tears, stories, hugging, and also singing, eating, and laughing together felt so authentic, so deep, and so badly needed after so much suffering and isolation.
As I drove home, I gazed out at the New York City skyline and savored memories of walking through Manhattan with John. The blue sky was clear; my heart longed to capture the sun’s radiance. When I got home to Princeton around 8:30 pm, I went for a walk to pray the rosary.
In the quiet stillness of a spring dusk in the park near my house in Princeton where I have walked hundreds of times, I felt a presence, like someone walking with me under the moonlight. I stared at the full moon and felt as if John was shouting, “Margarita, I’m here! I’m right here!”
Smiling, breathing slowly, I stared intently at the trees. Suddenly the beauty of their trunks, branches and leaves exhilarated me. Staring up at the moon, sometimes partially covered by branches, nature was speaking to me, telling me that I need to trust that the full light is there guiding me even if I cannot always see it. In this world, we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us in the darkness (Psalm 23). Sometimes his presence is just veiled.
Back at home, a feeling of comfort and ease came over me. I laid down in bed clutching a shiny pink rosary my niece Camille brought me from Rome. I savored the whole weekend— grieving, rejoicing, remembering, loving, looking, listening, hugging, and crying. My mind was not analyzing, predicting or controlling things, but contemplating. That mental rest is an anticipation of the fullness of time to come, a fullness that we can perceive in our hearts already. Although I wanted to stay in that magical place, this present reality that feels incomplete is also an anticipation of the fullness to come.
When I sobbed at John’s hospital bedside saying goodbye, 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 of my senses, lifts my mind to God, and brings John close to me.
Just as there is no liturgy without remembering the death of Jesus on the cross, perhaps there is no true joy without some suffering. Suffering and death are reminders that the beauty we love here and now are puzzle pieces. Each piece has its own beauty. We want to hoard our favorite pieces, but the beauty we seek in those pieces elude us. The broken puzzle only comes together mysteriously—out of our control, but slowly revealed to be more beautiful than we imagined.
In this life, we do not know what may happen next, but that uncertainty need not be met with fear. Knowing that life is unpredictable, and knowing that death is a veil, has taught me to express more naturally the deepest longing we all have: to give and receive love.
Our desire for loves is fulfilled partially in relationships and community, but all humans are mortal. Only communion with God can vanquish our fear and fulfill our desire for love. As Bonaventure writes, “Happiness, however, is possible only by the possession of the highest and ultimate end. It follows that nothing that is really desired by man except it be the Supreme Good, either as an installment of it as leading to it or else as bearing some resemblance to 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 point us to God. “Memory,” Bonaventure says, “which is a reflection of his eternity, intellect which postulates his truth, and the power of choice which leads to Him as the Supreme Good.”
The things we perceive now in nature—the sun, the moon, the trees—the desires of our hearts, and even our fear of mortality and grief for loved ones—are windows to the eternal love of God.