My grandmother did not pass on to the afterlife without leaving me something. After a life that spanned nearly a century, three generations were on hand to send her off to her Maker. Her funeral was simple and heartfelt, if a bit unorganized. The priest asked my aunt, just before the procession began, who would be doing the two readings she had selected. It was decided on the spur of the moment that my cousin, her son, was to read one, and I was to read the other.
I am not a lector. My husband, separated from the funeral by 3,000 miles and the care of our children, is a lectora gifted, superb lector. But even though my college degree is in theater, I am not a comfortable presenter. In truth, I sweat and shake and worry when all Ihave to do is introduce myself to a group. Imagine doing a reading from the Old Testament, cold, in front of all those people!
It always mystified me, the way I could play a role and pretend to be someone or something else without a jitter, but was petrified to be myself in front of a group. Over the years, as a director of religious education, presenting to groups of students has become easier. But to the detriment of my job performance, I have hesitated to get up in front of my parish to announce or entreat or read. Others could do it better than I; it was not my gift.
Actually, I feared being judged inadequate by others.
But I couldn’t say no to my aunt, because I knew there was another reason I had been asked: I was to be the token good Catholic. My extended family knows and is somewhat puzzled by the fact that I work for the Catholic Church. They are Catholic by birth, but not exactly fired up about it. My cousin, on the other hand, had somehow, after being brought up in Catholic schools, become a Protestant. And not only a Protestant, but a Protestant youth minister. He worked for a rival church! In the battle of the religious readers, I was to be the Catholic warrior.
There I was, armed only with the proverbial slingshot.
I took my seat alongside my parents. My dad, newly orphaned, was to give a eulogy for his mother, so I could hardly feel that my task was more daunting than his. But I was quaking inside, waiting out the opening prayers until the first reading, hoping it was not full of unpronounceable names and places, and that the type was big enough to compensate for my budding need for reading glasses, which I had not brought with me. Surely I was going to blow this.
But then I pictured my grandmother. My grandparents used to take the train from New Jersey to California for well-timed winter visits. Once, when I was in college, they stopped off in Dallas to see me play Emily in Our Town. Emily spends the last act of the play visiting her former life from the grave, struck by how little she appreciated the small and shining gems of life while she was alive. After the play, my grandfather enfolded me in a big, loud, embarrassing grandfather hug, but my grandmother held back, looking for somewhere to dispose of the wad of used tissues she was clutching. Not given to showing emotion, she smiled apologetically. Then I realized she had been crying, and I loved her for it: a serious dramatic actress like me could ask for no greater praise than that.
So when the priest looked around for the first lector, I went forward and bowed. My husband once told me that on his way to the ambo, he asks the Holy Spirit to take over. I prayed to the Holy Spirit, all right, but it was my grandmother’s light that led me on, coaxing me to play the role of her granddaughter. The type was fine, the lighting was good, the microphone was sensitive. I took a deep breath, and read.
I couldn’t tell you now what I read. I believe it may have been from the Book of Daniel. I believe it was meant to be comforting. But I know that my voice never wavered, because my grandmother was in that church, willing me to do my best. I could have read all morning.
Then my cousin read. My handsome and charismatic cousin, reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, knew when to pause, to make eye contact, to nod knowingly. He was a polished preacher. He rocked, as my kids would say.
I secretly wanted the Mass to bowl my wayward cousin over, to draw him irresistibly back to the fold, but it was not to be. The young priest, to whom my grandmother had been a stranger, had a cold. He said Mass perfunctorily, without beauty. He was phoning it in. I felt growing hostility toward him, but had to concede that in the end, he was a human being who didn’t feel well, and it wasn’t his job to wow my cousin with Catholic pyrotechnics.
I also know that my grandmother watched over both of her beloved lectors that day, regardless of denomination. My cousin is about the work of God in his own way, as am I in mine, and we both carry forward my grandmother’s genes and spirit.
I am a lector-in-training at my parish now. I feel alternately like a fish out of water and as though I have come home. I am grateful to have been given the gift of reading aloud clearly, humbled to use that gift in the service of God. Some gifts take a long time to mature. Some need help from heaven. I no longer fear the harsh judgment of others. Every time I read, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, I can feel my grandmother smiling: it is her bequest.