Burying the Cake – and the Alleluia

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November 10, 2018 by lucieromarin

I’ve been ironing baby-clothes and thinking about this post by Dorothy Cummings McLean, in which she writes about what it means for a childless woman, after ten years of hoping, to bury the portion of wedding cake that was intended for the birthday of a first child.

I was reminded of the scene in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, in which Lucy Snow buries the letters of the man she realises will never marry her. (Villette is the book to read if you really need to be depressed or to lose any hope in the possibility of finding happiness in this life.) Some moments later, I remembered another burial – the burial of the Alleluia.

It used to be the custom to bury the Alleluia at the beginning of Lent. The word was written out, buried with some ceremony, and then not sung again until Easter, when the buried paper was also ‘resurrected.’ We still suppress the Alleluia in chant. (Incidentally, pious Novus Ordo Catholics, the Lenten suppression of the Alleluia is why you should not sing the hymn ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ during Lent.)

I wondered if burying the cake could be seen as a companion act to the burial of the Alleluia. After all, a sacramental marriage is a kind of ‘Alleluia,’ a ‘praise God!’ in which the whole community rejoices. In the life-cycle of the biologically-childless marriage, there is a time of mourning. The cake, which was part of that ‘Praise God!’ is buried…but it’s buried in the expectation of a Resurrection. We can’t schedule that Resurrection as we schedule Easter Sunday. But the pattern is still the same.

I’d ironed about half the summer onesies by this stage, when the third thought followed close upon the heels of the second. Why is it that the only ritual we have for loss, in both the sacred and the secular worlds, is the funeral, a ritual for death? Why is there no ancient, recognised ritual for lost hopes or renounced dreams? I mean, they happen as often as the birth of children, and a lot oftener than weddings. The world is full of people who suffer from childlessness, from miscarriage, from post-abortion grief. Family members go missing and are never seen again. People go through separation, divorce, and/or annulment and have to realise that that spouse is never coming back/that marriage is never going to be saved, if indeed it was ever a marriage at all. And yet, after all that gruelling process, all you get is a letter advising you that you’re free to marry again and an invoice for the cost of the canon lawyer. There’s not even an hour of debriefing or counselling.

This all reminds me of the scene in Cranford, when a character asks for a cap to be made for her after a style she’s seen recently on a widow. The man she has loved all her life (but who couldn’t marry her because her brother messed things up somehow) has died. Well, she’s told that that style is the mourning style, that a mourning cap is for a wife, which she isn’t, so she murmurs something to the effect of ‘Oh, yes, how silly of me,’ and goes without any way to express her loss.

I used to relinquish dreams by giving things away. I collected a small library of children’s books for my fortunate children-to-be. When the intended father of those children renounced me and got engaged another good Catholic girl, I gave up hope, and gave him the library as a gesture of goodwill, thinking that at least some home-schooled children somewhere might benefit from them. Then he dumped his fiance, and who knows what happened to my books? As time moved on, I asked myself why I’d given up so easily. I collected another small library. God could work miracles, after all! Years later, I was still single, and the girl in question got herself pregnant. I decided that there really was no hope for me, and it would be better for the books to enrich the life of the child of poor single mother. So I gave her the books. (Yes, as well as the blanket I blogged about elsewhere.) I assume that she later ripped them apart with her teeth and burned them as part of a vengeance-rite. Either way, I’ve learned to neither collect books as a sign of hope nor to give them away as a sign of generous resignation to private despair.

Perhaps we could write out our hopes and bury them with the Alleluia, thus appropriating an old ritual for our purposes? And when we resurrect them on Easter Sunday, we could do so thinking about eternal Sunday which is still to arrive with the wiping away of tears. Inventing whole rituals now feels too late. Anything we created now would only be a kind of afterthought to human culture; what I’m after is a thousand-year-old ritual that acknowledges the end of a hope or the end of a dream. Is it so very confronting to admit that this happens, so confronting that no one in East or West, in religion or out of it, could bear to create it and to share it? Or is it that these things have been historically too painful to talk about out loud, so those rites could never be made?

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