Death Is a Veil — and Love Is Eternal

Death is a sign of a deeper reality of eternal life in God.

Albert Anker, “Kinderbegräbnis,” 1863
Albert Anker, “Kinderbegräbnis,” 1863 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

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-19.

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 in 2020. Thankfully, on April 26, around 10 family members and I visited the graves of John and Aris to pray for them. Bishop Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church in America, led us in prayer. We burned incense, laid flowers on the grave, hugged each other and cried. Then, back at the home of Rouzan Karabakhtsian, Aris’s wife and John’s mother, we shared a banquet of Armenian food as we shared stories of John and Aris.

The following day, people of various faith traditions, and some people who claim no particular faith tradition, gathered at St. Vartan’s to remember John and Aris. At the Sunday morning liturgy, I was sitting in between Rouzan and Maria, Aris’s sister and John’s aunt. 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, I knew that each and every aspect of the liturgy aims to make present the mysteries of incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The closing of the curtain sparked in my heart the memory of the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday. Although death is painful, the liturgy continues, reminding us that our mortality is not the end of the story. Death is a veil because it is a window to a deeper reality, one where, because of the resurrection, our love for others can be eternal. The desire for our human love to be eternal is a sign, a reflection, of the one eternal love, the whole that can unite us, in God, to our departed loved ones.

St. Paul wrote, “Neither death, nor life … nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Sacred liturgy and sacred art give us a glimpse of the 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. My grief over John and Aris deepened my desire for that eternal love reaching out to me from that icon.

“Death is a veil,” I thought. “Love is eternal.”

Contemplatively reading St. Bonaventure’s classic Mind’s Journey to God as I visited John several times close to this death in 2019 helped me to recognize more clearly that his bodily death was not the end. As St. Bonaventure wrote in 1259, “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.”

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 God and his works.

“Through the operations of memory, then,” Bonaventure wrote, “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 have lost loved ones, the present feels incomplete without them. Family and friends of John and Aris gathered to remember them through the liturgy, precisely because our communion with God is what enables us to grasp that their life is not over. In God and through what is called the communion of saints, it is possible for John and Aris to be with us. Later that same day, we also celebrated a Catholic Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, where John’s funeral service had been held. The absence of John and Aris — or rather their mysterious, continual presence in our personal memories and in the liturgies of the East and the West — united the hearts of those in the pews who did not know each other before the deaths of John and his father.

Over a festive meal at a restaurant, as several of us shared our favorite memories of John and his father, it felt like we were completing a puzzle, one that will never quite be complete. The more we each share of our memories of John and Aris, the more beautiful every single piece of that puzzle becomes.

With around two years to reflect on my final conversations with John, I have realized that John was so beloved because he knew how to both plan a grand evening of fun and how to be with people as they suffered. As he neared his death, he suffered physically, psychologically and even spiritually. But he never gave up his faith and hope in God.

By connecting me to others who also loved John and Aris, my grief for them paradoxically makes me feel more complete. Our shared sense of missing John and Aris has allowed us to connect deeply over that shared love, expanding my circle of love to people whom I have only met two or three times. After so much suffering and isolation, that human bond formed through tears, stories, hugging, and also singing, eating, and laughing together, felt so authentic. In allowing my deep grief to rise to the surface, I felt my painful memories were healed.

As I drove home, I gazed out at the New York City skyline, savoring 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 to Marquand Park near my house to pray the Rosary. 

In the quiet stillness of a spring dusk in a park where I have walked hundreds of times, I felt a presence, as is someone were 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 obscured by branches, nature was speaking to me, telling me that I need to trust that God’s light is guiding me even if his presence is sometimes veiled. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

Back at home, a feeling of lightness and ease came over me. I laid down in bed, clutching a shiny pink rosary my niece Camille brought me from Rome. My mind was not analyzing, predicting, or controlling things, but contemplating. I savored the whole weekend — grieving, rejoicing, remembering, loving, looking, listening, hugging and crying. Our celebrations brought me to a place of mental rest that is an anticipation of the fullness of time to come, a fullness that we can perceive in our hearts already. The awareness of my inability to stay in that place of comfort right now is also an anticipation of the fullness of reality to come.

Just as there is no liturgy without remembering the death of Jesus on the cross, perhaps there is no true joy without some suffering. When I sobbed at John’s hospital bedside saying goodbye to him, 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.

Suffering and death remain a mystery to me. We do not know what may happen next in this life, 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 love is fulfilled partially in relationships and community. But humans are mortal. Only communion with God can vanquish our fear and fulfill our desire for love. As Bonaventure wrote, “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 said, “is a reflection of his eternity, intellect … postulates his truth, and the power of choice … leads to him as the Supreme Good.”

The beautiful things we perceive 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.