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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Twelve years later: tu benedictus in die natalis sis, Matt...

Another October the 12th is passing, which means one more year to look back on Matt's lamentable death, one more year to get all moody and self-referential, and yet another opportunity to lapse into a misanthropic grouch-fest and hate the whole world because it's such a downer.  I seriously need a more positive way to remember this person whom I had never personally met but who has changed the course of my life in ways I didn't expect.  I need to find a way to commemorate this day in a way that does justice to him and celebrates him in a positive light, not simply as a victim. 

So, where can I go for a different perspective?  Since I'm a medievalist, I guess that my natural impulse is to look backwards to the past for insight, and so pondering my problem eventually brought me to thinking about medieval memorial practices.  In medieval Christian society, for instance, monasteries often kept a calender or roll of their brothers and associates (called a liber vitae or "book of Life") in order to remember their passing.

Although a name in a Liber vitae was an act of commemoration in of itself, sometimes calendars of names organized by death date were used so the community could read their names aloud during the prime hour service as they performed the "work of God" in the cloister.  In those lists, the death date of a person is recorded as their dies natalis-- that is, their "birthday."  It makes a lot of sense from a medieval perspective, as Christianity often talks of that as the day that we are finally and truly freed from the bondage of sin and attain our real home with God when the soul is "born" in heaven.  It's the date of our heavenly birthday. 

This kind of commemoration was important in the monastic setting because it reinforced the sense that their brotherhood was an eternal bond, and that those who passed should continue to be recognized as a part of their community.  It reinforced that death really cannot sever their social, religious and personal ties, and that the departed who served the community in life are still a benefit to their abbey.   

And so, in my struggle to find an appropriate way to remember this day,  I think I'll do it with a celebration of Matt's continued presence and life within my community.  From here on out, this will no longer be for me a time when I'm forced to revisit a horrible, brutal crime that has scarred so many and ended a human life; instead, I'm going to mark this day as Matt's dies natalis, to recognize the part he still plays in my communities: in Laramie, in the states, and in the lives of those who loved him.  Is this the sensible approach that everyone will accept?  Probably not; all I know is that it helps make all of this make sense to me
Memorial bench, Matthew Shepard

Happy 12th birthday, Matthew Shepard.  You are still very much a part of us all.     


Okay, so I couldn't find a picture of a liber vitae under a CC license, so the above picture is a leaf from Yale University, Beinecke Library MS 923, an unusual travel foldaway calendar and prayer book, which is available for CC use via the library's Flickr photostream. This text lists the feast days and/or dies natalis of popular saints (marked with giant, stretched out N's) in October.   The pic of Matthew's memorial is mine and very much free for use.

If you'd like to see what a liber vitae looks like, you can follow this link to one of the more famous manuscripts from the time period I work with.  On this single page of the Durham liber vitae, there's literally dozens of names written in hands at least three centuries apart, and it's remarkable.  

On a side note, October 12 marks the dies natalis for two of the more famous Anglo-Saxon saints:  Wilfrid, who tended to stir the muck, and Edwin, who was the first Anglian king to take up Christianity.  One of the most famous passages of Anglo-Saxon prose comes from his conversion, as recounted by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History 2.13.

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