Of course Ben Bradlee was raised as an Episcopalian.
This is Washington, D.C., and he was one of the giants of the city, a titan from his days consulting with (and covering) John F. Kennedy, Jr., to his final years working hard to encourage a new generation of journalists in The Washington Post newsroom as it struggled, like all major media institutions, to enter the uncharted waters of the digital age. He was larger than life and that kind of Beltway story can only end with a funeral in the interfaith, ecumenical, civil-religion holy place called National Cathedral.
The Post team, as it should, has pulled out all the stops in its eulogies for Bradlee, with untold inches of type -- analog and digital -- and numerous multi-media features. And the role of religion? Let's just say that the liturgical elements of this drama didn't go very high in the story. Here is the top of the massive Style section feature on the funeral:
Following a small choir’s soft alto affirmation of America’s beauty, the organ swelled, and the people joined in, and the national hymn that Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee chose for his own funeral filled the cathedral, its pews lined with the powerful and the ordinary.
Then a prayer, and two sailors delivering a taut flag to the editor’s widow, and a bugler sounding taps from high in the Gothic rafters, and then, because this was Mr. Bradlee who was being celebrated, a sharp break from the stately and solemn: The band struck up Sousa’s jaunty “The Washington Post” march and Ben Bradlee left the building as he had departed his newspaper on so many nights through the 26 years he led it: electrifying the room just by sweeping through it.
For those interested in religious content, the key question was whether or not this was a formal Anglican liturgy. The story answered that question, but not with details about the content. The story was vague, at every point when specific details could have been used. This summary paragraph said it all:
Mr. Bradlee’s funeral Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral was an exercise in high Episcopal ritual, but also a statement of the man’s irreverence and verve, a joyful cataloguing of the ingredients he used to transform his paper into one of the best: a zest for the great story, a certain swagger and above all, a belief that if ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing.
If you are looking for the precise, punchy details of the man's life and style, that is what this story is about. Toward the end, it was possible to read between the lines at some of the religious, or perhaps it is best to say "spiritual," realities that loomed over this giant life. The "spiritual" is always mentioned, but never illustrated. The service, readers learn, "mixed the regal and spiritual with the intensely intimate."
That is oh so Washington, D.C. The focus was on what is real, what matters in the circles in which Bradlee was a patriarch. For example, with another fitting reference to the powerful and stylish wife of his mature years, the matriarch of the "On Faith" website:
An Irish tenor sang Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” which was Mr. Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s own love song. Mr. Bradlee had chosen the hymn “Sun of My Soul” (“It is not night if thou be near”), and Quinn selected the readings and liturgy, which included a recitation of the Hebrew Kaddish by Mr. Bradlee’s friend and physician, Michael Newman. (Although raised Episcopalian, Mr. Bradlee kept a ready arsenal of Yiddish insults and endearments. A good story from a Jewish reporter could win the writer the name “Bubbeleh” for at least a few days.) Newman praised Quinn for providing her husband “a good ending, a soft landing.”
It is interesting, of course, to consider the words of the chosen hymns -- in this case both sacred and secular. Who, for example, is the "Thou" -- upper-case "T" -- in the hymn? The Post reports this as "thou" -- lower-case "t."
Sun of my soul, Thou Savior dear,
It is not night if Thou be near;
O may no earthborn cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes.
When the soft dews of kindly sleep
My wearied eyelids gently steep,
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
Forever on my Savior’s breast.
Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live;
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.
If some poor wandering child of Thine
Has spurned today the voice divine,
Now, Lord, the gracious work begin;
Let him no more lie down in sin.
Watch by the sick, enrich the poor
With blessings from Thy boundless store;
Be every mourner’s sleep tonight;
Like infants’ slumbers, pure and right.
Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take,
Till in the ocean of Thy love
We lose ourselves in Heaven above.
Now, here is the big question. In terms of the content of this story, was that the main hymn in the service, or is this meditation from St. Barbra?
Love, soft as an easy chair
Love, fresh as the morning air
One love that is shared by two
I have found with you
Like a rose under the April snow
I was always certain love would grow
Love ageless and evergreen
Seldom seen by two
You and I will make each night a first
Every day a beginning
Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed
They warm and excite us
'Cause we have the brightest love
Two lights that shine as one
Morning glory and midnight sun
Time we've learned to sail above
Time won't change the meaning of one love
Ageless and ever evergreen
Actually, I am not sure if either of these works represented the actual, newsworthy content -- even in terms of religion -- of this event. No, I would say that the most crucial content that was buried in the story, that truly needed to run higher up in the text, was this:
Rosamond Casey, one of Mr. Bradlee’s stepchildren from the second of his three marriages, read the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, which ends with “I am the captain of my soul,” a line she believes he first heard when he was 14, paralyzed with polio. It was a line he often wielded, she said, “as an exhortation or an acclamation of someone he admired, like the plumber in the next room fixing the sink.”
In terms of the spirituality that drives Washington, D.C., this is the "sacred" text that the Post team needed to have put in graphics or in a sidebar. This was the heart of the story:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Hear that voice?