Why signing for the deaf should be so moving for the hearing

Yesterday I took a funeral for a member of my little flock. I have visited Dorothy at home since I came here because she had a stroke 6 years ago which left her speech badly affected. It was really difficult to make out what she was saying and frustrating for her too to make herself understood.  I’m told she stopped coming to church because she was embarrassed and that people were ignoring her. Not good.

Dorothy had a hard life and was a hard worker. She has a great brood of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and one great-great. They are close to each other, supporting one another and Granny Cakes. Three of Dorothy’s children are deaf and so it was that we had an interpreter at the funeral yesterday. I had to supply her with all the words I was going to say the day before so that she could have a look through them. When we met, she said she loved doing church services but hymns were hardest, especially if the language was old-fashioned.  And so it was that we began. Me at my prieu-dieu at one side of the Sanctuary and she at the other, dressed in flowing black in front of the family, looking them in the eye.

signingOh my goodness! Very quickly I realised that I was not going to be able to watch her sign because the tears had already sprung to my eyes with the beauty of it all. It was just so exquisite. Ballet of the hands. Elegant gestures which involved not just her hands, but her whole body leaning into the meaning of them. I knew that if I watched her I would be unable to go on for the tears were flowing down my chops. And so it was that I turned away and faced the congregation who were not watching me but were engrossed in the wonder that was going on alongside me. And that was just fine.

I’m afraid to say I didn’t catch her name, this signer. She was young and pregnant and already had a three year old. We talked about why she began signing, for she isn’t deaf herself, and she also told me how signing can be used to great effect with truculent three year olds too. And we spoke about the effect that her signing had on hearing people. A friend of hers had even done a dissertation on this effect, especially in church services. There is something about it adding to the sense of spirituality. All I can say is that it works for me.

The first time I came across such a thing was at the Haddington Pilgrimage many, many years ago. In the afternoon there was always a huge ecumenical healing service in the old church and there used to be a man who came and signed for the deaf community who came along. That was the first time I’d ever seen someone signing to hymns and it was incredibly moving and beautiful. I remember being strangely moved to tears then too and not really knowing why. Ever since I have wanted to learn how to do it but never got around to it. Perhaps one day…

How about you? Have you ever encountered it and found it beautiful?