Saturday, February 13, 2016
A Funeral Oration
First let me thank the priest of this church, Sarah Kelb and the folks at St. Paul’s. I served here with you as your “Bridge Priest” for 10 months from December 2013-September 2014 and we grew in affection for one another during that time. And thank you too Kit Lonergan for standing in for Sarah. Unfortunately she has to answer an emergency but hopes to join us before too long. What you are doing for our family and friends today is deeply appreciated. Thank you also to Ed Stauff and the Choir for your efforts. You know how much I love and appreciate music.
Let me thank you too dear family and friends for your being here. It is important that we give Nona a good send off today. When asked for her religious preference at Exeter, Nona pointed to me and said; “He’s my priest.” And so it shall be for you Nona.
Each of you is part of the Priesthood of all believers, because in one way or another you all love Nona. There are a host of special memories, and the feelings at a funeral are especially strong. We remember good times and we may also remember other times as well. As with all intimate relationships, our memories, experiences, and feelings are not all of one kind. The fact that we try to love one another doesn't always mean we can achieve all that we might wish for in this world. The process of loving one another requires forgiveness and reconciliation. And all that requires hard work, and as you and I know all too well, that's when things get messy on “this side”, as we Irish like to say. That's just the way it is.
But today thankfully all is at Peace. The suffering is over, and she can rest that long last rest. In her last moments I whispered into her ears reassuring words that all is now well. By the way the hearing is the last to go. I told her it is time to let go of it all. Soon she would be reunited with her mom, and her two sons who predeceased her. And I sang to her, “Jesus loves me”. I then commended her to God’s keeping. It's what I do as a parish priest; to take her to the Gate of Heaven.
May she rest in Peace with all those who have been gathered to our ancestors. For us we carry on, and there are still many struggles we engage in each day of our lives. But death reminds us of the importance of life, family and friendship. That’s what brings us together today.
On behalf of the rest of us, thank you. Brothers, sisters, grandchildren, cousins, seniors, friends and so on, there were many kindnesses as she took that last journey. It was hard to watch her suffer so. I love you all for the grace you demonstrated time and again and so much more. But we all did what we had to do.
And Papa. Thank you for being here today. This is not easy for you. I know you would have preferred it if we just had immediate family gather at the house. But you’re the one who went off and had a large family. I remember that first Thanksgiving with your family at a church hall in Essex. There were a hundred folks there give or take. I said to Cindy, this is just the immediate family! “Who are all these people?” But you folks went off and had a wonderful time. It left my head spinning. Papa, I understand.
The mystery of life and death for me hangs on the word “Love”. It is the only word that helps, for that is all we have left when there is a death. Mind you, it is the only word we have that leads to life as well. And Jesus used that word when pointing to eternal life. Very simply put, Jesus summed it all up when he said; “Love one another”.
So now the feelings flow. I understand the sorrow and the grief. My dad died when I was eight years old at Christmas. I was too young to understand that I would never see him again. I remember running to the window every Sunday to see if he was coming to visit me which was the custom after the unpleasantness of that divorce. But he never came again. One of the Christians in the family said my dad couldn’t go to heaven because he didn’t go to church. Thankfully there weren’t many Christians in my family. My uncle, who had very little use for the church, often said that my dad would go to heaven sooner than many in that crowd.
True enough, the only time I ever heard my dad use our Lord’s name was when he lost a bet at Suffolk Downs, which he often did. He loved to take me to see “the ponies” as he called them. It is one of the few memories I have of him. I cried to heaven night after night, trying to sleep. But I was afraid I might not waken with the dawning. Eventually I learned that I would never see him again in this life, and wondered whether I would see him in the next. But all my prayers went unanswered by a profound Silence.
Until one day on the way home from church something in my heart said to me, “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?”
I ran home as fast as I could to ask my grandmother, the authority in theological matters in our home; “Is there a God?”
“Of course there is!” she declared.
“Ma, is there a heaven?” Just a bit irritated now. She was making dinner for the family peppering up something on her spider. It was not a good time to do theology. “Of course there is.”
“Ma is my daddy there?” She hesitated just a moment then. After all, more than once she did say all those foreigners; especially the Irish and the Italians ruined the city of Boston. That tells you what she thought of my father. Not to mention, the idea of an English woman spending an eternity with an Irishman must have given her pause. And parenthetically, she made me promise on the old family Bible that I’d never marry an Italian. I promised and then I broke that promise, thanks be to God. Sorry Ma.
But then she did something I will never forget. She knelt down and held me close. It is as if even in this moment, I can still smell the scent of her hair and she said; “Of course he is”.
In that moment heaven and earth met for me. My Grandmother’s love and God’s love touched me in a way that changed everything for me. There it is you see, the love that transcends life and death, the love that endures both. It is because of that love that I became a priest so that I might proclaim such a love as this for as long as God gives me breath. This is the essence of my faith
Interestingly enough, I came across these words in this week, and I adapted them for this occasion. They speak to my experience of God's first language, as the Celtic Christians call it: the eloquent language of Silence.
An unanswered prayer
A child's unanswered cry to heaven changes everything
Especially Who God is to me
Nothing was the same again.
In a dark, cold world
I learned what it is to be human
And I learned Who God is.
The Truth is the only Healing Hand there is
And it begins with facing the Absurd
With the only thing I know about
What it is to be human
And Who God is to me
I learned to love those who love me
And those who don't
This is all I know about God or me.
~adapted by Paul Bresnahan, based on Celtic Daily Prayer
Nona, the only word that binds us together now is God's great word. Love. This is all we have both in this life and in the life to come. But thanks be to God, love is more than enough. We commend you now to God's keeping and to the love that lives on in our hearts.