Yesterday made two weeks since my sister Francie died. Yesterday marked one week since I had read the following words from the Book of Job 19:25-26 at the start of Francie’s funeral Mass:
But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives,
and that God will at last stand forth upon the dust;
Whom I myself shall see:
my own eyes, not another’s, shall behold God,
And from my flesh I shall see God.
Then yesterday, at the kind invitation of a new friend in Baltimore, Elizabeth and I found ourselves at a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. After the “Wow” part of the Hallelujah Chorus was over, the part we all recognize, the Messiah continued to its Part 3 and I heard these words, a different translation of Job 19: 25-26 than the one I had used:
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand
at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
I was unprepared for what happened next as the Messiah continued toward the sound of the trumpets:
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep. (I Corinthians 15: 20) Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (I Corinthians 15: 21-22) Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (I Corinthians 15: 51-52) The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality. (I Corinthians 15: 52-53) Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (I Corinthians 15: 54) O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 15: 57)
I have heard this all my life. I proclaimed it one week ago as we celebrated Francie’s life and carried her body to her grave. Yet throughout her funeral Mass I had maintained control. I had prepared and uttered the words and listened to my cousin Father Marcus proclaim this same belief in something bigger, something more, a Love everlasting, that goes back to Job and is heralded by Saint Paul in his first letter to the new believers in Corinth. I had seen the sadness on Marcus’ face as he sat down at different times in the Mass, and thought it unusual for him to show such sorrow, accounting it to his deep and lifelong feelings for his younger cousin, but as for me I had complete mastery over the words as I read from the Book of Job to start off our readings.
I read with conviction, but did I really believe? I shed not a tear while I attended to my duties. I wanted other people to cry for my sister, but not me.
Not so last night at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
When Part 3 of the Messiah came and the words of Job appeared before me again, I lost control.
The tears came down. My breath increased as I tried not to convulse and reveal to the people around me that I was crying. Elizabeth noticed. She handed me a tissue. She had her own memories of a lost one closing in on her at that time, too, as the trumpet, the glorious trumpet, sounded. She had understood what set me to crying. All that was just too much and I had to stare up at the ceiling and listen to the Soprano, the Bass, the Alto and the Chorus continue with the words of Saint Paul, the trumpet drawing me and all of us higher into a transcendent moment.
Then I realized in that music, I actually do believe that Francie lives! And Claire Marie! (My first wife who died at 43 from cancer.) And Mom and Dad! And Lucinda! (My second wife who died of cancer at 61.) And Sister Mary Jude! (My beloved aunt and Benedictine sister who was my exemplar of unconditional love.) Through that moment of unexpected connection with what I had just read a week ago, I could cry for Francie and all my lost ones, whether it be from grief or joy I cannot say for sure.
Faith pierced me in those moments. It was not wordsmithing or planning a beautiful liturgy, things at which I am good and over which I have control. It was grief pulling my faith forward from my flesh itself.
In that moment I felt myself to be connected with the One that the prophet Isaiah called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (A phrase which occurs earlier in the Messiah.)
Does it take great sorrow to draw nearer to the One from which we come, the One to whom we go? Can such a question even be asked outside of a Faith already received? Are we not all to become, the longer we live, men and women of sorrows, all too acquainted with grief? Is that the communion that counts most of all?
I had not expected Handel and his music to move me to tears, but ended up thankful that he and his music had done so.
My eulogy for Francie – Nov 26, 2016
When I sat down to write this eulogy, the very first thought that came to mind was, “Help me, Francie, please help me.” As I gazed at her big smile on the funeral program that you have in your hands, I was reminded how much she had helped me over the years, through the crises of deep loss and affairs of the heart that marked my life. So why shouldn’t she help me now with a few words to remember and honor her?
I thought of hundreds of emails she had composed to me that ran deep with insight and wisdom gained at great cost, which she was sharing with me, and how they were all mine to have, evidence of the special love between us. And I was reminded of all the conversations I had with her friends and family these past couple of months, some of you sitting here today, in which you told me how essential she had been to your life’s journey, how her friendship, her laughter and her smile had enriched your lives. She was all yours in those special times, a friend indeed. She could be such a very dear friend to those she loved.
Listening just now to that song “This Is To Mother You,” I am moved to memory of when Francie brought the song home from the “Woman Spirit Rising” retreat that she had just attended at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman. Among a circle of other women at that retreat, she had shared “a safe place to tell our own stories, to do truth telling, and to share hopes and dreams.” There were stories of brokenness, shared between a diverse group of women from all walks of life, all needing healing and joy to burst forth within and between and among them.
“Everyone has some sort of mothering energy in their life,” she wrote to me in an email of September 28, 2015, telling me how much the retreat had meant to her. The retreat happened to fall at the beginning of what was to become for her fourteen very difficult months of chemotherapy, body rebellion, multiple invasive procedures, seeking out of holistic health supplements, hospital stays and finally her death in hospice care at home, attended by her brothers, especially her brothers Dave and Rich who were with her for the final three months. The retreat and this song were very much a part of preparing Francie to endure her suffering.
While traditionally we speak of God as Father, I got the impression that Francie and these women were in touch with God as Mother, God-within as fully known by their female nature, hearing “Her” say to those gathered, through this song:
All the pain that you have known
All the violence in your soul
All the ‘wrong’ things you have done
I will take from you when I come
All mistakes made in distress
All your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss, yes
I will give you tenderness
When Francie came out of the retreat she wrote about what was most important to her, putting it this way: “After all is said and done, be kind to yourself and others. Love yourself. Be who you are.”
About one year later, in the hospital as we spoke about her obituary and funeral service, part of which she planned (it was her choice to use Psalm 91), I asked her about how she saw her life and what was most important to her. “I always loved to make people laugh,” she said. “Say ‘Thank you” and ‘I love you’ more often.” “Know that God is in everything.”
You have these words to take with you on the prayer card.
For all of you who knew her, you know that Francie’s passion in her life was the exploration of human spirituality, the search for God-within. Hers was a life given over to service, healing and beauty – whether as nurse or massage therapist healing the body, or as trusted friend to many whose lives were changed for the better, or as an artist in her paintings, some of which we have here today. I draw your attention to one in particular, her self-portrait here beside her body, evidence that, as serious as she was, she could laugh at herself.
I also draw your attention to the image on the front of her prayer card, a traditional image of a guardian angel watching over children who are crossing a dangerous bridge. She asked for that to be on her prayer card and she recited for me the prayer she had learned as a child.
Angel of God/ my guardian dear/ to whom God’s love/ commits me here./ Ever this day/ be at my side,/ to light and guard,/ to rule and guide./ Amen.
We can think of Francie that way as our lives move forward. Pull out her prayer card now and then and read her words on the back. Know that if you loved her and she loved you, she is that angel beside you now, acting on God’s love of you “to light and guard, to rule and guide.”