Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Centenary

Today is my mom's 100th birthday.  Her death in May 2009, six months short of her 93rd birthday was sudden but hardly unexpected given her extreme old age to say nothing of the medical problems that were beginning to crop up.  I am grateful for her life.  I am also grateful that I arrived home about an hour before she died and was able to give her absolution and last rites.  She died about twenty minutes after the anointing sitting in her chair at home.  Below is the homily I preached at her funeral.  

It is amusing, in a bizarre way, that while there is plenty of time to write a homily for a wedding, or a baptism, or the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, writing a funeral homily for a family member or friend, a time a significant stress and emotional upheaval, has a deadline (no pun intended) measured in a day or two.  Added to the challenge was that mom's funeral was only my second as a priest, my first having been my college roommate Chris almost a year earlier.  There have been about a dozen since, several for family members, a few for close friends and mentors, and some for people I didn't know.  It is never easy saying a funeral Mass but it is a consoling and affirming moment as well.

The photos below were taken at ordination in June 2007.  Mom did not exactly like having her photo taken complaining each time she saw a camera pointed her way about a) her hair  b) her dress  c) both  d) any other excuse she could find.  My niece, her only grandchild, is pushing the wheelchair for her to present the gifts to Sean Cardinal O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, who was the ordaining prelate.  I only realized after communion that one uses the right hand rather than the left (I am very left-handed).  


It would be difficult to summarize a life spanning more than 92 years without taking lunch and supper breaks.  If I were to include the kind of detail for which mom was well-known it would take even longer.  Many of the major events of her life, beginning with her baptism, were marked here in St. Mary's Church. As a family we have gathered in this sacred space many times over the past decades for occasions both joyful and sorrowful.  Baptisms, first communions, and weddings were among the joyful gatherings.  Funerals represent the bulk of the sorrowful occasions.  But even at the funerals the sorrow of grieving was, as it is today, tempered the joy of knowing that though we are sinners, we are loved by God. The weight of sadness is balanced by optimism in the mystery and gift of the cross.  The burden of grief is eased by hope in the promise of eternal life.  Those who believe cannot help but take comfort in their faith in Christ, Son of God and Son of Man; Jesus, who redeemed us from our sins.  Jesus, whose death saved us from death.  

The first reading from Habakkuk  describes the situation of all who, like mom, lived to great old age.  It describes the life of all those who gradually watch everything they have and hold diminish and disappear.  It details the stripping away of everything until only the strength given to us by God remains. 

As most of you know, we never had fig trees, blossoming or not blossoming, on the corner of Turner and Main.  But, for mom, as middle-age turned to old-age turned to extreme old-age, walking briskly or zipping up and down the steps multiple times daily became walking more and more slowly and cautiously.  Then came the cane. Then the walker on wheels.  Then later the stair glide.   Then came the wheel chair. Finally, the recliner that helped her stand.  Independence became partial dependence.  Partial dependence was becoming  total dependence when she died.  That dependence was hard for her.  That was the cross she bore.

There was no herd to disappear from the stalls at 327 West Main.  But there was the modern equivalent: a car in the carport.  And one day it disappeared.   Though she chose to quit driving on her own it was still a difficult moment for a women who liked to drive and who, despite the little bit of lead tucked into her right shoe, was an excellent driver.  She was legendary for her ability to parallel park the Chrysler New Yorker in a spot barely large enough for a Toyota Corolla.  And she usually did it with one backup. 

As loss followed loss she adapted gracefully and allowed the boundaries of her life to gradually constrict.  What she never lost was the quickness of her mind,
the depth of her memory for people, her sense of humor or her faith. 

For Mother’s Day last year I gave her two pewter framed photos from ordination.
One of her presenting the gifts to Cardinal O’Malley of Boston  and one receiving communion from me.  She got a bit weepy.  And then she said, “These are beautiful frames.”  I replied, “They should be they were made by Martha Stewart.”  She responded immediately, “I wonder if she made them in prison?”

Even as her legs became weak and painful, barely able to carry her, God enabled her to go upon the heights, swiftly and easily.  Those were the heights of joy, of love, of friendship.  And of faith.  When she could no longer manage to get to Mass, her prayer book, which was held together with rubber bands, and a rosary were never far from her grasp.  Over the last few weeks she sometimes seemed to be in a different place.  She was perhaps, preparing to take her place at Jesus’ feet, now more Mary than Martha. 

Luke’s Gospel of Martha and Mary outlines the two primary relationships we have with Jesus, the active and the contemplative, the busy and the prayerful.  Ideally each feeds—and feeds off of—the other.  In the words of the great Jesuit Jerome Nadal,  prayer drives our work and our work drives our prayer.  Prayer and action must exist in a balance.  I think mom managed that balance most of her life, particularly as she got older and the distractions and demands became fewer.

Prayer is an ongoing conversation with God, a dialogue of speaking to and listening to.  It does not require heroic effort, a special place, or a particular posture.  Prayer requires only one thing,  attentiveness to Jesus’ word.  It requires only that we be disposed to be at Jesus’ feet, listening as Mary did, even if we are  bustling about in the manner of Martha.  We need only to be willing to listen to the Word of God as we go about our daily tasks. We need only to listen to the Word of God and enter into the mystery of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist at Mass.  Being busy or even overwhelmed does not exclude prayer. I often marveled at, and even envied, mom’s ability to pray sitting in her chair.  I wish I could know what she said to God.  And what God said in reply.  If I had to guess I would suspect that on Thursday evening God welcomed her with, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

Grieving is neither quick nor easy.  Despite the popularity and dreadful overuse of the word there is no such thing as closure.  It is a fake concept that does not exist.  Each of us must grieve in his or her own way.  It will be strange.  At times we will feel like the psalmist who said,

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!”

In the end though, we can take comfort in St. Paul’s prayer for us in the second reading:

“that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;
that you, rooted and grounded in love,
that you may have strength to comprehend
with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length
and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ
that surpasses knowledge,”

For now, we can only know this partially. Mom now knows the love of Christ in its absolute and perfect breadth, length, height and fullness.   With her we can only say, To Christ Jesus be glory for ever and ever. 

Requiem aeternam
dona ea, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat ea!

Eternal rest, grant unto her, O Lord
and let perpetual light shine upon her.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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