by Fr. Edward Foley, OFM Cap
Annual Memorial Mass, Old St. Patrick’s, Chicago
When I was preparing for full time ministry,
a long time ago, in a galaxy far away,
I envisioned my work … my service … my ministry
would occur among the young and the vital,
the healthy and the strong,
maybe even the affirming and the beautiful.
And for the first eight years,
that vision was largely realized
as full- and then part-time in campus ministry,
most working with privileged college students
first at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota,
and then at that small Catholic college to the east of us
with a gold dome and a pretty good football team.
There was little room for death or grieving in that world.
My grandparents were long gone,
and my parents had longevity before them.
It was the late 70’s …
The grim reports of our dead soldiers from Vietnam
had evaporated from the headlines.
I did lose a 27 year old cousin … Michael …
a year older than I
But his death in 1976 was an anomaly,
and I would not lose another close relative
until almost 25 years later.
Over the past 15 years or so, however,
death has been a more frequent,
very unwelcomed visitor to my life.
Both of my parents,
all of their siblings and spouses
and the parents of virtually all of my friends,
what Tom Brokaw once called “The Greatest Generation,”
now gone from our family, theirs, and maybe yours.
I’ve also lost classmates and colleagues,
cherished friends, invincible Baby Boomers,
who I like to think died before their time.
And maybe the most distressing
have been the deaths of the young
in my families … and in some of yours
taken during or even before their prime,
eternally young … that seem to leave us
I offer this little autobiographical excursion
as a way to admit that this feast,
or better, this side of the dual feast
celebrated yesterday and today
of All Saints and All Souls,
of the exaltation of resurrection and desolation of death,
has become more personal … and thus more challenging.
That also makes it a touch more dangerous,
because since I am the one with the microphone
it could devolve into another opportunity
for the preacher to eulogize his beloved dead.
In order to avoid that pitfall,
it seems more useful to excavate not just the theologies,
but the emotions behind today’s feast,
behind the biblical texts we have just heard.
And I would contend that one consistent affect
embedded in those designated readings of comfort
from wisdom, and St. Paul and the Gospel of John,
is that of grief.
Years ago I had the privilege of teaching with
and then writing with Herbert Anderson,
a Lutheran pastor and pastoral theologian
well known for his five volumes on marriage.
Earlier in his career he wrote All our Losses, All our Griefs,
which 30 years later is now a classic in the field.
He wrote the book with another gifted theologian,
As fate would have it, however,
Ken died in the writing process.
So the book was both a tribute to Ken
and a kind of lament for a lost friend.
Anderson believes that the work of grieving
happens between remembering and hoping,
between constructing a treasured memory
and anticipating a new future.
Grieving, from those perspectives,
can be understood as both a very human act
and an exercise of faith.
From the viewpoint of human development,
grieving is an attempt to fill in a gap,
to reconstruct an individual or family life
in the felt absence of a loved one.
How that occurs is different for each of us,
for the gap is unique,
the loss distinctive,
the feelings particular.
At a Capuchin gathering after my mother died,
I was surprised how many of my brothers said:
“I know exactly how you feel.”
I wanted to punch them in the nose …
and say, “No you don’t.”
I did neither,
But it confirmed in me the conviction
that all grief is unique … as unique as the beloved that we grieve.
Some of us discover in our grieving
and attempts to build a cherished memory out of that grieving
that there is anger in the loss,
or other “negative emotions”
that might appear unseemly in the face of death.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Steel Magnolias,
you know the scene when Sally Field as the grieving mother
Rages against the premature loss of her daughter.
I’ve witness the lost of the precious young
and the tidal waves of sadness and anger,
rage and remorse,
that submerge us in such events.
A number of years ago I heard a story from a brother priest
of a woman who asked about going to confession …
even though she didn’t believe in God anymore.
when the priest asked her why,
she said that her only son at 17 had committed suicide.
How can one believe in God who would allow that to happen?
My wise friend sat a long time in silence with her
before suggesting that God may have some empathy for her
because God lost an only son too …
Anderson notes that even if we believe death is part of God’s plan,
we will rage at death and maybe even rage at God,
as though an unwelcome thief has robbed us of people we love.
Isn’t that what Jesus did,
grieving over the loss of his friend Lazarus,
in his own way raging at death … as he did on the cross,
and maybe even having to recalibrate his Abba,
demand that God’s reign break through not only in justice to the outcasts,
but in new life to the dead.
Unfortunately, unlike the Son of God,
we cannot restore the dead to life.
But we can create a new kind of life
requiring a bold new faith,
a living memory that holds the beloved close in God.
A few years ago
I preached at the funeral of a friend, husband, father, grandfather
who was winning the battle against cancer, but died suddenly from an aneurysm.
The only daughter grieved publicly
that the “grand twins” would forget their grandfather
who spent so much time caring for them
in their first two years of life.
There is no doubt that the grandfather could be forgotten
if the healing memory work is abandoned.
On the other hand, when that work is done
such a memory not only brings consolation,
but even joy.
And while that might sound a little mad … crazy…
that is exactly what the gospels are and do.
We call them good news – a source of hope and joy.
But in some ways we can also consider the gospels
as serious and seriously inspired memory building,
grief work by a community who had lost their beloved,
who had lost their Lord.
So Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
their communities, each in their own way,
created an enduring and living memory of Jesus
that recalled his gifts and some of his rants,
woven into a life-giving memory
and enduring legacy of hope.
The work of the evangelists,
like Paul writing to the church at Rome,
reminds us that grieving is a shared enterprise
between parents and siblings,
grandchildren and children,
uncles and cousins and friends.
It is also a shared enterprise between believers,
which is why we gathered to ritualize
at the death and burial of our beloved.
And why we hold this feast so dear,
to recall their shining faces,
to celebrate the light and life they were to us,
and to know that God has gathered them up
into the eternal memory of Jesus.
It’s why we do reading from the cherished memory
we call the New Testament,
and gather around a banquet table of love,
for our beloved are now where one day we will be,
taken up into the story of God,
and supping at the banquet of the Lamb.
And in this interim of grace,
between bidding them farewell
and meeting them again,
we struggle for hope.
Not a hope we can possess,
But a hope discovered in the memory work of family and friends and our Christ,
not so much hoping for something
as hoping with someone
that the gifts of our beloved dead
might be shared through us,
their stories be told,
their inadequacies filled up,
their charities continued,
their flaws absolved,
their loves nurtured,
their unfulfilled dreams realized,
and their joys shared.
And so in our grieving there is mission,
not only for our own healing
but also for the healing of a wounded and grieving world.
My father was an avid barbershopper,
won a number of international titles.
sang at Carnegie Hall.
When his dear friend and favorite quartet member died,
Dad stood next to the coffin, blew his pitch pipe,
waited a moment,
and then said that he knew that Ben must be dead,
because he didn’t get up to sing.
Dad asked us to perform that ritual for him as well,
and so before we closed the casket,
we took the pitch pipe we had placed in his hand,
agreed on the pitch, and blew.
We could not hear him sing back,
and knew that he was gone from us,
so we put the pitch pipe back in his hands,
and made our final adieu.
But while he as did not sing back to us,
we do not believe that his song was over;
rather, in faith, at least some of his children
believe it was transformed into the song of God.
The poet, Mark Doty, wrote this about the death of a friend:
I believe with all my heart that when the chariot came for him, green and gold and rose, a band of angels swung wide out over the great flanks of the sea, bearing him up over the path of light [that] the sun makes on the face of the waters. I believe my love is in the Jordan, which is deep and wide and welcoming, though it scours us oh so deeply. And when he gets to the other side, I know he will be dressed in robes of comfort and gladness, his forehead will be anointed with spices, and he will sing – joyfully – into the future, and back toward the darkness of this world.
[“Sweet Chariot,” Wrestling with the Angel, ed. Brian Couldrey. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995, pp. 9-10]
(Start piano music, “The Hand of God Shall Hold You” by Marty Haugen.)
We believe with all our hearts that our beloved dead
are now learning the song of the Lamb,
the hymn of the resurrected Christ and
– united with him for eternity –
and are singing back toward any darkness dwelling in our hearts,
toward whatever darkness hovers over our world.
Their voices have been joined to the 144,000,
and in this mystical chorus,
they are singing our future song.
It is a tune we have yet to learn
for we still dwell on this earth.
But although we cannot learn it fully on this side of the Jordan,
even here we are yet invited to rehearse
the hymn of Christ in our lives,
we are cajoled to tune ourselves
to the aboriginal harmony of the Trinity,
and in the healing memory of our beloved
challenged to forge a new song of justice, love and empathy
in a world so desperate for true harmony
and the fulfillment of the gospel love.
We embrace that mission as yet we pray, “May the souls of our beloved dead, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” Amen.
(Silence, and then the song by Marty Haugen follows.)
© 2014, Edward Foley. Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin, is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and ordinary professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.