Believe in Love?
I was back in the Convent Chapel last week; realising how much I had gained from that space, but also that I had let it go and moved on to the next phase of my life. But I wasn’t there for me; our former assistant Chaplain, Fr Brian, had died, and it was totally fitting to be back at the Convent for his funeral. He came to be with us the same year as I joined the Community, so is an essential part of my memories of our time there. His multi-coloured bobble hat sermon went down in Community lore (although, to be honest, I can remember neither the story nor the point of the sermon, but I think some of the others can); he regularly gave us ‘homework’ at the end of his sermons, one being to read the prologue of St John’s Gospel every day over Christmastide, probably one of the best ways for it to sink in. He would join us for Community gatherings, regularly on Sundays, and on Profession anniversaries, and various celebratory events.
I worked closest with him when I took over helping at the Nursing Home Eucharist, which he habitually celebrated. I most remember his patience with the people there, his willingness to spend time enabling them to take Communion, attempting to wake them if they’d fallen asleep, or giving instructions if someone seemed confused. He even arranged for a retired priest, then resident at the Home, to celebrate Communion a couple of times, with a few of us there. He would arrive after me, together with whichever of the older Sisters was joining us at the time. Sr Winifred Mary, who gave the Chalice long after she was in extreme pain; Sr Daphne, who would often push the wheelchair of someone much older than her; Sr Jean, who had an amazing gift for just coming
alongside people as one of them. Then Communion would take place, with a couple of hymns, and we would all receive Communion sitting down, as the residents had to. Numbers fluctuated somewhat, but there was always a regular gathering, sometimes with family members, and afterwards Fr Brian would go and visit those who were unable to come, before joining the rest of us with a cup of coffee. Back at the Convent, he would normally join the Sisters for Morning and Evening Prayer, and would arrive early to pray. He spent many hours in the Chapel, both in prayer and at worship, so it was lovely that his funeral was able to take place there.
There was a small but decent gathering of people there, including at least one person from his last parish, and some of his Community (the Oratory of the Good Shepherd), one of whom preached, and a splash of Community friends, as well as others from his various connections. For me, it was particularly appropriate that we had 2 hymns by George Herbert, as one of the former residents of the Nursing Home had at one point been a member of George Herbert’s former parish. Just a minor, but significant, memory that I was probably the only one aware of. The service sheet didn’t include the dates of the composers of the hymns, which reminded me that Fr Brian, who was also an accountant, would use them to work out how old the composer had been when he died (those that had died, of course). Thankfully, lack of dates meant I didn’t feel I had to honour his memory by doing likewise…
At the end of the service, we followed the procession out of chapel, and made our way down to the Community cemetery, where his burial took place. I have never seen the cemetery as dry as it is at the moment … Then, after a pause during which the Sisters decided everyone was waiting for us to move first, we gradually made our way back to Chapel, where Emmaus were waiting at the back with drinks and cake … I can heartily recommend the chocolate banana cake, and it’s always a joy to have scones. But primarily, it wasn’t about the cake, but about spending time with those we knew and those we didn’t, to honour Fr Brian’s memory, and connect with each other. It was good to see some Community friends there, including some I hadn’t seen for a while, and to connect with some of those I hadn’t met before.
Funerals are a chance to say goodbye, to honour the person who has gone, to grieve a loved one. For the funeral of a Christian, it is a time to honour and give thanks to the God whom they loved and served (and Fr Brian did love and serve his God), and hopefully to deepen our own journeys with our God, as we reflect on the life of one who has gone before us. As it says at the beginning of Hebrews 12, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, urging and inspiring us to follow our Lord, to take our faith deeper, and to continue on the path God calls us. None of us do this perfectly – Fr Brian would have been the first to say he wasn’t perfect – but with encouragement from our fellow Christians, both past and present, we can focus ever more deeply on our God.
There are many people who have inspired and helped me on my journey, Fr Brian being but one. My mother would daily sit and read the bible with us when we were small; many Sunday school teachers, and youth group leaders, some of whom I don’t even remember; the clergy person that I first spoke to about a possible vocation – and of course my Sisters in Community, irritating as some of them are and irritating as no doubt they found me. Then there are those who literally had gone before me, before I was even thought of … Ss Peter and Paul, on whose day I took my first vows in the Community. Both inspiring figures, both devoted to their Lord, both vulnerable and falling. It’s such a relief to know that Peter, the rock on whom Christ built his Church, made so many mistakes .. it kind of encourages me when I do the same. There was M. Teresa, whose devotion to Christ in the poorest of the poor no doubt inspired many; Clare of Assisi, whose contemplative vision tied with a strength that lead her to put Jesus before her family’s expectations. There are others, and it might be worth pondering who is in your special ‘cloud of witnesses’. But above and beyond all those, there is Jesus, on whom we can fix our eyes, and follow with our lives; who, however much we fall, is always ready to help us get up and continue following; whose love for us will never fail; and whose love will transform our lives, if only we can have the courage and faith to believe in it.