Another reminder today of how often there is the grace of healing and new life even in the midst of sorrow.
The reminder was the funeral liturgy celebrated for Mercy Sister Marie Matthews, an old and dear friend of mine from Albany.
She died at age 84 after a long illness through which she bore a good deal of suffering. The last time I saw her was in late December. At the time, close friends of Marie’s who were tending to her told me that she had little time left. Based on my own impression at the time, I had little trouble believing that. Between then and her death she was very much in my prayer. It was a time for the happy memories of our friendship over the years to come to the surface once again.
I thought of her service; of her warm concern not just for me but for all with whom she shared her life; of her love for music and God’s creation and especially for animals; of her patient, gentle work with students who were struggling to learn and with those who were not struggling enough.
Father John Tallman, chaplain at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, concelebrated her funeral with me. In a conversation before the liturgy began, John spoke to me with deep and affectionate gratitude about Marie, who patiently guided him through three years of high school math, a subject that John allowed always challenged him strongly.
The wake service on the evening prior to the funeral liturgy was a great blessing to me. I was very glad I could make it because I had not been in frequent contact with Marie for many years.
I knew that the custom of the Sisters of Mercy is to invite people to share their memories of the deceased during such prayer vigils. I was sure that hearing Sisters of Mercy, her family and friends share their thoughts about memories of Marie would help me in my ministry of presiding and preaching the next morning.
It would be difficult to do justice to the outpouring of affection, gratitude and happy memories offered by those who rose to speak about their beloved friend on that occasion.
There were several common themes threading through the comments. Among them: She always accepted people as they were – never with judgment, always with a word of encouragement. She maintained a joyful and serene spirit even when there was upset, or when she herself was ill. She always "made room" for people, extending a welcome and a place of comfort to anyone who needed that gift.
As people came forward to speak – younger or older, family or friend, lay or religious – they confirmed my memories and present awareness of these and other qualities that endeared Marie to so many. What really moved me was their sharing of how substantially Marie affected their lives and of the lasting impact she had on them. Several who cited that impact spoke through tears and brought tears to the eyes of some who listened.
There was also a good amount of laughter. Marie was always a peaceful and gracious individual who loved fun and brought good spirit wherever she went.
As the stories went on, one could sense the consolation and renewed hope that people experienced even as they felt so deeply the loss of such a treasured friend. Even as I write these words I am mindful that the sadness I feel at her death will not last as long as will the beautiful memories of that evening.
Perhaps this one story told at the wake service by one of Marie’s nieces will make that point well. Marie’s niece spoke of her son Alex, aged 5, who loved his Aunt Marie very dearly. This was the first time that Alex had been close to the death of anyone close to him. Mom tried as best she could to frame the news of Marie’s death in language that her little boy could absorb. When she finished Alex was quiet for some time and seemed a bit serious. After a while he smiled broadly and exclaimed, "This is great Mom!" When his mother asked what was great Alex told her, "This is the first night Aunt Marie gets to sleep over at God’s house."
Three wonderful elements came through to me in the moment: Mom helped Alex very beautifully to absorb his first encounter with death. Alex’s response, the response of a child, lightened his mother’s burden of grief. The mother, sharing an experience so important to her and her son, ministered beautifully to all of us who heard her.
Tonight, I need to thank God for Sister Marie Matthews, the Matthews family, the Sisters of Mercy and Marie’s friends for helping me experience anew the reality and power of God’s presence in the Church’s rituals that touch our passage from this life to fullness of life.
Peace to all.