Funeral of Sister Columba Guare
[Scripture Readings: Job 19:1, 23-27; Rev 21:1-7; Jn 14:1-6]
My sympathy to all of Colum’s relatives and friends and to her community here, but I really want to say congratulations to all of you, your love and support of Colum brought her home. She made it, she persevered. This is not a grieving of her life but a celebration of her life.
The hospice nurse told one of the sisters that people die as they lived. How true. Colum kept people waiting most of her adult life. Monsignors, bishops, archbishops all waited for Colum to finish whatever she was doing. She died as she lived, keeping us waiting for her to pass from this life.
My favorite story of Colum being late is the time she got to the airport just as her plane was leaving the ground. This happened a long time ago. She charmed the ticket agent to call the plane back. It landed and she got on and off they went.
I found the Vespers psalms lit up against the backdrop of death. Each word a point of light full of new meaning. “The Lord has looked upon me in my lowliness.” What could be as lowly as a person on her death bed? “God has done wonders for me.” What could be more wonderous than Colum’s life? And this last phase, surrendering her life, the life she loved so well, surrounded by the people who loved her most?
Doesn’t a person’s life take on a new glow when looked at from the perspective of death? Phrases Colum chose for this funeral mass sum up her life with such light: “My inmost being is consumed with longing,” from the first reading. And the gospel text: “I am going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be,” Jn.14.
Here we have the beautiful image of Jesus receiving Colum into his arms at the moment of her death. This is the place he has been preparing her for. This preparation began many, many years ago. Every place we have in this world is a preparation. It is not our final resting place. But having a place is important. At birth our place is in our mother’s arms. This is our first and perhaps most secure place, one that sets the tone for all other places.
As we grow we take our place in the family, at the table, in the home. We have our place and we are safe. As we grow we go to school and have our place in line, at a desk, in the church. Then a place of work. All this time we know our place in the world.
When Colum left school and her place of work she found a place at Wrentham. Here she was given a place in choir, in the refectory, in the dorm. She lived in the regular places that constitute a monastery. Then she was given the first place when Mississippi Abbey was founded in 1964. All of these places, mundane as they appear to be, were intimations of the place Jesus was preparing for Colum in his heart, her final resting place in his arms.
Each of us has a place within us reserved for Jesus alone. Jesus said in preparing a place for us he wants us to be where he is. Every time we enter our place, our special place of prayer in our heart’s core, we are with Jesus at the right hand of the Father. We know this place by faith, now Colum knows it by vision.
Whenever a monk dies at New Melleray I flip through the pages of the Rule of St.Benedict looking for a passage or a sentence that captures his life. As I was doing this exercise with Colum in view, my eyes landed on the title of chapter 55, “The Clothing of the Monastery.”
Colum liked to sew, not ordinary sewing but special things like vestments for mass and dresses for … for what? One story:
when Colum was superior at Stapehill and I was going to Mount Saint Bernard’s abbey for a visitation, we arranged to meet and go to London for a few days. Her cousin, the playwright John Guare, was going to be there and had tickets set aside for us for a Shakespeaian play at the Old Vic.
When I got to Stapehill Colum was putting the finishing touches on a dress she made for the occasion. She had stayed up till 4 AM working on it! We got to London and the two priorities were a good meal and the play. Well, we had the good meal but needless to say, even with rushing and an all out sprint for the last 50 yards to the theater, we were late for the first act and had to sit in the lobby waiting for the second act!
The next day Column was sick from the lack of sleep, the rushing and the excitement of it all, and had to spend two days in bed. So much for London.
But that is not the main reason I see something of Column in chapter 55 of the Rule. The words, “Distribution was made to each one as she had need.” The context implies that these words apply to the superior to make sure each sister has what she needs in clothes, etc. but I would like to apply it to the whole community and not just for clothes.
We need a lot more than clothes. We need to receive and give acceptance, affection, courtesy, care, friendship, trust, space, love, and in Colum’s case, lots of parties and good food! In a Cistercian community you need to give yourself to each other.
Dear sisters, you gave Colum all this and more and she gave the same and more to you. In doing so you brought her to the edge, the boundary where her Bridegroom brought her into his arms, her final place, her eternal resting place.
One last point. Colum was your abbess for the first 18 years of your community. They were not easy years to be a superior. Right after the council everything seemed to be up for grabs. Colum led the community trough those turbulent waters even though she did not see herself as a leader. She was able to lead you because she followed her heart and her heart was true.
I am reminded of the words of John of the Cross:
and with no other light
except for that which in my heart was burning.
It lit and led me through,
more certain than the light of noonday clear,
to where one waited near
whose Presence well I knew”
Colum knew that presence during her lifetime, in fact her inmost being was consumed with longing for that Presence. Now she is fulfilled, complete in her longing. We celebrate today not so much what Colum did in her lifetime but what Jesus did in Colum during her lifetime. In the years ahead we will unscrew the jars of our hearts, our memories, and smell the sweet aroma of her life and perhaps smile at a story or two.
Colum, we will never forget you. Thank you for being just who you are.