Memorial Mass

Scripture Readings:  Romans 8:13–39, Luke 7:11–17

My friends, brothers and sisters, again, welcome to our Mass of Remembrance. You have come as part of a journey. It is the journey of mourning a loved one. May this day at New Melleray be for you a moment of rest on the journey. May it be ointment on the sore places. May the companionship in grief that surrounds you give you courage to continue as long as the journey be.  At this Mass on this day—I borrow the words of Pope Francis—“Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is your life!”

A friend of mine is in love, a new love, a growing love. At the moment she whom he loves is away. He writes me in an email, “It is risky to love and be loved by another.  Part of me is    walking (I’m assuming she’s walking right now) with her in that distant city. I trust her, or at least am beginning to trust her.” And then, “It almost seems unbelievable that someone loves me.”  When we lose someone to death, it is true, we imagine we are walking with them.  It comforts and it hurts.

A little over a year ago a friend of mine died, afflicted since his 50s with early and aggressive Alzheimer’s. Early in the week when he would die his wife said to me, “Let me put the phone to his ear. Talk to him. He won’t answer, maybe he won’t even hear; but maybe he will.” I did let her, and I talked to him. I told him I loved him; I read to him from the Song of Songs —Come, my beloved, my lovely one, come—I prayed with him. I did that twice in the week that he died. It was a best moment for me, one that I will always treasure, as I do that moment when my father died in his 99th year and I alone was with him holding his hand and praying with him, then took the announcement of his holy passing to my waiting pensive mother, his companion for 80 years, a treasure I could share with her, a grief, a hope, a love.  

Everyone here has walked with your departed loved one as the widowed mother in the dazzling story from Luke’s Gospel walks with her dead son. You have walked here to eastern Iowa, of all places, for reasons that only you know, only you and the persons sitting around you. You are all here in a mysterious communion of mourning and faith, loss and hope, memory and love.

I was reading a recently published exchange of letters, Helmuth and Freya Moltke.  Helmuth is in a Nazi prison enduring a charade trial but sure to be executed.  It is 1944.  Freya, his wife, and Helmuth exchange almost daily letters. Freya writes, “I will have to go on living and that will be hard, but it will work out, because I will be able to go on loving you. I will love you in God . . . and I will love God more and better that I have before.  But please, when you die, it must be in the certainty that apart from God I belong only to you.” Helmuth writes two days later, “I have no fear of death and I believe that I will be holding on to all of you in some form or another, [though] it pains me that I will not see you and the little sons again with these eyes of mine”; and she, “My dear, how wonderful that I have grown onto you; how comforting. Help me if I have to remain alone. I have to stay really and truly alone in order to keep you.”

Jesus touched the coffin and said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” And when he did, “Jesus gave him to his mother” (Luke 7:11–17). This is truth in language we can feel, a truth beyond us delivered in the immediacy of our senses and desire so we can know it. “I know that the earth I tread on will be delivered from its enslavement to decay, and that there will be a new earth and a new heaven . . . for he says, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Even my earthly body will be filled with the glory of the Lord.”[1] “My heart grew dark with grief.” Saint Augustine tells what the death of a friend did to him. “Wherever I looked I saw only death. My own town became a torment to me and my own house a grotesque abode of misery. My eyes searched everywhere for him . . . . I hated all places we had been together, because he was not in them, and they could no longer whisper to me, ‘Here he comes!’”[2]

Everyone has lost someone. No one is over it. Here, we let others into our grief, we enter theirs: the altar, the monastery, the Mass, remind us that there are others: they bridge the distance. “Our loved ones have no need of our suffering,” says Pope Francis, “nor does it flatter them that we should ruin our lives. . . . Love involves an intuition that can enable us to hear without sounds and to see the unseen. This does not mean imagining our loved ones as they were, but being able to accept them changed as they now are.”[3] “It almost seems unbelievable that someone loves me,” my friend-in-love said. But this is exactly and all of what Christian faith is: that someone loves me. It is the creed. So Saint Paul in our first reading assures us, even challenges us, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:37). Again, Pope Francis, “Our loved ones are not lost in the shades of nothingness; hope assures us that they are in the good strong hands of God.”[4]

[1] See Aelred of Rievaulx, Sermon on the Advent of the Lord.

[2] Confessions 4.4.9.

[3] Francis, Amoris laetitia, 255.

[4] Francis, AL, 256; Catechesis 17 June, 2015.