At the Solemn Mass of the Resurrection for Thelma A. Piervicenti
Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016
O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our prayers on behalf of thy servant Thelma grant her an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of thy saints; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Corinthians 4:16–5:9
Last Saturday we celebrated a marriage here and just the other day I began working with a couple to plan their wedding. A couple of weeks ago we welcomed someone into the new life of baptism and I am working with a couple of families to prepare them for the baptism of their children. And today we are gathered for this mass of the resurrection to remember and celebrate the life of a beloved member of our community. That is what we do in a community like ours. For, in addition to marking the seasons and the passage of time together week in and week out, we gather together at critical moments in our lives to help us make sense, to make meaning, to better understand how and why this is all so important. We seek to understand the importance and the purpose of our lives in its totality.
At that wedding last week, I was particularly struck, as I often am, by a passage from one of the two prayers of blessing I offer the couple at the end of the service:
Bless them in their work and in their companionship; in their sleeping and in ther waking; in their joys and in their sorrows; in their life and in their death. Finally, in thy mercy, bring them to that table where thy saints feast for ever in thy heavenly home.
No matter how many times I pray these words, I am still taken aback to be reminding the couple about death in this moment. And yet, this is also what we do. We see life in its totality. It isn't that we look to bring people down in moments of great joy, but rather it is that we remain mindful of the fragility of life, of its brevity, of the need to make the most of it, and especially that death is a part of life, part of being human, part of not being God. The good news, of course, is that we also believe, know, have experienced (for that is, as I have been saying, what faith actually is all about) that death never has the final word, that love is stronger than death, outlives death, and finally shall defeat death in the triumph of the Love that we also know as God. Love is stronger than death because it has the power to ensure that those who have died, those whom we have loved and those who loved and still love us never leave us, that we take them with us everywhere, that their lives have so touched and influenced us that we are changed, made new by our relationship and that person becomes forever a part of who we are.
The understanding that the witness and power of our lives encompasses and transcends the death of our mortal bodies has been given powerful testimony in the life and death of our friend Thelma, whom we remember and celebrate today. While we are the ones who mourn, whom Isaiah wished “to give ... a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; ... [to] be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord,” it is Thelma whom many of us would name a true “oak of righteousness.” Indeed, not all shepherds lead from the front. Thelma showed forth in her life an extraordinary love of people and her community. She was a strength and a comfort to all of us, she was willing to engage and lend her insight and experience to the most important questions that faced our community. Her voice was never the loudest, but it was always full if insight and experience and one failed to listen to what she had to say at ones own peril. Thelma came to Saint Ignatius in the early 1970s, having lived in the neighbourhood even longer. She witnessed the changes in this part of the city over the last fifty years as well as inside our community. A steadfast oak, growing and sheltering, nurturing and anchoring the earth is perhaps one of the best ways to describe and explain her presence among us.
In her final illness over the past few months, Thelma showed in the same beautiful oaken qualities as she had in the other aspects of her life. Thelma in her own way took control of her destiny, choosing that she would not (to quote the Great Litany) die “suddenly and unprepared.” As she faced her death she shared with me and others that she was not afraid, that she had known God in her life and she would know God in her death. As much as any of us can, Thelma made a good death, at home, with her family, having fought on in life, never giving up on the loving project into which God calls us all. She shows us that death does not have the last word. She was not defeated by death and her love, which is nothing less that the very Love of God, fills this place, and fills us all.
The phrase, “in her life and in her death” resonates profoundly for me this morning as we celebrate Thelma. Those words sum up the totality of the Christian life and rarely have I ever encountered someone in whom the Christian life was so completely integrated into her being as it was with Thelma. In a few moments we shall align our celebration with that heavenly banquet that is continually celebrated and we shall join our voices with angels and archangels and Thelma and all the company of heaven as we sing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” We shall take into ourselves the very body of Christ that nourished Thelma and continue to nourish our bodies so that we, too, may in our life and our death be blessed and a blessing to all those whom we encounter.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume