Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sermon for a memorial of Diana Smith - 28 Mar 2009

St Alban's Church, Washington, DC
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Saturday 28 March 2009

For the past several centuries, were you to enter a church this afternoon — the Saturday before Passiontide, two weeks before Easter—you would have likely encountered a rather unusual ritual. The sexton or verger or altar guild or even the priest or parson himself would be engaged in veiling the Cross at the altar with a purple cloth, along with any other statues and images that might be in the church.

It was all a bit paradoxical. During the time of year when the Christian community was invited and encouraged to reflect on the mystery of the cross, it was hidden from plain sight. Yet this very act of hiding or veiling somehow brought it to mind all the more strongly.

It’s a common pattern. Taking away the familiar can have the effect of moving us into a deeper insight into truth precisely through the unfamiliar, the hidden, the obscure, the veiled.

Death, as the Prophet Isaiah says, is the ultimate veiling. Yet it, too, can paradoxically serve to heighten our awareness of deep truths about our world and ourselves. Much of the Christian Gospel seems to work like that.

Take today’s words of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, the light.” On the surface, they are comfortable words. But as we know, it can be difficult to find and follow the way, and there can be pain and blindness in truth and light, in the disclosure of things known and unknown and half-known, of things seen and unseen, a disclosure that often feels like judgment. It isn’t always easy or comfortable to walk in the light, at least not at the outset. Perhaps that’s why at some level we are both fascinated by and fear death. It holds the promise and the threat of full disclosure through and beyond apparent veiling and into a radical and eternal unveiling.

These words of Jesus from the Gospel according to John, chosen by Diana to be read at this service, are echoed in the poetry of the 16th century Anglican priest George Herbert, whose verses were likewise chosen by Diana to be sung this afternoon in the achingly beautiful arrangement of Ralph Vaughn William’s Five Mystical Songs. Many of you will know well both the poem and the setting. It begins:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life as killeth death.

Taking up the words of Jesus, the poet invites the reader or the hearer to consider the Christian’s primary relationship to the Lord.

Jesus as Way: not a particular religious system so much as a certain style of being in the world, a style or stance marked by confidence that God is indeed God and that we are God’s beloved. A way marked by trust and courage, even in the face of human cruelty and irrational circumstances.

Jesus as Truth: not some propositional statement or claim on our intellect alone but the full revelation or uncovering of what is most deeply human about us, creatures of infinite longing and finite capacity, made in the image of God’s own eternal desires and designs.

Jesus as Life: that is, as the focal point and model of God’s action in animating existence and absorbing and overcoming all that would diminish or frustrate the creation.

Diana knew well that to claim Jesus as Way and Truth and Life was no easy way out, but a path through radical honesty to endless, maybe even absurd, hope. It was never for her, nor is it for anyone really, an easy way… simply the only way, and that is, the way through the heart of reality as it is and not as we would have it.

This is of course a hard teaching. Who can sustain it? Who can endure it? But the poet knows this — as did Diana — and he tells us that there is more, much more:
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Light, Feast, Strength—vision, warmth, nourishment, healing, hospitality, companionship… no matter where, no matter when, no matter what. These are the gifts that sustain us at hard edges of the human condition. They are the graces, the sacraments, if you will, the others who help us and make it possible for us to go on. That made it possible for Diana to go on. You — her friends, her congregation, her family, her colleagues — incarnated that light and feast and strength for her, as I trust she did for you...

Finally, the poet sums up his gospel and ours:
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in Love.

He speaks of a joy that is deep and grounded and stable, not unaffected by the vagaries of life, but not destroyed by them. He speaks of a love that unites us to God and each other and empowers us for witness and service. He speaks of heart that expands to embrace the whole world with its pain and its beauty and its innate dignity. Just like the Heart of Jesus. Just like the heart of God.

All that is veiled somewhat for us today, like the crosses in the churches. But that very veiling can focus our attention and spark our imaginations. I believe that Diana invites us to ponder these texts together as we recognize how they shaped her life in quiet, gentle and faith-filled ways.

I also believe that Diana wanted us to remember that, just as the crosses in churches will be unveiled at Easter, so will hers and yours and mine. And we will discover together, no doubt in wonder and surprise, the glory of God’s unveiled face, as well as our own true faces: our own, Diana’s and each other’s.

It’s no accident that Vaughn William’s song cycle doesn’t end with, but begins with Herbert’s poem Easter:
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise,
Without delays.
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him may’st rise.

It all begins there, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. And it continues there until into eternity.

I knew Diana for perhaps eighteen years. She was a regular visitor at our monastery in New York, and a faithful Associate of our Order. Among her many talents, she was an accomplished teacher and once taught a course in our Elderhostel program on the history of tea. It was quintessential Diana: learned, droll, witty, gracious. More recently, she and I cooperated in leading a pilgrimage to Benedictine monastic sites in England and Wales. Though I was the monk of record, she was the brains. She had an abiding love for all things English, and the Benedictine roots of the English church shaped her Anglican faith. She knew more than I could ever hope to learn about such things, and she wore her learning with gentleness and tact.

I have to admit, though, that I didn’t know a lot about Diana, about the details of her life. She was a very private person. (Though I do know that her first job in Washington was as Librarian at the Distilled Spirits Council of America, which has to have elicited interest in her resume!) But though I didn’t know a lot of facts or details about Diana, I always felt that I knew Diana. And so, I trust, did you.

In a recent lecture given at that great Jesuit University — not Georgetown but Boston College — theology professor Fr. Michael Hines talked about the vocation of teaching. He said:
I’ve come to think that if there is one single virtue, it’s integrity. By integrity, I don’t simply mean honesty. I mean the word literally. It’s the quality of being an integer, an entity. It’s what happens at your wake when your spouse talks to your pastor, who talks with your business partner, who speaks with your next-door neighbor, who talks with your children, who speaks with your doctor, and they all know that they knew the same person. You weren’t a series of masks worn for different relationships. You were complete.

Diana was indeed that. An integer. An entity. Complete. No matter how much or little you knew of Diana or about Diana, what you always got was… Diana.

Perhaps that’s why she was so fascinated by the Benedictine monastic vision. At its heart, the monastic goal is to arrive at integrity, to leave behind the divided heart, to will the one thing necessary with singleness of heart and soul and mind. It is of course the Christian vision. It is, I daresay, the human vision. It was Diana’s vision. Let it be ours as well: yours and mine.

May Diana know at last the full reward of her searching and the fulfillment of her heart’s desires.

May she find the Way, the Truth, and the Life, along with Light, Feast, Strength, Joy, Love, Heart.

May she rest in peace. May she rise in glory.


1 comment:

David said...

I have known Diana for many years and I was quite touched by Br. Robert's thoughtful sermon. I think Diana would be pleased.

I linked to the sermon from my own blog -

- David