Thursday, April 14, 2011

Homily for Sr. Helena's Funeral

Isaiah 24.6-9 
Psalm 139.1-16 1
John 3.1-2 
Luke 24.13-16, 28-35

 “Walk slowly, look holy.” 

 This was the maxim that Sr. Helena taught all of us to live by – especially those of us who were trained by her in work of the sacristy and chapel. She herself was calm, contemplative, serene and gentle in her approach to chapel work, and she taught us, too, not to take ourselves too seriously – to remember that everything we did was for God. And because God’s love is unconditional, our worship would not be spoiled in any way if we made a mistake. 

 I remember one time when the chapel was set up for our Saturday evening Vigil of the Resurrection, with the water pitcher on the little table next to the baptismal font, ready for the Thanksgiving over the Water. The sister who was appointed to say the thanksgiving prayer that night picked up the pitcher and realized there was no water in it, and Sr. Helena herself realized it in a wink. But rather than jumping up, as some of us might, and running over to the font with a worried expression on her face, she did it all in a typically Helena way – got up from her choir stall, acknowledged the altar, walked contemplatively over to the font, picked up the pitcher, walked contemplatively out to the sacristy, turned on the water, filled the pitcher, turned off the water, walked back in, acknowledged the altar, brought it to the sister waiting to pour the water and say the prayer. The sisters knew what happened (and some might have chuckled under their breaths) but for the guests, it could easily have seemed to be a planned part of the ceremonial. 

This was Sr. Helena’s way of life. Whatever happened, God was there in the midst of it, blessing her, blessing everyone. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the psalm says. “God formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mother’s womb” – so how could God possibly get upset over something as trivial as forgetting to put water in the ewer! 

Walk slowly, look holy. 

She never meant “look holy” to mean look religious or pious. She meant look like you are a beloved child of God. Don’t rush, don’t fret, don’t worry. Live the liturgy as it’s meant to be lived, with joy and peace. Walk through life with serenity and delight, relishing the love which God pours out on us.

 That is what the two disciples in the gospel narrative discover. They are grieving. They have lost their leader, they are going to Emmaus as though the cause has failed, back to their families and the occupations they were engaged in before they met Jesus. They are walking slowly but looking worried and distressed rather than holy. 

When Jesus meets them on the road, he engages with them as a teacher, explaining to them the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that relate to him. But it is not until they are at table together, and he breaks the bread, that they recognize him for who he truly is. Then they return to Jerusalem to share the good news the other disciples.

The Emmaus story is a reflection of Helena’s life in community. She knew who Jesus was, she had been a faithful Christian for many years before joining the Sisterhood. But it was in community – around this table as we broke bread together, around the Refectory table at silent or talking meals, and in our common life – that she grew in knowledge of Jesus as the lover of souls, and in herself as God’s beloved. She was a strong contemplative, and needed lots of private time and space to keep her sane and to nurture her relationship with God. But she was also a social person, and like the disciples returning from Emmaus to Jerusalem, she couldn’t help but share her ever-deepening experience of God’s love with other. 

She talked to people and encouraged them in their spiritual quests. She ministered to peoples’ physical and spiritual needs. In her community life Sr. Helena worked in almost every house of the Sisterhood and most departments. It was a natural outgrowth of the life she lived before community. She had worked as a commercial artist, in the Civil service, and in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during World War II. When she arrived on the Convent doorstep after the war, she said she was looking for two things that came out of her previous experience, and I quote her: I wanted “to live closer to God, and to help to prevent World War III from taking place.” In that dual call is summed up Sr. Helena’s desire to bring harmony to human life and the cosmos. It was her unique method of evangelism.

One thing I remember most about her ministering God’s love to people was the Bible studies she use to lead on Friday evenings for guests who came to stay at the Convent for the weekend. When I used to drive up to Willowdale with my friends from Detroit in the 1970s this was one of things we most looked forward to. After supper on Friday night, she would invite whoever wanted to come to join her in the Holy Spirit Chapel. We would read the gospel reading for the following Sunday, and she would lead us in a unique exploration, touching on topics I had never heard of – the cosmic Christ, the oneness of all of us in God, our coinherence in God and God in us – and also topics I had heard of but never grasped in depth before – the unconditional love of God, the unique value of each person God created, and the beauty of God’s Word in scripture. 

She loved scripture, and she prayed faithfully and earnestly for the Bible society throughout the world. She learned about new translations in languages I had never heard of. In recent years, when her blindness became severe, her wonderful friend Blossom would read the daily entries from the Bible society booklet to her and Helena would memorize them and pray for them in the intercessions each day at the Eucharist. 

Jesus was known to her in the breaking of bread, in community, in the breaking open of the scripture, and most of all in her own contemplative prayer. 

She loved Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross and especially John the beloved disciple. She prayed with her soul, her mind and her body – we all will remember her unique, absolutely faithful brand of Tai Chi. Perhaps nowhere was walking slowly and looking holy more evident than when she was out on the lawn in St. Lambert or Botham Road – or here in the Sisters’ courtyard, doing her own ballerina interpretation of Tai Chi. 

Her holistic spirituality can best be expressed through something she herself said – this is an excerpt from her response to the wonderful toast that Sr. Thelma-Anne gave at her 50th profession anniversary. 
“Whatever measure we may – and should – take to promote human harmony, the one underlying absolute essential is the transforming presence of God in the inmost depths of the human consciousness, at the deepest root that is the gut source of human behaviour. This is no quick fix. Ask any gardener, even, or physiotherapist, or psychotherapist. But the whole power of God is behind it, and in it, and working through it. The inner consciousness of the whole created universe is one – in Christ – in God – shattered by a mysterious and deadly alienation out of God, yet still an amazing internet – co-inherent, intercontingent, interactive, interdependent – and each of us a web site, opening the way for God into, or shutting God out of, the whole internet. A bit simplistic? Or is it? You and I, each one of us in our small corner of life, has the amazing privilege and awesome responsibility of choosing to live toward God, to join in creation’s love song to God, with God-in-us singing God’s Love Song to all creation.” 
Sr. Helena had a sense of wonder about everything – about the cosmos, about God, about the love which God pours out on us. And the wonder of this love gave Sr. Helena a confidence about the future which is summed up in the letter from John: 
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 
She saw this, I believe, most fully just a few days before she died. One day, Sr. Jessica heard her describing a vision of beautiful flowers – daffodils and many other – she described their lovely scent and colours. Another day Jessica heard Sr. Helena describing a vision of children – “they are so beautiful,” she said. She saw God’s love in nature, in people, in the vulnerable, including children. She looked forward to the future with joy, and I think this can best be summed up in something she wrote back in the 1980's. Sr. Frances Joyce had asked all the sisters to write up a short history of their lives in community. I want to read the end of Sr. Helena’s which I think sums up her hope for her own eternal life and her confidence in the fulfilment of God’s eternal purpose: 

She tells that just a few hours after she had typed up her history for Sr. Frances Joyce, a Godincident happened. Fr. Russell, preaching at the Sisters’ Sunday Eucharist, said (in Helena’s words), 
“that chronological time is ‘artificial’ – that real time is happenings and experiences, and quoted a philosopher who said that time is the progress of the soul. And that is what we are about, isn’t it? However, chronological time is necessary for synchronising us all, and establishing history. 
Her sense of God’s time, or kairos – what Fr. Russell called “real time” – is captured not only in the reading from John’s letter but also in Isaiah:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. . . . It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God for whom we have waited. . . . let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation. 
Another banquet, another table. Like the disciples who saw Jesus when he broke the bread, Helena now sees God as God is, and she knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that she is loved completely, unconditionally. Much like our own discerning of God’s presence in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread,

As we give thanks for Helena’s life, may we too discern Christ in the breaking of bread at this table, and may we remember two important lessons from Sr. Helena – that it’s OK to walk slowly and contemplatively through life, and that it’s good to be holy – and wholly aware of how beloved we are of God.

Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
April 14, 2011