On Tuesday, June 29, I had the terrible privilege of celebrating the funeral mass of a 29-year old woman who had died of metastatic breast cancer. Caroline (she pronounced it with a long i, like in the Neil Diamond song) was the sister-in-law of my niece, Meg, so I had met her several times over the past few years, and always liked her.
When it was clear that she was dying, she had asked if I could celebrate her funeral mass. When I saw the crowds of people at the funeral parlor the day before the mass I felt the fearful responsibility that she had laid on my shoulders, knowing that many of these people would be at the church at 10 o'clock the next morningto say goodbye and to grieve --and not a few of them would be angry at God the way I was when my brother died. I prayed hard, and had a few others praying for me, that the Lord would give me the right words to say in the homily at mass.
Because of the many, many people who told me after mass how helpful they found my words, I thought I’d share with you the main ideas of the homily that the Lord gave me to hand on to them -- and to myself.
BEYOND THE REALM OF REASON
This is where our faith comes in: faith invites us to let go of our tightly-reasoned scientific syllogisms and enter the world of metaphors, parables and images – a world which does not offer answers but can give us a sense of hope and some help in getting through this awful experience in one piece.
So I would like to share with you an image that has helped me over the years, in the hope that it may be of some use to you as well.
I was in a tour group in a French cathedral standing in front of a huge tapestry that hung on the wall. It depicted beautifully some biblical story – let’s say it was Jesus emerging gloriously from the tomb on Easter morning. After letting us gaze at this impressive work of art for a few moments, the guide, a little man with a mustache, glance furtively over his left shoulder and then over his right to make sure no one was watching, and said “Let me show you something.” He then carefully lifted up a corner of the tapestry so that we could see the back. “Interesting, no?” he said, as we craned our necks to look at the jumble of snarls and loops and knots that made up the back of the tapestry. He quickly let it fall back into place before he got into trouble.
It was amazing that from the confused mess on the back there was no way of knowing that on the front was a beautiful picture. It was the same tapestry, with two very different-looking sides.
Our faith tells us that life is like that tapestry. The side we get to look at makes no sense and is often full of snags and snarls and ugliness – like the painful death of young Caroline. It simply makes no sense. But from God’s side the tapestry of our life not only makes sense but is unspeakably, infinitely beautiful beyond our imagining.
The problem is, of course, that we just don’t get to see it from God’s perspective, from the beautiful side. Not yet, at least.
GLIMPSES OF GLORY
Didn’t Caroline do that for each of us? I know she did it for me. Just six months ago almost to the day, when she was in remission, and was feeling and looking great, she and I were at a family Christmas party. We wound up sitting by each other eating buffet food and talking. We started talking about serious things, especially about how she felt after her recent near brush with death. Maybe it was because we both share the same birthday (August 16th), but we found ourselves really sharing deeply for what must have been half an hour. Suddenly we both realized that we had better start talking to others or our relatives were going to get upset.
As I walked away, empty plate in hand, I realized that Caroline had just given me one of those rare and wonderful glimpses of the other side of the tapestry, a quick vision of how beautiful and good and loving God is.
Yet here we are this morning staring in horror and grief at the wrong side of the tapestry, overwhelmed with sadness and confusion and anger at the absurdity of her death. But I would like to offer you this image to take home with you, in the hope that it might help. When you find yourself suddenly overcome with grief or when you find yourself missing her more terribly than usual, then remember this: Caroline is not through with you and me yet. We need to be on the watch for her to show up in some beautiful person, say, or some kind deed, or a gorgeous sunset. Picture Caroline standing there with you like a tour guide in front of a tapestry in a French cathedral. She will have her long flowing black hair again, and she'll be dressed in a classy dress (“classy” was one of her favorite words), and will be the only cathedral guide ever to wear high heels. The tapestry will be hanging with the ugly side facing outward, so you can only see senseless snarls and meaningless tangles. Then she will glance furtively over her left shoulder, tossing her black tresses as she does so, then over her right shoulder. Then she’ll whisper to you “Let me show you something,” and she'll carefully lift up a corner of the tapestry so that you can see the other side. And what you’ll see is a scene of unspeakable beauty, a loveliness that brings tears to your eyes, and you’ll feel the infinite warm embrace of God’s love. And she’ll say, “Pretty beautiful, isn’t it?”
THE CAROLINE CONSPIRACY
At the end of mass I challenged everyone present to be part of the “Caroline Conspiracy.” Each and every day participants in this conspiracy will make it a point to do something, however small or seemingly insignificant, to give someone else a glimpse of the beauty of God. It may be a simple smile, or leaving room for a hassled driver to pull out of a side street in front of you, or forgiving an insult that was said in unthinking anger. Each of these deeds can be done in the spirit of Sweet Caroline, gently lifting up the corner of life’s ugly tapestry and giving a brother or sister a glimpse, as she used to do for us, of just how beautiful life really is.
Please feel free to join the conspiracy yourself. Caroline would like that.