Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The gift of weakness: a funeral homily

(Myra was a 79-year-old former primary school teacher, keen golfer, and faithful church member who spent the last 7 years of her life in a nursing home before dying of a dementia-related illness. One of her two sons, John, gave the eulogy. The lesson from 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 was then read, and the homily followed.) 

What can I add to John’s tribute to Myra? With a portrait so rich in detail and colour, not much! The focus on family – devotion to Graham, pride in her boys, delight in her grandchildren; the importance of friendships; the vitality – and that smile; the practical faith visible in attention to others and service in the church (at Bethel, on the Social Committee): that’s the Myra we knew in Sketty. But not the only Myra. For the Myra finally overtaken by dementia was Myra too. And God may have something to tell us through Myra in her weakness as well as Myra in her strength. After all, isn’t that the way God worked through Jesus?

Dementia has now replaced cancer as the illness that embodies our deepest fears. Pitiless and inexorable, it seems to threaten our very identity as human beings. Memory evaporates as the past splits from the present like an iceberg cracking from the inside out. Recognition blurs, relationships pale, self-care crumbles.

But how much of this appraisal simply reflects our own visceral fears shaped by a culture captive to the idols of autonomy, productivity, and control? How much of our default evaluation of dementia as a “living death” is simply a projection of unexamined assumptions about selfhood? Are we ever masters of our own experience? Are we not always strangers to ourselves? Isn't all that we have not a secure acquisition but a fragile gift? And isn't who I am finally determined not by what I achieve but by how God sees me?

What if we stop assuming that dementia is solely an affliction that takes us into a bad place and consider the possibility that it might even be a grace that moves us towards a new place? Perhaps the truly awful thing for people with dementia is not so much that they forget – for memory is a collective enterprise, something we do together – but that they are often forgotten.

Certainly Myra was not forgotten by her own family, and if my own experience rings true, amidst her frailty and helplessness, and your loss and pain, there were moments – holy moments – of intimacy, tenderness, humour, and love, a love which the pathos of the situation only served to clarify, deepen, and sustain.

In Wendell Berry’s wonderful novel Hannah Coulter, the elderly twice-widowed heroine, reflecting on life and loss, observes: “I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be a story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while…. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

The tapestry that is each of us: this side of death I think mostly we see the back side with its loose ends and knots and messiness. But on the other side, the side of resurrection: there the stitches shine like gold, the pattern of our lives – the pattern of Myra’s life – completed, perfected, glorious, woven by the God of creation and recreation we see in Jesus.

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