I conducted a funeral last week. It was for a man I cherished as a friend and wise elder. I may have been his pastor this last decade, but he enlarged my spirit far more than I ever nurtured his. Under the current restrictions, the gathering was small: just ten members of his family and me. Truth be told, those who mourned his death could have filled an auditorium. Instead, we were just a few.
My friend was a man of the church. He had given 60+ years of devoted service to Collins Street. But he was more than the church. He was a man of family, of work in local and state government and of civic duty. He provided leadership to community and sporting organisations throughout his life. While he possessed a faith — a very genuine faith — he was not a pious man. In the words of his wife, there was no “pie in the sky” for which he hungered. For him the way of Christ was a way to live, and this he did with genuine delight and an integrity hard to match.
One of the privileges of leading funerals is the routine recognition it provides that death is part of life’s story. I cannot look away. Life and death go hand in hand. Benedict of Nursia (AD 480-547), the founder of a spiritual community that survives to the present day, instructed his monks to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” This was not a morbid exhortation, rather an encouragement to cherish life from beginning to end as the extraordinary and eternal gift that it is.
The contemporary Benedictine David Steindl-Rast underlines this truth:
“The finality of death is meant to challenge us to decision, the decision to be fully present here now, and so begin eternal life. For eternity rightly understood is not the perpetuation of time, on and on, but rather the overcoming of time by the now that does not pass away.”Brother David Steindl-Rast, “Learning to Die,” in Parabola 2, No. 1 (Winter 1977).
Today my friend is gone from us and we grieve. But the ‘now’ of his life lives on in a world that is richer for his presence. For me the language of eternity is a language of mystery: what lies beyond is beyond my knowing. What I do know, however, is that eternity begins each and every day and its beauty is ours to grasp in the smallest details of our lives. This my friend did with a style all his own and I’ll never forget him for it.