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Requiem Homily for Sr. Sue Elwyn, SSJD.

By The Rev. William Whitla.

Tuesday, Sept 29, 2020, 11 am

✠ In the name of God the Maker of all, and of the Word who speaks through us all, and of the Blessed Spirit who inhabits us all. Amen.

      These are times of trial and testing for all of us. Death in the pandemic breathes close to us, not least for those following our words in the United States where the toll on suffering and life itself is so great. So we greet you all on this Feast of St. Michael and all Angels, all who are here in this chapel of St. John the Divine, and those of Sue’s friends who are further away, but no less close to us in heart and spirit, none closer than her sisters Katy, Rachel, and Laura. Welcome to you all.

      It is for us to mourn our Sister Sue’s death, and also to give thanks to God for her many gifts of love and service and wisdom, her worlds of words and hymns, her uses of paint and colour, her visions and her friendships. I myself will greatly miss her, and so will we all. Sue’s many trials are over. For that we can surely rejoice, but it is a muted rejoicing.

      The passing of Sister Sue is too soon in human time: but it is not our time, or our job, to determine, is it? Her life raises the questions posed by the reading from the book of Job. We struggle to understand why it is that good people suffer under a just God. Job poses this problem over and over, but stands steadfastly by his belief that God is just, and Job maintains that he knows that his Redeemer lives and that at the last, in his own flesh, he will see God. After further attempts from his inadequate comforters, God  speaks to Job from the whirlwind—where were you when I made the foundations of the earth, when I drew back the curtains of the clouds, when I laid out the oceans and the rivers in their courses, when I caught Leviathan with a hook, when I raised up mighty nations and set down the proud.

      Job’s answer is profound. Job replies that God is a mystery, a wonder and beyond reason or knowledge. The mystics that Sue read, including First Nation spirituality, also taught that God cannot be shrunk into a convenient package, reduced to limited human understanding. God is beyond and deeper than that. We read much together, Sue and I,—including Martin Luther and the three great Latin “A” theologians: Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.

      I thought that she would love the wonderful phrase of Saint Anselm’s, fides quaerens intellectum: it means “faith seeking knowledge.” But the concept was not for Sue. At first she settled on fides quaerens sapientia, “faith seeking wisdom.” Ah—but no–that wasn’t it either. It had to be, even more simply, fides quaerens—just “faith seeking.” That seemed to capture it about right.

      Sister Sue was deeply Christian, but her belief came at a great cost. She was raised in a lively political home, with her three sisters, Katy, Rachel, and Laura, who are with us by a link today. The 1950s and 1960s were hard times for committed socialists like her mother and father to raise children, and hard for the children to be so raised. Sue often said that they had meetings in their house and the children were expected to perform up to standard. Sue often felt that she fell short. Those were the times when Senator Joseph McCarthy was ravaging the political landscape with his persecutions of people for un-American activities, which meant any link with the left. So they lived under threat, but also remained filled with righteous political zeal. Sue survived into the turbulent sixties, the times of flower power and civil rights, and she was in the midst of those movements too, eventually finding her way to the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a doctorate in Ancient History, later teaching classical Greek at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City for three years. Just how wonderful a teacher of New Testament Greek she was, some of us know, because in the summer of 2007 she taught nine two-hour classes here at the Convent, that enabled participants to read, with the help of dictionaries and other aids, passages in the New Testament, and especially the opening of John’s Gospel. I had the honour of being her sous-chef and assistant. After Brigham Young University, Sue taught Latin, religion, and English Literature for five years at the oldest standing Boarding and Day School in the United States, West Nottingham Academy in Maryland, founded in 1744. Along the way the religious side of her life was awakened, and came to fruition through the help of a good priest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and over the following five years her vocation to the religious life flowered, as in 2000 she came to this community and eventually made her life profession some fourteen years ago.

      When God spoke to Job he might have asked, “Were you there when I planted a garden in Eden?” I don’t know what Job might have answered, but I know that Sister Sue answered by planting gardens as did God. She planted in the sisters’ enclosure, she planted in the entrance to the Convent on Cummer Avenue, and she loved the transformation of space that gardening brought about. The soil could be resistant, the roots tough, and I remember her complaining about how heavy the clay soil was—but none of them talked back, and that suited Sue just fine.

     Like Job, Sue protested. She fought back, spoke out, corrected—Sue always found obedience one of the hardest of the monastic duties. But there was never a moment’s hesitation in her unfailing commitment to the religious life, to her vocation, to this community. She felt, as Peter said in the letter just read that she was “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed. . . [and in this she could] rejoice, even if now for a little while [she] had to suffer various trials.” Isn’t it amazing that sometimes the readings for the day say it exactly right?

     Sue chose to believe, as do I, and it is a belief that neither she nor I could begin to prove, that we are not some random collection of synapses and electricity, of bits and pieces thrown together in the maelstrom of human reproduction. Instead, she, and I too, believe  that we are part of a great wonder and mystery, that we are both in God’s creation, and also in God—and that is why and how we love and we are loved, and that makes all the difference. Aware of this unfathomable dimension of this life that we call human, Sue often talked of thinking not only with the head and the heart, but also with the gut. She gave high honour to instinct, feelings, emotions, thinking with the body. Especially, I sense, she relied increasingly on those feelings as her own body came to be more a burden to her, more a way of living a  confined life, but wondrously, more and more a way of living an interior and spiritual and meditative life. Her body was a weight that she could not lay down, like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim. until the last. Unlike him, she had to carry her burden with her until she crossed the river and now like Bunyan’s Valiant-for-Truth, she crossed over and reached the shining city where all the trumpets sounded for her on the other side.

      Sue was a word-crafter. She well knew that the word poet in Greek means “a maker.” So God is a poet, as the sublime maker of creation, and this poet-God  first makes light, the sun and the moon and the stars of heaven. Poets make universes and illuminate us. Sue knew that words are a writer’s ammunition, but can also be a writer’s downfall. They provide the challenge to other people’s imagination on the one hand, but they are also hopelessly, terribly, woefully inadequate for describing the great things in existence—the meaning of life, the depth of despair, the desolation of death, the urge to believe, the failure to believe enough, the challenge of faith—the limits of imagination, the presence of God—words are always falling short at moments like this—moments like this when we gather to remember a word-crafter herself.

      Job too wanted his testimony to be written down in words: “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!”

      St. John the Evangelist talked about God in this way, the way that a writer talks, with words—even beginning his Gospel by creating his new universe out of the life of this Jesus, out of words. But John was  faced with the problem of how to begin, what do I say? Do I try for a word? Let me try for the Word: “In the beginning was the Word—and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There is the writer’s vocation, to find the perfect and enduring Word.

      Sue was a writer, a woman of words, striving always—always correcting me because I did not get quite right what she was trying to express, and I couldn’t stand it any more, so I added a word, so I interjected my sense of where she was going—and then she corrected me, and put me right, and changed my words to her words, and they were the right words at last.

      But words fail, and memory slips. So in the psalm today, the writer asks, “I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?” For our memory is most fleeting, a mere blink of the eye. Our memory is short and fuzzy and so very partial.  A traditional Jewish prayer for the dead begins with the words Yizkor Elohim, “God will remember.” The verb Yizkor means “to remember” and Elohim is God. So that even when we have the threat of the loss of memory, we know that God remembers. All of those memories of Sue are hidden within us who continue in this earthly pilgrimage. Sue continues to touch our lives through our memories, and touching us as she has changed our rivers, journeys, waking and sleeping hours  in so many ways, and even in ways that we do not know, or do not now remember – though God remembers. These are part of the living waters that we are all immersed in and nourished by—rivers of work and love, rivers of faith and hope, rivers of sadness and grief and joy, rivers of silence and of music, rivers of life and rivers of death. God will remember her, according to that great mercy promised to those just souls who shall run like sparks through the stubble of our memories, now, and for ever. God is beyond the realm of time, not bound by the clock or the calendar. God is beyond even the realm of forgetfulness, for God remembers. When we cease to remember our loved ones, God will remember them. When our loved ones cease to remember us, only God will remember us. Though our name may be lost to future generations, it is still known and remembered by God who, outside time, remembers it with love and affection in his own present and presence. 

      So in this presence of God, we too remember the One who took bread and wine and blessed and shared them to remember him, the true and living word, the true and living bread: bread as deliverance, bread as unity, bread as community, bread as foretaste, bread as memory. For Sue it was all these things, and now for her, it is the bread of life indeed. As we receive it now, and share it now, there is no separation, but fulfilment, inclusion, and union with God and with each other in the bread of hope and the wine of faith, here and now, and still to come.  Amen.