Scripture Reflection for a Little Brother’s Funeral (with an epilogue by Mumford and Sons)
My little brother Ian won his battle with cancer at 4:00 am on April 27, 2011. Ian lives on, but the cancer is dead. I arrived at the hospital, via the Winnipeg airport, 2 hours before he passed. It was a beautiful gift to spend those hours with him and my whole family. The following evening, when the family was discussing funeral arrangements, Ian’s girlfriend Leanne told me that Ian had asked if I was able to do the religious service because of my theological training. I informed everyone that I could not perform the service but, as long as the priest gave the homily, I might be able to do a short reflection on the Scriptures. Father Albert gave a beautiful homily on Luke chapter 24. He then gave me the privilege of speaking to Ian’s family and friends about Wisdom 4: 7-15 and 1 Cor 3: 10-15. This is what I had to say.
A famous atheist philosopher once famously stated that “Hell is other people.” At the end of one of his books, Pope Benedict XVI plays on this famous saying but says the exact opposite. According to Pope Benedict, “Heaven is other people.”
Heaven is not a place with harps and clouds and angels*. It is a place full of people – people who have finally learned how to treat people like people. In heaven, the misunderstanding and confusion, the bad habits and selfishness that make life messy and make it hard to live together in peace are no more.
But let us look a little closer. If heaven is not about clouds and harps, but about living in love with one another, then heaven is not just something that happens when you die. It is something that starts right here, in this life. When Jesus told people “You are not far from the Kingdom of heaven,” he did not mean, “Buy insurance, your time is almost up.” No, he meant “You understand how to live rightly with other people.”
Heaven starts here whenever people get over themselves enough to reach out to one another in love; when they can sacrifice what seems advantageous to them at the time to care for another; when they can step back and know that the cheating and lying and illness that plague us are not what define our existence, however much they may shape it.
The first reading today talks about leaving behind the evils of this world. It does not talk about leaving behind an evil world. In fact, anything we know about the afterlife starts with what we know about this life. And if the afterlife is good, it is because it is the continuation and perfection of what was good in this life. Anyone who spent any time with Ian during his illness knows that he did not let the evils of this world – his stress and anxiety, his illness and his pain – define him. He was defined by the good in this life – especially his relationships of loving support with his family and his friends, and especially with Leanne who never left his side. In all of that love, a love that overwhelmed him at times, Ian caught his first glimpse of heaven. And heaven will be nothing if not overwhelming.
But even if all of us who watched Ian fight his last battle know that Ian’s suffering did not define him, we do know that it did refine him.
As news of Ian’s illness spread, stories poured in from all over about what an amazing young man Ian was. After hearing one of these stories, Dad wrote Ian an e-mail saying how proud he was of Ian, but also to express his surprise. We simply had no idea what an impact Ian’s life had had on those around him. When Dad indicated that perhaps he didn’t know Ian too well, Ian wrote back, “I didn’t even know myself before this Dad. Don’t sweat it. It’s a major silver lining.”
In the second reading today we hear St. Paul, who wrote this letter, using language about fire. Sometimes we get nervous, especially at a funeral, when we hear the Bible talk about fire because we have been given to believe that fire is an image of hell and torture. But that is not what St. Paul is talking about here. In the Bible, fire is a metaphor for purification. Gold was purified by being placed in a superheated furnace.
Catholics believe in purgatory, and the metaphor of gold being purified by fire is common to describe what happens in purgatory. If I could use another metaphor, one I think Ian would appreciate, I would say that purgatory is like the shower you take before you show up at the party that is heaven. About one month after we heard about Ian’s illness, our whole family was gathered in Winnipeg. Though he was tired and sick, and though it took a toll on him that he paid for in the days that followed, Ian got cleaned up, dressed in his best outfit and came to spend a few memorable hours with his whole family at Clayton’s house. The beautiful black and white picture of our family that you see today was taken at that party.
When St. Paul tells us, in a metaphor that Ian would easily understand, that what we have built, our life’s work, will be tested by fire, he is teaching us that trials show us who we really are, that trials purify us, like gold. In a trial we are given the great opportunity to leave behind that of which we are least proud and become more and more the person we really are. Trials clean us up before the party.
The Ian that came to that party at Clayton’s house cleaned up and in his best outfit was not putting on a mask to hide himself. He was the real Ian who refused to let his sickness be a mask that hid him. In his suffering, he became more, not less, Ian. He did not let his sickness define him, but he let it refine him. In his own words, he finally came to know himself.
If the life of love and friendship that Christians call heaven starts here on earth, so does the trial of purification that we call purgatory. Everyone who watched Ian and saw him grow and mature so incredibly in these last few months knows that. Ian’s response to his own trial by fire inspired everyone who watched him because there is very little that is as moving as seeing someone, as our first reading put it, “being perfected in a short time.”
I want to say one last thing about purgatory. Purgatory, in this life or the next, is not something we do alone. Ian was an incredibly strong young man, but when Ian came to that party I mentioned, the walkway was icy and Ian was weak. Clayton and I had to carry him in and out of that party. In the weeks and months in the hospital, Ian was constantly carried by the love of two women, our mom and Leanne. And as you all know, he was carried by prayers, good wishes, constant assurances of love and affection, cupcakes, T-shirts, socials, and the constant presence, physical or virtual, of those who loved him.
If heaven really is other people, then our job is not yet finished. Ian is beyond the reach of cancer, but he is not beyond the reach of our love. When Catholics have a funeral Mass to pray for the dead, it is an affirmation that, despite appearances to the contrary, death has not separated us from our loved one. Death is not the last word. Let those of us who loved him in this life and who carried him when he was weak, continue to carry him into the next life.
Let us thank God for the gift of Ian’s life and let us thank God that we were privileged to see Ian become so much himself in these last months. And let us continue to offer our love and our prayers for Ian so that, beyond the reach of pain and death, he may be perfectly himself when we see him again.
*Of course Catholics do believe there are angels in heaven. This was a mistake on my part. I pulled the word “angels” from the next paragraph on the fly when I realized it. When I wrote this sentence I was thinking of the cartoon-like pictures of angels on clouds with harps, not real angels.
As we processed out with Ian’s body at the end of the service, a song played that I had never heard before. It was haunting and beautiful, but I couldn’t make out all the words. Imagine my surprise when, after finding it on Youtube, I realized how much it complemented my Scripture reflection. Please take a moment to listen to Mumford and Sons, “After the Storm.”
“Get over your hill and see what you find there, with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.”
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.