It might seem odd to start with such a headline, but that date is significant. That’s the day my mother died, in 2017. As it turned out, the one-year anniversary of her death was April 1, 2018, Easter Sunday. A more fitting convergence is hard to imagine. Here, first, is the homily I gave at her funeral on April 8, 2017, followed by the homily I gave on April 1, three weeks ago.
Homily for Mass of the Resurrection for Doris Crowley (1917–2017)
John 20: 11–18
Mary is weeping, weeping because she has suffered the most grievous of all losses. Now she cannot find the one whom she loves. There is an innocence in her forlornness, but there is also a real darkness in her heart. She is so adrift in her grief that she cannot even recognize her beloved standing right in front of her, present to her. “Woman, why are you weeping?” Her grief is unfathomable. It is only when the gardener speaks her name that it hits her like the dawn of love itself. She now beholds the Lord in an intimacy that was heretofore unimaginable, at the core of her identity. And in that moment, when he cautioned her not to cling to him, she discovered her freedom. The poet Rilke put it this way:
She understood it in her hollow first:
how with finality he now forbade
her, strengthened by his death, the oils’ relief
or an intimation of a touch:
because he wished to make of her the lover
who needs no more to lean on her beloved,
as, swept away by joy in such enormous
storms, she mounts even beyond his voice.
Mary is freed, swept away by joy amidst the enormous storms of death and grief: “Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!… O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff. Let me see you, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.” The invitation of the Lord to a new and freer intimacy.
This was the poetic way my mother lived her faith—this was the dominant tone around which every other melody danced. As a boy, I watched her quietly after Communion, in quiet prayer, a beautiful profile in silence. My father, too, was that way—never pious, but quietly reverent. What a beautiful gift—a faith without words, but discovered in the freshness of a morning in the garden, the joy of friendship, the beauty of God’s earth, art and music—ever new discoveries of what makes life so mysteriously awe-some. Mom would often say, “I’m so glad that I’m an earthling!” She took joy in the cosmos, from the tiniest flower on the River trail to the stars in the sky, to wandering the stones of Rome with me—and feeding cats at the Coliseum. It was not the monuments that stole her eye; it was the feline life abounding among them.
Yet all this registered in the deeper interior spaces of her heart. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians speaks of “a spirit of wisdom and insight” to see clearly. “May he enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which he has called you, the wealth of his glorious heritage.” This innermost vision, this insight, this great hope—like the power of the Resurrection itself! For Christ cannot be limited to any one thing: his glory fills the universe in all its parts. Life is to be celebrated, embraced, ever discovered anew. This discovery, known in the inner parts of ourselves, where we ponder things, is the core of life’s effusion, its expansiveness, its beauty and its loveliness. I know that this insight lay at the core of Mom’s life of faith.
But how did she arrive at this place, this finally wordless place, that did not depend upon a lot of outward show of religion? Her path was the path of suffering. From a very early age she knew massive trauma, from the divorce of her parents to a string of foster homes and constant uprooting—seemingly every year or less—to another part of California, finally to land for a couple of years with her grandparents here in Sacramento. It was during those years without compass that she developed an incredible inner strength, a will to live, and a desire to transcend the chaos of her childhood. In an early effort to find order, she entered a Franciscan convent in Niagara, New York, in the 1930s. But her spirited nature and native intelligence led her to voice skepticism about some religious legends that were taught in those days. “Oh, I don’t believe that,” she said, in response to one such story. The kindly novice mistress, Mother Ludwina, said, “Doris, you can think such things, but it’s best not to say them.” Later, when I came home from school with a similar religious tale about an apparition of Mary, Mom said to me, “Honey, you don’t have to believe everything you’re told.” (I’ve often thought that that moment might have been the germ of my Jesuit vocation).
With more of life came yet more suffering: Disease and its pain and disfigurement, financial stress and anxiety, worry about her children, and, especially, unremitting death. First to go was Dad, and then the untimely deaths of Sheila, from invasive cancer, and David, from AIDS, within nine months of each other. And the loss of a whole generation of family friends—one by one in rapid succession—and then her mother, and finally her sister June. As Mom recently said, “I’m the last tomato on the vine.” To this day I do not know how my mother caught back her breath from all that loss, especially of my sister and brother. All I know is that out of that double tragedy there emerged a new and even freer woman—quietly questioning, even defiant before the incomprehensible God, yet ever more loving, growing ever sweeter herself through growth in new friendships with a younger generation, and—even while carrying a darkness within—embracing life in ever more imaginative ways. Yet, after the deaths of Sheila and David, her faith rarely reached verbal expression. She had entered another stage of her relationship with God.
Mom’s formal education was interrupted by the War, but the silver lining of that turn in the road was meeting Dad. They loved each other fiercely, in both the good times and the bad times between them; they were both of Irish lineage, and so, there were no unspoken opinions in our house. But the thing I most remember from our childhood, which only grew as Mom grew in age and grace, was a sweetness, a calm and beauty that they created at our house. They had a gift, together, for making magic—for making each event, even small ones, sparkle with elegance. The garden is where so much of that world of their imagination took shape—a lush, green, quiet, enclosed space—a good place to encounter God. She had one potted palm that she just loved, and she would also often remark on the trellis, still standing, where we kids hung our bathing suits after a swim at Woodlake pool. Today, the garden chair where she would sit to soak it all in is now empty, but the flowers are still blooming.
The joy that exploded in her final years was phenomenal. She loved singing, “You should try it, I’m on a diet, of love!” And she meant every word of it. She was proud to be a native daughter of the Golden West, and loved California, Sacramento, and the Crocker. She would regale us with stories of the Donner Party. She would also recite Shakespeare—and with mock conviction, it seemed, Lady Macbeth’s dark speech. Song and poetry came to express the joy of her heart. In the last couple of years, she would literally wake up singing. Her heart brimmed with gratitude, for everything, and she regularly expressed her love for me, even on her last day, when all she could do was mouth the words.
At some point in her life, then, like Mary in the garden, all the suffering she had known suddenly seemed no longer to have a purchase o
n her. She needed no longer to cling to it. For at some point she finally came to see that she was loved, and lovable. Friends caught in the twinkle of her eye a woman in love with life and eager to share her joy. Mom’s favorite sonnet, from Shakespeare, comes close to expressing what she came to see as true for herself, the love she had known, especially in Dad: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” And so, too, Mom: Your sweet love remember’d, such wealth brings. . . A love that I will always carry with me in the inner recesses of my heart, to the moment of my own death.
With hearts entwined, may we all give thanks for a life so exquisitely beautiful.
Homily for Easter, 2018
Mark 10: 1–7
In a recent article in the New York Times, “Easter Is Calling Me Back to the Church,” the author writes that she has been away from the church, but is now drawn back. Why, she asks? “I don’t miss the stained glass. I don’t miss the gleaming chalice or the glowing candles or the sweeping vestments. But I do miss being part of a congregation… I miss the wiggling babies grinning at me over their parents’ shoulders. I miss reaching for a stranger to offer the handshake of peace. I miss the singing.” And in one poignant sentence, she writes: “I miss standing side by side with other people, our eyes gazing in the same direction, our voices murmuring the same prayers in a fallen world.”
I suspect that this is why many of us are here today, too. In the midst of much in our lives that can seem so hopeless, we still seek for the Holy One who promises us newness of life. For Easter announces to us that, in the face of all that is wrong with our fallen world, in the face of our fears, we can discover beating within each of us a heart that holds forth hope for the future.
And we have reason to seek this hope today. We are familiar with the sense of helplessness each time we hear of another loved one with cancer, a friend evicted or jobless, each time we cope with another loss to death. And, In this past year, we have all witnessed much. Lent began with the massacre at Parkland High School, and concluded, beginning last weekend, with the worldwide marches for an end to gun violence. Just last week there was another tragic shooting of a black man, in Sacramento. Our political culture seems broken almost beyond repair. Our sacred civic relations have been betrayed by social media. More and more people are locked into addictions. All we have left, it seems, is the noise of constant commuting and false consolations, instant gratifications. Like the women of the Gospel, we find ourselves walking among the tombs, unable to imagine any change from the way things are. So, some of us might be here because we are weary of the impasses that have gripped our personal lives and our society and the world. Many of us seek for so much more than what we seem to have settled for.
Jesus, lived in a world similar to ours in many ways. He offered another way for human beings to live and thrive in harmony with God. Yet, in the prime of his youth, when his hope was most ardent, he was executed as a threat to the powerful, his mission destroyed. It was impossible at that moment for his friends to look beyond those bare facts, to imagine a world different from the heartless and cruel one into which they and Jesus had been born. And so, the women in today’s Gospel approach the tomb with weariness, for they are about to undertake what they must, the sorrowful duty of anointing the body of the murdered Jesus, with little hope that anything would ever change. The cycle of violence and futility would continue. And, to epitomize their discouragement, they wonder how will they ever actually reach the body, lying in the darkness of that rough-hewn tomb. “Who will roll away the stone for us?”
But the women arrive at the tomb and are astonished. For the stone that they had imagined as an impossible barrier has in fact already been moved. Someone has been there before them. The way has already been cleared for their entry into the hidden memorial space where Jesus lay. They are already granted a freedom from a burden that they could not imagine overcoming on their own. Then they slowly proceed to take those courageous steps into the darkness of the tomb.
But upon entering they are further astonished, because what was shadow and gloom has now become glorious light. The angel tells them that He is risen as He said, and that they can go forth from that place and find him again. They are frightened by the unexpected, by what they could never have imagined, but soon they will see that His death has marked the just beginning of new and unpredictable turns on their journey through life. Life will never be the same for these first witnesses, these women..
But all of this turns on that first moment, the discovery of the rolled-away stone.
Who will roll away the stone for us? Who will lift the burdens we carry so that we can enter the deeper, darker recesses of the heart, of memory, in order to find the God we seek? And turning it around, we might also ask: How can I help roll away the stones in the lives of others? How can I be a help rather than a hindrance to the well-being of others?
More broadly, what forms of gross injustice or unacceptable inequality do we witness every day in the news, from the growing masses of homeless people in our midst, to the splitting up of DACA families? And gun violence? Who will roll away the stone? Hundreds of thousands of teenagers have shown us that the sting of death from great tragedy can lead to courageous new ways of entering into and confronting the most intransigent of social and political problems that persist among us.
If there is a “miracle” of Easter, it is that once the stone has been swept away, once we discover that our expectations of life have been too small, and once we can see the world in the light of God’s tremendous love—life can never be the same again. Death is not the end. In the Resurrection of Jesus, there is the dawn of a hope that will carry us through life, beyond the infinite horizon opened up by death, into the loving arms of God.
When my dear Mom died a year ago today, I thought for a moment that the world as I knew it had ended. In a sense, of course, it truly had. But now I have also come to see that her death was the birth of a new world—a new world fit for new realities, which have indeed come. Through the love and prayer of others, and through sheer grace, God has rolled away many stones and made it possible to step forward from darkness into light.
For all of us, the power of God’s love, which explodes forth gloriously on Easter Day, propels us from the present tense of discouragement into a future tense of hope. Yes, we pray in a fallen world, as the author of that Times article wrote, but now with hopeful hearts. With this hope, each of us can put one foot before the other, like the holy women of the Gospel, and take tentative steps forward, but now with openness to the unexpected and the new, to what God has in store for those who love Him.
May Jesus, now risen and glorious, bless each of us on this day and in the days to come, as together, we walk with faith into the unknown future.