My friend Stephen D. O’Leary departed this life on January 24, 2020, just days after we sang together at the California Shape Note Singing Convention. Although he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had just begun chemo, he was feeling pretty good that weekend. He said afterward, “I plan to keep singing until I die (which I hope will not be anytime soon), and even after.” Two days later, way too soon, he was gone. Today I preached this homily at his requiem, where many of his shape note friends gathered to sing his spirit home.
In early January, on Twelfth Night, Stephen shared on Facebook an article which had caught his attention, about the possibility of robot priests––speaking machines which could offer blessings, prayers and comfortable words on demand. And of course Stephen had questions: Would a robot priest, he asked, require that God be “unable to distinguish between the bot’s prayer and the prayer of an actual human person, or . . . only that the person being prayed for by the bot must believe that the bot is an actual conscious being…?” Thankfully, no such questions are at issue in this liturgy! Fr. Gagan and I are not battery-operated.
But such questions were so Stephen. His passionate and curious mind was always wondering about things in the most interesting and unique way. How we will miss his questions––and so much besides.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a line expressing in nine words the uniqueness we all possess: What I do is me: for that I came. Stephen did Stephen as well as he could, and each of us has our own stories about why he came, and what difference he made in our lives.
A few hours before he died, he posted a poem by George Eliot about the “choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” The “choir invisible” is the poet’s name for those departed souls whose lingering influence has made us better, and even now may still “Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, / Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, / Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d, / And in diffusion ever more intense!”
“To make [such] undying music in the world” was the holy work to which Stephen aspired, even when his road was rough and steep. We mourn his absence, lament the sudden withdrawal from the visible world of such a remarkable and dear companion. As we sing at the end of every shape note convention, just before we go our separate ways:
Your comp’ny’s sweet, your union dear
Your words delightful to my ear
Yet when I see that we must part
You draw like cords around my heart
But the absence of a loved one in bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. Although death changes the relationship, it does not end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.
Stephen is no longer in one particular place. He is now in every place or occasion where we remember him. He is present whenever we think of him, or speak of him, or tell the stories that bring him back. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to hear his unmistakable voice whenever we hit those high notes in shape note hymns like Stratfield or Villulia.
At the tomb of Jesus, the angel of resurrection told the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Wendell Berry has said something similar about all the departed, who now are “hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.”
Resurrection faith tells us that a person’s continuing presence is not purely the product of our own subjectivity. Though we see Stephen no longer, he continues to exist as more than just memory or feeling or imagination. As he was when he was created, so he remains: a beloved child of God, but now embraced and glorified within a larger wholeness from which none of us will ever be separated. This wholeness, which has many names, is the Love Supreme which binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.
The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”
But knowing that death is not the end does not make the burden of loss any lighter. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” This is the only time Jesus is criticized by his friends, so bitter is their grief. Lord, if you had only come sooner, you could have delayed his fate, his mortality, for a little while longer. You could have cured him. Why did he have to die now?
Well, Jesus doesn’t like death any more than Mary and Martha do. When he approaches the tomb of his friend, he is, the gospel tells us, “greatly disturbed.” In Greek these words carry a connotation of anger, so we might say that Jesus was just as mad at death as everyone else was that day.
And so, we are told, the One who would be revealed as the Lord of life rebukes death in the most dramatic way. He peers into the darkness of the cave tomb and cries, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus does come forth, into the light, a living man, inhaling the freshness of a spring morning.
But his resuscitation is only a temporary stay. Lazarus will die again, sooner or later. And shortly after this miracle, Jesus himself will die, sharing the fate of every mortal so that God might transform that fate into something glorious. As we sing in The Sacred Harp (#163 on the bottom): Thence he arose, ascended high, to show our feet the way.
The raising of Lazarus may not have been a true resurrection into life eternal, but it was a vivid foretaste of the human future, when everyone who has fallen asleep in death will hear the voice of the divine Friend who knows us by heart, calling us each by name on that “great rising day.”
Some of us were at Angels Gate in San Pedro for the California Shape Note Convention, when Stephen, only a few days before his death, led us in singing “Farewell Anthem.”
My friends, I am going on a long and tedious journey,
Never to return, never to return. . .
Fare you well,
Fare you well, my friends,
And God grant we may meet together in that world above. . .
Stephen was not being literal––he did not expect to leave us so soon––but I imagine him smiling now to know he was bound for glory with a song on his lips, and that so many who love him have gathered here today to join in that song with sweet accord.
I once heard a shape note singer tell about her mother’s death out in Sand Mountain, Alabama. A lot of singers were standing round her bed, keeping vigil with the old songs. But there came a moment when her mother began to sing a tune that none of them recognized. They couldn’t quite place it. And then they realized she wasn’t singing the melody. She was singing the treble part. She was singing harmony with voices from the other side, which only she could hear. The choir invisible.
Oh, sing to me of heav’n,
When I am called to die,
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high. . .
Then to my ravished ear
Let one sweet song begin,
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav’n.
Stephen O’Leary (right) and David Olson lead “Farewell Anthem” at the 2020 California Shape Note Convention.
Jim, a wonderful tribute to your friend, may he rest in peace, and notes of many shapes. Midway, you mention “A Love Supreme,” reminding me of John Coltrane, reminding me of Alice Coltrane and a New Yorker article about her a few years ago, in which the writer describes the ordeal, and the triumph, of Alice in the difficult year’s following her husband’s death. “Alice Coltrane came to believe that bliss was close at hand––it was inside you. The universe wasn’t a range of options and futures that were light years way; it was an idea that you couldn’t quite grasp, and in the struggle to try to imagine infinity’s sprawl, all you could do was just try and align yourself with it.” Shape notes or symphonies, she seems to be saying, art is the way, perhaps the only way, to imagine infinity’s sprawl, and perhaps some day to be one with it.
Bob – I was definitely thinking of Coltrane when I invoked that phrase. Thanks for the beautiful quote from Alice Coltrane. How can we now find the bliss at hand in a time of pandemic? Our spirits are about to be sorely tested. As the priest says at mass, “Lift up your hearts.”
Thank you, Jim. This was so profound for me. I am with my mom, 94, as she is passing through the threshold.
Dear Ruth, you and your mother are in a most holy time. May the light of God surround you; may the grace of God fill you and bring you peace; and may your mother be received into the arms of divine mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.