Vigil for Fr Denis Callahan

Our farewell of someone is always a celebration of memories. Even in the recounting of just a few of the facts of a person’s life and in the re-telling of some of the stories of their journey, we glimpse something of their mystery and of the relationships that made them such a particular presence in the world that, without exception, we realise is not the same as it was before the gift of the person’s life. For a few brief moments it is like being at the window of a person’s life. Yet we also realise that our own memories of the one whom we are farewelling cannot fully capture them.  Indeed even our own most special memories are but glimpses of the mystery of who they are.  They are always more than our memories, someone more than what we could ever fully know or possess by our memories.  

Each of us has an irreducible mystery of presence in the world that though it is held in the memory of other’s experience of us, is always more.  There is an essential part of us that resists definition. To be known as we truly are – this is one of the deepest quests in our life. Our discipleship of the Risen Lord embraces this question. It rests on the fundamental premise that life is received not owned, that each of our lives is being called forth to become fully what it was intended to be, not in a random kind of way, but in response to an infinite personal love that seeks to coax our innermost beauty into full disclosure.  In Christian life we wonder at who we are; we seek to receive who we are; we aspire to live into who we are.

Thus, over our whole journey of life we seek to become known, not just as we think we might be, or as others might think we are, but rather as we are known by an Infinite Love that has brought us and called us into being. I don’t think we ever quite achieve this.  We glimpse it here and there along the way. But as we glimpse it our hearts become younger not old. The late English writer Daniel O’Leary once wrote, “Ideally our final decades . . . have a purity about them, a pared-down core that shines with recovered innocence.”[1] Once we reach a certain age, according to O’Leary, there should only be one phrase left in our vocabulary – “thank you.”  With every birthday, gratitude should deepen until it colours every aspect of our life.  Then, in O’Leary’s words, 

“Our souls are always young. They have preserved, in a safe place, the fields of dreams that once lay beautifully across the landscapes of our childhood.  It is in these fields, and in no other, where the seeds of our God-like beauty were first nurtured. . . We do not outgrow our childhood. We grow into it more fully as we grow older.”

As O’Leary comments, “Finding out who we really are is like a personal, lifelong Passover.” The final phase is the time when the mirror is clearest, revealing our authentic voice and our own name.  As he remarks, “At the moment of death, some people’s faces light up with an astonished look of recognition. They go home with shining eyes.  We finally whisper our ‘Yes’ to the mystery and miracle of who we really are, and always were . . .”

At Baptism the first question the celebrant asks of the parents of the child being presented, “What name do you give your child?” We are given our name right at the outset of our journey. Yet, from our Christian perspective, it is only in our death that we hear our name, just as it is – in all of its radical simplicity and yet in all its extraordinary fullness and possibility. This is the paradox of death with which the Gospel we have heard this evening invites us to consider.  In the dramatic loss of identity which death appears to represent, at one and the same time something is received:  our very name. “Jesus said to her, “Mary! She knew him then.”  In knowing him, she knows herself.  She knows herself as she is known, as she has always been known.

Denis knows now as he has always been known.  He hears his name – just as it is.  In this lies his infinite freedom and his ultimate possibility.

[1] See Daniel O’Leary, “Home before Dark,” in The Tablet (28 June 2008), 11.

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