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Funeral homily for Sheila Harper, RIP, 25.06.24

In the marriage register of St. Mary’s Parish in Largs, there is an entry for the marriage of James Harper and Sheila Catherine Quinn for 21stOctober 1967. I am not sure if I have read the parish priest’s handwriting in Latin properly, but he indicates that the marriage was presided over by a Fr. Everando Caniro or Caniso, a Franciscan priest. The witnesses to the marriage are, I think, Joan Harper and Margaret McInulty. The only other annotation is to say that the marriage was notified to the parishes where the spouses were baptised so that it could be entered into the respective baptismal registers.

I did not have the pleasure or privilege of knowing Sheila personally, but by all accounts that’s certainly my loss. She was a gift from the Lord to many: to her own parents and siblings, to her beloved Jim, to their four children and nine grandchildren. I have no doubt either that her grace and favour were shared widely with all those she knew in her travels and professional circle, not least many kindergarten and primary school children. She is probably still fondly remembered by many of them in later life, since we are all inclined to reminisce about our early years and the people who influenced us.

Dave and Andy have delivered a very moving testimony to Sheila in their eulogy. I think it’s fair to say, though, that it’s impossible to cram into a few minutes the full 80-year story of who Sheila was in herself and for others. You’d probably need a number of years and a full library of books to try and attain that!

And that’s just it. The full story of Sheila the person, the full import of the things she did, the beauty she encapsulated, the love she showed and the sufferings she endured transcends our capacity to capture her completeness with words. We are so much of a mystery to ourselves, so the mystery of the other will always be elusive in the end. But where does so much mystery come from? The Christian answer is quite simply God, Himself the mystery of mysteries. Our humanity is not just a miracle of science. It is far more the miracle of God’s loving design. Sheila’s mystery, the mystery of who you and I are, can only be plumbed by God.

The reality is that we are each a gift of amazing grace. We can go through life unaware of it, denying it, indifferent to it or, like the author of the song, if we are open, or if the troubles of life make us open, we can come to the point where we cry out: how precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed. And isn’t it so true that we often only really begin to understand what life is about, what we are about, what love is about, when we suffer. It’s not that suffering is good in itself or is to be sought for its own sake, but the effect of it is often to strip us of what is superfluous and ephemeral and to make us more vulnerable to the grace of God.

That’s what the writer of the Psalm shows. In the midst of life-threatening or life-changing distress, he cries to God for relief and mercy. He realizes that it is not in the razzamatazz of external prosperity that peace is to be found, but in the silence of the heart, in the light of God’s face and in the security which God’s protection affords.

St. Paul puts another spin on it by saying that not only can suffering open us up to God. Once we are opened up to him, we will be prepared to face all forms of trial and difficulty for his sake, such is the prize of knowing Him.

And what’s the endgame of all this? It’s to recognize that the peace the world claims to give us fades into insignificance in the face of the peace which Christ gives us. The peace in question is not just talk. It’s not just a hail fellow well met sort of peace. And most of all, it is certainly not the peace of the grave. The truth is that we cannot know real and lasting peace so long as death is part of our human experience. We pray that the dead will rest in peace. Yes, but not in their graves – in God! There is no peace in death, but only beyond it. And we can only attain to that beyond through the One who died, went beyond it and came back again. The death, burial and resurrection of Christ mean not only that there is an afterlife, but that there is an after death. And the after in question is not only an immediate experience for the person who has died, but will also be for the body of the deceased when Christ raises from the grave on the last day all those who have died. We can’t know what that bodily resurrection will look like or entail, but we know that it will happen because it has already begun in his own bodily resurrection. It is the new Big Bang.

Sheila has died in the body, but her soul, her spirit, her person lives now in God. Since God is always with us, not metaphorically or mythically, but in reality, then all who are with Him are likewise present to us in Him. In a very real way, Sheila can do more for all of you now than she could when she was limited in space and time in the body. Her love for you has not evaporated and is not just some treasure you retain in your memory and affections: it is more real now than ever it was because she now loves you from within the heart of God and not only from her own heart. Perhaps to some, this is just make-believe. But I think there is actually more make-believe in those who deny it, for then they don’t have to face the challenge of living this life in view of eternity, in view of God.

If death is our end, then life is an illusion. If all the love and selflessness and self-sacrifice and intelligence and creativity and nobility of a daughter, spouse, mother and friend of someone like Sheila truly ends in dust and ashes, then life has no lasting meaning. It is non-sense. But the truth is that all of these marvellous realities are taken up by the Lord when He takes a loved one back to Himself. He adorns them with eternal beauty and rewards with eternal life the one who has sought to please Him to the best of her ability. Sheila’s destiny is now her reality. We pray that our reality will one day share in her destiny.