This is my homily for the funeral mass of my father-in-law, Franz Schneider, my mentor and my model.
A few years ago I drove to the Mennonite Village to take Ann and Franz to our annual fall festival. It was a beautiful sunny day in late September. I was a little early, so I walked into the living room to wait, and there on the table was a book, lying open.
I went over to see what it was, and it was the poems of T.S. Eliot, and it was open to a page of The Four Quartets—a poem I first read in one of Franz’s classes almost fifty years ago and never really understood at all. It’s a great poem. A holy poem.
I’ll never forget sitting in that class in the early evenings in the admin building at Gonzaga and how inspired I was by Franz, by all of his learning, and his energy, and his presence.
And there on that page, in Franz and Ann’s living room, at the Mennonite Village, clearly marked, in Franz’s quick, bold hand, was this passage:
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us,
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders? . . .
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly.
I don’t think Franz meant me to see this. I think he’d been reading the poem again, had marked that passage, and then had just left the book on the table. But somehow the words seemed intended for me, too. I could feel them going right through me.
“You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy,” Eliot says—this is the rest of the passage Franz marked—
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess,
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go by the way in which you are not.
And I straightened up, and I went to the window, and I thought, OK. Maybe now, after fifty years, I’m finally starting to understand this poem a little better.
Franz was my role model and my mentor. I loved him and admired him and I owe him more than I can say. He was a remarkable man, a man of force: force of will, force of intellect, force of personality. And I believe as he did that all this, all that is good in us, all that makes us who we really are, is never lost but is taken up and gathered into God forever.
But we are all so weighed down, by our histories and our hurts. We are all trapped, by our anger, our fear. All of us. And we spend our whole lives trying to die to that false self, we spend our whole lives trying to free ourselves, and we never quite do. None of us. However hard we try we are still flawed human beings, and sometimes we can see that and admit that, and then for a moment the freedom comes. We can say, I’m no different than anyone else, I’m just here, I’m just a person, and that’s wonderful, that’s enough, because I am loved by God as we are all loved by God.
But moments like this are rare, they don’t happen very often, and maybe the gift of growing old, maybe the terrible grace of dying, is that it can help us with this other, spiritual dying, too. Maybe our bodies can help us accomplish what we can never accomplish through will. Maybe in our fading away we are finally all transfigured. We are all freed.
The last words I heard Franz say were first, “amen,” again and again—he kept pausing and saying it, he was straining to say it, almost barking it out, five, six times—amen, amen, amen—and then at the end of that, “alleluia.” Just once.
That was the last word. Alleluia.
Death, Teilhard de Chardin says, is the force that “parts the very molecules of our being” so that the “divine fire can penetrate into us.” It accomplishes the “necessary dissolution.”
“Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies” Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “it remains just a seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
I think of Franz near the end, his body bruised and wasting away, and how he could barely speak, could barely move, every breath was an effort, and I think of how he was loved by God in that moment every bit as much as he was when he was standing in front of a class and lecturing with such confidence and authority.
I think of a picture many of us know, a black and white picture of Franz as a little boy of six or seven, taken in Germany in the thirties, before the war, before all the suffering. He is standing with three of his brothers, all of them wearing dark sailor suits, and his parents are standing behind them in their Sunday best, and they all have that serious, posing-for-a picture look.
Except for little Franz. He is looking right into the camera and he is smiling, a big, all-out, mischievous smile.
And in our end is our beginning, Eliot says, “and the end of all our exploring / will to be to arrive where we started /and know the place for the first time.” And now that little boy has been taken up into a love beyond all imagining, and now that little boy is with his parents again and he is with his brothers and he is smiling that smile again. Now that old man is free, he has been taken up, and he is smiling, too, he is delighted, and he is waiting for us to join him. He is waiting for us, and the sun is shining, and again it is festival—it is all festival—
“through the unknown, remembered gate,” Eliot says, at the end of The Four Quartets—
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning:
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything.)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.