Some time in the mid 1760s a Christian missionary named Samuel Kirkland began to live and preach among the Oneida tribe of Native Americans in upstate New York. By many accounts Kirkland became close friends with the Oneida chief, Skenandoah. It was, in part, this friendship that eventually convinced the Oneida to side with the colonist rebels in the Revolutionary War, and Skenandoah was said to have become a friend of George Washington’s, among others. After the war, however, the Oneida were displaced from their land, and ultimately granted 6 million acres, effectively creating the first Indian reservation. Legend attributes an epitaph to Skenandoah who is said to have lived to be over 100: “I am an aged hemlock; the winds of an hundred winters have whistled through my branches. I am dead at the top. The generation to which I belonged have run away and left me.”
Some of you know that after he sold his share of the restaurant and the catering business Bruce turned his hand to writing a libretto for an opera. The libretto, I discovered from Bruce’s brother David, dealt with Skenandoah and the Oneida people. I know that Bruce brought his laptop to the hospital and had books there that he was using to research the Oneida as he worked away at the story.
I am not surprised that Bruce was attracted to the story of a people who would ultimately be displaced from their homes; as many of you know, Bruce had a deeply held and abiding concern for refugees. And I am not surprised that he would be attracted to the story of a Christian missionary who managed to befriend rather than alienate a noble indigenous people. Bruce knew, of course, that this was not always the case; that the church was not always to be found on the compassionate side of complicated relationships. He would have been glad to celebrate the friendship between Kirkland and Skenandoah, I think. And I can’t say for certain which of the two he would have personally identified with more readily, though I suspect it would be Skenandoah. And I suspect it would have made an absolutely wonderful libretto!
Bruce was a little disappointed in me because of my failure to appreciate opera. Not long ago he suggested that I at least try attending an HD simulcast from the Met – a suggestion I successfully resisted. But I realize that Bruce’s love of opera was just one aspect of his larger appreciation of beauty. He once led a giving campaign here at Saint Mark’s in which he urged us to adopt Mother Teresa’s slogan that we do something beautiful for God.
Bruce loved beauty; he saw God wherever he found beauty, I think, and he believed, I know, that it was both a duty and a delight to offer beauty back to God. You could see this in so many aspects of his life: he thought you could take what was given to you and make something beautiful: this business, those ingredients, these words, that pile of hops and malt and barley. You are going to make something out of it; why not make something beautiful.
He tried to make a beautiful marriage with a beautiful woman, but when that didn’t work, he and Beatrice eventually found a way to make a really quite beautiful reconciliation. In fact, the first time I ever met Beatrice was on a Christmas Eve at midnight mass when I met Bruce at the door with both Beatrice and Jim – all three of them smiling!
Unlike Skenandoah, Bruce did not even get close to a hundred winters in this life. When he was diagnosed with Leukemia, he said to me that perhaps we should talk about a memorial service. His chemo had not yet even begun, and I assured him that we would have time in the weeks and months ahead to talk about that, never dreaming how wrong I’d be.
In the hospital Bruce often had friends and family visiting. His brother David, was as vigilant, loyal, and devoted a brother as any man could want. Beatrice was often there, massaging Bruce’s feet. I did not often have time alone with Bruce.
But on one occasion when we were alone he told me about something that had happened the night before. He’d been awakened by screams from a woman in a room several doors away from his: tortured, anguished screams, he said, that you knew came from someone in agony. Nurses came to her aid, and maybe doctors, he didn’t know, but he was aware that efforts were being made to help, to give this woman relief, but still she screamed. Of course there was nothing Bruce could do: he could neither shut the screams out of his ears nor help to bring relief to the woman in pain. But he suddenly had a thought, he told me, that he should pray for the woman, and so he did. And when he began to pray, the woman’s screams subsided, and eventually fell silent.
One more time that night, the episode repeated itself: Bruce was awakened by the screams, the medical staff did their work to no avail, and Bruce then offered his prayers for the woman, whose screaming stopped.
As I listened to this somehow beautiful account of a night full of pain, I knew that Bruce wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it – since he is not prone to a superstitious take on religion. I suggested to him that maybe the gift of his prayers was not entirely intended for the woman’s benefit, maybe the real gift was in the assurance to him that his prayers were heard, and attended to in ways he could never foresee or imagine.
If this is true of Bruce’s prayers, as I am sure that it is, then it is also true of yours and mine. God hears our prayers. We think we are praying for one thing, but God knows what is needed, and what will happen, and sometimes he answers our prayers in ways that we cannot foresee and cannot even imagine. God hears our prayers of grief at the loss of Bruce. He hears our prayers of worry at what becomes of him, of all of us, after death. God holds us all in the palm of his hand. He will not let us become refugees in death; he does not drive us from this life to languish in nothingness or darkness or worse; he does not confine us to the bleak reservation of the grave.
God hears our prayers, and he has answers we cannot imagine in the many mansions of his house. And if he hears our prayers, if he hears Bruce’s prayers, we can be certain of at least one thing: in one of those rooms there is good beer being served.
Let us now offer our prayers for Bruce, as we commend him to God’s care.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Requiem for J. Bruce Nichols, Jr.
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
29 January 2011