In Memoriam - Cynthia McFarland

Cynthia preferred the best version of herself.  When she read in church from the lectern there, she summoned the plummiest, most BBC-inspired version of her accent, which was itself a matter of preservation of the what she considered the best version of herself.

Many of you will know of stories and examples of Cynthia’s remarkable ability to locate and deploy the best version of herself, and any sketch I could supply here this morning would be inadequate.  Cynthia didn’t see the point of doing something inadequate, when you could do much better. 

Her great limitation, that I know of, was her fear flying.  This required her to arrange long journeys by train to visit her mother-in-law in Arizona, or to go anywhere at all on this continent.  And it prevented her from joining a group of us from Saint Mark’s a couple of years ago on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  She dreamt up a scheme to make a long voyage by boat to meet us in Jerusalem, but this plan proved to be too impractical.  I know it was a disappointment for Cynthia to forego the trip, but Cynthia didn’t dwell on disappointment – it wouldn’t have been the best version of herself to allow herself to do so.

I suppose that is one way of explaining why when Cynthia was sick she disappeared from view – not the best version of herself.  And when she allowed herself to be seen she would declare with firm resolution that the thing to do was to soldier on and beat the cancer.  To hear her make the pronouncement, one could almost conclude that it might actually have been in her power to do so.  I’m sure she thought that it would have been the best version of herself to summon the strength to shrink and kill the cancer from within – which is to say to draw upon the deep resources of her faith in order to be healed.

Cynthia’s faith in God and love of her Lord Jesus was the best version of herself, and she knew it.  She relied upon the Holy Spirit to guide her.  I am sure it was this reliance that allowed her to bear the loss of her beloved Frederic gracefully, and to endure the pain of the various stages of her own sickness with such poise.

Now, as you know, Cynthia was a canon of the Diocese of New Jersey.  In my recalcitrant, high church clericalism, I have never quite understood the creation of lay canons, but this is quite beside the point, and completely irrelevant now.  For whatever else she may have embodied in the church, Cynthia showed us something significant about priesthood.  Call it the priesthood of all believers if you must; she saw life as a sacrament, and she lived her life sacramentally.  You choose the best version of yourself when you believe that God has asked you to provide outward and visible signs of inward and invisible grace.  That’s what Cynthia did.  That’s why Cynthia cared so much about the images and stories we presented or preserved – because these were opportunities for God’s sacramental disclosure.

Did she see the Internet as an opportunity for God to make himself known sacramentally?  Yes, she did – long before most of us did.

Did she regard the choice of a typeface, or the arc of a letter carved in stone as an opportunity for God to make himself known sacramentally?  Yes, she did.

Did she see God revealed in art and architecture and nature all around her?  In the gracefulness of her cats?  Yes, she did.

Did she regard with reverence and love the people whose ministry in the world made God’s presence known abroad in powerful ways?  Yes, she did – especially in the bishops of the church – whether the living ones she served and befriended, or the dead ones she collected in portraiture and biography.

Cynthia’s priesthood was primarily located in her stewardship of certain images and stories that needed to be preserved and on display so that God’s work in the world could be seen and known.  And she carried out this priestly work with a great deal more devotion, faithfulness, and skill than is possessed by many of us who have been ordained.

A few days before she died, when Cynthia was in the throes of painful chemo-therapy, I went to see her in the hospital.  On the way there I happened to run into a friend and parishioner here who had just left Cynthia’s bedside, and who provided me with the helpful tip that she’d been feeding Cynthia ice chips – the only thing she was allowed to quench her thirst.

During my visit, it eventually occurred to me that Cynthia might still be thirsty, and I offered to get her some ice chips: she took me up on the offer enthusiastically.  Cynthia allowed me to stand by her bedside and spoon-feed her the ice chips with a plastic spoon.  As she let the cold ice dissolve in her mouth, she uttered a word that was both report and prayer: “Manna,” she said, “manna from heaven.”  When the plastic cup was emptied of ice chips, she simply looked at me with a smile, and said, “More chips, please.  More chips, please!”

It was unlike Cynthia to ask for more of something; her manners would not normally allow it – not what she’d have considered the best version of herself.  But she’d have known that asking for more manna under the circumstances was a permissible breach of etiquette.  And these were not normal circumstances, as she knew well.  And if ice chips were the manna that God was providing in her need, she would take all she could get.  Cynthia knew that day that I carried the Blessed Sacrament in my coat pocket.  And when she’d slaked her thirst, more or less, she asked to receive that, too, saying something like, “Now, from one manna to another.”

On the day before she died I arrived again at her bedside with the Blessed Sacrament in my pocket.  It never occurred to me that this would be my last visit to her.  She was awake, but weak, and she told me right away that she’d had a bad night, and was too tired for a visit, but that she wanted very much to receive the Sacrament.  Which is to say that she wanted to be near the Lord of her life, whose strength, grace, forgiveness and healing were the things in which she had placed her trust and her hope.

I’ve thought a bit about Cynthia’s fear of flying over these last days, and a bit about her disappointment that she was not able to concoct a voyage by sea to meet her friends from Saint Mark’s in Jerusalem when we traveled there.  Life is full of such disappointments, of course.  Cynthia knew that well.

But I console myself with the knowledge that Cynthia is no longer afraid of flying.  And I trust that she is now on a journey to a holy land – of what distance, duration, or arduousness I cannot say – but which will undoubtedly lead her into the nearest possible presence of the Lord of life, whom she loved and worshiped in this life, who fed her with manna, and who calls her – with all of us – to come ever closer, and live again, and to become the new best versions of our selves, by his grace.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

at the Requiem Mass for Cynthia McFarland

22 February 2014

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 22, 2014 .