There are at least two good reasons to pay attention to the rituals of the burial of the dead. The first, looking backward, is that in tending to the dead in their burial we have a small, last opportunity to make amends for our failing to pay attention to, care for, or love someone while he was alive. The second, looking forward, is that from our care for the dead in their burial, we can actually learn something about how we can do better in caring for one another while we are still alive.
In Phil’s case neither is an easy lesson to learn. He seldom spoke at all, and when he did, it was only to reply in the shortest, most succinct way possible. To inquiries about his well-being, his happiness, or his needs, he provided no information on which a helpful response could be built. He declined help, and always claimed to be “OK.” It was hard to help him: he seemed not to want your help, my help. Not that any of us really knew what to do to help him, but a lot of us –his family, his friends (such as they are), his church – we would have tried, if he’d let us.
There was one thing Phil allowed us to do: he allowed us to let him in.
We opened the doors of a soup kitchen almost thirteen years ago and he came in. He came here every Saturday morning, except for the short time last spring he was in the hospital. He allowed us to let him in. From that time on, he often slept in the gardens. Did he want help finding shelter, or another place to stay? No. OK. OK. But he allowed us to let him in to the gardens, where, I guess, he felt safe. Every day this church is open for prayer: two Masses most days, sometimes three. For nearly all these thirteen years Phil has come to every Sunday Mass, and sometimes to every Mass every day. He would sit quietly throughout Mass. He would receive Communion. He allowed us to let him in to church.
He allowed Jesus to let him in too, as far as I can tell. He knelt, day by day, at the rail; he stretched out his hands to take the Bread; he guided the Cup to his lips. If that’s not allowing Jesus to let you in, then what are we doing here? What am I doing here?
He allowed us to let him in. And he allowed Jesus to let him in.
Recently a friend who has had a very bad year, with far too much death than is fair, shared an essay with the title that makes the point: “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason.”[i] Religious-type people are famous for claiming that everything does happen for a reason and that it must all be part of God’s plan that is just obscure and confusing to us, beyond our wisdom. I don’t know. Although I am sure that God’s wisdom is far beyond my knowing, I often agree that Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason.
Something happened to Phil. His brother told me that Phil loved baseball, and that he’d wanted to become an umpire. What a great dream! What a great goal! But something happened – I don’t know what. And I can’t say that it happened for a reason. I only know that whatever happened to Phil, happened. Probably over a period of some time, when those close to him could not see it or figure it out. Maybe Phil couldn’t see it happening himself. So he couldn’t figure it out. Couldn’t fix it.
In the article, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” the author writes these concise and thoughtful words: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.
Phil did not carry much around with him. He had a small bag. I don’t know if he kept things elsewhere; I doubt it. He didn’t carry much. I wonder what else he was carrying that I couldn’t see; that couldn’t be fixed? I don’t know. I wish that I had known how to fix things for Phil, or that I had known someone who knew. I think we can do better as a society than we do for people like Phil who have to carry some things with them that the rest of cannot see – but we see the effects of it. Since we cannot fix things, since we did not, I am glad that we can do this last, small, final act of kindness for Phil and give him what used to be called “a proper burial.”
Looking backward, we couldn’t give him a proper place in the world while he was living. To make amends, perhaps, we give him a place in death, as we ask for God’s mercy on him, and on us, and we seek forgiveness all around.
Looking forward, we know that Phil was not unique; he was not alone as someone who had no place of his own to lay his head, to choose the words that Jesus used to describe himself. Many others tonight and every night have no place to lay their heads in safety, warmth, and comfort.
Tonight, as we dream of heaven, we are dreaming not only for what we hope lies ahead for Phil, but in a way, for all the things he went without in this life (a feast of fat things, and of wine on the lees, for instance, to quote the prophet). As we give voice to these dreams for the dead, can we convince ourselves to try to do a better job for the living who need our care, our attention, and our love – especially those who have to carry so much invisible baggage? I don’t know what exactly that might mean, but I think if we tried harder we could do a better job, and sometimes that’s what’s needed.
But, of course, some things in life can’t be fixed. They can only be carried.
Now all we can do for Phil is carry him, now that he can carry himself no more. Now we carry his body from this place, which was as close to a home as he had these past thirteen years. He can’t be fixed. He can only be carried. So we will carry him as far as we can. To the doors of the church. To the hearse. To the grave. And then we will give him to God to carry.
And God picks up all the things that we can no longer carry, and never could fix, and he makes them new, in a world of life far beyond our imagining.
And God beckons Phil to a garden, or to a city, or to gates, beyond which lies the promise of heaven. And I believe that Phil will allow it; and I am certain that God will let him in.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
at the Requiem for Philip John Schultz
28 October 2015
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
[i] by Tim Lawrence, timjlawrence.com