Words on the Word
Amanda Perreau Saussine de Ezcurra RIP
Isaiah 63:7-9; 13b-14: Like cattle that go down into the valley, the spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
Colossians 1:9b-12: May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.
John 12:23-28: And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?
The last part of the first reading we have just heard was carefully copied down by Amanda in a notebook she kept during her illness: ‘Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. Like cattle that go down into the valley, the spirit of the Lord gave them rest.’ Given the many grandiose passages to be found in the long final cadence of Isaiah, a part of Scripture Amanda loved, her choice of this one, featuring a herd of cattle, may seem puzzling. She was not someone most of us would have thought of as a farming type. She was a woman of the word, passionately, sometimes fiercely, committed to rigorous thinking. Yet at the same time she was wary of abstractions – and especially in matters of religion. An aspect of Catholicism that attracted her was its embodied expression, its range of sacraments and signs that can be felt, handled, smelt and tasted. Through such signs the idea of God is translated into a presence that nurtures, heals, and comforts. An image like that of Isaiah will have evoked for her the sacramental realism that meant so much to her, while her sense of humour will have been tickled by the prophet-herdsman’s choice of simile.
Amanda’s broad biblical culture will also have made her alert to the rich resonance of the ‘rest’ Isaiah speaks of. This theme forms an arch that spans the narrative of Scripture, from the Shabbat of the seventh day, when God paused to delight in what he had made, to the promised rest of the Eighth Day, the end of time, when all creatures will see God ‘as he is’, singing a song of praise as tranquil and strong as a mighty surge that rises from the bottom of the sea and spreads on the surface in gentle ripples. Scripture, then, remembers an original rest and promises a future, final rest that is the culmination of all doing. This, I think, is what Amanda recognised, quite rightly, in the image of cattle coming down into the valley to drink at twilight, after a day’s grazing on a sun-scorched hill. Anyone who has seen a herd of cows return from pasture will know how their progress is at once purposeful and peaceful. The rest they look forward to is so certain that they have no need to fret. Their confident expectancy teaches us a lesson. Admittedly, their life is simpler than ours. But the rest that awaits us at the end of the day is no less sure than theirs, if we choose to enter it. It was no proxy, says Isaiah, no mere messenger that led the Israelites through the desert, home from exile. It was the Lord himself. And not only did he lead them. He ‘lifted them up and carried them’ like a father carries his child. Amanda recognised herself in that image. Now she shares it with us.
Rest gets its sense from exertion, from the completion of a task. It was very much as a task that Amanda assumed, first the grief of bereavement, then the trial of illness. The mystery of suffering that has marked her life, and the life of her family, over the past three years is great. We incline ourselves before it. Faced with it, silence is a more adequate response than speech. Amanda, however, was the first to insist that this silence due to mystery in no way implies a capitulation of the reasoning heart. Through darkness, pain, and tears, she had the intimate conviction that what she was living through was meaningful, not only for her, but for her family and for all of us who knew and loved her. At no point did she consider herself a victim of circumstances. She saw herself as someone to whom a particular, arduous work had been entrusted. With the courage for which she was outstanding, she assumed that work, certain that it would bear fruit, even though she could not see precisely how this would come about. She walked resolutely by faith, not by sight. In the process her keen intellect entered into conversation with the ‘spiritual understanding’ St Paul speaks of in our reading from Colossians. This, too, is a passage from Amanda’s notebook, and tells us much about the way she lived and desired to live. ‘May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.’ The strength that comes from God’s power was no mere notion to Amanda. It was as real as cows coming home from pasture.
She was constantly aware of being carried on her own journey, and spoke of this often. She knew the patior hidden in ‘patience’ and embraced it as her share in a greater Passion holding all. And in the midst of this she gave thanks. In the midst of this she knew joy. Let us not be deceived into thinking that she, any more than the apostle, was inclined to glorify suffering or to make of it some kind of morbid cult. In a Christian view of things, suffering is a scandal, death a robber. On this, Scripture is quite clear. Suffering and death are, though, facts of the human condition, and the point of our redemption is precisely to set these anomalous facts right: to repair what is broken; to heal what is wounded; to raise up what is called to live forever. Amanda’s experience of pain was inseparable from her faith in this redemptive transformation. Indeed, her faith became for her a new kind of sight, a pledge of the ‘inheritance of the saints in the light’. Her joy was not a facile or self-deluding joy, on which she would have poured scorn. It was the joy of a new dimension, sprung from the fullness of Christ’s gift. ‘By your Cross, joy entered the world’ proclaims an ancient chant for Good Friday. Amanda knew what those words mean.
Christ’s parable of the grain of wheat was told in the shadow of the Cross, when he was about ‘to be glorified’. What is this ‘glory’ so charged with paradox? It is not a property of the Cross as such, nor of dying. The glory pertains to the life that breaks open through death and conquers it. Notice how the parable is phrased: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone.’ The singularity of any human destiny carries an irreducible aloneness that appears to culminate in death. Christ tells us that what in fact happens is not what seems to happen. For the grain does not remain static once it is planted. Gently and quietly it is broken open to release a living potential that was not evident before. This silent sprouting matures into a mode of being that is new and yet the same. By it, aloneness is shattered and communion born. Amanda’s life has been marked by this logic of the grain of wheat, and your lives too, dear Elisabeth and Martin. When Emile died, the shock was harsh. The loneliness seemed final. But you came to know the truth of what faith teaches us, that for the faithful, ‘life is changed not ended’.
Amanda knew, as you know, that love is stronger than death. A tangible sense of the boundlessness of love sustained Amanda when her cancer was diagnosed. It grew through her experience of the Church’s prayer, and made a quantum leap when ideal love suddenly, surprisingly manifested itself with a particular voice and particular features as you, Carlos, entered her life to be a loving support, friend, and husband. Amanda’s great insight over these past few years was that one love does not replace another: that it is possible to love one person with undivided love; and still to love another person with an equally undivided love; and that this expansive power has no end. She recognised this as a reflection of God’s love, as a sharing in it. Over the past months she spoke of her wish to write a book about her discoveries, to be focussed on the communion of saints. That book will not, now, be written, but I dare say Amanda will not give up on her enterprise. Most of us know how determined she was once she had decided that a particular thing was worth doing. Let us all be prepared for customised tuition. May the communion of saints, so real to Amanda, continue to sustain you also, dear Elisabeth, Martin, and Carlos. Your family does not only span three languages and two continents; it has a window wide open onto eternity. Many waters cannot quench love, nor can floods drown it.
In a moment we shall celebrate the memorial of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. We shall share in the Bread of life. It was the last food Amanda took on earth. Even when very weak, she greeted it with a loud Alleluia. When we break this Bread, the dividing wall is broken down. Eternity enters time. Our hope is enacted and realised. Dear friends, as we commend Amanda to God’s gentle mercy and pray for her repose, we, too, are led down into the valley to drink and be refreshed. May the communion we share make us firm in faith, persevering in hope, generous in charity. May it allow us to glimpse the Paschal Glory by which death has been destroyed forever. Amen.