Words on the Word
Br William Strahan RIP
Isaiah 25:6-9 On this mountain the Lord will destroy death
Romans 5:5-11 The Holy Spirit has been given to us
Matthew 11:25-30 Come to me, all you who labour
The principal image put before us by Scripture today is the image of a mountain. The Prophet Isaiah evokes a mountain unlike any other, on which God’s communion with his people will be splendidly manifest. The Lord will preside there as generous host, offering a banquet of rich food. Removing the veil of mourning that covers the face of his guests, he will offer gifts of consolation. He will reveal himself a fearsome victor over all his enemies, trampling Death underfoot forever. At the same time he will show maternal gentleness, wiping ‘away the tears from every cheek’, not generically, but tear by tear, cheek by cheek. Finally, he will ‘take away his people’s shame’. That is to say, he will bring graciousness to bear on those aspects of our history, our life, we would rather not own up to. He will call us from the shadows into his all-seeing light, not to expose us but to let us discover – a wonder! – that our wounds have been healed; that what God’s light shines on becomes light. The scars that in the lowlands produced pain and shame are, on the mountain, a motive for praise. On that day, Isaiah proclaims, it will be said: ‘See this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation; he has saved us.’
On All Souls day we invoke God’s salvation on all the faithful departed. Through our devout prayers, the mercy of God spreads, through the Church, like a comforting blanket over every grave, whether lovingly tended or forgotten. At the same time, today, we pray especially for our Brother Liam. The presence of his body in our midst, released, at last, from distress, helps us root the high mystery of faith in the concrete and familiar. When we speak of All Souls, we do not intend some anonymous mass, but Christian brothers and sisters with names and faces and unique histories. At this Mass, our brother represents the entire assembly of the dead. Br Liam had a deep yearning to scale Isaiah’s mountain. He was packed, ready to go, and told me often, these past few months, that he felt like a runner come to the end of the race.
Br Liam had sought an image of God’s mountain throughout his adult life. He sought it first here at Mount Saint Bernard, which he entered as a lay brother in 1951. The lay brother’s vocation was dear to him. He served the Lord and the brethren with his work, and for work he had immense capacity. His physical strength was proverbial. Entrusted with the care of buildings, he acquired skills that fully flourished when, in 1963, he joined the first group of monks that left our Midlands mount for the mountainous highlands of Cameroon, to found the abbey of Our Lady of Bamenda. Br Liam designed and built the monastery there, still standingsolidly. He loved to tell the story of how he found himself, a Cornishman in his mid-30s, before a crew of half-hundred native workers with whom he shared no common language, having to coordinate their efforts. ‘I don’t know how I did it?’, he would say – a little disingenuously. A note of unmistakable authority was present in his voice right to the end when, on his deathbed, he instructed us on the arrangement of his water glass, spectacles, and bleeper, on right order in his towering pile of blankets. He was someone who could commandeer a crowd by a movement of the eyes, a gesture of the chin. Bamenda was the first of many monumental projects. Throughout his career, Br Liam built monasteries and churches in both Cameroon and Nigeria.
He worked, too, as retreat master and spiritual director. In this capacity, he found himself, on missionary soil, more than once faced with the insidious power of the Ancient Enemy, with palpable manifestations of evil. These experiences marked him. He, a man bursting with natural vigour, learnt to recognise God’s power in weakness. This inner awakening prepared him to embrace the infirmity of his latter years. He suffered keenly when illness forced him to leave Africa, where his warm heart had been wounded and strangely graced. Back here, in the house of his profession, he continued to work as best he could, assembling cards, writing music, peeling vegetables with bravado. When, eventually, that, too, had to go, he accepted it. A deep sigh at times betrayed what enforced immobility cost him, but he determinedly embraced it. He was in constant pain yet said with conviction, right to the end, ‘I really can’t complain’. There was a remarkable detachment about him. Even as he lay dying, when considering what had become of his strength, he would chuckle wistfully.
Br Liam was not one to reel off devout phrases. Yet two essential sayings were often on his lips. The first he had picked up from William of St Thierry, one of our Cistercian Fathers: ‘Quod habuit, hoc fecit’. Applying it to himself, Br Liam paraphrased: ‘What I had to do, that I have done.’ Looking back over his life, he was conscious of having been given a task. Though mindful of his failings, he considered he had fulfilled that task to the best of his ability. May it be granted us all to say as much at the hour of our death! The second saying was a distillation of experience, characteristically devoid of perfumed piety: ‘I have always tried to be obedient’, he would say; ‘often I haven’t liked it much, but I have tried.’ Then he would laugh. His response to the Lord’s final call showed that this practice of a lifetime had borne fruit. Br Liam took life and death as they came, giving what he had, striving to give it unreservedly. That is how he scaled the mountain, pursuing the fulfilment of his heart’s desire. We pray that he will now find serenity and joy on the summit, in communion with the saints. He will not be indifferent to the eschatological promise of a banquet of rich food! ‘Come to me’, says the Lord in today’s Gospel, ‘you who labour, and I will give you rest.’ Br Liam laboured hard. He laboured well. With confidence we entrust him and all our dear dead to the tender mercy of Christ, who came to seek us out that no one should be lost. Christ restores what is broken to wholeness. He combines the confused threads of our life to a lovely tapestry. May his light shine on Br Liam and on all the faithful departed, and illuminate our living and dying. Amen.