Words on the Word
Requiem for Hanna Mersch
Baruch 4.5-29: Return to him and seek him with renewed zeal.
Lukes 10.17-24: At that time the 72 returned.
The Gospel recounts the return of the seventy-two disciples Jesus had sent out to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom. They’re radiant. They’ve ascertained that God’s Word really works: ‘Lord, in your name even the demons obey us!’
We can relate to their relief. Even though we may go regularly to Mass and do what we can to live devoutly, are we not aware, now and again, of an acid mist arising from the depth of our heart: How can I be sure that this noble and beautiful message actually carries? What if my faith is self-delusion? Perhaps we are wary of being put to the test. We may be wary of testing ourselves – by praying, for example, for a special intention for fear of not being heard.
Here, though, the seventy-two have gone forth in Christ’s name and found that that name’s power is irresistible. Faced with it, evil evaporates like dew in the morning sun. There may be no spectacular changes outward, but evil loses its grip. Hope is reborn.
Our chief task as Christians is to keep hope alive, that is, to maintain a perspective on life that lets us see what happens in the light of eternity. ‘Blessed’, says Jesus, ‘are the eyes that see what you see.’ We have caught a glimpse of that something, the mystery of faith. We have been given the good sense to let life’s enigma be illumined by Christ’s light.
Today we remember a woman who was a carrier of light. She was clear-sighted. She wished to see ever more clearly. We know she prayed: ‘Lord, open my eyes, enlarge my vision! — words from a prayer she wrote and carried with her. In many ways Hanna Mersch lived a hidden life. She did not accomplish monumental deeds. How many of us do, in fact? Is it not an illusion of our time, that we wish at any cost to get tangible affirmation, be it simply by means of a heap of likes on Facebook. Hanna constructed her existence on other terms. She took seriously the call which Jesus addressed to the seventy-two before sending them out: ‘Take no purse, no haversack, no shoes’. The only thing they were to carry was God’s peace, in sufficient abundance to leave an amount of it behind wherever they went in and out.
Hanna’s fidelity has borne fruit for the Gospel. She was a founding figure in Norwegian Catholicism. She was a daughter of St Boniface. Like him, who worked in the 8th century, she left her native land – for the Apostle to the Germans, let’s not forget, was English.
The Catholic life she found here in the early 60s was modest to say the least. At that time there were hardly more than 300-400 Catholics in the whole prelature. Resources were minimal. Hanna was at ease in this relative poverty. She became a cornerstone in the parish in Levanger. She helped found the nursing home of St Eystein, which became proverbial around town, a house alive with kindness and warmth, with a broad entrance and a low threshold, where the kettle was always on. Let’s hope we can, in the time ahead, revive this heritage, which has slumbered for a while.
I got to know Hanna on 2 March this year, during a visit to the Institute’s motherhouse at Detmold near Paderborn. That her heart was still beating for Norway was obvious. Although she had returned to Germany she still lived determinedly within the radius of Stiklestad, the site of St Olav’s martyrdom. Throughout her life she was a tool in God’s hands. The Lord did great things with it. It was no big deal to her that she was, when her service was over, put back, as it were, on the shelf in the carpenter’s workshop. She sought no acclaim for herself.
Offerings like Hanna’s build up the Church. I intend the word ‘offering’, not as an image of a drastic, violent act, an act wrought with sighs and groans. No, I intend it the way David uses it in 1 Chronicles (29.17), when he jubilantly sings to God: In simplicitate cordis mei lætus tibi obtuli omnia: ‘Lord, in my undivided heart I have brought you everything as an offering’. In the vocabulary of the Old Testament, an offering is literally an ‘elevation’ — it refers to the movement the priest performed when he lifted up before God whatever gifts people brought, a sign that all earthly accomplishments point towards a heavenly finality, that even our corn, our wine, our cattle carry a seed of eternity and can come to be a vehicle of blessing.
Hanna Mersch lived her life in an upward élan. Her sisters say she dearly loved the image of wild geese in flight, a wonder to behold each spring, each autumn. One bird flies ahead, the others follow, in unselfconscious beauty and ordered elegance. Hanna has now departed from this earth. The Lord called her one last time. She followed as she always did, happy, I should think, to find her vision enlarged in the ascent. We invoke God’s peace upon her. May it be granted each of us to live faithful, fruitful lives. Whether we will reap the harvest of the seeds we sow or whether the season is for others to enjoy matters little. That’s the Gardener’s business, not ours. What counts is to be at hand when he needs us.
As Hanna reminds us by means of a quotation from St Ignatius that throughout life she held dear: ‘None of us has the faintest idea of what God might accomplish in us if only we surrendered ourselves entirely to him.’