Funeral sermon for an astronomer

Read Psalms 136:1-9 & 19:1-8

Rolf worked at many things. My impression is that he accomplished so much. Rolf was always on a project, whether clearing large rocks off his land, growing grapes, gardening, building structures, star-watching and -tracking.

His scientific mind, inductive reasoning and clarity of thought all translated into a degree of productivity not many of us will ever achieve. His gentle, methodical approach to his work reflects a state of mind that mirrors the great, spiritual giants of history.

Yes, spiritual.

Often science and religion have been pitted against each other in the philosophical and doctrinal wars of the contemporary age. And yet, in the lives of common people, we can begin to see that the two are not opposites in the seesaw battle for truth. Science and religion, in all truth, go hand in hand.

Some argue that besides the bible, no other book has likely influenced the course of western history more than the Rule of Benedict from the sixth century of the Common Era. Only some 13,000 words long, The Rule outlines instructions for the monastic tradition including prayer and work. In The Rule, Saint Benedict ordered the monks not only how to pray the Psalms, but how to work.

This work involved primarily manual, physical labour — fixing things, gardening, building. This work also evolved, happily, into artisan endeavours — wine-making, beer-producing, food preparing, and the such. Finally, the intellectual work of scribing and reading.

With singular attention focused on one task at a time, work becomes a contemplation. Even, you could say, a prayer. When it is done with joy and thanksgiving in each given moment. When we are present to our work, it is an offering of the natural rhythms of life, unfettered by distraction and self-consuming narcissism, which is often characterized by the demands and expectations of a hurried, anxious immediacy.

We remember and celebrate a precious life today. We recall moments that reveal a story of a person who reflects some of the best of what life and work is all about. Creation is indeed beautiful. God did good! And it will take eternity for us humans to begin to even scratch the surface of the brilliance and wonder of all that is.

The spirit of expansion, I would say, characterized Rolf’s life — a moving outward to include all, to embrace all, to reach to the farthest limits of all that we can know in God’s creation.

When Rolf was baptized at St James Anglican Church in Gatineau a few months after his birth, he was not only baptized into that particular faith community. His baptism signified his connection to the vast communion of saints. This community of faith spans the globe in all times and in all places. His baptism connected him to what Christians often call the ‘Body of Christ’ which has many members and includes all the baptized around the world: Starting here in the Ottawa region, and expanding outward.

In the funeral liturgy, one of the traditional prayers acknowledges the ‘mystical communion’ we all share in the Body of Christ. It speaks to the connectivity among all creatures.

Rolf’s passion for astronomy demonstrates this expansive spirit beautifully. The stars, of course, symbolize the mystery of heaven and God, and our human yearning for the unknown to become known. To connect to this great mystery, Rolf built his own observatory in the backyard of his house. 

And in 2005 he took a superb photo of Mars, his favourite planet. This image, which you see displayed here today, was possible because in 2005 Mars was in a close approach to earth at a high elevation — which means the angle at which viewing the red planet from the earth’s surface was exceptional.

Apparently Mars doesn’t behave like this every year. But in 2016, this year of Rolf’s death, Mars has again dipped close to the earth. Almost as if it was coming in to scoop Rolf up and connect his spirit once again to the vast universe, where now Rolf can see with his own eyes the expansive realm of God, whose love, mercy, and grace knows no limits.

Although we grieve a particular connection we have known with Rolf on earth these past six-plus decades, we touch today on the truth of the eternal connection we share with Rolf, all people, with all of creation and with God, forever.

Thanks be to God.

Toward Discovering the True Self

The true self, as Thomas Merton described, is like a deer. It doesn’t really want to be seen, noticed. It is somewhat elusive. We cannot easily identify and claim it as we would a car, computer or fashion. In other words, it cannot be objectified.

The message of the Gospel of Jesus, according to Luke, is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue proclaiming the good news, he confesses his purpose: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

So, where is this kingdom?

English translations will render the original Greek concerning where the kingdom of God resides, in 17:21, “among you” or “within you”. Jesus says about the kingdom — you cannot say to it, “It is over there, or over here.” The kingdom of heaven, our true identity — who we are — is only discovered deep within us.

When I catch myself concentrating on something, am I really concentrating? When I say I am humble, am I exercising humility? Saint Benedict said that when a monk knows he is praying, he isn’t really praying.

Self-consiousness is the bain of the contemplative life. Self-consciousness is a sure sign that we are not being our true selves in whatever we are and do: when we worry how we appear before others; when we try to please others; when we speak and are thinking not feeling into the moment; when we show off who we think we are to others – we are likely further away from our true selves, our place in the kingdom of God.

Personal liberation cannot even be the goal of the true self. Being free cannot stand as the ultimate end-game in our devotion and spiritual practice. If you engage in Christian Meditation, for example, because you want to experience personal freedom in who you are, be careful. Because Christian Meditation is not a self-help program whose ultimate goal is the self, self-fulfilment, self-realization, self-glorification.

The goal of Christian Meditation is counter-intuitive and paradoxical: Poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus opens his sermon on the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3), echoing Luke’s version in 6:20. And here’s the trick: If poverty is the goal, then the liberation of our true selves is often a consequential benefit. We need to work towards poverty of self; then the paradox: We will discover our true selves when we lose our self-conceived, self-created identity.

Imagine the shape and form of a typical hour glass. What is important here is not the function of the time piece; that is, merely keeping time as the grains of sand funnel through the narrow centre and spill out into the bottom of the glass in chronological time. What is important to hold as a guiding image of the hour glass are both the direction and the form in describing the process of Christian Meditation.

The direction is downward, signifying the call to go deeper into prayer, deeper – initially – into the self (in the top half of the glass) toward the centre (the focal, still point) and finally farther downward into the broad space beyond the centre. The form leads us – beginning with gathering all that we are: our personal, unique, individual expressions of character and activity, passions and occupations, needs and strengths, our ego compulsions, our fear, our anxiety, our shame and guilt, our anger; in other words, what is visible and easily apparent in our identities, on the surface, so to speak.

Then, into the focal, impoverished centre point: in silence and stillness into the singular prayer of Jesus — the silent and still hub at the centre of the prayer wheel. It is here where we discover the starting and end point of all that we are in the poverty of prayer, in our own personal poverty, in stripping away all our ego compulsions and repeating, concentratively a simple word, mantra, or prayer phrase. The important spiritual practice here can be summarized in the art of “letting go”, releasing, simplifying, surrendering all that we have and are. Each time we meditate we experience this process.

The journey is toward the centre, which is not completely the self, because it leads beyond the self to engage the world in a renewed way. The aim of all prayer is the poverty of the self at the centre, where all we find is the human conciousness of Jesus praying to Abba. This is our soul, the quiet, still centre of our being, that leads us into communion with God, into our true self.

At the National Conference of the Canadian Christian Meditation Community, held in Ottawa in June 2011, Rev. Glenda Meakin was asked a question dealing with our soul. I am told she responded by saying (I am paraphrasing): “The soul is that part of me that nothing can touch. It is so of God it cannot be taken away from me. My centre. My true self is coming in touch with the way God created us. When we meditate we learn who we really are.”

Here, we participate in the kingdom of God — our true selves — and then engage the world to “…proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also.”