A Way of Beauty in Life and in Death

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Resurrection Window by Harry Wright Goodhue at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.

A homily offered at the celebration of the life of John Alexander (Sandy) Sempliner on August 29, 2013.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:1-3, Psalm 23, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9, and John 14:1-6.

The reading we heard a few minutes ago from Second Corinthians (4:16—5:9) begins with the affirmation, “We do not lose heart.”  Other translations put it, “For which cause we faint not,” and one contemporary version says simply, “We’re not giving up.”  Paul’s letter goes on to suggest some reasons for not giving up, for not losing heart.  He suggests that there are things that are not seen, but are eternal.  There is something beyond, something bigger, something better, something more beautiful.  In the Christian understanding, “that something” has to do with Christ, with his way of life being God’s fullest expression of love in our world.  And so, to follow in faith is to follow that love, to follow that bigger thing, to follow what has been called a via pulchritudinis, or “way of beauty.”

In much of our world, the very idea of beauty seems personal and individual, entirely subjective.  But as many of you know—as Sandy well knew— classical and medieval concepts of beauty had to do very little with subjective categories.  Beauty has to do with an ordered relationship of parts, with proportion, and harmony, with a sense of things working together for a unified whole, a kind of luminosity, and then— there’s the subjective aspect of pleasure and delight, which returns to, and complicates the equation.  As Mary Beth Ingham states, this richer, theologically informed beauty “has something to do with wisdom, with understanding and analysis, with seeking and finding, with the haunting sense that we know something we cannot explain or articulate.  Beauty unifies the true and the good.” (Mary Beth Ingham, Rejoicing in the Works of the Lord: Beauty in the Franciscan Tradition, Vol. 6, St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2009, p. 9)

Sandy understood this well.  He followed beauty in all of its richness.  Whenever he moved from one thing to another, painting to development, for example, some might have seen this as a drastic move, a new direction entirely.  But Sandy was simply changing media.  From making beauty on canvass and in the classroom, he simply moved to the work of making lives more beautiful.  Sandy knew that “beauty” is not always confined to what is attractive or pleasing to the eye. Sometimes it involves pain, despair, poverty, and even death.  But Sandy knew what the Apostle Paul points to, that there is a greater masterpiece being formed, being worked out by the Master Artist, and being created with the “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17)

There will always be critics.  Sandy understood this.  There have always been, and always will be those—who know us and don’t know us, those who love us—who don’t quite understand what we do or why we do it.  Perhaps they don’t like what we produce or the methods of production.  Sandy knew that people had various opinions about his art, about his living, and even about his dying.  It was not Sandy’s way to create a blog on the internet and announce the day-to-day details of his battle.  Some may wish he had let more people in.  But it was his work of art as he crafted what he could with the help of Lorraine, with the help of a few others, and with all of the surprise, despair, hope, fear, and faith he could muster.

As you know, Sandy was proud.  He was always aware of his appearance, and every time I saw him, he was impeccably turned out.  When I saw him in the hospital, I could read in his face a kind of fury—anger at the disease, frustration at not being able to control the situation, and outrage at the mere idea of having a conversation with a priest while wearing a hospital gown!

Though it seems as though a great work of God’s beauty has gone out of the world—Sandy has died—the scriptures we’ve heard today, and indeed the whole faith of the Church, reminds us that this is part of God’s design and the end result will be more dazzling and extraordinary than we can ask or imagine.

I recently came across a story that suggests an important way of being in relationship with another, even though the person may be far away.  Sorella Maria was an Italian Franciscan nun, living in a small monastic community near Assisi.  Though she lived in a hermitage, she made interesting friendship and kept up an amazing correspondence. She became a friend and spiritual companion to the English women Amy Turton and Evelyn Underhill, and she was able to meet and befriend Mahatma Gandhi.  In 1935, she wrote Gandhi telling him about how her community prayed for him and India, but she was frustrated with the distance and didn’t feel like she was doing enough. She asked herself, ‘Am I faithful to my friendship with Bapu?  I don’t write to him: I do nothing for him.’ [But then her heart replied to her] “You are faithful, because you simply live, suffer, work, rejoice and love for clarity and for clarification, for non-violence and mature gentleness, for the humble but passionate search for truth.”  And then she concludes her letter to Gandhi saying, “So, my great friend, I offer you my faithful offering of love, veneration, and gratitude.” That is all.  But it is everything.  (A.M. Allchin, Friendship in God: The Encounter of Evelyn Underhill and Sorella Maria of Campello, Oxford: SLG Press, 2003, p. 9.)

This is how we can move forward without “losing heart” or “giving up.”  We can offer Sandy lives lived in pursuit of beauty—with an ongoing and improving eye for beauty in art, music, and food; for a desire for beauty in conversations, and friendships and loves; and for acts of charity, hard work, and kindness that plant seeds of the beautiful that will flourish well into the future.

May our hearts truly “not be troubled,” may we never faint for too long, and may the God of love lead us, with Sandy, into eternal beauty.

May the soul of John Alexander Sempliner rest in peace, and may he rise in glory. Amen.

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About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington DC. The church is located on Cathedral Avenue, NW, just off Connecticut Avenue, NW in Woodley Park, near the National Zoo.
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