Funeral Homily for The Right Reverend Arthur E. Walmsley
May 4, 1928-October 5, 2017
Delivered by the Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop, Episcopal Church of NH
St. Paul’s Church, Concord, New Hampshire
October 14, 2017
Text: John 14:1-7
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
As a disciple of Jesus and a member of the Episcopal Church all his life, Arthur would have first heard this passage from the Gospel of John through the translation of the King James Bible. Arthur grew up, as any of us did, with these words:
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
Between the mansions of the King James and the “dwelling places” we read today, there was the Revise Standard Version, which we heard for about twenty years. That translation held this promise: “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” And that reminds me of the elderly man who came to me when I was newly ordained in order to plan his funeral. He mourned the loss of the mansions of the King James Version by telling me, “I did not join the Episcopal Church so that I could inherit rooms! I want the mansions!”
But none of us came here today to hear an analysis of translations of the Gospel, we came here to honor, to bid a loving farewell to our brother in Christ, an utterly devoted husband and cherished companion to Roberta, a loving and steadfast father to John and Elizabeth, a priest, preacher, bishop, confessor, spiritual director, ecumenist, activist, environmental steward and philanthropist, a churchman in the best sense of the word, a follower and disciple of Jesus, a friend of Jesus, a friend. That long list does not exhaust who Arthur was to and for so many of us. Though how can we be anything but grateful for the 89 years God blessed us with his life and presence, Arthur’s death still stuns and disorients in a way. It causes me to pause, to halt and reflect on the part of the Gospel that was particularly Arthur Walmsley’s to preach? What aspect of the Gospel shone through his life in a particular way that was only Arthur’s?
Which brings me back to the Gospel passage Arthur himself chose for us to hear.
Mansions. Rooms. Dwelling places. The original Greek is not a place where one is meant to stop permanently, as though enshrined in a niche. The word translated was not a place to stop permanently and remain static. It was to be resting place on the way--a place to tarry, to rest and to be refreshed along a journey where one kept moving and, we can assume, keep learning, growing, discovering how to be and become more like Christ.
I remember a clergy leadership retreat gathering that Arthur and his friend Richard Tombaugh asked me to attend in 1993. For some reason the discussion led Arthur to actually say that he hoped not to rest in peace eternally after his death. Sure, he’d like a few days’ rest. But he hoped he would keep to keep moving, keep growing, keep evolving, keep learning in Christ’s presence and love.
There is a noteworthy synchrony in the reading that Arthur chose for us to hear on this occasion and in the day of his ending his earthly pilgrimage. Arthur died so close to the day St. Teresa of Avila died, on October 4. St. Teresa was 16th century Spanish nun, mystic, and like Arthur, a sought-after spiritual director.
Teresa’s classic and work, entitled The Interior Castle, was an offering to her nuns in the Carmelite convent of St. Joseph in Toledo, Spain in 1577. It opens:
It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other clear crystal, In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions.
She goes on to imagine that the castle is within each of us and that as we enter each of the dwellings, each of the rooms or stations within our soul, we will be drawn ever more deeply into the love and light and freedom that our Creator so longs to give us. Teresa laments how tragic it is for a soul that doesn’t know herself, for then she would not know her Beloved.
This image of the many rooms, the many mansions is so helpful as I try to frame what Arthur has meant to me and to so many. Teresa states that “there are many ways to be in a place, whether that place is within us or not. We occupy spaces differently as we make our own pilgrimage in this life toward God, who is the origin of our journey, our companion on the way, and our end and destination. Arthur showed up at so many places in our lives and in each of our own journeys with Jesus. I can tell you that each time he appeared in my life, it marked a different place, a new moment of grace appearing, a new truth God was hoping to reveal about myself, about God. I grew up with Arthur.
And so, I thought I would share with you some of the rooms, the real rooms, the real mansions, in which I encountered Arthur. And as I do, I hope and pray that you will be invited to recognize or notice or remember those rooms in which he met you, and ask, what was God revealing to you in those rooms, in those particular encounters along the Way, along your spiritual journey.
My first encounter was in an actual mansion. I remember the day that Ruth McElraevy called me to say that I was being invited to meet the Bishop at 1335 Asylum Avenue in Hartford for my first interview to discuss the possibility of being a postulant for the priesthood. There was warmth in Ruth’s invitation, but I also felt some deep gravity about the importance of this meeting.
A few weeks later, I arrived at the brick mansion on Asylum Avenue. Inside, on the dark wood paneled walls, there were large oil portraits of bishops, almost floor to ceiling. They didn’t look happy, or if they smiled, it was more of a smirk, as though they were telling me, “Who are you? What makes you think you belong here?” I took a seat at the bottom of a broad carpeted staircase, with thick oak banisters on each side. I felt like the Cowardly Lion walking down that long corridor leading the Wizard of Oz. I thought maybe before I was called up the stairs, I could just run home.
Bishop Walmsley appeared at the top of the stairs and said, “Mr. Hirschfeld. Rob. Hello” and he beckoned me to his office, one of the many rooms in that mansion.
I entered his light filled office, after being cheerfully greeted by Ruth. We must have talked, but all I remember was that I mostly mumbled, trying to remember what I had early that morning rehearsed I would say about why I felt called to the priesthood. I guess I didn’t mumble too much, because I was shortly afterward invited to move on in the “Process.” That was the first meeting with Bishop Walmsley. The first mansion or room.
Subsequently, there were more meetings. My time as a postulant was bumpy. I had some growing up to do, I had a few deep failures and stumbles along my path. I resisted the call, left the Process, and then after three years’ hiatus, I was given another appointment to come to the Mansion on Asylum Avenue. This time, I was older, less afraid, having less to lose. Arthur graciously allowed me to return, greeting me like the merciful father welcoming the return of the prodigal son. In those days, in one of the rooms of my soul, Bishop Arthur Walmsley filled the role of a benevolent, steady, patient father. Second Mansion, though it was the same as the first. As Teresa said, there are many ways to be in a space.
There were other rooms where we met over the years. One at Grace Church, Amherst, when he came to have lunch and to invite me into the work of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, though which he hoped the Episcopal Church would commit to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, to address extreme poverty, women’s health and education and environmental health. He had retired as the Bishop of Connecticut by that time, and I got to learn more fully about his understanding of the Church’s role in society. He believed, and was very convincing, that the Church was a powerful agent of deep change and advocacy in the world. His experience organizing and leading the Episcopal Church’s Domestic Office in the 1960’s undergirded his confidence in the Church’s voice for justice in race, class and gender relations in our country. When in his presence, I always felt the presence of certain kind of authority and conviction and influence. When the Gospels speak of Jesus’ authority--as in “Jesus spoke as one who had authority”-- the word used is ex-ousia. It came out of his essence, not his position, or credentials, or degrees, or his even ordination. It was Arthur’s own exousia, his Arthur-ness, that always made me stand up and notice, and even sometimes quiver a bit in his presence. I don’t think I am alone in this.
Let me take you to another mansion in my walk with Jesus and Arthur. (Let’s assume they were both in this). It was about five years ago. I had become the bishop of this fine diocese of New Hampshire, where Roberta and Arthur had made their home in retirement and had worshipped and become friends with so, so many of the good people here. At that time Arthur was in charge of the network of spiritual directors here and he served as Chaplain to the Retired Clergy. He was devoted to this diocese and such a close and steady friend to many as the Church here sought to thrive “in the eye of the storm” to borrow the phrase that +Gene Robinson used as the title of his book to describe the ministry of church after his own momentous election.
This time, Paula Bibber, who was the Executive Assistant to the Bishop came into my office to tell me that Arthur Walmsley had arrived for his appointment at 63 Green Street, the former Tuck Mansion just a block from here. I walked to the top of the carpeted oak-railed staircase, and below me, sitting in a chair at the bottom of the steps, was Arthur. A little smaller, grayer, thinner, but still Arthur. Another mansion, this time everything reversed.
So, here’s what happened. I actually felt more frightened, more scared, timid, insecure, inadequate, unprepared, anxious, then the day I sat at the bottom of those stairs on Asylum Avenue in Hartford 28 years before. The reason I felt these all these things --rather than being amused and tickled at this strange turn of events, this reversal that sometimes takes place as parents diminish and children grow up, or as our students become our teachers, or as life just twists and turns-- the reason I felt such butterflies was that Arthur had come wanting not just to be a colleague or a brother bishop or a partner in church business. What he came for, I somehow knew, was to be a friend. God was calling me to let go of all the paternal and patriarchal...all the trappings of this office, all the mansions as terminals rather as stations along the way...God was calling us to become friends. And that, to me, was more scary, because it meant we had to be vulnerable to each other. We would talk about the pain of the church, how it was always dying in order to be reborn, but that still meant a dying. We would talk about the cost of leadership, the sacrifice it placed on our spouses and children. We would talk about what it meant to have limits. By God’s grace, that’s what I, in the deeper mansions and rooms of my soul, was what I wanted, too. Jesus said in the Gospel of John “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” We became friends. Friendship is a gift that the Bible says “is the medicine of life.” And he was your friend. He cherished you, I believe, because he saw the mansions of God in you, and he saw the light that radiated clearly like a crystal from your souls, so many of them he shepherded, light that perhaps we couldn’t see ourselves because of ourselves.
One more room in God’s house with many mansions. The room I will describe now is perhaps my favorite room in all of New Hampshire. It is the timber-framed barn or wood-shed that Arthur and Roberta converted into their--what’s do you call it?--their family room? Dining room? Gathering room? It’s a room that actually defies naming. It’s where you’ll find Roberta’s piano. It’s where the tall built-in bookcases stand, that Arthur built by hand. There is a large work of abstract art on one wall. There is a coffee table with book titles that are always changing. There is a small table near a window that overlooks a meadow in Deering. Arthur loved this place. Above the table is a little light under which is a small icon of Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity at table. It’s there where Roberta, Arthur, Elizabeth and John shared so many meals. Maybe it’s the room where Arthur met so many of you for Spiritual Direction. (After his death, I can’t count how many people told be they had Arthur as a spiritual director, and the shear diversity of people made me wonder how he did it! He truly must have had many rooms in his own soul to hold us all!). It’s the room where we have shared prayers, laughter, Arthur’s soup, remembrances, hopes and struggles for the church and for the world in their changes for the better and for the worse. I imagine it such room where Arthur is now, still learning, serving, listening, loving, having conversation with the likes of St. Teresa, Thomas Merton.
Roberta, know that we’ll come over whenever you want. We can bring the meal. Know of our abiding love and prayers and our presence. Friendship. Friendship, the medicine of life.
Arthur, we pray that you find yourself today at the heavenly table with all your friends who have gone before, and we will someday join you to feast at that holy table with your creator who made you holy, with Jesus who was, and is always, your friend, and with the Holy Spirit who blessed you with so many gifts and who continues to recreate and reform the church, and this world. And may the friendship we shared with Arthur extend into deeper friendships with each other, and so heal this world. That would so please and delight his heart, which had such room for all of us. Amen.