Alleluia to All That Is: A Funeral Sermon for Colleen Malouf
A Funeral Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-14a; Psalm 139 (1-11); Revelation 21: 1-7; John 14: 1-6
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
I think I first met Colleen in wee hours of a Sunday morning when I was getting vested for the 8 o’clock mass. As you know, Colleen was a faithful acolyte at the 8 o’clock service for many years—reading the readings, leading the prayers of the people, serving the table at Eucharist—everything except lighting the tallest candles, which no amount tippy-toeing or one-armed acrobatics could muster.
Later today at the reception, you’ll hear all about Colleen’s remarkable career as a glass-ceiling breaking career woman. You’ll hear about her amazing work as CEO with Friends for Sight bringing all manner of people of diverse backgrounds quality eye care. You’ll likely hear about her faithful service here at St. Mark’s as an altar guild member, a vestry member, Eucharistic minister, and tippy-toed acolyte. You’ll hear all about how “Auntie Coco” doted over her 20 or so nieces and nephews. You might even hear (after a few glasses of wine) that Colleen knew the original Batman—Adam West himself! I asked our organist if we could play the Batman theme song at the offertory today, but it isn’t in his repertoire.
What I’d like to focus on about Colleen, however, is how much I admire her seemingly boundless capacity for gratitude—her ability to say alleluia to all that is. As you all know, Colleen fought a long battle with cancer going all the way back to 2005. She told me many times that she was never supposed to be here in the first place, and that the doctors told her she’d never walk after the surgery even if she survived. Sure enough, a decade later, there she was not just walking, but looking like a fire-juggling tight-rope walker try to light candles in the chapel. How many times have you heard people say, “Life is gift”? Countless times. How many times have you actually encountered someone who lived from that profound sense of giftedness? Very rarely. Colleen was one of those people—someone I called my “gratitude teacher” when we were robing up. Colleen was one of those saints whose life exemplifies for us all what it means to surrender our lives to God, to give ourselves away, and embrace whatever comes with a joyful gratitude knowing that we are held, like Dame Julian’s hazelnut, in the tender, loving palm of God.
I use that word “joyful” intentionally, because Colleen’s life reminds us of the important difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a fleeting, momentary emotion brought on by a constellation of factors—our sports team wins the World Series, our favorite flavor of ice cream arrives at the dinner table for dessert, or a longed-for gadget appears under the tree on Christmas morning. We feel happy initially, but almost instantaneously we begin to feel a kind of skittish, panicky, ache—we know that in all likelihood our team won’t win again, the gadget will likely break, and (as Jesus said) a man can’t live on ice cream alone. If we chase happiness, we are bound to a round of feverish grasping—getting what we think we need and avoiding what we think we don’t. We’re elated when we get what we think we need, and sad when what we think will make us happy slips through our fingers. It all sounds terribly exhausting, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.
Saints like Colleen, however, show us a different way to live. No longer consumed with pushing away or holding on, simply accepting life as it is, the boundless energy of love is unleashed. Living from a place that recognizes the sheer, unmerited, gracious, gratuity of the gift of life means that in that person’s life we see that rarest of birds—true joy. Now joy is not just skipping down the street whistling to oneself on a sunny day with your pigtails swinging behind you. Joy is a deep, abiding sense of God’s presence with and for us no matter what the outward circumstances of our lives happen to be. Happiness can be faked—with the right makeup, white enough teeth and a practiced laugh, anyone can appear happy. Joy, however, cannot be faked. It’s the pearl of great price that we discover buried in the field of our hearts when we realize that God loves us no matter what and we practice living from that love day by day.
When I say joy can’t be faked, I mean that one of the surest tests of spiritual depth and maturity is how someone faces adversity. If the seed is planted on loose soil, when trouble hits, all that carefully practiced Christian pantomime goes out the window pretty quickly. I’ve seen it, sadly, plenty of times. In Colleen’s case, however, affliction didn’t challenge her faith, it deepened it. Rather than begrudging her illness and dwelling in bitterness, or self- pity, Colleen’s illness actually opened her heart more and more. She gave herself more and more to the mystery of God. She became gentler, more gracious, more grateful (and even funnier) the sicker she got. It was almost as if you were watching a flower (a daisy perhaps) bloom, and smelling the perfume of selfless love to fill the room.
I remember last week at the 8 o’clock service, when I mentioned that Colleen had died, one of the regulars at that service mentioned that one time recently he was complaining to Colleen about having a toothache. Despite being very ill herself, Colleen, being Colleen, she wrapped her tiny arms around him, gave him a big hug and commiserated with him—“Oh, my dear, toothaches are the worst!” That’s what joy looks like—at the drop of a hat, Colleen turned her attention away from herself and toward the suffering of someone else. The same thing happened when Feed My Sheep tried to send her get well cards recently—Colleen actually called up and told us “Thank you, but please send those cards to someone who actually needs them!”
Surely she could have spent her time wondering “why me?” and comparing her life to some of her relatively healthy friends, but she didn’t bother with that. She gave thanks for what God had given her day after day. Colleen knew, in her quiet, under-stated, “little Lebanese lady” way that nothing can separate us from the love of God. She knew she was never alone and that she didn’t have to rely (thank God) on herself or her own efforts to weather the inevitable difficulties of life. She put her trust in the steadfast love of God to carry her through. That’s why, I think, she chose Psalm 139 for this service, the psalm that speaks in the most beautiful possible way of God’s ever-present love for each and every one of us without exception and no matter the circumstances—
Where can I go then from your Spirit?/Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there,/ if I make the grace my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning/and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,/Even there your hand will lead me/and your right hand hold me fast.
St. Thérèse of Liseux, who died at the age of twenty-four from tuberculosis was fond of saying, “Everything is a grace.” It’s a profound statement, but an immensely difficult one as well that most of us glimpse only fleetingly. Thérèse goes on to say, “Holiness does not consist in this or that practice but in a disposition of heart which remains always humble and little in God’s arms, but trusting to audacity in the Father’s goodness.” In a nice little twist, Thérèse’s way to holiness is often referred to as the “little way” or the “way of the little flower” for its emphasis on remain humble and little in God’s arms, but “trusting to audacity” in God’s unfailing love.
Thérèse’s “little way” seems to me to be perfectly exemplified by our sister Colleen—diminutive in stature, but a dynamo of the Spirit. She was one of those rare souls, who could say alleluia—“All hail to the one who is”—in every circumstance: surrounded by her adoring nieces and nephews, or undergoing chemo. As we will say later in our liturgy—“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Rare is the person whose life is one long alleluia. Rare is the person who even at the grave makes the song. Thanks be to God for Colleen and the spry, sassy alleluia of her life. May we each come to live from giftedness as she did, may her alleluia become ours, and may her soul and the souls of all the dearly departed rest in peace.