Jesus, as we have just heard, said, “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” He did not, however, say that anyone who hears his word and believes in God would not die … and so we are here this morning to mourn our loss of Eileen Tough Harrington, to remember her life, and to celebrate her entry into the Presence of Almighty God. She has “passed from death to life,” larger life with the Saints in Light.
As many of you know, I often turn to the works of famous poets at times like these and one in particular is the early 19th Century writer Anna Lætitia Barbauld, the daughter and wife of Presbyterian ministers. Her poem A Thought On Death was published in 1821 in a magazine entitled The Christian Disciple. I was reminded of it when I reflected on Eileen’s long life:
When life as opening buds is sweet,
And golden hopes the fancy greet,
And Youth prepares his joys to meet,
Alas! how hard it is to die!
When just is seized some valued prize,
And duties press, and tender ties
Forbid the soul from earth to rise,
How awful then it is to die!
When, one by one, those ties are torn,
And friend from friend is snatched forlorn,
And man is left alone to mourn,
Ah then, how easy ’tis to die!
When faith is firm, and conscience clear,
And words of peace the spirit cheer,
And visioned glories half appear,
‘Tis joy, ’tis triumph then to die.
When trembling limbs refuse their weight,
And films, slow gathering, dim the sight,
And clouds obscure the mental light,
‘Tis nature’s precious boon to die.
In her time of youth, as a young girl of six years of age, Eileen emigrated from her native Aberdeen, Scotland, to the United States. As a young woman she “seized the valued prize” of a two-year college degree in business skills and became an executive secretary. “Dour Scot” though her heritage may have been, she did enjoy life – she and her brother Frederick became dancers and traveled the country entertaining others with their ballroom and tap dancing; she also loved to read and enjoyed word games and crossword puzzles. And, of course, her church membership was very important to her. A member of this parish for 27 years, she was the head of St. Paul’s Altar Guild in the 1980s.
She gave up the dancing when she married Richard Clay Harrington, but she continued throughout her life to enjoy reading and to be active in the church. Mother of two, Susan and Richard Jr., a grandmother and a greatgrandmother, Eileen like all mothers taught her children the lessons of life. A modern American poet, J.D. Deutschendorf, recently published a poem Lessons Mother Taught Us written last year when his mother died:
She planted dill for swallow-tails
and milkweed where monarchs would lay
their caterpillar offspring round
the grass green meadows of May.
The migrants returned then as always;
how quickly her crops were consumed!
but countless chrysalides dotted the dell
tucked inside their golden cocoons.
Then early one morning she beckoned
us watch the mystery unfold;
the metamorphosis almost complete
translucent shells gave up their gold.
Wet wings greeted the rising sun
and the warmth of a soft summer breeze,
soon butterflies coloured meadow and wood
floating gracefully throughout the trees.
She told us of unseen transcendings
as we watched the born-agains soar;
so certain were we then of heaven
as if we had been there before.
I don’t know if Eileen taught Susan and Richard about gardening and butterflies, but I do know that she taught her children, as all mothers do, about life.
I know that they know that we are all children of God; they know it because she knew it and I’m sure that with her Scots determination she made sure they learned her lessons.
That Scots determination (or perhaps some might call it stubbornness) is one of the things I first discovered about Eileen. From time to time, my wife Evelyn and I would have dinner with her together with her daughter Susan and son-in-law Paul. At some point during the evening, Eileen would simply decide that she’d had enough to eat and, apparently, enough of the company as well. “I’m ready to go,” she would say. And when Eileen was ready to go, everyone else had better be ready to go, too!
So last week, when Susan called me on Wednesday and said, “The nurses at Western Reserve have called and said Mom has decided to go,” I knew exactly what she meant. Eileen had finally come to that point when, as the poet Barbauld had put it, trembling limbs refused their weight and films had dimmed her the sight, when clouds obscured her mental light, and she was ready to go.
She was ready to pass through death to the life beyond, that that larger where, as our Prayer Book says, we shall see God and be reunited with those who have gone before. Eileen is now reunited with her beloved Richard, a Naval officer, and so I close with a final poem, one with a bit of a nautical theme, The Unknown Shore by Elizabeth Clark Hardy:
Sometime at Eve when the tide is low
I shall slip my moorings and sail away
With no response to a friendly hail
In the silent hush of the twilight pale
When the night stoops down to embrace the day
And the voices call in the water’s flow
Sometime at Eve When the water is low
I shall slip my moorings and sail away.
Through purple shadows
That darkly trail o’er the ebbing tide
And the Unknown Sea,
And a ripple of waters’ to tell the tale
Of a lonely voyager sailing away
To mystic isles
Where at anchor lay
The craft of those who had sailed before
O’er the Unknown Sea
To the Unknown Shore
A few who watched me sail away
Will miss my craft from the busy bay
Some friendly barques were anchored near
Some loving souls my heart held dear
In silent sorrow will drop a tear
But I shall have peacefully furled my sail
In mooring sheltered from the storm and gale
And greeted friends who had sailed before
O’er the Unknown Sea
To the Unknown Shore
It’s not really an “unknown shore”. It is, rather, our eternal home, God’s kingdom where there is no pain, no death, no sorrow, no crying, but the fullness of joy with those who have gone before, with all God’s saints. Today, we rejoice that Eileen has gone there before us.
May she rest in peace and rise in Glory! Amen.