I don’t know if you know the hymn by Isaac Watts ‘There is a land of pure delight’ ? Well, it was much in my mind this morning at Mgr Graham Leonard's Funeral Requiem at the Oxford Oratory.
The hymn goes :
There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign,
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain.
There everlasting spring abides,
And never withering flowers:
Death, like a narrow sea, divides
This heav’nly land from ours.
Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dressed in living green:
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.
But timorous mortals start and shrink
To cross this narrow sea;
And linger, shivering on the brink,
And fear to launch away.
O could we make our doubts remove,
Those gloomy thoughts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With unbeclouded eyes!
Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood,
Should fright us from the shore.
To start with, apart from the fact that it is an hymn very appropriate to funerals, I couldn’t work out why it kept on coming into my mind; but meditating after Communion I realized that – today, particularly – it had a two-fold significance.
Look at the last verse : it is surely obvious that if those of us there this morning could stand where, we hope and believe, Mgr Graham is now, seeing – even if still from the shores of Purgatory – the heavenly land, then none of us would want other than to be there with him.
Although we are all well aware that the reality often appears to be otherwise, our Christian Faith teaches us that this ‘narrow sea’ is all that separates us from our heavenly Home; and that it is, ultimately, only our fears which make us fearful of crossing it – that make us so afraid of death.
However, this morning, in a crowded Church, I recognized another dimension; one which I am sure Mgr Graham would have recognized.
That is that there was, this morning, another ‘narrow sea’ involved; in this case (in Anglican parlance), the Tiber. Everyone there was united in affection and respect for Mgr Graham; yet as well as the division which death had wrought between him and us, there was also a division amongst us which cried aloud of a sorrow almost greater than our sorrow at his death – the sorrow (which I’m sure I was not alone in feeling) that so many of those close to him for so many years could not receive their Holy Communion at his Funeral Mass – could not in that way support Priscilla and the family; and could not be united with him in Christ on this momentous occasion.
There were, of course, official Anglican representatives present; the Bishop of London was represented by the Area Bishop of Edmonton, and others were mentioned : but there were also many others, mainly familiar faces from Mgr Graham’s ministry in London and before, who made the journey to Oxford out of the love they bore him – I saw, for example, one of his former Chaplains, who had made the horrendous journey from Ipswich simply so that he could support Mgr Graham for the last time.
At the same time, there were many other familiar faces there, part of Mgr Graham’s life in the Church of England, who were able to share in the Mass to the fullest extent – Bishop Alan Hopes, for instance, the principal Celebrant, spoke movingly of how Bishop Leonard (as he then was) took part in his Ordination as an Anglican; and there were several other concelebrants whom I know to have started their ministry under Mgr Graham when he was Anglican Bishop of either Truro or London, but who, like him ‘launched away’ and crossed the ‘narrow sea’, to find home in full communion with the Apostolic See, and who were today able to share in full measure in saying farewell to a good man, a fine teacher, and a holy priest.
I don’t think I am being fanciful if I say that, today perhaps of all days, the last verse of that hymn could well have been viewed as relating not only to the Christian’s journey through death to life eternal, but also to the short journey across the Tiber from the uncertainty of the Church of England to the enormous relief, and security, of the Holy Catholic Church.
Mgr Graham found great peace and joy in the Catholic Church, as many others – both before and since – have done too – myself amongst them. Let us pray that those many men and women of goodwill who shared this morning in our farewell to Mgr Graham may come to get rid of their doubts and ‘gloomy thoughts’ and – like him in 1993 – at last ‘see the Canaan that they love with unbeclouded eyes’ and ‘launch away’ to find, like him, an earthly home in the Catholic Church which will we trust, lead them at last to Heaven.