Funeral Homily

2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9

Pay Attention!

A funeral homily for a woman who paid attention

Pay Attention!

2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

There are two outstanding things that I have learned about Ellen from you, her family and friends.

The first was her grand sense of hospitality, the way she would welcome people into her life. There are many people here today who are beneficiaries of that hospitality, who remember, perhaps, the experience of being welcomed by Ellen and counted valuable and precious by her. These are good memories to recall.

The second thing I learned about Ellen was her love of the splendor of creation—in her yard filled with flowers, on the beaches of Port Huron, and when she looked out to the horizon of that vast inland sea only a short distance from here. It is good to recall the delight she took in the beauty all around her.

A grand hospitality toward others, and a gratitude for this splendid world: I have learned that these were characteristics of Ellen. I would suggest to you that these two share a common root, that Ellen was somebody who paid attention. She paid attention to people, both new acquaintances and those she had known for many years. She paid attention to the natural world, and continued to enjoy places and scenes long familiar to her.

Now this might not seem like so great a virtue, to pay attention. We think it to be a minimal requirement, as when a student in school is required to pay attention to what’s happening at the front of the classroom. But I submit to you that paying attention is not something easy, and that it is something essential.

The major religions of the world differ in many important ways, but this, at least, they have in common: they call people to pay attention. They invite people to move away from distraction and preoccupation and open themselves to reality.

Christianity has its own distinctive take on this. In particular, the Christian is invited to find Christ alive in the depths of one’s self, in prayer, scripture, and sacrament, in a life that has a profound interior dimension. At the same time, the Christian is invited to discover that this same Christ lives in all the beauty of the earth and in all the faces of the human race, in the fabric of every life and community.

All this is no easy business. It requires a lifetime of practice, of forming habits of paying attention so that what is extraordinary can be discovered in what we dare to call ordinary.

From what you, her family and friends, have told me, it sounds like Ellen was a true practitioner of this art of paying attention. You saw it in her in her passion for gardening and her love for the shoreline and the water. You experienced it in the hospitality she extended to you that made a typical day a special one.

Perhaps then, this is an important part of the legacy she leaves us all: an invitation that we too can pay attention, deep attention, to the natural splendor and the human grandeur that surround us always, but which we often take for granted or even scorn.

Many things prevent us from paying attention.

We may be distracted by possessions: the entire business of getting them, having them, maintaining them. We may hold them as something we own so that we ignore their reality.

We may be distracted by information, and believe that to know about is the same as to know. Our heads may be stuffed with transient facts while our hearts hunger for the lasting truth that nourishes us only when we pay attention.

We may look on others in judgment, or simply in terms of what they can do for me. Our transactions one with another may stay superficial so that we never pay attention, we never wonder about the irreducible mystery of each and every human person.

When we fall into these traps, then we might do well to call forth from the treasury of our minds our memories of Ellen. She loved flowers that cannot be tightly grasped, but for a season burst forth into blossom. She loved the beach where the grains of sand were past counting, and a great lake that extended well past her sight. To you and so many others she was hospitable, welcoming you as you were, finding in you a mystery well worth her attention.

I believe Ellen would agree with these words from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Humanity will not perish from want of information,
but from want of appreciation.”

Ellen did her part in paying attention, and this attention was repaid in her ability to appreciate, an appreciation that many here today count as a rich blessing upon their lives. She did her part, and did it well, to keep the human race from perishing from want of appreciation.

But do not think that Ellen’s ability to pay attention, her capacity for appreciation, is now something lost forever, blasted by the power of death. No, far from it! The One who made her, and helped her become acutely aware of beauty and grandly hospitable toward others, this same holy One now offers her immense hospitality and worlds upon worlds of inexpressible beauty, in a life that life on earth can barely begin to whisper about.

There she will pay attention with transformed vigor. The splendor of that place and the grandeur of countless angels and saints and the God of love at the center—all this will repay her attention with deep delight and ever-increasing love for her to experience and share. For Ellen, this is a fresh reality. For us now, it is a source of tremendous hope.

  • Copyright 2008, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications), a book devoted to helping clergy prepare funeral homilies that are faithful, pastoral, and personal.