Memorial Mass for Ellis R. Mottur (1930–2010)

“Come Unto Me,” stained glass window at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

A meditation offered at the memorial Mass for Ellis R. Mottur, held at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church September 10, 2010. Mr. Mottur’s book, A Poetic Journey: From Fear– Through Love– to Faith and Felicity was published by Dorrance Publishing Co, 2010.

Gerontologists, those who watch the aging process closely, and our own grandparents, all tell us that when it comes to growing older—there is bad news and there is good news.

The bad news is that as we age, we become more our true selves. And you have probably guessed the good news: as we age, we become more our true selves.

So this means that in growing older, those things that irritate us, that get under our skin– prejudices and places of ignorance all can intensify. Someone who is grouchy at 35 will probably be even grouchier at 95.

But the good news is that we also become more our true selves, the older we get. Where there has been generosity, or wonder, or hope, or love at 35…. with age on our side (and I would add, with grace on our side) into our 60’s and 70’s and 80’s we can become even more generous, even more hopeful, and loving beyond imagination.

Ellis Mottur is proof of this good news. As he aged, he just got smarter. He got sharper. He was able to understand more. He had more friends. He offered more love. He had even more faith.

If you knew Ellis in later life, you might never have known that he had struggled in his younger years. As he has expressed in his poetry, there were times when he felt like he

slashed through swamps of stagnant black;
….rushed from black to black to black;
….kicked [his] feet to the accepted beat;
…. but …dared— [he] dared not look. (from “Flight Through Fear”)

But he made it. Whether it was the appearance of a sparrow (as he writes), or whether that was a symbol of some person or several persons, Ellis was lifted out of the dark places.

Ellis loved music and he especially loved Beethoven. That’s why we’re using some of the Beethoven sonatas today and why we’ll end our celebration singing (loudly and lustily) “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee.” In that Ellis knew a lot about most things, I would not be surprised if he loved Beethoven in part because of Beethoven’s own struggles and his ability to write and play and pray through those struggles. At the age of 26, Beethoven began suffering from tinnitus and began to lose some of his hearing. Over time, his hearing loss became profound, and it affected the way he interacted with people. It is said that at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony (The Ninth Symphony from which we get the tune, Ode to Joy) Beethoven had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience; because he couldn’t hear it. Friends turned Beethoven around literally. Friends (and I think he might add, God, too, helped Ellis turn from doubt and depression, toward light and love.

The Gospel today is a familiar one to many. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” I always recall the King James version that promises, “in my Father’s house are many mansions.” I can picture heaven as a sort of grand Kennedy-Warren, where each of us has a half-floor, every room has a view, and the ballroom downstairs is filled with music and laughter. It’s an ongoing party where everyone we’ve ever known and loved mingles and munches and dances. They dance on and on and on. I don’t think Ellis would have cared whether we end up with rooms or mansions. But I know one thing now— he’s in heaven, and I be you that he’s leading the dancing.

Just before Communion, we will sing a hymn often called “Lord of the Dance.” It’s based on the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” which was the basis for Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” I hope you will try to sing it with us. It’s not easy, but at least notice the words. And if you feel like moving around a little bit, feel free. (It would be fun if word reached the Bishop of Washington that they were dancing in the aisles at All Souls—and that it was Ellis Mottur’s fault!)

The Church believes in life after death. Not that the physical, earthly life isn’t important. Just the opposite, what we do here follows us there. We just become more ourselves, as God has made us. But heaven is a full place—filled not only with famous saints and martyrs (the kind pictured in stained glass windows like these). But heaven is also filled with the ordinary folks, the “household saints.” We use the word “saint” like the scriptures and the Early Church used it—a saint is any person of faith—living or dead. And so, as we go about our lives, we are guided by the saints and we are guarded by them.

I love St. George, and like to think of him reminding me of how to be and how to live, but right a long with him are my grandparents, and friends, people not-so-famous, and people famous. Ellis is with the saints. As Tommy and Caroline and Teddy grow up, I hope they’ll feel their grandfather’s presence. Since Ellis is now in heaven, he’s joined some good company, and so I imagine him there, feasting and dancing, but also talking with the people he loved who went before him. Who knows, if he and the Kennedys begin talking, and planning and plotting, maybe their prayers can put a good jolt back into our economy! Maybe even the OTA will be funded again!

Ellis loved his friends. He was a model of loyalty. He could be fierce when he had an idea or a cause. And yet, he might be the first one to get sentimental, to leave a crowded room so that he could get away to a quiet place and put his thoughts into the form of a poem.

Ellis’s poem entitled “America” works not only as a poem, but as a prayer for our country, and even as a kind of creed.

When everything’s blackest, we must act brightest;
When doubts assail us, we must chart a course in confidence;
When enemies berate us, we must bury our anger;
When friends mistake our motives, we must persist in patience;
When the very foundations of our faith quake beneath our feet,
We must stand firmest upon them;
and when the New World seems farthest away,
we must move farthest toward it. (from “Our America”)

We rejoice in the eternal life of the Communion of Saints. May the wisdom, the tenacity, the love, and the humor of Ellis Mottur continue to inspire us and shape us. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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