Mary Beth & John at the Blessing of the Seersucker, All Souls, 2011
A homily offered at the celebration of the life of Mary Beth McCutcheon on October 18, 2013.
Whenever someone dies, it’s natural to try to gather together a variety of perspectives on the person who has died. No one of us knows her completely, and so we compare stories and share memories. We’ve tried to reflect a number of those in this service and there will be time at the reception for you to add other stories, if you’d like. But missing from today’s service is the perspective of one who could not be with us today—Mary Beth’s dog, Roadie. (Though, flowers arrived this morning from North Carolina, sent from Roadie and his half-sister Coco. Since no one saw the flowers being delivered, I like to imagine a German shepherd bringing them in and leaving in the back of the church.)
For that matter, missing also is the point of view of Seamus, Mary Beth’s bird, and the countless deer, birds, and other creatures she befriended over the years. The church has just celebrated St. Francis Day, one of Mary Beth’s favorite feast days, so it seems appropriate that we wonder what the animals might have said? What might they have seen and known of Mary Beth?
The writer Malcolm Gladwell wonders about the perspective of an animal in his essay, “What the Dog Saw.” Gladwell writes about Cesar Milan, the dog-whisperer, the one on T.V. who has this amazing way with dogs, able to tame ferocious ones, calm anxious ones, and charm even the most vicious. In the essay, Gladwell discusses this seeming “magic touch” of Cesar Milan, but he also asks others to weigh in on what’s happening. Gladwell and others suggest that it’s not so much what Cesar is saying that affects a dog. It’s not magic either. But it’s “what the dog saw,” what the dog sees—in the movement and the way of Cesar Milan.
It’s all in his movements, the way he shifts his weight, the way he looks at the animal, the way he interacts. Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that often “When we talk about people with presence, we … assume they have a strong personality—that they sweep us all up in their own personal whirlwind.” But Gladwell points out, often “real presence” involves “energy and intelligence and personal force marshaled on behalf of the helpless, …calm in the face of chaos, and … gentleness.”
“Energy and intelligence and personal force marshaled on behalf of the helpless, on behalf of others” – that’s what Roadie saw. That’s what Roadie saw in Mary Beth, and it’s some of we saw in Mary Beth.
Grace under pressure, humor in the face of pain, faith in the midst of fear—all of that was very much what Mary Beth made present to us, for us. Roadie knew it and felt safe, but so did friends, but also people Mary Beth might meet in a hospital clinic, in a waiting room, standing in line at an airport, or interacting with just about everyone she met, whether that was in Alaska and South Africa or at Target and Wegman’s.
In some ways Mary Beth did a little of what Cesar Milan did—especially over the last few years she moved with the grace of a dancer. I can imagine what she would say if I said to her that she was like a dancer—she’d laugh and say something dismissive, but then if I kept on, she’d finally agree, “well, ok, I guess so, if you say so.” Like a dancer that needs mirror to reflect what she’s doing, Mary Beth often would ask some kind of theological or spiritual question, and then she’d basically answer it herself, but wouldn’t notice she had answered it until someone reflected that to her. Conversations with Mary Beth over the last year or so were like those conversations one reads about having in seminary, but don’t really happy than often. She wanted to know about heaven. She wanted to know about whether she would see her parents there. She wondered about forgiveness, and so many other things.
In our Gospel for today, Jesus promises a place ahead. He promises a way ahead. It’s as though we’ve all been out for a full day of hiking or exploring. We’ve getting tired and almost ready to go home, and one says, “I’m going ahead. I’ll turn on the lights, get a fire started, and get dinner together. I’ll be ready for you.”
Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In so doing, Christ gives us the way forward, showing us how move forward with grace, with gentleness, and with faith that we’re heading in the right direction. We’re headed into the heart of God.
We were thinking about Mary Beth at our celebration of St. Francis Day on October 4 and 5 of this year. She was too ill to attend, but we held her in our prayers. One prayer from that day is from Francis’s Canticle for Creation. In it, he imagines kinship with all creation,
“Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon, and for the stars… Be praised, my Lord, for our Brothers Wind and Air and every kind of weather….” He goes on to praise God for sister water, and for brother fire. Finally, Francis prays,
“Be praised, my Lord, for those who forgive for love of you; and for those who bear sickness and weakness in peace and patience – you will grant them a crown. Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death, whom we must all face.”
Mary Beth understood and embraced a kinship with all creation. Roadie and Seamus were part of her family, as were Melissa and Greg and Rick and Kay and so many others. And then, for Mary Beth, Sister Death, even, was not an enemy to be feared, but was a future friend to be curious about, to step towards, and eventually to embrace.
What Roadie saw was what we all saw, a beloved child of God who taught us about life, about laughter, and about love.
Thanks be to God for our sister Mary Beth. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
 Gladwell, Malcolm. “What the Dog Saw: Cesar Milan and the Movements of Mastery,” in What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures. (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), 143.