Daniel Berrigan Walt Whitman Martin Sheen Nick Virgilio Edwina Gateley Mother Theresa Thich Naht Hahn Mairead Corrigan Mick Maloney Eugene O’Donnell Barbara Dever Harry Reasoner Othmar Carli Sister Peg Hynes Cesar Chavez Eileen Egan Paddy Doherty Michael Flatley Tommy Sands Lester Conner Father Des Wilson
FAMOUS FACES AT SACRED HEART
The first words laid down in the Constitution of Ireland are these: In the name of the Most Holy Trinity from whom all authority and to whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and of states, must be referred. I begin with these words, because Lester Conner, who came to Mass at Sacred Heart in Camden on May 23, 2004, a month after I first met him at Seamus Heaney’s Lecture in Philadelphia in April, wrote to me shortly afterwards and said: “Being at your Mass the other Sunday was very important for me. There are only a very few priests (and of course, the Trinity) that keep me pretty much in and happy in the Church. I’m not a primadonna, but I still do have a mind that thinks for itself.” No one had ever said to me before, that the Trinity had kept him or her in the Catholic Church. Lester’s letter continues: “Once, a Monsignor said: ‘the Church is not a supermarket. You can’t just walk in and just buy only what you want.’ I replied: “O, yes, I can if you are offering stale bread and vinegar wine.”
So, God help Father John McNamee, the Pastor here, and me on this day when we, with all of you, celebrate the Resurrection of Christ for Lester Conner who died in Florida on February 20, 2005. Together, we lift the life and goodness of his eighty-five years to God for ever. Indeed, into the infinite intimacy of the Holy Trinity. God help us all do it even half right. On the altar of your heart adorned with memories, and on the holy altar of St. Malachy’s, we offer his life with the Body and Blood of Christ.
Lester Conner, who converted to Catholicism along the way, was 46 years old when the Second Vatican Council created a refreshing shift in the Catholic Church and gave us what we celebrate today, the Mass of the Resurrection for Lester I. Conner. We will carry bread and wine to the altar and with it we will carry the life and the times of this venerable man five and eighty years of a joy-filled life. With the help of God, the bread will be fresh and the wine will have the sweetness of life as we celebrate our hope. The lean bright body that gleamed in our midst has passed away from us but the splendid spirit that broke through his face and actions, passed over into glory. Into the circle and dance of the everlasting Trinity.
Down here, life’s journey often is a mill wheel grind, a wine press of pressure sometimes, but thanks be to God, in Lester, by some wonderful miracle, the bread of his days despite the hardship of life sometimes, always seemed to be crackling and the wine of his time was joy. These elements, bread and wine, with their painful pressure from the fields to the table were chosen by Jesus to be his body and blood. They are us too. They are perfect.
To the question, where are you from, Lester would answer Minneapolis, a great place to bring his body into being. Minneapolis with its Greek suffix of polis, attached originally to “minnehaha”, Which means “laughing waters”. That face of his, with its tears and smiles was at times a picture of “laughing waters”. The youngest of five, he was born after Dorothy, a pair of peas from a happy pod, playing all the while were they. “Besides”, he wrote to me “my flute playing father was Michael too.” Music there from the beginning. Illness, however, shadowed near in his mother. He graduated from Minnesota High School in 1939 and on to studies in the University of Minnesota, was drafted in 1943 to work on a military railroad in France. Home in 1945. Then he got a Bachelor Degree in English History 1947. And a doctorate in Columbia in 1963. He taught at the University of Dayton, and other places.
But he came here to us, forty years ago, to the Hill, to Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and one’s mind begins to play with Longfellow’s words: Under the spreading chestnut tree /the village smithy stands. Easy to get from there to the welding of words. To quote the poet: “They love to use the flaming forge.” So there on the Hill he opened the eyes of the blind for thirty years to Anglo and Irish literature. His classroom a “flaming forge.” The focus was on Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats. Through his doctorate work, Yeats became the well of his work. We are told that divers find life ten miles below the level of the sea when big wattage lights are turned on. Yeats had the mind for the dark waters but he played too on the glimmering surfaces of ordinary things he saw.
In the early work of his friend, Seamus Heaney whom he first brought to Chestnut Hill as a young poet, to light up the walls with his words, we find him to be a man of wells. I quote: “As a child they could not keep me from wells. / I loved the dark drop / So deep you saw no reflection in it.”
Lester the teacher led students to the wells of great words. Led them through doorways and passage graves to the mind of Yeats, especially with his book, A Yeats Dictionary, that Heaney calls “a labour of love.” Lester opened up the persons and the places in the poetry of William Butler Yeats but more than that, created joy and life in the people and the places that were near and dear to Lester Conner. Joy, life, friendship, hospitality, the dance and the bonding that leaped from his nature.
He was overjoyed in Princeton recently when he received the Broadside published in his honor. The poem, Stern, by his friend, Seamus Heaney, written in memory of Ted Hughes. Very apt now as our minds ponder the long sought meeting of Lester and William Butler Yeats.
“And what was it like,” I asked him,
“When he looked at you,”
He said, “It was like standing on a quay
Watching as the prow of The Queen Mary
Came towards you, very slowly.”
Now it seems
I’m standing on a pier head watching him
All the while watching me as he rows out
And a wooden end-scopped stern
Labours and shimmers and dips,
Making no real headway.
Underneath, in Heaney’s handwriting:
for Lester –
faithful friend of poets and poetry –
Love – Seamus
I wanted to hear today that poetic piece in the Second Letter of Peter. I wanted to hear it for Lester. With him, you had the feeling that there were great moments on the mountain of good times with people. That he knew the face of God in the joy of the sharing with families and friends and sought those transforming moments “as a light shining in a dark place.” But now the bright day dawns for him and the morning star rises in his heart.
Thinking back on the day he came over to Sacred Heart in Camden …this elderly gentleman stepping the light fantastic… with his fine clothes, his cane, the boater-hat at a James Joyce angle. An old man witnessing splendidly to life. It is sad to think that the sparkle and style would go entirely. That fierce emphatic change that death has wrought. But we opened today, the Book of Revelation, Chapter 21, and we listened to these words: “Then I saw new heavens and a new earth, the former earth has passed away, a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. The one who sat on the throne said �I will make all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega” for the man from Minneapolis.
Lester was surely the artist of hospitality. He was a shareholder in the hearts of poets and students of poetry who came to him that they “may have life and have it more abundantly” because of the poetry. He was the friendly doorman with the keys to great places and people in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. He made the words of the poets into the flesh and blood of his friendship. He was the man who saw places in words and names and then visited them with his feet and toasted their existences. And, so to Ireland. He who was not Irish became “more Irish than the Irish themselves.” He would seem to know everyone there from Trinity in Dublin where he taught to the top of Ben Bulben. All the bright lights of literature there in the last century, the people of the pen and the paint, the stage, and the Yeats Summer School in Sligo. The Heaney home in Wicklow. An uncle to everyone. The dear godfather of many. It thrills me to think that he knew the poet, Padraic Colum and actress, Siobhan McKenna. The two of them connected to my own parish of Columcille in Longford. How many places over there or here, he graced with the light and joy of his learned self. Faces of literature smiled from the walls of his apartment in Chestnut Hill. One thinks of Patrick Kavanagh:
If you ever go to Dublin town
In a hundred years or so
Inquire for me in Baggot Street
And what I was like to know.
Go into a pub and listen well
If my voice still echoes there
Ask the men what their grand
And tell them to answer fair.
But for Lester Conner the memories are not in the places he went but the doors he opened to the heart. It is not the Plough and the Stars that I remember…as great as it is…when I remember my first chat with Lester less than a year ago. No it was the fact that I had to take his glass of whiskey and drink from it immediately…it was a ritual of an immediate friendship.
And so for Lester, we read the Gospel of the Resurrection that is perfect for him. Breakfast on the beach with Jesus at the dawn of the day…a fire, a fish, fresh, and bread, and, O my God, friendship is eternal. “Life has the edge.” Thanks be to God!
It was Walt Whitman who said: “I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love, if you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.” He was laid to rest in a massive granite mausoleum in Camden that he designed himself. But Lester lifts to the rising flame…to be in the toast of friends. Find Lester in the nurture of friendship, in the joy of sharing, in the gladness of a hearty handshake, in the delight of words, in the elevation of spirit in a poem or song, in the rapture of simply singing…”Will you go, Lassie, go.”
O most Holy Trinity, we lift this life we honor. Every step he took from his mother’s knee in Minneapolis to the last touch of his sister Dorothy’s hand in Florida. Every word he spoke. Every day he taught. Every joyous meal and chat. Every effort to knit and save the fabric of genuine friendship. Every ache and pain. Everything he wished he had done better. Every tear and broad smile. Every aspect of life that we name with reverence. It would be hard to make a more joyful remark with two words and twelve letters than Lester Conner. May he rest in peace!