A glimpse of heaven! Each of the readings which we have just heard from the Bible, offer us a glimpse of heaven.
St Paul never met Jesus during his lifetime, but in a vision which converted him on the road to Damascus. He hints that he had another vision in which he was caught up into heaven. So when he tells the Romans in the letter that we have just heard that “alive or dead, we belong to the Lord”, he is speaking about what he has seen.
St Luke never met Jesus during his lifetime, but made it his business to gather together the stories and teaching of those who had known Jesus, and sought out those who had received glimpses of heaven. Luke travelled together with Paul on his teaching journeys, and met with some of the apostles who had known Jesus in his life on earth. He learned the story of the two disciples who saw Jesus die in Jerusalem and began their sad walk along the road to Emmaus – the road on which those two received their own glimpse of heaven. It was only when Jesus departed from their company, that they truly appreciated who it was, who had been with them on the road.
Our friend Basilia, who has now departed from our company, made it her own business to gather together the stories of those who, in our age, believed they had received a glimpse of heaven. As far as I know, Basilia never had a vision or deep mystical experience herself. But she was fascinated by those who had, and – like St Luke – made it her mission to tell others all about them.
She took an interest in Zeitoun in Egypt, where mysterious lights in the sky were taken as heralding a vision of the Virgin Mary. She was a great promoter of the events of Medjugorje, in Bosnia, where six children claimed to receive glimpses of heaven on an ongoing basis. It would not be right for me, from this pulpit, to pre-empt the church’s final decision about these and other places. But Basilia threw her energies into the work of promoting these visions both through formal organisations, such as the Medjugorje Network, and her everyday relationships with very many people.
“The life and death of each of us has its influence on others,” says St Paul. Each one of us gathered here today has been touched by Basilia in some way. I cannot attempt to summarise every way in which Basilia touched lives, so I will not dare to try to list the many good works and projects which Basilia promoted. Each of you will have your own story, your own tribute, to share with one another after this service. I know that my own experience of Basilia is only the tip of a great iceberg. I learned a little from her about her past as a nurse in New York – pardon me, Neew Yoick! – and about her frequent visits to the Isle of Wight, and about her family. But for now, as one example of many possible stories which could be told, I would share with you my own personal experience of Basilia.
It must have been about 1994 when I first got to know Basilia Abel-Smith, and I met her in the context of Youth 2000. This was an organisation whose roots were in Medjugorje, but with the purpose of encouraging young people to connect with God through the core beliefs and devotions of the Catholic Church. I had been to one or two summer youth festivals run by Youth 2000, and in 1995 became the regional leader for South Wales. In that role I had many conversations with her by phone, and on visits to London, to ensure that what we were doing in Wales matched the global vision and ethos of Youth 2000.
Somewhere along the way I became Basilia’s technical advisor on the world of computers and databases, to which she had been reluctantly introduced. I well remember being in the basement of her London house – the nerve centre of her missionary activities – and scratching my head trying to operate her computer, an elderly Macintosh. It turned out that the on-switch was cunningly hidden at the back. (Perhaps if Basilia finds herself alongside Steve Jobs in the queue to heaven she could have a word about that.)
As a guest in Basilia’s home, I often took meals with Wilfrid and herself in her little dining room – a fine and formal room, dimly lit, presided over by a portrait of one of her long-dead relatives. A dining table is a place of friendship and communion, a place for connecting with friends and with God. And this brings us back to the words of Scripture we hear this morning.
On the night before he died, Jesus sat at table with his friends, blessed bread and wine, and asked them to do this in his memory. For those of you who have come to honour Basilia but are not of the Catholic faith, it may seem a little strange that at a Catholic funeral, during this next half-hour, we will celebrate a communion service of blessing bread and wine. But what you will be experiencing with us is the heart of the Catholic faith, that which kept Basilia nourished in body and soul. The Catholic faith, which she shared, proclaims that at Mass, Jesus Christ becomes present, offering his life as a sacrifice so that all human beings, despite their flaws and imperfections, can be reconnected to a perfect God in heaven. What was bread and wine truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, given for those who believe, to receive. Just a few months ago, when she was not finding it so easy to walk, I bumped into Basilia outside the Catholic Church in Kensington – she had been to Mass. Her daily communion with Jesus may not have been a glimpse of heaven, but was always a touch of the presence of God.
It was at a dining table that the two disciples in Emmaus glimpsed the presence of Jesus Christ on a Sunday evening. Though he had died on the Friday afternoon, he was very much alive! Filled with this wonderful news, the two hurried back to Jerusalem where they found that other friends of Jesus had also glimpsed heaven. From their story, which has been told ever since, the Catholic faith dares to proclaim that “in death, life is changed, not ended.”
Isaiah speaks also of a dining table, not in a dimly-lit dining room but on a bright mountain, where the Lord is present and all mourning has been taken away. It is a sign of the good things which God has prepared for his servants, whose life on earth is complete. In the Catholic tradition, we do not declare that a person has already taken their seat at God’s table on their funeral day, but we do assert that our friend, who has died, has glimpsed God’s presence and sees before her the final journey which will allow her to take her place. St Paul wrote that “we shall all have to stand before the judgment seat of God”. In Basilia’s case, conscious of the many good and godly works of her life, we have every reason to hope that this final journey will be easy, and that our prayers today will hasten her to her final glory.
When she was planning to meet with a person at a future date, Basilia would often say: “All news ‘til then”. Now that Basilia has passed from this life into eternity, we will not hear her voice for a little while. We trust that when we do meet again, and hear her news, it will not be news of a mere glimpse of heaven, but the best news of all, the Good News of the Gospel, the news of the glorious vision of God.
© Gareth Leyshon 2011.