Funeral of David Helwig

Sermon for Funeral of David Helwig, Saturday, November 03 2018, 2:00 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Job 38:1,7,16-20,28-29,35-38; Psalm 139:1-18; John 1:1-5

He rescued me from a cow once. And there’s a part of me that just wants to stop right there and leave it at that, rather than trying to explain to you the life and death of this brilliant, driven, funny, irritable, compassionate, impatient and loving man—my Praise-God-Barebones father, as he called himself once, in a poem about my early determination to learn how to fly.

When we are growing up, our parents are, for all of us, simply the norm of adult humanity. It was not until much later that I realized that my parents were, in so many ways, exceptional people. I am my father’s daughter, and I have been privileged enough to have spent my life in dialogue with that remarkable mind, that boundless intellectual curiosity, that relentless critical analysis, that intense love of beauty. I had before me, always, that example of an unwavering commitment to the life of a writer, to the exploration of language, narrative, the possibilities of creation. For nearly all of his life, he got up in the morning and he wrote. It was what he did. The day before he died, when he was very weak and only half conscious, speaking only to himself, in snatches of words, one of the phrases I heard him say was, “there are different kinds of narrative.” But this was a commitment which included generosity, a truly unusual offering of his time and energy to encourage and develop younger writers in their own directions, a commitment which also included, at various times, teaching creative writing in prisons, helping a concentration camp survivor write her memoir, and volunteering his time to play with children in palliative care (he loved children, and always treated us seriously).

I am a writer because I am my father’s daughter. That much is probably obvious. But also, and less obviously, I am a priest because I am my father’s daughter. This may seem like a strange thing to say. Though he spent most Sundays of his life singing in church choirs, he would never have called himself a believer. For a while, he played tennis every week with Bob Brow, the rector of St James in Kingston, and I think Bob was always hopeful that he was eventually going to win my father over to the church, but of course it never happened.

But nevertheless, my father had an abiding fascination with religion, its music of course, but also its language and its art, the philosophical and existential dilemmas of theology. He read bits of Reinhold Neibuhr and Martin Buber to me when I was still a child, able to understand only in fragments. He gave me a King James Bible and told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to read it cover to cover. For a while he collected depictions of the Annunciation, for reasons I still don’t quite understand. But his stringency, his intellectual honesty, flatly refused all systems and structures which claimed to have contained, or defined, or ever fully understood, that great dark mystery which some people call God.

The mystics and the good-faith atheists are one in this—the insistence that we cannot, must not, ever think that this mystery can be shrunk down to the size of human understanding. My father kept me honest. I have chosen the Christian language and the Christian story, but I hope that I will never be so foolish as to think that this construction, or any other, can hold all of the the wild, dangerous, unfathomable truth, that I will always remember that everything we say or do is no more than an approximate and partial gesture, our little human game of language within the cloud of unknowing.

The first reading was a part of God’s speech from the whirlwind, from the book of Job, mostly for this reason, because it is one of scripture’s magnificent evocations of mystery. We heard only the beginning — it goes on for chapters, verse after verse of beautiful poetry, as God responds to Job’s suffering not with anything like a rational explanation, or really any sort of answer, but just more and more description of the strangeness and wonder of everything. The morning stars singing together. Passionate, loving depictions of the bravery of the horse who saith among the trumpets, “Ha ha!”, the foolishness of the ostrich, the astonishment of Leviathan, whose eyes are like the eyelids of the morning, who is king over all the children of pride.

In part, I suppose, it is a way of saying that if Job can’t create a universe he should just keep his mouth shut. But it is also a way of saying that suffering has no tidy answer, that answers would be an offense—and yet, somehow, we exist at the very heart of mystery’s delight, this untameable cosmos, morning stars and rain and monsters and death, and all the creatures who will not bide our will. It is lovely and terrible, and there is only wonder.

And I choose to believe—though it is not a belief I can ever prove, and is a choice which must be made day after day, when it sometimes doesn’t feel true at all—that within this mystery we are not only the random fall of particles, though we are that; but that, even in the midst of all the confusion and all the pain, we are all, each of us, held and cherished, that our names are inscribed in the book of life and do not fall simply into the void. I believe that we are all part of one another in a way that does not end, though the clod be washed away from the whole by the sea. And I can make this choice, absurd though it may be, because I know what it means to be loved. It is in part because I had the father I did that I have dared to believe, to borrow the words of F.D. Maurice, in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death.

And there is another twist to the Job reading. When I was beginning to put together this service, I told Andrea that I was planning to use that reading; and she said, there’s a problem with that, though, because a writer has an answer for God. A writer can say, “But hold on. I did create a universe.” Those whose work is creation have been there when the morning stars shouted for joy. And writers, if anyone, have earned the right to talk back to God.

In my father’s memoir, he talks about being seventeen years old and reading King Lear for the first time, and knowing what it was that he was going to do with the rest of his life. “I was seventeen years old, and I had invented a man that I would set out to be, a man who was adequate to the appreciation of greatness, a man who had the right to explore his own ability to capture things in words, to experience and record. That was what I wanted, needed. One night I was sitting with my friend Arno Letkemann. He was Mennonite in background like a number of my schoolfriends, and he had some skill in drawing. It was a summer evening, about to grow dark, and thrilling with some inner hunger, I asked him if he didn’t feel an urgent desire to capture the moment, to draw something, to record it. No, he said, he didn’t. Simple as that. So why did I? Not knowing, but I did. I had given myself this gift of a new ideal of life, one still not very common in Canada, the life of a writer. Wanted to be a journalist, I said, pretending to be realistic, but that wasn’t what I planned. I wanted to create the world.”

I wanted to create the world. And he did. Because in the beginning was the Word, and through the Word were all things made that were made. He created a city of Kingston that could only have existed through him, the city of Jennifer and Robert and Elizabeth, of all the mad losers of A Sound Like Laughter. He made the cathedral community around Bishop Henry, the theatres of Martin and Ruthie. He created the world of that strange art historian who was the stand-in, and was so mysteriously well-informed about his rival’s sudden death. He created the world in which a man walks through a deadly snowstorm with a blind horse and a three-legged dog, and finds an impossible shelter, and is saved. He created the Prince Edward Island of the old handyman Palmer McVeigh and the young filmmaker Robin, and of his later poems. So many more, so many words, so many worlds. And surely we may believe that the voice which speaks from the whirlwind, which delights in the ostrich and the sea-monster, delights in these worlds too, and in their maker.

I should not descend to the pathetic fallacy, but I cannot help it—the morning that he died, a cold and brilliantly sunny morning, there was a great wind over all the island, hurling the leaves in gusts on the lawn of the hospital, driving the Montague river in waves, felling trees by the side of the road. The voice from the whirlwind, and the man who created worlds. Perhaps then they spoke to each other.

And after the storm, the magician leaves the island. Prospero’s final scene is a locus classicus of the artist leaving his created worlds; it risks being a cliché. We heard how my father rendered it through the perspective of Martin, a sweet, silly, vain old actor. My father was far less silly than Martin, and, though always impatient and sometimes angry, he was a much kinder man than Prospero. But like Martin, like Prospero, like all the makers, he was a beautiful and flawed magician, raising creatures and song from the salt sea air. He had no excuse, except all the bad ones, and those were all the ones there were. And he was, and he is, so deeply loved.

As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set him free.