For a friend and former confrere
Homily at Peter’s funeral
[by Seamus Ahearne osa]
I arrived very early here on this cold morning; went in a got a coffee at Greg’s; the woman there didn’t understand a word I said and I didn’t understand a word she said; I hope we can do better! I joined the Augustinians in 1964. Peter joined a little later. We met up in Rome. Peter studied at the Beda which was for older people. He had a few years on the rest of us. And so the saga went on. We have kept in touch all those years since.
We have laughed together. We have argued. We have disagreed. He was a serious man with a deep intelligence. On his rambling journey through life; he taught; he studied in Rome; he worked in the Planning department- is that North Lanarkshire Council?; he wrote his doctorate on Paisley cathedral; he pursued art, architecture, history. He was a man of strong opinions and wasn’t slow in expressing them.
There is a certain sadness around Peter. He always had more to give and more to do. His ability was outstanding but I don’t think he ever fully satisfied himself on his achievements. He probably didn’t do justice to himself. Was it confidence? I don’t know. I argued with this man so often and wanted him to realise how good he was and how gifted he was and how insightful he was and what a friend he was.
He was a critical man in theology, in politics, in scholarship. But I want to leave some of that aside for a moment. I recall his mother. She was strong. She was tough. Some of us had great fun with her. She had a beautiful singing voice which could have taken her far but in those days, she didn’t have the opportunity. Many of us were very fond of her. I would always ring up and ask how Mrs Culfeather was. Do you know the name? Do you remember ‘The Steamie’? (Glasgow film about the washhouse? The four women were powerful especially Mrs Culfeather! Anyway, I got away with that one. But she registered her outrage when I called her Mrs Thatcher. And Peter couldn’t contain himself and he would burst his sides with laughter. However, he didn’t smile so much when on his visits to Dundee, I used to tell one of the ladies, Lizzie, to watch him as he was on day release from Barlinnie (Glasgow prison). He used to scowl and wither me with that look. Well of course he could be an ideal stand-in for Victor Meldrew betimes.
But above all, Peter was a wonderful friend and a widely educated man who could talk on any subject with authority. I did enjoy however, when he searched out a zucchetto for a bishop friend of both of us for the Ordination in the Cathedral. I was surprised at his respect and regard for such a symbol of authority. But then it was rather Greg than the office he was recognising.
Peter could be scathing. If he liked you; you were made. If he didn’t; it was made very obvious. I was going to say that he loved his sister Helen but you know that. He really doted on young Nicola. He cared for her. Watched out for her. He was putty in her hands. She could do what she wanted with him. Even in those final days; the only one who could give him orders, was Nicola.
It was heart-breaking to see Peter restricted and reduced in recent years due to the serious stroke he suffered. This man was fiercely independent and now had to have everything done for him. This man loved his books and now couldn’t read or concentrate. This man who suffered periodic migraine over the years was now totally helpless and dependent. This man who loved his cars (even classic cars) now could now no longer travel anywhere. That felt cruel. But today is not about those years and how he coped but about all his life. It is about those 27,975 days. Each day mattered and was precious. I often smile too when a lady friend of his began to show too much interest in her dog rather than in him; he felt that he couldn’t any longer compete.
Now is the time to immerse our Peter in the Readings of today. (Is 25:6-9) Our God is here. Peter is at a feast. He is at the Table. He is regaling everyone with his stories. He is having a go at all of us. Poor God hasn’t a chance to intervene in any of Peter’s arguments. Surely we can say and mean it and believe it – ‘I have fought the good fight,’ run the race to the finish, kept the faith. (2 Tim 4.5-8) And so he did.
I picked for the Gospel (Jn 1.35) that lovely meeting – John the Baptist and disciples. What is the drama? Well the first question is for each of us. What do you want? From life; from ourselves; from God; even from the life and death of Peter Townsend. The next question is Where do you live? If we are to make sense of life and sense of ourselves and sense of death- we can hear the reply for ourselves – come and see. We are invited into the home of God. Peter pursued throughout his life; what he saw to be wisdom; or meaning or God. He now challenges us to the same pursuit and gives us the same map. As we recall his life and his journey and his story – we hear the same message. What you want. Where do you live. Come and see. We need to have a depth in our thinking.
Let me begin to conclude in this way. His sister Helen retained her Matron’s skills and outlook. His eyes could wander up to heaven or to the ceiling betimes at her commands. Once she found out that he was smoking cigars while on oxygen. She warned him that he must give up immediately or that she would inform the suppliers not to deliver any more oxygen. She won her war with him and she was right. Peter was a rogue even if a lovable rogue.
My last word is this from Genesis 28. Jacob lay down to sleep and found some stones as a pillow (rather uncomfortable). He dreamed of angels ascending and descending on ladders from and to heaven. When he woke up, he said: ‘God was in this place and I never knew it. ‘ God was in this place (St Patrick’s Coatbridge), in the life of Peter; in the care of Peter by so many; in the searching of Peter, in this moment of his funeral. God is in this place; this church; this funeral; this man; this moment and may all of us search and find that God.