There can be no rehearsal for a mother's death. For the months and weeks of her final illness you try to reach into the future to catch the hour of darkness and the pain and parting that is to come but there is no preparation for the emptiness of these days.
In our own way we each run down the lanes of childhood, seeking the bright moments, the lasting memory, the childhood joy of her presence and in the end, we realise that God has called her home like she used to call us in for the rosary and for bed in the growing darkness of a long, sunny, summer's day.
We should be glad that she has left off the body overcoat of wearying illness and pain, but understandably our hearts are sad. She saw with a deep sense of gratitude the first breaths of my sisters and myself, as we breathed the good air of God's creation.
On Tuesday we watched her take her last breath as she took her first step into eternity.
So today we give back to God a precious gift God has given us. Because the gift is precious, our hearts are torn. It is appropriate to gather in the Eucharist where we also give back to God the gift God has given to us in His Son Jesus Christ. So we come face to face with the Christian paradox of sadness and celebration.
Heartbreak cannot kill hope. For Mam every tear is passed, every infirmity of our fragile humanity. For the family, however, the mourning and weeping will last for the foreseeable future. I want today, however, to be a celebration of her life and a hymn of thanks to God to someone who made God real for us. Like all families we have our memories of course and they are precious. Like Mary in Bethlehem we can "keep all these things, pondering them in our hearts".
I recall reading one time that the great theologian Karl Barth, when asked why he believed the mysteries of the faith he professed, Barth simply replied "because my mother told me".
For Mam, as for many of the mothers of her generation, life was a challenge as they struggled to make ends meet and cope with the endless heartbreak of emigration.
Mam had that little grocery shop which did not go in for marketing projects or profit plans but she was happy if she sent a customer home with a mind more at ease or with a lighter step because she had taken time to listen to her family pain and offer any support she could.
She would have laughed heartily if you invested her reaching out as counselling or grief therapy. I can honestly say that she never allowed anyone to depart from her door in need. So many over the past few days have recalled the generosity they received from her as children. Yes, generosity and gentleness were virtues in which she excelled and which she admired and encouraged in others.
Mam always treated people with great respect and accorded them the dignity which was theirs. Her patience and sensitivity brought out the best in people and gave them a sense of being special.
She combined, with gentleness, great resources of inner strength which found expression in courage and an ability to cope with whatever she encountered. I am reminded of the saying of St. Francis de Sales: "nothing is as strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength."
Mass was central in her life – everything flowed from and returned to it. Her faith was not some sentimental feeling for a remote God, but a daily down to earth drive to serve her Creator, in rearing the family, caring for the sick, the hungry and the stranger, as the Son of God Himself had demanded.
Knock had a special place in her heart. There for over 40 years as a handmaid with my late Dad, as steward, she helped arrange for the care of the invalids in making their pilgrimage as pain-free and prayerful as possible.
Through the apostolic work society she joined with neighbours and friends in making clothes for the underprivileged in the mission territory and vestments for priests all over the world as well as her concerns for those at home. In all this she was a woman of endless patience and great unwavering hope. This was the pattern of life for many of her neighbours and the notion of being praised would leave her deeply embarrassed.
She prayed every day for priests and (probably even for the odd bishop). She was very generous to the missions and for most of her life was a promoter of St. Joseph's Young Priests Society. Her courage and laughter, her Christ-like compassion and her boundless love are all so vivid and challenging.
In a time of challenge God asks us to be the presence of Christ His Son, the real living presence of the saviour in the years that have been given to us. With humility we all acknowledge that we have been in the mind of God from all eternity but we have been only given flesh and blood in these years so far removed from the time of Christ. We are all asked in these years to bear up the broken, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, the prisoner and the dying.
Mam was an incredibly courageous woman. I feel happy today in the knowledge that she appreciated the vocation to which she was called and for knowing that she was a light to all our paths, to my sisters Mary, Helen and Noreen, to myself, to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with whom she enjoyed a wonderfully beautiful relationship and to the many neighbours who, in the last days, have spoken of their appreciation of this woman, wife, mother, neighbour of theirs.
Today is not a time for prolonged preaching. It calls rather for profound praying. A prayer particularly of thanksgiving – thanksgiving to God for Mam.
There were evenings in our childhood when we watched the sun dying in splendid colour in the western sky. We would watch the sky continuing to reflect the hidden sun for long after it had dipped below the horizon. For years we will catch the reflection of her to whom we say goodbye today in our lives and in the lives of those she touched.
Thank you Mam for the person you were in our memories, thank you Mam for the person you are in our tears, thank you Mam for the person you will always be in our hearts.