Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The words of a priest at the funeral of his son

To outlive one's own child - whatever the circumstances - is a terrible thing, however strong or deep we think our faith might be. A month ago American friends asked for prayer to be offered for Fr Al Kimel and his wife and family following the suicide of son, Aaron. A few days later someone pointed me to the funeral homily on Scribd, but I thought better of sharing it on this blog at that time out of respect for the Kimels. However, it is such a helpful piece, and has since been posted in various parts of the Internet, that I have decided to share it with you today. Read it carefully and prayerfully, and keep Aaron and his family in your prayers. 

delivered by Father Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. 22 June 2012 

+ In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 


Not once have I ever entertained the possibility that I would ever find myself in this moment, preaching at the funeral of one of my children. 

I stand here today not to offer a eulogy for my son Aaron. There will be other opportunities for such eulogies, as we each seek to find healing for our loss and to understand the tragic decision of Aaron to end his life. 

My purpose, rather, is to offer an argument. Aaron was brilliant. He loved a good argument, and he usually won. Aaron and I did not often speak about God. At some point in high school he moved into a scientific materialism from which he would not be moved. He was not a militant atheist, as he acknowledged that it was possible, however unlikely, that God might exist; but he simply could not, would not, embrace a Christian worldview. Yet for the sake of family, he always said grace with us at dinnertime. 

I am not a philosopher. There is no argument I can offer that Aaron could not demolish in five seconds flat. I stand before you as a priest of the Church for over thirty years. But most importantly I stand before you as a bereaved father, who has been utterly devastated by the death of his beloved son.

Aaron’s death has been a traumatic - and clarifying - event for me. I see reality more clearly than I have ever seen it before. I stand before you, therefore, either as a madman … or a prophet of God Almighty. I cannot judge. You must be my judge. God will most certainly be my judge. 


Aaron did not believe in God. He did not believe in transcendent reality. He did not believe in a life beyond the grave. Life has no ultimate meaning or significance. After death there is only nothing. 

In Aaron’s room I found my old copy of the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. I do not know when he borrowed it. Perhaps he read the story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In this story we read the prayer of nihilism: 

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy 
will be nada in nada as it is in nada. 
Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada 
as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but 
deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of 
nothing, nothing is with thee. 

It is a relentlessly bleak, hopeless view. Despair is its only conclusion. 

Aaron was a man who lived in profound interior pain. He had come to the conclusion that nothing in this world, neither medicine nor psychiatry nor career nor even the love of his family could deliver him from the despair and futility that had possessed and paralyzed him. And so he made what seemed, to him, to be the logical choice. 

A logical choice … if, and only if, Aaron’s worldview is true. If Aaron is right, then he has indeed found relief from his suffering, relief in nothingness, relief in nada, nada, nada. We who have been left behind must now suffer the repercussions of Aaron’s decision, but he at least he is at peace … if Aaron is right … 


But there is an alternative. Consider the possibility that there really is a divine Creator, a transcendent deity of infinite love who has brought the world into being from out of nothing. Consider the possibility that this Creator has made human beings in his image in such a way that we can only find our supreme happiness in communion with him. Consider the possibility that this God has actually entered into his creation, taking upon himself the limitations of humanity, including even suffering and death, precisely to restore us to himself and incorporate us into his divine life. Consider the possibility that for us this God died a cruel and horrific death on Calvary and rose to indestructible life on Easter morning, destroying the power of death once and for all and opening history to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, a future where “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” 

God is Love, for he is eternally the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The world springs from love and will be consummated in love. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian: 

“In love did God bring the world into existence; in love does he guide it during its temporal existence; in love is he going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of him who has performed all these things.” 

It may all sound too good to be true. It may all sound like a an old wives’ tale. But it meets Aaron’s objections head on. Life is not nothingness. Life is not absurd. God is good and wills only our good. God is love and his love will triumph. There is thus genuine hope for liberation, healing, transformation, rebirth, both in this world and in the coming kingdom. 

This is the Christian faith in which Aaron was raised yet which he eventually found to be unpersuasive. The empiricist worldview which dominates our culture increasingly renders the Christian worldview implausible, and the whole world consequently suffers from the despair of nihilism. 

I cannot, will not acquiesce to Aaron’s agnosticism and its resignation to despair. I know something of the darkness that bound Aaron’s heart; but this tragedy has quickened my faith, and I pray that it will do so for you also. 

One of my favorite books in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is the Silver Chair. The children, along with the marsh-wiggle Puddleglum are captured by the Green Lady and taken into her underworld domain. She casts a spell upon them and attempts to persuade them that this dreary underworld is the real world, that everything that they remember about Narnia and the true world is but a dream. But Puddleglum stands fast; he refuses to disbelieve: 

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.” 

The Christian vision of reality is so much more real, more beautiful, more enchanting, and profoundly more true than any vision of reality offered by modern culture and the scientific worldview. 

And so here is my first response to my son: 

“Aaron, I do not know if you had retained your faith in Christ whether your pain would have been more bearable, but it might have given you grounds for hope, for a supernatural hope that the world cannot give.” 


But what hope does my son now have? He is dead. He died an unbeliever. He died a suicide. This is the hard, terrible truth. Aaron would not want us to minimize the harshness of any of this. He knew Christine and I would find this very, very hard. In the old days, some preachers would have declared him damned. He certainly would not have been granted a church burial. Today we know more about depression and mental illness. We know how depression constrains and limits our existential freedom. Aaron did not kill himself with blasphemies on his lips. His suicide was not the culmination of a wicked life. It was an escape from a world that could not heal the sickness of his mind and bring relief from intolerable suffering. Aaron jumped to his death because he had lost all hope, because despair had possessed his being. This I believe to be true. And so I know that God will be merciful. 

But even so, I wish to say something more. Not only will the eternal Father be merciful to my Aaron; but he will most assuredly heal his heart, deliver him from the bonds of darkness, and raise him into glorified life with Jesus Christ the eternal Son, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and with all the saints. Aaron will know the joy and bliss of the kingdom of God. 

* * * * * * * * * *

Fr Kimel was a priest in the Episcopal (i.e. USA Anglican) Church for twenty-five years. A loved pastor and distinguished theologian, articles of his have been published in the Anglican Theological Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Interpretation, Scottish Journal of Theology, Worship, Faith & Philosophy, Pro Ecclesia, and First Things. He has also edited two books: Speaking the Christian God and This is My Name Forever. He began his Pontifications Blog in March 2004 as a way to reflect on the meaning of the Church and to invite others to share in these reflections. (This blog, though no longer active, continues to be a valuable resource of essays and comments.) In June 2005 Fr Kimel entered into full communion with the (Roman) Catholic Church, becoming a priest the following year. On Pentecost Sunday, 2011, he was ordained into the Orthodox Church on Pentecost Sunday 2011 by Bishop Jerome of the Russian Church Abroad, for the Western Rite.


Ray Eyles said...

May Aaron find Refreshment Light & Peace in the arms of Our Lord Jesus, and may his father & family hold fast in faith.

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