SERMON AT THE FUNERAL REQUIEM OF TIMOTHY STANTON CR 1917-2013
In the gospel we have just heard we were told that God would astonish us. Christianity, when it is lived to the full, faces you with one of its deepest characteristics: the element of the unexpected. There is no safe programme – it is all life with the unexpected. It’s like that because we can’t have the mind of God, who is always several steps ahead of us. The children of Israel hoped for a Messiah but they could never have foreseen what would happen, in the coming of Christ. When Jesus started on his ministry, who would have thought it would be like that? The first shall be last and the last first. Everything is turned topsy-turvy.
In the unexpected spread of Christianity throughout the world, no-one could have foreseen the appearance of the monastic life – something again quite unexpected. The life of religious communities itself is a life faced every day with the unexpected. Not only for people in religious communities but for Christians of every sort, the gospel is all the time gently bringing forth unexpected things, leading us forward towards being fully alive.
An outstanding example of the perpetual unexpected is People. All of us are an unexpected item. There will be no-one again quite like Timothy. The transforming factor in his life, the thing that was the making of him, was what he was pleased to call monastic life. For those who are called, life in a religious community leads to a life that is abundant and overflowing. The key is this: we share together the call to become Christlike. To have the mind of Christ, to grow up into Christ. To let go of ourselves and become like him. However, there is a problem: If that is the case, Christian faith might seem like a jelly mould, becoming a clone in a boring sameness.
The truth, however, is completely the reverse. Christ has 1000 facets and every person, growing up into him, becomes more and more unique. Christ is the way to living life to the full. As Irenaeus famously put it, “the Glory of God is a human being fully alive”, which is what Christ is. Every person as they grow up into Christ becomes something ever more unique and unprecedented. Our Brother Timothy gave himself, heart and soul, to Christ in a religious community and became someone more and more extraordinary.
Tom, as he then was, started his adult life as a pacifist before the war but he quickly came to abandon that and after starting in the sappers, ended up in the parachute regiment. After the war he trained at our College and he came back to Mirfield in 1950 as a postulant. By 1954 he had been sent to South Africa. Apart from a couple of short breaks he remained in Southern Africa for 52 years until his return here in 2006.
In Africa it was a ministry of teaching and pastoral work but, above all for Timothy, a ministry of prayer. Prayer was everything. Various brethren had tried to interest him in literature, art and music, he said - but without much success. ‘You might think this is odd’, he said ‘but my whole life has been a love affair with God.’
Timothy was always shy but also a person who was uncomplicated, completely focused. Many people have testified to his loving nature. He loved Africa and so, of all the brethren, it was Timothy who went to prison for supporting the struggle against apartheid. He had refused to testify against a young couple engaged in the struggle. The story is that when brethren said to him “we hope you feel surrounded by our prayers”, he replied, “No”. When they asked if he was all right in prison, he said it suited him very well, just like home. He had plenty of time for solitude and prayer. He was glad to go to prison, as well, because his Sister Hannah had been there before him and he didn’t want to be outdone.
In case you think that contemplation and subversion don’t go together, Desmond Tutu for most of his career until recently had Timothy as his spiritual guide.
There was a wonderful combination in Timothy of a solemn face and something slightly hilarious in what he said and you couldn’t be completely sure whether it was intended or not. In one memorable sermon about our being a temple built of living stones, he solemnly ventured the thought that “a building built of living stones is always going to be a bit wobbly”.
In this service Timothy would want us to look not to him but to Jesus. He left behind a book containing his life story and it is all thanksgiving, underlined. A repeated giving of thanks for all that had happened to him and all the people he had known. We now want to give our thanks, as Timothy’s religious family, with Tom/Timothy’s own family and friends who are here today, or with us in spirit; we give thanks for this lovely person. His monastic life was the making of him, producing a person who is a one-off and unrepeatable. He is now with the Lord he loves. The fountain of life abundant, ever bringing forth what is old and what is new.
We can let Timothy have the last say: here are the closing words of his personal diary:
“The goal of the spiritual life is to be lost in God, to live in a manner that God is all in all. O Lord, thank you for my life. I just offer it all to you.”
George Guiver CR