To Bury, not to Praise St. George’s School Chapel
Memorial Service Homily 24 June 2017
Henry Harrison Wulsin The Reverend Nathan Humphrey
By way of introduction, my name is Nathan Humphrey and I am the rector of The Zabriskie Memorial Church of Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church on the Point in Newport, Rhode Island, and a member of the Religious Studies faculty at St. George’s School. It was my honor to be asked to help the Wulsin family organize this memorial service.
Unlike the previous three speakers, I come to bury Harry, not to praise him. I say this for two reasons: first, the obvious reason being that I never had the pleasure of knowing the man. I only became aware of Harry’s life after Harry was already dead. And I never praise people I never knew personally, because such praise would ring hollow. Anything good I could say about Harry would, after all, be hearsay.
This brings me to the second reason I say I have come not to praise Harry, but to bury him: because although I never knew him personally, in his death I have had the privilege of getting to know a few of the people who loved him most, and whom he loved above all others: Polly, Bo, and Lucien, who worked with me with such evident thought and care to craft a service that testified to the sort of person Harry was, and to the effect Harry had on people, his family and friends. Through the hearsay I have gathered, I gather that Harry would have appreciated my opening this homily with a paraphrase of the opening of Marc Antony’s famous monologue from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as he was (so they say) an extremely well-read man with a great sense of humor, who didn’t take himself too seriously. Just like Julius Caesar himself.
But lest I lapse into praise of either Julius Caesar or Harry Wulsin, I needs must make my third point. (They taught me at Yale Divinity School always to make three points in a homily in the hope that at least one of them would stick, you see.) My third reason for speaking to you this morning is to draw your attention away from Harry, and to draw it instead for a moment to this time and place, and more specifically, this gathering in this chapel, and to ask: Why are we gathered here, and not elsewhere?
Are we gathered here this morning, in this school chapel, because high school was the best time of Harry’s life? He did not meet Polly in high school after all, so I hope for his sake that it was not! No, I believe we are here because the regular daily and weekly rhythms of chapel worship were deeply formative for Harry. I never knew Harry, but I would wager it rings true to say that Harry knew in his bones how spiritually formative this place was for him, and so when it came time to lay his bones to rest, he and his family instinctively returned here, where that connection to God was formed, nurtured, and sustained.
Like a seed that is planted and lies dormant, the spiritual life of a young high school student bears unseen fruit over a lifetime before yielding its harvest. And what is its harvest? I am looking at it right now: all of you are Harry’s harvest, reaped from a lifetime of love and friendship, whose spiritual seeds were sown right here.
As Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Who wants to bet that Harry Wulsin could tell you that Fyodor Dostoevsky uses this verse, John 12:24, as the epigram to his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov? Dostoevsky used it to attest to his faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and his hope of sharing in that victory over death. I do not know, honestly, whether Harry shared Dostoevsky’s hope or not; the hearsay I have gathered from Polly, Bo, and Lucien is inconclusive. But I can tell you that I do. This is why, after all, I am standing before you dressed in these funny clothes in this chapel.
But, to stretch my third point a little further, just as I never knew Harry in his earthly life, I was born two thousand years too late to know Jesus in his earthly life. Just as I have relied on Polly, Bo, and Lucien for trustworthy testimony about Harry’s life, I have relied on Mary the mother of Jesus, John the beloved disciple who was like a son to Jesus, and James the brother of Jesus for trustworthy testimony about Jesus’ life. So admittedly, my faith is based on hearsay.
But hearsay alone does not inspire chapels like this. Hearsay alone does not form lives like Harry’s, a life which, as we heard from Bo, was based on the core values of honesty, giving back, and decency. No, something at once more solid and beyond our grasping is at work here, something called faith, or hope, or love. Or all three. We know that the greatest of these is love. We could probably all agree that one cannot live without hope. (And, as you have heard others testify, Harry kept hope alive in his illness, even to the end.) But what about faith? Do you, with Dostoevsky, believe that the power of divine love is so strong that you have reason to hope in a life that is stronger than death, a resurrection life whose first fruits may be found in Jesus Christ? Or do you side with Marc Antony, and are here not to praise either Jesus or Harry, but to think the latter man’s death irrelevant to the former man’s? Who can sit here in this chapel and think that true? Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, and think on these things.