Homily for Alexandra Dawson’s Requiem Eucharist, February 15, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA.
Alexandra D. Dawson
December 30, 2011
“They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD,
to display [God’s] glory.”
Late one winter afternoon, I got a phone call from Rob: could I possibly stop by the home of Alexandra Dawson to pray with her as death approached? Rob was out of town, and a priest was needed quickly. I put on my clerical collar, picked up a prayer book and a container of blessed oil, and headed to my car for what would be my first and last meeting with this great lady.
Of course I had heard of Alexandra Dawson. You don’t have to have lived long in the Pioneer Valley — or anywhere else in New England, for that matter — to know Alexandra’s name! Everyone recalls her in terms that suggest a force of nature. She was a woman of formidable intelligence and wit — someone with an imposing physical presence and the kind of driving will that could make things happen. Even a brief sketch of her career reveals a life of extraordinary dedication and accomplishment. Alexandra was a life-long champion of the environment, a lawyer and educator who was widely known, respected, and loved for her long career defending the rights of wildlife, wetlands, and woodlands. From teaching at Antioch University Graduate School, Tufts University, the Kennedy School of Government, and Rhode Island School of Design to serving on the Kestrel Trust, the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, and the Hadley Conservation Commission, Alexandra’s clients were the critters. I’m told that she loved the outdoors, and with her friends and beloved family circle — her husband, Jim, and their three children, Rachel, Alexander and Adam, his wife and two grandchildren — she hiked, camped, biked, canoed and kayaked. Obviously this feisty, gifted, passionate woman delighted in the beauty of the Earth, and even though she was at home with language and knew how to wield the spoken and written word on behalf of the Earth, I imagine that she also delighted in the stillness of the natural world, in the silent gift of light shining through trees and reflecting off a stream, in the sound of birdsong and the joy of gazing quietly at a distant horizon. Perhaps being out in nature was one place where she regularly communed with God.
I can’t speak about Alexandra’s faith. I never had a chance to talk with her about it, as some of you have. I’m told that she was drawn to these Wednesday Noon healing services at Grace Church when a beloved daughter-in-law became ill, and that she found deep solace and meaning in her friendship with the Companions of the Holy Cross, and in her participation in silent retreats. Intercessory prayer and prayers for healing were important to Alexandra, practices which of course remind us of our deep kinship with one another, with God, and with all creation. At some deep level of reality we are all connected to one another, and through the grace of God, we can participate in and encourage each other’s healing and flourishing.
I don’t think Alexandra ended up being much of a churchgoer. As her husband Jim explained to me a couple of times, “She thought her way into the church and then she thought her way out.” But however she articulated her faith to herself, I think we could make a good case that — whether in church or out — Alexandra’s whole life was a life of faith. She was lit up by a vision of the natural world restored, protected, and renewed. She was fired by a passion for right relationship between human beings and our other-than-human kin. She was a woman with a mission, and she threw herself wholeheartedly into the battle to bring that vision into being. As her long-time friend Judy Eiseman commented, “Everything she did, she did… with intensity, accuracy and precision.”
And like everyone who walks in faith, Alexandra had no way of knowing whether her efforts would ultimately be successful, whether in the end we humans will learn at last to be a blessing on the Earth. Yet she did everything in her power to realize that vision — to make it real — and it’s already clear that the fruits of her life are abundant. Just think of the thousands of acres of land preserved for future generations, the hundreds of graduate students equipped and inspired, the key environmental legislation that she helped to draft, the voluminous writing, the innumerable people converted, supported, and challenged to honor the needs of the natural world — to say nothing of the countless non-human creatures who flourish today and who will flourish in the years ahead — thanks to Alexandra’s unwavering faith and tireless efforts. We have much to thank her for, much to honor.
And then — after eighty years of life — the moment came, as it will come to us all, when Alexandra reached the doorway between this world and the next, when she prepared to hand over her last breath and to give herself back to the great Mystery who dwells within and beyond created things. That was the moment when I met Alexandra and shared some time with her, her dear husband Jim, and her son Alex, there in the upstairs bedroom of a quiet old house, built in 1797, that stands beside the Connecticut River in a cluster of trees.
In the preceding hours and days, Alexandra had often been unconscious, but, as grace would have it, she was quite present and alert when I arrived. As she sat up in bed, bent over but listening closely, I prayed with her and for her. I thanked her for everything she had given to so many people. I thanked God for sending her into the world and for receiving her home at her journey’s end. I anointed her forehead with sacred oil in a ritual in which all of us may participate in a few moments, marking the place on her brow where she was baptized, and praying for her healing and wholeness as she left this life, which would happen just a few hours later. As I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, she murmured the words along with me.
I can’t tell you how peaceful the room felt that night, how filled with love. Here we were, a dying old woman, her grieving husband and son, and a priest, the four of us gathered in an old house beside a river, with tree branches moving overhead, and above the branches, stars. Outside, the night was dark, and inside, the room seemed filled with light.
“God bless you,” I said to Alexandra as I left, and I heard her murmur in reply, “God bless you, too.”
We are gathered in God’s presence now as we celebrate Alexandra’s life and faith, as we share in the sacrament of the laying on of hands for healing, and above all as we share in the Eucharist, that sacrament of very earthly things — bread and wine — that are lifted up and blessed and filled with holy Presence. Here at this table our union with each other, with God, and with all creation is restored, and from this table we will be sent out, just as Alexandra was sent, to share in God’s mission to be agents of healing and justice in the world. Like her, may we too be “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display [God’s] glory.”