Homily for Richard Purdy Wilbur’s Memorial Service, November 13, 2017
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Village Congregational Church, Cummington, MA

Isaiah 61:1-3
Psalm 23
John 14:1-6

Richard Wilbur
(March 1, 1921 - October 14, 2017)

There is a custom in Episcopal churches, and maybe in congregations of every denomination, to maintain a register that keeps track of funerals. Usually we record the specific illness that led to death, but when someone very old passes away, we often write, very simply: “full of years.” I like that gentle phrase: “full of years.” I give thanks that Richard died peacefully at the age of 96, full of years.

We knew Richard in many different ways, and each of you brings your own memories. He was your beloved father, grandfather, or great-grandfather. He was your father-in-law, your editor, teacher, mentor, or colleague, your neighbor, your friend. Of course Richard also had a public identity as an acclaimed writer whose brilliant poems and translations, children’s books and critical essays on poetry dazzled his readers. So all sorts of memories fill this room, along with deep affection, for what people treasured in Richard was not that he lived to a ripe old age, but that he lived with such creative verve, with such openhearted generosity and vitality. Richard was not just full of years – he was full of life, full of spirit.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” – the title of that poem says it all. Richard was a deeply religious, deeply spiritual man, a lifelong Christian who was drawn to God and whose spirit yearned for what was holy, clean, and pure. He could write of the soul’s desire to see “the morning air…all awash with angels… rising together in calm swells/Of halcyon feeling.” He understood the soul’s yearning for perfection and fullness, our longing for an infinite love that nothing on earth can satisfy. Yet he also knew that the God he loved did not float above the material world. Richard never settled for a bodiless spirituality, for that distorted brand of Christianity that disdains our actual existence and imagines that the divine is only up and away, far off somewhere in a distant heaven.

No – it seems to me that in his poems and in his life, what interested Richard was exploring what Christians call the Incarnation: the invitation to experience our embodied selves as the meeting place of heaven and earth, the very place where God chooses to dwell. Richard was interested in loving the actual world, not our fantasies about the world, not our ideas about the world, not our judgments and opinions of the world, but the actual world. He was intent on finding, naming, and sharing love right here – here in life’s messiness and pain, here in the beauty of the passing moment, here among the very particular people and plants and things that grace our time on earth. I treasure Richard’s poems for calling us back from what he called “pure mirage” to the sacred glories of our everyday lives, for urging us to notice the radiance of starlight over the barn, to value “Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right/Oasis, light incarnate” (A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness”).

Richard and his beloved Charlotte lived here in this village for a full forty years; for another ten years, he lived here on his own. Immersion in his Cummington home filled Richard’s poems with sugar maple and beech, with fern-beds and blackberries. He loved to stand on the deck, gazing up at the night sky or out into the distance, savoring the splendid view. He loved to wander the acres of woods and fields, noticing with the delight of a naturalist every detail of bird and bush, and sharing his contagious excitement with anyone nearby. Chris describes his father as someone who “took delight in the adventures-of-learning that one can have in the country.” Richard cherished learning from the long-time residents of Cummington, from you who know so intimately the rhythms and patterns of the natural world. He delighted in your knowledge and in your friendship.

And he was an avid gardener who pored over seed catalogues in the winter and spent the growing season with his hands in the dirt, raising corn and tomatoes, lettuces and herbs, and plying his family with vegetables and with sorrel soup. I’ve heard that a Native American tribe urges living so that a piece of earth mourns you when you die, and if ever there were a piece of earth that was loved and blessed by human beings and that might mourn them when they die, surely it would be that patch of earth in Cummington where Richard and Charlotte spent so many happy years.

Of course I never Richard, much less talked to him about his faith, but his stance toward life reminds me of the way that Jesus lived: close to the Earth. In the Gospels we often find Jesus outdoors, praying in the desert, walking by a seashore, climbing a mountain. His parables and stories are rich in images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds, vines, and rocks. It seems that every creature Jesus saw, every person he encountered, he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God’s glory.

I see that stance in Richard’s life, too. He didn’t care about social differences; he was genuinely interested in everybody and he was resolutely himself, the same person with everyone he met: confident, courtly, kind, playful with words, generous with his attention and time. I’m told that if a kid contacted him because of a homework assignment, he was perfectly likely to write back a handwritten response.

Richard’s enduring love of the world and its precious web of life is perhaps nowhere more passionately expressed than in his poem, “Advice to a Prophet.” I cherish that poem, given my work as Missioner for Creation Care and my ardent effort to re-awaken our awareness of the sacredness of the natural world and the need to protect that world from further harm. “Advice to a Prophet” is shot through with a felt sense of the radical interdependence of human beings with the rest of God’s Creation, and it invites us to grieve the imagined loss of “The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return” – a loss that has become all too real in the years since that poem was written. In the face of species extinction and climate change, Richard’s poem gives us words that can help us clarify our feelings, help us see more clearly, and help us, perhaps, to find the moral courage to protect and heal the world that we so love and need, and that God entrusted to our care.

Love calls us to the things of this world, and at the end of our lives, the same Love calls us home. So it was for Richard, who – “full of years” – passed at last into the arms of the Creator who loved him into being, sustained him his whole life through, and welcomed him home at his journey’s end. We hear about that homecoming in today’s Gospel reading, when Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:1-3). Jesus prepared a place for Richard and for all of us in the heart of God, a place in that spacious home of many mansions where we will find rest, and where the love that we have known in part in this life will be fully known at last.

Richard loved the things of this world. He loved God. He loved you. And now, like the starling in one of his poems (The Writer) that was trapped for a time inside a room, he has found the open window. He has “[cleared] the sill of the world.”  He has found his way home.

Let us pray.

“O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.”[1]

Richard, your work is done. You have found your safe lodging, your home in God’s heart. You have received a holy rest, and peace at last. Rest in God's heart, Richard, and pray for us as we pray for you.

  1. The Book of Common Prayer, “In the Evening,” p. 833.