Homily for Reed Whittemore

Fr. David Werning, Homily for Reed Whittemore
Our Lady of Victory Church, April 12, 2012

The Bible, as we all know, is a collection of books. And these books contain thousands of words; 774,746 words according to one (very serious) person’s count.

But are those English words or Hebrew words?

At this I see Reed throwing back his head, holding his stomach, and letting out one of his wonderful laughs.

This is the kind of question he would ask; not to demean the “very serious word counter,” and not out of any disrespect for the Bible, which Reed knew well, but rather to puncture that sense of pride and self-importance that can afflict us all, the absurd idea that we have everything neatly figured out. In other words, to help the “very serious word counter” take things seriously, but not too seriously.

The man who has figured everything out at night is more likely to shoot himself in the morning than the man who goes to bed confused — which is not to say that we cannot know anything, but that we can’t know everything,

Therein lies the adventure and the mystery and the opportunity to ponder, to learn, to make choices — to live.

The Bible and its words reveal a vital, ongoing relationship between God and man. Though it contains commandments, it is less a rule book and more a love letter. We encounter in its pages ways of living that fail to honor — or even to acknowledge — the relationship we have with God, and we find, as well, examples of faithfulness and perfect devotion to this relationship.

For those of who are Christian, we believe that Jesus Christ, who is God himself, became man in order to model for us how a human being can live in love and fidelity to God. Of course, Jesus was not, and never has been, accepted universally — by all men and women — as the Savior.

It is interesting why some people reject him.

Back in his day, religious leaders rejected Jesus because they saw him as a law breaker, a criminal. They hated him intensely because — to their minds — he broke the rules on the Sabbath (the holiest of days).

Today, in an ironic twist Reed would appreciate, Jesus is more likely to be rejected as one who has too many commandments and expects too much from his disciples.

But what many people do seem to agree on is that Jesus — hate him or love him, believe in him or not — was a man of his word. What he said and what he did were in communion with each other.

When Jesus told us to pray, we know that he would go off by himself to pray. When he told us to put down our swords, we know he advanced his own mission without violence. When he told us to love everyone including our enemies, we know that he forgave his executioners.

So Christian tradition has another title for Jesus besides Savior and Christ: it is “the Word made flesh,” a perfect title for a life lived in perfect integrity.

For me, Reed is like this, and I mean that he is like Jesus to me — although at this I can hear his wonderful laugh again.

Reed is a man of words, and he takes words seriously, but not too seriously — which includes knowing the limits of words, what to say and what not to say, when to speak and when to remain silent. Reed knows that words are what carry the heart of one person to the heart of another, and that the abuse of this communication is near the root of humanity’s ongoing trouble with loving and understanding each other — all “the lies and the come-ons, and the jargon and the platitudes and hosannahs” — as he says in his poem, “On the Unimportance of Words.”

Reed is at his best mischievous self when he sharpens the point of his pen and punctures the words of jargon and the cheap platitudes and the empty praise, releasing all their hot air, saving both word and person with one strike.

Words for Reed are always meant to bring people together. And while he can flare up powerfully against pretension, he always honors the nobility of the human impulse behind the words.

Reed’s poems about life on this earth — the day-to-day grind, the sorrows, the joys, the hypocrisy, the heroism, the squalor and the beauty of it all; his poems that are the fruit of thought and prayer, of contemplating life in all its mystery — truly reflect how he lived.

He was, as I said, like Jesus, a man of his word.

Reed was deeply interested in people, he cared about the human race and where it was and where it was going — and he was vastly curious about how we live in the world. He would agree with, and probably knew, the sentiment written by the Roman playwright Terence: “As I am a man, nothing human is alien to me.”

But Reed was also interested in you, personally, the individual with whom he was sitting or walking or driving at that exact moment. And he would truly listen to you, and carefully consider what you were saying.

He would not tell you what to think, he might disagree strongly with what you were saying, but he always maintained a deep respect for the incomprehensible mystery of each person.

Reed is one of those rare people who displayed integrity in the deepest sense, who was holy in the deepest sense, as he spent his days searching for the right word to express a particular meaning.

I like to think that in the end he became a word himself, someone to whom we could look to see how to live truly and well. Although the sound of his earthly voice is silenced, we can still look to him; we can still hear his voice in the words he gave us, like these, from his poem, “The Word Man”:

the busy word man is tired
he is lying down
he is lying down with his pad
he is lying down with his pad and writing these words
but lowly
wanting to slow the flow
the flow
thinking slowly
thinking that if he could slow the flow
the flow of the words
if he could sleep on the words
the words
before writing the words
the right words
then the crisis at Babel
at Babel
the sadly towering critical crisis at Babel
could be —

what could the right words be
or perhaps the right single word
that would hasten the slowing
or even the stopping
of words flowing
and making the crisis ever more critically critical
at babbling Babel?

a noun like Jahweh possibly?
or two legal verbs like cease and desist mayhap?
or even something commanding and simple like no?
no none of these words seems quite right & the word man is dozing
his pad is falling
and Babel is still
and the stars are wordlessly shining
over Babel

spirit pleads feebly with him
to stop chattering
he generously does
he sleeps

(Fr. Dave Werning, 4/12/12)