In my father’s house are many mansions. We gather in one his mansions , in his Kingdom here on earth, to give thanks for her life and pray for Alathea, confident that she is yet on her way to another. She was, after all, both widely travelled, and a lady used to mansions.
One old friend wrote of Alathea ; ( I believe he is here, I hope he will forgive me for quoting him,) and I quote : “I discussed death with her regularly; she used to say that she did not fear death. When the writer insisted at times, that those who have fairly privileged lives on this world, might be likely to have unprivileged ones in the next, she retorted sharply; “Nonsense Alejandro, one doesn’t chose one’s family or one’s milieu. The thing is to make the best of one’s position in a way that other people might benefit from it.”
She was as good as her word. When I first met her five odd years ago, I was struck by her unfailing courtesy – not just to me, but to everybody, regardless of whomsoever they were. When talking to her more recently, as her life was ebbing away, I was struck by her unfailing courage and dignity. Unconsciously or otherwise, she demonstrated some of the characteristics of the Stoics, that group of Greek philosophers who saw wisdom, as a matter of will, conforming to the Divine reason, by courage and moral duty. And like the later Stoics, Alathea’s character was leavened by the compassion, love and charity of Christianity.
And in the courage with which she faced her coming end was quite clear that she was not afraid of dying. We can take some satisfaction, that if her end was to be in England, she wanted to stay in her second home at Milton, with her close family; Phillip, Isabella , the children and Steve; that she wanted her funeral here in this ancient church; and to be buried alongside her beloved sister at Marholm. She faced her end with courage, and dignity, without dismay or complaint, having received the comfort of the viaticum- the Holy Sacrament- in the tradition of the faith of her forebears, of which she was so proud.
Her faith was still the unquestioning faith that she learnt as a highly intelligent child; faith like the hills and mountains of Switzerland, it was just there; unostentatious but informing her life. In a life which held its fair share of difficulties and disappointments, Alathea never wavered in her beliefs nor changed her ways. A noble woman by birth, she was also noble by temperament; she seemed at times almost quaint, out of this time in which we live – to quote another friend: “with the manners of the heart as well of her breeding, fastidious, prudent, as , wonderful company, witty, bursting with charity; superbly dressed, well-informed “she epitomised a certain sort of European culture, in her aesthetic taste and her love of the achievements of human civilization” .Game said her nephew- ready for anything. Some-one else said she was enigmatic, because what you saw was what was there.
English by birth, European by adoption, she Spoke fluent French, German, good Spanish, perfectly at home in Vienna, Madrid, Munich, Dresden or Paris. Sociable but not overly gregarious, she loved her friends but also enjoyed some solitude; and, if not going to live England, Switzerland was the obvious choice, for as she said: “there was an international society, and one never felt an expatriate”.
She was also a woman of strong but quiet devotions, devoted to the Queen, devoted to a sense of duty and loyalty; devoted to Lizzie-Anne, whom she was confident of seeing again shortly. It seems to me therefore, appropriate that she served her faith in the last 15 years in her membership of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, of which one cousin Fra Andrew Bertie is Grand-Master, and another President of the British Association of the Order, becoming as she did, a Dame of Honour and Devotion in the Order. This was no honorary rank it was hard work, in a practical way, involving caring for pilgrims at Lourdres, looking after the sick, hands on, recalling her words I quoted earlier “The thing is to make the best of one’s position in a way that other people might benefit from it.”
In my father’s house are many mansions- and we are gathered here in one of them to pay tribute to her life, and to commend her to him.
And who is this Father? He is the God who knows and cares when even a sparrow falls to the ground; the God who has numbered the very hairs on our head; the God who revealed himself in the person of his Son; who went about on earth among us, as one of us, sharing the sorrows and joys of our humanity, carrying them with him, and redeeming them for us on the cross, and rising for us all, a promise of the new life given by our gracious and loving father, that she and we, in our turn, will join him in his heavenly house.
With Alathea’s interest in history, art and architecture, I like to think that this house of God, here on earth building tells something of the struggle we all have to make sense of life, in our journey to his heavenly house.
See the Font at the back near the door; the place we start thejourney, in our attempt to see through the glass albeit but darkly; reminding us in the water of baptism we use at funerals, recalling God’s promise of new life for all. Then see the High Altar; the symbol of the place we are seek- the presence of God; the place where the Mass has been offered for centuries, for the quick and the dead, in Christ’s sacramental presence.
Now see the Nave Roof.- with the Angels and Archangels in the centre, and in the aisle roofs, the saints, martyrs and ordinary people, the company of heaven. It is a 3-dimensional piece of theology, recalling those famous words said by the priest in the Mass, before the most solemn point: “Therefore with angels and archangels, and the whole company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name ever-more praising thee and singing Holy, Holy, Holy.” We may feel forsaken but we are not alone. While we are in this earthly house, she is with the angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven. We celebrate here on earth not alone but with God, Lizzie-Anne, Alathea and all those who’ve gone before us.
We are rightly sad at her death. But we also give thanks to God for her life, a life that gave so much, and for the fact that her body really is at peace, free from discomfort and frustration of illness.
We pray for Alathea, thanking God for the memories of her we share and treasure, praying that those who mourn her passing may be comforted in their grief; commending her to God; confident in the faith and hope of eternal life, given to us that first Easter. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. Lord hear us , Lord graciously hear us. Amen.