Fr Eltin Patrick Griffin, O.Carm

Homily given at Evening Prayer in memory of Eltin Patrick Griffin, O.Carm. by M. Baxter, O.Carm., at Terenure College Chapel on 3 January, 2007.

This evening we gather to begin our formal farewell to Eltin Patrick Griffin: Carmelite, our brother, a priest and a friend to so many.
In these funeral days we experience a mixture of emotions on many different levels. We, his family, both religious and natural, and his many friends, feel a sense of loss for one so dear.  We feel sadness at his going.  We miss already his sense of joy and interest in so many things.  He always had an opinion and was never stuck for words.  He loved life and life returned the compliment. He lived life to the full, always conscious that it was a gift from God and, as such, it should be savoured.
The reading chosen for this Evening Prayer is from the Office of Readings for December 31, the day Eltin died. It comes to us from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.  Paul’s words are those you might imagine Eltin repeating: ‘Since you have accepted Christ – Keep your roots deep in him, build your lives on him, and become ever stronger in your faith’.
Eltin’s roots were deep, deep as a Christian, deep as a Carmelite and deep too as a son of his native place, Cork. Despite his many years away from Cork he could still do the accent and tell a story with an easy wit and a charm that brought a smile and a hearty laugh to those who kept his company.
He built his life on the things of God: The Word of God, the Liturgy, Fraternity, Friendship, Learning – and many more good things too numerous to mention here. Over the course of the years, in the ups and downs of life, which we all face now and then, he carried on and always looked forward to the future with hope and expectation. Even recently he was making arrangements for well into 2007, a year which he would not enter. The last scene in this life has been played, the curtain has fallen on a great life.  The lights have dimmed, but for the Christian the light of Christ does not go out.
In the last few days we spoke of Eltin.  We recalled some stories.  We remembered some of the things that he did or said.  We brought to mind what made him who he was. Indeed, each one of us has a story, a memory.  They are special.  They will stay with us to comfort us and no doubt make us smile in the times to come.
One of his greatest points of contact with us was in his preaching. I remember as a student complementing him on a particular homily he preached at Gort Muire on the Feast of All Saints.  To my surprise he gave it to me.  I kept it in the hope that I might use it in the future. Or, at least, I might learn how a homily might be put together.  This evening is the time to use it, in a sense to let him speak to us. Imagine his voice: ‘The road to holiness is indeed difficult.  It was no easier for those men and women of the past than it is for us today.  Holiness if it is real is always new.’
There is a new holiness for our time because there are new situations, new realities, new relationships.  Holiness is always new just as it is always ancient. Like the saints of old we are adding our own little building blocks to the New Jerusalem, but we have not seen the Architect’s plan.
We work in mystery.  Perhaps the most important work God has planned for us from all eternity is already behind us and we never knew it.  It could have been a conversation on a train.  A simple act of consolation.  A sentence spoken in the quiet of a confessional.  God knows. We work in faith in the dark, but God is putting it all together.
Finally, the last word to St John of the Cross, a particular favourite of Eltin’s.  John made his return to God on 12 December 1591.  After midnight the bell rang for Matins.  Fray Juan asked, ‘What was that?’ ‘The bell calling the brothers to Matins,’ came the reply. ‘Glory to God!  I shall say them in Heaven!’ he replied.
We pray that you, Eltin, may see God face to face. We commend your spirit into the hands of the Lord.

Homily given at the Funeral Mass of Eltin Griffin, O.Carm., in Terenure College Chapel, on 4 January, 2007, by C. O’Donnell, O.Carm.

Eltin loved to have a handle, a phrase to sum up people or events, a wordbite. It was a very flexible way of understanding. It enabled him to place them, think and speak about them. But how does one get a handle on himself? Many words spring to mind, like creative, vivacious, a pioneer and so forth. But today he invites us to look at himself, through the readings he selected for this Mass. Being a liturgist Eltin did not like homilies that are eulogies; but being a pastoral liturgist, he understood the need to remember and to celebrate the deceased, even within the liturgy. The importance of these texts is surely that Eltin wants us to listen to God speaking in them. They are his legacy to us. And we can see his own life as a commentary on them.
The lovely reading in Ecclesiastes, from the wise man Qoheleth, gives us a vision of life. Youth is to be well spent. The Creator is to be remembered in youth, because a time will come when energy will diminish and old age comes upon us. Eltin’s youth was spent in Cork, from the age of two in Mayfield. In 1989 he wrote an account of “Growing up in Cork” for a publication called the Cork Holly Bough. Here he recalled the earliest influences on him of family, church, arts, drama, and characters of all kinds, most especially his Mayfield neighbours, Eddie Golden and his brother both of whom would later be Abbey actors. The roots were sown there for his piety, love of liturgy and his wide culture. In my more than five decades of life in the Irish Province, he was easily the most cultured Carmelite I knew.
In his early years as a Carmelite, based in Whitefriar Street he had a very extended apostolate in parish mission and retreats. He is probably the last real preacher of the Province. Mission preaching was a tough training school: one had to keep a congregation of men or women receptive for 30-40 minutes. It demanded an ability to relate to a congregation though symbol, story, jokes, devotion, and scripture bringing people to conversion and deepened commitment. It was popular evangelisation at a most effective level that demanded profound empathy with urban and rural congregations. Pre-Vatican II preaching was an art form, now almost dead.
He enjoyed enormously going round the country in the years preceding and immediately after Vatican II. He delighted to tell of one scary novena he gave at St. Brigid’s Well at Faughert, outside Dundalk, in the 1950s. He preached on her for nine nights – saying what I wonder – and was given £15 for his labours. That sort of money would get as holiday for two at Mosney at the time. Preaching was his forte in the 50s and 60s. Even in the late 50s he began publishing more seriously, though earlier there were articles in Whitefriars and the student journal, Zelo. He produced a volume of the Eucharistic Meditations of the Curé of Ars, his first work of editorship (1961). His name does not appear on the book; he had the Provincial write a preface.
We could pass over quickly 1952-1953, a year he spent teaching in the Junior School in Terenure. Child crowd control was not his charism. On one occasion he had taken a class out in the field. The resulting chaos had to be dispelled by Fr. Lar Hegarty, who firmly told Eltin that he was not Jesus and should not attempt to act like the Messiah.
Eltin had an enormous capacity to enjoy himself, to celebrate, to live fully. Yet as he grew older he came to that maturity that does not see Qoheleth as a pessimist, but a wise man who teaches us how to enjoy fully even what is passing and transitory.
If he had not spent two years in the Catholic University of Washington in 1969-1971, I doubt if Eltin would have chosen the second reading from the book of Revelation. It so quintessentially suited him. These five verses sum up the whole of that most difficult book of the bible: the Father of Glory, the redemption, church, sacraments and the centrality of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord who will come in glory. It gave him a handle on the whole book. I sometimes think that the author, the seer at Patmos, could have ceased writing at this point, and not confused us with his symbolic explanations. Washington gave him new insights, more new handles on the life of the Church and theology. It gave him a deepened academic foundation in liturgy. There he read and met many of the movers and shakers of the post-Vatican II Church. Before Vatican II, he was living the first reading of dedication to the Creator. In an article written in 1997 he reflected on his priesthood at that time. He confessed to having been very frustrated, since what he was reading about and hearing in conferences, was met in Ireland and in Carmelite communities with a stern nil innovetur (innovations, no!). But he was sustained by others in a group called “Flannery’s Harriers” people who gathered around Fr. Austin Flannery, O.P., one of the great prophets of the Irish Church. Thus there were the two Hurleys, Richard the architect, and Fr. Michael the ecumenist, Jack Dowling, Ray Carroll, J.G. McGarry Louis McRedmond, Sean Mac Reamoinn, and others who dreamed about a renewed Church. It was then the vision of the text we have heard from Revelation opened up for him and others; the rest of us would gradually catch up with the pioneers. There were also the Glenstal liturgical conferences which he attended; people like Dom Placid Murray and Vincent Ryan stimulated him greatly, as did the unscheduled late evening sessions, lubricated by a glass or two, during which the problems of the Church were solved – for that night anyway. The real leaders of the Church at that time did not have mitres or crosiers.
He loved Kinsale, the town of his origin, Kinsale; but in his mind’s eye it was the Kinsale of the regatta week. When he was prior there, it was a different reality in the winter months. Though he could speak eloquently about religiosité populaire; when, however, he met instances of popular religiousity in the raw, he was quite unnerved. I remember in particular how he was astounded with what may have been a legitimate request to say Mass for the healing of a sick cow. His reaction as he rolled his brown eyes to heaven was, “what sort of grasp of the Paschal Mystery did this show?”
Eltin was a immense encourager, and pushed me and many others to write and lecture. He was a great editor. He pursued the dilatory until eventually they chose the lesser evil of sending him the promised material or copy. He edited books on Advent, on Funerals, on the Carmelite Rule, on the Eucharist in the Carmelite tradition. The list of contributors to his book, Prayers of the Faithful for Weekdays, reads like a Who’s Who of the Irish Church and beyond in the 1980s. It is still widely in use in the English-speaking world and recently reissued.
The third reading he chose for his funeral Mass is the account of the institution of the Eucharist in Mark. Eltin loved the liturgy; he resonated with all the moods of the liturgical year. I was beside him at Evening Prayer in Gort Muire just a fortnight ago, and noted his delight in the “O” antiphons. He was in Gort Muire Conference Centre for ten years 1972-1982. These were heady days. With Frs. John Keating, Aloysius Ryan and others he created Gort Muire as a prime centre for pastoral liturgy and spirituality. So many things that we now take for granted like Advent wreaths, Jesse trees or the use of the Paschal Candle were given new meaning to those coming to Gort Muire. The people gathered there in those years reads like a list of ecclesial glitterati: Brain McGee, Gerry Threadgold, Kevin Donovan from Heythrop, John Michael Talbot, Kevin Mayhew, John Wall, Margaret Daly, Paddy Jones, to name just some who gave input on the Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, Folk groups and Folk Masses, Taizé, O Antiphons, later Lectio divina. There were also courses on scripture, spirituality, pastoral issues; he brought in new faces of laity, sisters and priests to lecture; there were ecumenists, like the Rev. Ruth Patterson and her father, Dr. Tom, medical and pastoral carers, including Dame Cecily Saunders, religious like Helena O’Donoghue; other innovations were courses on liturgy for handicapped people, for deaf people, for school Masses. He loved the buzz of Gort Muire at that time. The word “swaning” might have been invented for him. He floated around, enjoying the buzz, at times oblivious of impending crises in church, kitchen or organisation.
He taught liturgy in various centres in Ireland and abroad: Milltown, Liturgy centre in Portarlington, Carlow and Maynooth, Mater Dei, the Novice’s courses which had many sites over the years. He loved particularly giving retreats to priests; he liked clerical company and moreover knew that if priests were helped, many others would also gain. His last diocesan retreat was last Autumn for the Dromore diocese.
There were other great movements in the Church at the time apart from those in which Eltin was involved. He stuck to those areas for which he was richly gifted by the Lord, and viewed other manifestations of the Spirit from a distance. He kept the more exuberant Charismatic Renewal at arm’s length.. On one occasion in Gort Muire I was talking to a friend, when he passed making some slightly derisory comment about charismatics. I said to my friend, “At him Mary! Kiss him!” He was quite nonplussed by her humorous attack and quickly retired.
His forte was pastoral liturgy; he was not one to discuss the variant readings of the Gelasian Sacramentary – though if he heard something interesting about such a text, it would come out later as a small gem. His liturgy was pastoral and he loved its celebrations. Last Thursday before I went to England he asked me for the Sacrament of the Sick. He wanted it in our Mass room. It had to have some formality. There was to be candle lighting on the altar; I knew that I was expected to wear a decent-looking broad stole. He then received the sacraments with a childlike simplicity.
The Eucharist was his life’s centre of his life. He delighted in the Vatican II statement that the Eucharist is the fons et culmen, the source and summit of the whole Christian life. He echoed the words in the gospel we have just heard: Jesus took bread, blessed, broke and gave it. He knew that he too had to be taken, blessed, broken and given. He has gone to the kingdom and its new wine. But any apprentice angel would be foolish to try serving him plonk, unless of course it came in a really elegant flagon.
He was always creative, always learning and on the lookout for an insight, a phrase, or, better still, a new handle. Sometimes his handles on things led him a bit astray; the transition from insight to judgement was not always felicitous. He read voraciously and its fruits continually emerged in his articles and preaching. He learned early on the secret of the pastoral and academic life, which is recycling. He continually recycled his own and other people’s material in a way that gave continual freshness. His lecture notes were wonderful to behold: all sorts of paper of different colours and sizes, with his inimitable handwriting in which all closed letters seemed to be “a” and all vertical letters seemed to be “m,” “n” or “i.” I don’t think he ever mastered left hand justification when typing; where the spring stopped, he began a new line.
We have lost a character, a friend, a great servant of the Church and of the Carmelite Order. At times he could be exasperating; mostly he was charming. He had no plans for either retiring or dying. But he was ready when the Lord came. He had a gift for community, for conversation, for humour, for relaxation and friendship. From any group he was in, one always heard his deep visceral laugh. He took to heart the statement of the Carmelite martyr of Dachau, Bl. Titus Brandsma, “Where ever we are, there should be a celebration.” The Psalmist moreover tells us, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” In all his strengths and in his human weakness and frailty, Eltin did just that.
Living according to the Creator’s plan, focussed on the Paschal mystery, and constantly strengthened by the Eucharist, Eltin Griffin in his old age showed us how to be youthful.
Ni bfheicimíd a leithéid arís; a l’anam do Dhia.