Homily at Fr 'Joe' Laishley's funeral


The funeral of Fr Francis Joseph (‘Joe’) Laishley SJ (2 July 1933 – 1 July 2015) took place on Tuesday, 14 July 2015. The Gospel at the Requiem Mass was from chapter 3 of St John’s Gospel, verses 1 to 18, when Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night”. The following homily was preached by Fr Michael Barnes SJ.

Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus ‘by night’?  He was a devout Pharisee and was probably a little embarrassed to be seen talking to Jesus – even a tentative conversation in a quiet corner.   That’s the human story.  For John, of course, the story of human relations always speaks of something more, about God.   At the beginning of the Gospel, Nicodemus is an example of the one who knows yet does not know.  He says Jesus is a teacher come from God who does great signs.  Yet the conversation shows how little he really understands about John’s great truth, about the light that shines in the darkness.  Remember that Nicodemus comes back at the end of the story.  After the crucifixion he is described as the one ‘who had at first come to Jesus by night’; he brings vast amounts of spices and ointments with which to prepare the body of Jesus for burial.  It’s a passage full of symbolism.  The Pharisee is now more than a pious searcher; he’s part of the new community that will contemplate and celebrate the King who brings about the abundance of a new creation.

John’s Gospel is shot through with great symbols or signs of the light that shines in the darkness, the Word of God that speaks God’s truth to human beings.  I wonder what Joe would have made of that passage.  Joe was, of course, primarily a sacramental theologian; his doctorate was on Cyril of Jerusalem’s baptismal homilies.  I well remember Joe’s testy comment in a seminar once.  (He could do testy quite well; gentle testy - but you always knew when you had been told.)  Someone said ‘that’s a mere symbol’.  To which Joe replied: ‘there’s no such thing as a mere symbol’. 

For the one who has become sensitised to the world as the scene of God’s transforming action, nothing is just what it is: everything speaks of grace.  Through symbols, what Joe used to call the mediation of personal meaning, communication becomes possible – not just explaining ourselves to others but ‘comm-uni-cation’,  bringing the world into a new unity.  Under the grace of God, that’s what human beings do.   The contemplative finds God even among the grieving community that gathers round the body of its much-loved teacher.  There is sadness here yet a divine fullness.  In this difficult moment of grace, as Nicodemus and the disciples of Jesus received his body, so we in this community thank God for the life of another follower, thanking God for what he did to communicate something of the mysterious Word that has become Flesh in our midst.

The other day I was sent a list of brief reminiscences from Heythrop students; they speak of a uniquely wise, kindly and stimulating teacher.  Joe spoke with passion and conviction – yet never took himself too seriously.  I first came across him at the old Heythrop where he began teaching in 1969, just prior to the great exodus to Cavendish Square.  He then disappeared to Rome to do his doctorate at the Greg.  At the end of my third year in London three of us gave some talks in the parish in Wimbledon.  I gushed on about Paul as if I knew what I was talking about.  When questions began, an eloquent elderly lady put her hand up and asked the googly question - the one you miss completely.  It was, of course, the redoubtable Mrs Laishley and the question had been sent over from the Bellarmino in Rome.   Thank you, Joe, for a lesson in theological humility.

Nothing ‘mere’ about a human life

I found it moving to enter his room a week ago.  Full of books and notebooks and pieces of paper – the usual Jesuit detritus.  Some more personal touches – like the little painting Anne did of their mother.   A picture of Portsmouth where they were born.  And everywhere cards and photographs of furry and feathered things: cats and owls and dogs – and we mustn’t forget a few bears.  He enjoyed God’s creatures, did Joe.  Family photographs, of course, and cards and notes from special friends.  By the door the diploma for his Heythrop fellowship that he so much appreciated, shared on that day in 2000 with his great friend, Elizabeth Lord.  It would be easy to think of all of this as mere relics.   They’re much more than that, of course: traces of a life – signs and symbols that unpack layers of meaning that echo the very Word of God.  There’s nothing ‘mere’ about any human life. 

I noticed a Zen saying stuck on the side of his wardrobe: ‘Human feelings are frail; the ways of the world are rugged’.  No doubt about how Joe coped with that particular koan: he was not the sort of person to rationalise problems and dilemmas, but neither did he ignore them.  It would be easy to treat him as quirky and eccentric.  And it’s true that he was incapable of conforming to the expected norm.  But that was because he believed passionately in working through issues as deeply as he could and not being content with obvious answers.  I suspect that was what made him such an inspiration.  His influence was immense.  He taught at Heythrop for more than 25 years, spending a good deal of that time as Head of Theology.  He was a major force behind the Pastoral Diploma – that jewel of the heady days in Cav Square.  He cared passionately about his subject, but also about his students.  He was quite prepared to do whatever it took to encourage particular individuals as they made their own discoveries out of the great traditions of Christian wisdom. 

He will always be remembered as a brilliant doctoral supervisor.  He took on all sorts of people, following many different paths.  He was rarely expert in their fields, but he knew what serious research and scholarly writing looked like – and he knew how to get his students to think, how to build arguments, how to spot the rubbish, and how to sift out the nuggets of gold.  A few years ago, I was asked to be Dean of Research Students at Heythrop, a job which demanded sessions on what is called in the jargon ‘research skills’.  I went to see Joe to get ‘the secret’.  It was a great conversation.  At the end of an hour and a half, as Joe got more and more animated, he stood up and exclaimed: ‘You know, you’re making me wish I could get back to this.’ 

Extraordinary excitement in simple profundity

What was the secret?  I shall remember him as a great listener, astute and precise.  He lived for ideas deeply felt.  As teacher and mentor he could put his finger on what was wrong.  But equally he could get animated about what was right.  It didn’t matter what level you were working at; if you were serious he had a deep respect for you.  The Spirit blows where it will – but is most obviously alive in intense conversation where both participants learn together how to move gently forward into the things of God.  At the end of the Festschrift that some of his PhD students put together for his 65th birthday, he finished his own introduction by impishly misquoting Mahatma Gandhi: ‘They are my students.  I am their supervisor.  I must follow them.’

A serious heart attack laid him low in 1998 and he retired from active involvement at Heythrop. But not from life, not from friendship.  His personal spirituality began to develop in a new and life-giving direction.  He discovered the medieval English mystics and his prayer revolved particularly around the enigmatic Book of Privy Counsel by the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing.  Joe’s copy is marked by notes and scribbles, the text itself highlighted in various colours.  Impossible to decipher, of course, but testament to the extraordinary excitement he found in its simple profundity.   One phrase stands out: the reader is counselled to maintain ‘a naked intent unto God’.  It could be regarded just as a repeated mantra, an exhortation to put God first.  Joe’s little note talks about it as a ‘foundational feeling’.  Then with a little reference to Hopkins, he explains it as ‘the very shape or symbol (sacrament) of my being, sprung up to eternal life, to the tri-personal God’. 

These are just notes.  Joe did not write much.  He knew that his gift was enabling others to write.  And I for one will always be grateful to him for the stimulus he gave me to write.  Reading his faded jottings now makes me feel that I’m eavesdropping on a very private world.  He would not have minded.  He was naturally shy and reserved but never locked away.  He was in my experience and those of students who became friends very easy to unlock.  His beloved Cyril taught him to value a middle way between the rationalism that privileges the grand solution and a sort of eclectic pragmatism that has given up on any possibility that the ‘naked intent unto God’ does indeed open us to Godself.  Neither – yet both.  Joe’s sense of the complex yet deep relatedness of things – ultimately, of course, to be explained only in terms of the creative and redemptive work of God in the world as Word and Spirit – ran through everything that he did, everything he spoke and prayed about. 

So back finally to Nicodemus, bewildered by how a person can be ‘born again’.  I see that passage not as a Socratic dialogue in which the one who knows brings out a latent truth that the pupil has forgotten.  It’s more of a Laishleyan conversation in which Jesus gently points out that none of us knows it all – and if we think we do we’re probably wrong.  But to those who do listen, God does speak – in the tiny signs and symbols of meaning that are scattered through our lives.  If we allow Word to speak in us and Spirit to blow through us, we have some chance of getting to the other end of the story: like Nicodemus to receive the Body of Christ, the suffering community of the Church, and to return it as gift to God.

Like Nicodemus, like Joe, all of us come to God ‘by night’.  But that is not ‘our darkness’ as opposed to ‘God’s light’.  Joe would chide us for being too simplistic.  The light has shone in the darkness.  There is no such thing as a ‘mere symbol’: merest things make speech about God possible.  Even the darkness is necessary if God’s purposes are to be revealed.  At the beginning of his well-thumbed copy of the Cloud Joe copied out this inscription from a Buddhist image from 8th century China.  Let it stand as his epitaph. 

The highest truth is without image.  Yet if there were no image there would be no possibility for the truth to manifest itself.  The highest principle is without words.  Yet if there were no word, how would the principle be known?

Donations in memory of the life of Fr Francis 'Joe' Laishley SJ are gratefully received.