The whole of creation is hushed. The angel host and infernal demons, the celestial spheres and waters below the heavens, the birds of the air and fishes of the sea, the dry land with its plants and animals in their kinds, and all humanity awaiting a Saviour, all are silent. All strain to hear: what will the girl say?
“Let it be done unto me according to Thy word.” (Lk 1:38) All break out with shouts of joy and laughter. This is the conception day of God, when the Creator of the Universe became a creature within it, when the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity became a human embryo. The turning point of history: from now on, time will be measured as either before or after this moment, BC or AD.
I know the Langrell family agree that this is the most important thing to be announced in any Catholic church on 25 March. But I have something else to announce today: that in imitation of that young woman of Nazareth who heard the voice of angels, a young woman of Sydney lived, and in her own small way she too has affected our histories. She too said yes to God, aware, as we read in our pew sheets, that this gives no immunity to life’s crosses. Like her hero, St Thérèse of Lisieux, she suffered a terrible illness that took her too soon; but like that little flower she looked forward to an eternity in heaven.
Lauren Langrell was a woman of faith: tender, funny, holy and wise. Hers was a beautiful soul – what our first reading described as “the soul of the virtuous” (Wis 31:1-9) – and her last sickness could not take that away from her. Surrounded to the end by symbols of her deep Catholic faith, the Holy Rosary and Divine Mercy, her last earthly communication was to sms her Mum that she was praying for her grandmother who is also gravely ill. Hers was a beautiful soul, but she was ravaged by a terrible illness that ultimately overwhelmed her and took her life.
From all around Sydney and far beyond her death has unlocked a veritable flood of grief and gratitude and grace: grief that she was taken too soon from us; gratitude that she had touched so many lives in so short a time; and the grace of prayer poured out for Lauren, above all, but also for Mark and Mary, Patrick, Jessica and Tom. They have been sustained through this nightmare by your expressions of love and intercession. Many people were understandably disoriented, having not known Lauren was sick, let alone in hospital. Yet as cancers can appear suddenly, eat up people’s bodies and sap them of life, so Lauren’s depressive psychosis appeared out of the blue and ate up her beautiful heart and mind.
Such conditions, like cancers, can take young people very quickly and so Lauren says to us today: if anyone here is hurting, depressed, consumed by self-doubt, self-hatred, dark temptations, know you cannot conquer this alone. You must get help. Lean on God and His angels and saints in prayer. Talk to your parents, priest, religious sister. Call a helpline or CatholicCare. See your GP or uni counsellor. Lauren’s life and death calls upon each one of us here to redouble our gratitude for the gift of life and our commitment to use it well; to persevere in the spiritual struggles and never lose hope. And just as we don’t blame Lauren, so she tells us not to blame ourselves, not to engage in the endless “if only I had/we had/she had”. The fact is, as Lent reminds us, we are mortal beings and to dust we shall all return, sooner or later.
. . .
Lauren tells us today to be thankful. We are all given particular gifts and opportunities. Hers were gifts of faith and art. People loved being around Lauren, watching her hilarious faces and being seduced by her theatre into attending Theology on Tap or iWitness or some other worthy project.
I’m told that in an impromptu performance at school she jumped around so much she put a hole through the wall and had to cover it up with a fire notice. That was soon discovered but it took many years to settle whose leg it was that had gone through the ceiling of the classroom. Good as Patrick and Jessica were at MCing Theology on Tap, they were bit players compared to the Oscar-merits of Lauren. So too, in Fiddler on the Roof, she stole the show with her brilliant rendition of the Matchmaker. Always an actress but never a drama queen, Lauren used her considerable gifts to direct people toward the possibilities of a life of faith and virtue. Many of those she befriended and inspired are here today.
Her family have many grateful stories to tell and we heard some already today from Tom. At the start of Lent there used to be family discussions about improvements possible in each child. Patrick, for instance, might be invited for Lent to fast from having an untidy room and to give alms by washing up after dinner. And so they would work their way from child to child, until they got to Lauren. Then there would be a pregnant pause, as no one could think of anything Lauren could improve. Eventually Mark and Mary would give up, turning instead to the other children and saying: you should all try to be more like her!
Her brother Patrick told me, quite honestly, that he couldn’t imagine what she ever had to say in Confession. It brought to his mind Fulton Sheen’s comparison of hearing nuns’ confessions with being stoned to death by popcorn. She was truly a woman of the beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12) and even her own family – always the most perceptive of critics – could see it.
Now, when Catholics talk of the family as ‘the domestic Church’ it can make the family sound a bit pious and po-faced. Langrell HQ is not that sort of church: it is a lively, happy place, with all the sorrows and smiles of ordinary life, but with that extra something we call faith and hope and divine love. Mary and Mark with the grandparents, extended family and friends, created a home in which their four little ones and the many friends they brought into the family’s orbit flourished humanly and spiritually.
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So why do bad things happen to good people like Lauren? Because in making us, God did not make robots, programmed to march in circles and do only what He wants. God’s great gamble was to make us free, intelligent, passionate beings in a world that is rich and dazzling and dangerous too. Sickness and death are part of the natural order. Objects collide, accidents occur, organisms prey upon each other and decay. Bugs attack the nerves, stomach, blood stream; other conditions assail the mind, emotions, will.
Even those with an excellent Tangara-University of Notre Dame Australia education wonder why God doesn’t more often intervene to make things nice. Part of the answer is surely this: God did not leave us alone in these struggles. The Annunciation celebrates God’s definitive intervention on the side of the innocent: the fight-back of the Light over the darkness, of Good over evil, of Immortality over corruption. What began on that Conception Day is still working itself out in history and will come to fulfilment when the Body of Christ is full-grown and Christ the Head returns.
But today the whole of creation is hushed as it strains to hear the Virgin’s answer. Not just the living but the dead. Our ancient parents, Adam and Eve, the patriarchs and prophets, and all who have died and wait in Limbo for some hope, strain with hands to ears, to hear: what will the girl say?
Can the dead hope and dare we hold out hope for them? Lauren’s life and death have released an extraordinary grace amongst her family, friends and admirers, a grace that will allow Mark and Mary to start a beautiful new home for us all to visit and share. It will enable Jess to return to New York to serve the sacred cause of human life, which was so important to Lauren. It will cast the Langrell boys back into surf and study and service. And it will inspire Lauren’s many friends to redouble their efforts to live lives of faith and fortitude.
Dare we hope for life beyond the grave? For St Paul’s trumpet calling the dead to rise up (1 Th 4:13-18)? For a new heaven and a new earth? Dare we hope for a Saviour who will be the Resurrection and the Life? “Fiat, yes, Let it be done unto me according to Thy word,” the Virgin said. And the angel left her. (Lk 1:38-39)
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