An hour before Earl Madary’s funeral Wednesday, more than 100 people were lined up outside San Damiano Chapel on Viterbo University’s campus.
The sky was dark, but the air warm for December. For Christians who observe Advent, the week had begun with a day that was meant for rejoicing. They had lit pink candles on Sunday in homes and churches. The birth was near. Christmas was soon.
On that day, Earl died. The world lost a holy man. Who could rejoice?
As we filed in for Earl’s funeral Mass, we received programs with an image of St. Francis of Assisi spinning in dance. Below the picture were the words:
“Earl Joseph Madary, D. Min.
“Born to life: May 1, 1965
“Born to eternal life: December 16, 2007”
I hadn’t seen “death” written as “life” before. When I read the words, my heart felt like it bloomed. My mind went to something I’d heard Earl say about Christians needing to know the resurrection as well as they know the cross.
He’d said it in the same chapel where we sat on Wednesday. As he was dying of cancer, Earl had asked students whether they believed they were children of God.
At the funeral, the children and adults, rich and poor filling San Damiano were so many that some had to stand. A line of priests and the Catholic bishop of La Crosse processed in as we sang “Amazing Grace.” About 400 others gathered in the Fine Arts Center Main Theater and watched on closed-circuit television.
During the opening hymn, I did not feel like crying yet and so had to close my mouth as others sang, “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” The words, sung by those who loved him, sounded like Earl’s.
As the song ended, a man across the aisle put his arm around his wife as she wept. We were at a celebration to be sure, but a hard one. People suffered over the loss.
And then, as sadness began to overwhelm, a gift walked to the middle of the chapel.
Rachel Madary, Earl’s 17-year-old daughter, stood with another woman and helped us sing the words, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”
I do not want to call Rachel strong because she was more than that. Her presence reminded me of Earl’s, standing in the center, pointing us to beauty, embodying the very things she was speaking. Somehow, Rachel and the other woman’s song introduced peace for me that night. And peace, now, is the experience that lasts.
Although tears came to my eyes, I kept raising them during the Mass to see the stained-glass window high on the far wall of the chapel. Tom Thibodeau, a friend of Earl, had told me that the image was special to Earl. In it, orange surrounds a resurrected Christ.
The image, like Rachel, also gave me peace.
I think about it now as I sit in the basement of my parents’ home, four days before Christmas, trying to say who a man I knew for less than two years, but feel — I am sure like many — that I’ve known much longer, is to me.
There’s a poem I always read at this time of year. It seems even more appropriate this year because I want to ask about Earl’s passing the same thing T.S. Eliot asks about Jesus’ birth in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.”
But as the magi were going to see birth and we on Wednesday were going to see death, I’ll reverse the two words here:
“... were we led all that way for
“Death or Birth? There was a Death, certainly,
“We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen death and birth,
“But had thought they were different; this Death was
“Hard and bitter agony for us, like Birth, our birth ...”
Who could rejoice last Sunday, the day Earl died? Earl, I think. As I stood in San Damiano, I got the feeling that he believed in life so much, it blooms even now.
Joe Orso can be reached at (608) 791-8429 or jorso@ lacrossetribune.com.