Posted November 09, 2012 in Memorials:
The Song Helen Sang

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

Helen Schreiner loved music, especially old songs. She had a number of favorites, some corny ("You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …"), some not.

But it was her attraction to one song in particular that stirred up in me an image of faith which shows itself in the readings of Helen’s funeral Mass. (Rev. 5:11-14b. 21:1-5. Mt.1: 18-22). It is a word about biblical visions and dreams.

The song of which I speak is from the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables—"I Dreamed a Dream." Most people who hear the song do not realize that in the musical it is sung at a tragic moment early on in the story when an abused woman gives birth to a daughter and then dies.

The rest of the story is about how her daughter’s life and that of her protector, her surrogate father, end in the triumph of hope and love and forgiveness which was her mother’s dying dream.

Some people today know this song because of a British woman, Susan Boyle, who made a very successful musical début with that song on a popular British TV show called, "Britain’s Got Talent." The song begins:

"I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high and life worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die.
I dreamed that God would be forgiving…."

It goes on for many more verses.

My guess would be that Helen Schreiner watched the You Tube presentation of Susan Boyle singing that song more often than she ate between meals. (To see it online, google "Susan Boyle.")

I remember saying something to Helen one time when she was stooped over the computer in the director general’s office where she worked (and also hung out in her free time), trying to turn up the volume so she could hear the song again.

With her in that position, I said (you have to know here that she and I were like brother and sister): "O-o-o-h, now I see from behind why you are so attracted to this frumpy, portly lady from England. Ha, Ha, Ha."

To which Helen responded, "It takes one to know one," and then, adding salt to the wound, continued, "Well, in your case, it looks like it takes two to know one."

I wondered why Helen seemed so obsessed with that You Tube. Then I began to realize that it was not the music itself but the circumstances: this frumpy, portly, British spinster appears on television on this nationwide television talent show before a live audience of hundreds of people.

Her posture and appearance were …. well, let’s just say that the sight of her on the stage made most of the people laugh. Until she began to sing, "I dreamed a dream …"

As she sang, the camera panned the studio, and one by one you could see the amazement on people’s faces—the MCs, talent scouts, stage hands, and the audience—and you knew that a dream was being fulfilled before their very eyes.

By the time the presentation was over, everybody in that place had glimpsed a new vision of life.

It was this dynamic all wrapped up in the music which caught Helen’s attention and moved her heart so often. And for a very good reason.

Helen sometimes saw herself as a Susan Boyle: as a frumpy, portly sort of woman.

And her favorite saint was Blessed Margaret of Castello, a small, dwarfed, club-footed, blind, abandoned child.

But Helen was also learning, from the moment of her baptism until the moment that she died in the sacramental arms of the Church, the secret of the Christian faith: the seed of Faith can only germinate in what to the world often looks like frumpy, unattractive soil.

In the likes of a Susan Boyle and even more-so of a Margaret of Castello, the dream and vision of Jesus Christ was making its way out of Helen Schreiner’s heart so that, like them, she could sing it with her life.

Helen was indeed a bit of a Susan Boyle and a Margaret of Castello, and she sang their song well by the time she died.

Where did Helen find the words for her heart to sing this new song of faith? She found them where we all find them: in God’s Word and in the sacraments, in the Scriptures and the Eucharist, in the lives of the saints, in the life of Catherine Doherty, in the vision of the Church.

We read something of that magnificent vision of our Faith from the Book of Revelation where angels join with all of creation to sing of God’s mystery. And as the mystery of Helen’s baptism blossomed over the years, she learned ever-new songs here in Combermere.

Our Lady taught her the song of silence: Not necessarily the mystical kind we often imagine but the real kind: "What the hell is this life all about? I can’t even control my weight!"

But she learned the refrain as well, "At least I can love and serve."

Yes, as the mystery of Helen’s baptism blossomed here in Combermere, Jesus taught her the Eucharistic song of worship, the song of reverence and awe for the things of God.

Fr. David shared one profound instance of it when he related how the mystery of this life was so profound it left Helen weeping and without words when she made her promises. (Fr. Callahan, director general of priests at the time, had to say them for her, and she repeated them word for word after him.)

You can get a glimpse of what that weeping came out of in what she wrote in her official request to make final promises, that final commitment to Madonna House for life:

"When I was in poustinia yesterday…" (I didn’t know Helen ever went to poustinia!).

"When I was in poustinia yesterday, I was lying in front of the cross [there on the wall], and I saw myself sitting at the foot of the cross and embracing it and letting Christ’s blood of love and His water of life flow down upon my whole being.

"I looked up at Him and saw such great love that I somehow knew that I am exactly where God wants me to be. Therefore, I humbly ask to become a staff worker of Madonna House for the rest of my life. Lovingly, Helen Schreiner."

Gradually, too, she learned that precious song of union with her Beloved in the Eucharist at this altar, day after day. She never said much about it but I know it was a song in her heart.

And as her heart learned to sing about the dream of faith, she discovered a new vision of life: "Arise. Go. Little, be always little, simple, poor, childlike. Preach the Gospel with your life. Love, love, love (until you no longer count the cost.) Pray always, and I will be your rest."—the Little Mandate given by God to Catherine Doherty, and she to all of us, a new vision of life lived by faith.

And Helen, like all of us here in this Nazareth house of Our Lady, depended on St. Joseph to keep that dream and vision alive: the Joseph-dream and angelic-vision we read about in Matthew 1:18-22.

I believe that here in Combermere, it is St. Joseph who comes to teach all of us, however frumpy or portly, and tell us, "Do not be afraid to believe this dream of the Church and to take this biblical vision to your heart. What is conceived in you at Baptism is from the Holy Spirit. His name is Jesus and he will save you from your sins. Do not be afraid to sing, with your life, to the whole world, the new song of Faith."

How blessed we are to have the dream and to know deep in our hearts the words of the song we sing at all our funerals: "I know that my Redeemer lives, and on the last day I shall rise again…."

"Death is one of my favorite subjects, only I seldom talk about it because everybody is afraid. One day, one moment, I hope soon, but it’s up to God, I shall wake up and realize that I lived in a splendour the like of which I never understood. I shall understand that which my heart yearned for all my life. I shall understand Love. Doesn’t that excite you? Don’t you want to jump? Don’t you want to dance? Don’t you want to be happy that you really will know what love is about? I mean the love of everybody—the love of God for man, mine for you, for everybody!" [from an interview in the film, The Lady They Called the B, World Religions, produced by Mike McManus, TV Ontario, Dec. 7, 1973.]

Oh, what a great dream, what a great vision of faith we have! Christ is risen. Truly He is risen.


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