A Funeral Homily for Candice Earley Nolan

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February 24, 2019

Last week I preached at the funeral of Candice Earley Nolan, wife to my cousin Bob. As an actress, Candi played leading roles on Broadway and soap fans remember her as Donna on “All My Children.”  I hope you won’t mind my making Candi’s funeral homily my sermon for today. It fits today’s Epistle, where Paul emphatically affirms the power of God to raise the dead. Candi was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.

I’m going to live forever
I’m going to light up the sky

Those words are from Fame, the show tune.

I suppose that every high school musical leading man or lady entertains the thought, if only for a moment, that they can make it big. A few might make it to New York, wait tables, and get some call backs from auditions. “Hey mom, guess what!” Those are the one-in-a-million talents. My jazzy sister Neil, living in New York in 1968, saw an ad for public tryouts for a part in Hair. She and her roommate Bobo went downtown to strut their stuff. The line of hopefuls ran around the block and Neil and Bobo never made it to the door.

Candice Earley, of Lawton Oklahoma, made it to the stage and lit it up. After Hair she was Nellie Forbush, the girl from Little Rock, in South Pacific, opposite to Robert Goulet. In Jesus Christ Superstar she was Mary Magdalene, opposite to Jesus Christ, whose feet she massaged with ointment, to soothe him in his time of trial, cooing:

Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh.
Don't you know everything's alright, yes, everything's fine.
And we want you to sleep well tonight.
Let the world turn without you tonight.
If we try, we'll get by, so forget all about us tonight

In 1992, the year Candi married Bob, I was starting a new church in Little Rock, working from an office complex that mainly housed insurance companies. Two girls in the building always took their lunch break in the hallway by the stair, watching a little black and white TV. I’d pass them on my way out to lunch. One day I asked: “What are you watching ladies?” “All My Children.” “Is there a Donna on that show?” “Yep,” they said, impatiently, wishing I’d move on. “Didn’t she leave the show? I thought I’d heard that.” “Well yea she did, we heard she got married.” That’s when I bragged: “That’s right, she married my cousin.” They snorted at that in unison and turned up the sound. Later I found out their names and Candi sent me pictures for them, inscribed with personal notes. When I delivered them, they screamed.

I'm gonna live forever
I'm gonna learn how to fly, high
I feel it comin' together
People will see me and cry!

Mary Magdalene sang of Jesus: “I don’t know how to love him.” But Candi did. In New York she would wake up Sunday mornings on the upper west side near Lincoln Center, read the Times and sip her coffee, then spiff up for church in a dressy blouse, short skirt, dark hose, tennis shoes for walking, high heels in her shoulder bag. She would trek to the actors’ church in Murray Hill, an hour’s walk, heads turning as she went. After church and brunch she would change her shoes again and start the hike uptown. That’s know how to love him in Manhattan.

I believe it was his daughter’s wanting Candi’s autograph that broke the ice for Bob. Here is the story of their meeting on an airplane. Bad winter weather had grounded Bob’s plane, messing up his and his daughter Carrie’s travel plans. They scrambled for tickets and boarded a big jet. Bob remembers: there Candi was across the aisle, white jeans, blue blouse, curled up with a script. “I saw gentleness,” he says, I’m quoting, “sweetness, beauty, goodness.” And now his voice rises, trembling, “and for the next thirty years nothing I ever saw in Candi was any different from what I caught in that first glance.”

After Bill Nolan, Bob’s big brother, first met Candi he pulled Bob aside and told him to forget about it: “You’ve outkicked your coverage.” Bob had gotten a call-back, good for him—but he’d never land the part.

Candi told me that she saw things otherwise. After meeting Bob on the airplane, Candi told her mother about this man with his daughter she had chanced to meet. “If only I could find someone like that,” she wished.

He courted her for years, then asked for her hand. She said yes, gave up acting, and moved to El Dorado, Arkansas.

In El Dorado, like New York, Sunday mornings Candi went to church. The routine was changed. Getting ready for breakfast, Bob would hear Candi in her dressing room, listening to music, the same song every Sunday. It was Sandy Patty belting out the old hymn “It is Well with My Soul.”

The words to that hymn were written by a man named Horatio Spafford, who was grieving when he wrote them. His grief was double: the death of his son at the age of two, and the devastation of his city in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Some in Spafford’s church believed catastrophes like that were punishments from God. Spafford knew the Bible better than to believe that.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

So Bob is listening, as Candi gets dressed for church. The first verse or two, it is Sandy Patty’s powerful voice drifting from the dressing room, with soft accompaniment from Candi, humming in the background. But then Candi’s voice picks up the words and swells to a crescendo, eclipsing Sandy Patty.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
In biblical Greek, the word for soul is psyche, which means life. It was Thomas Aquinas who taught me not to think of bodies and souls as separate parts like oil and water. The soul is “the form of the body” he said, using Aristotle’s terms. He meant that the soul is what makes us human, in the same way that the form of a chair is what makes a wooden chair a chair rather than a log, a bedframe or a stick of lumber. Our soul is the fact that we are more than the sum of our mortal parts. It is in that greater sum that wellness finally matters. Candi’s voice in full flight praised God whose grace is the mother’s milk of wellness.

On stage, as Mary Magdalene, Candi sang to comfort Jesus:

Sleep and I shall soothe you, calm you, and anoint you.
Myrrh for your hot forehead, oh.
Then you'll feel everything's alright, yes, everything's fine.
And it's cool, and the ointment's sweet
For the fire in your head and feet.
Close your eyes, close your eyes
And relax, think of nothing tonight.

Offstage, as soul mates, Candi and Bob would take turns soothing one another “in sickness and in health” as they had promised, making everything all right as best they could. The day came when Candi could no longer walk or skip to church, turning heads. Then faithful, high healed El Dorado Christians brought Holy Communion to her. “The blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life” they’d say. “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” This was Christ, from his last meal on earth, reaching forward in time to Candi to soothe her, calm her, and anoint her: “Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”

Pools of clear blue water, starlight in the sky
You’ll be mine forever, my darlin’, far beyond the great divide.

That’s from an old Emmylou Harris song, “Green Pastures.”

Forever is a long time. Our Uncle Charles Murphy, having fun at dinner, would challenge his nephew the priest: “Ok Reverend tell me this: how can we live forever without getting bored to tears?”  Thomas Aquinas would have loved Charles Murphy. In writing the Summa Theologia, for every claim that Aquinas made he would begin by naming the best objections to it he could think of. For example, Does God exist? It would seem that God does not, because for everything that happens we have solid natural explanation--making God superfluous. Also, a God worthy of the name would not allow the evils that we see on earth—moral, like murder, and natural, like disease. Belief in God is inconsistent with the facts of life. Only with those objections squarely in view, will Aquinas start his exposition. Page after page, reading the Summa is like a dinnertime repartee between Reverend Aquinas and Uncle Charles.

So to the present question. When we die:

Are we going to live forever?
Are we going to light up the sky?

It seems that we will not, the objection states, because an eternal life worthy of our hope would be a happy one, but sooner or later we would wake up bored. Bummer.

My thought had been to try to figure out how Aquinas would respond to that objection. I am not an Aquinas expert but I have taken a course, read books, and written papers on him. If I am worth my scholarly salt I should be able to cipher out his answer. Then I remembered that this is 2019 and I could google it. “Ask Thomas Aquinas,” I typed in, “Why won’t we be bored in heaven?” Up popped a website called “the Catholic Resource Center,” which lists fourteen objections to belief in immortality. Number 14 is boredom. To that, three replies are offered, but I need only to tell you the last one.

Q. “Why won’t we be bored in heaven?”    

A. “Because we are with God, and God is love. Even on earth, the only people who are never bored are lovers.”

Which takes us back to an icy night and a chance encounter on an airplane: a father with his daughter, an actress curled up with her script across the aisle. In those few moments an intimation stirred in both of them—a foolish-seeming hope but real, and potent.

That fateful moment on an airplane is our clue.