Homily at Vigil Mass for Peter Steele SJ, Chapel of Newman College, University of Melbourne, 1 July 2012
Tonight we grieve the loss of Peter Steele, our brother, friend and teacher, We celebrate his life. We pray for Peter, and also for ourselves whom he has so blessed.
I have always associated Peter with words like chivalrous, knightly, courtly and courteous. They come from the world of chivalry and the code that links the knight with the Lord whom he serves, with the Lady whose favour he seeks, and with battle, his business.
Peter was courteous and elegant in conversation. Who else, in his last days, struggling for words, would greet you with a huge smile, and say, ‘My dear fellow’? He showed the same courtesy in listening intently to even the most inarticulate of people.
And I imagined his circle of friends in Lygon Street as like Camelot, though it was hard to picture all of them in full knightly livery.
But my association of Peter with chivalry goes back longer - to our first year as Jesuits. As boys we had both avidly read G.K. Chesterton. Peter introduced me to his ‘Ballad of the White Horse’. The images and rhythms of romance came alive when on frosty mornings we walked out into the Plenty country, steel-studded boots ringing off the metal road.
That year we were also led into the world of St Ignatius who had been captivated by the legends of chivalry. Upon his conversion he kept vigil with his sword before Mary’s altar. A pivotal meditation in the Spiritual Exercises, too, invited us to offer our service to Christ as Lord. Only a craven knight would refuse.
This vision of Christ is rooted in the opening of John’s Gospel which we have just heard. It introduces us to the chivalrous God. It offers a large vision of the Son of God who is intimately involved in the shaping of our world. He loves it enough to enter it and to share our struggles in the human life of Jesus Christ. That is where we find God’s glory.
Youthful ideals and literary passions, of course, need to be tested. For Peter that took place in the University here.
But the Lord whom Peter served continued to be Christ. His sermons always return to Christ; his poems discover him in unlikely places. During one of our summer holidays as students Peter read the three shelves-full of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. More than the theology, he found telling the haunting images in which Barth described Christ’s coming and his Passion: ‘The journey of the Son of God into a far country’, and ‘the Homecoming of the Son of Man’. This is the world of John’s Gospel.
Peter was blessed with so many friends, women and men. But the Lady whose hand he sought was the world. He spent his life exploring and celebrating her infinite variety and beauty. For Peter the world was shot through with the glory of God. His reading was gargantuan, his recall extraordinary, and his ability to find words enchanting. The oddest of things were tiles in the mosaic of a world that coruscated with light.
Peter also treated the world with respect. In his student days be learned to bind books. Later when he cooked he always wore an apron, set out his knives neatly, measured and sliced his ingredients exactly. And in his poems he finds the right word fastidiously.
But knights’ business is to fight. As the Gospel says, ‘the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’. Peter knew the darkness. He spoke only obliquely of his inner struggles, but they gave him sympathy with others. In his writing he championed the rigorous and generous use of mind. His enemy was the specious, the showy and shallow use of words that do not respect the depth of reality, offering fools gold instead of glory. Faced with the halfbaked or the tawdry, Peter could be imperious. He could use the word ‘mate’ as a mace.
But the heart of the matter for Peter was that the Word became flesh. He was fascinated with the Word of God, with the world into which the Word came, and with words which could catch the glory of the world and of human flesh. The last lines of John’s Gospel, spoken of Christ, could equally be well adapted to Peter. ‘If all of his words were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.‘
When illness came Peter did not fight it. He lived through it. In his last days he struggled for words. That was hard to watch. But it was also where his faith took him. In his Gospel John invites us to look on the tortured and crucified Christ, and to acknowledge that there we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. In Peter’s unworded, naked humanity, we are also invited to see the image of God’s glory, full of grace and truth. And not only in Peter, but in the most adrift of human beings. That is where chivalry led Peter. That is where it leads us.
Upright again, fritters of mint in my fingers,
I’m given pause in the kitchen patch
by the car’s whine, the loud harrumph of lorries
that round the stand on Two-Tree Hill
and hustle past the boneyard.
I’ve taken leave of the Cliffs of Moher, the unsmiling
campus guard at Georgetown, the fall
of Richelieu’s scarlet enclosed by the London gloom:
I’ve watched my last candle gutter
for dear ones, back in Paris,
sung, as with Francis, the spill of an Umbrian morning,
each breath a gift, each glance a blessing:
have said farewell to Bhutan of the high passes
and the ragged hillmen, to the Basque dancers
praising their limping fellow,
to the square of Blood in Beijing, to the virid islands
that speckle the Pacific acres,
to moseying sheep in Judaean scrub, to leopard
and bison, a zoo for quartering, and
to the airy stone of Chartres,
But here’s the mint still on my hands. A wreath,
so Pliny thought was ‘good for students,
To exhilarate their minds.’ Late in the course,
I’ll settle for a sprig or two –
the savour gracious, the leaves brimmingly green –
as if never to say die.
Click here to listen to or download an audio recording of this eulogy as delivered in the chapel of Newman College, 1 July 2012.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.