In My Father’s House: Funeral Homily for Thomas Gordon Smith

by Rev. Daniel Scheidt, appearing in Volume 40

Vitruvian House in South Bend, Indiana

In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you, for I go to prepare a place for you.   --John 14:2

The Risen Lord offers in the promise of this liturgy’s gospel an architect’s dream come true—a heavenly home of plenteous dwelling places fashioned with exquisite, intimate specificity for his friends, each uniquely loved into eternity.

Hearing this good news, but still at a loss as to how one reaches such a destination, the apostle Thomas expresses his puzzlement directly to the only one who can resolve it: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” This cri de coeur is met with a response from the very heart of God: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Christ offers himself as the all-sufficient response to Thomas’ prayer.

Saint John the Evangelist indicates that the name Thomas means “twin.” Although the fourth Gospel leaves the twin of Thomas unnamed, in so doing it creates a space in which each of us can recognize ourselves as a “twin” of this apostle so filled with questions and a corresponding commitment to return again and again to the Lord for his direction. Each of us can make Thomas’ prayer our own.

Thomas Gordon Smith came to this Basilica of the Sacred Heart innumerable times over many years to pray through the questions of his life, and to receive in response the gift of Christ himself. Many of these occasions were funeral liturgies, which certainly prompted Thomas to consider his own mortality and destiny in light of divine truth.

Happily, we know Thomas’ mind on this matter exactly thanks to the testimony of his wife Marika, to whom he would inevitably turn at the conclusion of any given funeral homily and declare with firmness: “At my funeral, I just want the priest to tell people to pray for me!” No suburban canonization for Thomas Gordon Smith during these rites.

Prayer and Thanksgiving

Fulfilling the instruction of our dear friend, which corresponds so profoundly to the teaching of the Church herself, I propose seven reasons why we should pray for Thomas’ soul at this funeral liturgy:

First, and most obviously, Thomas Gordon Smith was a sinner in need of divine healing and purification unto life eternal. He would emphatically not disagree. How many times in this basilica did he make the words of the Penitential Rite his own: “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” And following the admission always comes the entreaty: “And I ask the Blessed Virgin Mary, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

The mystical body of Christ—head and members—is always purifying itself of what cannot inherit everlasting life. The circulation of prayer in the body communicates its restorative life to those members most in need, in particular those who have suffered sin and its consequence, death itself.

Our prayers are taken up into the Lord’s necessary purgatorial work of bringing each member who would receive it to final perfection. The book of Revelation tells us that nothing sinful can enter the holy city. No grasping at anything that is not the Lord himself, his truth, can abide eternal happiness. Our prayer is that the healing power of the risen Lord Jesus—passing through our own hearts continually open to further conversion—would go to that member named Thomas, for his ultimate perfection and the final triumph of divine love in him.

The second reason we should pray for Thomas Gordon Smith is as a great act of thanksgiving. God rightly deserves our gratitude for the gift of Thomas’ life. It would be impossible on our own to thank God adequately for this full and beautiful life, so the Lord gives us the Eucharistic liturgy as our perfect thanksgiving offering. Eucharistia literally means thanksgiving. At the end of the funeral liturgy, after the incensation of the body, the Church specifically thanks the Lord for all the gifts he has given to the deceased in this life: “[These gifts] are signs to us of your goodness, and of the fellowship we share with the saints in Christ.”

Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, makes of his own death a sacrificial offering of infinitely grateful love to his heavenly Father. The celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which makes present this Paschal Mystery of fathomless divine thanksgiving, makes up for everything that we may have neglected or forgotten, all of our ingratitudes for what we have received through this life—it is all covered.

It is thus a joyful duty, indeed a boundlessly happy task, to pray in thanks to God for our friend.

God’s Creative Work

A third reason we pray for Thomas is as an act of studying the creative work of God alive in his life. Disciples apprentice with a master to grow into the life of his mind and share the intimacy of his life, thus catalyzing their own creativity. Christian prayer as an expression of discipleship is necessarily an act of learning.

Thomas was a master teacher, a professor intellectually formed and illuminated by the master of masters and teacher of teachers he served. In countless ways, Thomas allowed his teaching to be shaped by Christ, who himself for the first thirty years of his divine life in our flesh chose to sanctify the profession of tektōn under the apprenticeship of Saint Joseph in the home of Nazaraeth.

More than simply a woodworker, a tektōn is a craftsman, one who designs and shapes, creates and repairs, transforms and perfects what is taken from simplest elements to serve noblest ends. As the creator and redeemer of the universe, Jesus Christ is, of course, the tektōn of the arche—the craftsman of all from the beginning, the transcendent origin of the whole created order. As such, the Lord is the architect of architects, the first and final tektōn.

Frescoes by Thomas Gordon Smith in his Vitruvian House

For decades I have had the privilege of studying the work of Christ the tektōn alive in Thomas and Marika’s life. When the door to the Smith home first opened to me, all I can remember upon stepping in was seeing Architectura, the fresco over the fireplace. There she sat enthroned, the goddess, the craft personified. Surrounding her, everywhere, were signs of a created soul that had studied and entered into the imagination of countless generations.

Thomas painted on the walls at the heart of his home great architects of earlier times and their generous patrons in creative collaboration and seamless dialogue with each other across the centuries. And at the center of the ceiling of the oecus, Thomas depicted Hercules and his heroic labors. (Of course I didn’t even know back in the day what an oecus was, before the word started to catch on; I just thought it was the living room!). Even in my ignorance, I knew that I inhabited a space in which everything was ordered and symmetrical but also coincident with a creative spontaneity that was more like a fountain or a garden, rather than a strait jacket or a textbook.

The textbooks would come from Thomas’ hand, Vitruvius and others. But ultimately visiting Thomas’ home was entering the ancient tradition newly alive. Thomas instinctively knew that the myths of antiquity were human philosophy told in story form and could serve as a first draft sketch of the person and saving work of Christ, the one in whom all the myths come true.

Christ is, for example, the true Hercules, who labors for our joy by allowing himself to be stripped for battle. Christ carries in his arms not the wooden cudgel to beat his enemies to death, but the wood of the holy cross to fashion a congregation from those who once rebelled against him.

Studying the work of God alive in Thomas’ work is a master class in humble prayer, which knows that imitating excellence is no slavery; it is a liberation and an endless creative coming into one’s own in Christ.

Conversion and Belonging

A fourth reason we pray for Thomas is to further the goal of our own conversion. The university is, like the world, a very dangerous place. The university is particularly dangerous because it brings together so many intellects of exquisite sharpness, so many wills head-strong to the highest degree, so many refined and tender feelings easily hurt, so many egos deeply bruised. Resentments in academic life can be carried to the grave after a whole career formed and deformed by the mind’s decades of thrashing and fuming. Lucifer is the first proud intellectual given over to cynicism’s last despair.

With Christ and in Christ, however, Thomas Gordon Smith fought these temptations. In the final season of his life, when certain of his mental powers waned, his heart expanded and past wounds began to shine with an even gentler glory than he knew at his prior best. The surrender of what is not ultimately important increased and blossomed in him.

In his retirement, he willingly and at times quite cheerfully embraced a new community of learning beyond academic life and learned how to receive in utmost simplicity at depths he perhaps never, when he was younger, thought possible. This is the miracle we must ask Jesus to give us for our own conversion.

A fifth reason we pray for Thomas is to strengthen our own belonging to one another. In Christ it is the will of God that we grow into the great belonging that is the Communion of Saints. To allude again to my initial venturing to the end of Dorwood Court, I shall never forget my first sight of a veritable temple to domesticity in a South Bend cul-de-sac.

The dancing fawn of bronze greeted me as I approached the Smith home. Its porch also served with its three sheltering walls as a dining room open to the little neighborhood, as if to proclaim a public invitation to all who would dare approach that they were welcome to sit at this outdoor table and share this family’s life. Venit hospes, venit Christus—when a guest comes, Christ comes. Quite shockingly, there was no garage in sight; only the vehicles had to stay outside.

To the Family

The Lord Jesus refuses to save us in isolation; he wishes us to be together. Marika, another cherished detail which captured my imagination as an undergraduate was that of a niche in the hallway just before the dining room, the little glass-doored tabernacle built into the wall where you and Thomas reserved your most valuable material possessions: the physical celebratory tokens of your marriage. I remember those crowns from your wedding day and the beautiful frail ribbon that united them together.

Your vow—to love each other as husband and wife for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live—is infinitely beautiful and anything but frail. It is an eternal sharing in the love of Christ for his Church.

You chose on your wedding day the love poem at the heart of the Bible, the Song of Songs. In the Canticle of Canticles (which the rabbis considered the Holy of Holies of Sacred Scripture), the love of man and woman is taken up into the passionate love of God for his people, his radiant bride.

Marika, you danced the dance of divine love on earth with your husband for over fifty years, including (and especially) the final months, and you did it with such constant, consummate grace. You and Thomas were and are, ultimately, inseparable. You constantly acted as one, his strong personality sharpening yours, and your strong personality sharpening his. We thank you in the grace of Christ for making each other who you are.

To Thomas’ children—Alan, Stuart, Demetra, Andrew, Father Innocent, and Duncan—we are so thankful that you opened your home to us, whether you liked it or not, or whether you even knew us or not. Because your parents relentlessly sought to extend the circle of belonging, you lived in a domestic church in which there was just an endless stream of new people being welcomed to your table.

For the grandchildren, especially those too young to understand this (including the newest arrival in the family, Samson, born yesterday), I testify that your grandfather gives you permission in advance to draw on the walls, and to paint the ceiling. He eagerly wants you to allow your creativity to come alive in Christ through dying into the forms of excellence that true creativity demands, so that each of you can create new ways to extend the miracle of our belonging to one another in the Communion of Saints.

The Heavenly Jerusalem

The sixth reason we pray for Thomas is that we might keep our eyes fixed on the heavenly Jerusalem, the final construction project of God. As this Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame bears witness in its majestic tabernacle sculpted in the form of the holy city, our lives are to be oriented to what is above.

The foundations are formed of the apostolic witness fulfilling the promises made to the twelve tribes of Israel. Angels preside atop the portals of the New Jerusalem, its gates always open to the north and south, the east and west—in all directions—to welcome people of every race, tribe, and tongue to feast at the eternal wedding of the Lamb once slain who lives forever.

For Thomas’ colleagues and his students, you know something—a portion—of how Thomas suffered and sacrificed for your personal well-being and the advancement of your professional careers.

The School of Architecture owes an unpayable debt of gratitude to the vision of Thomas Gordon Smith for the renewal of classical architecture in the lives of future generations. His joy and prayer has always been that you come to full stature, that you come into your own.

The word on the street in a certain period was that Thomas was known by the moniker “Vanilla Thunder.” Even if this were an apocryphal tale, it would convey a good measure of the sweetness and the force—natural and supernatural—of that personality which wanted nothing but the best for those he taught, who rejoiced and rejoices in those he loves surpassing him in excellence.

I am the pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne, which the priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross served in the nineteenth century. I am grateful for the gift of being Thomas and Marika’s last patron of a design project for a perpetual adoration chapel, the Oratory of Saint Mary Magdalene.

The Oratory of Saint Mary Magdalene at Saint Vincent Parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Credit: William Heyer Architect

Now fully constructed, it provides people a home always open for prayer each day by day, hour by hour until the end of time.

In the Oratory’s sanctuary, there are two stone corbels carved by Andrew Smith, and one of them depicts the architect and his wife on their wedding day. The corbels are modeled after the one in the cenacle in the Holy Land venerated as the upper room of the Last Supper. In between this husband and his wife—Thomas and Marika—is a carving of Christ the pelican, sacrificing itself so that its offspring can live. Very few people will ever know that little secret in the sanctuary, but God knows, and we know. Our prayer is that we tenaciously seek to orient our lives in the direction of our place in the Lord’s sanctuary.

Interior of the Oratory of Saint Mary Magdalene. Credit: William Heyer Architect

He Belongs to God

The seventh, final reason we must pray for Thomas is in humblest acknowledgment that his life first belongs to God—before it belongs to us, while it belongs to us, and after it belongs to us. We give Thomas to the Lord, because the Lord gave himself to Thomas. Our dear friend’s life, Saint Paul says, is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

In just a few minutes, after the Eucharistic sacrifice, we shall walk in procession to the mausoleum that Thomas designed. He thought of this day in advance; he prepared for it and placed his God-given creativity at the service of it. As we walk toward the place of Thomas’ earthly rest, we should use that time either to be silent in prayer or to talk amongst ourselves about our own belonging to God and how we are continuing to be fitted into his wise and loving plan.

Of all days for Thomas to be interred, today is the Solemnity of Peter and Paul, the saints of Rome, the city Thomas studied and taught with a passion. In the dining room of the Smith home is a fresco that depicts the panorama from the top of the Pantheon, the temple to all the gods, later consecrated to the worship of Christ in dedicated communion with Our Lady and the martyrs.

Our prayer for Thomas today is that he will find his place in the great family reunion of the Lamb’s high feast. Our faith confirms our certain hope that Thomas remains an abiding part of the building project of the many mansions of heaven. May he be escorted to the eternal city above by Saints Peter and Paul.

And we pray that Our Lady—whom this basilica depicts as enthroned in the triumphal arch and crowned as the perfectly prepared dwelling place of Almighty God in triune love—reveal to Thomas his beloved sonship in her son. As the one who with sovereign love once held the Divine tektōn on her lap after providing him a home in her womb, the Virgin Mother above all will show Thomas what it means to belong entirely to God.

Our Lady of Guadalupe (loved in Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary), Our Lady of Clear Creek (loved in Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey), and Notre Dame (loved at this University of Notre Dame du Lac), you will surely help us pray for Thomas! And pray for us, too, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae! Amen.