Monday, November 2, 2015

Gratitude and the Homily for Stephana Toomey OP by Anne Lythgoe OP

First of all I would like to thank everyone for their prayer for me and my family and Pat for writing Stephana's notice. Below is the homily Anne is giving today at Stephana's funeral mass.

FINAL Homily: Sr. Stephana Toomey, OP
Anne Lythgoe, OP      November 2, 2015

First all, let me acknowledge Joseph and Mary Lackner, Stephana’s family, who are here today. Joe and Mary, your presence here is a consolation to us and we hope that our prayers and presence will be consoling to you. Thank you for coming.
I wish those of you who did not know Stephana would have had the opportunity to know her in her better days.  When she came here to Mohun her health was quite frail. So there has been little opportunity to know her lovely smile and the way she laughed. It had a bit of a giggle in it. She always waved to you with the royal wave [left hand held palm in] as if her royal highness was passing by.  I hope you take a minute to enjoy looking at just some of her artwork on the display outside chapel. It includes a small sample of her work in chapels, motherhouses, and interfaith prayer centers around the country.

We also have the tabernacle stephana designed for the Dominican Retreat, McLean VA.  It is a superb example of her work, vibrant colors, almost fire like in the way she captured light with faceted glass. 
She was an amazing artist, a brilliant colorist and a friend of Thoma Swanson and many sisters who are members of the Dominican Institute for the Arts.
Stephana came to Dominican life already prepared for the life of a preaching artist. She received her BFA from Moore College of Art in Philadelphia in 1952 and four years later, entered the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci, later earning a master’s degree in Art Education from  the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia -- which happened to be adjacent to Elkins Park. She spent a few years in retreat ministry at Elkins Park and in Kendall FL and on the staff of our residence for women, the Lucy Eaton Smith house, in Philadelphia. But those ministries could not offer enough creative outlet for this clearly brilliant and gifted artist who painted in oil and watercolor and could see what the rest of us could only see dimly.  Her vision of the world was hard to contain, and for her sisters to understand sometimes. She could see everything and just “this much” all at once.
I remember visiting her at the Lucy Eaton Smith and on the wall in her studio there was a round wood panel.  On closer examination I realized that it was three planks of wood all with knots placed at just the right spot, the wood was warm yellow and gold, the “lifelines” of the tree and the swirl of the knots created the impression of three golden angels floating within the frame. She called it the “Glory Panel” and to this day I can recall it vividly. She saw in a plank of wood the face of angels.  This is how she preached, not with words, but with visual ideas that engaged us in a dialogue with the divine. We can appreciate this visual language the interplay of nature and the spiritual more clearly today than we were able to then.
I think the leadership of the congregation back then was probably quite confounded in what to do with Stephana’s enormous talent. Not long after my visit, she went to study and earn Certificates from the International Center for Mosaics and Glass in Ravenna, Italy and the Aegean Center for Art in Greece.
When she came back, in 1976, she founded Efharisto Studio, Inc., in Baltimore, Maryland.   Efharisto is a Greek word for thanksgiving, and of course, from it we get “Eucharist”.  No doubt a result of the influence of her study in Greece and the work she produced from that studio has been a source of spiritual food for thousands of people every since.

In Baltimore, she and her colleagues designed liturgical spaces as well as the art forms used in liturgy, including:  glass, mosaic, fabric, wood and iron.  Her work can be found in numerous churches, schools and motherhouses: among them the Motherhouse Chapel of the Presentation Dominicans in Dighton, MA; a Jesuit High School in Blakefield, MD;  St. Francis of Assisi Parish Church in Apopka, FL, the Franciscan Sisters Chapel in Aston, PA, Oakland Mill Interfaith Center, Columbia MD, Methodist Hospital in Philadelphia, Bon Secour Health System, and numerous other  public and private venues.

Stephana was also a watercolorist, producing designs inspired by nature. She also designed a medal for the Franklin Mint and work for the Touch and Feel Chapel for Children with Special Needs at the Gallagher Center, Timonium MD.  (She created a holy water font using a gigantic undulating seashell).

In 1999, Sister Stephana received the Fra Angelico Award for lifetime achievement from the Dominican Institute for the Arts.  She received a number of other awards for her work throughout the years. But the tribute from DIA meant the most to her.

I believe her strongest gift was in shaping the way people experienced the space where prayer took place. Her studio motto was “part of prayer is experiencing the setting”. In developing the setting, she made a conscious effort to bring theology, liturgy and scripture to bear on the planning and design of liturgical space and to have that space be an embrace of the local cultural and religious practice of the faithful.  The artforms she created were not just ideas she had, but responses to the spiritual longing of those who would use the space, long after she was finished creating it. Themes of creation, baptism, communion, forgiveness, water, fire, earth and sky permeate her work. Her work made the spiritual truths we share accessible to people in the pews.

Her preaching lives in brick and mortar, in glass and fiber, in wood and iron. Who among us can say that our words live on beyond our preaching them? Stephana’s  preaching is alive today in many places of worship

In the first reading today, from Jeremiah, the potter sits at the wheel ready to create from the clay, but when the clay turns out badly in his hands, he simply begins again. The artist always, begins again and again and again.  Stephana would draw 20, 50, 100 renditions of an object in her effort to express the one final version that was best.  A true artist who was never satisfied, always beginning again, not spending much time admiring a finished piece. She always talked about what was next, never lingering long on a single idea.

Art and Fear: On the Perils and Rewards of Artmaking:

David Bayles and Ted Orland write: “Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all--- or having gotten there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in publc speaking, but its an excellent idea in making art.

People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated or iffy. What is really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. … and tolerance for uncertainty is the pre-requisite to succeeding.”

The kingdom of God is like a merchant who finds a perfect pearl and sacrifices everything for it. The Kingdom of God is like a person who finds a treasure in a field and gives up everything to have it. The Kingdom of God is like an artist who is given a vision and pours herself out again and again in pursuit of its expression.

The Kingdom of God is like a fisherman, whose catch of found objects becomes something of beauty, that feeds the soul, bring out both the old and the new.

Stephana’s imagination and contemplation were rooted in her deep Dominican heart. While most of us would say that the act of preaching is an art, Stephana, like most Dominican artists, believe art is preaching.  Her art gave visual expression to the Gospel we are commissioned to preach in the words of Paul to Timothy: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.

Efharisto, Eucharist, Thanksgiving. Today we thank you Steff, for the beauty you have given to the world, for your proclamation of the Word, for the preaching that lives in glass and wood, iron and paper. Thank you for giving voice to the truth of the Gospel, even when it was inconvenient. You have performed the work of an evangelist.  You have fulfilled your ministry.

Rest now in peace, free of all anxiety and care. Allow your God to welcome you to heaven and enjoy the embrace of Jesus.