Address given at the Funeral of Dame Beulah Bewley
13 February 2018 at 12:00 pm
The Reverend Ralph Godsall, Priest Vicar
‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost’ says Jesus to his disciples in St John’s gospel (John 6.12). That seems like an apt theme, as I venture into the pulpit at Beulah’s request. ‘Five barley loaves and two fish – but what are they among so many?’ (John 6.9). And we might just want to add, ‘among so many men.’ Beulah’s life felt a bit like that.
Yet out of her faith and humanity God’s generosity and goodness was shaped. The fragments of her life as a woman and doctor are scattered on many hillsides. And because this is God’s doing, nothing will be lost. In one of her poems Edith Sitwell concludes: ‘Nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest’.
Towards the end of her 2015 memoirs Beulah writes, "I think I'm ready to die. I don't want to die yet, but eventually. Between here and death, I'd like to be treated with respect. I'm getting that from my family and friends. God is comforting in so many ways. So, I'm optimistic."
In her memoirs Beulah takes us on a journey through her life, from making the decision she would be a doctor at the age of five to retiring in 1994. She tells the story of her career and family in a witty, straight-talking manner. She tells how she put aside the conventions and expectations of her Ulster upbringing and how, through the opportunities which opened up for her, she overcame contemporary attitudes to women in education and medicine and the traditional gender roles women were expected to follow.
I see the theme of leaving these patriarchal securities behind as a metaphor for the way in which Beulah approached the challenge of being a woman and student of medicine.
I am not thinking simply of the family home where she had been so happy. I also recall the places that shaped her life: Londonderry, Ballymena and Letterkenny, Trinity College Dublin, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, King’s College Hospital, and elsewhere in England and the United States.
These communities offered her friendship, support networks of professional women, and taught her everything she valued most in her pioneering research on the effects of smoking on children, on family planning, and on the effects of poverty, discrimination and inequality on public health. Her research has yielded a harvest for which many women and children today can be thankful.
Beulah’s life as a woman and doctor also demonstrated what life could mean for a person of faith.
Thankfulness to God because to praise almighty God, to practise hospitality and gratitude, is the first principle of religion and the foundation of all that it means to be human and fully alive.
Dependence on God because it is, as we turn to him and acknowledge his reign over us, that we understand how he has made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him.
Living close to the earth because reverence for all life, treating the world and those around us with courtesy and love is to discover our true place in God’s creation.
Remembering where we came from because the great acts of God are forged in our human stories and are the foundation of the Church’s mission and of the pursuit of truth and justice in the world.
And solidarity with the poor and marginalized because God has no favourites and his kingdom is a place of refuge, safety and care for all, regardless of gender, status or background.
For more than sixty years, Thomas and Beulah were travelling companions. They were a fine team. She - with her feisty nature, and occasional waspish streak behind all that charm; who followed her spinster Aunt Betty's advice: "No woman should be entirely dependent on a man"; and he, Thomas, an exemplary Quaker, and an unusual man in nineteen fifties’ Dublin, who refused to join a university dining club because they didn't allow women members.
Beulah’s work as a doctor led her to rub shoulders with royalty and celebrities. This might have turned her head, but it didn’t. She remained faithful to her Ulster Protestant roots and to Jesus Christ, her Lord and Master, who teaches us that all who know their brokenness, their frailty, their need of God are dear to Him.
Like her Lord and Master, Beulah came among us not to be served but to serve. As a mother and doctor, she laid down her life for her family and her chosen profession, not only teaching the greater love but living it.
This is how Jesus himself was for her.
In his cross and resurrection, the broken pieces of her life have been gathered up. In these fragments we can see the abiding traces of God’s generosity and goodness where the seeds of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ have been sown enabling ‘God to dwell with us’ (Revelation 21.1, 3-4): the transformation we call the kingdom of God for whose coming Beulah prayed regularly in this church; his great project of love that is always moving us onwards and outwards ‘to make all things new.’ (Revelation 21.5)
As a woman and doctor Beulah lived with the hope (the optimism) that had been planted in her by God. It was her reason for being alive, and when the time came for her to lay down her life that is what has carried her home to God.
Today, as we entrust Beulah Bewley to God’s merciful keeping, we cannot know what bread He is scattering on the waters and what fragments there will be for us (or others) to gather up. But hope is enough. For ‘all in the end is harvest’. And we are commanded by our Lord today to ‘gather the fragments, so that nothing may be lost.’ (John 6.12)