The Valiant Karen

+Karen Ruth Laub-Novak, August 25, 1937 — August 12, 2009 Mass of Christian Burial, Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Washington, D. C., August 17, 2009, 11:00 a.m. Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 23; Revelation 8.2, 7-13; 9.1, 3, 5-6, 13, 15-17; 12.1-6; John 1.1-5

Homily delivered by The Reverend Kurt Pritzl, O.P on August 17, 2009


The opening of the book of Proverbs, the first nine chapters, contains an exultation of Wisdom as a figure out in the streets exhorting those who would live rightly to be guided by her and to accept her invitation to come home with her. The closing of the book of Proverbs, which we have just heard, is a poem describing the attributes of the “valiant woman” (Proverbs 31,19), that woman of “extraordinary and ceaseless activity” who is beloved and praised as wife and mother.[1] This is the exalted Wisdom of the first nine books, now at home, in ordinary and practical and everyday ways, caring for those who have accepted her invitation to dwell with her. We depend on the sacred scriptures to find God, who gives us in them his revelation of his mind and his promise, something we would not otherwise know of or have. But as the living Word of God, we are also to find ourselves in the scriptures and to let ourselves be cared for by them in all the circumstances of life. And so in these closing verses of the book of Proverbs we know that we find Karen, the valiant Karen, whose funeral we reverently and lovingly celebrate today. This passage gives us Karen in so many ways that her family and friends readily recognize. Among others, one line strikingly fits her: “She hath put out her hand to strong things.” This is clear in the home that she and Michael have built with their children, in the many ways in which she has entered into the lives of countless friends (I am one blessed to be a friend of Karen, who reached out to me in the trouble of my illness before I ever knew how to reach out to her), but also in her art. Here she has “put out her hand” to create forceful and dynamic works of art in several media that invariably deal with “strong things,” not always easy things or pleasant things, but real things of life that we all face. The work of her hands includes a series of six lithographs on T. S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday. A critic once wrote of Ash Wednesday that “[t]he result is a poem at once religious in feeling and contemporary in intention: at once thoroughly personal and without concession to sentiment.”[2] So too Karen’s work, whether starting out from Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, Rilke’s Elegies, or from the verses of John’s Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, that we just shared in our second reading. Karen once said in a lecture: “I often work with literary themes: T. S. Eliot, the Apocalypse, Kafka. Such starting points sometimes give me relief from the overwhelming demands of self expression, the ‘creating out of nothing’ that faces me from an empty canvas.”[3] This is to say, that Karen started with the word given, and then gave it body, shape, texture, color, concreteness, physicality. The gospel for Karen’s funeral Mass takes us to the beginning Word, not any word or a human word, but the Word “in the beginning,” the Word that “was with God” and that “was God” (John 1.1) and through whom “all things came to be” (John 1.3). It is this Word, uncreated and creating all, to which Karen, in the end, responded and reacted, not only in pondering and incarnating other deep words in her art, but also as she faced life and the prospects of death.[4] It is this Word about which Saint John in the gospel writes: “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1.4-5). It is this Word, as the gospel continues, that “became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (charitos kai alêtheias, alternately, “enduring love,” John 1.14). Here at this Mass, where we are gathered to pray for Karen, to thank God for her, to rejoice in her life, and to find and share consolation for her loss, we proclaim this Word, there from the beginning, there first for us, there always, this Word become flesh, Jesus Christ, who shares with us out of a boundless love life never to be overcome by death and light shining in the darkness that no darkness can overcome. T. S. Eliot begins his poem East Coker from Four Quartets with the words “In my beginning is my end” and ends it with the words “In my end is my beginning.” For Karen, as for us, there is the Word as beginning and as end (as the Lord Jesus says in the last chapter of the Apocalypse, Revelation 22.13: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End!”[5]). And so another verse from our first reading from the book of Proverbs fits Karen so well: “Strength and beauty are her clothing, and she shall laugh in the latter day” (Proverbs 31.25). Karen was vivacious and brought joy and laughter to others even in times that were hard for her. One great gift of faith in the living God and in the Incarnate Word is to know the truth of these words of scripture—that Karen laughs in this, the latter day, a day for which no night or darkness may now come. Our minds are on beginnings and ends today and in this homily—the beginning and end of a precious and singular life; the beginnings and ends of texts; the beginning and end that come together; the end that is a beginning forever. There is a special beginning and end in Karen’s life that cannot go unmentioned, a beginning and an end that come together. Karen was born within days of the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which the church just celebrated on Saturday, August 15. She was baptized, confirmed, and married in the Church of the Assumption in Cresco, Iowa, and educated in Assumption grammar school and high school. Karen died within days of the feast of the Assumption, having just weeks before made a moving visit with her family and friends to the home of Mary at Ephesus, in present day Turkey, which is the place of Mary’s dormition and going to heaven, body and soul. At the beginning and end of Karen’s life stands this great and beautiful event, which holds as realized and actual for one woman, Mary, what God has planned and makes possible for all through the life, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate Word, namely, a fullness of eternal life for the whole human person, body and soul. The second reading today from the book of Revelation speaks of “a woman that wore the sun for her mantle, with the moon under her feet” whom God brings “to her place of refuge” (Revelation 12.1, 6). The church has often seen in these words a reference to Mary, Mary who stands at the beginning and end of Karen’s life with that mantle of undying sunlight, the waxing, waning, and reflected light of the moon under her feet. I think of them as sharing in the laughter of the latter day with the angels and saints. As we pray for this for Karen today may we also live so to share in that beginning which is also our end and goal. To Michael, to Richard and Tanya and Jana and their spouses, to Emily and Stephen and Wiley and Julia, to all of Karen’s family, we extend our most heartfelt condolences and prayers. Your friends and colleagues, this parish family, and so many others who cannot be here today cherish Karen and you. We want to be relied on in the days ahead.


[1] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1990), 461. [2] Derek Traversi, T. S. Eliot: The Longer Poems (New York and London, 1979), 58. [3] Quoted in “Karen Laub-Novak: Painter, Sculptor, Printmaker” at [4] See T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, V, 1-9: If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent If the unheard, unspoken Word is unspoken, unheard; Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard, The Word without a word, the Word within The world and for the world; And the light shone in darkness and Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled About the center of the silent Word. [5] Cf. the counterpart of this verse in the first chapter, Revelation 1.8.