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  • Reverend James Squire

Address at the Service for Suzanne Zeleznik who died This Past Sunday

This is posted for EA people and others who could not make use of zoom for her service this morning conducted by a Rabbi at the Chapel at West Laurel Hill Cemetery

My condolences to David, Katherine, and Lisa, and their family

Suzanne had a characteristic that defined her essence. Whenever I would see her coming down the hall at the Episcopal Academy, a broad smile broke across her face. She would light up. It was like watching the sun come up in the early morning hours. This was true for everyone who she met.

She was a beloved teacher of modern languages. Since part of my role as Chaplain of the School was that I was the de facto complaint department for anyone in the community, I never heard anyone say anything but praise about her. That was unusual in a school that had the highest of standards and parents with high expectations as well.

Perhaps it was her consistent kindness that created kindness in others. Madame Zeleznik moved through her world with her understated care for others. It would be hard for anyone to raise their voice in her presence. That is not to say that she didn’t have high expectations for her students’ progress in her courses. She would call me when she was worried about a student’s demeanor if she thought that there was something going on in their lives that needed some attention.

She preferred to be a quiet voice in faculty meetings. There was nothing that moved her to be the center of attention. The spotlight was not something that called to her. She preferred the light of that smile that broke across her face like the very sun itself at sunrise, starting low but then being fully seen across the relationships that she formed with others.

She was the embodiment of the school motto, Esse Quam Videri, to be rather than to seem to be, etched for all to see on the outer walls of the chapel so that everyone saw that phrase first as they entered the new campus. And that was Madame Zeleznik. She was authentic! She taught authenticity, not only by her words as a linguist, but by her consistent actions of grace and humility. Her classroom demeanor was consistent which is something that her students valued. They didn’t have to worry who would show up to teach her classes as she didn’t have a moody bone in her body.

Do not mistake her quiet strength with weakness. She was a resilient lady. She lived later in life confronted with injuries and illnesses that eventually took her life, but she did not go gently into that good night. I talked to her when she was fighting for her life at Penn with Covid, Lupus, and the resulting fear and pain. All of that could bring anyone to a full stop, but she was undaunted and, I must say, a bit feisty as she shared her game plan to “get out of there (being the hospital), and getting home. Madame was gritty!

That smile that broke forth at dawn with a smile, yes glee, could probably be best seen when she would talk about her daughters, Lisa and Katherine. I can picture her now when her daughters, grandchildren, and son in laws would arrive for a visit. That was a moment for the smile, the light, and the glee. She was also proud of her beloved husband and his work caring for others as a physician. He practiced works of supererogation, deeds that go above and beyond the call of duty. He and Madame shared this attribute.

All of this directs us to her seminal joy, her family, perhaps the source of that smile at dawn that was a gift to others as it lifted our spirits albeit maybe just for a moment or two or for all day.

There is a Latin phrase, the Larva Dei, which is translated as the Mask of God. It is in family life that God bundles himself in those everyday sacred acts of conversation and deeds that are usually small but remain large in shaping the lives of her family members. It could be an appreciation for a gift of understanding when one most needs understanding. It could be acts of forgiveness when a recipient needs forgiveness. it could be an articulation of the values of the Judea/Christian Ethic, and many others. Families are sacred places.

Madame understood the all-encompassing nature of the religious experience where the word religion is based in the Latin word, Religio, which means connection. Religion is the connection among self, others, and God. Perhaps it was Suzanne’s passion for different languages that led her to be comfortable and informed by many faith experiences. She was able to see the connection there in the same way that she could identify roots of words. Many expressions rooted in God.

So, where do we turn now for comfort and solace as Madame has moved on to another shore?

When I learned of her death from Lisa, I thought of Madame now making her way through the streets of Paris. When I was in Paris I was ironically in a place where I couldn’t appreciate all of the majesty that surrounded me, the cafes, the beauty of the city, the Louvre, and old men playing chess in the park. You see, I can’t speak French. How enhanced my visit would have been to have Madame at my side. She would have done for me what she did for so many others opening a new world for me by the ability to speak the language.

Madame was a teacher. Teachers deal in the world of question and answer. Where is she now? I believe another French woman would give us a glimpse of the hope that we should have that she is not lost to us forever.

Gertrude Stein was an American writer who lived most of her life in France. She was a central figure in the Parisian art world. On her death bed, just before she died, she asked, “What is the answer?” No answer came. She laughed and said, “In that case, what is the question?” Then she died. One interpretation of this dialogue with God is once she saw the heaven before her, it made everything pale in comparison. There were no more need of questions and answers. The book of the Revelation of St. John in the Bible describes it thus: “And God shall wipe away all their tears and there shall be no more death and the city had no need of the sun neither the moon to shine in it.” Amen.

I would add and a smile from Madame lightens those she has already met in that heavenly city with the same smile which brought new life to those she met on earth that said, “It’s good to see you. How are you?” “How is your family?”

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Jan 26, 2023

Thanks for sharing this Jim. Wonderful words for a wonderful teacher.


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