Saturday, January 29, 2011
Fr. Guerric, the subprior and novice-master at the monastery here, is fond of relating how, just a couple hours before he was to make his solemn profession in 1984, Fr. Raban Hathorn died suddenly in the calefactory of a heart attack. The reality of that moment added a measure of unexpected intensity to the profession ceremony, during which the one making solemn vows lays prostrate near the Paschal candle, and is covered with a funeral pall while the church bell tolls as it does at the death of a monk. The newly professed then “rises” to his new and radical life consecrated to God while the cantor sings the words from Ephesians 5:14, “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
In his Rule, St. Benedict encourages his monks to “keep death daily before your eyes.” This is not a macabre admonition or an invitation to be perpetually morose. Quite the opposite, as the preceding sentence in the passage from the Rule demonstrates: “Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire.”
Like the ancient Israelites, we are sojourners under the watchful and protecting gaze of our compassionate God as we travel to the Promised Land of everlasting life through the love of Christ. The world as we know it is not the be-all and end-all. Something—or, more precisely Someone—infinitely better await us, and the joy of this knowledge, derived through faith, fills us with that holy desire needed to live radically here and now so that, as St. Benedict says, Christ may bring us all together to everlasting life.
This is the hope that fills us with joy without denying our deep sorrow. It is what makes us Christian. When things go terribly wrong, when failure and hardship seem to frame our days, and when people die, what we are really lamenting is the brokenness of Creation. We should feel sorrow, because the life God created for us was not originally meant to be that way. However, we should also embrace the joy of knowing that in Christ, God has restored all things, and rightly ordered them as they are meant to be.
No, we cannot fully perceive that right ordering with our limited perspective. In Christ, however, the act has already been completed, but is still growing to fulfillment. Similarly, when we take antibiotics to fight an infection, it takes a number of days to work through the body, but its work has begun. The Incarnation continues to this very moment as the Body of Christ grows to maturity. It is good to recall the words of 2Peter 3:8, “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”
Unexpectedly, but appropriately, I have reflected on all this before, during, and after making my solemn vows on Tuesday. There are two reasons. First, my journey to the monastery essentially began on May 18, 2003, the day my father died unexpectedly at age 65 (or perhaps, that’s simply when the trajectory of my vocation began coming into view). The story of my conversion and discernment of a religious vocation over the subsequent few years is a long one, but that day, I think, is when I started to “get real.” Although I didn’t have the Benedictine vocabulary at my disposal at that time, it’s when I began to keep death daily before my eyes, and my life began slowly changing in remarkable ways. I began yearning for everlasting life with holy desire, and increasingly discovered a joy—without denying life’s sorrows—that I never knew was possible.
Secondly, on Monday of this past week (the feast of my patron, St. Francis de Sales, and the eve of my solemn profession), my father’s brother died unexpectedly. My Uncle Tom was only 57 (it should also be noted that of all my father’s four brothers and five sisters, Tom was the one who most resembled my father). Needless to say, this cast a new light on everything. Where joy had been building, sadness crept in, and there was no choice but to let them dwell together.
I was edified that most of my family planning to attend solemn vows still came under the circumstances. It must have been quite an emotional roller-coaster ride for them to learn of Uncle Tom’s death, and a few hours later come to Saint Meinrad to celebrate my solemn profession, and then head back up to northwest Ohio for the funeral.
It meant a great deal to me to have them here, and along with my confreres in this monastic community, we had a great time celebrating and visiting after my profession. There is no doubt in my mind that the sorrow my family felt over Uncle Tom’s death helped fuel our joy, and I know that my own joy was poured into my sorrow over his passing.
As I lay prostrate and covered with the funeral pall during the profession ceremony (with my father’s old Army dog-tags in the pocket of my habit), I listened to all my confreres, family members, relatives, and friends pray for my perseverance and growth in the monastic way of life. I cannot begin to fully describe what came over me. Many things in my life seemed to come full circle, and I thought of Uncle Tom, my father, and all those who have gone before us. I was alone but surrounded by a great multitude. There was deep sorrow, but arising from it an intense joy that simply could not be contained. It was a moment, it seemed, made in heaven.
Yes, I needed a hankie!
Just as with Fr. Guerric nearly 30 years ago, the reality of the present circumstances contributed a measure of unexpected intensity to my solemn profession. With death before our eyes, I found myself surrounded by faithful monks, family, and friends, all yearning for everlasting life with holy desire. This life-giving hope filled us with joy without denying our deep sorrow.
With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day, but the pall will be lifted one day as we hear the words: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
May he may bring us all together to everlasting life.