Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Happy honking

Fr. Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O.
Photo by Peter Jordan

Although it didn’t make CNN headlines, one of America’s most prominent monks died this past week. Fr. Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O., died on Friday, Feb. 18, at the age of 95. He was the oldest member of the community at the Trappist monastery of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (about a two-hour drive southeast of Saint Meinrad).

Gethsemani is well-known these days for its fudge, fruitcake, and cheese (the production of which pays the bills), but most especially for being the home of the monk Thomas Merton, one of America’s most prodigious spiritual writers of the 20th Century. Merton died in 1968 at the age of 53, and is buried at Gethsemani. Fr. Matthew was a contemporary of Merton’s (at one time serving as his confessor), and was a talented and much sought-after writer, speaker, and spiritual guide in his own right.

(I must confess at this point that I am partial to monks as spiritual writers!)

I have been to Gethsemani a number of times, and spent a good deal of time there a few years back while I was discerning a religious vocation. Ultimately, I realized that Trappist life and Gethsemani is not for me, but the place and people there still hold a special place in my heart. It is a wonderful place.

While I cannot claim to have known Fr. Matthew, I did meet him a couple times, and heard him give one of his renowned “compline talks,” which he continued to present up until the last few years. The last time I was there in 2007—as a novice of Saint Meinrad Archabbey making the mid-novitiate retreat—he was still coming to church, pulling his motorized cart up to the choir stalls and praising the Lord in the daily chanting of the Psalms. I remember him as very warm, engaging, and full of wisdom and spiritual insight.

The Abbey of Gethsemani’s website -- -- has posted Fr. Matthew’s obituary, and also has available for reading many of his homilies and writings. If you haven’t read any of them, I invite you take a look. Below, with the permission of Gethsemani, I have posted one of his more well-known homilies, delivered in 1985. Enjoy.

May he rest in peace.

Wild Geese, “Followship,” the End of Time
by Fr. Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O.

[An edited version of this homily on Mk 1:14-20 was published
in The Call of Wild Geese, Cistercian Publications, 1996.]

A few afternoons ago I was out back, burning trash, when I heard the unmistakable call of geese from far away to the north. It took me a while to find them high in the sky against dark clouds — mysterious, impressive, flying in splendid formation in that sweep of wing which is so majestic, so deliberate, a flock headed south with purpose.

But then, when they were just over Gethsemani the V-shape fell apart for some reason, and where there had been order there was chaos and a mess. Dissension. I thought: some want to stay over here like they did last year, some want to keep on going, or maybe it was just that the leader tired and no fresh one was forthcoming. So they wheeled about, several hundred of them, with great noise, each telling others that something had to be done. Now and then a single goose would take a try at leadership and wing off with a few others following him, but no more would take him up on it, and so that would peter out, only for another to try it.

It took ten or fifteen minutes for them to reach a consensus, and then, suddenly, one gander took the lead, the others followed, and in a matter of moments a great echelon appeared in the sky, the honking happiness resumed, and they were off to Nashville and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. And I went to Vespers thinking about it.

The readings in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the Eucharist these past several weeks have been pretty heavy. Grim stuff, most of it, about the end of all things at the end of time, wild imagery and fiery horsemen carrying out the orders of an angry God.

One brother asked me, “Why do they read such stuff? The visitors must be very upset to hear all that.”

“Well,” I said, “they are perhaps not the only ones to be upset; it may be a question of something we ought to hear and think about.”

Which says it, I think. For however you may describe it — and it is a challenge to the imagination — the end is to come one day, sooner or later. The lesson is: this place, this earth, this universe, is temporal. It is not forever. Tennyson’s brook that goes on forever, the eternal mountains and the everlasting seas, are poetry, not reality. It is all going one day. That much is certain. How, we are not so sure. When, certainly not. And what will follow is also a rather vague scenario: something new, renewed, that we know. And, most strange of all, we are part of it.

What makes such readings rather hard listening, it seems to me, is that we live in an age in which the end is very possible. If we cannot destroy the entire universe, we are capable of bringing an end to the one that is home to us. Hence, the Scriptures do not sound nearly as wild as they once did. An angry God is a possibility. And He is our God.

And if there is to be a final disintegration, we deal also with the collapse of a culture we live in. When whole cultural patterns fall apart, we have a preview of the final act, and it is no less trying to the men’s souls than the actual performance. I do not spell out the details of this scene. Things do change. And they change enormously and they change fast. We live in the midst of disintegration. New things come, are in process, yet have not come yet. No consensus.

And there is another [disintegration]: the personal apocalypse which is death. If the days of the world and the universe we know are numbered, if cultures shift and fade, so do our days, too. Come early, come late, the end will come, and the stars will fall from our heaven and the earth shake beneath our feet, the angels of God will come to announce the end of all things for us. Death, the great mystery, is closer than today’s sunset, for any one of us could be gone before the sun goes down this afternoon.

When the delightful order of the flying geese fell apart in confusion, chaos — how fitting a revelation of our feelings about the ultimate destiny of the world. How like the cultural confusion we know when patterns of behavior break down, values disappear, codes and cults collapse, everything loose and wild and crazy. Like the music that tells it, the world rocks and reels. Which again is the way we feel, I suspect, when death comes down our corridor, to our door, opens and enters: everything we knew and loved slips away and we approach the edge of the cliff and know we are going over it in some mad dream.

The geese stayed together. No one took off on his own. That, for one thing. So, no panic. Second, they knew there was a leader among them and they knew he would emerge. A leader all would accept, and no one would impose. Nor could one take the honor to whom it is not given.

When the leader emerged, something electric happened: they all agreed, they all followed, order returned, the journey began again. The happy honking told their peace. The leader emerges from consensus and when emerged, there is communion. Without the communion you can never get anywhere. The geese would still be wheeling around Gethsemani skies if they did not know this. No community gets anywhere without leadership and without the followship which is consensus in action.

Fellowship without followship is fraternity-house theology, not Christianity. And followship without leadership is a kindergarten, for there is no communion of action. And if every bird is not flying full with all he has, the pattern falls apart: no free loaders.

There is no beauty without the harsh dedication to the common, to the love of Jesus with one another and for a dying world that so needs the witness of men who believe what they say. Who can make a pattern against the dark skies of our times? It can be a marvel of beauty to restore hope to the wondering and confused: we know where we’re going and we know how to get there, and honey, we’re on our way.

Faith, then, in the face of ultimate apocalypse. Faith in the midst of mixed times. Faith in the face of our own disintegration, is what we need. There is no magic, secret formula. Not a solution for your problems. It is rather to affirm that God is in us and in our midst.

Who guides geese, guides us. We believe that. We mean it.

The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery, Cistercian Publications


Mike Crowl said...

Thanks for this blog post; I only just came across it this afternoon - I'd never heard of Matthew Kelty until now (though of course I knew who Merton was, and the Abbey of Gethsemane) - so it was good to see something he'd written, and to have a bit more information about him.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Thanks, Mike. He certainly had a lot of stories to tell!

Br. Francis