Thursday, June 10, 2004

Death and Benedictine spirituality

As I write this essay I am sitting in a swing donated in memory of Oklahoma City bombing victim, Diane Althouse. The swing faces the monastery cemetery, which is just south of the chapel. The sun is to my back as the day is ending and the wind is humming through the many trees planted by Brother Kevin. A few minutes ago the Abbot and one of the other monks walked by on a post dinner walk and asked me what I was writing. I was finishing up my last formal journal entry and told them I was writing about authority. The Abbot replied that the cemetery was the perfect place to write about authority, implying that death has authority over all of us while we are here on earth.

In chapter five of the rule is one line that is easy to miss and dismiss as unimportant, but it describes much of the Benedictine approach to death. The line is, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” The monks believe that we are born so that we may die. This is also a counter-cultural attitude, as death has become the last unforgivable sin, the last taboo, in America. Our culture is in complete denial about the reality and finality of death. We cannot talk about death, we worship youth, and we do everything possible to reverse the natural course of aging. The rich irony in this approach is that by seeking to avoid death, aging, and suffering, we often end up devaluing the precious life that God has given us. We are never satisfied with the life we are given and the rich gift that it is; instead we always want what is not ours to have – physical immortality.

The proximity of the cemetery to the chapel serves several purposes. First, it allows easy access for the monks to visit their deceased brothers. One can often see monks spending time in the cemetery, paying their respects. Second, it provides a constant reminder of the authority death has over them. Third, it provides a goal for the monks. It may be difficult for us to think of being buried in a cemetery as a goal, but when the current president of St. Gregory’s University, Father Lawrence, was interviewed by a local reporter after he took office, she asked him what his goal would be after he completed his term as president. She seemed to think that he might be able to work at another university. He told her that his next goal was “to be buried out in the cemetery.” I’ve been around lots of deans and university presidents, but I’ve never heard that announced as a personal goal before! But I’ve also seen university presidents afflicted with a bad case of hubris, men who have become so seduced by their power that they lose their grip on the reality of their mortality. It’s not a pretty sight.

Brother Kevin, who is still alive, has taken to putting flowers on his future gravesite. He has a spot reserved next to the only monk at St. Gregory’s ever to live to 100. One of the brothers makes the coffins for the brothers. Yet on the anniversary of each monk’s death, his biography is read at dinner – they are dead, but not forgotten.

Several years ago one of the monks announced to the brothers that he was dying of cancer. He had kept it concealed, but finally told them when he thought he had several months left. It turns out that he was down to a few weeks. Toward the end he was dying here at the monastery – they have rooms where home medical care can be received. On Easter he was dying and all of the monks were gathered in his room, where they did Compline together. The last line of Compline is a prayer, “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” The monk died within thirty minutes, the prayer answered. It was Easter with all of the hope and promise entailed for the Christian on that holiday.

Father Charles said that the way that the death happened had a powerful affect on the monks. Even for these men who daily remind themselves of their impending end, there are times when death transforms even them. While most of us fear death, there is perhaps no more intimate moment in life than being with someone who is dying. Most of us rightfully fear dying alone, yet it is the denial of the reality of death that often puts us in places where we end up dying alone, isolated from our community. Without death, there would be no reason to find meaning in life; without death there would be no reason for us to have God, for we would be gods; without death there would be no urgency to our lives; without death there would be no need for Jesus to rescue our souls from death. Death is something to be feared, but yet it is also God’s final gracious act to each of us.

May the all-powerful Lord grant you a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.


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