As most of you realize, we have celebrated two funerals only three weeks apart here at Holy Cross Abbey. At Fr. Malachy’s funeral, Fr. Robert observed that both funerals reminded us that life and death are not in our hands. Br. Benedict was believed to be very close to death for the last five years and Fr. Malachy’s death was totally unexpected. If the monastic life teaches us anything, it is that the most important parts of our life are out of our control. That certainly points up the futility of our control-issues: at best they only succeed in very petty matters.
Some guests at our funerals are surprised to hear us speak of our grief or sense of loss or missing the departed. Most people will catch themselves and respond, “Well, I guess you, too, are human.” Yes, we are indeed! To put it another way, wouldn’t we be inhuman not to miss a loved one or feel loss? That said, I also have to admit that some people look to us to be above the concerns, the worries, the pain of life. I’d have to say that such a life, untouched by unpleasantness, would not be a real life nor a life worth living. Such a life would be incapable of feeling love or compassion or gratitude or be moved by sacrifice or capable of making a sacrifice.
Aristotle pointed out that courage isn’t the same thing as fearlessness; courage is going ahead to do what must be done, unimpeded by the inevitable fear. Fearlessness is not a virtue, just heedless stupidity. Likewise, peace is not the lack disturbance or bad news or sorrow; peace is learning to keep my eye on the Good and rebalancing myself in unsteadiness. It’s easy to be “peaceful” when nothing is going wrong; peace is real when it recovers in adversity. Having hope is not opposed challenge or setbacks; hope is knowing that there’s more than just the setback or the tragedy. And neither peace nor hope could be real if I’m just attending to my well-being; peace and hope make sense only when I’m undeterred from doing the right thing to build up our life together.
In the Gospel, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and he was no less the Son of God for those tears. The incarnation implies–and implies strongly–that Divinity and being human are not in opposition. They are not identical but they are more than just compatible. So, not only do monks mourn, but any Christian, with the hope of the resurrection, would still cry at a funeral.
The Abbot also noted that no two funerals could have been more different: Br. Benedict’s was filled with families and friends; Fr. Malachy’s was celebrated by the monastic community, the Lay Cistercians and a few neighbors. Which was the bigger event or the more important? Neither. One demonstrated monastic hospitality stretched to the extreme, the other demonstrated the hiddenness of our life. The community and our friends made significant sacrifices to celebrate both of those lives.
But we weren’t just celebrating the memory of either Br. Benedict or Fr. Malachy; we celebrate what they are becoming now. In several conversations during these three weeks, I’ve mentioned to people how waiting for Br. Benedict’s death felt like waiting for a death sentence to be executed. But how that changed! It wasn’t just relief that his suffering was over–there was that, too–but that he was well on the way to what we hope to become. One woman who sat with Benedict at the very end told me about her profound sense of transfiguration when he breathed his last. That’s what we were celebrating. We can already talk about our life with God and it’s our life with God that we celebrate at a monastic funeral. And that means all of us, not just the deceased. One visitor caught it: what we celebrate at a monastic funeral is what we come to the monastery for–that life with God.
One of the flower pieces at Br. Benedict’s funeral–a rather natural arrangement inspired by the butterfly garden he invested so much work in–had a secret planted in it. Unseen by anyone who didn’t know to look for it, was a small simulacrum of a butterfly. It was right that it be there and it needed no spotlight to draw attention to itself. An emblem of the butterfly garden, it’s also a universal symbol of transfiguration, of death to an old life and emergence into a new life. Like so many monastic values, it was rightfully hidden away, a little treasure to be discovered if you bother to look, if you are open to discovery. And it adds something, even if you don’t know it’s there.
Basically, I’m saying that monastic values are not quantitative but qualitative; and they effect not only people in monastic vows but the people whose lives are enmeshed with ours. So why didn’t I write just this last sentence and skip the seven preceding paragraphs? Because monastic values are always concrete, are always and only found in the concrete situations of life and challenge and transform these particular people who make us that particular community.