Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Romans 8:14-23; John 14:1-6
It is fitting to mention as a preface for our readers, that Br. Edward’s family and friends appreciated the understated irony of Abbot Robert’s characterization of our deceased brother, who was an “original”. The delivery of this homily was punctuated by the congregation’s laughter. After the burial, Br. Edward’s sister Catherine told Fr. Robert, “You forgot to mention that Ed would have told you how many minutes your homily lasted!” She wasn’t making that up; every one of us who preached here were clocked in and out by Br. Edward who informed us afterwards whether we had fit into his allotted time for us…
I wish to offer the family of our brother Edward the sincere sympathy of all the brothers of our community, especially to you, Catherine, his sister, and your children. You were so devoted to him throughout his life and Br. Edward loved you for that. He was deeply interested in everything about his family and kept in close touch as long as he was able. Being one of his various secretaries in our community, I know how close he was to you all. We share your loss.
Br. Edward has now gone from us to God, the great consuming desire which filled his whole life. For this we are surely all glad for him. But he is also one of those characters that all families seem to have. What would be a particular characteristic that stands out best to describe our brother? One that I experienced was his strong determination. You can certainly recall other qualities as well.
Brother Edward wanted to live a religious life. Given his considerable mental capacity, I believe that he was first interested in the Jesuit Order. But his physical handicaps of sight and speech that plagued him all his life did not allow him to meet their qualifications. Instead he turned to the Order which was sometimes nicknamed the “marines” of the Church. He chose well. He applied to join Our Lady of the Valley Monastery in Rhode Island, one of only three Trappist communities in the United States at that time.
Br. Edward was someone who was ever ready for a challenge. I came up with several private names for him, depending on the circumstances of the moment. One that occurred to me often was the “fighting Irish”. Another name I was fond of was “generalissimo”; that captured his penchant for determined and insistent orders to his troops, whoever of it might be at the moment, orders precise, detailed and determined.
Given Br. Edward’s strong temperament, it wasn’t long before he ran into resistance in his life in the monastery. He was not shy in letting his novice master know how he saw things ought to be done. He could still describe those clashes to me with considerable relish, sixty years after the fact. But the bottom line to all this was that Br. Edward would not quit or give up. His great characteristic was to persevere, no matter that things did not go his way. He stuck it out. He had a saving faith in God, throughout the ups and downs of his life and he kept his sight always focused on his monastic commitment. He faced the question, “Why am I here?” That determination brought Br. Edward to his goal, to his God.
You see before you that Br. Edward is being buried not in the white robes of a monk but the brown habit of a Trappist lay brother. In the 1960’s, when the Order’s authorities decided after Vatican II that it was time to replace the two categories of choir monks and lay brothers in our communities, it seems they had not consulted Br. Edward. He was proud to be a lay brother. Here was a cause tailor-made for him. Like so many other causes which he fought for, he never succeeded in changing the Order’s mind. Neither did he ever change his own opinions! They were wrong and he was right and that was that.
So you can see how he never let go of his aim. Brother Edward persuaded his Abbot–not me, by the way–to grant him his final wish: that when he would die, he’d be buried in the lay brothers’ traditional brown habit. Out of step with everyone to the end. But then one did not lightly oppose Br. Edward’s desires.
That is why I could choose no other gospel for this Mass than the one from the Gospel of Saint John in which Jesus promises his disciples that there are many mansions in his Father’s house. Jesus even has one just right for Br. Edward. God does not repress our personalities in the monastic life; God purifies our hearts and makes our personalities all the stronger in Christ. Br. Edward’s final purification was being placed in a nursing home for the medical care he needed, care that was not possible for us to give him here. Frail in body, his heart was stout and his mind was clear. He wanted “out of this hell hole” as referred to his facility. Again it was a battle he lost; but in losing the battle, Br. Edward won the war. His heart gave out at last and the Lord came and took him to the one mansion prepared especially for him. After all the different monasteries which Br. Ed had help build for the generations of monks to come after him–Spencer after the fire at the Valley, Snowmass and La Dehesa in Chile, he now has won a place with the Lord to enjoy in glory.
We pray that our Br. Edward comes swiftly to the fullness of that glory. And we thank him for his example of perseverance, his strength of determination that led him to overcome so many obstacles in his life. And in those causes which he did not win, the Lord gave him something more precious: Himself. That was ultimately all that Br. Edward did desire. He won the one thing he desired most, to behold his Lord.