Monday, February 12, 2018

A Burial at Gethsemeni


A Burial at Gethsemani
By Gregory K. Hillis

It was a surprise to enter the Abbey of Gethsemani's church and see a body lying on a bier. Br. Harold was dressed in a white cowl and his face bore no signs of being made up by a mortician. He did not look like he was sleeping. He looked like what he was: dead.

He was not alone. The community had kept vigil with Br. Harold all night, each monk taking turns at the bier, praying the psalms with him one last time, prayers he knew so well from decades of saying the Divine Office.

As the funeral Mass began, Br. Harold's bier was carried directly in front of the altar. There was no casket and his face was not covered. He simply lay there, a monk among his brother monks, albeit a now silent and unmoving participant in the Eucharistic feast.

After the Mass, his bier was carried out the doors of the church to the cemetery, filled with hundreds of identical white crosses. Here are buried monks from more than 160 years of monastic life at the Abbey. Among them is Thomas Merton, known in the community as Fr. Louis, buried beside Dom James Fox, the abbot with whom he so often clashed.

Along with the monks and members of Br. Harold's family, I processed to a freshly dug grave.

Although I've come to know quite a few of the monks of the abbey, I didn't know Br. Harold. He was already in the infirmary with Alzheimer's when I moved to Kentucky. I learned, though, that I missed out on a beautiful and simple man who breathed God in deeply, particularly when looking at a flower in bloom.

To allow Br. Harold's brother monks, family members, and friends to be near the graveside, I found a spot on an outlook near the church that stood above his final resting place. Cistercians dig their graves very deep and they bury their dead without caskets. From my perch I could see that a pillow had been placed in the grave, on which had been placed a flower. There was also a ladder leading into the grave.

Never before had the words Christians recite on Ash Wednesday-remember you are dust-been as real to me as they were at that moment.

After graveside prayers, one of the monks descended the ladder while others lifted Br. Harold from the bier. The sheet he was on had six long straps attached by which he was lowered into the ground.

As his brothers lowered Br. Harold down, the monk standing in the grave gingerly held Br. Harold's head.

There was love and gentleness in the way the monk did this. I was reminded of the care with which my wife and I would put each of our newborn sons into the crib, doing all we could to make sure that his sleep wasn't disturbed. When Br. Harold reached the bottom of the grave, I could see his brother monk almost tuck him in for his rest. He carefully laid Br. Harold's head on the pillow, placed a white shroud over his face, and then ascended out of the grave, pulling up the ladder behind him.

From my vantage point I could see Br. Harold at the bottom of the grave, and then, shovel by shovel, being covered in dirt. Truth be told, it was disconcerting to see a human body-not a body in a casket, but simply a body-be buried. But never before had the words Christians recite on Ash Wednesday-remember you are dust-been as real to me as they were at that moment.

More importantly, I had never experienced death as something beautiful before this funeral. What I witnessed was the care and love of a community for one of their brothers, a care that extended to the very depths of the grave.

On Ash Wednesday we are reminded once again of our mortality; some of us need this reminder more than others. However, there's something about my experience at Br. Harold's funeral that leads me to contemplate my mortality not as something to be feared, but as an invitation to give more completely of myself to those in my community-to my wife, to my sons, to my students and colleagues, to those in my parish, and to those in my neighborhood and city.

Br. Harold lived a life of prayer and devotion in the context of a community, staking his own existence to the existences of others. In his life, he gave himself to his community. In his illness and death, the monks in the community gave themselves to him. At his funeral I learned that to confront our mortality is to come face to face with the reality of how deeply and truly we need one another.
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Gregory K. Hillis is associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He is currently working on a book on the Catholicism of Thomas Merton.

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published in the February 9, 2018 issue of Commonweal

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Christian does not need to fight



HT to Jim Forest for this 2018 Birthday Tribute to Merton.

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Thomas Merton was born on the 31st of January, 1915, in the town of Prades, France, in the Pyrenees. Here is a passage from a book he wrote in 1963 but was forbidden to publish at the time. (Decades later, long after Merton’s death, it finally came into print as an Orbis title.)

The doctrine of the Incarnation makes the Christian obligated at once to God and to man. If God has become man, then no Christian is ever allowed to be indifferent to man’s fate. Whoever believes that Christ is the Word made flesh believes that every man must in some sense be regarded as Christ. For all are at least potentially members of the Mystical Christ…. 

The Christian responsibility is not to one side or the other in the power struggle: it is to God and truth, and to the whole of mankind….

Even if the other shows himself to be unjust, wicked and odious to us, we cannot take upon ourselves a final and definitive judgment in his case. We still have an obligation to be patient, and to seek his highest spiritual interests…. The love of enemies … [is] an expression of eschatological faith in the realization of the messianic promises and hence a witness to an entirely new dimension in man’s life…. The Christian is and must be by his very adoption as a son of God, in Christ, a peacemaker (Matt 5:9). He is bound to imitate the Savior who, instead of defending Himself with twelve legions of angels (Matt 26:55), allowed Himself to be nailed to the Cross and died praying for his executioners….

The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.[1]

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[1] In the chapter “The Christian as Peacemaker” (PPCE, 27-33).

Monday, January 29, 2018

Pope Francis- Holy Mass Salus Populi Romani 2018-01-28

From the Basilica of Saint Mary Major -Holy Mass presided by Pope Francis on the Feast of the Translation of the miraculous image of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Before you can be with others, first learn to be alone


Hannah Arendt, "On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking"
Photo of Hannah Arendt: Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Private Archive.
In the 20th century, the idea of solitude formed the centre of Hannah Arendt’s thought. A German-Jewish √©migr√© who fled Nazism and found refuge in the United States, Arendt spent much of her life studying the relationship between the individual and the polis. For her, freedom was tethered to both the private sphere – the vita contemplativa – and the public, political sphere – the vita activa. She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think.

Read the rest at AEON. Click HERE.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Avowal

 Merton with Wendall Berry & Denise Levertov, photo probably by Gene Meatyard

"The Avowal" by Denise Levertov

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that allsurrounding
grace.

Journey of Faith