Saturday, May 16, 2009
The Monk Who Wanted to Know Christ
Today is the second anniversary of the death of a beloved friend, brother, and spiritual mentor, Fr. Brendan, OCSO. I find myself missing him today, though I know he's quietly present with me.
Thomas Merton, in Entering the Silence, Volume Two of his journals, speaks about the founding of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Trappist Abbey, Huntsville, UT. It became a daughter-house of Gethsemani in the days when Fr. Frederic Dunne, OCSO was abbot. Merton knew that the lives of the founding monks would be rigorous since they were starting from scratch. Attracted by that fact and the idea of being surrounded by mountains, he made his desire known to Dom Frederic. His journals hint of this in several places: "...it is hoped, he has bought land for the new monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, where it may be that I will be carrying out this obedience usque ad mortem [until death]...Fr. Anselm just went by and said he would pray that I should be sent out there...I think this foundation might well turn into one of the finest houses in the Order...And in a way the mountains attract me from a natural point of view, but all that is stupid...Surprises always happen and in two months I might be out there with the rest of them. That is for God to decide..." 1800 acres in the Wasatch Mountains were purchased in March, 1947. 33 monks, including some monks to whom Merton was close, left Gethsemani the evening of July 7, 1947. Thomas Merton was not among them.
Thirteen years later, c. June 20, 1960, having just graduated from the University of Dayton, I was welcomed into the monastic closure of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Abbey, bearing the name Frater M. Gaspar, in honor of St. Gaspar del Bufalo, founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, in whose seminaries I'd been studying for nine years. Nine days after entering, on the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, I heard Fr. Brendan preach for the first of several times. Brendan particularly liked St. Paul's epistles, as I do, and I enjoyed hearing him quote passages from Paul in his sermons which were among my own favorites. Notes taken from that first sermon of his characterize him well. He always spoke with a genuineness that could only have come from daily experience: "...So often we ask for God's mercy (cf. the liturgy, etc.) but how often do we realize what we ask for? God's mercy isn't only negative, but also has a positive element. He gives us sanctity, He gives us perfection -- out of His mercy. But we have to be prepared to receive it. Otherwise it's as if someone handed us a box which we thought to be light, but which is really heavy. We're thrown off balance. So we have to prepare ourselves for God's mercy, which is shown in His power..."
I got to know Brendan, who was the Prior and the Infirmarian at the time I entered, from my visits to the Infirmary for chronic aches in my right ear. We never did figure out what was causing it, and there continues to be diminishing hearing in that ear as I grow older. During those visits both of us shared the highlights of our lives; a friendship between us just "clicked", and it endured for 47 years. Brendan was big-boned, tall, shy, with sort of a plodding gait when he walked. He had a smile that could bedevil the devil himself, a sharp, pointed nose, and magnificent peaceful blue eyes: the kind that those close to God have. He was an Irishman from the old sod and had the brogue to prove it. He'd served in the U.S. Army during World War II. As both a postulant and novice, I was struck by Brendan's kindness, gentleness, and the sense of his simple but deep communion with God.
After I left the monastery, Brendan and I didn't correspond a lot, but usually every Christmas we exchanged letters. As he got older I worried about his failing health, especially when I didn't hear from him in a while. That happened in 1999 and I e-mailed Abbot Leander to see if he was still around. He'd had a heart attack in 1996 and an angioplasty. The next summer he'd come down with shingles. Brendan wrote at Easter of '99, reassuring me that he was OK, that the community was down to 24 members [about half as many as when I was there], and that they were considering building a new monastery, of all things! That hasn't happened to this day, and the community is still using the original 1940's Quonset huts, remodelled many times over! Brendan expressed amazement at "how much you accomplish and have accomplished" and noted that he himself could never make it in "the fast moving world." He then quoted Paul's famous lines, which surely describe the great wish which he retained to the end of his life: "All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of His resurrection, to share in His sufferings and become like Him in His death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life..." He closed his letter by saying: "I pray every day for you at Mass and I intend to continue that until I celebrate my last."
The last time I saw Brendan was in August, 2000 when I traveled to Salt Lake City to do some family genealogical research at the LDS Center there. I arranged to go the Abbey for the weekend. Interestingly, the interim Superior at the time was Fr. Alan, OCSO, who'd been a young monk when I was there. He stopped by my room as I was waiting for Fr. Brendan, and in our conversation I learned that Alan had also been a student at St. Joseph's College in Indiana, as I had been for two years. He remembered a good number of the former Precious Blood priests and brothers there.
Brendan and I had a long leisurely visit, and he brought me up to date on the monks I'd known and some of the current politics. He showed me the plans for the proposed new abbey. Apparently, there were strong feelings, pro and con, about building the new monastery. He felt it could serve well as a retreat center, drawing in potential new vocations.
Not long after my visit to Huntsville, I sent Brendan Frederick Buechner's biography of St. Brendan. Brendan's observations, in response, were insightful as well as informative: "...he [Buechner] is not only a prolific writer but the scope of his subject matter is very impressive...he handles the legends surrounding St. Brendan very cleverly...but I must admit I find his dialogue a bit crude. Even in the time of St. Patrick the bards were very literate and disciplined...They were great poets, story tellers, they established a tradition for love of learning that still lives in the Irish soul. The country people are very down to earth, true but never crude. His style of speech seems to be his own invention but interesting...On Summer vacations as a boy I lived with country people and those days are still among my fondest memories for wisdom, gentleness and holiness...He [Buechner] has as you said some real insights in his book, 'The yellow thick cream of the psalms. The prophets' bitter broth. The fresh lovely bread of the Gospel...'"
In 2007 I sent my usual Christmas letter to Fr. Brendan. I'd been aware that he'd had taken a fall a year or so previously. Just after Christmas I received a note from the recently-elected new Abbot, Fr. David Altman, OCSO: "...On May 16th of this year, our dear Fr. Brendan passed away. He would have been 94 on July 1st. He was doing well, walking his wheelchair around, but just before Vespers at 5:30 on May 15th, he had a minor blackout, and the serious fall. He broke his pelvis and leg. The docs had to operate, but when they started the procedure, his heart rate shot up dangerously. They were caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. When the doc said to our Abbot at the time [Fr. Kasimir], 'This is a body that wants to die,' the Abbot gave permission to remove the oxygen mask, and Fr. Brendan's body functions shut down in a couple of minutes. This had been Brendan's desire for some years now, if you didn't know. He practiced the best spirituality in waiting for the Lord. He sends you Christmas greetings and prayers from above..."
And today, dear Brendan, I send you blessings from below...