“A monk who does not think of death, and does not have it before his/her eyes, and does not see it as it is, and see his/her own life objectively in the light of death, cannot be a true Monastic.” Thomas Merton
The picture for today’s meditation is a real one from the Anglican Sisters of the Transfiguration. They are one of the many Anglican Orders of nuns that are top heavy when it comes to age and like many Anglican Orders, are being replaced or at least renewed in some way by “New Monasticism”, of new religious orders of people who no longer have to live isolated in a Monastery or Convent and are not necessarily restricted in their personal relationships. Even the traditional Monastic Orders (Religious Communities) in the Episcopal Church are now in constant dialogue and sharing with new Monastic Communities (Intentional Christian Communities), and meet yearly to share their life in common and their differences.
“Monastic Life is a practice for death.” says our Author.
IT is not far from the truth and most monastics are clearly in touch with the deep cycles that life offers us from Birth until Death. Preparing for death “IS” a spiritual practice. IT is not something that is taken care of in a short time or can be studied or dissected. It is part of the daily rhythm and life activity of any monastic. It is about the constant process of “letting go”, and “letting God”, as the bumper sticker slogan puts it. “Letting go is a real death, a real dying, says the Modern and aging Austrian Benedictine Monk Steindl-Rast, but it is the price of possessing a deeper, truer life.”
I am in the process of getting ready for my “retirement” in 5 months time. I have opted for an early retirement in order to fulfill one of my dreams which is to begin an ecumenical Benedictine community in the heart of Mexico City. In order to do that I have to “let go” of being a full time parish priest in order to go “full time spiritual” as a full time monastic living in Mexico City. Along with this come many fears, and anxieties about no longer “contributing” as I have for so many years economically to our household. I have also had to take a step aside as the “alpha male” in our household as my spouse gets more mature and is able to make many of the decisions that before I felt I needed to make or felt I could make. Every day that I get up it takes me just a little longer to “put myself together again” in order to take on the day. I no longer spend hours in the gym trying to make my physique stand out (it never really worked anyways). Its just about time for that second colonoscopy that everyone dreads, which is symptomatic of aging in our society. I spend more of my time not worried so much about outer appearances and physique as eating well, sleeping well, finding balance in my day, praying well, and walking at least one hour a day, swimming twice a week, and biking when possible instead of using the car.
As much of this might buy me just a few more years of health and pleasure in this life, if I look ahead to my parents (my mom who died two years ago and the other who is now 84) I know exactly in which direction I am heading. I saw it in my grandparents (may they rest in peace) and I am living it with my Parents. I am the next in line to ride the roller coaster.
It is sobering to know you are going to die. It is sobering to know that you don’t have any idea usually exactly when you are going to die. It is helpful for me to know that the real “process of dying” in nearly a majority of the cases is something that is basically pretty short lived. Most of us, with a little luck will be pretty healthy and in good shape up and until some final months or even days of our existence. It is also sobering to know, after having been a priest and experienced death with so many others for over 27 years, sitting at the bed side of a dying person or giving last rites over and over again (I can’t even count how many times), that death is such a natural and beautiful process in the entire life cycle that there is really nothing to fear when it comes to actually dying. We all do it, sooner or latter, and it just takes a matter of minutes in the end for everything in our bodies to gently shut down and go into eternal rest and sleep.
“There are ultimately two important and absolutely supreme moments, the present moment, and the moment of our death.” Yves Congar
Monasticism tries to keep these two moments always in a healthy tension, day in and day out. While others are perhaps interested more in the present moment and the moment when something better will come along, Monastics try to live each day to the fullness, enjoying every bit of the day and splitting up each day into equal parts where one can get in touch with the Eternal on a daily basis. Monastics before they go to bed also make a mental note that there will be a day when we will sleep and not wake up again. We pray every night some form of this prayer…. “May the Lord grant us a restful night, and a perfect death, or a happy death, or a peaceful end.”
Whatever the exact prayer, we end each day as St Benedict asked us to do, “to hold death present before your eyes every day.”
The Monastic Practice of Death to Life is not being afraid to enter into the full cycle of “life to death to life”. In Christian terms we call it the Paschal Mystery. The monastic term for death is the latin word “transitus”. Every year Benedictines celebrate the Transitus of St Benedict on March 22. We also celebrate his life on July 11. The word implies everything that death is, “a transition” from one life into another life. None of us knows exactly what the second life will be like, but we know that it will be there for us. Whether we are conscious of it, or will know or be in the know after our death is secondary. We have spent our entire lives in preparation for what is to come, the fullness of life eternal as God sees it for us, as God saw it for Jesus when he raised him from the dead.
Our author gives us the best consolation. “to live the monastic life is sometimes a difficult thing (or any life for that matter), but it is beautiful to have lived….really to have lived…
the monastic life, to be able to look back at the moment of death, and realize that we have done the best we could with the help of God’s grace, and then look forward to keeping an engagement, that final appointment with the risen Christ.”
As a parish priest the best funerals we celebrate are for those who have truly walked and lived the christian life to its fullest and now can rest from all their labors. The Rite of Christian Burial, or Burial Mass says it all. There is never any real need for extra words. It is about perpetual light, it is about resting in peace, it is about going from “strength to strength.”
The second picture in this discussion is a picture here on the side of one of the buildings in the Monastery. It looks like it could come from Mexico and not Germany but if you look closely you will find the skeleton in the coffin is Bavarian and is wearing Lederhosen and traditional Bavarian dress. He is surrounded with everything that he cannot take with him, money, possessions, power and influence. The cemetery at the Monastery is only a short walk from this daily reminder. It is the most peaceful and beautiful part of the entire monastic enclosure. Each tomb stone or wrought iron cross says just a little bit about each monk who died, their interest, their specialty, there is a symbol of what they present or who they were. It is truly Holy Ground.
I find it hard to end this part about Monasticism since I still am working on this spiritual practice each and every day. I know one day I will get it right, and that will be my LAST DAY.