The summer before last, I had a lot of trouble with a fox at Emery House. Over the course of a few weeks the fox managed to kill about half my chickens. Every time I tried to “out fox” him, he succeeded in figuring out a new way to kill the chickens. One Saturday, just after he had killed two of my chickens he was scared off by John Smith, one of our guests. John came down to the house to report this to me, but by the time I got up to the coop the fox had returned and killed two more. As John and I were inspecting the carnage he turned to me and said: “James, there’s a lot of death on a farm.”
In a way, farms and monasteries aren’t all that different. There is a lot of death in a monastery. It is not that foxes are leaping over the cloister wall and killing unsuspecting monks, but many of our monastic rituals remind us of the present reality of death. This would be true even if we hadn’t just celebrated the funeral of our brother Eldridge, or weren’t anticipating the year’s mind of our brother Tom. There is just a lot of death in a monastery.
Day by day, on the anniversary of a brother’s death, we read his obituary at Compline. Week by week at the end of community tea on Saturday’s we pray Psalm 130, the psalm traditionally associated with remembering the dead. Month by month we celebrate a requiem to remember our brothers who died in that particular month, as we are doing today. Year by year we gather all these prayers together in our prayer for all the faithful departed who make up what we sometimes refer to as the Church Expectant. There is a lot of death in a monastery.
But there is a point to all of this. We say in our Rule that “only those who remember that they are but dust, and to dust shall they return, are capable of accepting the presence of eternal life in each passing moment.” This anticipation of death is one of the ways in which we remind ourselves of the presence of eternal life and claim the promise of the resurrection. As we heard the other day at Morning Prayer we “want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection.”
This “knowing Christ” isn’t a theoretical or general one. We want to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” for particular people. We want to know the power of the resurrection for Eldridge and Tom, for Percy, Anselm and Godfrey; for Charles, Arthur and Lawrence; for George, John and John. And ultimately we want to know the power of the resurrection for ourselves, not in a general or theoretical way but in a particular personal way.
There is a lot of death in a monastery not out of some morbid fascination, but out of a confidence that Christ’s promise of life is for us: for you and for me and for the person sitting beside you. And therein lies our hope so that even at the grave, we can make our song “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”
There is a lot of death at a monastery but that is because only by looking death in the face, can we begin to catch a glimpse of heaven.
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