Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Funeral of Br. Bernard Russell, SSJE

 

John 14:1-6

We are here today to give thanks to Almighty God for the life of our dear brother Bernard.  Bernie has been part of our community, part of our life for so many years, that it seems hard to believe he is no longer with us.  When we brothers make our vows, we don’t make a specific vow of stability, like the Benedictines, but if we did, Bernie would have modeled it to perfection.  He fully inhabited the place where he lived – and the place he loved most of all, of course, was Emery House.  “This is my home” he would say, as he sat quietly in the refectory, mug of black coffee in his hand, gazing out of the window at the meadow.  He made our community his home over 50 years ago.

He was born in 1922 in Alexandria, Virginia.  As a young man he worshipped at the Episcopal parish of the Ascension and St. Agnes, and graduated from Central High School, Washington, D.C.  He then served for two years in the U.S. Air Force as a bombardier navigator during the Second World War.  Following the war, he worked first as a reservation clerk for Colonial Airlines, New York City, and then for Peterson Travel Agency in Garden City, Long Island.  He’d often take his passport to work with him, as he would never know if he’d need to fill in as a flight attendant, or assist with a tour group.

But amidst all this life of travel, Bernie was looking for a home, where he could find a family, and stability.  And so, by the grace of God, he came to us in 1962, and put down his spiritual and emotional roots with us, his brothers.  “I found a home here,” he said, and we are here today to say thank you to God for the gift of this man – our brother and our friend in Christ.

We know him as Bernard, or Bernie, but until he became a monk, he was known by his baptismal names, Francis Felix.  Our names are not accidents.  So often our names speak profoundly of who we are – and certainly this is true of Bernie.

His first baptismal name was Francis.  And there was something of the spirit of St. Francis in Bernie.  One of the things he loved at Emery House was the land.  He spent endless hours on the tractor, mowing the lawns.  (As somebody wrote, ‘I hope there are tractors in heaven’!)  He also loved gardening.  He loved growing things – and he would grow enormous amounts of vegetables.  There is a story of how, in one prolific season, there were so many green tomatoes that needed ripening that Bernie decided that the washing machine would be a perfect place – dry and dark – for them to ripen.  Unfortunately, he forgot about them, and one day Tom Shaw came down to do his laundry, opened the door, and it was full of rotten tomatoes!

But Bernie also did rather wonderful things with food.  Guests would talk about his delicious meals, which he would prepare for them with much love and care.

Bernie also had something of St. Francis’ spirit of servanthood.  He gave himself in service to God.  He was a very generous man.  If you needed anything, he would be there.  Run out of yogurt – he’d jump in the car to buy some.  If a guest was stuck at Logan, he’d be first to drive down to pick them up.  This generosity was his way of offering his life to God.  But of course he would never put it like that!  He was always very self-effacing.  He had a strong faith in God, but didn’t like to talk about it – and he certainly didn’t like to preach!  If you asked him to talk about his prayer life he’d say, “O ho, my whole life’s a prayer.”  But central to his life with God was worship.  He loved to worship.  He loved to read the lesson and to serve as chalice bearer.  He once said, “The work is peripheral, but the worship is central.”  And in worship, his simple but strong faith shone through.  Brother Eldridge once said of Bernie, “He is the soul of Emery House.”

No wonder, when brothers were travelling all over the country, people would come up to us and ask, ‘How’s Brother Bernie?”  So many people loved him.  And I think that one of the main reasons for that lies in the meaning of the second baptismal name: Felix.  Felix in Latin, means happy.  So many guests have spoken of arriving for the first time on retreat at the monastery or at Emery House, a little unsure of what to find, and being greeted by Bernie with his wonderful smile.  And then his laughter and joy.  He was once asked why he was so popular.  Well, he said, “I guess it’s because I’m happy – and that influences everyone.  It’s just me!”

I do believe that underpinning that happiness, was a deep love for and trust in God.  The God who called him all those years ago to come to be a brother here with us: who brought him to a place where he could dwell – a place he called home.  In our Gospel reading today, Jesus tells us, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  I will go and prepare a place for you, and I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  Bernie trusted in that promise, trusted that the Risen Lord Jesus had prepared a place for him, a heavenly home, where he would dwell with God forever.

In his last years, he was cared for so faithfully by the Little Sisters of the Poor, and even when he lost his strength, he never lost his sweetness, his gentleness – and whenever he’d recognize you, his face would light up with that happy smile.  And he was longing for his heavenly home.  He’d say, “O ho, I’m ready to go.”

My final memory of Bernie, which was so endearing, was that he’d get very emotional and cry whenever we talked about the community – stories of how God was at work among us, stories about the new men and everything that was going on.  Tears of joy really.  “Why do you cry so easily Bernie?” someone asked him.  “Oh,” he said, “I cry at anything.  I just love the community, that’s why.”

Well, dear Bernie, we love you.  Thank you for being our brother for all these years.  Thank you for your generosity, for your happiness and good cheer.

Now may all the angels receive you into the joy of heaven, that you may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Amen.

 

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