Wisdom 3: 1 – 5, 9;
Romans 8: 14 – 19, 34 – 35, 37 – 39;
John 6: 37 – 40
One of my first experiences as a member of the Society was the death and funeral of a Brother. Even though, as a parish priest, I had been involved in several deaths, and funerals, of parishioners, this particular death had a huge impact on me. As a relatively new postulant, I had been here for less than six weeks, I found the death of a Brother to be incredibly destabilizing. At the same time, what I saw and experienced, drew me in, and drew me deeper. Here was a group of people who lived the Easter proclamation, not as a theory, or a nice idea, or even as a theological principle, but as a concrete reality of daily life. Here I found that the daily recitation of the creeds, I believe … in the resurrection of the body, and the Memorial Acclamation at the Eucharist, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again were not mere words, or things to be puzzled over, or statements to be parsed. Here I saw them as truths being lived by. Although they were words I had been saying, even preaching all my life, here in this chapel I discovered them to be profoundly true.
So today we Brothers, and those of you joining us online, gather not because of some theory, or a nice idea, or even a fascinating theological principle, but because of a truth we have come to know as true, and how that truth has been lived out in the life of one particular person, our Brother, David Allen.
Oddly perhaps, one of the most comforting chapters in our Rule of Life for me, is the chapter on Holy Death. While for many in our culture death is something to be avoided, feared, shut out, hidden away, we actually say a number of startling things about that which must not be spoken.
We are called [our Rule of Life says] to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial. Paradoxically, only those who remember that they are but dust, and to dust they shall return, are capable of accepting the presence of eternal life in each passing moment and receiving ever fresh the good news of hope. The anticipation of death is essential if we are to live each day to the full as a precious gift, and rise to the urgency of our vocation as stewards who will be called to give account at Christ’s coming. Remembering that death can come to us at any time will spur us to be prepared, by continual renewal of our repentance and acceptance of the forgiveness of God, to meet Christ without warning. We shall remember to express to one another those things that would make us ready to part without regrets, especially thankfulness and reconciliation.1
A few weeks after David moved into Neville Centre, and shortly after the lockdown began, he wrote to me to say thank you. In that letter he told me that he had come to realize that he was old, and that he did in fact need the help he was then getting at Neville Centre. In that one brief, barely legible letter, was a lifetime of learning. We are called to remember our mortality day by day…, shaking off the sleep of denial…[Only] those who remember that they are but dust,… are capable of accepting the presence of eternal life in each passing moment and receiving ever fresh the good news of hope... Remembering that death can come to us at any time will spur us to be prepared…. We shall remember to express to one another those things that would make us ready to part without regrets, especially thankfulness and reconciliation. That letter to me was so David, and so the man he had become, after more than sixty years in our community.
When death did come to David last Monday, it came suddenly and unexpectedly, at least to us. But to David, death came as a friend. When Brother Jonathan and I visited David late Monday afternoon, it was clear that David was ready to die. Having lived a life full of [hardships], renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks… [all of which are] ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death, [David] was ready for… the final letting go of dying, [which was no longer] strange and terrifying to [him].
The reality is that David had died at least once before in his life. In 1975 the community closed the Japanese Province and the American members of the Society then living in Japan returned home. For David, the return to the land of his birth, was not a return home, but a leaving of a place, and a country, and a church where he had found, and made a home, and which he had come to love. That move was traumatic for David, and in many ways, a little death for him. Yet, as disappointed as he was, he did not become bitter, or resentful, or cynical, or angry. Instead he learned the hard truth, that first we must die, in order to live, and clearly what a resurrection, people saw in him.
I don’t know if David knew the man so many of us came to know in these latter years. Awkward, shy, tentative, and because of his obsessive attention to detail and facts, at times crazy making; that clearly was David. And we all have our favourite stories to tell about that side of him. But so many saw another side, the resurrection side, which also clearly marked him. Warm, caring, welcoming, with a ready smile, an outstretched hand, a twinkle in his eye; that too was clearly David. I wonder, if David had not lived with such disappointment in his own life, would so many have felt so welcome in his presence, because clearly so many did. David’s ability to sit, even if awkwardly, in awkward silence, allowed so much to happen, for so many people. In those moments, many of you have told us in these last days, you saw a man marked by God.
That too was so David. His abiding faith in God, and in God’s power to bring life out of death, allowed David to return to the Monastery in 1975, and in many ways begin again, cut off from the life in Japan, he would have chosen for himself.
Two summers ago, Brother Jonathan and I drove with David to northern Maine to see where the Society had once served. It was during that trip, that David began freely to speak about his life for the first time, at least to me. He told us about his time in the navy during the Korean war, bombing the beaches, or rearranging the sand dunes, as he called it, to prevent the North Koreans from using the beaches to their military advantage. But more importantly, he talked about his last days in Japan, before he returned to Cambridge. He told us he decided that if a Japanese bishop offered him a parish, he would accept it, and withdraw from the Society. No such offer came, and in that, David saw the will of God for himself, and obediently returned to the Monastery. In that little death, came the new life promised in the resurrection of Jesus.
In much the same way, just a few months ago, David and I had a conversation that neither of us wanted to have, when I finally told David he needed to move to a place where he could receive more care, than we could give him here at the monastery. Once again, in that little death, came new life, and a few weeks later David wrote again to me saying, I have come to know my present attitude is one of joy and peace…and that I have accepted with joy what has happened to me…accepting my life as it has become, so cut off from what it had been.(And I would go so far as to say, what he had wanted.) Each morning I wake up reciting a line from the psalms, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.’ That too was so David, finding joy when others would have found only misery, and disappointment.
In the last few days, so many of you have written to tell of David’s powerful witness to you, as he stood at the entrance of the chapel greeting you one by one, often by name, always with a smile, an outstretched arm offering a handshake, or the service bulletin, and with a twinkle in his eye. There, in that simple experience of a welcome fully offered, you saw someone who truly believed that life is indeed full of meaning when lived in union with God.
David was a man who really did live in union with God, and as crazy making as he could be, you could see that in his face. And so today, we offer David back to God, knowing that the promise of Jesus is true, [and] this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This indeed is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.
This is the promise of God in Jesus, and it is a truth upon which the whole of David’s life rested. It is the promise which shone on his face and twinkled in his eye. It is a promise which David knew to be true, and which he proclaimed day, by day, by day in this place, and others like it, for over sixty years: I believe in the resurrection of the body… Christ has died, Christ in risen, Christ will come again. In those words, David knew truth, and the One who is Truth, and like Gerard Manley Hopkins, he knew that truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
In David we saw a life marked by the truth of the good news of God in Jesus Christ, and for that we are truly thankful.
Homily preached by Brother James Koester SSJE in the Monastery Chapel, on the occasion of the funeral of Brother David Eastman Allen SSJE, Friday, 21 August 2021.
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