Monday, May 5, 2008
The All Too Frequent Visits of Sister Death
I’ve just returned from attending the funeral of Elda Macnab, 94, the mother of Jeff, one of our friars. Her passing is just the most recent loss in our extended Franciscan family. Since the first of the year, no fewer than six friars from our Province have died, including our beloved brother Emmanuel Muessiggang, just a month shy of his 100th birthday. Add to the list Friars Anthony Bauman, 88; Bart Mitchell, 84; Lester Mitchell, 79; Michel Gagnon, 76, and David Hitchcock, 74. In addition, parents of three of our friars have passed on as well. I've been asking myself latetly: "Hey, what the heck is going on here?"
St. Francis has given us an enduring insight by presenting all of life a metaphorical sibling to each of us. Hence, the endearing titles of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and so on. Last on his list was Sister Death: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,” he wrote in his celebrated Canticle of the Creatures in 1225, “from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.” Death was for Francis no Grim Reaper, no sinister force to be feared and held at bay as long as possible. But rather, in his worldview, Death is part of this life and the natural gateway to eternal life.
Even after 800 years, this is still a difficult insight for many of us to accept and absorb. What is behind this resistance to “Sister” Death, then? Let’s be frank: our high ideals notwithstanding, we are still human beings. We experience fear and suffer loss—especially the loss of people whom we love, cherish and respect. And that loving and losing hurts.
Yes, we friars do love and miss our brothers. We, just as the society as a whole, are now losing our share of the members of the so-called Greatest Generation. These were men whose early lives were shaped by the Great Depression of the Thirties, followed by the tremendous personal and social dislocation of Word War II and the Korean War. Our confreres often came from big Catholic families of immigrant background. And they flocked to monasteries, friaries, and seminaries in great numbers at the end of the war. As friars, they weathered the sweeping changes of Vatican II and upheaval of the Vietnam era. Over time, they saw some of their classmates leave religious life and ministry. They also witnessed the rise, success, and even decline of programs and projects they worked so diligently to initiate and foster.
These ‘good soldiers’ of religious life are leaving us now. They have seen it all and lived through a great many changes in their lifetimes, yet remained faithful to their calling. Yes, we do miss them. But not just because of what they accomplished in ministry, but because of who they were as people. They were and still are our brothers. Thank God for the Communion of Saints. In our Catholic tradition, we believe that we continue to walk with our brothers and sisters who have gone before us. And we continue to rely upon their prayers and friendship.
But for right now: Sister Death, please—um, could you just back off for a little bit, okay? We need some time to breathe, to collect and recollect ourselves. To ask the Spirit: What are you trying to teach us through the passing of our brothers? And where are You leading us from here?//
Posted by Fr. Charles Talley, ofm at 10:42 PM