Saturday, May 10, 2008

After Sister Death Comes Brother Tim

“So, Brother. Tell me. What happens after a friar dies?”
I stared expectantly at Brother Timothy. Without blinking, he calmly replied: “Well, I expect that he either goes to heaven or the other place.”

Well, that’s not exactly what I intended by my question. What I really wanted to know is, what happens to a friar’s personal effects—his stuff—when he passes on? If anyone has the answer to that question, it would Brother Timothy Arthur. No, Brother Tim is not our provincial mortician; he is, rather, our provincial archivist. And yes, there is a difference.

We sat in his office at Old Mission Santa Barbara (California). The walls were lines with files and display cases, all neatly organized and carefully arranged. Brother Tim opened a copy of our provincial Statutes, or regulations adapted to local circumstances. For a second, I winced in embarrassment. I hadn’t cracked that particular book since my novitiate, ‘lo these many years ago. Quietly and purposefully, he pointed out the very specific policies and procedures to be implemented in the event of a friar’s death.

It all came back to me. The year was 1998. I was just getting ready to make my solemn profession. A letter arrived from our Provincial Office. I hurried to slice open the envelope, expecting some last-minute instructions for the ceremony. Instead, I found a form letter asking me to designate the kind of music I would like for my funeral (!) and the names of relatives and others to whom I would like to leave my personal belongings after my death. Here I hadn’t even received the golden handshake of solemn profession and I was already within a hair’s breadth of the clammy grasp of Sister Death. Talk about a reality check! Give me a break, guys.

Still, as harsh and unsettling as it may seem at first, the truth is that life and death are side by side. So are their attendant practicalities. Brother Tim patiently explained: After a friar dies, his room is usually sealed by the guardian or himself (the archivist). We look in our files or in those of the deceased to see if he has left any written bequests. We’re not talking about big items here—real estate, pricey jewelry or the like. It’s all remarkably small potatoes. Who do you want to be the recipient of your family photos and other personal memorabilia? What kind of funeral service (songs, readings, etc.) do you want? Where and how would you like to be buried? The truth is that a friar has very little in the way of material possessions—clothes, music, books, maybe a stamp collection or a camera.

It’s all pretty down to earth. Not that the friars necessarily are, though. We’re human beings, too. We don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about death or planning our funerals. We put things off, lose our paperwork, get distracted and wander. Some brothers will leave behind just a few drawers of old and highly used clothing. Others are pack rats extraordinaire, with piles of books, newspapers, and files crammed into every available inch of space in their rooms. Some brothers are meticulous and dutiful—personal papers in apple pie order in a metal storage box in case of fire. But don’t count on it. Not a few of our confreres would require the services of a private detective to find their stuff. And according to Brother Tim, more than one friar has had the novel idea of stashing his passport, wallet, and other personal papers in the bottom of his wastebasket as an ill-advised precaution against theft.

Ready or not, Sister Death will come visiting. And so will someone like Brother Tim—trying in his patient, gentle, and methodical way to respect the brother’s last wishes and at the same time to preserve for future generations something of the material legacy (journals, collections of homilies, publications, correspondence, and the like) that witnesses to a friar’s life and ministry.//

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?//