Fr. Joseph Benedict’s Funeral Mass
“Then the two (disciples) recounted what had taken place on the way.”
This is a very Fr. Joseph Benedict Donnelly type of Gospel. What makes me say this? It is the very creative tension that weaves the Emmaus story together … the same creative tension that existed, just under the surface, in Fr. Joseph’s life among us.
You have two very basic life energies in Luke’s gospel story. The first energy I will call “the Path”. The 2 disciples are “going to a village” … they are “on the way” … they “approach the village to which they were going” … Jesus spoke to the two disciples “on the way” and Jesus was made known to them “on the way”. This is a gospel and a revelation of Jesus that happens on the everyday journey even in discouragement!
The two early disciples just kept walking and “Jesus himself drew near and walked with them.” I suggest that this is a missionary’s gospel and Fr. Joseph remained a missionary all his life. Yes, as a Maryknoller, he spent 14 years in Peru and 9 years as the Mission Superior, but his walk was just as strong and his path just as clearly defined when he entered our community at the ripe old age of 47. He was a monk with a clear destination and he walked the daily path with determination. “Life!” Fr. Joseph would say, “Life goes on and let’s get on with it!” My earliest memories of Fr. Joseph are around his almost daily march into the forest with his hard hat and a red bandana to do some serious tree limbing and thinning. When we novices would tease him about his trudging up into the woods, griping his lumber jack axe … he would fix us with that fierce, Donnelly stare, point his finger, and say “Just remember, I’m doing this for you. Otherwise I’d be impossible to live with!”
This brings us to the second energy in the Emmaus story: I will call this energy: The Home; or perhaps clearer, The Communion. The movement of the gospel story is very clear on this point. It is to the two grim, depressed, and trudging disciples, Luke tells us, that “Jesus himself drew near and walked with them … and they urged him, STAY with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
My sisters and brothers, the creative tension of these two life energies, The Path & The Home, is resolved in that beautiful and hopeful Easter statement at the very center of this gospel text: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way…” To resolutely walk the daily path even the path of misunderstanding, loneliness, and seeming lack of meaning, when done in faith however weak, (look at those two depressed disciples!), is to eventually walk into an awareness of abiding intimacy and communion.
This bright shadow of the Emmaus gospel lies across the earliest beginnings of Fr. Joseph’s monastic path. Here is a letter of Fr. Joseph written 53 years ago from his mission in Lima, Peru to our first abbot Columban.
Dear Father Abbot,
For several years, I have been thinking of the contemplative life. When I spoke of this to my confessor some few years ago, he told me that I was then where God wanted me to be. While I followed the advice of the confessor [ The Path] the desire did not decrease but has on the contrary burned more deeply in my heart [The Communion]
Ever have those moments, writes the Australian poet Martin Flanagan in his poem Prayer At The Scarred Tree,
Ever have those moments
When you wish there was someone with you
and there’s not?
Nothing but your cold lonely self
which you re-enter like a reluctant astronaut.
I want to cry out,
Fill me however you will,
Just fill me!
This hunger that gnaws endlessly in my guts
will be the death of me
but is the life of me,
because in braving yourself to the emptiness
something is born
Watch & observe,
tell the story well …
“Then the two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way”
My friends, for someone who just wanted “to get on with it”, Fr. Joseph had a very long and at times, discouraging path among us. “Why can’t I just go Home now … right now” he would ask in desperation. Yet, ever the Missionary, he continued to put one foot ahead of the other on his daily path. The Missionary, St. Paul, seems to speak for both of them in our second reading this morning when he writes “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Yet our community, only some weeks ago, reflected on the Emmaus experience of “caring for” Joseph over these final months. One brother seemed to capture our shared experience when he said “Fr. Joseph has become the beating, human heart of this community.” Like our Monastic Founder St. Benedict, Joseph walked with us, among us, until his heart expanded each of our hearts, Dilatato Corde.
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way…”
And so, like any authentic Missionary Monk of Irish extraction, Fr. Joseph walked Home and he brought each of us, in his walking, closer to Communion.
I can picture him with his hard hat, his red bandana, and his lumber jack axe … headed up into the forest … pointing his finger at us like the unruly novices we all are … and saying “Remember, I’m doing this for you!”
And I am reminded of that wonderful poem of Denise Levertov: When I Am Among the Trees. I end with this tribute to the Path and the Communion which Fr. Joseph brought into our community.
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
+ Abbot Peter McCarthy