Br. Michael’s Funeral Mass
Homily by Abbot Peter McCarthy: 4-05-2012
He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
Clear in the sweetness of his liberty.
The earth recovers from his dying,
The hallow of his life remaining
In all his death leaves.
Radiances know him. Grown lighter
Than breath, he is set free
In our remembering. Grown brighter
Than vision, he goes dark
Into the life of the hill
That holds his peace.
He is hidden among all that is,
And cannot be lost.
This poem, written by Wendell Berry, my brothers & sisters, was sent to me by a mutual friend on hearing of the death of our beloved Brother Michael. The poem, entitled “What Love Means” draws us into itself with the real life play of light & darkness… both the bright meaning & the often painful mystery in our concrete daily existence as human beings…(We are standing together in this real life tension right here this morning around our Br. Michael’s body). The numbing darkness of death & seemingly meaningless human suffering… and yet the Radiance of the liberated human heart.
Grown lighter than breath, he is set free
In our remembering. [And yet] Grown brighter
Than vision, he goes dark into the life of the hill
That holds his peace.
He’s hidden among all that is,
And cannot be lost.
This kind of wholeness, this kind of “hosting” both darkness & light; love & loss; it seems to me quintessentially Irish. It is this largeness, this breadth of perception that has kept Irish poetry & story at the center of Western Literature. What is it G.K. Chesterton said? “The Irish haunt us because all their love songs are sad & all their battle stories are happy.”
Now this kind of wholeness, this kind of “hosting” both darkness & light, love & loss is at the center of the ancient Irish Celtic Monks like the great St. Columban, called in Monastic tradition, the perigrinatio,(explorers setting off in little fragile boats – barques upon the wild seas). These monks who literally embraced the harshness, the bleakness, of life-journey in the belief that such total presence to one’s world & therefore, to the poverty of one’s life (the darkness the mystery) would expand & enlighten the human heart. Courage for them was an ability to cultivate a relationship with the unknown; to create a form of friendship with one’s future, with what lies around the corner over the horizon. These Irish monks believed that when you stay in touch with your true heart’s desire – when you let the Love in your heart guide the boat – you come to welcome all human experience NOT in resentment but in gratitude. Is this not the only choice we are left with on our own life’s journey?…resentment or Gratitude? And it is only in the choice toward – Gratitude – toward Courage – that the human heart grows expansive & embraces all human life. Like the vision of the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading:
My sisters & brothers, I have come to see our Br. Michael in this rich & deep tradition of Celtic Monasticism. I see him rooted here because he embraced the courage & the discipline of the periginatio. Michael’s was a life of many journeys in which he encountered and “hosted” human mystery, darkness & light, because (like St. Columban) he followed the fierce desire of his heart.
Very early & for all the years of his life he traveled the path of the physically handicapped. His feet were malformed & often caused him to experience chronic pain. This man for whom walking in nature was essential. “Sometimes (he would advise me) sometimes… the right decision – the truth – depends on a walk to the picnic grounds & back.”
He journeyed from his homeland & experienced the harsh life of the immigrant, on so many levels, having to start his life over again.
Br. Michael walked the path of married love & yes, the painful & lonely path of separation. And because of this, he became a healing friend to many who were emotionally grieving or alienated.
Although he was told by spiritual advisors that he was “too old” he listened more to his heart & journeyed to the Abbey & was welcomed by yet another Columban (our first Abbot). Michael began now the Monastic journey which he traveled generously & faithfully for 47 years.
And yes, finally, there was the wrenching journey from his beloved monastic community to the convalescent center in these his final years. Rough seas to travel!
Just like St. Columban & those early Celtic monks, Michael’s life-teaching to us, his brothers & his beloved friends, is both very harsh & very tender and hopeful.
At the very beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel (chosen for Michael’s funeral) we read :
ready to open immediately when he comes & knocks.”
Yes, these are journey instructions – but notice in this Gospel: the real life journey is TOWARDS YOU – the One who comes toward you! All you are asked to do is “Gird your loins” that is, embrace your life as it is a mysterious and at times dark gift. As Michael & Columban remind us, “Wherever we want to go in life, that journey has to begin with a first step, and that first step has to be taken within the real life where we find ourselves.”
Again, Jesus said to his disciples: “Light your lamps”. The only truly accurate compass in your life is the Fire – is the Lamp – in your heart… you must always tend to it – and never neglect it for something or someone outside yourself! “You must learn one thing, Br. Michael & his Celtic brothers remind us, the world was made to be free in. Give up all the “other worlds” except the one in which you belong. This one, here, deserves your intense focus!”
He truly & obviously experienced St. Paul’s message in our second reading from Corinthians:
Finally…in my final visits to Michael at Oakwood I would look forward to the cleansing radiance & humor with which he would greet me (and, I’m sure, each of you) whenever we visited. I would come away often reminded of a fragment of a verse which has haunted my own journey for some 40 years now. It has become my connection with Br. Michael & I share it with you now like a joyful farewell message from a bottle washed up on our side of the shore…
And in those final years
He grew gentle in the wing-worked air
And learned he would die