Gershwin In the Monastery
It was quiet as the Trappist monks lay to rest the body of Brother John.
But then, it’s always quiet at a monastery. The monks thrive on silence as much as our modern world hungers for noise.
I was making a private retreat at the New Clairvaux Monastery a few miles from Chico when I had the unexpected opportunity to experience the funeral of a monk.
At the service inside the monastery church, the Abbot told us about the life of this man of God who had spent close to fifty years of his life at New Clairvaux. Brother John took on flesh and blood as the Abbot painted a picture for us of a young man growing up in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Brother John fit right in with the lively and lusty Irish Catholic atmosphere of early and mid 20th. Century San Francisco. He loved music and the theater, a gregarious man with a passion for song and life. His last request was to have Michael Feinstein’s version of Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here To Stay” sung at his funeral Mass.
As we listened to Brother John’s eulogy, I could not help but wonder how this very outgoing man had been drawn to enter perhaps the strictest religious order of the Catholic Church and to live out his life in silence. The Trappists vow to spend their lives in silence. Even their meals are taken in silence. When they open their mouths, it is to praise God and to pray for the rest of us.
What made this man who loved jazz and the music of Gershwin devote his life to the prayer and work and silence of a monastery? When I put this question to one of the monks after the service, he just smiled. “You would be surprised at the variety of personalities that God calls to this life. We number kids fresh out of college or military service, former businessmen, widowers, people from all walks of life. Each in his own way and for his own reasons is seeking peace of mind and closeness to God.”
I mulled this over in my mind as I joined the procession of monks to the gravesite on the grounds of the monastery. Brother John’s body, dressed in his religious habit, was set down gently and respectfully in the grave dug for him by his fellow monks. There was no casket. Prayers of farewell were said and all of us guests were invited to put our shovelful of dirt over his body.
The lyrics of Brother John’s favorite song played in my head.
“In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
There’re only made of clay
But, our love is here to stay.”