“Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” —The Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 4
Bell no. 5 tolls … One stroke for each year of profession … A monk has died. The toll of the bell is the way death is announced in the life of the monastery. The bell has scarcely finished tolling out the years before the monks begin a familiar ritual.
Over lunch or at table during a coffee break, they exchange stories and remembrances of the one who has died, even though most of the stories have been told and heard many times. It’s almost a contest to see who can remember the best story. Most often the stories capture in a single slice of life some characteristic trait of the monk they are remembering, and a good-natured laugh presses each story between the pages of memory, like a dried flower, for safekeeping.
An old saying goes, “Say nothing but good about the dead.” Not all the monks obey that advice because they know that no one is all good or all bad. But respect prevails, and even the more annoying habits of the monk who has died are remembered now with a tenderness that wasn’t always possible when he was alive. Death has a way of tempering harsh judgment.
Remembering a monk who has died by sharing stories about him is a way that both individuals and the community acknowledge the good in another and grieve its loss. It’s a very human thing to do. It’s a very good thing to do. It relieves the sadness. It might seem odd to speak of grief as a value, but it is an authentic human reaction to loss. Like anger or joy or intimacy, grief needs to find appropriate expression.
Death is not the sole occasion for grief, even though it is one of the most common occasions for its expression, both private and public. No one needs to be ashamed to grieve over the loss that death brings. Grief anchors us firmly in the flesh and blood of life.
Death robs us of the sight and voice and touch of a loved one, and one day it will bring an end to our own delight in the beauty of a sunset and the cheerful morning song of a robin. Life and all the good things it holds are a pleasure. Death brings an end to the things that we have come to know and to trust in this world. Grief mourns their loss, both in the passing of another and in the foreshadowing of our own death.
Monks grieve their losses. Gratitude for all the good things in life that God has given includes gratitude for the gift of life itself. Whatever is authentically human is part of God’s gift of life, and so monks value grief as an expression of something deeply human. It is a very human response to loss. It also safeguards against the denial of death that has come to be so much a part of contemporary culture.
Anyone who feels free enough to grieve openly is also free enough to hope confidently. Hope is a theme that runs throughout life and death in the monastery.
Excerpted from Kindred Spirits” written by Archabbot Justin DuVall, OSB. Contact us today for your free copy.