[A snippet from my personal journal that I thought I’d share. I hope it is appropriate to do so. + In Nomine Domini +]
Yesterday, I had a doctor’s appointment in a large city an hour train ride from my home. I mistakenly thought the appointment was for 11:30 am, only to find upon arrival that I was expected at 3:00 pm! Fortunately, I have the Divine Office on my iPhone, and I always carry a book when I go into the city. Yesterday, knowing that today was the memorial of St. Benedict’s death, the transitus (d. 547 AD), I took along, “The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict,” book two, of the four books of St. Gregory’s “Dialogues.” Book Two is devoted to the subject of its title, and appeared within fifty years of the death of St. Benedict. While most of us have no idea when we will be “called home”—-St. Benedict foretold to a number of his disciples the day of his transitus—his “passing over.” He modeled “the art of dying well,” called “ars moriendi” in patristic literature. Before his death he received Communion, and in the arms of his brothers, expired into the hands of God. St. Gregory had the opportunity to visit four of Benedict’s monks, who had lived with him. It is their retelling of the miracles and life, including notes on the Rule, that Gregory records in Book Two.
Having left the doctors office to return hours later, I found myself pondering over a cup of coffee at a quiet shop on a busy urban street, the question, “In what ways would I spend my life if I knew the ‘day and the hour’ of my “passing over,” as Benedict knew his”? I realized that I’d make changes from my daily horarium. These thoughts were not like “New Year’s resolutions”—-they were serious considerations of what I am called to, as an Oblate of the Monastery of Mount Saviour, to do differently than I do now.
I could not escape thinking about the pummeling crises of our time and the similarities to the time of Saints Benedict and Gregory. During Benedict’s and Gregory’s life, they faced wars between Emperor Justinian and the Goths (…as I pen these lines, there are currently more than 40 active conflicts around the world. An interactive map shows them at (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4453666/The-world-war-Interactive-map-reveals-conflicts.html).
Through out Benedict’s and Gregory’s lives, people lived in dread of military machines, the Lombard hoards, that swept into Italian towns and villages, slaying and pillaging (…I pondered the similarities today, http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org).
In the life of Benedict and Gregory, Italy saw overwhelming floods (…my mind turned to the mid-western US, and to southern Africa in the wake of cyclone Idai) and plagues (…the un-newsworthy and forgotten Ebola outbreak in the Congo, among many other epidemics).
Italy in the 500s AD was in a long period of famine (…how ironic, on the walk from the train station to the doctor’s office I passed so many homeless and hungry people huddled in doorways and at the train station; and I thought about the complex impacts of climate change that produce cyclones, floods, famine and droughts).
During Benedict’s and Gregory’s time there were migrations of people avoiding violence (…my mind flashed to the US/Mexico border where people have come, fleeing violence in Central America, like Mary and Joseph fled for safety to Egypt—-and our unChristian response to them. In an instance I recalled, “‘for he will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’” [RB, 53:1; Matthew 25:35])….Many thoughts and images came to mind over my cooling cup of coffee.
Looking into the few coffee grinds at the bottom of my cup, I had scarce answers, but the feelings and questions raised, still linger. For days after the “transitus” and my unplanned “coffee house meditation,” I hope to search for my map of actions, in light of my Oblation. At the core will be striving to meet evil with love and determination, to help and support the most vulnerable among us (“good zeal…separates [us] from evil and leads to God”) (RB 72:1).
I am aware that most Benedictine communities celebrate July 11th as the solemnity of St. Benedict, since the reformed calendar after Vatican II moved it from today. But today nonetheless remains a day not to be forgotten. It is more than a time to remember his “death”; for me it is a time to recall our mortality, as well as his birth–and ours–into new life. Death is not so much the final stop on life’s train—-but rather, a way-station. From this station we move to fuller union with the Transcendent Other.
While the actual feast of St. Benedict will be celebrated in July, for me, as an Oblate, it is important to recall periods of Church history, and extolled in some religious communities, the reality that life is temporary. At the Mount Saviour, as I recall, during Friday Vigil in the two week cycle, we pray Psalm 102, “[Our] days are like grass; [we] flower like the flower of the field; the wind blows and [we] are gone…But the love of the Lord is everlasting.” At times our temporality is expressed as “memento mori,” (“remember you must die”). In the Rule, there is an instruction under the title, “The Instruments of Good Works”; it unambiguously says, “Keep death daily before your eyes” (RB 4:47).
I write this note during the Lenten season—-a time leading up to the passion and death of Jesus—-and also to His glorious, joyful Resurrection. I recall that on Ash Wednesday, one blessing, now often abandoned, was, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Today, the blessing is frequently substituted for one calling us to repentance, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
In the Catholic Church’s “Order of Christian Funerals, no. 4” we read,
“At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of Baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life.”
Since St. Benedict’s death, the bonds of our Christian faith, “forged in life,” have strengthened through time, in part through the charisms of professed Benedictine women and men, and the monastic affiliation of our Oblate sisters and brothers.
The Zen master, Kozan Ichikyo (d. 1360) wrote:
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
As a Benedictine Oblate, I’d have to add that the “entanglement” is guided by the Holy Spirit, and by grace, centered on the mysteries of God the Creator, and Christ the Redeemer.
Benedict’s transitus reminds me: In baptism, we put on Christ, and in death, the white pall laid over the coffin, is the final “putting on Christ” in an earthly way, recalling our baptism. I often wonder how many people know, or celebrate the date of their baptism. I love celebrating mine!
Today, March 21st, the “quiet celebration” of St. Benedict’s transitus, I feel particularly blessed because I realize I will have had three birthdays in my life. My natal birth; my baptismal birth in Christ; and when this “passage” ends, I hope, by the mercy of God, that the words, part of the Mass of Christian Burial, come to fruition: “May the angels lead you into Paradise.” That is the meaning for me of “transitus”!
Transitus! A time to meditate on the events during Saint Benedict’s life, and the parallels to our times and OUR lives, and to continue to seek ways to turn our awareness into actions, as Oblates—-as part of the entanglement of “two simple happens”: birth and death.
+ Deo Gratias +
A post script: On today, March 21, 2019, the United Nation’s International Day for the “Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” a new website will launch: http://www.racepowerofanillusion.org .