the edge of life and the threshold of death
For Br. Gabriel Kirby, OSB Cam. 21 April, 1930–18 July, 2018
Our Bishop Rich Garcia passed away recently; I was at his funeral last Thursday. A priest friend of his gave a homily, warning us that it was going to be just as much a eulogy as a homily. It was very touching, filled with memories. Not knowing Bishop Rich that well, I couldn’t relate to a lot of it, but there was one thing this priest said that I tried to commit to memory right away. He said, about his friend the bishop, “We accompanied him as far as we could, right up to the edge of life as we know it…” As soon as he said, that I immediately thought of Hezekiah’s Canticle from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that we sing for Lauds in the Office of the Dead, particularly in relationship to our journey with Gabriel these last days. The antiphon we sing for that canticle is, At the threshold of death rescue me, O Lord![i] And I put those two phrases together: the edge of life and the threshold of death…
Many of you will know that Gabriel really thought that God could and might rescue him, right up until the moment of death, and heal him 100 percent. He told me that specifically, as I’m sure he told many others as well, “even my eyes and my teeth!” he said. As some of you also know, Gabriel’s active dying process went on extraordinarily long, especially the last six days when he could no longer eat or drink and was lying in bed, for the most part unconscious but not necessarily unaware; I had the impression that he was sort of coming and going. Aside from being so moved by the tender care he got from Raniero, Jana, and Jim[ii]––every few hours turning him and speaking to him––, it was especially difficult to watch that poor little body lie there struggling to breathe. Why both that line of the priest and the line from Hezekiah struck me is because we not only accompanied him as far as we could to the edge of life, it felt like we went even farther, to the very threshold of death with him, as far as we could. As a matter of fact, Gabriel made us go farther than we normally go with someone to the edge of life as we know it, drew us in with him to the threshold of death. Maybe I should rephrase that: he didn’t make us go there, but that’s what we did because that’s what we do for each other as a community––we accompany each other as far as we can, with tenderness and solidity, to the edge of life, even to the threshold of death.
Artists, lovers, and mystics all tend to like hanging out on the edges. And so do monks, hence the desert elders. And our Gabriel was a little bit of all of those rolled into one, an artist, a bit of a mystic, and a lover, a lover of God at least. (How often he spoke about the mystical marriage!) And sometimes lovers, mystics, and artists––and monks!––go out to that edge alone. But there are dangers in going out to that edge, especially going there alone. There was a novel a few years ago called Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer that was later made into a movie by Sean Penn. It’s the true story of a young man named Christopher McCandless who ventured off into the wilds of Alaska only to wind up dying of poisoning and starvation. At one point in the film he is shown carving his manifesto into a wooden bench: “Ultimate freedom, an extremist, an aesthetic voyager…” The lesson he learned too late, at least as it is portrayed in the book and movie, was how important it is to have someone to belong to, someone to share the experience with. The fatal danger he fell into is what we call hubris, which is like a cross between arrogance and presumption. Not only his refusal to take advice from anyone but, as one reviewer put it, Chris McCandless’ “extreme risk-taking was the hubris that eventually led to his downfall.” That’s what can happen when one goes into the wild, out to the edge, alone.
One of the places this hubris can manifest itself in religion is in thinking that we know exactly what God is saying, in English, according to our tiny little human categories and comprehension. In this way God has been blamed for and/or credited with everything from bad songwriting to predicting the future in a way that winds up being more like fortune telling, all the way up to heinous acts of violence––“because God told me to do it.” The voice of God, the will of God, a “word” from God, what we think is a prophecy, always needs to be discerned, at least within community, but ideally also according to the tradition and scripture.
And therein lies the beauty of the church, the beauty of community, and the wisdom of the monastic tradition, to accompany us, to keep us from falling over that edge. Therein too is the genius of St. Romuald making sure that even hermits stay under a Rule and under an abbot, and within the embrace of community. Therein too was Gabriel’s saving grace that kept him from going over the edge, first of all his obedience to the church and to the tradition. One of the famous ancient teachings from monasticism is about the monastic triad––that our life is built on scripture, liturgy, and the patristics, the early writings of the church. Two of the things I saved from Gabriel’s cell were, first of all, his Bible, all marked up in various colored highlighters as was his wont; and I was surprised to find that he also had his own complete set of the collection called Word in Season, which is mostly made up of patristic readings, the same one that we use here at Vigils, again all marked up with little pieces of paper on which he had written his notes from the various ancient authors. He was checking himself against the tradition. And of course he loved the liturgy. He really did make every attempt to submit himself to the catholic tradition in the broadest sense of the word and to that triad of scripture, patristics, and liturgy.
There is another monastic triad that was a saving grace for Gabriel; it’s what our Fr. Mario called the three-legged stool: prayer, work and community. There was no doubt that Gabriel was committed to prayer. He was like a little prayer machine. And in the many years before his illness he was also like an Energizer Bunny, quietly, consistently at work in so many areas without complaint. As far as community was concerned…that was another question. It’s no secret that he was not the easiest person to get along with or get close to, but I know I can speak for the two past priors present here today, that he took obedience very seriously. If you told or asked him to do or not to do something under obedience, there might be a dark cloud pass over his face for a moment, but there was not a moment’s hesitation in obeying.
But monastic obedience is broader than that. When St. Benedict speaks of obedience it is not just to the Rule and to the abbot or the prior: Benedict calls it, and calls for, mutual obedience. When I say that the community accompanied him to the edge of life and to the threshold of death, I don’t just mean the prior. I mean too the other brothers who spent time with him, and sometimes counseled him and pulled him back from the edge with his diet and vitamins, for example. But I also mean Jana and Jim and Grace who challenged his judgment at times with love and logic; I mean Wade and Jordan and Vickie and Rich[iii] who visited him regularly those last days, assuring him that he was loved, respected, and cared for. Jana’s rather ironic nickname for Gabriel was “Sweet Pea.” And in the last days Rich came in every day and lay a sprig of sweet pea on his pillow. And just minutes before Gabriel died Rich came in with a fresh sprig––I was there; I saw it––and Rich said, “Gabriel, this is the last sprig of sweet pea I have now. It’s time for you to let go.” That too was accompanying him to the edge of life and the threshold of death with love and discernment. It was Gabriel’s saving grace, and it was our gift to him, that he was surrounded by a community that walked with him to the edge of life as we know it, and kept him from going over the edge.
By the way, Stephanie from the mortuary told me that when they got Gabriel’s body that little sprig of sweet pea that Rich had given him was still with it, and so she put it in the casket with him in his hands. He shall go clutching a reminder that he was accompanied by a community.
God did rescue this little mystic, artist and lover-monk at the threshold of death, at least in part by his belonging to something bigger––scripture, tradition, community, just as God will rescue each one of us. But we should never presume to know exactly what that rescue is going to look like, just as we never presume to know the mind of God, only rest assured that the rescue will be there, and that it will be good. Whatever images, myths, and language we use to describe that indescribable realm that we enter after the physical body dies, the resurrection of Jesus assures us that there is some kind of marvelous realm beyond this one, our scriptures and tradition assure us that God is merciful and compassionate, and community teaches us that God is love. The mystical marriage that Gabriel so longed for has been consummated, not by anything Gabriel did, but by God’s own desire to draw his beloved son––as God draws each one of us––to himself, in God’s own good time, in God’s own gracious, mysterious, fathomless way.
cyprian, 24 july 18
[i] Is 38:1-22. Serendipitously that was also the reading and the responsorial psalm for Mass last Friday, Friday of the 15th Week of Ordinary Time, Year II.
[ii] Our infirmarian and the two hospice nurses.
[iii] These are all members of our support staff.