Homilies - April 2009

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Homily for Abbot Alban’s Funeral: April 4, 2009 by Fr. James

Fourth Sunday of the Year

  • April 4, 2009
  • by Fr. James

Anyone who lived as long as Abbot Alban did, more than 97 years, would certainly be aware that death might be drawing near. Only three days before his death, he was telling me in our guest library that he had indeed enjoyed the special buffet supper we had recently held for the feast of St. Benedict, but that it was nevertheless difficult for him to join in on the table conversation, not only because he had become so hard of hearing but also because his voice had become weaker and weaker with advancing age. It was likewise quite evident to the rest of us monks on the evening before he died in his sleep that he looked especially drawn and fatigued as he walked slowly from the refectory back to his room. Watching him that evening readily brought to mind something that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had written years earlier about what he called “the passivities of diminishment.” Fr. Teilhard said that even if any of us escapes the onslaught of diseases that attack the cells of our body or our very personality, there still remains what he called “that slow, essential deterioration which we cannot escape: old age little by little robbing us of ourselves and pushing us on toward the end.”

Some people rebel against this in all sorts of ways, refusing (in the poet’s words) to go gentle into that good night—but such rebellion was in no way to be found in Abbot Alban. He was well aware of all the diminishments he had been undergoing, including a painful case of keen anxiety about things liturgical that had troubled him for some time. In fact, on the occasion of his 97th birthday celebration last August, he very humbly and touchingly acknowledged his awareness of how this problem had been a burden for some of the community. Happily, he coped with it with considerable success over the course of the past five or six months. Even more to his credit, I never once heard him actually complain about any of his problems. He accepted any and all of these “passivities of diminishment” as part of what God was requiring of him in his final years on earth. He remained remarkably faithful to praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist with the rest of us in the abbey church right up to the very last day of his life, just as he was equally faithful to spiritual reading and prayer in his room. He also retained a keen interest in the activities of his fellow monks and in the lives of our Oblates, of his sisters Monica and Clare and their families in England, and of his many friends such as the Baskins, with whom he stayed close ever since receiving Claudia and her three daughters into the Church several decades ago.

Abbot Alban’s faithfulness and his caring about others were surely based on his commitment to the Catholic faith in general and to his Benedictine vocation in particular. Having been in monastic vows for more than seventy-eight years, including nearly thirty years as superior of our monastery, he knew by a kind of osmosis what St. Benedict meant by “truly seeking God” and what is involved in trying to conform to the Gospel admonition that Benedict quotes in chapter five of his Rule: that the monk must resolve to conform to the saying of the Lord: “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38).

Part of that seeking not his own will was lived out during his chaplaincy work with the British army during World War II. Like any other member of the armed forces, he would instinctively have preferred to remain in his own land—in his case, as a monk of Fort Augustus Abbey in Scotland—but he knew the spiritual need of the soldiers and willingly offered his services. About ten years ago he posted on our bulletin board a poignant letter from a woman whose husband Alban had visited in a military hospital during that war, the woman thanking him for the help he had given the wounded man and also making some further request that he readily fulfilled. I am sure, too, that after the war he would have preferred to remain in the monastery of his profession, but he obediently agreed to the request that he cross the Atlantic to serve our own community as its superior, first as prior and then as its first abbot when St. Anselm’s was raised to abbatial rank in 1961.

As I noted earlier, Alban served as our superior for nearly thirty years, a truly remarkable span that hardly anyone equals or even approaches any more. St. Benedict is altogether clear, even blunt, about the difficulties of being abbot, for he writes in chapter two of his Rule that the abbot “must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving, and encouraging them as appropriate. He must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence that he will not only keep the flock entrusted to his care from dwindling, but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock.” That Abbot Alban knew what this involved is evident from some of his own homilies, conferences, and letters to Oblates, many of which have been published in his three books. The first of these books, entitled Alive to God, has the following very pertinent passage:

Time and again, during our life, we shall meet with hardships which are the inevitable accompaniment of any attempt to lead a supernatural life on this earth. These will arise not only from the temptations which … are the consequence of our own weakness and fault but also from all those trials and problems that arise from circumstances and people beyond our own control, things which will demand from us much humility, fortitude, generosity, forgiveness, patience with the “personality problems” [of others], patience with ourselves…. Only the spirit of compunction of heart will enable us to accept them … [and] to transform them from bitter frustrations into a patient and even joyful sharing of the sufferings of Christ.

There is a further aspect of the Christian life—in some respects especially prominent in Benedictine monasticism—that I also want to highlight. Although monastic scholars rightly point out that St. Benedict drew on the wisdom of various earlier authors, some of whom promoted the life of hermits while others gave primacy to cenobitic life—that is, life in community—there is no doubt that Benedict himself assumed that the vast majority of monks would and should remain in their community for the rest of their life. It was for such monks that he wrote, concluding one of the most inspiring chapters of his Rule with the words, “Let [the monks] prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life” (RB, chap. 72).

It is this phrase “all together” that is so important. Something of this community aspect of all Christian life also appears in our Gospel reading today, taken from Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in the Fourth Gospel. Speaking in particular of his immediate disciples but surely including all those who in any future age would follow him, Jesus prays: “Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am, they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17:24). In what I consider one of the finest passages that Abbot Alban ever wrote, originally spoken in an Easter homily, he quoted that verse and then went on to say: “It is as though [Jesus] is saying that heaven will not be heaven for him unless we are there. This is a beautiful manifestation of the sublime mystery of God’s creative love. Somehow, wonderfully, the only one who could have truly forgotten all else, the only one who was truly perfect and complete in his own being … in the blessed richness of the Trinity—this One willed not to be without us; this One called us into existence and into his loving friendship.”

It is also very significant that that Easter homily begins by referring to what was our first reading this morning, taken from the Book of Job, where Job proclaims: “As for me, I know that my Vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust, whom I myself shall see: my own eyes, not another’s, shall behold him” (Job 19:25, 27). It was the hope of attaining that vision which kept Abbot Alban faithful to the Gospel and to the Rule of St. Benedict for so many years. He has now completed the course. May his fidelity, patience, and simple human goodness be an inspiration for all of us as we commend him to God’s gracious care at this monastery where he himself offered so many prayers in the course of a long and faithful Benedictine life.

Fr. James Wiseman
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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper, 1960), 54.
Alban Boultwood, Alive to God: Meditations for Everyone (Baltimore: Helicon, 1964), 64.
Alban Boultwood, Into His Splendid Light (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1968), 114-15.