The Abbot’s Notebook for August 9, 2017
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
Blessings to you! The big news here this past week was the death of our Father Odon Nguyen Van Tho, OSB, on August 2, 2017. In fairly recent Notebooks, I had mentioned that he was close to death. Father Gregory was sitting with him and feeding him. The Father Gregory went to the kitchen for a short time and when he returned, Father Odon had died. Because he had been under hospice care, a hospice nurse was able to come and certify his death. None of his relatives could come from Vietnam. Friends from Albuquerque did come to be here for the funeral. Brother David built the casket right here and because Father Odon was buried within 24 hours of his death, he did not need to be embalmed.
The brothers cleaned and washed the body of Father Odon. They also cleaned and washed his cell in the infirmary. They laid Father Odon out on his bed, dressed in his habit and cowl. Many brothers went to pray by his bed, where a kneeler had been placed. There was a brother with him pretty much the time he died until he was buried, praying the Psalms. The evening of his death, Father Gregory and Father Mayeul and all the Vietnamese brothers celebrated a Mass in his cell. The community prayed the Office of the Dead in the Church beginning with Sext on the day he died and ending with Compline on the day he was buried. After Lauds of the day following his death, his body was moved to the Church. All the guests and visitors were able to come and see him and pray for him and sprinkle him with holy water. The funeral was at 11:00 am on August 3, 2017. There were probably 12-15 people from the Vietnamese community in Albuquerque present. Those working on the finishing of the new novitiate building here all asked permission to participate and we had a large number of guests, so the Church was really full. Abbot Caedmon presided at the funeral and it was a full pontifical funeral. I preached the homily. The Vietnamese brothers and sisters sang after communion and in the cemetery.
I hope that my funeral is done the same way! It was wonderful and very traditionally monastic. When we young monks first began to think about funerals, we decided that we wanted to buried without a casket, just buried within 24 hours and carried to the grave on a plank. As our community grew, some of the brothers found it very difficult to think of being buried so quickly. Others found it difficult to think of not having a casket! At one point we thought maybe we should all be cremated because the costs of a funeral with cremation were so much cheaper. We have continued to think about burial and what works best for our community and for the monks of our community.
Some visitors from years ago still remember that we always kept an open grave in the cemetery. For sure, the open grave reminded each of us that we might be the next. But the grave was prepared for a more practical reason: in the winter it is almost impossible to dig a grave if we have had many freezes. It was easier for us to have a grave ready than to figure out how to dig it if the ground was solidly frozen. Eventually we got too concerned that someone would fall into the open grave and we filled it in again.
Spiritually, of course, we should all be ready to die at any moment. That does not mean in any way that we have to be perfect right now, except in the sense that Christian perfection lies in trying to be faithful to the Lord Jesus each day. When we fail, we try again. Whenever we died, we are in the hands of God’s merciful love. May we call out to the Lord every day: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
After the death of Father Odon on Wednesday, then Sunday Father Gregory left to visit his family and then will go to work at Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Polokwane, South Africa, for a year—and perhaps longer. Brother Gabriel, who is from South Africa, will also go for six months. Saint Benedict’s Abbey has fallen on difficult times. We have helped them for decades but more seriously since 2006. Because of various happenings, we more or less withdrew from helping in 2013. Now we are working to renew that commitment once again. Our community has always been generous in helping other communities and we continue to do that—but our resources are not endless. Many of our monks who helped in the past are now too old to be helping in other countries—although Brother Leander at age 90 is helping out in Costa Rica!
When our community first entered the then Subiaco Congregation in 1983-84, the then Abbot President Denis Huerre made a presentation about how our Congregation is a missionary congregation. We are missionary not in the sense of going out and starting parishes, but of helping implant contemplative monastic life in those areas that do not yet have this gift.
That made a lot of sense to me. I also recognized that we might have men entering our community who have a gift of helping in implanting monastic life in other countries and cultures. Certainly one of the great gifts of the Abbey of La-Pierre-Qui-Vire and the Abbey of En-Calcat, both in France was to implant monastic life in various parts of the world. The Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia in Spain also has had that gift. Even though we were very small in numbers in 1983 and 1984, it still crossed my mind that such a gift might also be in our community at Christ in the Desert.
At this point in our history, we have a good reputation of helping others, both with monks when that is possible, and also financially when that is possible. The brothers in the community have often heard me say: “we have so much because we give so much away.” I remember as a young monk admiring those saints who had decided that they would live entirely from Divine Providence. I don’t think that I have done that, but our community keeps working in that direction: God will always provide both monks and finances as long as we are seeking to help others.
As always, I send my love and prayers for you. I pray for you and for your intentions every day. This week, as I try to do every week, I will celebrate a Holy Mass for you and for your intentions. Please continue to pray for me and for the women and men of our communities and the communities associated with us.
Your brother in the Lord,