Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Rest of the News

There is some additional news to add to what I wrote about last week. During the week of Chapter we had two deaths in the Order - the first time in our history that two brothers have died in the same week. Br Michael Stonebraker and Br Bernard van Waes had both spent many of their years here at West Park, but neither was living in this monastery at the time of his death.

Michael was widely known throughout the Episcopal Church. He was one of the generation of the "mission brethren". He traveled the United States, as so many of our monks did for many decades, giving retreats, parish missions and conferences and he was known by nearly everyone who knew anything about Holy Cross.

Michael had two great passions in his life: youth work and pipe organs. His father was an organ builder and he grew up learning the craft. He played the organ all his life (quite an accomplishment for a man with only one arm!) and knew, it seemed, every organ and every organist in the Episcopal Church. He helped design the tracker organ which was in our monastery church until last year, when it finally had to be replaced. He also gave himself whole-heartedly to work with young people. For years he was a regular on the campus of St James school in Hagerstown, Maryland. He also was Director of Christian Education at St James Cathedral in Toronto during his time at the Priory there. He developed a relationship with the Diocese of Olympia in the state of Washington, and summer after summer returned to provide programming for the camping program of that Diocese. Their camp is now named Camp Michael in his honor. He had an enormous effect on this lives of countless children and teens.

With his devotion to the Order's work and ministry Michael also carried a great deal of difficulty with living the community life. One of his arms had been lost at the time of his birth and as is often true of males with physical disabilities, he carried a great deal of barely suppressed anger, It was, of course, his family - in this case, his community - that felt the brunt of much of his anger. He was a very large man, and heavy anger from such a source is never easy to handle, and that was certainly true of our community. At several points in his life Michael lived apart from us, and much of his later years were spent living in Seattle and continuing his beloved ministry there. When financial and health pressures forced his return to West Park he came with great grace and determined to be a real member of the community. But it was not to be. Barely two months after his return here he was hospitalized with a crisis caused by his diabetes and he never returned to the monastery. He lived for several years at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, across the river from us. He was in regular contact with us and for as long as he could he returned here for the big feasts of the year. But the past year was one of great decline for him, and he died in Kingston Hospital, just minutes after some of the brethren who were here for Chapter had visited with him and prayed with him.

Br Bernard was another man with many talents who was never fully able to find his place in the community life. Bernard had great artistic talents. There are a number of his water colors and his pen and ink sketches around the house here and in other houses of the Order, and they betray a great sensitivity and a careful eye. He was also a devoted student of the writings of Thomas Merton, and was particularly interested in the relationship that Merton developed with the Shakers. He did some writing on the subject, but the book that the worked on for years was never published.

None of us knew the man that Bernard was before World War II. We only knew the person who was touched, and changed, by battle. The chief event of his life, as he told it, was the day that half of the bridge of the ship on which he was stationed was blown away, taking with it his best friend, who was standing next to him at the time. No one had heard of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome at the time (though we knew about "Shell Shock") nor was there any thought that anything could be done about it. And as with Michael, the community was often the focus of Bernard's chaotic emotional life.

Bernard was not a great missioner, and his ideal was the contemplative life, and he lived a fairly withdrawn life wherever he was. He was here at West Park for some time and then spent about 15 years in the Priory in Berkeley, where he finally found some treatment for his PTSD and gained a measure of inner peace. He suffered from cancer for nearly 20 years, and the community was continually amazed at how long he managed to survive. His last few months were spent at Mount Calvary in Santa Barbara, where he was cared for most lovingly by some of the younger brethren there. He was touched by deep joy in these months, and so were the brothers who looked after him. Some of his creativity returned at this time, and the end of his life was happy. In his dying he gave some wonderful gifts to us. He was in Hospice care at the end of his life and he died just days after being transferred to a residential facility in Santa Barbara.

Contrary to the projections often sent in our direction, the monastic life is no ideal state, freed from the conflicts that everyone else in life faces, and I do my best not to hide either the joys or the trials of our life in this column. These two brothers were greatly talented and marvelously accomplished human beings and many people were genuinely transformed by their ministries. They also had lives that were deeply marked with hostility, anger and chaos, and both they and the community bore those marks as well. All of this we carried through the days of their dying and as we sang the Office of the Dead for each of them, and we carried their lives, and ours, to the altar at the Requiem Eucharists for them. Michael's funeral was done here at West Park in the presence of his community. Bernard's funeral will be July 14 in Santa Barbara. The ashes of both of these brothers will be laid to rest in the columbarium here at West Park where most of the departed members of our community rest. And of course stories will be told about them for many, many years.

May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

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