Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Unexpected Is Always With Us

We had just started the process of settling down, right? Almost all of those who are leaving this house for other monasteries or other locations have left and all of the brothers who were coming have arrived. People have begun settling into their jobs, the guesthouse season is in full swing, and the task of this season is now that of adjusting to each other and learning to work and pray together in new ways. Right? Right?

And then on Tuesday morning, the unexpected and the unwelcome came to be with us: Br William Sibley died. His is the 3rd death in our community in less than 5 months, and for an organization the size of the Order of the Holy Cross, that is an awful lot. And William was part of the West Park community. The other 2 deaths didn't touch us this way: Bernard had lived on the west coast for years and Michael lived either on the west coast or in a Nursing Home for the last part of his life. Their lives didn't touch us in the same way as William's did.

Br. William, OHC
Originally uploaded by Randy OHC

It was sudden, but not entirely unexpected. William didn't have any current health crisis, but his health was chancy - he was in his mid-70's and had some heart problems, some lung problems some balance problems, and he was a heavy smoker, which at his age that causes big problems. Last week he caught the cold that is going around and complained about it fairly loudly, but didn't want to consider going to a doctor. In a fairly short time his fever disappeared and he was getting around again, so it seemed that he was on the road to being well again. Then Monday things turned worse. He had no fever, but seemed disoriented and was growing weaker. He still was very opposed to seeing a doctor, but when he fell in the hall and we had trouble getting him up again and his breathing began to become labored something obviously had to be done, so we called 911 and Robert went off with him to the hospital. They said it was Congestive Heart Failure with perhaps a touch of Pneumonia, and admitted him. Because they had sent Robert home before his admission, we were not aware that they had admitted him to Intensive Care.

We weren't worrying. We had just had another Brother, just about his age, go into the hospital with a bit of pneumonia and a bit of CHF and he was in the hospital for 2 days and then home again and in good shape. So it seemed that it was just a touch of what Sam had. Only in this case it wasn't, and at about 7:30 am on Tuesday the hospital called to say that he had suddenly taken a downward turn and had died. We were stunned.

But we had to go on and now we were going to have to bury William and to tend to ourselves and care for a house full of guests. When you have to do it, you do it, and most folks do it largely by telling stories and by observing the family rituals.

The Stories:

William was one of Holy Cross' Larger Than Life characters. He was a man of great talents and great energy and he was always at the center of things in the Order's life. He was, for a time, a tireless missioner, going from parish to parish preaching, teaching and counseling. He served for a number of years as the Prior of the monastery in Toronto and became widely known throughout the Canadian Church. Then he was the Superior of the Order, the first of our non-ordained brothers to be elected to that post, and he served for 9 years.

After being Superior William had a number of years when finding his place was really hard for him. He lived for a while at the monastery in Santa Barbara and then in a retirement home in Toronto. Then about three years ago he came here. His adjustment here, after having lived away from the community for a number of years, was not easy, but he and we worked at it and came through to a really good place. I think that the last couple of years he was happier than I have known him to be in a long time. He loved to cook and he took over the job of providing a meal on Tuesday evenings, when Edward our chef isn't here. He truly reveled in that job, eventually extending it to preparing soup for the clients of the homeless shelter where some of our brothers volunteer and to fixing dinner even on Tuesday nights when there weren't any guests and we didn't need a meal. He loved the whole process of getting the ingredients together, going out to shop and of spending a day in the kitchen. It gave him a place in the community that he hadn't had in a long time, and he became gentler and happier.

William was a born politician and loved everything that was political. Whether it was the politics of our nation or of the world or of the church, whenever a political conversation started, William was there. He knew political figures everywhere, particularly in the church, and rarely could a bishop be mentioned that William didn't know, and he counted many of them as his friends. He knew all of the crises and transitions that the Episcopal Church has been through in the past half-century, and he and other old "veterans" of those battles often reminisced together in the guesthouse.

He was also a much-loved counsellor. We have had many, many messages in the days since his death telling us how much his presence and his words meant to peoples' lives. It was part of William's lot to have an alcohol addiction which he struggled with for many years, and he used the gift of that struggle to be a real wounded healer. A large portion of the messages than came to us speak of how many people feel that they owe their sobriety to Williams counsel, companionship and love. His wisdom and his experience were often transformative to people whose lives he touched, and we have been fortunate to hear from a number of them and to listen to their stories of how William helped them find meaning and recovery in their lives.

Telling the stories renews our knowledge of our Brother, and some of the stories that have come to us from around the world revealed things about him that we never knew at all.

The family rituals:

We did a version of a practice that we began a number of years ago when one of our brothers died unexpectedly. On Tuesday when we heard of his death we began immediately to sing the Office of the Departed, and that continued throughout the day. That Office, with its texts full of gentle and firm reassurance and its Gregorian melodies that utter a sound of deep lament, is so full and expressive that nothing more was needed. Anything else would have been too much. But on Wednesday we were ready to move forward and that is the day that William came back to us. His body lay before our altar, dressed in his Cowl (which is the garment we wear in church) and holding the cross that he received on the day he made his Life Vows. We had two hours of vigil: time to say farewell, time to pray, time just to be silent before the mystery of life and death. The Guesthouse was quite full that day, but the guests by and large left us to ourselves, so it was just us and a couple of very close friends who came to join us for those hours.

Then, when our vigil was over, we closed the casket and had a very simple Requiem Eucharist and expressed our faith and received communion together with the casket in our midst. After the mass was ended, the casket was taken to the door and put into the hearse and then we had a small ceremony that the funeral director has provided for us for many years in which the hearse drives away up our driveway very, very slowly, and I thought of all the years and all the times that I have watched that car go up the drive and disappear around that last curve.

That evening I was talking with Robert, our new Superior, who has never been here when we were having one of these community goodbyes to a brother, and he said: "This really was our funeral, wasn't it?" I hadn't thought of that, but of course it was. The public funeral, which will be in a couple of weeks, will be a grand liturgy full of processions and holy water and incense and will be the great occasion that Holy Cross is so good at. But that is largely for other people; for William's family and for Holy Cross' friends and Associates. This was ours - just for us and for William, and it was very good.

Those are our stories and our rituals. That is how we negotiated this week. It has been hard, but it has been good and it is all the stuff of our life.

Rest in peace.

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