Words on the Word
Fr Matthew Dunn RIP
Sirach 3:1-15, 17-20: My son, perform your tasks in meekness.
Colossians 3:12-17: Put on compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another.
Matthew 5:1-16: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
In a sermon on the Beatitudes, Abbot Isaac of Stella speaks of the strangeness of this list of Christian maxims. They hardly, he writes, correspond to everyday experience. To understand them aright, we must prepare our hearts and minds. We must adjust our perspective. Though some nine hundred years lie between us and Isaac, his advice on how to do this remains timely. ‘Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up to the mountain.’ To hear him, then, we must follow. We must set out from the comforts of the plain, which is a dull but reassuring place, since it does not let us see too far ahead. The higher we rise, the farther our gaze reaches; the more we understand how limited our customary, lowland outlook is. To abandon the plain is to leave behind also the people who inhabit it. The crowds surrounding us, says Isaac, tend to blunt our perception. Without noticing, we come to think like them. We let them shape our tastes. And so we risk forgetting who we are. Only when, with Jesus, we ascend do we see that vast, amorphous human mass of which, a while ago, we were a nameless part. We see it, so we see ourselves. We dare to stand aside. At that point, we are ready to climb higher. ‘So then, brother’, Isaac bids us, ‘rise up and follow Jesus! He descended from heaven to you, that you might ascend from earth to him.’
When standing on high, with Jesus, we see at last what the Beatitudes mean, while in the plain they don’t add up. Who nowadays believes in meekness? What reward is there in tears, what grace in persecution, what happiness in mourning? Who comforts a woman or a man bereaved with claims that, really, their grief is gladness? Jesus does not ask us to pretend that things aren’t what they are. He does not deny our pain. He takes it, rather, on himself, and thus redeems it. That is where the blessing lies. The Beatitudes are ways in which our lives unite with his. His meekness is our portion, his peace makes us peaceful, his poverty enriches. Our homeland, you know, is in heaven! Our challenge is to live that heavenly life while still on earth. Seen from the plain, the enterprise seems caught up in a web of contradictions. When we rise, however, and see the crowds below like a colony of ants, when we breathe the air of higher altitudes, a sudden insight hits us. We see then what we could not see before: that pain and want, for not being blessed in themselves, can in the providence of God provide a foothold for blessing. They let grace in. Being vulnerable, being weak, we learn to rely on a strength not our own. We come to know the power of Christ, to rest in it. He sets us free. He gives us joy.
Let us retain this alpine perspective when we consider the life of Fr Matthew. An ant would see only a series of misfortunes. While still fairly young, this gifted, learned man displayed signs of the dementia that defined his later years. He lost his memory, his independence, and, increasingly, the gift of speech. He was in certain ways reduced to childhood, with basic and embodied needs. Then he died. ‘What a waste’, some would say: ‘Such a pity!’ There are people out there who would ask if a life such as his is worth living. Brothers and sisters, what a crazy world we inhabit! Let me tell you this: for those of us blessed to live with him, to love him, the last stage of our brother’s life had a quality I would freely call glorious.
When, years ago, tests revealed that his mind showed signs of irreversible decay, Fr Matthew received the news with perfect equanimity. Without a moment’s self-pity, he embraced his diagnosis as a gift and task. It became for him a way to accomplish the oblation he had made of himself as a monk and as a priest. The further he advanced along this path, the more total his abandonment became. So grace flowed freely. By temperament retiring, haunted at times by self-doubt, Fr Matthew became, in his illness, a vessel overflowing with affection. He delighted in others and reached out to them. Cordial and warm, he shared himself trustfully. He thanked others constantly for what they did, for what they were. He revealed a gently mischievous sense of fun. To watch him was to see a flower unfolding, one petal after another opening to admit and reflect the light of the sun. When it had reached full bloom, the Lord picked it.
Not so many years ago, in a notebook he kept, Fr Matthew copied out a prayer that now seems strangely poignant: ‘Abba, Father! Teach me to surrender myself to you like a baby into its mother’s arms. Father, you know me better than I know myself. You see everything. You can do everything. And you love me!’ It has been a solemn, awesome thing to see that surrender lived out so literally, accompanied by a constant, ever more radiant smile. Standing as we are on the Mount of the Beatitudes, who among us would not call this faithful servant blessed? Fr Matthew corresponded to a monastic ideal set out by St John Cassian in the fifth century. For Cassian, the monk’s great work is to pursue the sixth Beatitude: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ When Fr Matthew’s rational defences fell away one after another, when his heart lay open for all to see, not a trace of impurity was left. All we saw was light and love and trust and kindness. Truly, he was a monk.
For many years, Fr Matthew served his brethren as a teacher, both here and at Bamenda. No doubt he taught his students many useful things. No subtlety and depth of exegesis, though, can match the value of the lessons he imparted in his final years. He taught us then three subjects of supreme importance. What were they? First, he showed us what it is to live a given life. He walked with courage into darkness, sure that underneath were God’s compassionate, everlasting arms. What to an unseeing mind seems a demeaning condition was thereby charged with dignity. Secondly, he taught us how a readiness to be loved calls forth love. In his weakness, Fr Matthew increasingly became the heart of our house. He needed us. We were glad to be needed. In that way he did much to build up our community in love. Thirdly, he demonstrated what it is to have a heart at peace. During long years of monastic fidelity, he had purified what St Bernard calls ‘the sewers of memory’. He had washed away all filth, all envy, anger, spite, and malice. His heart had become as limpid as a glass of water. May the Lord find us also, at the last, as prepared, as pure, as serene! We commend Fr Matthew to the mercy of God. We give thanks for what he was to us. We wish him rest after his labour. ‘For great is the might of the Lord; he is glorified by the humble.’ Yes, we have seen that to be true.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace!