Words on the Word

Br Boniface McGinley RIP

Wisdom 4:7-15 Yet people look on, uncomprehending.
Colossians 3:12-17 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.
John 15:8-17 If you keep my commandments, you remain in my love.

It used to be common to speak of a monk’s life as ‘dying to the world’. We rarely hear the phrase nowadays. We are cagey, I suppose, because it seems to imply a condemnation of the world, as if it were all gloom and darkness. We all know instances of worldly darkness: it suffices to follow the news. But we also know what happiness, what beauty the world offers. The current trend in Christian piety is to affirm the world’s intrinsic goodness. This leads many to ask what sense it makes to die to it? What do monks run away from? What are they afraid of? This challenge may seem compelling – until we see that it rests on false premises. The ‘death’ spoken of in monastic tradition looks forward, not back. It is radiant with the hope of resurrection.

Monastic initiation is charged with resurrection symbols. When a candidate asks for admission as a monk, he kneels before the brethren in Chapter. The abbot bids him: ‘Rise!’ His journey begins with a summons to stand up, to realise his stature. The abbot then asks, ‘What do you seek?’ The candidate says: ‘Mercy.’ That request contains a confession, as if to say: ‘I have come to understand that the ground of all things is an infinite, carrying love. I wish to live within that love always.’ The habit the novice receives is a sign that, from now on, he puts on Christ Jesus. He has become a new man! He will vow to let that renewal continue, by grace, until he draws his last breath. To on-lookers, this can seem preposterous. Their response to a young man’s dying to the world is sometimes not unlike people’s first response to physical death. Our reading from Wisdom puts it bluntly: ‘People look on, uncomprehending; it does not enter their heads that grace and mercy await the Lord’s chosen.’ They see only loss.

The chosen knows better. He is impelled by a longing he cannot resist. Growing ever lighter, ever swifter, he makes his way up the mountain of the Lord. That is his task. He is glad to perform it, and not just for himself. No! The higher he climbs, the more clearly he sees that his call is a call embracing others. In prayer he bears his family and friends. He bears the Church. As his heart expands in love, he dares, recklessly, to take on the hopes and the anguish of the whole wide world. He draws all mankind within the enclosure of God’s mercy. Of that mercy his rising life is a sign. He is called to be a beacon in the night. Then, one day, when the summit is in sight, he seems to slip. Struck by vertigo, he totters. He may feel a shock of fear. But he knows: he is secure. Underneath him are ‘the everlasting arms’. They have guarded his ascent from the beginning. ’He sought to please God, so God loved him.’ The mercy he sought embraces him now. For a while he may sleep.

Boniface, our brother, our friend, has fallen asleep. We are gathered to pray him to rest. The Church’s liturgy of requiem is like a soothing lullaby. It brings rest to us who pray it, too, conscious though we are of our loss. Brother Boniface accomplished his death to the world peacefully. It is what we would have expected. He was palpably a man of peace. At peace with himself, he could bring peace to others. St Paul asks us to let peace ‘rule’ in our hearts. His meaning is specific. Peace is to be our criterion of judgement. As we go about our lives, we should ask: Where is peace?, then follow it. To make peace is to share in the seventh beatitude. It is no soft option. The peace of blessing is no cheap, tattered peace. It springs from truth and reconciliation. To pass it on, I must have found it for myself. In the Prologue to his Rule, St Benedict urges monks to ‘seek peace and pursue it’. Peace is a living thing, a vital force of attraction. Our God is a God of peace. Brother Boniface knew that truth. He preached it with his life. He preached it by his dying. The cancer that swept him away so quickly came at a very difficult time. As Prior, he played a crucial role here at Mount Melleray, among brethren he dearly loved. This monastery, like so many others, faces uncertainty and challenges. Brother Boniface recognised this fact with lucid levelheadedness. But he remained peaceful. Not for a moment did he yield to fretful anxiety. When I saw him in hospital four weeks ago, he was gracious and cheerful as always, though in obvious pain. With regard to the future, he said simply, with a smile: ‘The Lord knows what he is doing. If only we let him act.’ That was no capitulation. It was the fruit of a lifetime’s experience. It was a statement of authority.

For anyone inclined to think that a monk’s ‘dying to the world’ is a life-denying, fearful, glum affair, Brother Boniface provided a startling corrective. What a cheerful, warm-hearted, hospitable man he was! As Mt Melleray’s porter he exercised for decades a ministry of welcome. A brother who worked with him has told me he never saw Boniface turn away a person in need. That is a noble legacy. Brother Boniface received all comers kindly. He practised the asceticism of suspended judgement. Not that he was gullible. In fact, he was very shrewd. But he refused to condemn another. As a result, he was a vessel of comfort for many. He gave fresh heart to the hopeless, showed the way to the lost. Gifted with wonderful patience, he knew how to listen. Having listened, he would speak, but not much. His essential message was conveyed simply by his presence. He had come to embody the values he sought throughout a long life of service as a monk. Remaining steadfastly within Christ’s love, he bore fruit of peace and mercy. That fruit nourished us. It nourishes us still, for it lasts. We have reason to be grateful. As we pray to the Lord for our good Brother Boniface, let us be mindful of the lessons he taught us. Like him, let us strive to be peaceful, merciful, and faithful. Whatever lies before us, let us cast ourselves with confidence into the loving hands of God. That is how we will serve the coming of God’s kingdom, to the praise of his glory and the upbuilding of his Church. Amen.

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