Words on the Word

Br Thomas Taylor RIP

Wisdom 7:1-11 In Wisdom’s company all good things came to me
1 John 3:1-2 Beloved, we are God’s children now
John 17:1-10 This is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ

Our reading from Wisdom sets the scene for human existence by evoking man’s biological origins. With a realism typical of the Hebrew Scriptures, it describes his moment of conception, his growth in his mother’s womb, his first gasp for breath. This shared genesis of ours is a great equaliser. So is our shared end. ‘No king has known any other beginning of existence; for there is only one way into life, and one way out of it.’ Faced with the mysteries of birth and death, not one of us has cause to put on airs. We meet in an experience of intimate solidarity, invited to be humble, grateful, full of wonder. What a gift life is! And how that gift is enhanced, not lessened, by the certainty of death! We know where we come from, where we are going. The canvas of our life is framed. Within it, art cay be deployed in an orderly way to form, by God’s grace and our effort, a coherent, graceful picture. The peaceful intermingling of life and death was evident to Br Thomas from an early age. He lost no opportunity to tell others how he almost died at the age of three and a half, ill with pneumonia. He ascribed his survival against the odds to three factors: his robust will to live, which never let him down; the nursing skills of his mother; and the intercession of St Peter of Alcántara. At first sight it may seem incongruous to find this wan, angular Franciscan reformer of the Spanish Golden Age (a man who much impressed St Teresa of Ávila) presiding, as it were, over the fortunes of the rosy-cheeked, cheerfully rotund Br Thomas – but such is the communion of saints. It allows for unexpected friendships. Mrs Taylor had conceived a devotion to the friar from Alcántara and was certain he had helped heal her child, who remained cordially appreciative. 

The account of physical birth and death goes only so far in relating what it is to be a man. Our nature of flesh is full of spiritual potential, if we let it be awakened. ‘I prayed’, confides the author of Wisdom, ‘and understanding was given me; I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.’ Br Thomas, of course, was born into a devout Catholic family, yet Wisdom’s claim on his life cannot just be ascribed to conditioning from circumstance. As a young man he longed to know the truth of the faith that nurtured him. He longed to see the face of Christ, the incarnate Wisdom of the Father, who had strangely wounded his soul. Here at Mount Saint Bernard he found what he had sought. He loved his monastic vocation. He loved the house and the brethren. So strong was his love that a kind of symbiosis took place: for Br Thomas, the history of the monastery and his own history were inseparable. This led him to invent what, to my knowledge, is a new and original literary genre. Br Thomas entertained vivid memories of many colourful characters with whom he had rubbed shoulders through a long monastic life. In later years, when less mobile, he spent much time in the archives and became, in his own way, learned in the history of the abbey. He came up with the idea of writing biographical sketches of deceased monks for the day of their anniversary. Thereby his innovation came about: an extended autobiography in the form of obituaries! Most of his death notices show the career of the protagonist intersecting with that of the writer, who seasons his account with shrewd observations. For being direct, these are never uncharitable. Often they testify to admiration and affection. We may imagine many a happy reunion now that Br Thomas has joined Mount Saint Bernard’s foundation in eternity.

There is a popular saying in Spanish that pertains to putting up with contradiction. You might say of one sorely tried: ‘To bear that would take the patience of St Peter of Alcántara.’ It has to be said, in daily living, Br Thomas did not always live up to the example of his patron. Patience was not perhaps his most conspicuous virtue. On occasion, his very bearing would proclaim that, frankly, enough is enough. At such times he would be as immovable as a Charnwood Forest rock. At a more essential level, however, Br Thomas was a profoundly patient man. Our noun ‘patience’ is derived from the Latin verb ‘patior’, which means, ‘I suffer’. Br Thomas knew what it was to suffer. He had lived through times of great, sometimes terrible darkness. The experience broke his heart open, gifting him with compassion. Knowing his own poverty, he was gracious in response to the poverty of others, taking keen interest in their well-being. Countless guests have drawn comfort from his beaming, warm welcome in the guesthouse, where he strove, almost to the end, to carry out St Benedict’s injunction: ‘Let all guests who present themselves be received as Christ himself’. 

It is said of St Peter of Alcántara that he slept for no more than 90 minutes every night. The deprivations of one prepare a harvest of abundance for another. Br Thomas had a genius for sleep. He could fall asleep almost anywhere. His heart, though, like that of the Bride in the Song of Songs, was awake. A couple of years ago, when he had been unwell, I told him he was free to be dispensed from Vigils. He thanked me for the offer but protested that he wanted to attend. We agreed he would simply not set his alarm, but get up if he awoke of himself and had sufficient strength. He developed a habit, then, of praying at bedtime, ‘Lord, please wake me up for Vigils!’ Remarkably often, he was there, even just last week. This confident prayer of Br Thomas’s lays bare an aspect of his soul that was lovely and profound. He knew, with all the assurance of St John in our second reading, he knew he was a child of God. He rested in God’s arms, knowing he was safe even when he might not feel safe. Such was the wisdom he embodied and proclaimed by his life to us who knew and loved him well. In this Mass we commend Br Thomas to the mercy of God. We ask the Lord of the harvest to look kindly on this faithful worker, who always wished to give his best. We give thanks for Br Thomas’s example, for his friendship. We have heard Christ pray in his highpriestly prayer: ‘This is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ Having pursued that knowledge through a long, devoted life, Br Thomas now prepares for the vision of glory, carried forth by purifying love. The everlasting arms that held him safe here below hold him still, of that we can be certain. May they hold us, too, when our hour comes. Amen. 

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