The death of a good monk: Celebrating Brother Joseph’s simple and holy life
The first thing the mourners could view as they entered the abbey church, soaring above the edge of the polished pine bier, was his magnificent, pointed nose.
Brother Mary Joseph lay in state at Mepkin Abbey, his simple funeral liturgy soon to begin. It would certainly be fitting for a man who had lived an equally simple life here along the banks of the Cooper River in South Carolina. He had lived here for over 70 years, voluntarily out of the world’s sight, as any monk would avow was his life’s purpose.
If a face might be created from imp and angel, that was Brother Joseph, as he was better known. His innocent smile, even in this austere place, was his silent hello, framed by jug ears, and accented by that exquisitely sculpted nose. Just a few months past his 97th birthday, his earthly self had just given out, perhaps urged on to the next life by a bout with the dreaded coronavirus the monastery had almost successfully kept at bay.
So, what could be said of such a man who was a monk for a total of 79 years, the first period at the storied Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky? There his footfall sounded in the same halls and cloister as another monk, Father Louis, far better known to the world by his secular name, Thomas Merton.
The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, as they are better known, called not for a time-limited enlistment, but a life’s commitment to seeking, as the sign under which he walked entering Gethsemani, “God Alone.”
When so many young men coming of age in his close-knit Chicago Polish parish answered the call to service during World War II, 17-year-old Walter Szwedo sought to live a commitment of Semper Fidelis not by attaching U.S.M.C., but instead O.C.S.O. to his name. The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, as they are better known, called not for a time-limited enlistment, but a life’s commitment to seeking, as the sign under which he walked entering Gethsemani, “God Alone.”
He was not destined for the priesthood like Merton, but would serve as a Trappist brother, doing manual labor as the choir monks spent hours in church, Gregorian chant wafting to the soaring, vaulted ceiling. For some observers, his might be considered a lesser vocation, but not to Brother Joseph. He relished each task he was given over the years, scrubbing pots in the refectory kitchen, working in the monastery sawmill, or grinding a precise amalgam of grain for the Mepkin chickens. He loved making rosaries in his later years, and birds and squirrels scrambled to his doorstep at the squeak of his hinge.
You could tell this simple life was a good fit; it showed on his craggy, well-lined face. There was no job too ordinary or another in which one might take undo pride; all were for the greater honor and glory. All were done with that wonderful smile.
He had a beautiful tenor voice and when Trappist brothers and priests were combined in the choir after Vatican II he became part of the monastic schola, a small group of the best singers. Even here and throughout the rounds of the monastic daily office, which can weary even the stoutest intent, there was the same precision he employed at the grain mill. If you watched his lips, each word was enunciated precisely, each note held to its full purpose. He was completely present; he practiced a mindfulness that knew no season or fad.
His innocence was his hallmark, a man at home with himself in any situation, even those in which the more scrupulous might blanch.
My wife and two sons came to know Brother Joseph through our frequent trips to Mepkin over almost 30 years. He was always willing to break from the task at hand to talk, thus shattering the view that these were the omni-silent ones. My wife would greet him with a hug and kiss on the cheek and sometimes leave some fresh lipstick behind. Embarrassed, she was ready to wipe away the smudge and leave no trace of this innocent transgression. “Oh no, leave it,” he would say, proud to be a marked man when he returned for the next round of prayers.
His innocence was his hallmark, a man at home with himself in any situation, even those in which the more scrupulous might blanch. He was simple in the best sense of that word, which is so freighted in normal usage. For simple was what a monk was to be, unheralded by others, not even his fellow monks, his gaze on a more significant reward.
On a trip years ago to another monastery, the ocean tantalizingly close to their route, a group of monks made the prudential judgment to make a detour. As Brother Joseph told of taking off his sandals, feeling the warm sand under his bare feet and watching the porpoises cavorting in the Atlantic, it was as if he was there again. “Blue, I mean it was BLUE,” he told me. It was only the second, but would be the last time he would ever see an ocean. That was of little matter; it was more real to him than to those of us who had this experience so many times.
Stability breeds a sense of rapture.
Trappist monks wear a simple white cotton garment with a black scapular, held in place by a thick leather belt. I joked with Brother Joseph as the belt given to him decades ago at Gethsemani cracked in many places and seemed held together by nothing less than sanctifying grace. When it finally gave out, he gave me a small piece. Its wrinkled face is so much his, beautifully aged. The relic of a saint? Brother Joseph would dismiss that with his ready smile; no, just a piece of old leather.
Brother Joseph’s earthly remains were carefully lifted from the bier and lowered into the grave to be enfolded by the very earth he trod for so many decades.
As the funeral Mass began at two in the afternoon, a circular shaft of sunshine blazed through a window high in the nave, illuminating Brother Joseph’s body with an eerie, shimmering brilliance. It was as if to recognize he indeed was the center of attention today, something he never sought. There was not much left of this once-robust man; his choir gown lay slack on what remained. He had been told, years before, he could have a new gown, but a patch on the threadbare cloth took him the rest of the journey.
Some 50 or 60 people were there, friends of Brother Joseph, each with their stories about him, some benefactors of the monastery, and his monastic community. Now numbering just eight professed monks and four men at various stages of formation, they were the remnant cloth of the 59 monks once here, testament to the young men of our day choosing other paths. As the liturgy came to a close, his fellow monks were ready to lay their brother to rest.
The open casket was wheeled to the prepared grave, a huge mound of Carolina red clay beside it and soon to be returned. There would be no casket, no cement vault to stay the elements. Brother Joseph’s earthly remains were carefully lifted from the bier and lowered into the grave to be enfolded by the very earth he trod for so many decades. Final prayers were intoned by the abbot, a white cloth affixed over Brother Joseph’s face, and he was lowered into the ground.
First the abbot, then the community members, took a shovel and gently sprinkled soil into the grave. One by one the mourners came forward, with each shovelful less and less of Brother Joseph’s white choir gown was visible. Out of respect, most sought his lower body, but soon the tide of red clay approached his face cloth.
Finally, there was just a dot of white to be seen, a slight rise in the cloth, just at that magnificent nose. One more shovelful. And this man who sought to live his life with God unseen by the world finally had his wish.