Published May 18, 2006
I left the monastery a few years ago, and it was a very painful time for me. I did not realize how much I had grown to love this place until it was far from me. I moved to an apartment in Covington, La. I came back for visits, and it was not too long before I knew I would be coming back. I remember one such visit. Francis Xavier was in the retreat house and he beamed when he saw me. Without a second’s hesitation, he said, “When are you coming back?” I told him that I would be back as soon as possible. He nodded his head in a way of agreeable gladness that was his rather unique signature, a way he had of going along with all that is good in the world. When I finally did come back, he gave me a victory sign—and smiled. And I remember on that day that as I was unpacking my car and bringing the stuff into the main building, Damian saw me in the hall and gave me a hug, said he loved me, and then hugged me again and said, “Welcome home—you belong here, with us.”
I just returned from a home visit, back to Covington, where I spent two weeks with my mom. She is not doing well these days. I remember when I left Covington and moved back here. That goodbye to her was very painful. I had been blessed with that time with her and it was hard, real hard, to go. We were sitting in my car, in front of her residence, and it was when I had to tell her that I was returning to the monastery.
The undershot of that was that I did not know when I would see her again. She looked at me, smiled, and started to cry. “That makes me so happy,” she said through her tears. “I know that you have found so much love there—and I knew that you would one day have to go back. You belong there.” Those words did not ease the ache I felt and still feel as I write these words, thinking back on that morning. But the ache is more than sweetened by the truth of her words. I suppose I did not realize the love of these men that I carried and somehow communicated to others. And my mom has a real fine radar for scanning her sons and daughters for the good that we need for life—above all, the good that is human love.
It is our custom here that when a monk dies—when he goes home—a cross is placed at his assigned table in the refectory. There are two crosses now—a large one and a small one. The large one is at Francis Xavier’s place and the small one is at Damian’s. I smiled a bit when I saw the large one at Francis’s place. He was a small man—the thought occurred to me that as small as he was, he never had a problem carrying in his heart the crosses of others. His life was all about that. And Damian—he as well took to himself the hurts and anguish of many people. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that between the two of them, they took to their hearts the worries, hurts and pain of thousands of people. Their joy was to take all that pain and somehow give it back, with hope and with the joy of knowing that God has an infinite love for every man and woman—and that it is the call of a monk to refine his capacity to learn from that and to give it away. Damian and Francis Xavier were happy men. And I believe that their happiness was found in losing themselves in the lives of others who needed to know that God loves them.
Yesterday I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was struggling a bit in the writing of this essay. I told him that there was so much I want to say about Francis Xavier and Damian—there are many memories I have of them. I have written of these before. My friend looked at me and said that people love to have a window to this place, to the monastery. They want to know what we are about.
There will be, some day, a cross at my place in the refectory. It will be a cross of sadness but one as well of joy—that I will have gone home. And when that time comes, I hope that I will have gone to my rest having left behind one thing—the love for this life, these men, this place that I have been so freely given. And I hope that when I enter the Gate of Eternal Life I see Damian and Francis Xavier. I will hug them, thank them, and tell them that I love them for giving me a place I knew as home. That is a cross that is sweet, easy to bear, and easy to give away.
Yes, that is what we are about here. And I know that is what it will be all about there, in the Kingdom, a way of life that is as close as the love I know here, and in Covington, and in any place where home is born from sacrificial love.
A week ago I sat with my mom on the porch of her residence. It was time to say goodbye, and the words were hard to find and painful to say.
Mom lowered her head and said, “You thank the abbot for me, for letting you come.” Her voice broke, and then she said, “I know how expensive it is to visit, but I hope you can come again.”
It was a painful goodbye.
I came back home here, heavy-hearted with the aching ways of love. As I drove I knew I was leaving a love that made me to a love that is an ongoing part of that mystery.
Gas prices have risen. Mom worried about that, wondering if I had enough money to come home. I assured her that I had more than enough. But I was thinking about love, and not dollars, about the miles of years ahead here, and the pain of having two less monks with whom to travel. I did not tell her that as I hugged her and kissed her goodbye. I told her I would be back, for there are some things that we can always manage to afford—we learn how to do that.
I took Highway 59 through Mississippi, and there are crosses along the way, marking the spots where people died. I prayed for those people, hoping that they had enough love in life when they moved on. I recently read that some people have problems with that custom—the crosses cause distraction along the way. I suppose that is true. And as I drove that morning, I knew more than ever that it is the only distraction that will get us all home. We learn that here. It is what we are about.