By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published October 11, 2013
There is a saying that good things come in small packages. And so it is that a small package, say, a gift, can contain something of no great size but of immense value. People can be the same kind of gift. Such was Brother Alphonse. He passed away recently, and we rejoiced in his going home to God and at the same time mourned his leaving us.
I think that human love brings with it the blend of joy and sorrow. We do not have much here other than each other. And in a cloistered life, we get to know each other quite well and up close. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We rely on the first and help as best we can with the latter. It works.
Alphonse was 89 years old. We celebrated his birthday not too long ago. There was a little gathering in the retreat house for him.
His good friends Paul and Janet were there—they brought cakes and other food and drink and an assortment of gifts for Alphonse. It was a real nice afternoon. Alphonse opened his gifts with pleasure. And everyone in the room took pleasure in watching him. He had a childlike smile on his face as he opened each gift and, as I looked at him, it was never clearer to me that Alphonse had the heart of a child. And not just because of the way he received gifts. In his years here, he evidenced a growing simplicity in his acceptance of this wondrous gift of life. I have taken many pictures of him over the years, and each one carries an image of Alphonse’s transparency. He truly was a man whose soul could be read, be seen, through his eyes. There was a basic goodness there, an innocence that was nothing short of beautiful.
When I first came here in 1994, it did not take me long to pick up on the different idiosyncrasies of the monks. I also was to soon discover more than a few of my own. Living here does that. It is a long course in self-knowledge, bestowed by the virtue of community life. It is best to learn as fast as one can to give everybody a passing grade.
I was standing near a field one morning, and I saw Alphonse approaching in his van. He was on his way to check the quality of our drinking water. He did that for years. He waved to me as he passed. Then I watched him as he drove off into the field. He slowed down and then his turn signal began to blink. And he stopped, paused a bit and turned left. Right smack in the middle of a field. I had never seen any driver do that, using a turn signal in an empty field. There was not another vehicle in sight. But as I got to know Alphonse, it made sense to me. He was meticulous in every way possible. Prompt, courteous, neat, shoes always highly polished to a gloss, extremely responsible with whatever job he was given. Augustine gave a beautiful homily at Alphonse’s funeral Mass. He touched on those things about Alphonse that he admired and loved, and said, “Alphonse was real. He was a real monk.” And indeed he was, for all of us. He was easy to like, easy to love. He was and will always be a gift, a gift that came in a small package. But what a gift.
Many of us look to the big things in life to make a positive and lasting difference. Big job, big salary, big name in whatever lights strike our fancy. But we are occasionally brought back to the significance of the small, the lowly, the too easily passed over. Alphonse’s modest way of being and loving in this world seemed to me that he was on to something, something good. That was his gift to us. Along with a blinker, a shy but knowing smile, and pure water.