For the Time Being
October 7, 2011
About a week ago, I received a package in the mail from a slightly zany but very good priest friend of mine, Fr. Patrick. The box had big magic marker letters all over it that said, “Do Not Open Until Feast Day!” I don’t know what FedEx made of that, but I acquiesced, and, the optional memorial of St. Bruno being a number of days away, I placed the box in a corner of my office to forget about it. Today, going to my community’s Morning Prayer, I learned that Fr. Bernard “Larry” Keitz had passed away earlier this morning. He had served at St. Vincent Ferrer for the last twelve years, although he had been in and out of nursing home and hospitals for the last six months or so. I was able to visit him from time to time, as several members of our community and parish were able to do; and I was also able to see him the day before yesterday. My prior had called me up and said, “Bruno, you probably want to go see Larry. He’s not long.” I am grateful for that. Fr. Keitz is the first Dominican I’ve known pretty well and lived with who’s passed away. We Dominicans have a rather profound commitment to suffrage (prayer for the dead); and I remember something an elder friar told me once, “You’re not totally a member of a community until one of your brothers dies.” So, you can imagine the impact of this morning. To be sure, he and I sat on rather opposite sides of the aisle. I am what Fr. Keitz would call, without histrionics, “an ultra-conservative.” Nevertheless, we actually reached many of the same conclusions about things—e.g., the priest should pray the Mass ad orientem, all our meals should be in silence, our president is a disaster—even if we reached these same conclusions by way of different paths. But more seriously, he stood out for me as a member of the community who would regularly ask me what I thought of a Scripture passage, how I preached on a particular Saint, or what I happened to be reading; and he would share with me the same of his own. Although we’re an Order of Preachers, we’re also guys; so, this kind of conversation doesn’t happen as much as you might think. At any rate, what was able to develop was a Dominican friendship.
Around mid-morning, I went to condole with our cook, a Sicilian from the old country who loves us all very much. (She used to call him “Fr. Keitzy,” and, as only a nona could think salutary, would bring him milkshakes in the hospital so he would get better.) Seeing the tears in her eyes and reading the lines from my priest’s script, I told her that at least we know he is at peace now; he is in a better place. After all, when I had seen him last he was quite out of it, moaning and trying to take off his gown and get out of bed; and his body had been marked with deep and numerous scratches he was giving himself in his sleep. So, I pointed out that, due to his experiences in recent months, at least he knew what he was in for and had been given the grace of time to prepare: a genuine blessing for him and therefore source of consolation for us. Maria said, “Fr. Bruno, I know what you say is true. But you know what? We are never as prepared as we would like to be. Everybody knows he’s gonna die; everybody knows he has to prepare. But who doesn’t want more time?” Well! I might have silently offered one minor revision, (changing “never” to “rarely” to provide for the saints), but this scholastic had just gotten schooled with a life-earned sed contra. As I went to my office I was thinking, “She’s totally right… and I’m not so ready myself.” Then, sitting down at my desk, I remembered Fr. Patrick’s box. And what did I discover in that package that had admonished me a week ago to wait until today to open it? A human skull with a note on it: Memento mori frater. (Remember your death brother.)
Having processed the weight of the morning (and having made plans to go to Confession), I went to report to Maria what had ensued after our first exchange. She said, “God has His ways of talking to us so we hear Him. Who lives his life every day asking God to admit him to heaven?” Now, Maria’s a pious woman, but not a daily communicant or the kind that would read the daily Mass lessons as part of her prayers. So, you can imagine how my feeling a little spooked changed to feeling profoundly grateful for God’s personal Providence when I discovered today’s Gospel (Lk 11.5-13): Jesus said to his disciples: “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,” and he says in reply from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.” I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Today’s reminder is that we ought to be as prepared as possible for death. St. Bruno founded the Carthusian order, who’s strict contemplative and hermit-like community amounts to as complete a death to the world as may exist (and has existed, without major reforms, for close to a millennium). Ironically and little-known, Fr. Keitz had something of a moribund fascination with the Carthusians. He manifestly found their kind of commitment to solitude and silence extreme—and yet, he always read the latest book on the order, and kept a book of “Carthusian spirituality” in his room. (Sometimes I think he took to me simply because of my name.) So, all things being considered, I’m sure he knew about the memento mori has much as anyone. Nevertheless, as Maria said, however much we all know we’re going to die, when that final time finally comes, many of us would have appreciated a bit more. So, ask every day such that you will one day receive; seek all the time so that at the end of your time you will find; and knock with all your soul, so when it finds itself separated from the body, the door will be opened to you. And also recall that in Christ’s parable, the person persistently knocking at the door is doing so to feed a friend who has just arrived home after a long journey. Father Keitz was 84. Requiescat in pace.