Death of a MonkMay 23, 2015
Story by Joseph Fanelli
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
“Keep death daily before
— St. Benedict, Rule of St. Benedict
A monk dies in a hospital bed in St. Meinrad and the sound of bells roll across the abbey. Inside, the room is bare except for a portrait of a smiling Jesus on one of the high, white walls. There is one window that reaches the height of the room, overlooking a garden covered in shadows from cloud cover. It is a cool day. Rain swept through the night before and left a stiff, healthy breeze. It is 5:30 p.m. CDT on Monday, May 11, 2015, and Father Aelred Cody, born Joseph Francis, Jr. in Oklahoma City, Okla., in 1932, Benedictine monk for 62 years, priest for 58, has died in the infirmary to the mechanic hum of an oxygen machine. He was 83 years old.
A monk dies and there is a slight break from protocol. Sixty years earlier, when Father Aelred joined the abbey, he, along with every monk who enters the Benedictine brotherhood at St. Meinrad, arrived through the heavy wooden doors at the entrance. Years later, when that monk has died, he again enters those same doors, although this time laying prone in a plain poplar casket. Right now, those doors are elsewhere, switched for a pair of plywood replacements. The abbey is under construction. The hall, where Father Aelred would normally rest the afternoon before his funeral, is filled with dust and debris. Pipes are leaking and work must be done to remove mold and rot to ensure the monks can reside at the Spencer County landmark for another 161 years.
This is only a small hitch. Otherwise, not much is changed. No one is fazed. Not by the construction, or even by the death of Father Aelred, a man of ferocious intelligence who was joked to have forgotten more languages than most people knew. (Among his stable were Arcadian and middle Babylonian). But he was an old man, and his health had been waning for several years before he was hospitalized a day before his death and then returned to the abbey, where he succumbed to cancer.
The monks are untroubled because death is a part of life, and for them the first step toward what is an eternal afterlife. After a monk dies at St. Meinrad, there are actions and procedures, both spiritual and clerical, and there is dignified remembrance, but there is also laughter and light jabbing and always, always food.
“And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety. For you will not leave my soul among the dead, nor let our beloved decay.”
— Psalm 16:9-10
A monk dies and for the six hours that he laying breathing in the infirmary within the monastery, he was accompanied at any time by at least one other monk. Some seated quietly in a crimson leather recliner, praying silently, some clutching rosaries, mouthing the decades. Father Aelred’s been mostly unconscious during this time, staring mouth agape at the window, laboring in breath, but there is a moment early on, when three monks in the room pray in Latin, and, however momentarily, Father Aelred perks up. His eyes seem focused and there is the smallest shade of a smile. The moment passes and hours later, Father Aelred drifts quietly into his death.
A monk dies and after being embalmed outside the abbey, is lifted and carried into the archabbey church by six Benedictine brothers in black habits. Almost 1,500 years ago, long before any of the brothers of St. Benedict were at the abbey, or even alive, long before even the existence of the Order of St. Benedict or any monastic community, monks existed as hermits. They left their communities and lived out their days in solitude as humble servants with humble means. St. Benedict of Nursia changed that with his Rule of Saint Benedict, the authoritative book on monastic life which commands that time as a servant of God is best endured within a community. He asked that monks make promises of stability, fidelity and obedience to God and the abbey. Benedictine monks would work and pray — or the pillars of the order, “Ora et labora” — and exist together as a community of men, and later women.
A monk dies and so he is surrounded by that community. On the evening before his funeral, he is placed inside the church on a pair of square blocks in a casket and is remembered by the monks in The Office of the Dead. It is quiet and psalms are chanted and prayers spoken, but is it not completely solemn. St. Benedict reminded his pupils that monks are human and like all men, suffering of deficiencies and imperfections. Father Aelred was no different.
Father Aelred was a scholar in every conceivable way, right down to the image of him in his youth: a full brown beard, closely cropped head with wire glasses and a pipe sprouting from his lips, a sly grin on his face. He enjoyed smoking and his habit was often covered in ash and tobacco burns (along with food from the day’s meals.) He was a man of enormous intelligence who taught as a professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome for 10 years and possessed a list of scholarly publications spanning 10 single-spaced pages. He possessed the eccentricities that usually accompany such a great mind. In the later years of his life, he committed himself to daily readings of the Encyclopedia Britannica, although many kidded he was simply checking for errors. He spoke almost his entire life in a raspy, wheezing whisper from a tumor in his larynx at the age of four. (Almost comically, Father Aelred’s birthday was Feb. 3, or the feast day of St. Blaise, who is remembered today with a blessing of the throat. This was noted during his remembrance with considerable irony.)
He was also an accomplished organist, but “in one of his idiosyncrasies — some of which were amusing, others mildly annoying,” wrote Archabbot Justin DuVall in Father Aelred’s obituary, “was his evasion at playing before an audience.” So while many were aware of his skills as a musician, only a handful had any proof.
A monk dies and after the Office of the Dead concludes, his coffin is rolled in front of the shrine of all saints, where it will stay until his funeral the next afternoon. On his coffin is placed a piece of paper with Father Aelred’s solemn vows — his promises to the abbey recognized by the Church — composed in Latin. This is the last anyone will see of this document before it is placed into the archives of the abbey, along with the vows of every monk who has ever served and died at St. Meinrad.
“Life is changed, not ended.”
— Preface for Christian Death I, Roman Missal
A monk dies and there is a striking resemblance now to his first death, 60 years earlier, when he made his final profession. Then, Father Aelred laid face down on the floor of the church and was covered with a white cloth emblazed with a red cross. He was engulfed in darkness, then he rose, reborn perhaps, having seen death as another vessel. Now, entombed in his coffin, that same cloth is spread over him. It is no small coincidence. The solemn vows and the funeral are intrinsically and spiritually linked. For the monks of Benedictine, death is not the final conclusion. It is hope.
A monk dies and after his funeral is carried out of the west entrance of the church, down the flight of stairs and into the blinding midday sun. Those who can walk follow a cross, each wading two-by-two down the sidewalk toward the cemetery some 200 yards away. The monks file through the stone entrance and Father Aelred is carried to his final resting spot.
An image of bare-boned necessity arises when discussing monastic funerals and again, the monks of St. Benedictine do little to hide the realities of death. After prayer, Father Aelred’s coffin is lowered into the grave using a pair of ropes. Once settled, Archabbott Justin drops a shovelful of dirt on the casket below, and the sound is thundering, a loud clap strong enough to cause one of the funeralgoers to leap in surprise.
A monk dies and joins the some 200-odd monks who have lived and died at St. Meinrad before, most buried in the cemetery next to the abbey’s lake. Each gravestone is short and simple, with names and years lived. St. Meinrad had gone nearly a full year without a death before Father Aelred, but one week later, the bells across the abbey sound again for another passing. This time more surprising. A man who suffered a sudden heart attack.
On that day, they will hear the bells and then reconvene for stories of the old monk — some good, some bad, many entertaining — and again begin their process of remembrance and tribute. But now, days after Father Aelred’s death, they have buried their brother, friend, antagonist and mind, and it is time for food and conversation and perhaps a story or two.
Contact Joseph Fanelli at email@example.com.
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