“People Come, People Go”: The meaningful simplicity of a monk’s life and death

I’ve been going on retreat to Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the wilderness of Southern Missouri just south of Ava, for about seventeen years. Four years ago I became a Family Brother. I write about that process in our upcoming book released on November 14th. And as a Family Brother  when I’m there I no longer stay in the Guest House but behind the cloister with the monks following their work routine and prayer schedule. Upon arrival each time I stop by Brother Francis’s office and inquire which room – the actual word in monastery speak is “cell” – I am assigned to live in. They’re very small and sparse. My visit two years ago in December was a little different. This time I asked which cell but I prefaced my question with a request. I asked if it would be possible that I not have Brother Boniface’s room. I told Brother Francis that I knew he’d just left to live out his days in a nearby nursing home. I explained that I was close to Bonnie, his nickname, and I would not feel right in his room. Thankfully, Francis acquiesced and gave me an empty cell down the hall from Bonnie’s old room.

Brother Boniface died this week, almost two years after he left for the nursing home, and we committed his body to the earth on Wednesday. Here’s what Bonnie taught me about death and life. I need to begin this story by backing up a bit.

Boniface, the Abbey’s long time  bread baker, cook, tailor and keeper of hiking trails was declining in health after Brother Dominic died. Finally, his dementia got the better of him and for his safety he was moved to a nearby nursing in the little town of Ava. He was originally from Illinois and entered the Trappist life as a monk in 1950. Always a smile and quick wit. I came to know him really well after Brother Dominic’s cancer diagnosis. It progressed and he had to move to a nursing home in Springfield in order to receive hospice care. Dominic was expected to die fairly soon and Boniface was his caregiver. Since the nursing home was so close to my house (and not that close to the Abbey) I visited Dominic and Bonnie almost weekly when I was in town. Outliving the short prognosis Dominic survived almost one full year.

Here is the stunning thing: Brother Boniface lived at the nursing home with Dominic. Not figuratively. He only went home to the Abbey every two weeks for a couple of days to bake bread for his brothers. Somehow the Abbey arranged for Boniface to sleep in the bed next to Dominic in the same room. I remember marveling at the time that I don’t know many spouses who would live in a nursing home with their loved one. Visiting daily for sure, but to live day by day, hour by hour with a sick person, who is totally mentally intact is a gift of service that is beyond compare. Jesus talked of laying down our lives for our friends. “There is no greater love” He said. That was Boniface. He was a simple humble monk who served his friend, his brother, even though it may have hastened his own death.

The story does not stop here.

When Bonnie declined in health and mind he moved to a nursing home and a few weeks after he left I visited the Abbey. Brother Francis kindly did not assign me to his room. It would have been too sad for me to sleep there and he seemed to understand that. I will pick up the story as written in my journal the day after I arrived.

December 29, 2015. Journal Entry:

I searched the work assignments on the bulletin board this morning after Terse for my name. Found it. My work for today: “Shawn – clean Brother Boniface’s room.” I could not believe what I was seeing. I gulped and said nothing. I knew that I had to clean it from top to bottom and get it ready for a new occupant whether I liked that assignment or not.

The year [with Dominic] took it’s toll on [Bonnie]. By the end he seemed more frail, less sharp, tired. He went back to his routine of bread making, cooking and life in the Abbey but mentally he declined rapidly. I’m not sure if he has Alzheimer’s but it would not surprise me. The monks visit him daily, perform mass and check on his condition.    

So, today my work assignment meant clearing the last vestiges of Boniface’s personal things out of his room and clean it up for the next monk or family brother.  A small box of Reader’s Digest magazines dating from the 70s, a few medical items, and one small box of personal effects. One box of “things” that signify, at least externally, that Brother Boniface was here. A 50th anniversary high school graduation program, some pictures from much younger days here at the Abbey that I couldn’t not look through. One great picture caught my eye. The photographer captured the Abbey dog of the time, Dires, licking Bonnie’s face. And Boniface seemed to love the dog (other pictures of the dog were in the box).

Father Robert was passing by in the hallway as I was cleaning the room. Father Robert is 91, became a monk in 1949 when he was 23 years old and now has a long white beard and always a smile. He is the man who taught me Lectio Divina (a kind of praying the sacred scripture) years ago. I showed him the picture of Brother Boniface with Dires. I told him I felt strange cleaning out Bonnie’s room, with him in a nursing home, knowing he’s never coming back here. I expected some kind of shared empathetic reply that might comfort me. Father Robert, off to complete his own morning chores not wanting to chit-chat I could tell, looked up from the picture, smiled at me and said “Well, people come, people go.” And he walked on. To myself: What?! “People come, people go”! That’s it! Five words! That’s all you have to say about your brother of more than 50 years?

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. My incredulity has turned into a version of Lectio from living life. Life Lectio. Father Robert’s reply is perfect. The picture, the room, the one box; those are not who Boniface is as a human being created in the image of God. Father Robert knows that deep, deep, deep, down in his heart. He also has peace that God’s will be done. I guess it seemed a little… abrupt. OK it was but it was also perfect!

End Journal Entry

Bonnie Dires

During Bonnie’s funeral mass this week I pondered this layered story and treasured it in my heart. Father Alberic, the Abbot, asked me to be one of the pallbearers at the last minute, literally, and helped carry Boniface’s body a short walk to the monastic cemetery. It was my humble honor. After the mass and burial I asked Father Paul why we shoveled dirt directly onto his body clothed in his white robe and habit, laid in the grave without a casket on only a wooden board. He said, “Because we committed his body to the earth and the dirt you shoveled on it was our expression of the reality that Bonnie is dead. He’s not ‘out there’ somewhere, he’s with God and his old body is dead.” I drove the winding roads back home in silence reflecting, in gratitude, on my friend Brother Boniface who taught me these things.

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