Genesis 28:11-18; I Peter 2:4-9; John 15:9-17
How can we celebrate the feast of Joy Never Ending this year without thinking of the two brothers we buried this year after over a century of monastic living at Mepkin? Joy captures and defines Brother Robert and Father Christian more than any other virtue or characteristic could. The two of them have given us an example of what monastic life is all about. It is about Joy. Not the surface, peripheral, ha-ha type of joy. No, the deep down freshness kind of joy. The joy that permeates us to the core, that says: Life is good, because God is good and God is here. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love…. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Our two brothers lived this reality to the full. When did we ever see Robert without his infectious smile? I lived with him for over 50 years and I can remember him angry or sad only once. He kept perspective in his life and would not allow the little daily annoyances to swerve him from the deeper reality of Joy Never Ending. And Father Christian’s constant mantra was: “Where there is more truth there is more joy.” His companion mantra built on this: “Joy is the main characteristic of the Christian…. There is no such thing as a sad Christian.” A Christian who may be sad, yes, but a sad Christian? No. Didn’t the new pieces to the monk crèche, crafted by our friends who are here with us, Karen and Michael, capture this so well? Robert’s smile and exuding happiness as he drove his mowing tractor, and Father Christian zipping around pushing his walker with the big smile on his face. With such examples before us, how can we not be inspired to make such joy our own?
For I believe that Joy is what shapes the minds and the hearts of all who make Mepkin their home. Richard Grendahl gave expression to this in the Entrance Song he wrote for our Founders Day Mass over 35 years ago: Sing a song of Joy Never Ending. Praise the Lord, the God of our life. Come before him singing thanksgiving. We are his people, he is our God.
Our monastic forebears knew this as well. Isaac of Stella preached to his monks in the early days of Citeaux: “Dear friends, why do we keep up the weary search which is monastic life? Because it is Joy, love, delight, sweetness…. It is hope made visible.” Monastic life is hope made visible. We walk in this long tradition which sees the monastery and monastic life not as a burden, as darkness and horror, but as a walk in God, the God who is always near and a walk to God, who is our focal point and goal.
Monastic life is not an abstraction. Monastic life is not some ethereal reality that floats out there somewhere in space. Nor is monastic life at Mepkin. No. Mepkin is a very concrete place, with a very specific history. And that place and that history is made up of very particular people — people that we celebrated when we went to each of their graves just a little while ago and people that are present right here in this assembly. Mepkin is us. Mepkin exists because those who have gone before us have formed and molded this place and this land into the shape we experience now and because we, the living, continue to allow God to come into our hearts and form us into the image of his son, Jesus Christ.
Who are some of these people? Three years ago we looked briefly at those whose graves are on the hill of our first or lower cemetery. Two years ago we reflected on the first three brothers buried right outside our church in the upper cemetery, Anthony, William and Malachy. Last year we spoke about our first Brother Paul, along with Benjamin and Joseph Lawrence. Since we have already spoken about two of our brothers, however briefly, I want to detail just one more today. God willing, all of us monks will find a place there when our time comes to pass to the Joy Never Ending.
It is only fitting that at the time we celebrate the publication of the first cookbook by Father Joe, our present cook, we remember Brother Boniface, our longtime cook and baker. A photograph of him adorns one of the walls in our Store and his cookbook, Baking with Brother Boniface, has sold over 1500 copies. Boniface was born in Bavaria, Germany, and learned the barber’s trade as an apprentice in his early years. He immigrated with his family to America when he was a teenager, and served our country in World War II on the Pacific front. His tattoos and war stories always delighted us in our informal get-togethers. His family supported themselves with an ice cream parlor in Upstate New Jersey and it was there that he felt the call to monastic life. He was a late vocation, before late vocations were the vogue, entering Mepkin when he was 45. Like all of us, he did many things in his monastic life, but it was as our cook and baker that he made his mark. He had a listening ear and was the unofficial ombudsman of the community. All complaints passed through Boniface! He remained active to the very end of his 95 years. Each day he would come into the kitchen and ask Brother Edward, the cook who succeeded him, what he could do, slicing tomatoes and potatoes and lettuce or whatever was needed. And he continued to offer telling insights in our community discussions and dialogues. What can we say about his prayer? He was at all the Hours and Mass with great devotion and could often be found in the Blessed Sacrament chapel in heartfelt prayer to God.
Mepkin is built on the backs of such men as Boniface and Robert and Christian. None of them are saints in the traditional plaster mold — but each one of them has given us an example of something of what it means to turn one’s life over to the living God. Let us listen to that same call of God in our lives. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that he has chosen us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. In this way, may we too arrive at the Joy Never Ending that God has prepared for each one of us.