Homily for the Mass of Christian Burial for Brother Stephen, OCSO by Fr. Kevin Walsh
Sept. 14, 2022
Song 7:2-12, Psalm 27, Phil 2:1-18, Mt 6:1-21
Jesus’ words at the end of today’s gospel seem wonderfully appropriate for us this morning as we pray for Brother Stephen. Brother Stephen treasured the relationship God offered him and felt in a deeply personal way what we celebrate today on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross – out of love for each of us, Jesus ascended the cross to put an end to death that we might share everlasting life with him. In recent weeks Brother Stephen often asked us why God wasn’t bringing him home yet. His faith in the promise given each of us in baptism, to share eternity with God, anchored the manner in which he lived his monastic vocation, and invites us all to center our lives on Christ.
The first reading from the Song of Songs may seem a little unusual until you understand that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (one of our revered and well respected Cistercians) found in this poetry from the Old Testament not a dialogue on carnal desire but an amazement at divine love. God loves us intimately and completely. Recently Brother Stephen said to me: “I wish everyone could really understand how much God loves us.”
Paul’s message to the Philippians is an eloquent flow of words Brother Stephen reflected on often: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (doulos) …” The humility Saint Benedict invites each monk to adopt to live in union with Jesus, became a regular point of prayerful reflection for Brother Stephen as he fulfilled the various responsibilities entrusted to him in his close to 70 years as a monk. (He entered Mepkin in 1953, when I was two years old.) For him to serve was to be in close union with our Lord. And the many who knew him as guest master for 35 years will agree that Brother Stephen grasped the words of Jesus – he who welcomes you, welcomes me – because Stephen truly gave that welcome of faith.
Our reading from the gospel of Matthew today encourages us to embrace a spirit of praying that is not about being seen but about accepting God’s desire to have a close relationship with us. Jesus reminds us that prayer practice and people practice (how you treat others) are related. While there is a singular dimension to prayer and a personal relationship with God, there is a communal dimension as well – so we pray “Our Father”. Cistercian life is cenobitic, we live in community to support each other in making this journey home to God. While Brother Stephen treasured his time alone with God, he valued his community and prayed for each other monk daily. He was so pleased to see Father Jack express his desire to join our community and was genuinely happy that Brother Kyle would begin his life as a postulant with us today – the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Knowing another Steven will join us in October made him very grateful in his prayer and that Kurt and Emmett are here to discern if God is inviting them to take up this life brought him to pray for them each day. Brother Stephen grew up in a family of faith who encouraged him in saying yes to his call. And so he also treasured visits from his family where he could encourage them to a deeper faith and support them in making their individual journeys through life. Three of his nieces are with us to pray this afternoon along with some other members of his family. His three nieces will bring the gifts to the altar as we pray that God will transform these humble familiar things into the gift of Jesus’ own body and blood for our nourishment.
To our loving God we commend Brother Stephen as we pray together in the faith he encourages us to live. May God receive Brother Stephen, and reward his generosity and the faith filled manner in which he lived his monastic call. And may we grow in our awareness of God’s love for us – help each other grow in faith – and come to share one day in the fullness of life the Lord has promised to share with Brother Stephen and with each one of us.