Funeral for Fr. James OConnor
Fr. Jim O’Conner belonged to what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation. In his book by that name he pays tribute to the WWII generation for their everyday heroism in extraordinary times. Fr. Jim enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 19 in 1943. As a 20 year old he was piloting a B-17 Bomber and for the next two years he flew 35 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Extraordinary time indeed.
In 1949 he entered New Melleray Abbey. When Abbot Eugene sent him an acceptance letter, Jim wrote a thank you note in which he states, “For almost a year now I have prayed in my imperfect way for this end. I know that there is a great love to be found at New Melleray and I hope to be made worthy to participate in it. This he did for 73 years! I am sure that at the end of his life if someone asked about his prayer he would say it was still imperfect. All any of us can say at the end of our life is, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”.
Once, many years later, when his good friend Chuck Offenburger asked if prayer and meditation were still important to him he said, perhaps without realizing the depth of this answer that, “Now it is more like an interior prayer life that I have. I find I pray much of the time without words. I feel like I make direct contact with God in my thoughts, and then specific words aren’t important”. Thoughts fill our mind all day long. We are constantly talking to ourselves in what is called a speechless monologue. Jim turned that into a speechless dialogue, a silent communication where the heart of a creature speaks to the heart of the creator. There is a silent language that God uses to speak to us and us to him. God is a spirit and we are a spirit and the Holy Spirit teaches us by his holy anointing the language of the soul. We all have it but like Jim we have to allow ourselves to find it or better to be found by it.
Every Christian life is a mystery, none more so than that of a monk. Monks are said to live a life of prayer and if someone asks us what good does that do we have no convincing answer. If we look at Jim’s life from the outside at the externals, say, his real inner life is hidden from us – it is vailed that covers all the people as Isaiah tells us in the first reading. Except for his two years in the service, Fr. Jim had a very ordinary monastic life. He taught philosophy for three years, he was the best bricklayer in the community and when the building program was completed he cut the grass. Not very exciting but he loved it. Did he pray while he was cutting the grass? Probably but it was that voiceless prayer of the heart.
Somehow Fr. Jim knew there was a great love to be found at New Melleray. Evidently he found it because he stayed with us 73 years. He said he prayed for a year to be accepted into the community and we could now add, and 73 years to be accepted into something much better than New Melleray. Jim said his prayer was imperfect and I venture to say the love he found here was imperfect also. But, now it is a different story. St. Paul says our outer self is decaying day by day but our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory. 2 Cor. 4: 16. We do not see this or even feel it but we believe it.
Let me conclude with a quote from St. Augustine’s Confessions. “No one knows a person’s innermost spirit except the person’s own spirit within them, yet there is something in a human being that even his own spirit does not know.” I think we can all attest to this. Augustine continues, “I will confess therefore what I know about myself and also what I do not know. The knowledge I have of myself I possess because you have enlightened me; while the knowledge of myself that I do not yet possess will not be mine until my darkness shall be made as the noonday sun before your face”. Tuesday 8th week of the year Breviary.
Death is not easy to understand and we have cause to morn it but for Jim who spent 73 years being accepted by the community and participating in the love he knew was here, it is a cause of great joy because his darkness is made like the noonday sun before the face of God.