Monthly Mass for the Deceased
Once a month we offer the Eucharist for our deceased members and those we promised to pray for. It is also a reminder for all of us about death and dying. St. Benedict himself urges us to keep death daily before our eyes. When we grow older or have a terminal illness and death draws closer, our bodies lose their strength, our eyes grow dim, hearing diminishes and we need more assistance from others.
Religious communities can also experience death and dying like that in the form of closure. Some have already closed, like Holy Trinity Abbey in Utah. New Melleray’s Commission for the Future writes that they “do not see this present community to be viable beyond five years.” I think “viable” means the ability to regenerate the life of our community with new members. In that sense we have already stopped being viable in the past five years by the deaths of eight members (Br. Kevin, Fr. Neil, Br. Placid, Br. Walter, Br. Tobias, Fr. Xavier, Fr. James, and now Fr. Kenneth), and the departure of six others, (Br. Nicholas Majesky, Br. Charles Oberholzer, Fr. David Hereshko, Fr. Mark Scott, Fr. Alberic Farbolin, and Br. Juan Diego Lavado). That’s fourteen altogether. We are thankful that Br. Philip has joined us, but we need at least five new members like him to replace those we lost and to make our community viable again.
The future closure of New Melleray is coming not only because of the loss of fourteen members in recent years, but also by the aging of the seventeen members who are left, twelve of whom are in their 80’s. So, what is it like for our community to slowly approach closure? Well, we are more dependent on lay helpers for maintenance of the abbey, to do laundry and general cleaning, cooks to prepare some meals for us, a guest mistress for our retreat house, and nursing care as more of us move into our infirmary rooms.
Just as the human body approaching death sometimes moves into a fetal position to keep warmth in its limbs, so also our dying community is beginning to cluster closer together. We see it in our chapter room where benches that could hold 30 to 40 monks have been replaced by a circle of chairs for 17 monks. And the beautiful sanctuary in our church has been abandoned for one in the middle of choir that is easier for our aging priests to negotiate. The empty sanctuary is a visual reminder for me that we are dying. One by one we need to use canes and walkers, scooters and wheel chairs. Now it’s easier for us to keep death and closure daily before our eyes. And that’s a good thing, because the abbey is not our homeland. We are looking forward to the day we can enter into the joys that “eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him.”
But the closure of New Melleray is something that neither our founders, nor our ancestors, nor we ourselves desired. Rather, we would like our contemplative way of life and our place in the diocese and the church to continue indefinitely. Yet, we see the opposite happening to us and to other monasteries here and in Ireland, England, and Europe. It won’t be easy to close joyfully. Just as dying is hard because of our natural resistance to death, so also closure is hard. Like a terminally ill patient who hopes for a breakthrough in medications that will save one’s life, so we might hope for an influx of new members to save our community. But closure is more realistic, as our Commission for the Future has reminded us. Let us be thankful that we have time to prepare for it, unlike religious communities in past centuries that closed suddenly because they were victims of war, disease, or persecution.
Yet, if it pleases God to give us a little respite by revitalizing our aging community with new members that would be wonderful. And if he does not, even if New Melleray slowly dies, we will praise Him still.