by Peter Gathje
This article was first published in the Autumn 2015 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
Come with me to the Saint John’s Abbey Cemetery. The cemetery is behind the campus, about a quarter mile away, just beyond a row of pines, and up a slight hill from Lake Sagatagan. Still, it is near enough and not a long walk. It is so close that when a monk dies, the funeral procession from the Abbey Church to the cemetery is on foot.
In the cemetery we first see the rows of grey polished granite tombstones. Each stone looks exactly the same, like a monastic habit. But take a little closer look. On the front of each stone are first names, Melchior, Michael, Walter, Adrian, Barry, Joachim. On the back of each stone are the last names, with dates of birth and of death. Most of the names might be unfamiliar to you. But, as the years pass, you will start to see stones with the names of monks you know.
Each time I come back to Saint John’s, I walk out to this cemetery. I see the tombstones of monks I knew when they were alive. As a monk I got to know many more than I did as a student. I also see the stones of those I did not know personally, but I sure heard stories about them. They were famous within the monastery, even in death.
And that’s why I come out here, to remember the stories, and to remember those I knew. This is a good place to think about who these monks were, who and what they loved, and how they lived. I think about the ones who shaped me as a student and who formed me in my few years as a monk.
I remember Father Ivan, who shattered and then rebuilt my faith in his “Biblical Spirituality” class that was really a line by line, and even word by word, study of Mark’s Gospel. I remember Father Daniel, who encouraged me to study theology, to go with my passion rather than calculation about a career. I remember Father Alfred, my novice master, a crusty curmudgeon if there ever was one, whose eyes would moisten reading poetry, which was somehow part of our monastic formation.
I have lots of stories, and I can tell you some as we walk back to the campus. I am sure you have some stories too. But for now, look around, and let this place sink in. Some day, when you come back to campus, walk to the cemetery again. By then there might be a stone with a monk’s name who you knew, who invited you in to a way of life that pays attention, and attends to God’s holy and gracious presence that is always part of the landscape of this special place.
Dr. Peter Gathje is Professor of Christian Ethics and Associate Dean for Curriculum and Instruction at Memphis Theological Seminary. He is also the co-director of Manna House of Memphis, a place of hospitality for homeless and poor persons. A graduate of Saint John’s University and a former monk of Saint John’s Abbey, he attended the summer 2015 writing workshop, A Broader Public: Writing for the Online Audience.
A Reader Response to “In Life as in Death”
by Lucy Bregman
I always enjoy Bearings magazine, in part because of the beautiful photos of places I remember from my year as a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute in 2000/01. I brought my kayak, and was out on the two campus lakes many mornings until the weather grew too cold. I became very familiar with the shoreline of Lake Sagatagan, and so also with the St. John’s Abbey cemetery that overlooks the lake. It seems to be one of the most sacred places, more so than even the giant Abbey church.
To read Peter Gathje’s reflections, “In Death as in Life,” made me ponder the special quality of this place anew. I was only at St. John’s for one year, I did not know any of the monks or local people buried there. So I never associated the place with individual stories, as Dr. Gathje does. Instead, its intense appeal seemed based on its layout, and its relation to the landscape of which it is a part. I began to see it as almost an allegory. There in the lower section are the graves of local families, a peaceful but relatively ordinary rural burial ground. Then, above these, higher on the hill, are the graves of the monks. As if someone planned the space to represent a hierarchy, even the graves of the abbots are separated, although I was informed that that practice has been abandoned, and all the monks are equal. Their “monk names” are what the visitor climbing up the hill sees. This is the marker for who they were in the community, in the world. On the back of the stones are their names as given at birth, as members of families whose identities they never entirely shed, even when they became monks. It is this side that is turned upward, toward God.
But they don’t leave the hill or the lakeshore even in death. During the year I was at St. John’s, a monk died who had been an avid fisherman, as well as serving as a librarian for many years. At the funeral sermon, it was mentioned how proud this man had been to escort a government environmental team who visited, and take them out onto the lake. After the walk through the normally-closed monastic garden, we went up the hill to the cemetery (“If you have to die in December in Minnesota, this is probably the best place to do it” I said to myself). The newly-dead monk joined his brothers there. As someone remarked, “We all know where we’ll be; the only suspense is who we’ll be next to.” Yes, I recognize the symbolism of facing God up past the hill, awaiting the resurrection. But I also noted how the dead monk had a good view of the lake. He could see how the fish were biting.
This last possibility owes a lot more to Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” than to the New Testament. But it seems to fit, because in that classic play, the dead are still part of the town. They linger in place, gradually loosening their particular ties to individuals and become part of the collectivity, the emeritus section, so to speak. They do not move to an entirely place-transcendent eternity, they remain in the place that was very much part of the landscape in which they lived. Maybe eventually they will “move on,” how or when I don’t know. In the meantime, they retain their place not just in the memories of people such as Gathje, who knew them as individuals, but as a community linked to a specific where. Even for those of us who are strangers and outsiders to that community, we can sense the presence and power of this connection. A cemetery in a flat space, nowhere near the garden, the buildings and the lake, would be perfectly adequate for burials. But it wouldn’t be as good.
Lucy Bregman is Professor of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Her most recent book, The Ecology of Spirituality: Practice and Virtues in a Post-Religious Age (Baylor University Press, 2014) was featured in our January 2016 Book Notes. She was a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute during the 2000/01 academic year.