Sermon for the Funeral of Br. Nicholas Radelmiller, OHC
Preached at Trinity Church, Santa Barbara, CA
By Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
On Sunday, November 9,2014
By Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
On Sunday, November 9,2014
A little over a week ago I received an email from an old friend—we first met in seventh grade and have kept in touch ever since. In it he told me of the passing of his mother Verna at age 97. Verna was a formidable figure, very direct, very plain spoken, in some ways not unlike our Brother Nicholas. I remember vividly a discussion that Verna and I had about death and the afterlife. Even at age 14 I fancied myself a theologian of no mean ability, and I was explaining to Verna how life after death and heaven was really all about the soul being in union with God, with the corollary that hell was the soul separated from God. Verna, who was a Southern Baptist, heard me out and then said, “Bob, I don't know about you, but I want my gloried body.” Well, I was taken aback—this wasn't the way we talked about or thought about such things. It sounded, even to my 14 year old ears, a bit simplistic, even materialistic. But a strange thing happened. Over the years and as I have grown older, I have become more and more like Verna. More and more like her I want, and find in the Christian message, a thoroughly earthy hope for a future that is, however mysteriously, embodied, enfleshed, in some way continuous with this life, but transformed, redeemed, transfigured, resurrected...or in Verna's words: glorified.
Of course our language fails us as much as it enlightens us when it comes to matters of faith, and nowhere perhaps more so than when we get to speaking about and reflecting on our hope beyond death. So we look to Scripture and tradition and to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith. And what does that tradition tell us? What does it offer us?
First it offers us an assurance that the souls of the righteous, the very center of life, are not lost, never lost, but are held in God's heart, treasured up for all eternity. The story—your story, my story, Nick's story—is not forgotten. And no matter what may have transpired on this side, no torment will have power over the souls of the righteous. They dwell, they live, they abide in God's healing love, and God watches over them.
Second, as we hear from St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, we experience even now, even in this life, something of this promise. Though the body, our outward nature, fails and fades, renewal is happening. We saw this with our brother Nicholas as he got weaker and then rallied and got weaker again over the years. He was being prepared for “an eternal weight of glory.” And so are we. Like St. Paul, we hope that the mortal is not annihilated but further clothed, indeed swallowed up by life.
And Jesus himself tells us that our final home is in his Father's house, where there are many dwelling places, many mansions, and that he has gone to prepare a place for each of us and that he will come and bring us home.
All this language, of course, points beyond itself. It is poetic, evocative and indirect. But it does point to something very real, something all about life, fullness of life, the fulfillment of life. No wonder Verna wanted her glorified body. Who can imagine such a rich tapestry of life without a body to enjoy it, to share it, to delight in it?
Our brother Nicholas certainly loved life, living in this less-than glorified, though nonetheless amazing body that is ours. As many of you know, Nick grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington State. In his application to join our Order he added: “This never much appealed to me." So off he went to university in Seattle. Not raised in any religious tradition, Nick was baptized as a 17-year old convert, and that faith remained with him in his college years. It was a very interesting time for him, and Nick enjoyed his friends. And as you might expect of Nick, some of them were quite exotic. One of his roommates had been a dancer in the court of the Dalai Lama!
Nick was drawn to ordained ministry, graduated from Nashotah House seminary, and then went into parish work in the Seattle area. It was not a happy experience for him, alas, and after some further parish work in Wisconsin, he resigned his ministry, returned to Seattle and applied to enter the Order of the Holy Cross. I was struck by his response to one of the questions on the application: What is your motive for joining the community? Nick answered: “...to live in Community and to do and be something worthwhile.”
This was his motive, and I believe that it remained his motive throughout his life. It was not always easy. Community life had its challenges for Nick, as it does for everyone. These challenges drove him out to do some interesting things...to study Spanish and to minster in Ecuador for two years, to spend a year in a monastery in the UK, to live as chaplain to the Sisters at St. Mary's Convent here in Santa Barbara for two years.
And like my friend’s mother, Nick was direct and concise, often bordering on the terse. He was terribly bright—he liked to let you know he was a member of MENSA—and when he spoke on matters under discussion and dispute at one of our Chapter or Council meetings, he often summed up the arguments and direction of the group with admirable clarity and brevity. But this same brevity was not infrequently experienced by guests or others as rudeness or, at best, curmudgeonliness. This was not, of course, helped by the fact that for much of his life Nick was deaf in his right ear and he just might not hear you when you spoke. Or might not want to hear you. You could never be sure.
But hear he did when it counted, especially in his work with people affected by HIV/AIDS, especially during the early years of that plague, especially in West Hollywood. He was a pastor, priest, friend, confidant and counselor to many who were sick or dying.
Nick said that he wanted to do and be something worthwhile. And he did and he was. I sent him a letter shortly before he died—I was in South Africa at the time, and Br. Timothy read it to him at Sarah House. He said it was a nice letter, which was high praise from him. In it I mentioned the three areas that I thought most epitomized him and his life...as priest and monk and artist.
Nick was a faithful priest, not given to drama but to an almost objective presence and role as one who brought God to his people and his people to God. He never talked down to his flock but always treated them as adults...which may explain why he never did children's missions. (Can you imagine?)
And he was a faithful monk, that is to say, one who soldiered on until death. His spirituality was very private, but it was nourished by quiet and prayer and study and, of course, reading. Nick read everything: theology, fine literature, poetry, crime novels (preferably those set in exotic locations), biographies, travelogues, history, the New York Review of Books. I worry that Chaucer's Bookshop may be in for some financial setbacks now that he will no longer be visiting in the flesh. And who of us can forget the amazing bookstore that he created and curated at our old Mount Calvary site on Gibraltar Road? It was a wondrous selection, a window into Nick's soul and a door to new worlds for legions of guests and visitors.
Finally, Nick was indeed an artist. He was never a great artist, but he loved art, he lived art...he loved seeing it, hearing it, creating it, performing it. He was a watercolorist of some ability. And of course he was a cellist. That instrument gave him such joy, both for the quality of the instrument when it was played well and for the friendships he made in learning it over the years. He studied and practiced faithfully, almost daily when his health permitted it. And at first, of course, it was a bit painful for his neighbors. And there, quite honestly, was always something of that pain for the duration.
If I may, I want to share an email that we received from a friend of the community
“As you know far better than I, Nick was a great lover of music and sawed away on his cello with great enthusiasm. About three years ago at a dinner in the house I introduced Nick to my companion Gloria (some of you may recall she plays the cello in the LA Philharmonic). Nick perked up considerably at this news of her presence, becoming almost gregarious—nothing short of a minor miracle. Before too long the two of them were off to the chapel where Gloria performed a private recital for Nick.
“Nick wasn't bashful about his request: Bach’s Cello Suite Number 6, which I am told, is as challenging a musical piece as you would ever ask a professional to play. Gloria was surprised, but obliged. She still loves telling the story.
“I think it was on my next visit that Nick played a private concert for me. I wasn't quite prepared for his skill level. But I got through it. I love telling that story.”
Then there was the famous incident on Maundy . Some years ago Nick offered to play the cello during the foot washing ceremony on Holy . We gathered, about 40 of us, in the large parlor at the old Mount Calvary and at the appropriate point the foot washing began. Nick was off by himself near the big fireplace, seated on a low stool and playing something meditative, when all of a sudden he tumbled backward off the bench, feet in the air followed by the cello. As you might imagine, everything came to crashing halt as all heads turned in his direction. But Nick was nonplussed. He got up, picked up the cello, sat down and continued. And so did the foot washing. And so did the Sacred Triduum. And nothing was ever said. But really, you gotta love it.
We all have our favorite Nick stories. I hope you will share some of yours with friends at the reception that follows this service.
I mentioned that Nick loved books, buying them, reading the, selling them. I want to connect that love of books to my opening remarks about Verna and her hope for a glorified body. So two literary references.
The first comes from Ben Franklin. If you go to Christ Church, Philadelphia, you will see the grave of Ben Franklin, whose epitaph reads simply: “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin: 1790.” But when he was a young man in his 20's, Franklin penned, partly in jest perhaps, an epitaph for himself. It said:
The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of Its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.
Nick's book of life, like that of all of us, stands in need of revision and correction. And by the grace of Jesus Christ, whom he worshiped and served, that revision and correction is happening even now, for him and for us. And that new and more elegant edition is being prepared for publication even as we speak.
John Donne, the 17th century Anglican poet and preacher famous for his quote about the tolling bell, also said: “All mankind is of one Author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.”
So it must.
Revised, corrected, newly translated, sumptuously rebound and reissued: May our brother Nick, with all the saints, rest in peace and rise in glory.