Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam McCoy, OHC
Sermon preached at the Requiem for Brother Douglas Brown, OHC
Wednesday 10 May 2006
A Resurrection Life
The essential message of the Easter proclamation has always been: Christ has won the victory. Death has been trampled down by death, and Christ now gloriously risen invites us to join Him in faith, and when we do, His victory will be ours as well. And so it will. The victory of Christ on the Cross has opened to all the world the possibility of resurrection, and our hope as committed Christians is that all will come within the reach of that saving embrace. On Easter morn we sing, "Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia. Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia." His rising makes our day holy.
That's our proclamation. But how do we get there? How can we be transformed by the resurrection?
There are so many Easter symbols of new life: The new fire, the flowering cross for the children, the festive food, the Easter eggs and chocolate in baskets, the bunnies and chicks and other soft and fragile offspring which remind us of the newness of spring and the renewal of life. When I was a boy, we used to get new shoes for Easter. The week or so before the great day, the stores would be full of parents and children trying on shoes, which we children would eagerly compare on the great day. The Black Church has an image for heaven: it's the place where all God's children got shoes. All God's children are loved and gifted and privileged. A child's Easter is a festival of sweet and tender newness: The victory of the Resurrection is given as a free gift, from adults to the children, from God to us, new life and love unbounded, uncomplicated, rejoicing love.
But gradually, the complications, the failures, the compromises, the shadows, of adult life gather round and penetrate our souls, till many believe that the Christian proclamation of the Resurrection victory is, in one of St. Paul's favorite words, foolishness: foolishness to Gentiles, to the thinking secular world, and worse, offensive to Jews, to serious religious people. So one righteous man died and was justified, the criticism goes. That gets you off the hook? Absurd. Where's the responsibility for the individual to engage in the struggle? Where's the need to build up social structures, to share with others in human solidarity?
An adult Easter needs to take into account the darkness of our lives. In the words of the great hymn which I heard for the first time on Good Friday, 1976, in St. James' Cathedral in Toronto, so beloved of Douglas, "My song is love unknown, my savior's love to me: Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be." We become lovely by being loved, and in turn loving others into loveliness.
The victory may have been won, but appropriating the fruits of victory is no easy task. Douglas Brown was a man who lived into these questions with deep sincerity, and whose life is a paradigm of the answer to the world's criticisms of the Christian faith. He placed himself in the path of the Resurrection, and that path took him to strange and wonderful places. This Chapel, the worship in it and the community which lives its life around it, became Douglas' life, and the strange and wonderful place where he struggled to appropriate the victory of the Resurrection.
Douglas was profoundly liturgical. He loved the ancient liturgies of the Church, the monastic offices, the chanting, the community's times of simple shared prayer, the psalms and canticles and antiphons, the public reading of scripture, the hymns of Anglican worship in all its glorious variety, the shared physical movement of the community in the daily dance of praise, the Peace at the Eucharist which he would share in a great bearlike embrace, the bread and the wine and the fellowship around the Table of the Lord. He found here his heart's center, and in the stability of the forms of monastic prayer I believe he found the strength to take up his cross and follow Jesus. Because the cross is the answer to the criticism of cheap grace: We are offered the Resurrection victory won by Jesus Christ if - "if" - we follow his life and death and make it ours.
Douglas embraced his cross. He allowed himself to die to parts of his life that could not give him life: shyness, insecurity, drinking. His life was a work in progress on all these fronts. I believe that the great gifts he shared with us were made possible by the Resurrection victories won on the crosses of his struggles.
When our Founder, Father Huntington, wrote about the houses of our Order, his first thought was about the spiritual struggle they make possible: "The ladder of the cross is planted firmly within the walls of a religious house and angels pass up and down that stairway.Â Our house is a house of God; let us strive to make it for ourselves the gate of heaven." Jacob's ladder is the ancient Jewish and Christian symbol of mystical contemplation, and at a deep level, the union with God symbolized by that ladder is the goal of every monk. I think the genius of the image is not so much in the ladder, however, as in the picture of the angels ascending and descending. Up and down, up and down, an interplay of the interior life, which is never simple, always dynamic.
This ladder has an ancient pedigree in monastic tradition. St. Benedict gives it 12 steps, and each one of them is an act of humility. The fear of God; leaving behind your own desires; submission to a human superior; obedience under difficult circumstances; the vulnerability to share your inner life with those who have power over you; contentment with whatever comes your way, especially abuse and deprivation; willingness to live by the community's norms; keeping silence when what you want to do is chatter; restraining the laughter of hysteria and self-preoccupation; when you do speak, speaking modestly, gently and briefly; and finally, realizing that we speak not only with our words, but in our actions. They too must be characterized by humility.
This is a big order. It is a sixth century 12 step program of formidable challenges. Ascending this dynamic ladder of humility requires more than one act of faith. It requires first of all that we are willing to give ourselves to God unreservedly, not looking to our own strengths and gifts but allowing God to use us as we are. "Just as I am, without one plea" says the old hymn, and that is the monk's daily song as we struggle up a rung or two of the great ladder. This first act of faith requires us to trust that we, our own essential being, and not what we can say or do or produce on our own, is worth God's trouble. A tall order for a shy, insecure alcoholic. But Douglas took it on.
A second act of faith climbing this ladder requires is that the community will be a faithful partner in the struggle. Submission, obedience, vulnerability, joining in the no doubt flawed life of people no better than you are; all this presupposes a community and leadership whose first focus is on the Cross and its victory, and not on its own power and gain. This is a struggle for all of us in monastic community. But what joy when we all honestly share its tasks: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity." It is like the fine oil anointing Aaron, running down in seeming waste all the way from head to foot, signifying not the usefulness of the oil but the overflowing abundance of God's Spirit, not the daily tasks of earning a living and running things and being productive, but the hope of a superabundant overflow of generous, mutual love. A tall order for a man who could so easily analyze the realities of personal dynamics in himself and others, and whose call to leadership was complicated by his understanding of the inner dynamics of the exercise of power. But Douglas took it on.
A third act of faith that climbing the ladder of humility requires is that you only reach the top when you have hit the bottom. St. Benedict famously does not recommend humor to his monks, and if there were one thing I would like to change in the Rule, that's it. I think a joyful approach to life is always welcome, but then, we don't live in the sixth century, with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire a living memory, with the collapse of the successor state of the great and wise Theodoric the Ostrogoth on the horizon and chaos drawing closer and closer, surrounding them like the darkness of an enveloping night. But there is a delicious irony in the thought of a ladder of humility. If the Cross is a paradox, so is the ladder. Imagine: climbing higher and higher to become more and more humble. When you reach the top you are really at the bottom, so to speak. I cannot help but think that this is a parable about leadership as well as a profound observation of the course of a truly redeemed life. Perhaps that could be the monastic message to our leadership shortly to assemble in Columbus (editor's note: the triennal General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA). Here is where I think Douglas found his Resurrection victory. He hit bottom. He embraced another 12 step program, one I think not unrelated to Benedict's. He understood that when you reach the top of that program, you're still no better than the day you started. I think he made this his life's work: To see in himself and in others the daily work of grace, grace that picks you up after you've been thrown down, and keeps picking you up, day after day after day. Not an easy way to live your life, but Douglas took it on.
I loved Douglas' ways of being humble. The schlumpfy clothes, the sandals (didn't the man have a single pair of shoes?), the only-occasionally trimmed hair and beard, the muffled voice, which you had to strain to understand sometimes, low like an organ pipe. He didn't much like spending money. I would try to take him out to a nice restaurant near the seminary in Chelsea, and more often than not we would end up in a Chinese place just north of 23rd Street where it was a challenge to bring the bill above $20.00 a person. He loved being a monk, even perhaps playing a little in his ironic way with the outward symbols of humility.
Douglas was a holy person. Not a saint, I think, but holy. He let himself be transformed by grace and the Spirit. When his life hit bottom, he saw it as Christ's cross for himself. He saw the ladder of humility planted firmly in the midst of the monastery and embraced it. He trusted the Lord and he trusted the community, not without struggle, but with an admirable constancy.
And as a result, his life became a blessing. He was a rock of integrity to us in the monastic life. His preaching and retreats were beacons of reason and generosity and insight to thousands. His spiritual direction reached deep into the souls of hundreds and hundreds of earnest Christians. His wide sympathies, born of his own sufferings, opened channels of grace which are still flowing with the waters of life. His love of justice and compassion in public life led him to become a voice in the struggles of our day.
In my church we sing a song after the sermon, a song born in the Black Church:
Thank you Lord, for saving my soul.
Thank you Lord, for making me whole.
Thank you Lord, for giving to me
Thy great salvation so rich and free.
Thank you, Lord, for saving Douglas. Thank you for making him whole. Thank you for giving to him your great salvation so rich and free. Thank you, Lord, for giving Douglas to us all, for the great gifts his salvation has brought us. Thank you for the Easter life, for the free gifts of childhood, for the Ladder of the humility of the Cross, for the humility which lifts us up, and brings us, finally, to You.