Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC Superior
Memorial Service for William Gatewood Sibley, OHC
Thursday 06 November 2008
On the Sunday afternoon following the death of our Brother William, the artists in residence at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, a vocal group known simply as Kairos, along with a talented instrumental ensemble, offered one of their bimonthly Bach cantatas at Vespers. As usual, they were spectacular, and the Hudson Valley music community turned out in force to hear them.
And even for someone like me, who is no great fan of Bach cantatas, the afternoon was moving and transformative. Maybe it was because it came at just the right time following the sudden loss of William and on the heels of all the grief and busy-ness that follows the death of anyone close to us. It was a welcome opportunity in the midst of a hectic week to simply sit and listen.
And I came, it seems, to a new appreciation for the genius of Bach. Even the rather severe Lutheran texts about sin and guilt and hell were strangely consoling, as was the repeated refrain: Gott is mein Freund, God is my Friend. How much I needed to hear that, as did we all.
The program continued with an exquisite Bach cello suite and, as a kind of afterthought, a work by Beethoven that I had never heard before. It was titled Elegischer Gezang, an Elegy Song, and the Kairos group offered it in memory of William. I’ll spare you my fractured reading of the very short German text. In English it reads simply: “As gently as you have lived, so have you ended, too holy for pain. Let no eye weep at the heavenly spirit’s homecoming.” It was achingly beautiful and a fitting tribute.
To be honest, however, this is hardly a text that I would have associated with William Gatewood Sibley. William lived life with bravado, with passion, with struggle, with conviction, with contradiction, even with tragedy. But gentle…? Not the William I knew.
In his homily at William’s funeral, Br. Reginald eloquently reminded us that William was a man who was driven.
* He was a man driven by a sense of justice and fairness and equality, a longing that moved him as a young man to reject militarism—he would never even talk about his two years of service in the US Army—and to become a staunch advocate for world peace and nonviolent resistance.
* He was man who grew up with a certain sense of privilege in the American South in the days of segregation and Jim Crow, and was able to see—really see—around him the effects and costs and injustice of systemic racism. He was moved to witness for racial justice and economic and social equality for all. How he would have savored the opportunity to see an African American elected President of the United Sates. Indeed, I found numerous Barack Obama buttons among his belongings, buttons that he wore with pride, even when doing so came close to crossing the line of separation of church and state so idolized in the States. And he found in his Anglican faith, and in the example of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit a grounding for this work, a work he later expanded to include the legitimate rights of women and of gay and lesbian people in both church and society.
* He also found in the vowed religious life, and particularly in the Order of the Holy Cross, a way and a community that could be the container for these passions, that could channel his restless energy into productive efforts in the United States at West Park, Santa Barbara, and Berkeley; in the Bahamas; and here in Toronto, where he served as Prior for nine years, shaping to this day the ministry of the Order of the Holy Cross in this great city and in this Priory. In his own straightforward way, he encouraged his brothers in their various works and ministries and he held together many disparate characters in one household, though sometimes at great cost to himself and indeed to others as well.
William served as Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross for nine years, and during that period he was practical and matter of fact in his administration. And whatever else one might say, he was always loyal…loyal to his word and to standing by others when they were troubled or in trouble to ensure that, at the very least, they were heard and treated with as much fairness as our cumbersome system could muster. I can personally attest to that.
William’s theology and spiritual outlook changed rather dramatically over the years. He never ceased to remind us of that in countless ways, and he often came across as a rebellious child of the 1960’s. Who of us, for example, didn’t endure his cracks about “cookie worship” and the Nabisco Hour, otherwise known as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament?
In truth, William could no longer accept the conventions and thought-forms and practices of the Anglo-Catholic faith that had first drawn him to OHC. And I often wonder if he ever succeeded in finding an adequate replacement, though his affection for the popular theological work of Marcus Borg came close.
Yet underneath the gibes and protestations—so often intended to get us to think, to be clear, to be consistent—I often detected hints of the old spiritual longings of that student who every Sunday evening traveled over to Sewanee to serve Sunday Evensong and Benediction. I wonder if it was there that William first came to know the profound mystery of Christ’s love for him, a love so intense and so personal and so redemptive that it burned within his heart to the end, leaving him pining for nothing other than God’s love for him in all his singularity. Who doesn’t long for this?
Paradoxically, it was this same Anglo-Catholic theological and spiritual heritage that he found so wanting in his later years that first led William to know that the Gospel was indeed all about incarnation…and therefore about peace and justice and equality and a wholeness that was at once personal and national, individual and social, particular and cosmic.
To know William was also to know of his personal struggles, particularly his struggle with alcoholism. All his adult life he battled with this demon. And often it appeared to triumph over his limited inner resources, leaving him lost and isolated. But always, always, he was available to others who struggled with similar addictions. His work in recovery and especially in the 12-step spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous and his fierce honesty made him a valuable guide to many, many souls.
Since his death any number of people have told me how important he was in their lives in recovery or in their movement back from a shattered and lost faith or in their search for a vocational path. I can see in my mind’s eye all those long, long conversations on the porch of Mount Calvary or perhaps here at the Priory or away on missions, with William hunched forward in a chair, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke, reassuring a seeker, a priest, a fellow traveler that there was indeed hope, that forgiveness was indeed possible, that—yes!—life was worth living, that change was possible, if not always easy, and that it was measured out in small victories and in countless daily particular acts of grace. Because that’s how it was for William. And that’s how it is for all of us.
The Beethoven elegy sung for William concluded with these words: “As gently as you have lived, so have you ended, too holy for pain. Let no eye weep at the heavenly spirit’s homecoming.”
Too holy for pain? Not William. He had his share of pain, his own and others’. But make no mistake about it: he was holy. There was in him a hidden holiness, a holiness that came both from his great acts of witness and courage and also countless hidden, and to us invisible, acts of struggle and defeat and restoration and victory. Perhaps—probably—they were invisible and unknown to him as well. Holiness is a deep mystery, perhaps the final mystery, because it is where the infinite and creative grace of God meets the wonderful messiness of our finite and complex lives.
The Founder of the OHC says in our Rule: “Holiness is the brightness of divine love, and love is never idle; it must accomplish great things. Love must act as fire must shine and light must burn.” William was rarely idle, even when he sometimes seemed lost. He acted when he could, accomplishing more than he could know. He suffered when he had to, but was constantly looking out for the light…for the truth of God, the truth of his own life, the truth of faith and mercy and forgiveness. And in the end, this light did not fail him.
William was never, I think, a great fan of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, though they in fact agreed on many, many things and were, in their restless if different energies, more alike than different. I do believe, however, that William would have found himself in total agreement with Merton when he wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.Today we remember William Gatewood Sibley. We give thanks to God for him. We commend him to the Father. And we celebrate that point of pure truth, that spark, that light that was and is William, whom God disposed to give to us. And now God has called that spark home: “Let no eye weep at the heavenly spirit’s homecoming.”
May that same God, who created and redeemed and nourished William, bring us with him into the fellowship of the saints in light!
May he rest in peace. Amen.