“Words Sound, Examples Thunder”
After living on a Trappist Monastery for over two years and coming and going to and from Holy Cross Abbey for twelve years, I not only got to know these Cistercian monks really well, but I knew where to find them when I needed to. Looking back through the years, I can associate a monk with a place. Let’s see, there was Fr. Paschal in the monastery laundry room, Brother Michael (the Cellarer) in, well, the cellarium, Br. Stephen, the Retreat House, Fr. James, the Chapter Room, Br. Joe, Scriptorium, Fr. Vincent, Refectory, Fr. Robert, the Abbott, in his office buried in paper, Fr. Mark, his library, Br. Efrain, the bakery, Brother Benedict in his Butterfly Garden, Brother’s Martin and Christopher, out and about taking care of the grounds, Brother Barnabas, taking strolls with his sombrero sized hat (and occasionally “enforcing silence” on me). The rest of the gang were either a bit reclusive, on temporary assignment somewhere else, living in the Hermitage, or in a nursing home.
One of the monks, Fr. Edward McCorkell, could almost always be found praying in the chapel. The place I ran into him most often however, was by the mail room – where the action is! Fr. Ed, who was born of Irish parents in South Africa and was in his mid-80’s when I first met him. He was once the Abbott and had spent years in poor communities in South America. The first time I met him I noticed he was short, thin and hunched over with age and wore glasses seemingly too big for his small but smiling face. I found out right away that one thing that was NOT small about Fr. Ed, was HIS VOICE. He had a booming voice and spoke perfect South African accented English. It was lovely to hear unless you were Brother Barnabas enforcing “The Great Silence.” He also was fluent in Latin. That may not be surprising in a monastery, but Br. Edward seemed to work some linguam Latinam into every other sentence. That first time I met him, I was introduced to him by Father Mark, who mentioned I had lived in Ireland. So, Fr. Ed gave me the McCorkell and Forde family history, emphasizing the spelling with an “e” at the end, saying “Ford-eh, Ford-eh, because, God forbid Fr. Edward’s kin would be lumped in with that e-less Ford clan. He asked me what I will be doing at the monastery, and I explained I was acting as Guestmaster in the retreat house. while Brother Stephen was absent.
He finished asking me questions with “Michael, we all welcome you here.” Maybe the most beautiful and hospitable welcome I had ever received. The Cistercians are well known for their hospitality.
Roaming the Inner Sanctums
As time went on, I would see him in the monastery halls in his white tunic, covered by a scapular and cowl. I began interrupting him when he used Latin phrases to ask what it meant. One time he used a Latin phrase and articulated the words physically by making a fist and swinging his clenched hand and arm up toward the heavens. We were talking about being role models and living as a Christian. He was especially taken with the lay people, ordinary folks, and volunteers were such great examples in their communities. With that clench fist, swinging slowly and then finishing with a louder crescendo, he said, “Verba sonant. Examplia Tonnant.” Just as when I was a child, I would ask my Aunt Clare (Sister of Charity) when she used big words I couldn’t understand, I essentially asked “wot dat mean?”
He straightened up a bit and said, “Michael, that means words sound (but) examples THUNDER!”
In time, old age began to take its toll on Fr. Edward, mostly in the form of Dementia. I saw him on a daily basis around the monastery and he would say hello, ask my name and say “what do you do here?” Then he would (re)welcome me. It was heartbreaking to see, but we still had great fun chatting. Once I told him I would be away in Ireland for a week or so on holiday. He was so excited for me. He said, “you must call in to the McCorkells and the Forde’s. The Ford-eh’s not the Fords. There is a silent “e” at the end.” When I came home to the Abbey, I sought out Fr. Ed, by the mail room and said, “oh Father, it’s great to see you. I met loads of McCorkells and Fordes on my trip to Ireland!” Before he could even respond with at least a smile, I said “mind you. I met most of them in the pubs and jails.” We both had a burst of laughter and I was so happy he still could understand when someone was “taking the mickey” out of him.
Trying to Pray with Pain
Not long after that day, the abbott told me that Fr. Edward was getting worse and actually broke his ankle. One problem with his condition was that he would get out of bed in the middle of the night, forgetting he had a fractured ankle, and really hurt himself. The Brothers had to take shifts all night with him to make sure their beloved brother would not try to get out of bed.
Father Robert once told me that when the monks make their vows, they expect to live their entire life at the monastery and be buried there. While Fr. Mark was a Doctor, he was also over 90 years old and could not manage all of this. The Abbott confided to me that Father Edward would be moving to Carroll Manor, a Catholic nursing home in Washington D.C. I was gutted to hear this but felt even worse knowing that I was aware of this, but this incredible man was not. Everything was happening fast. There was an opening at the nursing home. He would be leaving us the next day and he was told, and this time it may have sank in. I still don’t know. I had to see him right away. But what do I say?
I went down to his chamber, knocked on the door and for the first time for my eyes, Father Edward was not wearing his Trappist garments. He was in a wrinkled tee shirt, trousers and unshaven. He was glum but smiled and welcomed me. I could see he was devastated but trying put on a brave face. I didn’t mention anything about him moving. Out of nowhere, I simply blurted out, “Father, can you hear my confession tomorrow?” He said “yes, of course. Be here at 8.” He needed prodding to remember my name, but he still knew I was one of them. (My mother heard of this later and said with a laugh, “only you Michael, could find a Priest that won’t remember your sins or your penance”).
Father Edward was leaving the next day. I worried that he would forget that we were to meet for confession/reconciliation. So, I was prepared to just go in and say good bye.
At 0800 sharp, I arrived and knocked on the door. He opened the door and what I saw was magical. He was wearing his freshly pressed robe and scapular, with a Cross around his neck. He was shaven and it looked like he was standing completely straight. In the middle of his room was a bright red chair. It was just ordinary chair, but it looked like it was a magical chair somehow. He and the chair were glowing.
With his arm inviting me in, Father Edward said, “Michael, Jesus welcomes you.”
He was doing what he loved doing all those years as a monk; being a Priest and “comforting rather than to be comforted.” He smiled and said, “you know, you have golden hair.”
I sat, bowed my head, thanking God for this moment, looked half way up and started “bless me Father…”
We talked mostly about forgiveness. God’s forgiveness, forgiving others, ourselves and being forgiven. I spoke of emotional family issues and he listened.
When we got to the penance part, he got up and limped to his desk and began looking for something. Whatever he was looking for, he could not find it. We walked out to see Brother Michael, the cellarer who knows where everything is. Michael whispered that there was a lovely psalm or spiritual text that Fr. Edward wanted to give me. He wasn’t sure though. We went back into his room and he opened his locker and took out a big brown bag. He sat, and quietly began going through what I realized were personal cards sent to him over the years. Hundreds of them. He drifted away with each card, recalling the person and the occasion, smiling and making gentle sounds of joy, gratitude and appreciation. I sat there watching him and lost track of time. I was there for this.
Finally, he pulled out, (seemingly randomly), one of the cards. He gently placed the bag down and picked up a pen. He then looked up and asked me to spell my name. He smiled, placed the pink card in and envelope, handed it to me and said “Go in peace and pray for me dear Michael.”
When I got back to my own chambers, I opened the envelope. The front said:
A couple of weeks later, Fr. Mark and I drove out to visit Fr. Edward and another monk.
We got into the nursing home and pressed the button for the 5th floor.
When the door opened, there was Fr. Edward, in full regalia, just getting out of the chair next to the window by the elevator. We stepped out, he raised his arm and said, “Mark and Michael, you are very welcome.”
I couldn’t leave without getting him to say:
“Verba Sonnant – Examplia TONNANT.”
Jesus has since welcomed him home.