Death Starkly Faced

His face looked porcelain, an odd shade of white. It’s a shade I had seen before on my mother’s face in the emergency room. And my Dad’s in his hospital bed early in the morning. Stark. There is no question. This once-living human organism was no longer alive, breathing, vital. Death now dominated where life once reigned.

The face I was observing was that of Matthew Torpey, or Father Matt as he was called in the monastery. His body was on the oak funeral bier, placed in the center of the nave in the Abbey of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. At his head, the Paschal Candle offered scant light to the scene, but functioned more symbolically as a testimony to the Resurrection hope that Matt and his brothers shared in this Trappist monastery.

Father Matt entered Gethsemane monastery in 1950 in Louisville. He was a student of Thomas Merton during his formation as a Trappist monk. He transferred to Conyers in 1967 and spent the rest of his life there at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. His birthday was September 1, 1927, the exact same day as my mother’s birth, an odd connection.

Through the night, a series of monks sat in vigil, beside the body, chanting the Psalms as is the tradition. This morning, around 9AM, “monk time”, which means a few minutes late, we would celebrate the Funeral Mass of the Resurrection, celebrating his life and witness, and claiming our hope in the face of this stark death in the Risen Christ.

As I gaze upon Matt’s alabaster face, seemingly an unrecognizable mask, my mind travels back to my grandmother’s funeral in a funeral home in West Georgia. She had gone through the typical embalming process, and had a make-up artist “make her pretty”, while the tinted spotlight tried to cast a golden-pink glow on her face. It didn’t work for me, making the point of the denial of death which folks in our culture readily embrace. Even the preacher’s flowery words about Miss Glennie rang false as he tried to make her saintly, ever-encouraging, always with an affirming word. Not a whiff of the reality of the grandmother that I loved who would famously “call a spade a bloody hoe”. Yielding to my Scot’s genetics of the deceased, I pointedly asked the young preacher if he had ever even met my grandmother. Professional tip: don’t lie about the dead.

My friend, Francis Michael delivered the eulogy for Matt on this day. He was careful to tell the truth about Matt, both his wisdom as well as his peculiarities. Francis Michael relied on Matt as he entered his monastic vocation, finding him supportive and incisive, an art for those who seek to mentor others.

Following holy communion, the monks carried the body on the bier out to the graveyard located just behind the Abbey, where the monks from the past are buried, their graves marked by a simple cross with names engraved. There is no casket, only a shroud, the monk dressed in his cowl and curiously, with his shoes on. They lowered Matt’s body down into the Georgia clay using white cotton straps. Once carefully placed, the Abbot, then other members of the community began to shovel dirt over the body, along with red roses lovingly tossed into the grave by family members and the community.

As I made my way from the church to the graveyard, one of the monks, Kallistos, kindly brought a chair to place on the porch that overlooks the grave, affording me a literal bird’s eye view of the proceedings. Normally, I would have been at ground level, to the side. This time, I was able to see directly down into the six-foot depth of the grave, and the reality of the moment seemed to quicken. There was a cool breeze on this clear morning in May, bringing a shiver to my body. Was it the temperature or the starkness? Perhaps both.

As in the past experiencing Trappist burials, I was moved by the reality of death that was faced rather than cosmetically covered over. In my own Anglican tradition, death is acknowledged but somewhat hidden by the closed casket and the ornate funeral pall that covers the burial container, thus “making all equal’ as we say.

This Trappist way is so “in your face” that there is no room to miss the stark reality. It is only in the cold, clear light of the reality of death that the full bore of Easter Hope has power. Much as in the original setting of a broken, crucified Jesus was witnessed and placed in a tomb on a Friday that we now call Good, only then can the depth of hope be embraced.

In this same space, the community had celebrated the resurrection hope of the Easter Vigil just weeks before. The Paschal Candle brought the first light to the darkness of the darkened abbey, and now was placed beside the grave of Father Matt, a reminder of our hope even in the face of death.

When I first began going to the monastery almost fifty years ago, there were around one hundred monks in residence. Many of those that I knew well have died, most living into their nineties. I have attended many such burials as described above. Maybe it’s my own aging self that sees from a different perspective that sharpens my eye to this reality. Regardless, the power of the burial ritual makes our culture’s normal practice seem pale in comparison.

There is no denial of death in the Trappist world, but neither is there a timid affirmation of the Easter joy of resurrection. The hard, stark truth is that one must go through Death to get to Easter. There is no bootleg left or right to avoid the pain and suffering of loss, only straight up the middle and “through”. That is why the Church included the Passion narrative at the end of Palm Sunday, recognizing that to get to Easter, one must travel through the Cross. Simply. Starkly.

As the days pass, I find myself returning to those highly valenced images again and again. From the view of the portico, the depth of the grave seems deeper. The face of the deceased appears more lifeless, as if it were never animated. But so are the images of a community gathered in hope. The faces of brothers in a circle around the gaping grave, tossing roses and dirt into the hole in their community. Their voices seem stronger as they affirm their faith in a continued connection with Matt, a connection that even death can not sever.

Father Matt Torpey. Blessed be his memory.

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