The Abbess and the Oblate: A Father’s Funeral Remembered

“Life is the thing to worry about, if anything is, not death.”
Dom Hubert van Zeller, OSB

“Mr. Becker? It’s for you.”

I was getting an oil change at the dealership, and the service rep caught my attention by waving the phone at me. It was long distance from Denver. “Your father fell in the bathroom and hit his head,” the woman told me after identifying herself. “And, well, I’m sorry, but he didn’t make it. We called an ambulance and they took him away, but he didn’t make it.” Then, to make sure I got it, she added: “He died.”

My mom’s passing some years previous had followed a lengthy illness, but Dad’s death caught me off guard – emotionally and otherwise. “I’m sorry, but I have to take my van now,” I told the service rep. “My dad is dead.” It was surreal. I hurried home, told my wife and kids, started to make plans. Both my brother and sister lived in Colorado, and I called to check in with them.

“How soon can you get out here,” they wanted to know.

“Depends,” I replied. “Should I drive or fly?” We had a youngish family of eight at that point, and Nicky was still a baby.

“Fly – we’ll figure out how to pay for it later.”

We settled on lodging and other details, and then I asked about the funeral. “Did you contact a church yet? Dad would probably want Sacred Heart of Mary outside Boulder.” Then, as a precaution, I got more specific with my non-Catholic siblings: “Be sure to tell them that we want a funeral Mass, not just the funeral liturgy.”

All funerals are geared toward comforting the living – that’s a given, and a welcome one. However, funerals too often implicitly, if not explicitly, celebrate the assumed heavenly triumph of the deceased – and I wanted more for my father. “The Church who, as Mother, has borne the Christian sacramentally in her womb during his earthly pilgrimage, accompanies him at his journey's end,” reads the Catechism. “She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.” For Catholics, that “rise in glory” is a “hope,” and not to be taken for granted. Thus, I wanted to ensure that my Catholic convert father received every assistance the Church had to offer.

Dad’s conversion, like his life, was bumpy. He’d grown up a Mason and a doctrinaire Calvinist, so Catholicism was simply unthinkable, and my own conversion was a mystery to him – at first. We’d have regular arguments and debates – intense, but never heated – yet I was always impressed that he considered carefully the Church’s teachings as I tried to explain them and he’d ponder the books I pressed on him.

Then, my family traveled to Rome (to see the Colosseum and the Parthenon), and I tagged along (to see St. Peter’s and the Catacombs). One afternoon, we all ended up in that little bookstore on the edge of the Vatican piazza, rummaging through the stacks. “Apologia – Pro – Vita – Sua,” my dad ticked off slowly. “What’s this one about?”

“It’s the autobiography of John Henry Cardinal Newman,” I told him. “A famous English convert – give it a shot.”

He did, and he went on to devour everything he could by Newman. Suddenly Catholicism became not only palatable, but persuasive, and when we got back stateside, he sought out living witnesses of what Newman described – priests and catechists, Catholic friends and neighbors, and, eventually, the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga.

Founded by German refugee sisters in the 1930s, the Abbey was originally located at the foot of the Rockies just a few miles east of our Boulder home. My father became a regular visitor there, especially after my mom passed away. She herself had also become friendly with the nuns, and although she never gave any thought to actually becoming a Catholic, she took great comfort in the Abbey’s peaceful atmosphere, not to mention the community’s prayers and support during her final days.

Dad observed all that, and it drew him in.

His particular favorite was Sr. Maria-Michael, a ruddy young nun who managed the Abbey’s farm. She had an infectious smile and hearty laugh, and, for my father, she embodied the Abbey’s integrated piety. At some point Dad got it in his head that he could get away with calling her “Mike” straight up – maybe he thought a bit of informality was just the thing the other-worldly nuns required – but it didn’t last long. “I got scolded today,” he sheepishly reported one night. “No more ‘Mike’ – back to ‘Sr. Maria-Michael,’ I guess.” He was hurt, but he was a true fan and wasn’t about to give up.

In fact, after his reception into the Church, Dad entered formation at the Abbey to become an Oblate – a lay embrace of the Benedictine way. In keeping with the monastic vow of stability, Oblates live out their Benedictine charism by permanently affiliating with a specific community, and thus the sisters of St. Walburga became like a second family to my father. As much as he could, he embraced their ora et labora (prayer and work) rhythm of life, and few things gave him more pleasure than running errands for Sr. Maria-Michael or one of the other sisters.

Unfortunately, my father’s authentic conversion and Benedictine aspirations were severely undermined by his lifelong battles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. Maintaining an emotional equilibrium, let alone sobriety, exhausted him, and his participation in the life of the Abbey was often erratic and intermittent. Nevertheless, the daughters of St. Walburga, like the Church herself, always welcomed him back. He was well aware of his weaknesses and failings, but he clung to his newfound identity as a Catholic and a Benedictine Oblate, and he was profoundly grateful to the sisters for affirming him accordingly. In so doing, they provided him with a measure of true stability in his later years.

I notified the Abbey after Dad’s death and asked for their prayers. By then, the entire community had relocated a couple hours north – Boulder’s suburban sprawl had encroached too much on their monastic solitude – and so I didn’t think to invite them to attend the funeral.

Nonetheless, on the appointed day, as my family and I milled about in the vestibule, greeting visitors and acknowledging their condolences, I caught sight of a black and white habit – not one, but two, or rather three. What’s more, I spied a pectoral cross – the Abbess herself, Mother Maria-Michael, the former farm manager and erstwhile “Mike.”

“Thank you so much for making the trip, Mother,” I told her as she approached.

“Of course,” she said, beaming. “Your father was family – one of us.” Then, as if to ratify what she’d just asserted, she approached the open casket, smiled broadly, and placed a Benedictine medal on my dad’s chest. All the trials and turbulence of his life were cast aside, and Dad was once again affirmed in his essential identity. It was another homecoming – his last, at least in temporal terms.

And, God willing, a joyous foreshadowing of a final homecoming yet to come. Rest in peace, Dad, and please pray for me.