FR. RUPERT OSTDICK: All of us from the moment of our birth are in the process of dying, which is another way of saying preparation for heaven itself. When I was a young man in high school, I decided to come to this monastery because I felt it was the best way to prepare for heaven.
BR. KOLBE: Hi, I'm Br. Kolbe.
BR. JOEL: And I'm Br. Joel. You're listening to "Echoes from the Bell Tower."
BR. KOLBE: Stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in Southern Indiana.
BR. JOEL: Our episode opened with a quote from a Saint Meinrad monk who died in January 2017, Fr. Rupert Ostdick. He was interviewed for a video on the infirmary renovation back in 2015.
BR. KOLBE: We opened our episode with Fr. Rupert because today we are talking about monastic funeral practices, and we'll be using audio collected from his funeral Mass and burial.
BR. JOEL: Saint Meinrad does a really great job of remembering a monk when he dies. Stories begin to come out and are told in the community for years. With this episode, we hope to honor the life and memory of Fr. Rupert with some stories of who he was…
BR. KOLBE:…like this one from Fr. Julian Peters.
FR. JULIAN PETERS: One of my distinct memories of Fr. Rupert is when I had entered the community as a novice and he was the general manager of the Abbey Press. One afternoon early on at the beginning of our novitiate, there were four of us, we were assigned to go down to the Press for a tour with Fr. Rupert.
He took us through every part of every building in the Press. He knew everyone by name, where they came from, who they were married to, who their children were, how long they had worked with us. It was just amazing ... and that was just so typical of Fr. Rupert, the way he was able to maintain and manage information, but in a very personal way. Thirty-five years later, that is a very vivid memory of Fr. Rupert.
BR. KOLBE: So, who was Fr. Rupert?
BR. JOEL: He grew up in Elgin, IL, a suburb north of Chicago. During his 72 years as a monk of Saint Meinrad, he held a lot of positions of responsibility and leadership.
BR. KOLBE: He was treasurer of the Archabbey for 31 years and served as the Business Manager. Here's Archabbot Kurt with a story.
ARCHABBOT KURT STASIAK: Fr. Rupert was one of the first ones, this is back in the '70s, one of the first ones to kind of master the electronic calculator, and we'd always be amused when he would pull that out at community meetings. Because for us at that time ... you just didn't do that kind of thing. He was always very precise when giving financial reports to the penny, more so than we ever wanted to hear. You know, 2,446.7, approximately.
BR. JOEL: He also served as the publisher and general manager of Abbey Press. Joan Lasher, who is a co-worker in the Development Office, has a story about working for Fr. Rupert.
JOAN LASHER: Anyone who ever knew him, knows that he was particular and he liked things just "so-so." When he became the general manager of Abbey Press, I was his secretary. I had not worked in an office for very long, so when I stapled papers, my staples would be, you know, straight, kind of parallel with the top of the page.
Well, one day he called me into his office and he showed me the correct way to staple, which was to have the staple at an angle with the corner of the page, so when you folded the paper over, it wouldn't tear. That was more than 30 years ago, probably more like 38, I don't know, and to this day, I always staple at an angle! He was one of the sweetest and kindest people I have ever met and I'm glad I knew him and had the privilege to work for him.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Rupert was the extraordinary confessor for the Seminary and School of Theology during the last 16 years of his life. He often talked about how that was such a blessing for him, but it was also a blessing for the people who came to him.
BR. KOLBE: Here's Fr. William Burmester. He graduated from the seminary last May.
FR. WILLIAM BURMESTER: Fr. Rupert was the confessor for the seminary on Saturdays. So, I would go to him often. Everyone always talked about him because he gave a big hug after each confession.
One time, my grandma and my parents were here. I went to confession and my grandma wanted to go. So, she went into confession and she came out all smiling and beaming. She just kept saying, "What a holy man." I was like, "Yeah, he is." She said, "The way he gives you a hug afterwards, I've never seen a priest do that."
And I thought that was going to be it, but then a couple months later, my grandma asked about Fr. Rupert, "How is he doing?" I said, "He's doing good. Next time I see him, I'll tell him that you were asking about him."
I didn't even have to tell Fr. Rupert that she was asking. He asked about my grandma. So, I felt like a middleman for about a year there every couple months of telling Fr. Rupert or my grandma that they were saying hello to each other. There was a holy friendship, almost, between them and I was the middleman. So, that was really special.
BR. KOLBE: I hope you're beginning to understand a little bit about who Fr. Rupert was. We'll have some more stories for you later.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Rupert was active in the community until the moment he died. He was actually getting ready for Morning Prayer at 5 a.m. on January 14, 2017, when God called him home.
BR. KOLBE: If you're not familiar with Saint Meinrad, the monastery has an infirmary wing that is staffed with nurses 24 hours a day to care for elderly or sick monks. Fr. Rupert was still independent at 95, but he lived in the infirmary.
BR. JOEL: Nowadays it's rare for monks to die outside of the monastery. Occasionally, there is a tragedy, like a car accident, or a monk will die while away on an assignment or on the way to the hospital, but more often than not, a monk will die at home, at Saint Meinrad.
BR. KOLBE: That's thanks to the wonderful care that we receive in the infirmary and to those benefactors that made the infirmary renovation possible. Here's Fr. Julian again.
FR. JULIAN: There is a value of being able to complete the journey of this life where you have lived it, in the company of those with whom you have lived it, rather than in a strange or foreign place. Sometimes that's necessary. Monks do die in hospitals. There is a particular value that, when it's possible, when we can make that happen, of being able to allow a monk to die at home.
BR. JOEL: When it becomes apparent that a monk is dying, we put a sheet on the bulletin board in the monastery, and monks sign up to sit with the dying monk and keep vigil. That might be to sit quietly, to pray or to read.
FR. JULIAN: The importance of sitting with the dying reinforces that element that we make this journey of life in faith together. We go with them as far as we can, supporting them with our prayers, with our presence, with our love, until they cross that threshold. Then, it's up to the saints and angels to take their hand and to lead them forward to the presence of God. I think it's a particular grace to be present with someone when they draw that last breath, and when they cross that threshold.
ARCHABBOT KURT: I remember not too long ago our Fr. Aelred was dying, and Fr. Aelred was a scholar of many languages, many of the languages being those that we can't even say because their alphabet is all kinds of curlicues and squiggly cues.
Well, one of the languages that Fr. Aelred knew was Hebrew, so at one point Fr. Harry, our Old Testament teacher, went in and was spending some time with Fr. Aelred reading the Psalms in Hebrew. Again, I couldn't help think, "What a great comfort this has got to be to Fr. Aelred," because Fr. Aelred would know the Psalms in Hebrew back and forth.
A couple of our younger monks went in and tried to say the Our Father in Latin, and got through about three-quarters of it and started messing it up. And Fr. Aelred was laying there dying, laughing because it was so absurd to him that somebody would mess up on the Our Father in Latin.
Again, just a very human thing. He wouldn't have laughed if there wasn't something peaceful, if there wasn't something familial, about that whole experience. Just a beautiful moment.
BR. KOLBE: So what happens when a monk dies? Archabbot Kurt will help explain some of our traditions.
ARCHABBOT KURT: Well, in traditions, the very first thing, we toll the bells. Basically, that's our way of notifying as many of the monks as possible as soon as possible.
BR. JOEL: If a monk dies in the middle of the night, Fr. Abbot will break the news to the monks before Morning Prayer and the bells will toll when prayer is over.
ARCHABBOT KURT: Let's say 11 o'clock in the morning a monk dies. Okay, we would toll the bells one toll for every year that the monk has been in the monastery. That can get quite long, so you might start out with a bell tolling for 75 times, and then all the bells peal for five minutes.
BR. KOLBE: When the bells peal, it represents the deceased monk's entry into eternal life.
BR. JOEL: When the death toll begins, you will often see monks drop what they're doing and they come to the church to pray. The bell is tolled again on the 30th day after a monk dies and then again on the one-year anniversary.
BR. KOLBE: After the death toll, very practical things take place. Next of kin are notified and arrangements are made. Archabbot Kurt will write the death notice, which is a trifold card that is set out during the funeral service.
BR. JOEL: The death notice is a biography of the monk's life including some personal details of who the monk was. Archabbot Kurt has been writing the death notices since 2010 and Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, who died in January, was Abbot Kurt's 23rd death notice to write!
ARCHABBOT KURT: I've really experienced it as a privilege and an honor, because all of these people that have died, of course I've known for now 20 years, 40 years. It's a good deal of knowledge and a good deal of encounters and experiences with them. It's pretty easy to put the facts down.
I mean, like, "In this year he started doing this, and in this year he started doing that," but it's a special honor and a privilege to try to write those couple of paragraphs that really will give some color to the person, that 20 years from now or four or five years from now, somebody who'd never met this monk will pick up the card and, okay, he'll see he worked at the Abbey Press or in the Business Office. That's all well and good, but, "Oh, look at this. This is the kind of person he was. Oh, this is what the confreres mean when they talk about Fr. Rupert in this way." It's also a nice part of the closure for me, as abbot, to say, in a sense, sign off on the death.
BR. KOLBE: Some monks keep every death notice for each monk who has died during the 40, 50 or 60 years they lived in the monastery.
BR. JOEL: When the monastic community gathers for the main meal of the day, a monk will read the necrology and we learn about the monks who were here before us. Here's Fr. Julian.
FR. JULIAN: That is, for instance, "On the 10th day of February, we remember all those who have gone before us with the sign of faith, especially Father or Brother So-and-So who died in our monastery in 1800 something, 1900 something, 2000 and something." There's a short paragraph that recounts where he was born, lived, what his principal work was for the community.
BR. KOLBE: Many times the readings will have interesting little reminders of the monk's character.
FR. JULIAN: There is one, "Brother was known as a kind and jovial man who spent most of his life working in the wine cellar." Of course, everybody chuckles because he was kind and jovial because he was working in the wine cellar nipping at the wine. There are those human angles. Those pieces live, do live on.
BR. JOEL: Just like in any family, storytelling helps us grieve and it's also how we celebrate the monk's life.
FR. JULIAN: It gives us opportunity to verbalize and to process what's happened. That someone whom we have known in this life, maybe it's someone whom we have loved dearly. Maybe it's someone who we didn't particularly like, but with whom we still shared this life and our work. We recognize that they have a place and they're part of the legacy of this place. They're part of our history.
ARCHABBOT KURT: Maybe that's one of the unique things about monastic life too, the stability that keeps us here. It keeps those memories here and it keeps those lives alive in a way that maybe some other populations can't.
FR. GAVIN BARNES: I got to know Rupert, I guess best, by living next to him almost all of my 70 years of professed life in the monastery. Somehow or another, as we moved from place to place, as I moved from place to place, I would always be running into him. He would be next door; he would be beyond the drape. It was just incredible.
In fact, it got to be a joke with the rest of us, you know, that here we go again. So that when we moved over here into this monastery, we were asked where we might like to go if that facility were available. And I said, you know, I have no special preference except it might be a relief to be a little far distant from some of the confreres and so forth and mentioned one in particular.
And ah, that was fine. I moved into my cell and ah, shortly thereafter, Fr. Donald Walpole died and his kind of studio-like cell up on the second floor where I was became available and Fr. Rupert moved in. Ha, ha. You know, I said, here we go again, ha, ha.
ARCHABBOT KURT: He had a curious habit of scavenging our discarded clothing shelves for clothing for himself. On a fairly regular basis, he would show up with bright red trousers held up by purple suspenders with a diagonal blue, orange, and green shirt. Just absolutely astonishing to look at, but that was his wardrobe. He was a person who was not about to go out and spend money on stuff he didn't need when other clothes, maybe not as fashionable, but when other clothes were available. He just didn't do that.
FR. CHRISTIAN RAAB: My family came to visit and we had a little gathering over here at one of the guest houses. Fr. Rupert came to join us, my family, and so he was going to come over and have, you know, cookies and punch or whatever.
My niece was three, and Fr. Rupert comes over, and at the time he's 83, but he says to her, you know, "What's your name?" "Maggie." "How old are you, Maggie?" "Three." "Well, I'm 83." Her eyes got real big. I don't think she'd ever met anybody that old. I'm not sure she had any idea what 83 meant, but as soon as she turned up and looked at him, she became very fascinated by him.
Then they struck up a conversation, and I think he talked to my three-year-old niece for half an hour, I don't know. They really talked, and he was just enjoying himself and she was obviously kind of enamored with him.
It was really funny, because after my family left and went back home, my brother called and he said that Maggie just kept talking about Fr. Rupert, and, "I love Fr. Rupert," she would say that. And she drew him pictures and sent him things in the mail. It was just adorable, and so that's another wonderful memory I have of Fr. Rupert.
BR. JOEL: The first story was from Fr. Gavin Barnes, who died shortly after Fr. Rupert, on February 6, 2017, and the following stories were from Archabbot Kurt and Fr. Christian Raab.
BR. KOLBE: Back to our funeral practices. The body is brought back into the monastery in a very simple wooden casket. One of the monks used to make the casket by hand, but for the last five years or so, Abbey Caskets has provided them.
BR. JOEL: We hold visitation and the Office of the Dead the evening we receive the body. The Office of the Dead is a solemn prayer service that begins with the monks processing in carrying the casket. If you're in the Archabbey Church, you can faintly hear the monks chanting as they process through the monastery and it gets louder as they get closer to the church.
BR. KOLBE: The next morning, we have the funeral liturgy, which is a lot like any other Catholic funeral liturgy. One difference is that the monks sing a verse from the Psalms that has a special meaning to us. It's called the Suscipe. Here's Fr. Julian.
FR. JULIAN: "Uphold me, O Lord, according to your promise and I shall live. And do not confound me in my expectation." That versicle is sung by the monk at the time of his final vows. It is a prayer of completely giving ourselves over to God.
The Suscipe is sung at jubilees as a symbolic renewal of that promise of those vows. The reason that we have adopted it here as part of the song of farewell at that point in the liturgy is because that is the culmination, the bodily death, is the conclusion of that journey.
That we pray now that that prayer is really accomplished. Lord, that you have upheld him according to your promise, and that now he lives in you and that he not be confounded in any of his hope or expectation.
BR. JOEL: After the funeral liturgy, we process to the cemetery. We lower the casket down into the ground by hand and the abbot throws a shovelful of dirt from the grave on the coffin.
ARCHABBOT KURT: It's falling a distance of five or six feet, so it makes a rather noticeable clunk. Again, just a reminder to us of the finality of this stage of a person's life, and the reality of what we're doing here, and what we're hoping for the future.
BR. KOLBE: The burial ends with everyone having the opportunity to sprinkle the casket with holy water. Then we leave the cemetery and have a meal for the family and friends who have come to the funeral.
FR. JULIAN: Death brings out the best of us in so many ways. I think that's certainly true in us, in individuals, but as a community, in our rituals, in our observance, that's one of the moments when we're at our finest, is when we're commending a soul to God and committing their body to the earth, which we do very plainly and very clearly, with sign and symbol, and I think we do very well.
BR. JOEL: Death plays an important role in the life of a monk.
ARCHABBOT KURT: There is a noted difference in the way we approach death than society at large. We are ordinarily not upset. We see death as a natural process. As a couple of my monk friends have said, it's the last monastic assignment every one of us will have. It's the monastic assignment we all share. That puts it in a specific context for us.
BR. KOLBE: Death is symbolized when a monk makes solemn vows and becomes a permanent member of the monastic community. There's a moment in the ceremony where the monk lays on the floor and is covered by the funeral pall and the verse that is sung says, "Now I am dead and my life is hidden in Christ."
FR. JULIAN: It's about death to the ways of this world, of the concerns of this world, and giving ourselves more completely over to life in Christ. If we have died with him, we will rise with him.
BR. JOEL: St. Benedict teaches us about death in chapter four of hisRule. Fr. Thomas' favorite translation of this is by Placid Murray, a monk of Glenstal Abbey.
FR. THOMAS GRICOSKI: He's an Irish monk, so he has a little bit different take on it. He starts with, "To fear judgment day, to be terrified of hell, to yearn for eternal life with all spiritual longing, to look death daily in the eye and every moment to keep guard over the actions of one's life. To know for certain everywhere that God is looking at One." That phrase in the middle, "To look death daily in the eye," or, as it more traditionally translated, to keep death daily before one's eyes, is not spelled out any more clearly than we had in just those first few verses.
The way that I interpret it is, you never know when you are going to die, and something that a monk can do as a spiritual practice is to act as if today is your last day alive. And I did this for a while, and I do it once in a while again, I imagine that tonight I am going to pass away very gently and peacefully in my sleep. It sounds macabre, but something amazing happens when you do this. You're focused immediately on what is happening right now. You are living completely in this moment. Today becomes the most important day of your life.
All the little things around you start to glow with a new importance and value. They become precious because this might be the last time you're in this room or the last conversation you have with this one, the last time you pray this Psalm in community. It makes you immediately grateful for all the things that you have, not just the big things in your life, but all the things right there in front of you, right now.
BR. KOLBE: St. Benedict teaches us to keep death daily before our eyes, so we are always prepared to be called home.
FR. JULIAN: That's not just for monks, but indeed for any Christian to remember that we're about something more than this life and what we have here, and this isn't the end of it all even at the time of bodily death. That there is more. That's what our goal is: to enter into eternity and inherit the gift of salvation.
FR. THOMAS: When I was preparing for solemn vows, I went down to the cemetery basically every day on my retreat before solemn vows, in a way looking at, not just the place where former conferrers have been buried, but to see the larger community that I'm joining and to see the place where I've promised to end up if I stay in the monastery until death, which I promise to do. That that will be my final resting place.
You get to pick a new cell in the upstairs of the monastery when you make solemn vows, but at the same time as you pick that new cell, somehow, silently, a cell below the ground is being prepared for you as well. I was so happy to move into my cell upstairs, like a big monk, and I must believe that in the end it will be a joyful thing to go to the final cell, which is not really down below but is in the Father's house next to all of my brothers from Saint Meinrad.
BR. JOEL: Thank you for listening to our episode on monastic funeral practices. We have a couple more stories about Fr. Rupert and a story about a mishap during a funeral on our blog at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes. You should check them out!
BR. KOLBE: Today's podcast was edited and produced by Krista Hall, with the help of Br. Joel Blaize, Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski, Br. William Sprauer, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter and Christian Mocek. The music for this podcast was written and produced by Br. Joel.
BR. JOEL: Thank you, Archabbot Kurt Stasiak, Fr. Julian Peters and Fr. Thomas Gricoski for talking to us about death. Thanks, also, to Fr. Christian Raab, Br. William Sprauer, Br. Simon Herrmann, Fr. William Burmester, Janis Dopp, Joan Lasher, Krista Neuman, Mike Gramelspacher and the late Fr. Gavin Barnes for sharing your memories of Fr. Rupert.
BR. KOLBE: We have two more episodes planned for this spring and we're working on more episodes for the fall. If you have enjoyed Echoes from the Bell Tower, tell your friends and subscribe to it on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.
BR. JOEL: In this episode, you heard us mention Abbey Caskets. If you'd like to know more about this ministry of Saint Meinrad, check out their website at abbeycaskets.com.
BR. KOLBE: It's called the Susci … suscipe or?
BR. JOEL: Suscipe.
BR. KOLBE: It's called the Suscipe. Here's Fr. Julian. I didn't say that right, did I?
Br. JOEL: Suci … like sushi fish. And then pay, as in like you've gotta pay for that sushi.
ABBOT KURT'S MISHAP AT THE CEMETERY:
BR. KOLBE: We asked Archabbot Kurt if he had any memorable stories from funerals and there is one funeral that came to mind.
BR. JOEL: As we mentioned in the full episode, one of the monks used to make the monastery's caskets by hand. It got to a point where we were no longer able to do that, so we switched to using an Abbey Casket that is modeled after the one the monk was making. This story is when we first switched to using an Abbey Casket.
ARCHABBOT KURT: And fortunately the situation was that there were not a lot of guests or relatives. Most of them were either too far away to come, or they were elderly themselves, or had died themselves, so it was a very limited number of people at the funeral.
BR. KOLBE: Not many people came to the cemetery, because there was a thunderstorm at the end of the funeral liturgy.
ARCHABBOT KURT: As I recall, I was the prior and the master of ceremonies then, and it was only the abbot, and myself, and maybe another assistant or two, and the six monks that were the pallbearers, and then the funeral director.
BR. JOEL: The casket was taken to the cemetery in the hearse to help try to keep everyone dry.
ARCHABBOT KURT: Okay, our monks, our six pallbearers hook up the rails with the ropes and they set it over there on top of the empty grave and getting ready to do the various prayers. I'm looking at this trying to pay attention to the abbot to make sure he's saying the prayers and all that.
I'm also trying to make sure things are being done the right way, and I'm looking at this casket sitting over this empty hole, and I'm saying, "Something doesn't look right. Something doesn't look right."
BR. KOLBE: A couple of minutes go by, the prayers are finished, the planks were taken away that are holding up the casket and they begin lowering it to the ground.
ARCHABBOT KURT: This was a new design. First time we had ever done this new design in the cemetery, and as it turned out, the casket was about an inch and a half wider on each side than it should have been.
BR. JOEL: The grounds crew was called and within a couple minutes they arrived and carefully enlarged the grave and the casket was lowered into the ground.
ARCHABBOT KURT: I remember standing there under an umbrella of the funeral director saying, "Well, gosh. I guess you've been doing this for what - 15, 16 years?" And he said, "Yeah, that's about right." I said, "Well, what's the most unusual thing that's ever happened to you at a cemetery?" And he said, "This would have to be it." Since then, of course, we have double-checked the width and the length of all of our graves.