Yesterday — Ember Wednesday — Brother Gregory died. All the abbots returned from Georgia and I was thurifer at the funeral. I found out I was to be thurifer just before Lauds. I was appointed to watch by the body from twelve to twelve-thirty — during dinner. And it was a black fast day. The two who were appointed to relieve us sauntered in to take over some five or ten minutes late, having eaten their fill. We rushed off to the refectory. I was so hungry I was about ready to go straight in through the wall, instead of passing around and entering at the door.
It was like that all day.
Today has been beautiful. The sun shines, it is warm. There are neat little clouds up in the blue sky.
The brown dirt is piled high on the grave of poor Brother Gregory, who turns out to have been Swiss. The reason why he used to limp was that one day a bull tossed him over a stone wall and nearly broke his back.
Brother Gregory was a saintly old man, and in his last years everything he did cost him so much effort that he seemed to lose himself completely in the intense business of getting around the stations of the Cross or moving from place to place in choir or climbing up the altar steps for Communion. He had a great hooked nose and went about bent almost double, without however accepting the use of a cane.
I asked Reverend Father what made Brother so saintly. I don’t know what kind of answer I was hoping to get. It would have made me happy to hear something about a deep and simple spirit of prayer, something about unsuspected heights of faith, purity of heart, interior silence, solitude, love for God. Perhaps he had spoken with the birds, like Saint Francis.
Reverend Father answered very promptly: “Brother was always working,” he said. “Brother did not even know how to be idle. If you sent him out to take care of the cows in the pasture, he still found plenty to do. He brought in buckets of blackberries. He did not know how to be idle.”
The story is taken from the 18 December 1947 entry in Thomas Merton’s diary, published as The Sign of Jonas. The text can be found here. Merton ends the story, “I came out of Reverend Father’s room feeling like a man who has missed his train.” For stories of the canonized saints’ deaths, go here.
The illustration is a picture of a grave at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsamani in Kentucky. It was taken by Jim Forest, one of Merton’s biographers, and used under a creative commons license.