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Homily for the Requiem Mass of Brother Basil

March 16, 2019
Series:
Passage: Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33; Revelation 21:2-7; John 14:1-6
Service Type:

Bishop Bill Franklin, of the Diocese of Western New York, and the Bishop Visitor of the Companions of St. Luke, send you greetings. He wished that he could be here today. He sent the next best thing, a sermon he wrote for this important occasion. When Tom and I talked about this day and Bishop Franklin’s sermon, he said: “But you’ll add to it, yes?”

So this homily will actually be a bit of a mash-up of my words, Bishop Franklin’s words—some of which incorporate stories from some of you—and Tom’s words, where I’ll begin. In 2007, he wrote this:

My funeral should reflect my life in Christ and in the Church.

I have had a deep and abiding devotion to the Sacraments, especially to the Holy Eucharist. In these latter years… I have come to a more thoroughgoing understanding of the meaning of Baptism in daily life.

My favorite moments of the entire liturgical year come during the Great Vigil of Easter, when after a baptism and the Litany of Saints, the Resurrection of Our Lord is proclaimed and bells ring out. It is then that I most truly know that my Redeemer lives. I have constantly rediscovered my God in the liturgy of the altar, especially when it is sung well, and especially at St. Paul’s Church where I have experienced the People of God at prayer.

The closest I have ever come to knowing the true presence of God has been in music. I have learned to pray through the use of hymns often sung out in my head throughout a day. I have sung in choir to give back to God through the gift of music that I have received.

***

 It was important to him to have his body here. He said: “I have spent my whole life in this body which God gave me, and I believe deeply in the incarnation; it is one of the most important things to me about Anglicanism.”

This deeply intentional forethought given to his own death and burial is one of the many gifts that Tom—Brother Basil—left to us. I’ll say a bit more about that after we hear from Bishop Franklin.

And now, Bishop Franklin’s words…

He yearned for a deeper closeness to God.

Whether you knew him as Tom, as many in his parish family did;

or as Abbot Basil, as others of us and his monastic community, the Companions of St. Luke, did;

or as Dr. Edwards, physician and researcher;

or as dad, as Adam and James did …

no matter how we knew him, how long or how briefly, we all knew him as someone who yearned for a deeper closeness to God.

As we come together today to remember someone who meant so much to so many, I think many of us may feel cheated.

  • Cheated of one last Sunday morning to hear his voice in the choir at 9 a.m.;
  • Cheated of one last time to sit in the chapel at 5:30 and pray Evening Prayer with him every evening;
  • Cheated of one last chance to see him rushing around at the twice-yearly convocations of the Companions of St. Luke, attending to every little detail;
  • Cheated of one last time to sit with him as he listened deeply, taking all the time in the world to focus on you, the essence of calm and comfort and wisdom and guidance.
  • And cheated of one last time to go out for drinks — he loved good wine, he loved a perfect martini with French vermouth and “multiple olives” — and listen to him talk about opera or chemistry or politics or genealogy or Benedictine monastic life or the excruciating details of the workings of a 1927 E.M. Skinner organ.

Tom is now enjoying that deeper closeness to God that he yearned for.

But we miss him.

***

I first got to know Tom — Brother Basil — when I became the bishop visitor to the Companions of St. Luke, the modern monastic community he served as abbot.

This is a group of about 35 people — men and women from around the world — who have taken vows and committed themselves to lives of prayer and service. They don’t live together in a monastic community. They remain in their homes with their families, their jobs, their own communities — it’s what we call a “dispersed” community.

Why do this — why seek to become followers of St. Benedict, a fifth-century monk — in our modern age? Here’s how Basil described it on the companions’ website:

We are called to reorder our priorities radically and to live our very lives away from many of the things that modern life tells us are so important. In doing so, we seek to hear more clearly what the Lord is saying to us and to follow more intentionally the path to the salvation that He promises us.

Taking his vows as a monastic and then serving as the community’s leader, was a way for Tom to pursue that deeper closeness to God that he sought.

One of his fellow Companions in the Order of St. Luke describes Abbot Basil as someone who “never really got upset or angry at anyone. If a service didn’t go exactly as planned, it was okay. God knew our intent.”

And he was always self-effacing and modest, willing to step in and do whatever needed to be done, no matter how humble. He wore his office lightly.

***

It is not lost on any of us that Tom’s medical profession and his spiritual life both centered on alleviating pain. As a physician, as a researcher, as an administrator, his profoundly humanistic approach to patients and his commitment to caring is remembered decades later by students and colleagues — and by patients.

How appropriate that he is now in that place where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing — just everlasting life, eternal communion with our Savior.

His monastic colleagues recall how he patiently sat with a group of them for hours to unravel a painful issue they could not resolve themselves, asking questions, seeking clarity, and finding a course of action, all embedded in prayer and discernment.

***

But it was in music—as we heard earlier, in his own words—that Tom came closest to knowing the true presence of God.

Many of you who have been at St. Paul’s for a while remember his voice every year on Maundy Thursday, intoning Psalm 22 during the stripping of the altar.

Tom started the Schola Cantorum here, the singing school, a fellow choir member tells us, “and he took that meaning seriously, even though it was a performing choir, educating as he rehearsed. He loved the details of the ancient notation, and he wanted to make sure that the singers knew a Dotted Punctum from a Quilisma, though most of the singers just referred to the whole thing as ‘those square notes.’ ”

(And I would add, those of us who are regularly part of Evening Prayer relied heavily on him to choose and lead each evening’s hymn.)

***

One of his dear friends tells us, “I know that I’ll never get another text message from him, at mid-day on Sunday, saying, ‘Drinks at Ten?’ ” — a reference to Ten Mercer, not the hour of the drinks to be had.

This friend goes on:

“His last words to me, after I held his hand and kissed his forehead, were, ‘Thank you for being my friend.’ That reminds me of a book I had as a child called Jesus Is My Friend Always. I hope I can die that way too.” 

***

Thank you, Tom … thank you, Abbot Basil … for helping us all find a deeper closeness to God.

Those whose earthly pilgrimage ends go on to a life more real than the one we enjoy here. They live just over the horizon of our finite sight. In Jesus we remain connected with those we love but see no longer. Our love for them gives us a foretaste of eternal life. And it is in Christ’s love for both the living and the dead that my hope for an eternal reunion rests and will rise.

***

The unexpected death of Tom — Abbot Basil — reminds us that we never know how much time we have together, and therefore to treasure the time we have. In the words of the great Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

"If I knew this would be the last time I’d see you, I’d tell you I love you, and would not just assume foolishly you know it already.”

Dear Tom, dear Brother Basil, dear friend — know how much you are loved. You blessed us with your life, your faith, your search for the richest kind of Christian living.

Now you have found the deeper closeness to God that you sought. May the saints in heaven rejoice to welcome you home.

(Here ends Bishop Franklin’s homily.)

 I want to touch on Brother Basil’s death. He died in the very early morning two weeks ago today. On the night before he died I want into his hospital room where the lights had been dimmed, those LED pillar candles placed flickering around the room, and a quilt sewed by hospital volunteers lay across his bed.

Music was playing on an iPhone; the Vittoria requiem

He looked so peaceful, not just peaceful, but happy.

Then he asked for something joyful, and someone put on Handel’s Organ Concerto #1 in g minor. He was smiling, looking around the room, enjoying everyone there, conducting the music, full of joy, making side comments to the other organist in the room about the miracle of the performance we were listening to, and talking about meeting Handel in heaven.

He had such confidence about what awaited him! On rare occasions, I have heard people use words like he used to talk about how they are anticipating their death without fear or regret, but for him it wasn’t just the words. He was beaming, his whole being full of joy, so actually happy to be where he was and to be going where he was certain he was going.

I have never witnessed anything like this.

Basil leaves us many, many parting gifts, gifts that will unfold for us in the days and months and years to come. Each of you knows which is the gift he gave you.

In addition to all of those gifts, as we leave this place today I hope each of us will also take with us a bit of his joy and confidence in preparation for the new life in Christ that awaits each one of us.

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