The Novice Master Is Dead

(For Pietro Ferri, OSC, in grateful remembrance)

The report of your passing came

in from New York or Phoenix

through a text message, cold and clear,

its meaning clinical and certain.

And then this email tonight

that flashed on the screen

with the urgency of quiet grief.

But then it came as well

in a dream of beauty and blessing,

in a dream of truth

and the terror of tears.

And that living memory of kindness.

The late seventies

come rushing to me now

at this later hour in a foreign land

as I try to imagine

the twin votive candles

holding vigil at the altar without

the trappings of remorse and regret

but with redemption

in hard stone for the miserable mind

that we are at this time.

How could you leave the missions,

the slums, the novitiate house,

the home where your heart is?

How could you leave the place

and people you came for

to witness to the constancy

of the sun rising in earnest

rising as we rose to recite

our lauds

our matins

despite the many nights

the dictator came

his flamboyant wife came

the war generals came

the martial law minister came

the lieutenants of death came

to rob us of our future and fate?

How could you ever leave

the other missioner

shepherding you in the dark

as in the light,

in pain and in hurt,

in sorrow and in joy?

How, but how could you have come

in our midst, we who knew little

about the faith that delivers,

the faith that promises patriotism

and self-respect

even as you taught us

how to decline

love of the creator and neighbor,

ablative and genetive, the cases,

in the fluid Italian of the confreres,

the sing-song of the words

the same O sole mio of the soldier

who was saved,

hailed in holiness eventually,

called to heaven like you

to pray for the graces we all received

so many we stopped counting them

from the 80s onwards

when your retired in silence

in your corner, the smile on your face

still sad and shy as before

but contentment oozing

in those serene eyes

that knew so much but said less

or nothing at all

like the monks

in their caves, away from it all,

away from this quandary mortal life

gives us in illusion as in reality

that we all need to invent and reinvent,

each day, each hour, each moment

that we submit ourselves to all the forces

that claim us, the forces that have franchise

of the fates of moonlights

in the manicured garden and ground

we made sure it was verdant

even as the bells rang for angelus

or vespers

or compline

that arrested our hours

with words and worlds

coalescing with

our troubled walled lives?

I saw you through in anger

as in anguish, in despair as in devotion,

in the step-by-step appointment

with the sacred and the sorrowful

in the untouched universe

you made and imagined

in the novitiate

for our struggling souls

as we prepared to pronounce

our vows to be perfect

in the imperfections

of our thoughts,

tamed and tortured

by seminary loves.

That universe steeped us

in the loneliness of the elect

in the solitude of the few

in the calm of evenings

in the muteness of mornings

that greeted us in warm

as well as in the cold days.

Your spiritual exercises taught us

to believe more and more

to be resigned more and more

to submit more and more.

And they were most difficult,

these exercises that showed

us the way

to our inner selves

to our hidden voices

to our sacred secret sites

where there we met up

with the maker of all life

with the energy of all that is

with the reason of all that matters.

Ah, but our days were wild fantasies,

four young habited religious

with the spirit of fire and brimstone

with the passion and the raw emotions

of mercenaries of redemption and relief

from all that made us mortal and malevolent

from all that made us saints and sinners.

Your death is a form

of cheating, I say.

For we are all here,

far and near, and yet we are here,

in the now of the remembrance

that resists

the despair that grips us so,

with your leaving

without ever asking us

to bid you goodbye

to bless your going away

to execute that snap salute

for your reporting for your duty

to the one that sent you to us

to the one that made it possible for us

to get into your salving life story.

But then again, we say:

Go, go now, father stranger.

Go, go now, and prepare

the banquet of bounty

for us all.

In the love of the one that sent

you to live with us for long years

you will have your fill even

as we pray you will.

Aurelio S. Agcaoili

Waipahu, HI, Jan. 26, 2005

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