Pluscarden Abbey, 9 November 2017
Lamentations 3:17-26 – Romans 6:3-9 – John 6:51-58
In today’s Gospel (from St John), and others we have been hearing recently at weekday Mass (from St Luke), our Lord has been saying the one, same thing: ‘you are invited to a banquet.’ ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God’ someone said at table with Jesus. And he says, ‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.’ This banquet isn’t first one we give. It’s one Christ gives. It’s the banquet of the Kingdom of God. And we are ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.’ There’s our passport, our letters of credence, our badge of entry. And this is who we are: souls invited to a banquet. And this was Dom Adrian, Michael (also known as Norman) Walker, the memorable man we are burying today, who passed to the Lord aged 91 on the Eve of All Saints – invited to the banquet.
It remains a mystery how much Dom Adrian ever ‘clocked’ this. It was always rather uncertain whether he had a spiritual life at all. But, in retrospect, so what? By the grace of God, Dom Adrian found himself in the right queue on the right street, heading for the right house and, by the grace of God, just kept shuffling along on his way to the banquet. Symbolically, this is how many faithful and visitors will remember him: zimmering in to Mass with his infirmarian escort. His wedding garment had holes and stains, and sometimes smelt, but it just about held. He was an unforgettable man, visibly and audibly. The wonder, though, the gratitude that trumps any sadness, is that the Lord became and has become visible in him. Dom Adrian, in the memory of many brethren, is inseparable from Br Mungo, his boss and sparring partner in the garden. He had a gift of associating many things with himself: the horses at Farnborough or Rafford, the pigs we once had, a neurotic, distinctly unappealing dog, a certain style of toast, the rotivator, the cello, the violin, the organ, the army greatcoat. He was his own constellation, so to say. But the joy is that Someone else, out of inscrutable mercy, had linked himself to him. ‘Am I not free to do what I wish with my own?’ He had unpleasant experiences at school, but the young Sapper of World War II somehow found himself becoming a Catholic. And when he found himself thereafter in East Africa trying to grow Ground Nuts, he came upon Benedictine monks. It was, he said revealingly, their “generosity” that inspired him. And so from East Africa he went to a novitiate on the East Coast of the States, and then, following advice and circumstance, to what was at the time one community in three places: Prinknash, Farnborough and Pluscarden, and ultimately in Pluscarden his stability was fixed. He joined this queue, as it were, of brethren on their way to the banquet. And he was always there, generously shuffling (and blinking) along. To paraphrase the Rule: in the garden (for some 50 years), on the tractor, in the choir (for over 60), at the organ, reading in the refectory, washing up, serving, occasionally boiling rather watery eggs, swimming in the burn. Always there. He could land himself in constant trouble but always emerged. He could exasperate but inspire affection at the same time. He was quite incorrigible, but perfectly gentle. He could never be given any responsibility, but was always dependable. He could write sensitively and well. He could make unexpected contributions to Chapter Meetings. He would say, humbly, ‘I’ve had a very easy life’, while his brethren knew another side (not least in the garden!). Liturgy and work filled his days. He suffered, I suppose, from a species of autism. It exposed him and protected him at the same time. But beyond that, this large man had a great child within - and Christ. ‘It is good to wait in silence for the Lord to save.’ I think his brethren feel the Lord has done that. And ‘when a man dies, of course, he has finished with sin.’
To lose him is a loss: this man as old as Her Majesty the Queen and Pope Emeritus Benedict, participant and witness of so much shared history. This monk, the last of those from the years before Pluscarden became independent in 1966. He carried other times and places with him: the War, East Africa, the last colonial years, Sussex by the Sea. In a community, like a family, one person’s memories become everyone’s. And losing him, we lose part of ourselves. But again, regret is overcome by something brighter. What a seaworthy vessel the monastic life, his Benedictine community, proved to be! Dom Adrian clambered aboard it in 1951. He remained aboard. He wasn’t unaware of the mercy; he had a sense of being sheltered. And this vessel, sailing through time to the steady rhythm of the Rule, did keep him safe and landed him, finally, gently, in 2017, 66 years later, on the shore of eternity. ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.’ Invited to the banquet. Invited by his baptism and confirmation, invited by the monastic life, invited by the Bread of life. The glory is all God’s. Grace before and grace after. Everything grace. Sin a bagatelle. Good for Jesus, dare we say: he has done it again. Good for the saints: ‘I have great trust in the merits of all the saints’, he said, and died on the eve of their feast. And good for the brethren, experienced in bearing each other’s burdens, and carrying him physically, sacramentally, fraternally through to the end. That’s the good tale of Dom Adrian.
‘Oh, poor ‘cello’, said a cellist cousin of mine when shown Br Adrian’s instrument. I wonder what she might have said had she heard him playing. He could make excruciating noises in choir and one’s heart sometimes went out to the organ from which he elicited such tortured sounds. Part of the experience of being a Pluscarden monk was hearing this struggling cacophony fill the empty spaces of the church on a winter evening, as supper awaited. But there was something else there. Perhaps those long solitary hours releasing discords into the air were his prayer. Perhaps they were his search for God. Beauty was drawing him, inviting him to her banquet. And at that banquet, we hope with a sure and certain hope, it will be as the poet Thomas Blackburn so beautifully put it in ‘Post Mortem’:
‘For there are those who in the parish of the living
Having no good instrument on which to play,
Still worked hard and with the almost nothing
Of their scant tongue and brain on the great symphony.’
But then, there:
‘The man who barked like a dog shall talk of angels.
The girl so far gone no skill could disinter
Her buried soul, in superb parabolas
Of dance and song celebrate the life in her.
O, there shall be no more desolation or crying anywhere there.
For the great pianist who strummed on one string
With a broken finger, shall have an infinity of chords
And the stopped poet, who could only say “Good morning”,
Reap with his tongue a harvest of meaningful words.
They shall be written in the middle of the page
Who were in the margin here,
For withdrawn from the body that held them in close siege
There shall be no more desolation anywhere.’
May he rest in peace! May he take his place at the table!
Bishop Hugh OSB