Memorial Day Reflection
Memorial Day is one of the most poignant of holidays. On a day late in May, when the full promise of spring seems finally realized, we pause to remember those whose lives fell short of the promise that awaited them. They seemed to die too soon.
Like most cemeteries around the country, the Abbey Cemetery hosted a very traditional yet always moving ritual on that day. As in previous years, a small crowd gathered as the VFW color guard unloaded from a caravan of cars. A salute was fired and Taps sliced mournfully through the silence. The birds, of course, didn’t like any of this. But for the rest of us it was a touching moment — even if we had seen it many times before.
When I visit the cemetery on that day, I never fail to be surprised by the number of monks who served in the military, whether as soldiers or as chaplains. Small American flags mark their stones, like clusters of crocus in the spring. Some of the monk-veterans died long before I came to Saint John’s, and I will always wonder about their stories. But many of them I did know.
This year my eye caught the memorial for Fr. Aelred Tegels, a monk whom I knew quite well. Fr. Aelred had served as a chaplain in the Air Force, and he later taught liturgy in the seminary at Saint John’s. In his final years he worked as field director for the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library’s preservation efforts in Switzerland and Germany.
Aelred was a brilliant linguist and had a keen mind. He also had a wicked wit that would not quit. Anything of which he did not approve was “disgusting” — no shades of variation here — and he had zero patience for incompetence in people charged with serving others.
As the director of HMML I had the opportunity to visit Aelred while he worked in what had been eastern Germany. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen, but the level of performance in the East had not yet caught up with West German standards. It really ticked Aelred off when he would travel thirty minutes across town, only to find the bank or museum locked and shuttered, with a kurt notice on the door: “Geschlossen — aus technischen Grunden.” Closed — for techincal reasons. Of course I had no idea what that meant, but since it was in German and used the word “technical”, I assumed it was for some very serious reason. But not for Aelred. “They’re all in there taking naps — it’s disgusting,” he snarled. At another stop the litany continued: “They all went on a four-hour lunch hour — it’s disgusting.” Still elsewhere: “They didn’t feel like coming to work today — it’s disgusting.” Aelred found it all totally disgusting, but each time he followed up with a wry smile on his face, “aus technischen Grunden.”
Aelred did superb and selfless work in what was a very lonely situation. I always appreciated what he did, and his work in time came to benefit not only the German libraries where he labored, but also scholars around the world who never knew his name. They had no idea he even existed, but he made their research possible.
Memorial Day teaches us, the living, an important lesson. Anytime we begin to think that the world owes us something, we should recall our debt to those who have gone before us. Their sacrifice and death have made our very lives possible. The toil and generosity of parents and teachers and doctors and untold others should remind us that we did not earn this all by ourselves. We didn’t invent the wheel. We inherited it, from other people’s genius. We are not self-sufficient, because countless people have made and still make our lives possible. And we only begin to say we’ve earned our keep when we help the next generation to take its own place.
Memorial Day can draw out memories of sadness and loss; but more than anything it is a day on which gratitude and happy memories should blossom forth. The dead are part of us, and we carry their spirit and imagination and faith into the present. What a wonderful gift to celebrate. What a wonderful legacy for us to share with the future.
Monastery and Personal Notes
+On May 28th, Memorial Day, the monks at Saint John’s had a picnic in the monastery garden following noon prayer. Our traditional spot for this overlooks the lake, and it was a perfect afternoon for it — at least for the moment.
Then at 3 pm all heck broke loose, with a sustained hail-storm that featured stones the size of golf balls. For a brief period the lawn turned white, and when it all melted the fallen leaves and twigs gave the landscape an autumnal feel. There was a lot of damage to the cars, and one abbey car had its windshield shattered. A visitor at the guesthouse had left the four windows of his rental car rolled down, and the good news was that none of the four was broken. I leave it to you to imagine the bad news.
Probably the worst bit of damage came across the hall from me. My neighbor in the monastery had his window shattered, and it was futile to try and stop the rain and hail from coming in. Ironically, the window was scheduled for removal and repair the very next day. So at least the timing was good.
+From May 28th through June 1st we were on our annual community retreat at the Abbey. This year’s retreat took an unusual turn, because our scheduled director had a sudden change of plans. Fr. Gregory Collins of Glenstall Abbey in Ireland recently became the abbot of Dormition Abbey in Jersualem, and on short notice no substitute could be found.
There were not a lot of options for Plan B, so the abbot called on four monks from the community to supply the conferernces. Yours truly gave the first two conferences, on the subject of “Living a Prophetic Life.” This marked the first time I had ever given a conference to the community, and the preliminary reviews were not withering. Happily, I did not need to resort to the escape vehicle parked behind the chapter house.
+On May 31st through June 3rd I gave the annual retreat for the members in Obedience of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta. That’s a mouthful! The retreat took place in Malvern, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. Normally my service in the Order of Malta has its focus on the West Coast, but the East Coast provided a wonderful change of pace.