Part One: The Journey
The journey was a long one. It took ninety
years, with sixty five of those years of pilgrimage spent as a Dominican
priest. When I think of the last years of Pierre's life, I can't escape
the image of the journey: of the pilgrim's slow progress to his blessed
destination. For many years, and for the better part of every day,
Pierre was moving along a well-worn path. First by his own efforts, then
with the help of a cane, and then with a walker, he plodded along the
priory's cloister corridors to fulfill his mission. One day three years
ago, he told me that as long as God gave him the ability to move, he
would continue to fulfill his mission. Then to my astonishment, he
preached to me for twenty minutes on the meaning of the Beatitudes, and
the relationship between philosophy and mathematics. My private "sermon"
helped me to understand this Dominican priest's mission, and why he
continued his journey with such tenacity.
The slow walk through the corridors
always had an important destination: the small chapel where he would
celebrate his daily Mass, a parlor where he would provide spiritual
direction and counsel, or the poor person who came to the door looking
for food and consolation. He journeyed through hallways preparing rooms
for our many guests, and he greeted them when they arrived at the front
door. His constant movement belied a man who was driven by a powerful
motive: "You can never do enough for them," he said, "because you're
doing it for Jesus. Jesus is in every face." To the brethren, Pierre's
slow walk through the cloister corridors seemed as if it would never
end. After each illness or setback he would soon appear again, walking
with cruets of water and wine, or a sandwich for a homeless man at the
door. Back and forth he walked.
Although he wanted to continue his
earthly journey as long as God willed, Pierre was well prepared for the
journey's end. Years ago he decided to donate his body to science, and
his Living Will was put in order "just in case." Those of us who lived
with Pierre knew how much he loved our community, and how faithful he
was to prayer. I will always remember seeing him in the corridor when I
returned to the priory after being elected to another term as prior.
Ever the guest master he exclaimed: "My father in Christ! Welcome home!"
It was always Pierre's fervent prayer and passionate desire that he be
able to live out his remaining days in the community. He too wanted to
be welcomed home, and to die at home in the community of his brothers.
Despite frequent assurances from me and from others that he would remain
with the community, his constant shuffle up and down the cloister path
served as a willful reminder that Pierre was still with us, at least for
But then, a day before his final
illness began, Pierre resigned his decades long ministry as guest master
for the community. As we sat down together and I received this momentous
news, a silence fell between us and it seemed as if time had stopped.
The significance of this news came crashing down upon me. With a smile
(or was it a grimace?) on his face, Pierre was telling me that he was
coming to the end of his earthly journey.
Part Two: "It is Finished"
When the next morning came it seemed
that Pierre's earthly pilgrimage would end quickly. He called my room to
say that he was dying and to ask for the anointing and Viaticum.
He cautioned me to take my time in gathering everything I needed lest I
"mess this up." I realized what he had meant when I found myself
trembling as I gathered my bundle of the Holy Oils and the Eucharist.
After Pierre gave me (novice that I am) explicit instructions on how to
administer these sacred rites, there were many holy and Grace-filled
moments and hours that followed. His strained voice bellowed the
prayers, and then whispered: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you..."
He asked me to recite the Apostolic Pardon twice to make sure that I got
it right. He wasn't fooling around.
During the hours that followed, Pierre
waited patiently for the Lord to come. We prayed the Psalms and the
Rosary together, and he assured me that "this wouldn't take too much of
my tune." Pierre drifted off to sleep, but would occasionally awake with
a start and open one eye. Each time I would assure him that he was, in
fact, "still here." Pierre survived the night and slept through my
vigil, and for the next three days remained weak but cheerful. He asked
not to be taken to a cold hospital, but to remain at home where the
brethren would pray for him and sing the Salve Regina when the time
came. During these last few days, the priests of the community quietly
visited Pierre, prayed with him, brought him the Eucharist, and assisted
him with whatever he needed. From several of us, Pierre humbly endured
the indignity of the bed bath and the bed pan. He was appreciative of
every fraternal gesture from the brethren, and every bodily
On January 23rd, his last day, I
decided to move Pierre from his own room to the infirmary room on the
first floor of the priory. Here Pierre could more easily be cared for,
and he would have the comfort of a hospital bed. As I had expected,
Pierre resisted my plan vigorously. Understandably, he wanted to remain
in the familiar landscape of his room where he was surrounded by his
books and papers. He asked me for a notebook where he had been keeping
notes for an article that he was composing. He said that he had a few
more lines to write. I left Pierre alone for awhile so that he could
compose his thoughts and put them in print. When I returned, I reminded
Pierre about his move to the infirmary room. He said that he preferred
not to move, but that he would be obedient if I said that he must go. He
then asked if we could take some time to pray about this decision before
it was finally made. I left Pierre's room feeling like we had made some
progress. I also realized that he had played me like a violin.
Later in the day when we moved Pierre
to his new room he did not complain. Comfortable in a freshly made bed,
Pierre was able to visit with a dear friend of many years who had come a
long way to see him. She read to him a beautiful letter which I had just
received via FAX from his brother John in Texas. After the community
finished with dinner, one of the priests brought Pierre Holy Communion.
I settled in with him waiting for the night nurse to arrive for his
first night's duty, and Pierre spoke about how blessed he was to receive
the answer to his Compline prayer of so many years; the Grace of a
When the nurse arrived, we tried to
arrange Pierre comfortably for a night's sleep. For some reason he
became agitated, and concerned about being able to see the clock on the
bedside table. He said that it was important that he be able to see the
time when he awoke during the night. A short time later, at 10:59 PM, as
the nurse was helping Pierre to move toward the center of the bed, he
took a last breath and died suddenly and peacefully.
At the news of his passing, many of the
priests gathered around Pierre's body with me to recite the prayers for
the dying and for the dead: "Go forth Christian soul..." We placed a
priestly stole around Pierre's shoulders and his rosary in his hands. As
the news of Pierre's death spread throughout his familiar corridors, the
brethren began to assemble at his bedside.
Part Three: The Last Vigil
The priests and student brothers of the
community where Pierre wanted to die assembled in the hallway outside of
the open door to his room. There we sang the Salve that had been
so important to him. The brethren took turns visiting the body and
keeping vigil in silence. Then the student brothers led us in the
Rosary, and vigil prayers were said: "Out of the depths I cry to you O
Lord, Lord hear my voice..." The final arrangements were made with the
mortuary to remove Pierre's body in a few short hours, the only time
that we would have with Pierre's mortal remains. It was profoundly
moving to see how the brethren remained by Pierre's side, refusing to
leave until the final goodbye. During those hours of vigil it was
evident to me why Pierre wanted so much to remain among the brethren
until the end. The love and reverence that we had for our brother was
being poured out in prayer and in presence. The youngest brothers were
helping to usher their eldest brother into the arms of God. A long white
line of friars was mourning the passing of a spiritual Father and guide.
The most earthy and sublime elements of our Dominican community life
were being fused in a cloister corridor where a dead brother had just
begun his final journey to his eternal home.
When the hearse arrived at 1:30 AM,
several of the brothers helped as we wrapped Pierre's body in new white
sheets. The brothers did not hesitate in this difficult and unpleasant
task, because it was clearly a labor of love. I wrapped Pierre's head
and his face and said the Dominican prayer to Our Lady for the friar's
last moment with the community. Then six student brothers carried
Pierre's body down the corridor and stairs, where they placed him in the
hearse. As the community said its silent farewell prayer, we stood and
watched until the hearse was no longer in sight. Requiem aeternam
Epilogue: Tempus Fugit
I had removed Pierre's wristwatch
before his body was taken away, and the next morning it sat on a table
in my room. As I made arrangements for his memorial Mass and notified
loved ones, I found that my eyes were frequently drawn to Pierre's
timepiece. He had been so concerned with the passing of time the night
before, and now I was equally concerned about the passing of time the
morning after his death. I wondered why Pierre had been so preoccupied
with the clock by his bed, and then realized that he must have been
marking the time until eternity. Later, I went to his room to find the
"few more lines" that he had wanted to write, and there I found a clue
about his concern with tune and eternity. I expected a final word about
philosophy and mathematics, but what I found instead was the Word of God
scribbled in Pierre's unmistakable hand:
O Lord, our God, how
wonderful is your name in all the earth!
What is man that you are mindful of him,
Mortal man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
With glory and honor you crowned him. (Ps. 8)