A Cloud of Witnesses

Thoughts on an Abbey Cemetery

When I return to Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota, I always spend a few quiet hours at the cemetery. I knew few of the monks or townspeople who are buried there, yet I feel a kinship with them. As a Benedictine Oblate, I am connected to the community that shaped them and that they in turn helped shape. My thoughts are drawn to this place especially at All Saints.

The cemetery is sandwiched between Lower Stumpf Lake and Lake Sagatagan along County Road 159. It is a short walk from the abbey church to this tranquil place, which serves as the burial ground for a monastic community known worldwide for its achievements in education, research, liturgy, architecture, and the arts. While obviously much loved and cared for, the final resting place for the abbey’s monks is striking in its modesty. It witnesses more to the simplicity of the monks’ communal life than to the prominence of the abbey’s reputation.

An asphalt-and-gravel path climbs from the gate by the road up a steady incline to the only monumental feature of the cemetery: a cross suspended above the ground. Trees once lined this path; they were removed recently to allow for an ambitious expansion that testifies to the monastic charism of hospitality even to the dead. In the future, all those who found nurture in their relationships with the abbey—even if they were neither monks nor parishioners themselves—may have their remains committed to this place.

Between the road and the cross, but closer to the cross, a grassy lane divides the burial grounds into distinct communities. Though the division is not sharply marked, one can’t fail to notice it. In the section closer to the road the parishioners are buried. The monks lie in the section closer to the cross. Both cemeteries are quite old by Midwestern standards; some graves date back a hundred years or more.

The parish section seems to revel in the distinctiveness of each grave. Tombstones differ in size, stone, and color. They are adorned with texts—some severe, some sentimental—revealing the love, faith, and hope of the grieving left behind. Some are simple and classical in their proportions; others are ornate and highly wrought. One can find a Celtic cross, a wrought-iron angel, a copper dragonfly. The engravings, too, are wonderfully various: loons, lakes, and evergreens; musical notes and instruments; shamrocks, farm buildings, and various animals. Crochet needles, artists’ brushes, and carpenters’ tools tell of the earthly pursuits of the deceased. One of the most original is a crossword puzzle that bears the interlocking names of family members. Some stones just use words and letters: “M.D.,” “Broker,” “Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps.” Small American flags flutter at the base of a grave or two. There are few real flowers, but here and there a weathered silk or plastic bouquet is propped against a tombstone.

In stark contrast to the boisterous individuality of the lower graveyard, the monks’ garden tells of ordered lives that unfolded within an ordered community. Like the habits they wore in life, their tombstones are simple and identical. The monastic name of the deceased is engraved on the front of each stone, his family name and years of birth and death on the back. Only the abbots are distinguished by office. For the rest, it is impossible to tell whether they were addressed as “Father” or “Brother,” whether they brought fame to the abbey or, possibly, shame, whether they excelled in whatever they attempted or barely hung on for the years allotted to them. Nothing can be deduced about the families that may have gathered here to mourn a monk’s passing. To discover anything about these men, we must turn to the living.

The strict straight lines in which they are arranged emphasize the uniformity of these tombstones. One is tempted to see a military precision in this section, and, for all their humanity, these men were indeed spiritual warriors. But the abbey graveyard feels nothing like a cemetery for military veterans. The uniformity here is more akin to the ordered arrangement of the monks’ stalls in the choir of the abbey church, or to their places around the tables of the refectory. At the gravesides of military veterans I am reminded of vast sacrifice and loss. Here, at the gravesides of these monks, I find a radiant intimation that we are not alone.

Most of the monastic names are the names of saints. The names were either assigned by a particular abbot or chosen by a novice when he entered the community. Often the naming of new monks involved acts of deep discernment, but there were also more mundane considerations at work: the community did its best to avoid having too many Benedicts or Matthews at the same time.

Monastic names are testimonials. They point to people whom the church has recognized as saints—people who lived real lives and left real marks on our common history. Perhaps these names, like icons, carried a residue of the spiritual energy of the original bearers. I don’t mean that Fr. Justin necessarily became a philosopher or martyr like his namesake. (In fact, he was a pastor.) But in bearing this name Fr. Justin bore witness to St. Justin’s life. Over time, of course, these monks added their personal stamp to whatever names they had received. The Justin of our common tradition became the Justin of this particular community.

As I walk among the tombstones, I am struck by just how many saints there are. And these, of course, are only the names of the mainly European male saints familiar to a Midwestern Benedictine community that traces its ancestry through Pennsylvania to Germany. In this cemetery, a huge database of church history lies before me. Here are the biblical saints: Matthew, Luke, Paul, Peter, John, Timothy, James, Mark, Jude, Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Andrew, Joseph, Barnabas, Thomas. The angels Gabriel and Michael are here. And the German saints, of course: Othmar, Alto, Pirmin, Oswald, Benno, Ulrich, Suitbert, Norbert, Corbinian, Anschar, Alban, Boniface, Florian, Otto. The great names of Benedictine tradition are scattered throughout the cemetery: Gregory, Bede, Aelred, Maurus, Placid, and, of course, Benedict. Two Benedicts are buried side by side. They were born only a year apart and both died in 1934. Great heroes of monasticism such as Anthony, Basil, and Cassian are represented. The doctors of the church are honored—Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Anselm, Cyril, and Bernard. So are the doctrines and virtues—Paschal, Fidelus. There are names that suggest classical literature (Terence, Virgil) and summon up ecclesiastical rule (Urban, Innocent, Leo). There is a Hyacinth and a Lancelot. It is curious that Gall is buried next to Placid. And Cloud? (But remember that the nearest large town is St. Cloud.) So many names—Slavic, Spanish, Russian, Swiss, Greek, French—are gathered in this place. So great a cloud of witnesses!

I don’t mean to suggest that because they bore the names of saints these monks lived perfect lives. Being a monk does not, by itself, make one holy. But among the monks buried here are some whose lives were saintly. Even for them—perhaps especially for them—to live was to struggle with all the foibles, failures, and shortcomings that flesh is heir to. If Wesley is right, the closer they were to God, the farther they may have known they had to go. Contemporary secular life offers us an infinite array of opportunities to escape the hard spiritual work of self-examination. These men accepted their vocations to take the human condition seriously, and to examine it fearlessly within themselves and their community. The abbey has its own distractions and temptations, and these monks understood that human beings do not thrive in isolation. We need God, and we need one another.

November is the only time of year that many of us who are Protestant allow ourselves to think of saints. Still, we are prone to confuse the great feasts of All Saints and All Souls. We celebrate All Saints Sunday, but not in the same way that Catholics observe November 1. We light candles and remember loved ones in our congregations who died in the past year. “For all the saints who from their labors rest,” we solemnly sing, but we mean the deceased members of our congregations. (In Catholic tradition, I suspect that true saints never rest. Someone is always asking them for something!) For us, the “saints” we remember are the people with whom we shared a pew a few months or years ago. While we remember them more or less fondly, we knew them too well to venerate them. They were our neighbors, friends, and relatives. And because they were church members, regardless of their spiritual virtues or vices, this is their day.

This demystification of sainthood began sometime in the 1600s among the Puritan churches in England and the New World. We came to divide the world into saints and sinners. If you weren’t one, then you must be the other. The saints were “visible” or “invisible”—in a way roughly parallel to Augustine’s visible and invisible church. Invisible saints included everyone who was elected by God for salvation. Visible saints were the elect who were also church or parish members. Saints were not considered a higher species of humanity—not distinguishable by halos, miracles, or special virtues. The remains of these saints lie buried, inurned, or scattered in the lower graveyard as well as the upper, and in other cemeteries and settings across the planet.

Lesbia Scott captured this flattening of the universe of sainthood in her marvelous children’s hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”:

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store,
in church, by the sea, in the house next door;
they are saints of God, whether rich or poor,
and I mean to be one too.

Forget miracles and answering prayers. Anyone who “loves to do Jesus’ will” is qualified. We all expect to be included “when the saints go marching in.”

For some of us today, the “visible saints” are more than just church members. They are God-struck persons (“in school, on the street, in the store”) who cannot rest until they find their rest in God. They cannot be understood apart from this longing. They have a deep hunger for a just and compassionate ordering of the world. They seek the face of the Holy One wherever they find themselves. They know that to be truly human is to walk in the shadow of the Most High. They struggle not for gold or glory, not for self-justification or even happiness. They struggle for a clarity of vision that will allow them to see the world as it truly is, for a clarity of purpose that will allow them to engage the world as it truly should be engaged. They are distinguished by their selfless dedication to the reign of God.

But was this not true also of Benedict, Scholastica, or Teresa of Ávila? We are, all of us, earth and fire, longing and limitation. St. Justin was as deeply human in his time as Fr. Justin was in his. Didn’t St. Anthony wrestle with temptation? Wasn’t even passionate St. Benedict sometimes passionately wrong? In their very struggles they became icons of faithfulness, windows that opened onto eternity. All true saints, visible and invisible, show us in their own ways not exactly what we can become, but rather that each of us can become what God desires us to be.

The men buried here once bowed to each other every time they entered the chancel of the abbey church for prayer. Now I bow to the saints whose names appear on the front of these tombstones, spiritual giants who were blessings for the church and the world. I also bow to the ordinary men whose names are remembered on the other side of these stones. They were the “visible saints” of flesh and blood. They brought with them to the monastery all their strengths and frailties. Finally, I bow to the saints in the lower cemetery, those who sought to live faithfully within the complexities of the secular world. I think of their longing, and honor their struggle, to dwell in the presence of the living God.

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About the Author

Gilbert Friend-Jones is the senior minister of the First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Crystal Lake, Illinois. He has been an Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, for ten years.