Funeral Homily for Br. Anthony Vorwerk

One of our monks, of happy memory, would talk about the absurdity of believing that God would concern himself with prayers asking him to direct such things as the weather. Brother Anthony held a different outlook on prayer and requesting God’s grace in our lives for such things as rain, snow, and the like.

These two monks, Brother Anthony and the other monk, would chide each other, in good humor, in their differing views; the one monk would persist in his point, and Brother Anthony would just brush it aside encouraging his confrere in his “lack of faith.”

Several years ago, about this time of year, the weather forecasters were predicting a mega-blizzard to hit the Midwest, with prediction for our area of up to eight inches of snow. The night before this storm was to hit, the other monk – let’s just call him Brother Lawrence for anonymity sake – this monk was grumbling about the hassle the snow was going to cause. His grumbling was to the point of irrationality, and Brother Anthony just told him to buck it up.

Well, the next morning, as the storm completely missed us without even a dusting of snow, Brother Lawrence walked into the community room after breakfast and sat down next to Brother Anthony. The first words to come out of Brother Lawrence’s mouth ending night silence were, “Thank God the storm missed us!”

Brother Anthony, matter-of-factly turned to Brother Lawrence and threw his words back at him, saying, “God had nothing to do with it.”

As I was praying in preparation for this funeral liturgy for Br. Anthony, I kept coming back to the idea of God making all things new – his creative will bringing about a world teeming with life, God’s creative will in bringing to life mankind and making us active participants in his creation.

Then in all of this, God’s unceasing love that, even when we royally mess things up or are bogged down in our weakness, God’s love consistently seeks to draw us back – a creating love he has for the world, for all creation, and indeed, intensely for each of us.

Brother Anthony both understood this divine love and sought it desperately. He participated in God’s love in calling all of creation good, and he desired to enter into it with all of his being.

The latter, this desire to participate in God’s creative love, he both reveled in by bringing forth good things from the earth and sharing that goodness with others, while also struggling mightily in understanding his own dignity as God’s creation.

To have received from the bounty of Brother Anthony’s labors in everything from fresh tomatoes, corn, radishes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, and watermelon, many times when there wasn’t much else to put on the table, to a sorely needed truck load of firewood during a bitter cold spell, was to understand the brilliance of Brother Anthony’s ability to participate in God’s creative genius, and the genius of God’s entry into our lives.

At the same time Brother Anthony’s struggle with scruples, his constant worry about his worthiness as a monk, as a son of God, while an agonizing cross for him to bear, was indeed an opportunity for God’s grace to flow into Brother Anthony’s life yet again. This cross for him in turn possessed a creative genius allowing others to participate in God’s mercy in his life. Especially in his final years how he ministered to students who would come read to him, to young monks who prayed with him, and to those who counseled him, sharing a good story, or just sitting and watching a football game on a Sunday afternoon.

As a friend of Brother Anthony put it, upon hearing of his death, having received a simple blessing from Brother Anthony over his family a few weeks prior, “As the life-long embodiment of ‘the last shall be first,’ I can’t imagine that our family will ever receive a holier blessing than that of Br. Anthony’s.”

Brother Anthony’s death in the midst of our exit from the Christmas season, and into the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord and the Wedding Feast at Cana the past two Sundays, should not be lost on us.

God formed us in creation to be imperishable in the image of his own nature, which tells us a few things about who we are. We are persons with creative minds and free wills. We have not only natural life, but we are created immortal – at the time of our conception was present the Godly gift of an immortal soul. We recognize a distinction, a vast chasm between immortality and the death that came into the world through the destruction of sin.

God entered into that world that he spoke into existence in order to free it, to restore its dignity. God in the Second Person of the Trinity – Jesus – submits himself to the baptism of John in the Jordan River. Instead of rescuing us from creation or allowing us to escape from it, God enters into it, and thus makes it the means of our salvation. Though he was rich, God became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty we might become rich.

God, who brought into existence the entirety of creation, including this bountiful world in which we live, who created us in the image of his nature, came and took a human nature to himself, entering into our poverty, our weakness.

Poverty indeed he takes upon himself and dignity he brings to our lives and all of creation. What a completely improbable and unfathomable way for God to give life.

In the midst of our day-to-day reality – for Brother Anthony that was planting in the garden, plowing on the tractor or moving dirt with the bulldozer, chopping wood for someone or tilling their garden, enjoying a great hamburger while watching the Chiefs game with his brother monks – in the midst of that day-to-day-reality God dwells with us.

God takes what is dormant and in our baptism he gives it new life, makes all things new. This was Brother Anthony’s greatest gift in his participation with God saving plan. When things were most dormant, Brother Anthony seemed to have the ability to allow God to work through it, whether Brother Anthony realized it or not.

How many nights and early mornings when the earth lay dormant was Brother Anthony down in the workshop making various crafts? How many hours he spent in the growing room in the basement of the Abbey during the late winter and early spring preparing seedlings for when the earth would teem with life again? How many offerings of his time did he give when our own spirits needed to be lifted? How many boxes of whatever produce was being harvested fed families in need? How many times did Brother Anthony, probably unknowingly in true humility, how many times did he participate in God’s creative will in our own lives through little gifts he personally made?

Upon my own election as abbot, he gave to me a walnut and cherrywood box – one of his nicer pieces – I think a woodworker in town helped with the fabrication of it, but Brother Anthony did the finish work. In the box is this note:  “Wild Cherry trees native of Kansas.  Cherry tree lumber found on the property west of Mount St. Scholastica on U St., Frank Terry property.  Walnut found on N. 9th St., Atchison, Ks.  I sawed these trees into lumber over twenty years ago.”

Brother Anthony knew, though his own struggles would often not allow him to see, the hope of living in Christ, not isolated, but as the One Body with its many members. He was a natural in the life of a monk. I must confess, I don’t really know how to conclude this homily other than by offering words from Brother Anthony himself, and from Sacred Scripture.

Brother Anthony wrote,

“Right after I graduated [from high school] I came to St. Benedict’s Abbey.  I soon was looking for a spiritual advisor.  Someone mentioned a Father Sylvester [Schmitz].  One night I knocked at his door.  A gruff, strong voice growled, “Come in.”  I was terrified.  I entered and there was this giant of a man with a large, red nose, sitting at his desk.  As I began to unfold my story to him, he must have seen something in me he liked.  He was one of the most gentle and kindest men I ever met.  He [looked at] me as [if] I was his own son.  He confided in me that he too had experienced a mental breakdown sometime in his life, and that he had almost lost his Faith in the trial.  He knew what I was talking about, where I was coming from, and what I was going through.  Over the years he treated me with a patience that never would end.  I always considered him a saint, and still do... With the passing of Father Sylvester, I had to look for another spiritual advisor.  I chose Father Regis Hickey.  His is another story, and I will only mention him briefly.  If I thought Father Sylvester was patient and gentle, I think Father Regis is even more so.  He is also a living saint, as far as I am concerned.  He has spent countless hours with me, sacrificing his time, and helping me in times of distress.  These two men, for the most part, have been my spiritual advisors in my monastic life.  Without the two of them, I seriously doubt if I would have survived the trials of life.  I love this place and especially these two men and the abbots, all of whom have put up with my weaknesses with understanding and kindness.”

From St. Paul: 

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.  For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God…. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.  For who hopes for what one sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.  In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness…”

Brother Anthony died on the Memorial of St. Anthony of the Desert, though not his patron – his was St. Anthony of Padua – these words from the Patristic Reading for that day, January 17, on the life of St. Anthony of the Desert are appropriate.

Brother Anthony actually died just a few minutes before the community heard this reading: 

“Seeing the kind of life he lived, the villagers and all the good men he knew called him the friend of God, and they loved him as both son and brother.”

We love you Brother Anthony, and are so happy that you know the fulfillment of that hope you so longed to see.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.  May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.  Amen.