Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Funeral Mass for Father Bartholomew

We buried the body of Fr. Bartholomew Sayles OSB in a driving autumn rain beneath a gun-grey sodden Minnesota sky. Born in New Orleans, he longed to be a Benedictine monk but faced discrimination as an African-American in a mostly white-European context. Described by this afternoon’s homilist as, “large, in every sense of the word,” he was also said to be, “happy—especially when it came to food!” Music was his world and he became both an organist and a composer and teacher of Gregorian chant. An educator by both calling and talent, he taught voice, music theory, and Gregorian chant as a music instructor while never missing an opportunity to hear the Metropolitan Opera whenever they came to Minneapolis.

I appreciated especially the description of him as a choir director, sweating profusely and pulling out a handkerchief from his sleeve (Pavarotti-like!) in order to mop his brow. While he had a simple faith, he was both jolly and strong—producing a tough and seasoned character.

So it was that, on this Feast of St. Matthew, we began his funeral mass with one of my absolute favorite hymns, “For All the Saints.” Can one find a better match of tune to text than this work of Vaughan Williams to William How’s 18th century poetry? Perhaps the greatest juxtaposition was the elderly priest consecrating the elements while Bruce Thornton on his clarinet honked out the mournful jazz tune, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” You could almost smell the “N’Orleans” Cajun cooking in the air!

Walking to the cemetery was a somber experience—thanks, especially, to the rain which poured from the sky. As we stood around the open grave, next to me stood a sight-impaired young woman with her seeing-eye dog, Charis, who began to whimper as a result of all the rain. Even the animals seemed to be crying on this afternoon.

I came away wondering what most people would consider a “good death” today. (Probably, no death at all.) Yet, death comes to all of us—rich and poor alike. Fr. Bartholomew lived a full life, dying at 88 years of age after having taught countless students, sung many a Psalm, and eaten much spicy food. He weathered racial discrimination in order to claim the vocation God had given to him. Both his life and his character stand as an example to us all and make me long to follow in his wake. May he rest in peace and may his legacy live long.