Friday, August 13, 2010

He has slipped the surly bonds of Earth

Every so often, life delivers a blow which is difficult to receive, register, and repair from. Recently, my dear friend, Joe, was forced to redefine the word resilient when he found a huge tree dividing his lovely, painstakingly decorated home. It must have been and still must be devastating for him to process. 
Holy Cross Abbey grazing area in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Recently, I received a notice in the mail from Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virgina with updates on the Cistertian order living there.   This is a monastery where I have been attending silent retreats twice a year, if the wind is at my back, for the last 25 years. (Yes, I did write silent. It is glorious, even for me.) During that time I have gotten to know the physical and spiritual geography of this hallowed place.  I've also gotten to know the monks, who call their home this pre-Civil War farm poised on a bend of the Shenandoah River.
Many here have given me much direction and spiritual leadership; but none more than Father Mark Delery. I am not embarrassed to tell you I really grew to love this man. Father Mark died on June 29th following an illness. I wasn't aware, since his phone and email weren't answering, until the quarterly monastic newsletter from the community arrived. After reading it, I have to say, I sat and re-read it, hoping it wasn't true since I was so looking forward to his company this weekend. After confirming the news, I sat and wept. Not for him, but for me. 
From the retreat center viewing a field and the monastic center in the distance.
Mark has seen me through so much during a quarter century that it is too incredible to inventory. He was old. He shrunk and his dentures grew to no longer fit. They rattled some when he spoke in his soft Bostonian manner. His hearing was waning, so he couldn't hear his teeth and would whisper-talk, making people strain to hear him like he had to do with them. It was his way of leveling the playing field while having a little fun with you too. He had a private phone line and he and I would call each other chatting as best we could with his hearing and speech. I loved it and felt anointed being in his fan club. He told me once that although he had chased a "few skirts" in his day, that he had never received a Valentine. I cured that every year from that point. He sent a few back to me apologizing that his selection at the monastery's gift shop's stationery department was rather limited for Valentine cards. That made me laugh out loud as he was the king....strike that...abbot of understatement.
Father Mark Delery, O.C.S.O. (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance left this world an accomplished human. At 91 years, I would readily bow to his advice and direction based on his experience, education, and wisdom. When I delivered my worldly issues to him for examination I knew they were thoughtfully received. Mark had a number of feathers, eagle feathers, in his cap. He graduated from Boston College, and then attended Tufts Medical School. From there he served as a Captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before opening a medical practice of his own. He became a Diplomate of the American College of Physicians and American Board of Internal Medicine.  
Mark entered St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, MA as a monk and then eventually became an ordained priest. In 1984, after transferring and living at Holy Cross Abbey, he was elected abbot. It was about that time when we met. He had taken the position of  "Confessor" at the retreat house where he spiritually counseled an incredible number of people, until his surgery for colon cancer in June. The recovery proved to be too much for this gentle man.
1784 stone hunting lodge, surveyed by George Washington.
About five years ago, while serving as a reporter for a local Alexandria newspaper, The Del Ray Sun, I wrote a cover piece on Father Mark. Spring was just around the corner at the time and he had written a beautiful book The Parable of the Cherry Blossom.  With D.C.'s annual festival, his book was a natural and had a fairly brisk sales record. It was a great article, if I say so myself; but that was because it was about him, his antics, accomplishments, and impact on an outside world where he really didn't visit all that often by choice. His next book was The Song of a Silent Stone about the resurrection of Christ which was incredible as well.  I am proud to know that my article is in the collection of remembrances of him at this as well as other Cistercian monasteries.
His last book is one I loved too, but for different reasons. Mark wanted to extend the lessons learned by a fellow monk, Thomas Whalen, who died after having suffered from alcoholism. This book is called Feet of Clay Wrapped in Love and details his misadventures traipsing all over the United States after Monk Whalen. Writing this book, Mark wanted to give something to the 12-Step programs throughout the country.  His book details how his friend had thrown in the towel and rosary beads on monastic living while taking the order's checkbook with him to liquor stores and hotels across America. Using his non-internet detective skills, he located his friend, and brought him back to sobriety and a useful place within the community. It is a sad and humorous book all in one.
The first time I met Father Mark, it is safe to say that, I was a fairly angry female recovering Catholic. Although I had been somewhat dutiful, I always felt a real sense of displacement and second-citizenry within the Church. My daughter had wanted to be an altar girl, and was declined because our diocese was one of two in the country opting out of allowing it. So, I entered the conference room and drew my sword with him, during a retreat, to settle matters for once and for all. He looked equipped for the task and I threw down my lead-lined gauntlet with a loud thud. He was a quiet, patient, and  empathetic listener so instead of the full thrust of my anger, I collapsed in tears, with my nose bubbling with snot, as I spewed my "stuff" all over the room like Linda Blair's spinning head. I wish I would have filmed it.
St. Francis, tending to his frozen animals.
At one point, he asked me if I was finished and I answered NO!, regrouped, took a deep breath and kept on turning that shovel, which was quickly turning into a back-hoe.  He asked again when I paused. Again, I firmly responded with NO! and reloaded.
The third time was his charm that day as I was finally spent. I sat with my crumbling, damp, shredded wad-pile of generic tissues (religious orders just don't go for any brand name products unless they are donated) in my hands, lap, and the antique trash basket next to the lamp table in his conference room. It was there he delivered the best and most startling spiritually directed message "Well, Ruth, that is the biggest bunch of bull shit I've heard in quite a while."   Then he laughed.  HE LAUGHED. After I replaced my eyes in their sockets, he went on to ask me the purpose of being bothered by all the noise of mankind when Christ's love was there for me for the taking.  The Church was as flawed as anything since it was man-based. God was there and held nothing but respect and love for me. There was more to his explanation and conversation with me that day. It was what I needed to hear: God loved me even if the Church was less than glorious with its expression and delivery.
Then he directed me to go sit by the Shenandoah River on the other side of the grazing field. I agreed and asked exactly what I should do once I got there. He repeated a little more firmly, with a smile "SIT, JUST SIT."  I still didn't get it. Finally he boiled it down some more and spoon fed me a task. "Go watch the ripples on the water."  "Okay. And then what?" was my response. He took my hand and walked me out to the appointment board and penciled me in for an hour the next day. "Report in then." Pointing to 8:00 a.m. was his last direction. "I'll be late for Compline if we keep going today." and off he went whipping the hood of his monk habit up for his half-mile trek to the chapel near the main manse.                 
The Shenandoah River near Holy Cross. February 2010
He flew down the road in his exceptionally old van which no longer passed Virginia state safety inspection and could only be used as a farm vehicle on the grounds of the monastery. In that same dramatic fashion, dear Father Mark is off on a new adventure in a fully functioning body deserving his brilliant mind and charitable heart. Certainly he is sitting on the right-hand side of the Lord and I can only hope he is saving me a seat in that pew.  Mark has slipped the surly bonds of Earth, as the old poem stated before television broadcasting ceased for the day, back in the day. He is certainly touching the face of God. 
If you don't enjoy poetry, stop right here.
For those of you who remember that poem being delivered, as U.S. Air Force jets flew in formation, just before the test pattern was blotted on your round screen until morning, I have posted it for your reading pleasure.
Written by the son of a Pittsburgher and member of the wealthy Magee family of Magee Hospital fame,
John Gillespie Magee touched my heart years ago with this piece. It has stayed with me for what seems like my entire lifetime. It is one of my all-time favorites. 
High Flight 
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


  1. Ruthie, what a wonderful tribute to to a wonderful man. We so often hear about the bad priests, its a shame that you rarely hear of the amazing priests that touched our lives. There were many priests in my life who were wonderful human beings and role models. Sorry for your loss.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear about Father Mark - I know how much you were looking forward to seeing him this weekend! Even though I've heard you tell some of these stories before, I'm still captured by them because your words reflect the true love and admiration you have for him. I hope you have a peaceful retreat surrounded by a beautiful setting and great memories.

  3. I'm so sorry to hear about Father Mark - I know how much you were looking forward to seeing him this weekend! Even though I've heard you tell some of these stories before, I'm still captured by them because your words reflect the true love and admiration you have for him. I hope you have a peaceful retreat surrounded by a beautiful setting and great memories. Molly/Krissy

  4. From Denise in Way-the-hell-out-there, VA
    I am so sorry about your very special friend Father Mark! I know it must have been so hard for you to read, after the fact, that he had passed away. But, you also know, that he has left the bonds of earth and is touching the face of God for sure.
    He must have been a very intelligent, understanding, loving and guiding force in you life and so many others. I will keep both of you in my prayers and will remember that poem for I had never read it before.
    Thank you for sharing this very touching and heartfelt part of your life with me and I am going to copy that prayer and carry it with me. And, whenever, I think of Tom! I will remember it and read it again knowing that he has left the bond of earth behind and is sitting on the right side of God!
    Love and deepest sympathy,

  5. Outstanding profile of Fr. Mark being former neighbor, Trappist Monk and Bostonian myself. FR. was same as a layman that is lovable and devout to patients as a Physician.His funeral which I attended was a sign of God's Love. Keep up good work . John