The beloved Abbot of New Norcia, Placid Spearitt OSB, was farewelled on October 21 after dying suddenly in England. Catholics and non-Catholics alike turned out in force to say goodbye to their dear friend.
Fr David Barry OSB who presided at the Mass paid a heartfelt and at times emotional tribute to his fellow monastic.
On his very first day Placid left us in no doubt that, ideally, monastic life was designed to lead to the regular practice of interior and mystical prayer.
He gave one of those extreme examples that are sometimes used to get us to think: You’re about to be banished to a remote place and are allowed two books. Which ones will they be? His choice would be the Bible and the fourteenth-century English mystical work called The Cloud of Unknowing.
If allowed only one book, it would have to be the Bible. If allowed only one book of the Bible, then the Gospel according to John. And if only a few chapters of that Gospel, then those recounting the Last Supper and the Farewell Discourses, chapters 13 to 17.
Why those chapters? Because Placed was deeply convinced that in them was contained in succinct form all the truth about God and his love that we need to lead us out of our self-centred and fearful selves into full self-surrender to that love. What The Cloud author calls, ‘full and final forsaking of self’.
The passage from John’s gospel that we heard earlier is from those chapters, and it was very close to Placid’s heart.
A tranquil heart, an untroubled heart, is enjoined on the disciples. That state of heart comes from belief and trust in God, and belief and trust in Jesus: Trust in God’s goodness, his unlimited love, his promises through prophets like Isaiah and Jesus, and his power to deliver on his promises.
God’s promise to his people through Isaiah that we heard is fulfilled for each of us in prayer according to the measure of our trustful faith working through love: The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. …And again: The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. God’s promise through Jesus draws our heart in longing: I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be too. Placid longed for nothing less than that: to have God as his everlasting light and his glory, and to be where Jesus is, sharing his beatific vision of God.
There is one thing I ask of the Lord, the psalmist prayed, for this I long: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. The house of the Lord: the monastery, the Church, planet Earth, the huge created universe – each the dwelling place of wounded men and women who, whether they know it or not, need God’s mercy and healing, and whether they recognise it or not are receiving God; the house where the human mind and heart can grow during this time of faith and preparation for vision: …what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is [1 Jn 3:2]).
Convinced as he was that Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me, Placid rejoiced to make his own the insight expressed in Ch 2 of Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church of Vatican II: ‘Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation’ (LG 16).
Abbot Placid had such security in his faith, knew his church history, was a very fine scholastic philosopher well able respectfully to debate issues with moderns, a theologian steeped in the teaching and spirit of St Thomas Aquinas.
He knew his mystics so well that he was able to be open and welcoming to Christians other than Catholics, to believers other than Christians, and to self-professed agnostics and atheists whose search for meaning and happiness we also share on the journey of life.
Placid was passionate about the Easter Triduum and the paschal mystery of Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection and glorification, which we are celebrating in the sacred mysteries this morning.
The paschal mystery was for him the key to the theological and loving understanding in faith of the Lord Jesus Christ himself and so of Christianity, of the scriptures, of Christian discipleship, the Church, the liturgy, God’s self-gift to us in creation and in grace, in the sacraments and in prayer.
It was the key to understanding and deeply valuing Christian monastic and religious life, priestly and diaconal life, married and single life, life in this world and death itself: in short, all the different ways by which God draws us to himself and goes on quietly expanding our capacity for him by delaying the fulfilment of our longing for union with him, as Augustine and Gregory would say. Placid found it all, in germ at least, in the five chapters of St John’s gospel I mentioned earlier, 13 to 17.
May his rest in peace be the experience of what The Cloud calls ‘the endless marvellous miracle of love, the working of which shall never have end, for ever shall he [God] do it, and never shall he cease for to do it. See, whoso by grace see may: for the feeling of this is endless bliss…’