Funeral Mass, Fr. Marcellus Earl OCSO, 9/19/17
About two weeks ago I was praying in chapel after Vigils and my phone buzzed. Randy, our line manager, was calling to let me know that Fr Marcellus was over in the bakery ready for work. Apparently he thought he’d seen his name on the schedule and, despite the fact that he’d come through surgery for lung cancer and more recently a stroke, 4:30 a.m., he was on the job!
This episode shows a number of Fr Marcellus’ qualities, I think; his eccentricity, of course—you never knew just what to expect!—but also his amazing determination. He could barely walk down the hall, but he thought the brothers needed him in the bakery so there he was. It shows as well a certain child-like quality. Our abbot, Fr Gerard, who was very sorry that he couldn’t be here, wrote of Marcellus: “I was always struck by how simple, transparent and obedient he was; a man ‘without guile’ who came to embody Cistercian simplicity. He suffered a lot but there was never a complaint.”
He was very much the spiritual son of his first Abbot Gerard McGinley. It’s striking that the day of his burial should fall so naturally on the anniversary of Dom Gerard’s death, a day each year, when we commemorate all the departed members of our community. He was so much a monk of Genesee. Like Dom Gerard, he was deeply devoted to St Therese of Lisieux and her way of spiritual childhood and he became a convincing disciple of this path.
Throughout his life Fr Marcellus was an avid runner, or at least jogger and walker—he often joked about how slow he was! This was something he and I shared and often spoke about. About five years ago he passed along a book he’d found at the public library called ‘Born to Run’ about men and women running 100 and even 200 mile foot-races through extreme terrain. Both he and I were quite captivated by the book and began plotting out first marathons… While not at all aggressive, and not very competitive, I think what so grabbed Marcellus’ imagination about this book, what resonated with him, was the willingness to go slow and persevere with extreme tenacity.
Marcellus was born “Richard”, son of Elwyn and Bernadine Earl, in Battle Creek Michigan, 1931. He served in the U.S Air Force during the Korean War, playing in the band. There he was impressed by the example of several Roman Catholic airmen and began his own path toward conversion to the Catholic faith. Before long he was knocking on the door at Genesee, and meeting for the first time with Dom Gerard McGinley. He persevered through the painful, sudden death of Dom Gerard, and through the years around the Second Vatican Council, when Genesee dropped in numbers from a community of 70 down to 35. Early on, he served as herdsman for the Abbey’s beef cattle herd. He was greatly disappointed when it was decided to sell the herd, but was able to let go without bitterness. He was a gardener, especially fond of cultivating roses. One brother perceptively spoke in this connection of Fr Marcellus’ “hopefulness”—how, if a strain of roses he was working on didn’t come out right, he was always hopeful it would turn out next year.
Most of all, of course, Fr Marcellus loved music. He played the guitar and French horn, among others, and for years led an instrumental “combo” at Genesee liturgies. He composed the music used for decades not only here at the Abbey but also in Brazil and Africa where for some years he generously served in our daughter-houses. When it was decided recently to change our liturgical books in the direction of more traditional Gregorian chant it was surely painful for him; but as with that herd of beef cattle so many decades earlier his deep faith gave him the freedom to let go of the fruits of his creativity.
Fr Marcellus was at once eccentric, stubborn, and full of good-will. I remember, shortly after I’d first come to the Abbey, going to see him in his office—what is now our music room. He had roses and who knows what else growing on the window-sill, books all over the table in several languages, a couple of computer screens going… and was sitting in his habit, with a paper bakery hat on, blasting away on a French horn! He had something of the mad genius, and the “holy fool” about him… He was “stubborn” in the way that just about every monk I know who’s persevered for any length of time is stubborn. You had only to watch him battle his severe tremor at mealtime to see this. But when the abbot had spoken or the communal mind was made known he was quicker than the rest of us to come around, and with fewer complaints. He had an extraordinary amount of good-will, the quality William of St Thierry singles out as the most essential for a monk to possess. I remember 16 years ago how often and how simply he would help with the least pleasant tasks in the infirmary. And if we needed someone to visit a sick brother in hospital at an inconvenient time you could always rely on him to go.
When I was with him in hospital Thursday, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the reading that jumped out when I anointed him was today’s gospel. “I thank you Father, for you have hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to little children.” What are “these things” that Jesus refers to? The first Cistercians understood this to mean God himself; the Lord who revealed himself in the meek humility of the incarnation and who could only be known by the meek and humble.
For monks the “yoke” and the “burden” are the monastic life—fidelity to its practices and spirit form a person’s life into a continual song of praise and thanksgiving. It is a hard life at times. Indeed, the early monastic writer, John Cassian, in his final conference, has a monk ask a desert father, “How can the Lord say life is ‘light and easy?” This is a good question to ponder in regards to Fr Marcellus, who on top of the challenges of monastic life bore more than his share of both emotional and physical suffering. The desert father in Cassian’s story says that it is willingness, the spirit of obedience that makes the yoke easy and the burden light.
I’m sure there were many times in the life of Fr Marcellus when the yoke did not feel at all easy. But he was like a boxer who kept getting hit but wouldn’t stay down. He’d get slugged by lung cancer then before long show up at vigils. Suffer a stroke then a week or two later be back with us at meals. It meant so much for him to be with the brothers. He knew this wasn’t asked or expected of him but also knew perhaps St Bernard’s secret. As he wrote: “The faster we run in the way of life the easier it is; the more we undertake of our Savior’s light burden, the easier it becomes to carry.”
Fr Marcellus never ran very fast, but in the sometimes ecstatic, sometimes grueling “ultra-marathon” of his life he covered a staggering distance: slow, patient and fiercely stubborn. He has run the race, he has finished the course, and surely, he has received his reward.