One of the bits of advice which the proverbial “they” are frequently quick to offer us is the encouragement to… “never say never.” I’m not much of a gambling man, but even I feel that it’s safe to bet that you’ve never received a letter from the Franciscans of the Sacred Heart Province regarding our grave markers! While tombstones have always been one possible topic of conversation among us, they’ve gone unmentioned until now; or at least I think so. I certainly hope so. Now that I’ve hazarded a wager, I must admit that I want to win my bet.
For most of our 150 years as a Franciscan Province, it has been our custom to mark the graves of our brothers with simple evidence of their places of rest. The grave stone contains the friar’s name, mentions whether he is “Father” or “Brother,” identifies him as an “O.F.M.” and indicates the dates of his birth and death. While I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive tour of the cemeteries of the Province, I feel safe in saying that there has been no significant deviation from that practice for most of the years of our existence as a Franciscan Province.
For many years, there was only one exception to that experience, and it occurred in our daughter-Province in California. One of their friars requested something other than the usual for his grave marker, and his request was honored. Everyone else’s tombstone in the cemetery where he is buried may contain the traditional information; but his simply and profoundly professes, “I’m Glad That I Was Here.” It’s an act of faith which always gives me something to think about. I hope and pray that it will do the same for you.
I turn 65 this month. No one who knows me seems particularly surprised by that news when it surfaces in conversations. That wasn’t the case when I celebrated my 60th birthday. Everyone was “shocked” that I was “that old,” or at least that’s what they told me. Perhaps, these last five years of my life have taught me how to look, sound and act my age. Maybe everyone in my life has just decided it was time for them to tell the truth and for me to “face facts.” Whatever the case may be and whatever other graces and gifts those 65 years have brought me, I’m pleased, and maybe even a little surprised, that I can say to you, “I’m glad that I’ve been and am here” as I celebrate this milestone birthday in my life.
Life can be a pretty grim experience for all of us every once in a while. Our health doesn’t hold up. We don’t measure up to the expectations of others, much less our own. People disappoint us. Friends betray us. There’s never enough time, money or energy. Time runs out. It’s easy to understand how any of us can find ourselves distracted into dismay by the burdens we must bear. The challenge for all of us is to recognize that the difficulties of life are “only” dimensions of our lives, but never tell the whole truth about the time that God has entrusted to us. Our gladness, peace and courage are all rooted in that realization. God saw all of life as good and so should we. It really is!
Whatever else I do on my birthday, I will spend that day grateful for you. One of the reasons I can say that “I’m glad I’m here” is because you’re a part of my life. Thank you for all of the ways you are a blessing to me and my Franciscan brothers. I’ll also pray that life will never become so burdensome for you that you lose the ability to appreciate it and rejoice in it.
Peace and everything good,
Fr. William Spencer, O.F.M.