The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dan Monary

...Ut Inhabitem in Domo Domini Omnibus Diebus Vitae Meae

Love speaks the language of details. If there is one thing that most pains me about what is going on in the Roman Catholic Church, it is the forgetting of this most important point. It is not enough to say something. You have to show it. Only in showing it does it become real. Only in showing it does it sink into the heart and erode away the hardness of the forgetfulness of God. For those of us raised in the Church, it is often the details that we most remember, and it is those details that often lead us back home when we have strayed so far. It’s very hard to articulate these things if you haven’t seen them starkly proclaimed at a mature age. I once knew a man who was an embodiment of this principle, and he too has returned to the house of the Father.

I first met Dan Monary when I dropped out of college at the age of twenty and moved into St. Aloysius Gonzaga Retreat Center in Los Gatos, CA. I lived there for one year as a lay oblate before I entered the SSPX seminary in Argentina in 2001. During that year, I learned how to serve Mass, how to sing the Office, and how to dig a hole in very rocky ground, among other things. I was also head sacristan and master of ceremonies for the priory (which was the beginning of my obsession with liturgy). Dan Monary was the eighty year old head sacristan emeritus, and he taught me many important things such as how to properly lay out and put away vestments, how to neatly arrange a ciborium, where to dump the holy water, etc. He was a retired old sailor who came to Mass everyday with his wife and acted as the chauffeur for the priests in spite of his age. (He was notorious for having a lead foot; so much for old people driving too slowly.)

For Dan Monary, the greatest thing a man could ever do is serve Mass. He always used to brag that, during a priests’ retreat before the Second Vatican Council, he served seven Masses in one day. (For the record, my record is three in one day, but one was a Solemn High Mass.) Even as an old man, he would serve Mass in the sacristy if there was a need for it. I remember seeing him use a chair to help him kneel down in front of the altar, which at that point was a very difficult task for him.

He was so enthusiastic about serving Mass that he would serve even when not invited. He told a story about being in Vancouver, Canada on some Navy business and attending a church right in the center of the city. It was Sunday morning Low Mass and the church was so packed that he couldn’t find a place to sit. He plopped himself in the back on the woman’s side (I suppose back then the sexes were still separated in church) and received some bizarre stares for doing this. When the priest came out of the sacristy, Dan noticed that he had no server with him. Looking at how all of the other faithful felt no need to do anything about this, he got up, walked down the center aisle of the church, and seeing no door at the altar rail, jumped over it and knelt before the altar.

The priest came back down from the altar after setting up the chalice, looked at that odd middle aged man kneeling, and began the Mass:

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti. Amen. Introibo ad altari Dei…. Who the hell are you?”

“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. The name’s Dan Monary, Father.”

If you doubt the veracity of this story, it’s because you never met the man in person.

Dan had a million stories like that. I was one of the only ones interested in hearing them, probably because I hadn’t heard them before. There was the one about seeing a street car in Istanbul that he swore that he had ridden as a child in Seattle. There was also the one where at the end of World War II he almost met Pius XII. The story goes that the Pope was having an audience with a large crowd of American sailors, and as he was greeting the crowd, a sailor started freaking out and fell to his knees. When the Pope’s handlers saw this, they whisked the Pontiff away before the got to Dan’s group. What a stroke of bad luck!

Dan was no theologian, but I would always stay behind in the sacristy and listen to him talk as he helped put away the vestments. With people who lived a life like that, it is often not what they say that is important, but rather how they say it. Coming from a family that was very respectful of elders, I am naturally inclined to listen to older people, no matter how crazy some of the things they say might seem. Dan, unlike most in this society, was on firm ground when he spoke. Black is black, white is white, there is a God in heaven, and today will be a good day because of this.

It was easy to see that for Dan, changing or getting rid of details might just be the same as amending the Nicene Creed. There is so little that we can really do for God, and so much that He does for us that every little thing counts. Sure, we should be doing all of those more important things to love God and neighbor, but we sinners have a very hard time even making an effort to begin doing these things. (I am just clearing that up for the majority of people who are reading this, since I know most of you are near-saints.) A well-placed maniple here, a washed-out cruet there, a ciborium whose hosts are arranged in the right order…. if we have the spirit of a child these can go a long way in leading us to bigger things. As Our Lord said, to be faithful in small things is to be faithful in bigger ones. Dan was all about small things.

My favorite sport in church is watching old people pray. I learned a lot about prayer just by watching Dan pray. It doesn’t matter if they are Russian babushkas, Greek yia-yias, Coptic grandmothers, or Mexican widows. If you want to learn to be a Christian, watch them. No amount of book-learning can teach you what they know. Only the look on their faces can.

I went off to seminary and came back, and Dan was still going strong two years later. Shortly thereafter in 2003, his health began to deteriorate quickly. By June, he was dead. Since I was at that point going to a Byzantine Catholic church, I only learned about his death by chance. His funeral was held on a Saturday, and I joined the choir in the sung Requiem Mass. The ceremony was flawless, and no doubt Dan was proud of us in carrying out the Church’s traditional rites so well. I remember that even the one glitch that we had turned into something exquisitely beautiful. When we got to the cemetery, the directors had said that they were not ready to place the body in the ground yet. So we had to sing the actual service at the grave in a mausoleum in front of the coffin. I have never heard acoustics like that before. As we began the “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel”, the sound resonated off the marble and made us sound like the very choirs of Heaven themselves. It was an enchanted end for a simple man who led an enchanted life.

I long ago stopped believing in a golden chain of elders. Life is just too messy and the world is much too sinful to even conceive such a thing. Dan Monary was not a saint (although we used to say that his wife was since she had to put up with him). He was a Catholic sailor. That should be enough to tell you that he didn’t lead a spotless life. But he invested the talents that he was given and was faithful in things that most of the Church had condemned to the trash heap of history. And this passed down something to me: do it right, do it simply, make it pretty. It is the least we can do for God.


At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wonderful remembrance, Arturo. Thanks for sharing it.

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