Last Saturday the Church gathered to pray good-bye to Tom Shaw, bishop, monk, and friend. The young Sri Lankan man sitting next to me on a back pew of the glorious Trinity Church, Copley Square, had flown in from Washington, D.C. He too had been touched by Tom’s prayerful, compelling, and joyful relationship with Jesus Christ.
This service of the Burial of the Dead and Holy Eucharist was no institutional show, but a monastic thanksgiving to the Tri-Unity we worship who created, called, forgave, and transformed the man lying in the simple wooden box.
Tom Shaw died after a 16 month struggle with brain cancer. The world thinks the cancer won and God lost, because it thinks that only in radiant, youthful health can we claim victory for God. We are told life is a zero sum game, so that as sickness grows God shrinks. God has been pushed into irrelevance because God is just one more agent in the world that has lost his job, forced out by the omnipotence of high-tech and the omniscience of Google. As William Placher writes, since the 17th century “God ceased to be the transcendent, sustaining beginning and end of all things and became one player among others…. Transcendence that fits our categories has been domesticated.” The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong pages 201 and 10
But as the incense and music ushered us into Divine Presence we knew, of course, Tom won, because the cancer is no more and Tom is alive in Christ, to rest in peace and rise in glory.
There is a lot of talk these days about “dying with dignity”, as if losing control of our memory, speech, and bodily functions is the same thing as losing our courage, faith, and love. And don’t newborns have dignity as creatures of God?
In his moving homily Brother Geoffrey Tristram, Superior of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, told how Tom spent 90 minutes a day in prayer and Bible study in his cell, often on his knees before a print of The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (c. 1460).
Out of this prayer and study came his passion for social justice and his love for people.
Out of this prayer he learned to take God seriously and his flawed self, not so much. One day Tom forgot to take off his bishop’s cross when he returned to the monastery for Evening Prayer. A visitor asked Tom why he was the only monk wearing a big gold cross over his habit. Tom responded: “Because I’m monk of the month!”
Oh yes, Tom won, and in Christ, so do we.