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June 10, 2005
I didn't find out until Monday, I think it was -- there was so much going on last weekend, so much running here and there, so many miles of driving, so many things to which it was important to arrive on time. Besides, other news occupied the secular press: Tony Blair's visit, the daily civilian and military death toll in Iraq, theatrical behavior in the senate about the judicial confirmations. And the winding down of the sordid Michael Jackson trial. And something about Ben and Angelina being in love now, not Ben and J.Lo. in life. And somebody caught selling an illicit copy of the new Harry Potter book.

And so it was Monday before I heard that Fr. Basil Pennington had died.
It wasn't easy even this morning to find out more -- googling him yields reviews of his books, old announcements of workshops that have already happened, nothing recent enough to tell me anything about his death. I decided to ask the Trappists -- I typed in "Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance" and hit pay dirt: a loving announcement of his passing, a brief account of his last days, a photograph of him, ruddy and laughing, looking like a Trappist Santa Claus with his white beard. There was a place for people to send a note of gratitude for his life.

What to say? Fr. Pennington's book on centering prayer was the first one I read on this ancient practice that carries me into the still place beneath all the frantic running around I do every day, in my car and on the train and in my mind. He and Thomas Keating and Joan Chittister helped free me from the self-conscious dance of words that had gotten in my way for years when I was trying to pray. I didn't have to find the words. I didn't have to make them elegant. I didn't have to tell God what I thought He wanted to hear. I didn't have to say anything at all. There was a way to go beneath all that.

He had been in a terrible car crash. He was doing well, considering, and was working hard on getting off his respirator, but something went wrong and he died instead. He decided himself to allow death to come naturally when he took a sudden turn for the worse. There had been so many surgeries, so many machines -- he was finished with all that. It was time to go home.

Spiritual leaders live on here, even when they enter the larger life. The world barely notices their passing -- C.S. Lewis died on the same day that President Kennedy did, and so hardly anybody here noticed. But they continue to teach us: they leave us books and sermons and students and colleagues and strangers into whose lives they came, even if it was only for the exchange of a few sentences. They do what they came here to do, and then they go home. We let them go -- we have no choice. Then we are surprised by their peculiar legacy: we are stronger after they leave. What empowered them still empowers us.

Thank you, Father. Brother. Teacher. Guide. Friend! I never shook your hand, but I will always feel your embrace.


Fr. Basil Pennington will be buried today at the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts where he lived. You can see what he looked like and learn more about the centering prayer he taught and practiced at
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