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franciscan - May 1996

Brother Justin SSF, RIP

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Brother Justin died on Christmas Day 1995 at a nursing home near Dorchester, after many years of illness. He was aged 71 years and in the twenty-sixth year of his religious profession. At his funeral requiem at Hilfield, Brother Samuel preached the sermon, which is printed below:

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.’
I find those words quite a comfort, especially in relation to Justin as, in the last eighteen months or so, he used to weep whenever we visited him at Whitways Nursing Home. At first, I thought that it was an indication that he was desperately unhappy there and I felt correspondingly agony and guilt that we had sent him there, rather than continue to nurse him ourselves at home.
But I came to believe that this was not the case: that he was really quite happy in this his new home; he was certainly very well cared-for. His tears were in fact a blessing, for in his last years, he was able to cry. And he did have things to weep for. To be honest, there was a depth of hurt, anger and regret - and sometimes resentment - in Justin which few people were able to overcome completely, and which was often touched upon and opened up in this life of community. There must have been a lot of interior weeping in Justin which, thank God, was able to come out in his latter years.

I think it significant that, of the two hymns chosen by Justin himself for this service, one is a deeply penitential hymn:

Have mercy, Lord, on me,

as thou wert ever kind;

let me, opprest with loads of guilt,

thy wonted mercy find.

And that, of course, is where we all stand, or where we ought to stand, especially at the time of our death. None of us is going to be able to trip lightly through the narrow gate of death to face our Maker. We are united to Justin and to each other in our need of penitence. Brothers in penitence: that is what Francis would wish us to be.

For we are also brothers with Justin in Saint Francis. He became a Franciscan in the mid- sixties, having met his parish priest in the street and told him that he wanted to become a monk! He wasn’t a massively enthusiastic churchgoer at the time but he was eventually put in touch with SSF and became a Tertiary Regular before being professed in the First Order in 1970.

Justin certainly got around our houses: Hilfield, Canterbury, Llandudno, Hilfield again, Plaistow, Glasshampton, Hilfield again (and probably a few more in between that weren’t recorded). And then there were the Pilgrims of St Francis - his collection of photographs shows shots from almost every holy place in Europe, with himself and friends in the picture. You never quite knew where Justin was: whether he had just slipped out for a roll-up or whether he had gone further afield. There was in Justin a gloriously anarchic streak which could be infuriating, but which was also very funny at times - especially when, with the onset of his illness, his mind and memory began to go. In an attempt to keep Justin located in place and in time, we got him to ring the bells here at the Friary, for services and meals. The result was that increasingly the bells rang at the most bizarre times. We couldn’t stop him ringing the bells and the whole system broke down. And we never knew whether it was all part of his confusion or whether he really knew! There was that smile on his face . . .

But there was truly a Franciscan likeness in our brother, Justin. He worked with his hands. He was a bookbinder by trade and, for a long time, bound the hymn books and the back numbers of franciscan for the Archives. His magnum opus was the three volumes of Hutchins’ History of Dorset. Being a down-to-earth man, Justin could make friends with people, particularly those who had fallen on hard times, whether they were on the road or in prison. He knew what it was like to be marginalised and to feel rejected; and when that was married to a direct faith in Christ - who loved the sinner and the outcast - it became a powerful witness. I remember speaking to my old headmaster, Michael Birley, who was then a housemaster at Marlborough. Justin had been over to talk to a sixth form group - not the obvious audience for him - yet the effect, said Michael, was electric. For Justin had shared with them, simply and directly, himself and his calling; he spoke about life at the Friary among wayfarers; he spoke about his faith in Jesus Christ.

The only sermon that remains of a good many he preached contains the line: ‘The first essential is to believe in God and his Son Jesus, the light of the world.’ Yes, Justin knew how ‘to give an answer for the hope that is in us’.

And that brings me on to the third thing I want to say about Justin: our brother in Penitence, our brother in Francis; but also our brother in Hope. When a person goes into the experience of senile dementia, it is often described as a second childhood. Indeed, Shakespeare portrays it so: second childlikeness a mere oblivion. I’m not sure that was the case with Justin. Of course, there were childish traits that came out and he became very dependent on those around him, but there was also an important maturing process which took place in his last years. The anger and the hurt and the secrecy slipped away from him and a real tenderness and gentleness, and even serenity, increasingly took over. Even the passion for television subsided. He became comfortable with having people around him.

Despite his own short attention span, he almost always recognised his visitors. About a couple of months ago, on an occasion when Philip Bartholomew was visiting him, Philip said to him: ‘Justin, you do know that God loves you and forgives you, don’t you?’, and he responded with a smile and a nod. We have been taking him Holy Communion every Wednesday morning - we saw it as an important physical, sacramental contact which didn’t need words - though you had to be sharp about it because if you turned your back for a moment he would help himself from the pyx! That visit was something which he and we valued. When I had given him communion, he would then give the sacrament to me and mark me with the sign of the cross on my forehead. And, at the last - and he was conscious right to the end - he heard the words which Anthony and I said to him: “Go forth from this world, O Christian soul . . .” A brother in hope and destiny.

So, go forth Justin: our brother in penitence, in Francis and in hope. We entrust you to the Lord, confident that he will not turn you away and that in him you shall have eternal life. May you rest in peace and rise in glory. f

 

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