Brother Steven Vargo says the Brigittines are always to keep their death in mind as a reminder of what really matters — eternal life. “I will be out here someday,” he said while walking in the community’s small cemetery. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Brother Steven Vargo says the Brigittines are always to keep their death in mind as a reminder of what really matters — eternal life. “I will be out here someday,” he said while walking in the community’s small cemetery. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

AMITY — Few Catholics live a few minutes’ stroll from their burial plot.

But that’s the way of things for a Brigittine monk, who is to keep his death in mind. The monks give witness that eternal life is what really counts.

“It’s something our world today does not want to look at,” said Brother Steven Vargo, one of nine monks at the Priory of Our Lady of Consolation. “People focus on what they can get here and now. This is transitory. This is nothing.”

Set amid apple orchards, ponds, dirt roads and gently rolling farmland, the simple priory is the world’s only home of Brigittine men. They are followers of the 14th-century mystic St. Bridget of Sweden and they have prayed, made candy, hosted guests and died in Oregon since 1976. The quiet cemetery, with a view of a pond, has five graves at present.

“I will be out here someday,” said Brother Steven.

Visitors come often to sample and purchase the monks’ famous candy, including fudge and truffles. Rarely can guests see into the cloister, which includes an infirmary, a meeting room full of holy relics and a simple cemetery.

Year-round, the monks collect names of people who have died —family members, benefactors, friends. The names are written on slips of paper and put into a box marked with a simple cross so the brothers can pray for the departed.

Near the box is a model of a human skull. As monks walk past, they take a few grains of sand and drop them into a container near the cranium to show that the sands of time keep flowing for all.

Brigittines almost always spend their last days in the monastery, with monks giving bedside care. The man is not left alone. If death is immanent, the entire community fills the room.

Just after a monk dies, the bells are rung, once for each year the brother lived. The community then gathers to say the prayers for the dead.

The body is embalmed on site and laid gently in a simple casket.

The day before the funeral, the community gathers in the church for evening prayer. The body, dressed in its everyday gray habit, is placed amid the choir stalls, where the monks chant psalms back and forth over their dead brother. Included is Psalm 25, which says in part, “The sins of my youth and frailties remember not. In your kindness remember me.”

That night, the body again is never left alone. The monks take turns, two by two, holding quiet vigil.

“It’s a good reminder of our own death,” said Brother Steven. “It’s also a time to remember the brother’s life. You can ask pardon if you offended him at some time.”

The funeral Mass comes the next day, presided over by a bishop or local priest. After Mass, the community walks in procession to the cemetery behind the casket to a grave the monks have dug themselves.

Bells again toll out the dead man’s years as the monks sing in Latin, “In Paradisum deducant te angeli” — “May the angels lead you into Paradise.”

Brigittine funerals are not morose affairs. The themes are compassion and resurrection.

Prayers at the gravesite include Psalm 30, which says in part, “With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.”

Unique to Brigittine funerals is a graveside litany that focuses on mercy. Invoked are female saints like St. Bridget, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Catherine of Siena. Since the Brigittines are officially called the Order of the Most Holy Savior, the litany also moves through the details of Jesus’ saving passion, including “captivity,” “bloody sweat,” “scourging” and “infinite love.”

Each of the brothers, in order of seniority, sprinkles holy water on the casket. Then each man tosses a shovel full of dirt into the grave, making a series of thumps that the monks find hard to forget.

“It reminds you of where you are going,” Brother Steven said.

Each Nov. 2, the feast of All Souls, the box containing the names of the departed is brought into the church and placed just where caskets go during funerals. The monks say the prayers for the dead and process to their cemetery, where each man will sprinkle holy water on the graves of his confreres.

“It is one of the customs of our order always to pray for the dead,” Brother Steven explained.

The monks have a large collection of relics — pieces of bones from saints going back centuries. They signify that Christian community crosses the barrier between life and death.

A large statue of Our Lady of Consolation stands in the church above the relics, giving comfort to those in trouble, including at the moment of last breath.