One of the Principles of the Gregorian Way is that religious communities are schools of holiness. This isn’t to say that every one who comes to walk the way of Gregorian religious life (or any other form of religious life for that matter) becomes holy. But, it is an affirmation that holiness is possible, and that religious life is well suited to lead people in that direction. No one embodied this truth more so than Brother Ron Fender, who died unexpectedly on Friday after having left our Winter Convocation together in upstate New York. He was simply one of the holiest people I have ever met. And now he has gone to his eternal reward.
Ron was a walking example of the kind of transformation made possible by the Love of God. He knew so deeply that he was loved that he never considered not loving in return. And that he did…for every soul he met. He loved them. And he had a particular love for those who live on the margins of our society, in the darkest places, in the dangerous places. He loved them with a sacrificial love that caused him to spend his life and efforts caring for their most basic needs.
Ron was one of my dearest friends in the Brotherhood. We shared some deeply holy moments together. He made me laugh, and sing, and he visited me in San Francisco where we visited together the holiest place in the world for him…City Lights Bookstore. He loved Jack Kerouac, and Ginsberg, and when we arrived I remember we dropped to our knees and he kissed the ground of that place where the Beat Generation gave him his voice and sense of adventure.
Ron spent himself to care for others. His poor health belied the joy of his spirit and his self-sacrifice. He would do anything within his means for you if he felt that it would make you know of God’s love for you. But the toll on his personal health was unmistakable. He was a mere 61 years old when his heart gave out. This is the truth of some holy women and men…they know how better to care for others than their own selves. And Ron did that in spades.
I was blessed to have been present when Ron was interviewed to join our beloved Brotherhood. I was there at all of the pivotal moments of his time with us…when he was clothed as a novice, when he made his first profession, and when he took life vows. I had the chance to sing at his first profession, and it was apparently a moment that he treasured. He treasured it so much, in fact, that over the years he asked me time and again to reprise my performance. I always politely begged off. For some reason, this past retreat together, I said yes and performed the piece one last time. Ron sat quietly and wept while I sang. I had no idea he would be gone two days later. I thank God that contrary to my fears and anxieties, I managed to find the strength of voice to sing it for him one last time. I nearly didn’t. I can’t imagine the regret I would have felt had I not.
My Brother Ron was a Saint. That is not a word I toss around lightly, even though I know that we are all numbered among the saints of God in some way or another. But Ron was a capital-S Saint, the kind that few of us are rarely privileged to know in person. The kind of Saint whose work and witness in Christ is so immeasurably large, so deep, and so transformative in the lives of others that you can barely wrap your head around it. Ron knew he was loved by God, and he spent his last years of life receiving it, turning it around, and magnifying it for the world he inhabited that you couldn’t help but know and trust that Gd’s love was truly present. What a rare gift. For us. For him.
But Ron wasn’t a Saint of the plaster statue variety. He was a Saint of the down and dirty and tired variety. The kind who gave you hope that one day you might also be capable of being truly holy. He made you want to be better. He made us all want to be head over heels in love with God. And his fortitude for the hard work of Kingdom life made us all envious and aware of our own blessed limitations.
Life in religious community is a school for holiness. It is there that we are fully allowed to bring our authentic selves, to receive love joyfully, and to return it. It is not like other families we are a part of, or other organizations we may join. It is different. It is a place where we let go and lay ourselves bare to the love of God and take the risk that it will break us open, make us vulnerable, destroy our selfishness, and fill us with gratitude so that we can be free to love others as God does. Ron epitomized this transformation. It does not make us super-human. Rather, it makes us beautifully, deeply, rawly human in such a way that we become fully alive.
There was no one more alive than Ron. My beloved Brother. And in his life and in his death, he is still teaching me what it means to be alive. And I will never forget him for teaching me this. As he joins with our other brothers who have entered the heavenly choir, I have no doubt that Brother Ron Fender will still teach me what it means to love. And so, even while I grieve his loss, my heart is full.
Rest eternal, beloved friend and brother. One sweet day, we will meet again. And oh, how we’ll dance in the light of God together.