Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun
Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run
Zing boom tararrel, ring out a song of good cheer
Now’s the time to roll the barrel, for the gang’s all here.
Beer Barrel Polka
The letter I had been expecting, and dreading, for so long finally arrived the week before last:
“Our friend and brother, Fr. Jim O’Connor, died on April 7th and was buried the next day. He had dementia for a few years as well as heart trouble. Generally, he was in a good mood and enjoyed singing, ‘Roll out the barrel!’ He was the last of his family. Blessings to you and your family as we approach the Easter season with the promise of eternal life. Fr. Tom McMaster”
Jim O’Connor, 97, was a Trappist Cistercian monk for 73 years at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa. He was the first monk I met when I started visiting the monastery for what turned out to be 21 Octobers, beginning in 1995.
That first day, he asked me where I was from. “Oak Park, Illinois,” I said. “Me too,” he replied. A fast friendship formed. We had much in common. He was born on June 6, like me, in 1924, like my dad, and grew up in Cicero, attending St. Frances of Rome School, like my mom. He vividly recalled her and her older sister, Patricia, and often asked about “the Mooney girls” with a dreamy look on his face.
Like my mom, Jim’s family moved to Oak Park, Ascension Parish, a short walk up East Avenue to Fenwick High School, where he won the annual boxing tournament in his weight class, senior year, class of 1942. Later his family moved to River Forest. His sister, Jean, who taught in District 90 for many years, lived there until she died a few years back. Jim would come in to visit her once a year, right about now.
He was a wonderful ambassador for monastic life. Amiable and witty, with an ever-ready, glad-to-see-you grin, he made you think, “This looks like a life worth living.”
But he traveled a long road to get there. After high school, he joined the Army Air Corps and shipped off to Europe. Jim was stationed at an airbase in England where, at the exalted age of 20, he became co-pilot of a B-17 “flying fortress,” 388th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. He and the crew of the La-Dee-Doo, flew their allotted 35 missions in 1944, from July 4 through Dec. 10.
It was dangerous work. “Of the 450 combat crews that passed through the 388th from July 1943 to April 1945,” Jim wrote, “138 were missing in action and 200 completed their tour of duty.”
Jim and his crew survived three close calls and lived to enjoy reunions held at New Melleray, which he described as, “Two beautiful golden days of reminiscing and trying to comprehend the meaning of our lives.”
Upon returning from the war, Jim attended Notre Dame and DePaul universities on the G.I. Bill. In one of his classes, a professor mentioned the contemplative life of the monastic tradition, which planted a seed. In 1949, he entered New Melleray, part of a surge of vocations following World War II.
Life in the Trappist Cistercian Order back then was austere to the point of severe. You worked hard with few “consolations,” as he used to say. It was not for the faint of heart or the faint of faith. In addition to helping with farm work (especially at harvest time), Jim labored as a brick layer and limestone mason, building a major addition to the cloistered complex, which was needed to house the influx of novices. He also taught philosophy classes, favoring Existential Phenomenology, defined as “the study of subjective human experience as evidenced by beliefs, goals, feelings, thoughts, actions, social interactions, and the like. It interprets the human condition through the perspective of the individual being studied.” Right up his alley. Human beings were always in the forefront of Jim’s spiritual awareness.
But for many years, his human condition was miserable. He described it as a “dark night of the soul,” using the famous phrase coined by the mystic John of the Cross. Today it would likely be diagnosed as clinical depression.
Fortunately, life became more humane in the 1960s as the Vatican II reforms found their way to the abbey. He recalled the day a visitor in the guesthouse blasted a recording of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” out the window and those working in the garden below stood stock still, frozen in wonder, having heard no classical music for almost two decades.
Movies also became available on special occasions, the first being “Zorba the Greek,” which caused many monks to walk out in protest, finding it obscene. Jim, however, was enchanted. He saw in films a vehicle for conveying meaning and spiritual values, and he became a dedicated film buff. Ulie’s Gold, starring Peter Fonda, was one of his favorites.
An excellent writer who loved poetry, Jim produced a quarterly newsletter titled, “Monastery Seasons,” which led to authoring a regular column in the Dubuque Catholic newspaper for over a decade.
During my four-day personal retreats, every fall from 1995 to 2015, Jim and I found time to talk as often as possible, sometimes playing hooky from Compline, the last chapel service of the day. He was ever curious about the world outside the monastery walls and intrigued by my take on current events.
Unfailingly good-natured and good hearted, he was utterly unpretentious, and a devout practitioner of what I would call “deep acceptance.” He preached letting the Holy Spirit show the way in my life, and he didn’t just see the divine in others, but actively searched for it, and usually found it. He referred to most everyone he knew as “a beautiful person” and regarded the shortcomings and frailties of human nature as part of the human comedy. I looked on him as a spiritual father figure.
Jim believed monasticism benefited the world at large, providing an authentic, alternative way of living in a culture badly needing one. I would agree, though that life is not for everyone. The monks set an example of disciplined prayerfulness, material poverty and spiritual richness, devoting their life to seeking union with God. If you believe, as I do, that the divine doesn’t exist in the world unless we incarnate it, bringing it into existence through the way we think and feel and live, then monks do just that, making each day holy and consecrating their daily routine.
It is a life that seems to agree with them. Most live deep into old age and radiate composure and contentment — up at 3 a.m., singing psalms seven times a day, seven days a week in their architecturally acclaimed chapel, with time outside of work to contemplate the purpose of existence, staying open to the guidance of the Spirit, living in community where an excess of ego works against you, with lots of interesting people from all walks of life showing up at the guesthouse, seeking temporary refuge from the vicissitudes of life.
Jim seemed to thrive on it, at least during the time I knew him. There was delight in him, which I take to mean he had discovered, and embraced, the purpose of his existence.
In the end, he faded into the eternal now of memory loss, his hearing having already deserted him. When he died, as he once explained to me, he was buried in his black-and-white Trappist robes, no casket, lowered into the ground, accompanied only by prayers. But he believed in resurrection and eternal life and that’s what he hoped to find on the far side of life.
And if it turned out he was right about all that, I know what he would say to us now:
“Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run …”
Thanks for the wisdom, Jim, and all that good cheer.