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Remembering Br. Clarence Neuner, osc

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I’ve never been to the Garden of Eden, that pristine place of paradise where our human story began in God’s generous love of creation--but I’ve been close. Indeed, over the last decade, I was privileged a number of times to make the long journey to the village of Agats in Asmat to assist in leadership work there. And one of the impressive realities that struck me in the heart of that jungle is how it simply encompasses everything as far as the eye can see, and so a connection to some remembrance of the Garden of Eden as the place where God walked upon the earth cannot be ignored. Truly, the jungle of Asmat is large enough still to carry the footsteps of God, just as the expanse of the creation story we heard from the Book of Genesis yet gives plenty of room for our reimagining this immense act of God so as to catch our attention once again. 

And it was in this jungle--we know so well, it was in this vast jungle of Asmat that our Br. Clarence found his home. It was in this vast jungle of Asmat that our Br. Clarence found an intimacy of heart with God and with God’s beloved Asmat people living in that place descendant of the Garden of Eden.  

Having encountered there a life-time’s worth of darkness giving way to light, of tides swelling and subsiding, of vegetation harvested and re-grown, it was Clarence’s continuing desire that he also be allowed to embrace death there, but we Crosiers wanted him to spend his “seventh day,” his Sabbath rest, here with us so that we could give him the care he had so much given to others. And so he did, even as he always pined to go back to that garden-land he loved, whose people he loved.

Thus, in this circle of giving his life over to the desire of God, that he be foundational and instrumental in building up the Christian and Catholic faith in Asmat, Br. Clarence also had to continue the journey “homeward” by sharing his final years in a place where he felt more the “guest” and no longer the master gardener. 

Interestingly, it thus seems that for Clarence, the experience referenced in the Gospel of John--of being wheat grain falling to the earth to die--was not in departing these shores for Asmat but in returning back to them. Aging and retirement were painful and disorienting experiences of loss from the life that he knew. But, as a faithful child of the Gospel, he knew that he had to submit yet again to the plan of God made manifest in his commitment to the Crosier vocation and his humility in trusting his confreres for guidance. So, just as Clarence followed Jesus in service, so he also gave his life over that even in such loss, he might reach for the promised gain of the fruits of paradise.

Just so, the wisdom of Paul’s exhortation to the Romans agrees: “None of us live for ourselves and none of us die for ourselves.  If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord.  So then, we are the Lord’s.” Thus, as Clarence now makes his final “account” to God, we might take in a great lesson of spirit and faith that is both as simple as it is profound—“in the beginning…God.  In the middle…God. At its end…the rich harvest of God.” Clarence’s life of giving and following is a testament to the heart of faith that lies at the heart of each of our callings. He was a good Gospel to read.

More personally, as I said first of Br. Clarence upon his 60th Jubilee of Religious Profession, in him we saw a generosity and openness and hospitality that helped one feel like “somebody” within his presence.  He honored people and was attentive to the hope and the good that he saw alive in them.  While he obviously was willing to give his “all” all the way across the world in service to the Gospel, here in the little town of Onamia, we finally saw him offer his “last” as he slowly withdrew from this world and made his final turn toward the Garden of Paradise.

Likewise, our Crosier Master General, Glen Lewandowski, who served in Papua, Indonesia, and who, though in different regions, nonetheless shared life there with Clarence in the Crosier fraternity and the grand scope of our missionary efforts, said of him:

“I am pleased that Br. Clarence rests from his labors over these last years. Clarence was a marvelously good man, a caring brother to all his brothers.  He always helped wherever he could. 

I did not live with him a lot, but the weeks I was his guest in Yamasj, he was joyful, playful, hard working, and, after hours, easy going. 

He appreciated my company and I knew it sincerely. There was an ease in just being around each other, sometimes with words, sometimes in silence, sometimes with food and work, sometimes with other guests knocking at the door, sometimes playing ping pong, sometimes bartering for fish or sago or pork. What you might think of living together as the point of it all. 

[I like to think that] as one of the group of the first missionaries, by his ease and care, he must have saved them all from each other more than once!  His know how was he knew how fraternity works.”

May our brother Clarence, generous across the span of earth and time, rest now in peace in the eternal garden of God.  The earth is surely better for his having walked upon it.  May he reap the rewards of a life well lived and know the fruits of communion once again with his mother and father and the spirits of all the Asmat who welcome him home.

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Guest Tuesday, 18 December 2018