I was blessed to enjoy good friendship with Fr. Tom over the last three decades. We shared many common sentiments and perspectives, and so it was easy for us to share Crosier life and leadership as we did much of that time. Even so, do not doubt that Fr. Tom could be a bit prickly on occasion with the fairly precise expectations that he had about most things. And if one didn’t meet them, Fr. Tom’s eye-roll could be really quite loud, and when he used his dismissive hand wave, that could only mean, “enough said.” (He could even get irritated or distant or frustrated with me—and he liked me!)
Of course you know that it is in times such as this that we turn to inspirations of faith and holiness which are a part of Christ’s call to us and come to mind for us in often fresh, poignant ways, and I think that each of the three scriptures we’ve heard today convey something particular of Fr. Tom’s life and persona and faith—or maybe better, these scriptures convey something of Christ’s work in Tom that God used over the course of Fr. Tom’s 70 years to build up and enliven him among the members of the Body of Christ through which we are all joined to one another.
First, I am really struck by the Gospel tell of Jesus “going up the mountain by himself to pray, remaining there alone.” In imitation of Jesus, this was a fundamental stance and practice that Fr. Tom also lived in his personal and religious life. He really was a strong introvert, a cautious and deliberate man who had to have an almost-absolute understanding of something before he would proceed with it. In fact, he often stated that he just didn’t like surprises; he preferred a known and determined course wherein he would know his place and his part. So, often were the times that Fr. Tom “retreated” to ponder and reflect and pray to restore his energies for the interpersonal and public aspects of his vocation. But at its core, his was a contemplative vocation which was the discipline by which he sought to listen to the Lord and the foundation of his centeredness which helped him as he sought to listen to others. He was more shy than flashy with an often-encountered gentleness that seemed to invite people to step into sharing. That was a lot of who he was, but it could be challenging to get to know this man of private depth which he held pretty close.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, we heard St. Paul convey that even when “our earthly dwelling, this tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, but eternal in heaven.” Not only is this descriptor relevant, of course, to the way that Fr. Tom’s lymphoma slowly destroyed his earthly body and led him to life hereafter, but it is also a wonderful metaphor that describes many dimensions of Fr. Tom’s vision and energies over the years right here on earth. To be sure, Fr. Tom thought that our earthly dwellings should be as beautiful as we can make them—for all beauty is revelation of God and God’s ultimate beauty. Of this mindset, he was not one much for clutter or “cheap.” He preferred elegant simplicity and rich, vibrant colors of life and energy. And so he concerned himself with art by composing it himself in arranging environments, in learning from our master confrere Br. Edgard in Europe the skill of bookbinding, in establishing a museum that highlighted the primal art of the Asmat, and noting, always noting when something was beautiful. He loved beauty; he loved simplicity—these spoke to him of God. Sometimes he would display a single flower blossom under a simple spotlight. All summer he would attend to the large filial priory backyard garden, working with nature to cultivate a space that was beautiful.
And beyond these artistic things of objects and spaces and arrangements, Fr. Tom came to highly value some newer language we use to describe our Crosier religious vocation as we speak about the spiritual architecture of our dwelling places. By design, the places we live shape us. We are formed by the architectural vessels that surround us and guide us. And so Fr. Tom pushed that we cultivate beautiful spiritual architecture that will lead us where we hope to go in pursuit of God. So we need rooms that are warm, and a prayer space that allows ritual and silence, and a dining room where the fellowship is cultivated to be more nurturing even than the great food. And rooms for meetings and discussions and creativity and life. So it was that through his many years in Crosier formation and leadership work, Fr. Tom helped us recapture some of this great tradition of spiritual architecture that keeps us always amidst the Lord shaping us each day once more in holiness and hope.
Finally, I turn to the words from the Book of Esther. Ester was a Jewish woman wed to the King of Persia who had a most spiteful servant named Haman who plotted to get this King to slaughter all the Jews. Esther was entreated to go before the King to petition for mercy on behalf of the Jews, but to approach the King unbidden could lead to her death. Yet with boldness and courage, Esther agreed to go before the King saying, “So if I shall perish, I shall perish. Yet perhaps it was for a time just as this that the Lord called me to this royal house.”
It was exactly Queen Esther’s strong testament to faith in God—even in the face of grave harm and potential ruin—that was to become a comforting example for Fr. Tom of faithfulness to one’s duty and task, particularly as he was our prior provincial when the maelstrom of clergy sexual misconduct came to the fore in 2002. Unknown to him when he had accepted his office, leading us and church through this most challenging of crises, Fr. Tom sought not to feel sorry for himself, but to instead accept the mantle of leadership that would remain his for the next decade. There was much work to be done of repentance and apology to survivors; there was the challenge of correcting the culture that had failed to act; there was his own sorrow at having to help carry the sufferings so widely shared by so many. But Fr. Tom found strength in the witness of Esther who said, “Perhaps it was for just such a time as this that the Lord has called me.”
And he was then able to connect such a calling in his time to the words of the Good Shepherd Jesus in today’s Gospel as the disciples were much afraid, tossed about by waves and strong headwinds on the sea. Jesus said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” So, Fr. Tom, in his service as our prior provincial said often to us, and to abuse survivors and their families, and to the church community that suffers in solidarity, “We must trust in the Lord. Let us not falter in little faith but let us be strengthened by the Lord who comes to us even amidst the roughest seas and ghostly fears.”
I shall always remember that it was deep amidst these most trying of times that our Master General, Glen Lewandowski, said—trusting Fr. Tom’s sense of pastoral duty and deepest faith—Glen recognized in light of Fr. Tom’s strength of person and humility in service, “To spend time with Tom Carkhuff is always extraordinary.”
Even so, when Fr. Tom was completing his three terms as prior provincial in 2011, he wrote of his desire and need for a personal sabbatical to recalibrate toward his next phase of life and service in the Crosiers. He specifically wrote: “The journey in the last 12 years has been filled with sharp and dark curves, severe declines, and steep climbs. A more level path is my desire for the journey ahead. Perhaps I can also use my experiences of the past to create a more level path for others journeying into the future…attending to grief and stress from past leadership roles and responsibilities.”
For this he needed some time away for rest and re-engagement toward striving to see the Lord’s face. More specifically, he hoped to engage afresh in creative and artistic projects—the actual and spiritual architecture that not only surrounds us but shapes and holds us in beauty on our way to the Lord. For Fr. Tom, the projects of book binding with Br. Edgard, and decorating the filial priory for Christmas, and enjoying the leisure of gardening would come to refresh his spirit and expand his faith.
But now even these last labors of love have come to their end.
My sisters and brothers, our celebration of this funeral rite assures us today that Fr. Tom’s “good deeds go with him,” even as our faith holds fast knowing that Fr. Tom’s contributions to the world and to our Order and to our house and to our person remain—for faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. This has been the work of Christ in Tom and Tom in Christ.
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, says the Lord, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34).
Good-bye, my friend, our brother—until we meet again.