As we prepare to ring in the new year, we may find ourselves thinking about those loved ones who passed away in 2013. I am thinking about a good friend of mine who died on November 17. He was Fr. Demetrius Dumm, a Benedictine monk from St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.
First a little background. Fr. Demetrius was born on October 1, 1923 on a farm near Carrolltown, PA. He grew up with eight siblings and attended a one-room schoolhouse where he completed eight grades in six years. He went to high school and college at St. Vincent’s and entered the Benedictines in 1940 in his sophomore year of college. He made his solemn vows in 1946 and was ordained a priest in 1947. For many years he studied theology and scripture—even in Rome and Jerusalem.
I first met Fr. Demetrius when I began my studies in spirituality at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in the early 80’s. He was my scripture professor. I was fairly young back then (35) and he was 56. (Years later I realized I was baptized on his 21st birthday!) From the very first class, I was intrigued by this man. I noticed first of all that he had a nice build–especially for a 56-year-old man. His hard work in his garden no doubt contributed to his good physique. He also had beautiful blue eyes. And a great sense of humor. But it was his teaching that ultimately won me over.
Demetrius was a master teacher. Ask anyone who was privileged to have him for class or hear him speak. One of his former students, Brother Benedict Janecko, OSB, said, “None of us ever thought of missing his class.” I resonate with that. I used to sit in his class (and later read his books) and try to figure out why he was so good. One reason was because he read scripture within the context of real life, and he read real life within the context of scripture. He also had a marvelous way of using stories and images to convey profound Biblical truths. Here’s one of my favorites from his book Flowers in the Desert:
The difficulty of believing we are truly loved was brought home to me when I was on vacation once and my little nephew, Pat, asked me what I was doing as I read my breviary. I told him I was thanking God for sunshine and the rain and eagles and raccoons (knowing these were his favorite animals). Then I added, “…and for Pat.” There was a long period of silence, and finally he said, “Pat who?” Saint Paul is saying that it is the task of the Spirit to convince us interiorly of our loveability, which was just another way of saying that God is good and truly cares.
Here are a few more wise words from Demetrius:
Growing always involves an element of pain, for one cannot go forward without leaving something good behind. And one cannot truly love without the pain of sacrifice. Those who have an unhealthy fear of pain have difficulty making permanent commitments. They want to have the future without giving up any part of the past. (Cherish Christ above All)
Life is about 75% ambiguous–so we’d better get used to living with ambiguity! (My class notes)
Sometimes we can mistake good health for virtue. (My class notes)
If we live close to Christ, death itself becomes simply the last and best opportunity to trust God. (Cherish Christ above All)
The threat of Goodbye has power to frighten and paralyze us because it appears that, no matter how often we say Hello, it is Goodbye that conquers in the end; it appears that death has the last word. But that is only an appearance. The secret of Jesus and the secret of faith is the sure conviction that death in turn is conquered by life in the victory of the Resurrection. That means that Hello has the last word; it is a resounding Hello that echoes for all eternity! (Flowers in the Desert)
After I graduated from Duquesne I kept in touch with Demetrius. When I became novice director, I used to pack the novices into a van and haul them to Latrobe where Fr. Demetrius would give them a talk or two. He was well worth the three hour drive. Once I invited him to give a few talks to the nuns I lived with in Middleburg, Virginia. On Sunday afternoon the two of us went to a sheep dog herding competition at a nearby farm. We both were utterly mesmerized by those dogs and their handlers. I visited Demetrius a few weeks before he died. By this time he was suffering from dementia and was almost non-communicative. But when I described to him that afternoon of watching those sheep dogs herding those sheep, he responded enthusiastically with a complete sentence: “I really liked those sheep dogs!”
Demetrius and I had many things in common. We were both raised on farms. We were members of religious congregations. We were teachers. We were novice directors. We were writers. Through the years we encouraged each other in all we were doing. He once told me he liked my poetry–especially my poem “Two Sparrows” in my book Just Because. Little wonder, because the poem has a definite “Demetrian theme”: though the future can be filled with dangers and hardships, we go forward joyfully, knowing that our loving God will be with us no matter what the future may bring.
I will miss Demetrius’ presence in my life. But I know his dedication, his insights, his love for scripture, his openness to life, and his humor continue to influence and inspire me. I dedicated my second poetry book, The Blue Heron, to him. The dedication says simply: to Demetrius Dumm, OSB, my teacher, mentor, friend.
Is there anything about this reflection resonates with you?
Prayers and best wishes for a Happy New Year to each one of you!