Father Mark Thamert, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville MN, wrote this letter about a month before he died on May 6, 2017, at the age of 66. He agreed to share this letter with us in the hope that his words might be helpful to others who are facing their own death or that of a loved one.
We are grateful to Father Mark Thamert for having the courage and generosity to share his journey and to Father William Skudlarek for communicating Father Mark's words.
Dear family, fellow monks, and friends.
News from my surgeons/oncologist
In chapter 4 of Saint Benedict’s Rule for monasteries, our patron followed the spirit of other ancient monastics and did not try to suppress thoughts of death and last things. Benedict says simply, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.” Early monks regarded such meditation on death as a way to live daily life more fully and in a detached way. Many stories tell of an open and uncomplicated attitude when it came to death. Here is a story from the desert fathers before the time of Benedict: “News spread that an elder father lay dying in the desert of Skete. The brothers came, stood around his deathbed, clothed him and began to cry. But he opened his eyes and laughed. And he laughed again, and then again. The surprised brothers asked him, ‘Tell us, Abba, why do you laugh while we cry?’ He spoke, ‘I laughed at first because you fear death. Then I laughed because you are not ready. A third time I laughed because I am going from hard work to enter my rest – and you are crying about that!’ He then closed his eyes and died.” Saint Benedict probably knew this story and others like it. While acknowledging natural fear and anxiety in the face of death, these ancient stories also make room for a surprisingly joyous and positive experience in the process death and dying.
In April two and a half years ago I was having some discomfort eating breakfast a few days in a row. A week later I met my new oncologist who broke the news to me that I had cancer, explaining that about 40% of folks with stage two stomach cancer would still be alive five years after such diagnosis.
In the summer 2014, after prescribing six weeks of chemo and radiation, the surgeons at Mayo removed my stomach and lymph nodes in the area surrounding the stomach. A year and a half later Saint Cloud surgeons removed a tumor from the soft tissue near my umbilicus; in April 2015 a tumor was removed from my large intestine; this October the surgeons in Saint Cloud removed half my small intestine, saying, “That’s about all the surgery we can do. With weekly chemo treatments for six months you will probably have about a year or so left in this life.” A January 16 CT scan reveals that various cancers have spread quickly to several areas in my body. It’s time to think in terms of weeks and days instead of months. It’s time to let go of chemo and its harshness. It’s time to say good-bye.
For the past two months I have been in the care of a wonderful team of palliative caregivers. In helping me envisage the final chapter of my life, the head physician of the team said, “Tell those close to you that you love them. Make amends with folks as appropriate. Plan meaningful events and projects each week that give you something to look forward to.” That has been life-giving advice. Another physician asked, “What are your goals?” I thought for a moment and then said, “I would like two things: I want to be comfortable. And I want to be graceful in these last weeks.” Members of the team said, “We can help you with that.” And they have.
In all of this, I am also grateful. I believe that Benedict and the monks who lived in the centuries before him knew that keeping death in mind daily would paradoxically help monks and all fellow humans live richer lives now. Looking at this process in a simple, head-on way can release the hidden anxieties and help us to surrender to the mystery that Christ has promised us. It is a time to feel deep gratitude for the life we have been given, for the friends and family we love and who extend their love so freely. I am especially grateful for the community of monks and colleagues who surround me, the wonderful teaching career and prayer life that have given my life so much meaning through the years. If I occasionally have tears like the younger monks in my opening story, it is because I do feel a profound sadness in letting go of a life that has so much meaning here and now. I am sad about saying good-bye to the monks of this community, to my last group of students, to family members and close friends. But this sadness comes with a belief that there is certainly more life, much more life to come.
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