Witnessing the piety of Bishop Ansgar Nelson

by DRM

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On late days one summer, I would walk through the rich heat to the small chapel in the sacristy in the rear of the church, off the corridor that joined the monastery and the church together.

Bishop Ansgar would say Mass each afternoon: sepulchral, solemn, devout.

What I can remember about those Masses was how private they were, even with a few people standing there behind him. The altar faced so that his back was to us, a long, angular, stooped back. When he opened his arms in evocation, the span was wide, his arms thin but solid, weighted by his aged hands.

There he stood saying Mass with dignity and intensity in his thickly accented English.

He was not well. His body would betray him briefly during the service and he would falter or stagger. That was part of the solemnity: the awareness that he was weak, that he could at any moment lose his strength, even die. He appeared very, very old to me.

I didn’t know what made him so holy in other’s eyes. I knew he had been a bishop, and that he had retired to the Abbey for his final years.  I assumed he was a Benedictine.

He stood out among the monks, perhaps for his age, his exotic provenance and the dramatic subtext of his daily devotion. My mother developed a relationship with him, as she did with each of the seeming spiritual leaders of the monastery. Maybe it was the combination of her cerebral approach to the core texts of faith, her hunger for knowledge and her charismatic creativity that attracted them.

Beyond my surface observations, I didn’t know much else about the Bishop. I felt a certain intimacy because of my mother’s closeness to him, but that presumption of intimacy forestalled any true curiosity about him.

It’s odd. He must have been a priest in Europe during World War II and exposed, on the periphery or at the center, to the atrocities of the war. When he prayed for the redemption of lost souls, for deliverance from evil, he must have had a deep understanding, a witnessing, of suffering and malignancy that took life in the faces he had seen in the past.

If I tried, I couldn’t retrieve his personal history from memory. I squandered an opportunity to learn something about life from a man who had experienced much more than I had seen then, than I would ever see, who had lived through a period when humanity had been stripped away and faith had nowhere to hide.  He was clearly a generous man who would have been open to sharing.

When I looked for him on the web, I discovered that he had come to the U.S. in the 1920s and professed at Portsmouth Priory. He was a priest for 53 years and a bishop for 43: his gift for spiritual leadership was recognized early and cherished for a very long time. He died in Portsmouth in 1990, 83 years old.

What stopped me from going and learning that story when he was alive? Here I am, some 30 years later, trying to imagine the story of a man who I could have asked, learned something from.

My imagination. My uncertainty. Youthful ego and pride.

I coveted the exception of experience, the lure of wisdom. I was fitted with discontent at my lot. I was in love with my imagination, my flurries of insight, and would stop and look at them with pride, neglecting to probe further, more truthfully, to learn.

My loss. The portfolio of things that kept me from going places I might have been able to go.

And then the moment passed.