Br Michael Sullivan
I don’t know if I have been in a morbid mood lately, but I have been writing in my newspaper column of burial ceremonies, Yarra Valley cemeteries and the style of headstone I want when I die. And it happens that, just a couple of months ago, a Yarra Valley identity died and was buried in a private cemetery situated on a rise looking down over an expanse of Yarra River flood plain which is often water-logged and boggy in winter. At the outset let it be stated emphatically that there was nothing remotely morbid about either the man or the manner of his burial. In the great tradition of Western monasticism the final ceremony was marked by both dignity and a sense of joy as many friends gathered to pay their last respects.
The man was Malachy Mara, a 75 year old Cistercian monk from Tarrawarra Abbey, that collection of buildings and big spread of farmland off the Yarra Glen-Healesville Road, the paddocks dotted with dairy cows and the distinctive white Charolais beef herd – a place with a long and colourful history, frequently tabulated in newspaper articles, booklets and television features, and now a place of pilgrimage in its own way for a never-ending trickle of visitors and guests. Fr Malachy was one of the founding monks who came to Tarrawarra from Roscrea Abbey in Ireland, back in November 1954, to introduce Cistercian monastic life to Australia or, perhaps more correctly, to re-introduce it because there had been a few stray Cistercians in the Australian story long before that.
It was my privilege to get to know and number among my friends some of those Tarrawarra Abbey pioneers and, in due course, I made regular pilgrimages of a sort to the Abbey, usually for a few hours, but once for a still vividly remembered three days or more. On such occasions, I had the opportunity of meeting Fr Malachy Mara more personally and directly than other original members of the community. He became, as one obituary has so aptly pointed out, ‘the public face of the community’ because of the various offices he held over the years and the resultant contact with the big wide world outside and beyond the Abbey entrance gates. Not that I remember any actual gates locking the public out and, if they were there once, they disappeared years ago.
His first appointment was as bursar, the very important job of handling the purse strings and paying the bills and keeping a wary eye on costs and business transactions because monks, like anyone else, have to be practical and keep their feet on the ground. Fifteen hundred years ago St Benedict, in his famous Rule governing the lives of monks, laid down very precisely how a monastery should be organised, both materially and spiritually. Incidentally, in the intervening one thousand five hundred years, libraries have been filled with countless commentaries, interpretations, elaborations and applications to new situations, making St Benedict’s Rule one of the most famous documents of Western civilization. Fr Malachy was one of the twentieth century monks who found themselves faced with the task of bringing this monastic life to a land very far and very different from his native Ireland. And that first appointment as bursar brought Fr Malachy into regular contact with a wide circle of Yarra Valley neighbours and business people in Yarra Glen and Healesville. Many of them were there at his funeral.
His next appointment, a position he held for a number of years, was to be in charge of the young professed monks of the Abbey and then, in 1961, he was appointed guestmaster, a position he was to hold for almost the remainder of his life, performing a function for which, I have no doubt, thousands will remember him with deep affection. Benedictine hospitality has been proverbial through the long and often disrupted history of monasticism and Fr Malachy filled his role as guestmaster with his own unique personal style and distinctive flair.
It is in that capacity that I like to remember him, a man of wit and wisdom, a sharpness about his sallies that never wounded or repelled, a wide-awake man who knew the realities of the world as well as any man, a compassion about him that reached out to embrace countless friends without being insipid or cloying; above all, he was a man who never paraded his own personal holiness which I am sure was the cornerstone of his whole existence.
He was a cheerful man who left strong impressions as he energetically dispensed the traditional monastic welcome guaranteed to break down the barriers of uncertainty surrounding new visitors, extending open arms to men and women of other cultures and religious traditions, greeting old friends with enthusiasm and making new ones with consummate ease. He was a man of many loves if one can accept the word in its original, undebased meaning – a love of God first an foremost, because obviously without it he wouldn’t have been where he was; a love of his Cistercian Order to which he had belonged for most of his life; a love of humanity, with all its strange complexity of good and evil, strengths and weaknesses; and finally, I strongly suspect, an acquired love for the Yarra Valley and its inhabitants. Perhaps, for all I know, the views all around the monastery may have reminded him of lovely Irish rural scenes associated with his youth.
But, perhaps in a curious idiosyncratic fashion, I am tempted to remember him at a different level of perception: the man who loved cricket and who could talk passionately about Test victories and defeats; the man who lit and stoked marvellous wood fires in the commodious guestroom with its large windows providing views of green valley and distant blue mountains; the man who poured innumerable cups of tea and handed out mountains of biscuits over the years. A wry thought intrudes: I wonder just how many cups of tea and plates of biscuits mounted up over twenty years of dispensing hospitality to the steady stream of visitors who might be spiritually hungry or merely curious? I wonder if the one-time bursar was ever tempted to tabulate the quantities or count the cost? I think not. He had more important things on his mind than that type of book-keeping, no matter how important it might be in the affairs of people.
For me, as well as for numerous others, there is a small plot of hallowed ground up there on the hill behind the avenue of tall sugar gums leading up to the monastery. It is marked by five or six simple wooden crosses, with the big new dam nearby and the dairy cows grazing peacefully and the magpies warbling their exultant paeans of praise for the beauty of life. It is a little bit of Australian soil enriched immeasurably by the presence and demise of quiet, good-humoured men.
(Tribute by Tom Luscombe, Tarrawarra Newsletter, August 1986)