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Father Thomas F. Martin, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, Dies at 66

Thomas F. Martin, O.S.A.
Thomas F. Martin, O.S.A.


The College mourns Thomas F. Martin, O.S.A., a professor of theology and religious studies, and director of the Augustinian Institute, who died on Friday, Feb. 20, after a short battle with cancer. Father Martin died surrounded by many: family, friars, and health care staff in the Health Care Center of Saint Thomas Monastery on campus.

A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated for Fr. Martin on Monday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m. Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., president of the University, presided, and Rev. Martin Laird, O.S.A., Fr. Martin's colleague in the department of theology and religious studies, delivered the homily.

December 28, 1943 to February 20, 2009

THOMAS FRANK MARTIN, O.S.A., was born on December 28, 1943, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Charles V. and Blanche A. (Nayder) Martin. He had two brothers and four sisters. He was baptized on February 6, 1944, at Saint Symphorosa Catholic Church, Chicago, IL. He attended Saint Symphorosa Parish School, 1949-1957, and Saint Rita Catholic High School, Chicago, IL, (1957-1961). He was received into the Order as a novice on September 3, 1961, and after a year at Saint Monica Novitiate, Oconomowoc, WI, he professed first vows in the Province of Our Mother of Good Counsel on September 4, 1962. He then attended Tolentine College, Olympia Fields, IL, (1962-1966), and received a BA in Philosophy. During summers he studied first at Villanova University and then at Loyola University, Chicago, IL, Spanish and Education courses for teacher certification. He professed solemn vows on September 4, 1965. For his theological studies, he pursued the first two years at Tolentine College, (1966-1968), and the last two years at the Catholic Theological Union and DePaul University, Chicago, IL, (1968-1970), receiving an MA in Theology from DePaul University. He was ordained on December 20, 1969, in the Chapel of Tolentine College, by Bishop Alfred Abramowicz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Fr. Tom was first assigned to Mendel Catholic High School, Chicago, IL, (1969-1978), where he taught Religion and served as the school’s chaplain. From 1978 to 1981 he served as the formation director at Saint John Stone Friary, Chicago, IL, working with young men in the pre-novitiate and collegiate program. From 1981 to 1982, he served in the same capacity, when that program moved to Villanova University, Villanova, PA. In 1982 he was assigned for a brief period to Cascia Hall, Tulsa, OK, but was elected Province Secretary and was assigned to the Provincial Offices at Olympia Fields, IL, (1982-1984). In 1984 he was called to Rome by the Prior General, Martin Nolan, OSA, to serve the Order as Sub-Secretary in the Augustinian Curia, and editor of the publication, OSA Internationalia, (1984-1990). In 1990 he returned to Saint John Stone Friary, Chicago, IL, to act as formation director, (1990-1995) and, at the same time, he pursued doctoral studies at the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary--Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, obtaining a PhD in Early Christianity Studies from Northwestern University, (1995). In 1995 he came back to Villanova University to teach in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, (1995-2009), achieving the rank of Professor, as well as being the founding Director of the university’s Augustinian Institute, (2001-2009). During this time he resided first at Saint Augustine Friary, (1995-2000), at Fray Luis de Leon Friary, (2000-2006), Villanova, PA, and then at the Saint Thomas of Villanova Parish Friary, Rosemont, PA, (2006-2009).

Fr. Tom wrote books, articles, lectures and papers on Early Christianity and the Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine. His book, Our Restless Heart: The Augustinian Tradition, perhaps his most widely read publication, contains the following summary: “Thomas Martin’s concise survey of this vast, complicated and controversial terrain begins with Augustine and his own restless heart and then traces the legacy of this spiritual vision as it is taken up by other restless seekers through the centuries. Our Restless Heart is a concise but masterly introduction to the Augustinian tradition which will stimulate beginner and specialist alike.” Tom often spoke about the great pleasure he had in teaching, reading, learning and running, (he ran in the Chicago Marathon once in 1980). He began to teach in the Spring semester of 2009, but ill health and advancing cancer, forced him to retire from the classroom.

Fr. Tom passed over to the Lord early on Friday evening, February 20, 2009, at the Health Care Center of Saint Thomas Monastery, where he was under Hospice Care.

Monday, February 23, 2009: Villanova University, Villanova, PA
Saint Thomas of Villanova Church
Visitation: 4:00pm to 8:00pm
Funeral Liturgy: 8:00pm

Friday, February 27, 2009: Saint Rita of Cascia High School Chapel,
Chicago, IL
Visitation: 3:00pm to 7:00pm
Funeral Liturgy: 7:00pm
Burial: Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 10:00am at Holy Sepulchre
Cemetery, Alsip, IL

Funeral Homily for Thomas F. Martin, O.S.A.

February 23, 2009
St. Thomas of Villanova Church
Villanova University

Job 19:1, 23-27a
2 Cor 12: 7-10
Mt 5: 1-12a.

“You saved my life O Lord. I shall not die.” This line from King Hezikiah’s hymn of thanksgiving, recorded in Isaiah 38, meant nothing in particular to Tom Martin before Friday, July 18th, 2008. He had just received the results of his yearly check up: stage four colon cancer, metastacized to the lymph nodes and liver. This line from the thanksgiving hymn of Hezikaiah, was the response to the reading at Mass that day. Tom wrote this line down on a piece of paper and kept it in his pocket and at his bedside for the next seven months as it served as his anchor of hope and trust.

Those of us who were with Tom or in contact with him in late summer, know this was really the roughest time for him, when he did most of his thrashing in the inscrutable tangles of Providence. But by the time of the surgery, he had attained a peace with this turn of events, peace that never left him, and indeed grew and grew luminously the more his body weakened.

In this gospel we have just heard, Jesus teaches. He teaches how to be happy, how to live a life that is both blessed and a blessing for others. This is precisely what Tom did throughout his life but especially in these last seven months. Tom thought he had taken medical leave from teaching. But in fact he did not stop teaching. He simply taught a class had never taught before.

As Fr. Brian Lowery, prior of the Augustinian community in San Gimignano in Tuscany, put it: “Tom is teaching us all how to die.” Our colleague and friend Paul Danove said last week, on hearing of Tom’s peace in the midst of all this: “The greatest gift we can give someone is how we die.” When I mentioned these things to Tom, he said, “This is not a class I want to teach.”

But his teaching started right during his recovery from the surgery. As people visited him in the hospital in order to console him, they found themselves deeply moved and consoled. I’m sure a number of you here could speak to this. His friend and colleague Tony Godzieba put it this way: “I believe that all the time with his illness was a grace -- a rare, special grace of resting in the bosom of God that I have never witnessed before and find extremely difficult to articulate. When he was at Bryn Mawr Hospital at the beginning, I went to see him, and one of the things we talked about was praying the office and his desire to be one with his Augustinian brothers, as far as he was able at that time, by praying with them while they were praying. The whole conversation, in fact, was prayer, even while we joked about trivia. His upbeat attitude, his peaceful acceptance of his condition. Words fail me here, because what I experienced was Tom somehow revealing an aspect of the depths of our rootedness in God, life lived as an ever-present divine gift, the intensity of the presence of grace that I can only deem sacramental.” Tony went to console Tom but instead received from Tom something that Tom wasn’t especially trying to teach: God’s depths saturating even the surface trivia of life.

Tom had a simplicity, humor, humility and depth that were all very much of a piece. And an ability to relate to all sorts of people. He could move among confreres, conference goers, or colleagues, who among themselves might not be able to agree on the color of an orange, but who would all want to have a visit with Tom and catch up on things. Where did this simplicity, humor and depth come from? Well it’s actually bound up with the way in which he thrived in the Order of St. Augustine.

Once Tom and I were talking, and I asked him what helped him put down roots in the Order. Without having to stop to think, he said “It’s all how Augustine talks about divine presence.” And he quoted various texts of Augustine (as only Tom could do—at any given meal!): “You were within me Lord, but I was outside myself.” “You are closer to me than I am to myself.” He said, “I was shocked by my response. It was as though I said to God, ‘How dare you.’ It was St. Paul who opened me up so that I can now say to God’s interior presence, “how gracious of you.” And then Tom mentioned 2 Cor 12, which is why we decided on this for the second reading: Paul speaks of some sort of interior struggle and how he begged the Lord to rid him of this, but the Lord said, “ ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ … Now I am content with weakness, … for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Do you see what Tom had worked his way to? He is speaking of one the fundamental thresholds of the spiritual life. Without crossing it our own practice of religion will keep us riveted to merely the surface of life, to our SUV career paths, to our botoxed CVs, to a highly caffeinated cultural distraction. Distraction from precisely what? That this “thorn in the flesh”, this wound, this in ourselves that we would rather not see, is what in fact is embraced in the redemptive Incarnation of God in Christ. And so Tom, in a season of years, ceased resenting in himself what God graciously embraces. In doing this he became one of a cloud of witnesses, part of living tradition of saints and sages who see in their flaws, not their own face, but Christ’s.

Tom would be very uncomfortable with any talk of spiritual breakthroughs or accomplishments. He was more routinely aware of his own weaknesses and shortcomings--all the crucially right kinds of struggles; more aware of wrestling with himself and resting in God, then wrestling with himself and resting in God. He was much more at home with Walker Percy’s observation in The Thanatos Syndrome, “Life is fits and starts, but mainly fits.” But in the midst of this was an unshakeable trust in God’s loving, indwelling presence no matter what. This is what changed Tom’s reaction to God’s intimate presence from “How dare you” to “How gracious of you.” And when we learn to live with this simplest of truths, how the God we seek is graciously woven into the fabric of our flaws, we live more peaceably with other people’s flaws, and we walk more gently in this jostling world.

Tom was completely unaware of something he began to teach in the final weeks of his life: the luminous peace in his face that grew as his body weakened. A number of us noticed this over the last couple of weeks. Another friend and colleague, Tim Horner, tried to see Tom the morning of the day he died. Tom had had a rough night, mercifully the only one in this last phase. One of the nurses in the monastery infirmary had been posted at the door as chief bouncer. But Tim said, “I ducked under the arm of the nurse to get a better view of him, and he smiled as only Tom could and waived. His body looked as close to death as I have seen in my short life, but his eyes were so incredibly bright, even sparkling. But in that moment, I think I saw what we all know of Tom. He was illuminated from within. No matter what happened to Tom’s body, his spirit remained intact, perhaps even made brighter by the immanence of his death. I will never forget the look of eternal life that shown through his failing body.”

A couple of weeks earlier I had begun to notice what Tim Horner saw last Friday morning. Tom and I were having dinner over at Burns Hall on February 2nd. Tom was very up beat, very much himself as always. But the physical deterioration had really begun to show in his face, frame and voice. Yet at the same time there was this luminous quality about him, as though he were starting to move beyond this life.

Just over a week later, the doctors told him that he was not a candidate for the experimental chemo and that he had days or weeks. I went over to have dinner with the community in Rosemont, and afterwards Tom and I were talking. I asked him, “What is it like to die?” He said, “It’s exactly same as living. You let go of what’s going, and you stay with what each moment brings. And you just trust in God.” And then he spoke of the peace he felt with the whole situation. God was very present to him, and he spoke of the tremendous gratitude he felt to his community in Rosemont, Bill Donnelly and Rich O’Leary, “who have been wonderful through all this.” How Don Reilly had been as much a Provincial to him as his own Provincial, his gratitude for his spiritual director Fr Ted Antry at Daylesford Abbey. The only wrinkle that would not stay ironed down was worry about his family and how they would take it. But there was no thought about himself. Not the remotest concern or worry. All trust. All gratitude. So this is an important lesson. Apparently dying is a lot like being alive: letting go, living what the moment brings, trusting in God. Self-forgetful gratitude.

The Thursday morning before he died I was in his room, now in the monastery infirmary. I was taken aback by the bright peace in his face, in his countenance. I said, “Tom, you look beautiful.” He said, “Why thank you.” Don’t get me wrong. He was a jaundiced, bloated wreck. But the luminous peace was notably stronger than when I’d seen him 48 hours previous. We talked about practical things that would need seeing to, and then I asked, “Tom what is your prayer like now?” He said, “Well I can’t really concentrate to say many prayers,” and gestured to his breviary. He was searching for words, and said, “I am and God is. It’s awareness of His presence. God just gives.”

This luminous peace and state of prayer in the face of death is not at all unknown. A lot of hospice workers see this, and many Early Christian writers speak of this, calling it the light of our baptism or the light of eternity manifesting itself. But it is one thing to snore through writings of the Church Fathers on this topic. It is quite another to see it with your own eyes under the arm of the nurse blocking the door, to see this gentle, luminous peace emanating from a wasting, bloating frame, a peace that seems untouched by it all, that seems to be growing more alive. Surely what some of us glimpsed is what Hesikiah meant when he spoke of that life that is saved, that will not die, which Tom kept in his pocket.

The hospice doctor had told Tom that he would gradually slip into a coma and quietly die. Tom said, “Oh good, it’ll be like Woody Allen—‘I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ ” This is just what happened the afternoon and evening of last Friday. As Tom lay unconscious, his sister Diane read him a passage from Augustine’s Confessions. It was the reading Augustine Day by Day a couple of days before. “I entered my inmost self with you, Lord, as my guide…. I entered in and saw with the eye of my soul, the unchangeable Light…. Those who know the truth know this Light, and those who know it know eternity; it is love that knows it” (Confessions 7,10). Death was bringing Tom into this inmost self indwelled by God’s own Light, from which he could reach out to us.
So what do we learn from what Tom has been teaching for a semester and a half? Through the death and resurrection of Christ, there a simplifying unity of living and dying. The spiritual skills are the same. If you want to live in peace with God and others, make prayer your anchor. Live in the knowledge that simple human kindness trumps fear, anxiety, and competitiveness.

Tom’s teaching us how to live in such a way that we die well was his Sermon on the Mount of his cancer, something he would rather not have taught just now. Teacher that he was, however, he has set the essay topic for the exam. And leave it to the Augustinians to find out ahead of time what the exam question is. Just last night, Tom’s prior, Fr. Bill Donnelly, found out where Tom had hidden it.

Tom wore a ring. The ring was removed before his body was given to the undertakers. Fr. Donnelly noticed what must surely be the essay topic: Written on inside of this ring, it reads: “Love one another as I have loved you.” John’s Gospel says it as simply as it can be put. Now who of us will pass?

Tom’s body in death was simply beautiful. Joyful, restful, repose, surrounded by his family and his Augustinian brothers. A repose that his spiritual father St. Augustine spoke of often but perhaps no place more movingly than in the final lines of the City of God:Ibi vacabimus et videbimus, videbimus et amabimus, amabimus et laudabimus.” “There, [in the eternal sabbath of heaven] we shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be in that end that is without end! For what is our end but to reach that kingdom which has no end” (City of God, XXII, 30).

Tom Martin, our brother, confrere, colleague, a Nebridius, an Alypius, a mentor, a friend, and in all matters concerning how to live in such a way that we die in peace, peace that both gives and receives, peace that becomes more alive as we enter death, he is our teacher and our fellow pilgrim. This is our brother, Tom Martin.

By Rev. Martin S. Laird, O.S.A.
February 23, 2009

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