Remembering an old friend

Friendship, love, and saying farewell goodbye an old friend.
(Dom Bernard Johnson RIP)

by Brother Mark Dohle, OCSO

When you meet someone, you never know the effect each will have on the others life. Perhaps we can never understand our influence on others, for it is subjective and often unspoken. Not sure it is a common trait for people to be transparent about what their friends and family mean to them or the deep positive influence they have had on their lives. So it was with me when it comes to my relationship with Fr. Bernard Johnson. We worked closely together for a full decade, but it was not until the last couple years of his life that I really felt comfortable letting him know how important he was in my life, and the profound influence he had on me.

Long before I knew Fr. Bernard Johnson personally, he would come by the Monastery from time to time on a trip. We never spoke and I did not feel drawn to him in any way. He seemed like a nice, gentle, very intelligent man. I knew that he was a Canon Lawyer and once a member of our community. I also knew that for a short time he was the Abbot of our Monastery in Vina California. The Monastery he returned to after he retired as Abbot of our community in 2000. He traveled a great deal and seemed to have the gift for it. He had a position in the Cistercian (Trappist) order which had him traveling a great deal over the world visiting other Monasteries.

In 1990 he was elected abbot of our community. Since I did not know him well, my opinion was shallow and not well informed. So I was not a supporter of him for becoming our abbot. However, after a few weeks, I came to understand that I was happily, wonderfully, totally wrong in my evaluation of this very unique human being.

I remember my first visit with him as abbot, and the first thing I said to him was that I did not vote for him, but I was wrong not to and very happy that he was with us. We talked for a bit and I left. I thought that was that and I would just be one of the monks in a rather large Monastery. At that time we were 65 monks and I was just one of the many. I had a position as Infirmarian and still in charge of the bakery, but considered myself someone who would never have an important part in the running of the community. Nor did I desire it.

When I say we never know the ‘affect’ someone will have on our lives, I can honestly say that I had no idea that Fr. Bernard would become a ‘mentor’ to me; my one and only mentor in my life. I never sought one out, nor thought I needed one. Yet this man was a truly great gift for me in my life, as well as, I am sure, in the lives of many. For he treated me the way he seemed to treat everyone. With respect and a deep insight into their gifts and what they had to offer. Dom Armand, the abbot before him, told me just before he left, that Fr. Bernard was noted for being able to see and use the gifts that he intuited in others.

One day Dom Bernard (I will use that title from now on), called me into his office to speak to me. As we began our conversation he told me right off that he wanted me to take on a leadership position in the community. The 3rd superior or the Sub-Prior; the second superior is called the Prior. To say I was surprised is an understatement. He could see my surprise but he told me why he wanted me to take that position and wanted me to think about it. I was a little shaken by this announcement but told him I would think about it. Later, I of course, accepted the challenge.

Well I did accept it and it led me down a path that has made me aware of gifts that were for me hidden deep, dormant, and asleep. I later became the Prior and had to overcome a deep aversion and fear of public speaking. When Dom Bernard was away, I was the one to give Chapter Talks on Sundays. It was humorous what I had to go through to overcome that phobia, (well for those watching, but not for me). Bernard encouraged me to overcome my fear of speaking in public, supported me and respected me…and I found it a healing experience. Fr. James being the other member of the community who also helped me to take up writing….something I had no idea I could do.

I am not making this about me but trying to show how I believe that Dom Bernard Johnson was what they called a ‘rain-maker’ someone who brought out new life in those with whom he met and with whom he dealt. I used to make trips with him up to our ‘mother-house’ and on the way when we stopped off for a meal, he always treated everyone the same way he treated me. If you were a waitress in a waffle house, or a Bishop, all got treated with the same respect and love. I learned a lot just by watching him.

I talked to him a few days before he died and was able to tell him what he did for me, how much I loved and appreciated him. Saying goodbye to a good friend is never easy, but he lived a long, productive life and he is leaving behind many people who will miss him and who will over the years remember him with deep love and appreciation.

Dom Bernard died on the 21st of February 2017. May the Lord bless him and fill him with his love and healing as he journeys Home.