Sunday, June 26, 2022

Thirteenth Sunday

Today's gospel begins the fifth section of the Gospel of Luke, the Journey Section, the climactic narrative of the ever-ascending journey of Jesus to the Father. Last Sunday, because of Corpus Christi's special gospel, the normally read gospel was not heard. That gospel, Luke 9:22-27, is important for the proper understanding of what the journey embarked upon in today's gospel is about. Last week we would normally have heard St. Peter call Jesus the Christ or the Messiah of God, and we would have heard Jesus correct any erroneous notions that Peter and ourselves might have about that. Jesus claimed for himself the title The Son of Man who must suffer greatly, be killed and raised on the third day. Furthermore, he said that anyone who wishes to follow him must deny himself, take up his cross daily and thus follow him. The opening verse of our gospel today which is Luke 9:51 forms with Luke 24: 51 what is called a literary inclusion—these are like literary bookends that aid in the understanding of the passages between them. Luke 9:51 reads, “When the days for Jesus's being taken up were fulfilled, he set his face (here translated as “resolutely determined”) to journey to Jerusalem. Luke 24:51 reads, “As he blessed them, he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.” These verses both refer to the mystery of Jesus's Ascension—his being taken up into heaven, but they surround a journey narrative that takes us up to the heights of the preaching and teaching of Jesus—think of the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son-- which inspire us to take up our own cross daily.

The journey of Jesus will take him up to the heights of Mt. Zion and the city of Jerusalem where all God's messengers have been rejected and slain. Thus, Jesus, like the Suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, has to “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. The journey will take us up Mt. Calvary, Golgotha, where Jesus is taken up upon a cross to suffer and die for us, but then in three days to be taken up, raised up, “He has been raised!” Finally, the journey reaches its fulfillment as the risen Jesus leaves Jerusalem for Bethany, and there, as he raises his hands over his beloved disciples in blessing, (there he) is taken up to heaven by the Father. We are all of us on a significant journey—one called LIFE, better called Life, Death, and Eternal Life.

We are being poignantly reminded of this lately each day in the refectory as we reflect on Francie Nolan's life as a parable about our own lives growing up—I doubt that any of us felt it was easy, and as we get older and life's experiences become more challenging, we, like Jesus, have “to set our face,” that is, resolutely determine to continue on the Way in our prayer and in the way we live. This important Christian word “Way” was lost in translation this morning as we heard, “As they were proceeding on their journey...” The Greek, if translated literally, says, “As they went in the way...” The word “way” was used in the early days of the Church to describe Christianity itself which was seen as a following of Jesus who is the only “Way” to salvation. Today in the global Church renewal process called Synodality, the concept of the People of God being together on the Way has been emphasized. The word Syn-odality is derived from two Greek words meaning simply, “together on the Way.” The document from the bishops that introduced the process speaks highly of our particular way, the Rule of St. Benedict, with its remarkable chapter three about calling the whole community together for counsel - everyone from oldest to youngest. We know as followers of St. Benedict who followed Christ that our strength to persevere by the grace of God is enhanced immeasurably by our being and living here at the Abbey as a small but Spirit-filled manifestation of the Body of Christ, the whole People of God journeying together along the way—each one of us bearing his particular cross along the Way, but together with his brothers and sisters, not in isolation from one another.

Two other sections of Chapter Nine in Luke illuminate how we journey together with Jesus along the Way. One is Luke's description of the Transfiguration of Jesus in Luke 9:28-36, where we hear the voice of the Father telling us, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” We find the strength to follow in the very listening with goodwill to the words of the Lord in the Scriptures, in the teachings of the Church, the words of our Church leaders and the Abbot, the anointed words of our brothers and sisters, and sometimes the words of our worst critics and even enemies. Listen to Him! So, we are nourished and strengthened along the Way by our brothers and sisters, by the Word that we hear and obey, and finally and perhaps most especially, the Eucharist, which is also present in Luke's immensely rich Chapter Nine in the prefiguration of the Eucharist in the miraculous feeding of the five thousand that Fr. Dominic spoke about so beautifully last Sunday, Corpus Christi. Every Mass, like this celebration right now, is a milestone on our own ever-ascending journey to the Father—a milestone where there is time for the leisure that is liturgy where we are refreshed and made ready for the rest of our journey by the gathering of the community in the love of God and by the celebration of God's Word and Eucharist, the bread of wayfarers going to God. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them, and I will raise them up on the last day.

There is one more heavenly grace that strengthens us on the Way to the Father that is emphasized by far more in Luke's Gospel than in the others. Whereas the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Mark 3 times, four times in John, 5 in Matthew, the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Luke 13 times explicitly and many more times if you count the references to the Spirit of God and The Spirit of the Lord which one would, of course, do. The introduction to Luke in the latest version of the New American Bible points out that “no other gospel writer is more concerned than Luke with the role of the Spirit in the life of Jesus and the Christian disciple.” The fact that in Luke the Holy Spirit is so intimately associated with the Virgin Mother Mary makes his gospel spirituality all the more attractive and life-giving. It is the Holy Spirit that gathers us to celebrate the Eucharist. It is the Holy Spirit that imparts life-giving power and meaning to the words we hear in the liturgy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Epiclesis of the Eucharistic Prayer is that prayer in which we “petition God to send the Holy Spirit so that the offerings at the Eucharist may become the Body and Blood of Christ and thus the faithful, by receiving them, may themselves become a living offering to God.” Fr. Thomas Stegman remarks in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans that the Holy Spirit is “the empowering presence of God.” St. Paul, in this morning's reading from Galatians, exhorted us to LIVE BY THE SPIRIT! The Spirit gives us the power to “set our face” to go to our own Jerusalem to die to ourselves through, with and in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus and so live for others and for God who, at the end of our journey on the Way, will take us up in glory to the Kingdom.

Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Today's homily by Father Luke.

Friday, June 24, 2022

His Sacred Heart

 

Words have lives, they evolve. Such is the word, passion. It comes from the Latin passio meaning to bear and endure. It is the origin of the word patient. Later in its life, passion came to mean suffering. Further on, the passion would describe erotic love and soon after any ardent emotion or enthusiasm. How fitting then that we use the word passion with all of its nuances and resonance to describe the suffering and death of Jesus our Lord. For all that Jesus endures because of his tender love for us is most truly his passion. “For the joy that lay before him, Jesus endured the cross despising its shame.” Patiently, passionately, most ardently Jesus gives himself away to us, for us. And when he feels things, he’s moved to his very guts. Jesus is thus the perfect enfleshment of this passion of God’s self-forgetful love for us. He has come to establish an intimacy with us that signals our access to everything he has received from his Father, even the glory that is his as Beloved Son.* Jesus’ passion is to draw us into God. Today we celebrate the wonder of this divine passion for us perfectly enfleshed in his broken Heart.

In the First Reading Ezekiel the prophet has given us God’s self-description as loving shepherd, this, in turn, becomes a template for Jesus’ own understanding of his vocation as Beloved Son of the Father. Jesus is the good shepherd who will relentlessly search, run after and rescue all who are lost, even just one lost sheep. We might say, “Why bother? Why put the other ninety-nine at risk?” But this is who God is. And Paul assures us that this passionate desire of God in Christ for us is expressed in a great gush of graced love lavished upon us through God’s own Spirit – “poured into our hearts.” When we go to prayer, when we wake and walk and work and eat and breathe our day, God is drawing us, ceaselessly, searching and coming after us.

This desperation of a God in love, whose burning desire for us is unquenchable and unending, is in evidence constantly in the gospels. Jesus’ heart is constantly magnetized by desperation. A sobbing widow following the bier of her dead son knows she’s now without resource, destined now for a life of leftovers and condescension. I want to see, cries Bartimaeus. My son is at home dying, my dearest young slave, my daughter is possessed. Do something, I beg you. I’ve been to every doctor, tried every cure. But now, if only I touch his tassel. They have no wine, it’s only the first day of the celebration, and everything will be lost. Lord, wake up we’re going to drown, don’t you care. Lord, the one you love has died. And so best of all, last of all this dead-end that was always looming ahead will be destroyed by his passion and death on the cross. Because Jesus could not bear to have us live in fear of this final terror. He tramples down death by death because he is all Life. If only we knew the gift of God. If only understood his passion for us. He has given himself away totally, lavishly, foolishly, unreasonably.*

He cannot make us love him, still, he boldly exposes his broken Heart for us, longing as any man would for a loving response. He is not embarrassed by the vulnerability and desperation he reveals, he puts his Heart right out there. Perhaps all the tenderness and divine vulnerability are too much, perhaps even tasteless or off-putting. It is after all, way beyond a certain manly coolness and detachment. But Jesus loves us to folly, and he is not about to be evasive or diplomatic about it. How could he be? He’s on fire with it. And his love for us is not some disembodied theological premise or a refined, pious sentiment but a deeply felt, very raw, and real emotion. Jesus feels things deeply in his gut.

Today’s solemnity is all about this Divine Exposure. All falsehood, pretense, and sin; all the pain and suffering he endured and we endure, all the love we long for but dare not express, there too in his wounded Heart we see all the sorrow and suffering in Ukraine and Uvalde and Buffalo - it’s all right there in that Heart - exposed for all to see, in its bleeding, gut-wrenching beauty, the vulnerability of God. He shows us who he is, who God is, and who we are meant to be. The invitation is to go and do likewise – to love until it hurts, though often we might like to think there is an easier way. In the wounded Heart of Jesus, we see our reality and our sublime destiny, as individuals, as Church, as monastic community.

If like Jesus we dare to open our wounded hands and hearts to one another, with nothing to hide - at ease with the awkwardness and embarrassment of loving, at home with our vulnerability the kingdom can happen. At best two desperations will meet. Jesus’ desperate passion to share God’s love and our desperate need for the healing, grace, and love that only Father, Son, and Spirit can bestow. We cry out in a confident appeal that is always the echo of God’s first desperate longing for us.

In the humility of his passion for us, Jesus has come to give himself away. As we gather together around this Table to consume Christ’s wounded body and drink the blood of God poured out for us, we find ourselves once again overpowered by the mystery of his love, by the unquestionable reality of the mystery of a God who is love,* a God who even now desperately desires to offer us his precious body and blood even his wounded heart.

The Sacred Heart by Odilon Redon. References: 1. Sandra Schneiders. 2 Robert Barron. 3. Adapted from Karl Rahner. Today's homily by one of the monks.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Birth of John the Baptist

Something utterly unprecedented in God’s graciousness was about to occur, something so exceptional in Israel’s history, that a forerunner would be essential, someone to prepare the hearts of the people for God’s radical inbreaking. John is that man. His call to repentance, to absolute honesty, justice, and care for the poor will prepare Israel for the immense reversal that will take place in the person of Christ Jesus. For Jesus will indeed be the Messiah, but not the one everyone expected.

And this morning we look back at the infancy and early childhood of John and notice with him the Lord calling him even “from his mother’s womb.” John will kick and stir in the long-barren womb of his mother Elizabeth at the nearness of Christ in Mary. And miraculously when his father names him John, the name given him by an angel, his mute father’s tongue will be loosed. And so today the local folks all wonder, "What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” We might also imagine what they said, as they saw him as a young man sneak off to the desert, and then preach and baptize with such urgency. “Not surprising at all; I always saw it in him,” they might say. “He was always different, not like the other kids; a kind of fire in him; a thoughtful kid; he liked to pray…” Maybe like things our friends and family said when we came to the monastery.

So it is that we celebrate today a kind of feast of sacred retrospection. Sacred retrospection. Tradition reflects back on the life of John the Baptizer and wonders at the holiness and uniqueness it sees even from his birth. We know this is a typical motif in Scripture and in accounts of many of the saints’ lives. And these stories were very often depicted in art. A favorite example is a relief of the infant St. Nicholas resting in his mother’s left arm. As she offers him her right breast to nurse him, Baby Nicholas raises both of his little hands, as if to say, “No thanks, Mom. I’m good.” Amazingly, it seems he has weaned himself; already quite a little ascetic and brimming with self-control even as a baby. The message is clear: Nicholas’ sanctity was obvious, even from any early age. Really? To the believing mind perhaps it’s not as ditsy as it sounds, but instead an unsophisticated expression of the truth which faith offers us.

Today on this Birthday feast of the Baptist, we celebrate a God who is constantly “acting on our behalf, out of love for us;” God drawing us to our truest identity. And since God preserves the universe in being, we believe that he acts in and with every creature in each and all its activities. This is not to say we are stuck in some plan, some occult predestination, but that God is always, always calling, beckoning us, drawing us to himself, longing to fill us with himself, drawing into the Trinity. We name this divine Providence.

And if today’s Solemnity strikes us as somewhat folkloric, this is not to diminish its truth. We are invited to look back and notice the finger of God - God acting in John’s life, and in our own. And so jubilantly we imagine John chanting to us with the Psalmist, “I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.” Each of us is invited to do the same, to reflect on our own lives with a kind of road-back-to-Jerusalem-from-Emmaus insight - “It was the Lord all the time, though I did not recognize him. It was you Lord, calling, using anything at all to bring me to you, to my truth, to the secret for which I was made.” It was, it is God’s finger in my life day in day out, all through the years.

This is what our candidates discover as they compose their autobiographies and tell us their stories in preparation for entrance, a kind of prayerful inventory that notices the earliest echoes of God’s call, what was always there, though they might not have named it that back then. 

In the end each of us is meant to say with Isaiah, “The Lord called me from my mother’s womb; he pronounced my very name…” Divine Providence had been at work all the time in our individual stories, in our personal histories, through all the blessings and reversals. These graces must be named and celebrated as God’s work in us, through us, for us.

God’s Providence is with us; God behind and before us, using anything at all, everything to draw us to himself. And so he invites us once again to this altar to our ultimate identity: Holy Communion, Holy Communion with him and with one another. And if our hearts leap for joy as did the infant John in Elizabeth’s womb, it is a good thing for the Lord Jesus is indeed very near.

Domenico GhirlandaioThe Birth  of the Baptist, fresco in  the Cappella Tornabuoni of  Santa Maria Novella, Florence.  Homily by one of the monks.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Fire Safety

Fire safety at the Abbey is a priority, and drills are held on a regular basis. Because of the immense size of our property, The Spencer Fire Department has kept a substation here at the monastery which houses equipment for their own use in town and for use here at the Abbey in the event of an emergency. F.D.S.J.A. Station 2 was established to assist the Spencer Fire Department. We are blessed to have the concern of our local fire department. 

Many of our monks have volunteered for training and manning the station through the years.  Brother Benedict has been Captain of our little station for some time, and a group of monks has recently been outfitted for turn-out gear. And they meet regularly for training. Pictured above with Engine 4 are Brothers Guerric, Kenneth, Benedict, Michael, and Andrew.

We pray that these services will never be needed, but it is a comfort to know we are prepared.


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Saint Aloysius

 

We are always inspired by the ardor and single-heartedness of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who died as a Jesuit scholastic at age 23 while caring for plague victims in Rome in 1591. Indeed, so confident was Aloysius in God's tender love for him, that one day as he was playing ball with the other young Jesuits, Saint Robert Bellarmine approached him and asked what he would do if he were told he was going to die the next day. "I would go on playing ball," said Aloysius. So may we always trust in the Lord's merciful love.

As Cistercians we are happy to recall that on his deathbed Aloysius asked his brother Jesuits to read to him from Saint Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs, a text that he always found consoling.

The Vocation of Saint Aloysius (Luigi) Gonzaga, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, Cento 1591–1666 Bologna), ca. 1650. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Corpus Christi

She saw the moon hanging in midair, in the sky. Although the moon was shining bright, there was a single black spot on it. This became a recurring vision that for years Juliana couldn’t figure out. One day the Lord told her that this vision of the moon was a symbol of the Church, so bright with all its feasts, but the black part of the moon meant that there was no feast to honor the Sacrament of the Altar in a special way. (At that time the celebration of this Mystery was only observed on Holy Thursday, but on that day it is mostly Christ’s sufferings and death that are thought about.) So the Lord told her that he desired another day be set apart to celebrate his real Presence in the Eucharist. In 1246, St. Juliana, an Augustinian nun, and prioress persuaded the bishop of Liège to initiate a special feast on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday to honor the Blessed Sacrament. Fifteen years later, in 1261, Pope Urban IV, formerly Archdeacon of Liège, ordered the whole Church to observe this Feast of Corpus Christi. He also asked his personal friend, St. Thomas Aquinas, to compose the hymns and antiphons for its celebration. (St. Juliana spent her last years, and died, in a Cistercian abbey.)

I find that the particular significance of today’s Feast is communicated well by the three fundamental actions we carry out in celebrating it: first of all, we gather around the altar of the Lord to be together in his presence; secondly, we process with the Blessed Sacrament from the church, through the cloisters, and back into the church; and thirdly, we kneel before the Lord in adoration. (Of course, this adoration already begins in the Mass and accompanies the entire procession but culminates in the final moment of Benediction, when we all prostrate ourselves before the One who stooped down to us and gave his life for us.) I’d like to offer a brief reflection on each of these three specific actions of today’s liturgy through the “prism” of today’s Gospel.

First of all Corpus Christi reminds us that being Christian means coming together to be in the Presence of the one Lord, and to become one with him and in him. We gather together in order to celebrate the Eucharist, and the culmination of our gathering is communion.

In the Gospel, which is Eucharistic through and through in language and imagery, Jesus spoke to the crowds about the kingdom of God, and he healed those who needed to be cured, but as the day was drawing to a close he gathered them more intimately by having them sit down in groups of about 50 in order to feed them: he “took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it” to over 5,000. We come together every day to the Eucharist with our fragile identities, often enough constructed over against each other. However, the Body and Blood of Christ is not just received by us but transforms our gathering so that we now corporately share in the Lord’s own identity. The climax of the Eucharist, which we call “Holy Communion,” is nothing less than our homecoming to each other and to God. How is this so?

Looking back to the Last Supper, we know what it means for Jesus to give his body to us in the form of bread. It is a gift totally given and completely received. “Take this, all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.” Of course, we know that eating food is not primarily a matter of ingesting nutrients, any more than speaking is just a question of making noises. In every culture, except increasingly in our own, eating and drinking is about sharing life and being at home with one another.

Here is a simple but compelling illustration of this. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noticed that in simple restaurants in the south of France where the workers ate everyone sat at a common table. A bottle of wine was placed before each person, and each began by pouring wine into the glass of his neighbor. Claude Lévi-Strauss observed: “No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society (community) has appeared where there was none before.” 

Infinitely more so, the Body and Blood of Christ is where we are at home with each other in Christ. It brings about the greatest embodiment of our “gathering” together: namely, communion with and in Christ. There is no bond of human communion comparable to that effected by the Eucharistic Body of Christ. It is called “the Sacrament of Unity.” BWhy? The Body of Christ is the bond which unites us to him: eat it, or we will have no part in him. And Jesus gives us his Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, poured out for us as his total self-gift: drink it, lest we despair of ourselves. Yes, his blood was shed because of the human thirst for violence. But it is also the blood of birth. For St. John, it was the moment when Jesus gives birth to a new community, the Church. His side is opened by the soldier’s spear, and out pour water and blood, the sacraments of the new community. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “It is from his side, therefore, that Christ formed his church, just as he formed Eve from the side of Adam….Have you seen how Christ united to himself his bride? Have you seen with what food he nurtures us all? Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with his own blood those whom he has begotten.”y participating in the Eucharist, and by feeding on it, we are incorporated into a communion that does not admit divisions. This is because the Christ present in our midst, in the sacramental signs of bread and wine, requires that the power of love exceed every laceration and, at the same time, become communion with the poor, support for the weak, and fraternal attention to those who are struggling to carry the weight of everyday life—that refers to us all!

Secondly, the Feast of Corpus Christi is distinguished by a procession. The procession became the feast’s most prominent feature and experientially represents walking with the Lord. Remember that in the Gospel Jesus feeds the crowds precisely so that they will have strength for the journey home. He himself is “food for the journey”—food for the journey Home. “Viaticum.” We have our “First Holy Communion,” and we have our last, which is traditionally called “Holy Viaticum.” We all need this sacramental food to sustain us on the journey, and not only at the end of life. Many of us can hardly move, or can barely trudge along, but through the gift of himself in the Eucharist, the Lord sets us free from our spiritual “paralysis,” helps us up, and enables us to proceed (i.e. to take a step forward,  and then another, and then another), and thus he gives us strength through the nourishment of the Bread of Life…..The Corpus Christi procession, traditionally in many places a full-blown pageant, teaches us that the Eucharist seeks to free us from every kind of despondency and discouragement so that we can once again set out on the journey with the strength God gives us through Jesus Christ. Who can face the pilgrimage of life without God-with-us? Our procession is literally walking with the Lord. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of the God who does not leave us alone on the journey but stays at our side and shows us the way. Indeed, he made himself the “way” and came to walk together with us so that in our freedom we should also have the criterion we need to discern the right way and take it. Our Corpus Christi procession expresses in a solemn and public way the grace of the “ordinary, obscure and laborious” daily journey of our heart home to God.

And thirdly, our celebration of this Feast Day culminates in our kneeling before the Lord in adoration. Adoring the God of Jesus Christ, who out of love made himself bread, broken and given to us, is the most effective and radical remedy for whatever helplessness or separation from God we may experience along the way. Kneeling before the Eucharist is a profession of faith, of need, and of freedom: we prostrate ourselves before a God who first bent over us like the Good Samaritan to assist us and restore our life; like the Lord who first knelt before us to wash our dirty feet before giving himself to us as a covenantal food. Adoring the Body of Christ means believing that there, in that piece of Bread, Christ is really present and gives true sense to life: to the immense universe as well as to the smallest creature, to the whole of human history as well as to the briefest existence. Eucharistic Adoration is prayer in which we continue to be nourished by the Real Presence of Christ.

In conclusion, on this Feast of Corpus Christi our gathering, walking, and adoring together fills us with a special joy and grace. Even more, the Eucharist is an encounter of the heart when we recognize Presence through our own offered presence. In the Eucharist, we move beyond mere words or rational thought, and go to that place where we don’t talk about the Mystery anymore; we begin to chew on it. Jesus did not say, “Think about this,” or “Stare at this,” or even “Worship this.” Instead, he said, “Eat this!” We must keep eating and drinking the Mystery, until one day it dawns on us, in an undefended moment, “My God, I really am what I eat! I also become the Body of Christ.”

Photograph of the Abbey Corpus Christ procession by Father Emmanuel. Father Dominic's homily for the Solemnity.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Boredom?

Visitors or newcomers often ask if monks get bored. I suppose I do - not bored by our rhythm of liturgy, work, and prayer, but bored by me. It is perhaps the most difficult part of our ascesis - to see clearly over and over again the sad, boring truth of who I am. The truth is - I bore myself constantly with my sinfulness and stubbornness. Having seen and understood that painful, neuralgic reality all too well, over and over again, the challenge is there and then to allow God in Christ in that very moment to gaze on me with love and exquisite tenderness. It seems utter madness to allow myself to be the object of Christ’s love and attention and mercy precisely in that moment. This is the wonderful trick of the monastic vocation - I thought I was coming to the monastery to gaze upon Christ, but it is Christ Jesus the Lord himself who wants to gaze upon me in my lowliness and poverty. 

Photograph by Brother Brian. Reflection by one of the monks.