Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How It Works

Overheard this morning in the cloister. 
One young monk off to morning work, pauses to help a senior monk, 
who expresses thanks for his assistance. 
The younger whispers, "Teamwork makes the dream work."

They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear...   from Chapter 72 of The Rule of Saint Benedict.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ahead of Time

Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” When I look at the various situations and circumstances of my life, the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, the struggles and accomplishments, I realize that I really want to believe that the Lord is somehow present to me in and through them all. I really want to believe that the Lord speaks to me through all the events of my life. And I don’t think I am alone in this desire. My guess is that we all want to believe that our life and existence are somehow more than the particular circumstances that unfold throughout our lives. We want to know and experience that God is really with us through it all. We long for something beyond the particular circumstances. I’m talking about believing through the circumstances rather than in the circumstances. When we believe this way the circumstances no longer limit or confine us but become portals of God’s intimate presence with us.

The kind of believing I am talking about is an "Elizabeth and Mary kind of believing." Neither one of them should be or could be pregnant. One is too old. One is too young. One is barren. One is a virgin. Yet both are pregnant. Neither Elizabeth nor Mary allowed the particular concrete circumstances of her life to limit God’s presence and action in her life. Neither allowed the circumstances to define who she was or who she would become. Elizabeth believed she was more than just a barren, childless, old woman. And Mary refused to accept that she was a no-one, another unmarried, scandalous woman, but rather believed that somehow she was the instrument of God the Most Holy.

Mary didn’t have it all wrapped up right from the beginning with a crystal clear understanding as to how her life would unfold. I am sure that her “how can this be” question to the angel Gabriel was not the last time in her life that she asked that question. As her life unfolded it wasn’t a bed of roses for her. A sword would pierce her soul she was told when her son was an infant. She will lose him for three days when he is twelve. She’ll think he’s gone mad when he’s thirty. And God only knows the despairing anguish she experienced during those three days following his crucifixion. And yet, throughout all the circumstances of her life her “let it be” never ceased to resound. In fact, what we are celebrating today: Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was somehow contained in her original “let it be.”

In today’s gospel we hear Mary’s “let it be” continue to unfold in her Magnifcat; which is essentially her song of praise and thanksgiving. Barbra Brown Taylor, the Episcopalian priest, author and theologian offers a powerful insight into Mary’s Magnificat when she reflects on Mary’s willingness to trust in God as she writes: “All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next---and that apparently is enough to make her burst into song. She does not wait to see how things will turn out first. She sings ahead of time.” That expression stopped me in my tracks. Praising God ahead of time. Thanking God ahead of time.

I remember when it dawned on me that in the Ignatian practice of the Examen of Consciousness which one is advised to make at the end of the day, it is recommended to review your day in thanksgiving. It is not a matter of reviewing the day in order to pick and choose what you will be grateful for but to look back on the day, all of it and everything that occurred, with an attitude of thanksgiving. And now here we have Mary singing ahead of time, expressing her gratitude for all that will unfold in her life- being grateful ahead of time.

The celebration of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary is not just concerned with Mary. It is meant to touch our lives, in all the magnificent and not so magnificent circumstances of those lives. Mary’s fulfillment, which we celebrate today, began in and through all the circumstances of her life. Today, on the Assumption, we celebrate and acknowledge the culmination of that fulfillment - a fulfillment that we are all meant to one day share in with her. She invites us today, personally, to trust in a way that isn’t limited to what is reasonable, explainable or even acceptable. To trust that in every moment of every circumstance of our life the word of God is really being fulfilled if we but offer our own “let it be.”

Orazio Gentileschi, The Virgin with the Sleeping Christ Child, c. 1610, The Fogg Art Museum. Excerpts from Father Damian's homily at this morning's Eucharist.

Monday, August 14, 2017

It Is I

As Father Aquinas reminded us yesterday, we are very often like the disciples. We too often seek reassurances from Jesus, "If it is truly you, tell me to come to you across the water." Our faith is not strong enough. Jesus encourages us, "Take heart; it is I. Have no fear." What could be more reassuring? Once we realize who is calling to us, we may be embarrassed at having been alarmed. Didn't we know? Jesus always assures us that he will save us and protect us.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Having sensed the Lord’s loving presence in the “tiny, whispering” of the ordinariness of our lives, we long to hide in the “shadow of his wings.” He comes near to us, stretches out the hand of his mercy and assures us, “Come to me and do not be afraid.” Why do we doubt? Why is our faith so tiny? The Son of God Most High has made his dwelling place within us. And nothing at all can separate us from him.
Photographs by Brother Brian.

Friday, August 11, 2017

God’s Beauty

We continue our reflection on the words of Rowan Williams. He concludes that in the monastic life "...the world can be seen at one and the same time in its wholeness and in the light of a presence that is everywhere and nowhere. And it points to worship as the culminating and fulfilling form of self-dispossession or self-giving. It is about joy in the routine and everyday – not simply a persistent human happiness but a pervasive confidence that God’s beauty is there waiting for our homecoming. It certainly is not that monastic communities unfailingly exemplify all this; only that this and this alone makes sense of the monastic life as a ‘sharpening of the focus’ that exists in all Christian life."

God's beauty awaits us, beckons us; let us be attentive always.

Photographs by Brother Brian.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


The author Rowan Williams will characterize the monastic life as follows: “A humanity serving God in steady engagement with the material world and in mutual giving and receiving…a humanity shaped by Christ.”

He goes on to remind us that the monk’s life is "incarnational," always lived in and through Christ Jesus. As Williams writes, the monastic life is: “always modeled on Christ’s human life (and) open to the divine at every moment; it is not that God the Word deigns to take up residence in those parts of our lives that we consider important or successful or exceptional. Every aspect of Jesus’ humanity and every moment of his life is imbued with the divine identity, so that if our lives are to be images of his, they must seek the same kind of unbroken transparency.  Likewise, Jesus lives out in his humanity a complete dependence on God as Father, the eternal dependence of the Word on the divine Source, and is thus also capable of living a human life that is not anxiously in search of the highest degree of autonomy: he receives gifts, receives friendship and hospitality. A life that values every dimension of experience, including the routine, the repetitive and prosaic, one that assumes mutual need and invites generosity at the same time as offering it in hospitality – this is a life that is not merely apostolic but Christlike and illustrates the freshness of what the Gospel makes possible.”

Christ Jesus longs to be ordinary in us and with us and through us.
Photographs by Brother Brian.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Signaling the end of the summer, flocks of Canadian geese have already returned to rest and and feed in the Abbey fields on their way north. An ancient Roman legend tells of the Capitoline geese who honked their warning and saved Rome from the invasion of the Gauls. Since then geese have been used in literature and art as symbols of vigilance and divine providence. As we keep watch in vigils and prayer, the geese are our late August companions. Autumn is not far away.

Photograph by Brother Brian.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

On Tabor

This morning we ascend Mount Tabor with Jesus and eavesdrop as the Father says, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is our truth as well. Baptized into Christ, we too are the beloved of the Father.

To be sure, the brilliance of this morning’s Transfiguration and points us to another hilltop, that of Calvary. There the Beloved one will give himself away to us completely. His clothes, his flesh once bright with light on Tabor will be torn and stained with the spittle and blood of his passion.

Empowered by his Father’s love, Jesus will freely give himself up for us. Trusting in the Father’s love, we too may be transfigured and fearless enough to be self-forgetful like Jesus. Let us open to him. 

Photograph by Father Emmanuel.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Where I Live

The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live… the heart is the place "to which I withdraw." The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.

Let us go frequently to our inner room, the room of our heart. This is the place of prayer. There we will find the Lord Jesus awaiting us, inviting us into quiet and relationship. 

Photograph of Della Robbia bas relief of Tobias and the Angel Raphael in the monastic refectory by Brother Brian. Lines from The Catechism of Catholic Church, 2563.

Friday, August 4, 2017

We and Zacchaeus

First Monastery at Tracadie
He came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. Luke 19
Our Lady of the Valley
God’s interventions in our lives are always unexpected and surprising. We cannot plot them out ahead of time or predict them. And more often than not they smash our so-called certitudes. All Zacchaeus wanted to do was get a better glimpse of Jesus. And Jesus surprisingly and unexpectedly (scandalously according to the bystanders) intervened and invited himself into Zacchaeus’s home and life. And Zacchaeus was never the same after that. Perhaps his faith in God’s constant, loving, intervening care enabled him to move into a future, not with certitude, but with trusting faith. Zacchaeus was faithful to Jesus’s surprising self-invitation; we too can be open to that very same invitation on the part of Jesus. And ultimately it is because Jesus was faithful to his Father’s unfailing love, even unto death, that we can live in his promise to be with us until the end of time.
The New Church at Spencer 
As Abbot Damian reminds us, it is this promise of Jesus that has sustained our community’s life throughout its existence; from Petit Clairvaux in Tracadie to Our Lady of the Valley in Rhode Island to Saint Joseph’s Abbey here in Spencer. There have been all sorts of ups and downs, ins and outs, lights and shadows, fires and re-buildings from the ashes throughout these past 192 years. What, where and how our future as a community will unfold, we do not know. But what we do know and can stake our lives on is that the Lord’s faithfulness to us will never ever fail. And it is that faithfulness that we celebrate. Let us rejoice and be glad.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Come, true light; come life that never ends; come, hidden mystery!
Come, nameless treasure; come, name that can never be uttered!
Come, inconceivable One; come, joy without end!
Come sun that never sets!
Come, name well-loved and ever repeated!
Come, joy that knows no end; come, untarnishing crown!
Come you whom my poor soul has longed for, 
and longs for still!
I give you thanks that you have become one single spirit with me. 

We are called to ceaseless prayer, Saint Augustine will name this living in ceaseless desire for God. Ever-mindful of this, we treasure these lines from a hymn of Saint Simeon the New Theologian. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Today we celebrate the Anniversary of the Dedication and Consecration of our Abbey Church. This is a special solemnity that is ours alone. This rose window pictured above, composed as it is from fragments of glass from the large lancet window in the church of the monastery of Our Lady of the Valley, is an apt symbol of the many transitions that have marked our community's history.

Our community first took root at the monastery of Petit Clairvaux in Tracadie, Nova Scotia in the mid-nineteenth century. But in 1892 and again in 1896 disastrous fires devasted the monastic buildings.

Soon the monastery moved from Nova Scotia to Lonsdale, Rhode Island. The small community, accompanied by their livestock arrived in the summer of 1900, and regular monastic life was resumed on August 2. Their new home was called Our Lady of the Valley. When in 1950 this abbey was ravaged by fire, the community of one hundred and forty persons was homeless.

Fortunately they had already purchased a large dairy farm in Spencer, Massachusetts in 1949. And the fire only accelerated the community's projected move. The monks soon adapted the farm buildings for monastic purposes. And on December 23, 1950, eighty monks took possession of Saint Joseph's Abbey. We continue to discern God’s loving plan in  our common life in this place and look forward with great hope to the future.

Detail of Abbey church rose window by Brother Jonah.