Thursday, October 31, 2019

Our Monastery

We recently received an account of the Abbot General's summer visit to our monastery written by his secretary, our Father Simeon. We include this excerpt: 
A cursory visit to the St Joseph’s Abbey website and its photos should confirm for you that it is one of the most beautiful monasteries in America.  What is astounding is the fact that it was built at record speed between 1950 and 1952, mostly by the physical labor of the monks themselves.  At that time these were very numerous and generally very young, as well as full of good zeal and enthusiasm.  The then abbot, Dom Edmund Futterer, himself an artist of impeccable taste, very much believed in the Beautiful as an efficacious path to God.  Therefore, in consultation with other monks in the community who had a knowledge of monastic art and history, such as Fr Laurence Bourget and Br Blaise Drayton, Dom Edmund decided upon a design for a monastery that would at the same time be inspired by the stark, transcendental beauty of 12th-century Cistercian abbeys in France and yet also be a truly American recasting of that traditional style. 

The jewel-like beauty of Spencer Abbey speaks for itself.  Here the materials—for the walls, only hand-picked Spencer field stones—are most happily wedded to great simplicity of form, and the first impression of opulence is continually tempered by a certain contemplative restraint that imposes silence. 
The abbatial church in particular is a place of transport.  It is dark, though this darkness was not in the original design.  The walls of the church were only rising when the Abbot General of the time, the indomitable Dom Gabriel Sortais, on a brief visit to Spencer, saw the blueprints and decided on the spot that the existing design was “too grand for poor monks” and that, therefore, the whole level of the clerestory (the gallery of windows around the upper reaches of the church) should be eliminated!  And so it was. 
This omission not only deprived the church of perhaps eighty percent of its source of light, but the much lower ceiling that resulted also affected the resonance of the chant.  However, many welcome the “mystical gloom” reigning in the church when all lights are off, finding that it leads to a special kind of prayer.  In addition, the intense Chartres blue of the stained-glass windows at ground level, as well as the blue of the high windows of the triumphal arch over the sanctuary, can now cast a wonderfully soothing glow that would have been impossible with more illumination.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Only With His Grace & Mercy

As yesterday we celebrated the apostles Simon and Jude and all during October we have remembered so many of the Church's martyrs who suffered so much, we recall that as monks we too are called to make a radical gift of all that we are and all that we have for Christ and his Church. We are humbled; we pray to be faithful and steadfast. May He who has invited us continue to grant us his grace and mercy that we may persevere.

Photographs by Brother Brian.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Two Attitudes

In today’s Gospel we hear a classic Wisdom literature motif- two ways, two attitudes. The wise person must choose rightly between the two. It seems clear, perhaps too obvious, which way Jesus is inviting us to follow, for this morning’s parable is pointedly addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” It’s sharp. And our first reaction may be to deny that we would ever think that way. And so right from the get-go, we run the risk of falling into the very judgmental, I-know-better attitude that the parable warns against. We’re caught short. We’ve been set up. The parable’s already working. We must pay close attention to Jesus and see where he takes us. The territory may not be as familiar as we supposed.

First there is a Pharisee, he has come to the temple to present his credentials to God; he does not pray to God, he stands tall and prays, literally- “toward himself.” And even after years of hearing this passage, it still can make us cringe. “I fast, I pray, I...” Maybe he simply should have dropped off his resume, left it at the altar and continued on to his day job. This very good man, who clearly has gone beyond the basic regulations of the Law in his religious regimen, has come to the Temple to remind God about all he has accomplished. Certainly, God is well aware of his goodness and faithfulness. But he wants to make sure.

Most embarrassing of all, he compares himself with a tax-collector, who is clearly no match for his holiness. The Pharisee is convinced he’s doing better than others, for hhas fasted and tithed himself into a dither. But in the process, he has blocked off the possibility of receiving God’s mercy; he doesn’t need it, he’ll redeem himself. Perhaps, this is what makes Jesus so frustrated. Jesus does not demonize the Pharisee; he bewails his foolishness. The man is clearly under a lot of pressure to perform well, and there’s one thing he’s sure of- he doesn’t need anyone’s help, not even God’s.

The tax collector on the other hand is disarmingly honest, vulnerable. His prayer is more literally translated, “Be merciful to me the sinner.” He recognizes himself as the very essence of sinfulness. (William Barclay).  His humility disarms us; and it probably disarms God. This man comes to beg for mercy without a hint of illusion about who he is. Unlike the Pharisee, he knows he’s got nothing to recommend himself to God. Tax collectors were among the most despised of Jews in Jesus’ day, for they extorted money from their own people. When they collected taxes for Rome, they would usually collect more than a little extra for themselves; it was how the system worked. What is worse, they were in cahoots with the Romans, those Gentile intruders who were hated for their domination. Tax collectors were looked upon as the worst of sinners, akin to prostitutes. They were smarmy low-life, and they knew it. They made a decent living, had nice homes; they ate the best food, their wives probably dressed well, but the price they paid was high. They were shunned; they could only hang out with other sleazy tax collectors. (See

But this morning we witness this man’s conversion; he comes to beg forgiveness. And Jesus tells us this tax collector will go home justified, acquitted of his sins, because he has had a change of heart and has come to beg for mercy. It’s just as Sirach said in the First Reading: the prayer of the lowly one always “pierces the clouds.” And Jesus will assure us that even now there is rejoicing in heaven over the return of one such sinner. We too must rejoice for in Christ Jesus, God is continually reconciling the whole world to himself, bringing us all back to God, if we will allow him. He very much wants to mercy us; it’s why he’s come.

I need have no illusions about who I am. Why bother? Jesus desires open hearts that he can mercy and unburden. The foolish Pharisee is waiting outside; he thinks he’s not like those sinners in there. And like that stubborn older brother in another parable, he’s reminding God, “I slaved for you all these years. I’ve fasted; I’ve tithed. I’m not greedy, or adulterous.” But Jesus has come to remind us that with him, we are not slaves but beloved children of his Father. He begs us to come into the feast, “All I have is yours,” he says, “all this mercy, all that I am.” A very lavish banquet has been prepared for us; our ticket in is our sinfulness, the Bridegroom is at the door to bring us in. He doesn’t want our merit but our hunger. Why do we hesitate?

Photograph by Brother Brian.

Friday, October 25, 2019

A Fire

We remember neighbors burning leaves in their yards when such conflagrations were still common during autumn in suburbia. The pungent aroma was somehow lovely to a child. And when we hear Jesus tell us that he longs to set a fire upon the earth, we remember the heady fragrance of the smoldering leaves. How to let ourselves be consumed by the fire of Christ's love - his love for us, our love for him. In simplicity and ordinariness, we long to be as dry leaves constantly available to this fire.

Photograph by Brother Brian.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

As We Cry Out

We may offer ourselves to God with all our potential, goods, talents, friends– and in return expect a certain recompense from him, for example, that he would give us “wisdom” or perseverance in faith or love. But this would be only an imaginary justice, a kind of pact we set up between us and God, existing only in our own head.
God may not wish to enter into such an arrangement, and so we may very well find that rather than marching forward to ever greater heights of spiritual perfection he instead leaves us in unrest, dryness, darkness and anxiety. If this were to happen, we must know that although this wholly imaginary justice was not fulfilled, God is not ignoring us, or acting arbitrarily, but is very much at work in us fulfilling a much higher justice between us and God. We might have thought that we had given ourselves, but now find ourselves standing before God with empty hands. But this is precisely where God wants us. Although we may not see the gift God gives in return, it doesn’t mean gifts haven’t been given. In fact, we can be sure they have been bestowed on us in the only way God gives - without measure. As long as we stand, as Moses did during the battle, with empty hands raised to God, awaiting whatever he wishes to give, on his terms we will find that we are winning the battle. Our just God is with us, beating down our spiritual foes and leading us to victory. 

We never have a right to expect something definite from God, because all his gifts simply lie beyond what we can grasp, define or determine. What God wants from us is a complete offering of self without conditions. We are to place ourselves wholly at his disposal and let him take what he needs. And for his part he gives everything -  all that is according to his intention. He gives this everything as he wishes, and that means precisely not as human beings expect it, because our human expectation is always conditioned by our nature, our sin, and our very limited perspective. Our expectation ought to be to expect nothing definite. If we really love God, we will expect everything of him, even though we see nothing. Again, what God expects of us nothing other than total consent, total readiness to everything that God should ask. 

Let us then cry out like the widow to our just God to send his Spirit to free us from our adversary, from everything in us that would keep us from this readiness to receive from him who is always ready to bestow on us every good thing; that when he comes he may find faith on earth. 

Photograph by Brother Anthony Kahan. Meditation by Father Timothy.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

God's Faithfulness

Perhaps Jesus is using a bit of humor this morning to get our attention. You know the widow in Israel was the archetype of helplessness; she was among the most vulnerable in that society. And the Law of Moses decreed that she must be looked after by those who had more. But the judge in Jesus’ story is so despicable that just he wants to get rid of her and is attentive only because he’s afraid that this “helpless,” probably older woman might come and “strike” him. In one translation the judge says: “I will give her justice, otherwise she will keep coming and end up giving me a black eye.” It’s tragic comic.

Who have we made God into? Who does God want to be for us? These are some of the questions this Gospel raises for us. Could God our Father be at least as good as that nasty judge who gives a just sentence only because he’s afraid of a nagging widow? Might God our Father be at least as attentive as that? If a cruel and unfeeling judge will give in to an irritating widow, how much more will God listen to his own?(see Fred Craddock)

Maybe sometimes we pray as if we’re trying to keep God focused, remind him and get his attention, as if God’s not interested. Maybe we think we need to persuade or nag God. But God’s love, mercy and compassion- literally his suffering with us- are without question. Jesus understands; he gets it. And the ceaseless praying that he is asking of us today is meant to be a deep trust that God is with us, that God sees and understands most deeply everything that concerns us and is on our side. Our incessant prayer is an expression of our constant faith, our trust in God’s care, his loving will and desire for our good. And so, when we “pray always without becoming weary,” we express our trust in the attention of a loving God who wants our good. And we can expect great things.

Prayer is faith enacted, says one scholar. Indeed, what our faith does is pray; we reach out without giving up because we trust - we trust that Someone is listening. But this brings a special challenge, because prayer is a relationship. And if indeed in prayer we are relating to God, to Christ, then we are in relationship with a Someone who is completely other, completely Mystery. In prayer grow in intimacy with this Mystery who loves us. We become more and more accustomed to believing that God is going to work something out, even when we don’t understand God’s ways. We wait, we live in hope, “a hope that will not disappoint.” Part of our praying is then always being able to say, “I trust, even though I don’t understand.”

Jesus our Lord enfleshes this faith and faithfulness. His life, all that he did from the crib to the cross expresses this faithfulness of God-with-us. And so true to who he is, who God is, Jesus comes in the Holy Eucharist to feed us with himself, to be really with us, in us.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

With Saint Teresa

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

We are always heartened by these words of Saint Teresa of Avila. 
As autumn days grow cooler with first frosts at night, we notice that 
some flowers continue to bloom. Patience gains everything. We pray; we wait; we trust. God never ever abandons us.

Brother Brian's photographs of Brother Gabriel's garden.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Ten Lepers

Commenting on this morning’s Gospel, N.T. Wright poses an intriguing question. “Which is more surprising: the fact that one leper came back, shouted for joy, fell down at Jesus’ feet and thanked him? Or the fact that the nine others who were cleansed on their way to see the priests didn’t?” Typically, throughout his Gospel Luke focuses on Jesus’ attitude toward the outsider, the foreigner—in this case, a Samaritan. The implication is that the Samaritan had less reason to return to Jesus than did the other nine. On the other hand, perhaps the nine lepers who were Jewish were understandably afraid to go back and identify themselves with Jesus, who by now was a marked man. Or perhaps, having realized they had been healed, they were so eager to get back to their families from whom they had been isolated all the time the disease had affected them that they simply didn’t think to go back and look for Jesus. Luke, in any case, implies that they were less grateful. With disappointment Jesus asks: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”

Clearly, the miraculous cure from leprosy is only half the story here, for Jesus then says to the one who returned to give thanks, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you.” His words suggest that the Samaritan received more than the physical healing that all ten lepers received. As the biblical commentator Pablo Gadenz points out, “the word for ‘get up’ is a word early Christians would have recognized as having to do with ‘resurrection.’ Like the prodigal son, this man ‘was dead, and is alive again.’ New life, the life which Israel was longing for as part of the age to come, had arrived in his village that day and had evoked a faith in him he didn’t know he had. Once again, we see that faith and healing go hand in hand. But it is grateful faith in the person of Jesus that leads to salvation.

What about us who fail to thank God “always and for everything,” as St. Paul exhorts in Ephesians? Albert Schweitzer wrote in his Reverence for Life: “The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. Whoever has learned this knows what it means to live…They have penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.” Ingratitude is of a corresponding magnitude. The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann identified ingratitude as the sin of the fall: humanity’s discontent with all that God freely gives. Other thinkers through the ages have ranked ingratitude among the greatest sins, as a repudiation of the good, a form of rejection that strikes at the heart of community, relationship and continuity. We can conclude no one can understand life who is ungrateful for it; no one can totally misunderstand life who is grateful.

We know that God is the giver of all good things, and that we have nothing that we have not received—all good gifts are from his generosity. Now, there is an old spiritual discipline of listing one’s blessings, naming them before God, and giving thanks. This is exactly what the Canadian writer Ann Voskamp endeavors to do in her bestseller book One Thousand Gifts. She claims that thanksgiving—eucharist—is the central symbol of Christianity, the essence of what it means to live the Christ-life.

She marvels in her poetic style:
Doesn’t Christ, at His death-meal, set the entirety of our everyday bread and drink lives into the framework of eucharistēo? . . . Eucharistēo—thanksgiving—always precedes the miracle. Think how Jesus once took the bread and gave thanks, and then the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves and fishes. How he now took the bread and gave thanks, and then the miracle of enduring the cross for the joy set before Him. How Jesus stood outside Lazarus’s tomb, the tears streaming down His face, and He looked up and prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me”—and then the miracle of a dead man rising! Thanksgiving raises the dead!

I would suggest that the Good News of today’s Gospel is that Jesus counts thanksgiving as integral to a faith that saves. In other words, we only enter into the fullness of life if our faith gives thanks. For how else do we accept His free gift of salvation if not with thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is the evidence of our acceptance of whatever He gives. Thanksgiving is the manifestation of our Yes! to his grace. Thanksgiving is therefore inherent to a true salvation experience, as we see in the case of the Samaritan leper. What we do at every Eucharist is to remember with thanks, and it is precisely this that is held up to us this morning as the foremost quality of a believing disciple.

Of course, it is not easy in the midst of terrible, horrific circumstances to believe that we have every reason to “always and everywhere give thanks.” But even then we may experience a stark moment of awe in which we realize that the simple fact that we are is an abiding gift of God to us. Perhaps this is what happened to the Samaritan leper in a particularly poignant way when he suddenly realized he was healed. So for us as well: to receive ourselves constantly from the hand of God and to thank him for this isn’t circumstance-based but belongs to our essential being, even if we are rarely conscious of it. But the moment we intentionally “return” to give thanks to the one who gives and renews our life day after day, this moment of gratitude always sets us right. In a moment of simple gratitude everything between God and ourselves will come to life, and things will be right. Perhaps it is gratitude more than anything that allows us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

I’d like to conclude with a good word from the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich:
The highest form of prayer is to the goodness of God…. God only desires that our soul cling to him with all its strength; in particular, that it clings to his goodness. For of all the things our minds can think about God, it is thinking upon his goodness that pleases him most and brings the most profit to our soul.

To “think upon His goodness” is to “give thanks” to Him. Someday the Lord will show us how He received our gift of thanks, and that will be a part of our blessedness!
Father Dominic's Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

For Self-transcendence

The existence of Christ as an exemplary existence reaches its high point when he is opened out on the cross.  This is why he can then say, announcing his death and explaining it: I go away and I come back to you (Jn 14.28).  It is as if he were saying: ‘By my going away the wall of my existence, which at present hems me in, is broken open.  Therefore, this event of my going away is my true coming to you because, through it, I fully actualize what I truly am: namely, the One who incorporates everyone into the unity of my new being, which is not a barrier but unity itself.’

On the cross, the outspread arms of the Crucified show him to be an adorer; but, at the same time, that gesture gives a new dimension to adoration and defines the specifically Christian glorification of God.  These open arms are the expression of perfect adoration precisely because they express Christ’s total surrender of himself to human beings.  These open arms are the gesture of embracing, of total and undivided fraternity.  From the standpoint of the cross, the theology of the Fathers found in the Christian gesture of praying with outspread arms the perfect symbol for the concurrence of adoration and fraternity, a symbol that represents the inseparability of service to humankind and glorification of God.

To be a Christian essentially means to transition from being-for-oneself to being-for-one-another. But no form of self-transcending by human beings can ever suffice by itself.  The person who wants only to give and is not prepared to receive, the person who only wants to be for others and refuses to recognize that he or she, too, derives his or her life from the unexpected and unprocurable self-giving of others: this person misconceives the fundamental principle of being human and, therefore, cannot help destroying the true meaning of being-for-one-another.  If it is to be fruitful, every form of self-transcendence requires also the capacity to receive from others, in the final instance to receive from the Other—from him who is truly the Other of all humankind and is, at the same time, One with it: namely, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

Detail of painting by Safet Zec. Text: Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (II, i, iv, Exc., 2)

Monday, October 7, 2019

Our Lady of the Holy Rosary

We remember with joy and gratitude our mothers and fathers, grandparents and scores of our older family fingering their beads before and after Mass, in the car or sitting in their favorite chair. Clearly it was their way to deep prayer. The mysteries of the Holy Rosary - joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous - are the mysteries of our own lives. As we pray the Rosary we beg Our Lady to draw us closer to Him who is our Light and our only Hope.

Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard, Filippino Lippi, 1485-1487, oil on panel, 83 x 77 in., Badia, Florence.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


Why would Jesus want us to remember that we are useless, doing only what we are supposed to do? To put us in our place? Yes. I think so, but not to make us feel bad but because he wants company down there. He reminds us that our place is down there with him, in the lowest place where he has gone before us. And where else would we want to be? Jesus has come to serve not to be served. And this morning he is speaking to us about life in the kingdom not giving us protocols for the workplace. We follow not a way but the Way, Jesus. He is our Master not our boss. We are his disciples, learning that life in the kingdom is never about accomplishment but about doing what God wants; in the kingdom, I am not what I do, but what I am – the beloved of the Father with and in Christ Jesus. And what do I have that I have not received from him? What could I possibly do without his grace? Nothing at all. I’m useless without him.

So being told that we are unworthy and unprofitable might not be so bad, you know, for it unburdens us of all expectations. And as the disciples ask Jesus this morning to increase their faith, his response points to the reality that a little faith goes a long way, in the end perhaps their faith doesn’t need to be increased but simply activated. “If you only had faith the size of a teeny mustard seed,” he says. We learn to trust that the little we have is enough, trust that we are enough, that the little we do is enough, even as we acknowledge our total inadequacy.

We have come here to be transformed, emptied of ourselves. And in our service, we are constantly exposed, diminished, vulnerable as we discover over and over again, if we’re honest, in our work as well as at prayer, our total incapacity. To change, to be open to be conformed to Christ, does not mean that we will necessarily get better or holier or nicer but that we will be opened to the harrowing wonder of disequilibrium and our desperate need for him.Then our failures, our worthlessness may become gateways to intimacy with the poor Christ.

We are slaves of Christ Jesus, and we need to be where he is. Serving with Jesus does not allow for illusions of self-merit or entitlement but only humility,2 a humility that can lead to joy and confidence and real freedom. I am only a servant, after all, doing what the Father desires, with Jesus. The One who says again and again, “I have not come to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” The Father’s desire drove him, it was his food. And assuredly Jesus’ single-hearted focus on the Father’s will was more about the loving self-abandonment of eros rather than any dogged jaw-clenching drudgery. Jesus wants to draw us into that same loving freedom. Why resist? We follow One who leads by falling down, being spat upon, shoved, tortured and crucified. That’s what Primal Leadership is like in the kingdom, self-forgetful love. But who can manage it?

We labor with him, for him, and he alone is our reward.3 All we do and endure  is, after all, only our duty, an inestimably privileged way for us to be with Jesus, the Suffering Servant who for the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, heedless of its shame. We rejoice to be identified as useless because he was thought to be so, despised and ridiculed as a blasphemer by those who should have known better. Our only joy and worth are in gaining Christ and being found in him; life without him would be intolerable. As Saint Paul will put it, “I have suffered the loss of all things, that I may gain Christ - indeed, I regard them all as dung…” So driven is Paul by his love and conviction that he can express it only by using the most vulgar term for filth or dung in Greek skubalon, because it connotes total worthlessness and revulsion.4

In the monastery we live in two worlds. All day long, we try to be efficient at work, whatever it is - cleaning, cooking, making jam or beer or chasubles. But we know that all that efficiency is not going to be of much use when we go to pray. There we need a very different set of tools - we must be satisfied to be helpless, worthless and inefficient; totally dependent on Christ’s kind favor, his gracious mercy and loving-kindness, ready to listen, confident in our emptiness and uselessness. And this is work too, a very different kind of work - the discipline of being at home with loss of control, at home with wonder and unknowing. It is in this lowest place, that contemplation can happen. For finally, perhaps, we are worthless enough in our own eyes to realize we have nothing to be proud of.5 This is our ultimate credential in a life dedicated to incessant prayer.

My profitability is only in my availability, my obedience, my emptying out for him. In a life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious with its promise of hidden fruitfulness, it’s all about allowing ourselves to be used continually by Christ for purposes we cannot possibly imagine.6 Jesus has gone down to the lowest place, because he wants to wash our feet. And not only that; even though he has just come in from a very hard day, he invites us to sit down; he wants to wait on us and serve us at table. Let us, in all humility, allow him this joy.

Photograph of the Holy Thursday Mandatum by Brother Brian. 
1Sister Miriam Pollard?, 2 James Edwards, Pillar Commentary on Luke. 3 St. Ignatius Loyola, 4 Daniel B. Wallace, 5 Michael Casey, 6 Fr. Simeon Leiva.

Friday, October 4, 2019

With Francis

We are told that Saint Francis decreed that his friars not have pockets in their habits. How he wanted them to be poor with the poor Christ! How to depend on Jesus alone for all we need? How to cling to Him, a Treasure always ready to hand and heart?

Detail of Saint Francis Of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata by Giambattista Tiepolo.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Angel Guardians

Consider, dearest brethren, how careful we ought to be to show ourselves worthy of such noble company and so to live in the sight of the holy angels that they shall see nothing in our conduct to displease them...There are many things which afford them pleasure and which they are glad to find in us, such as moderation, chastity, poverty freely chosen, frequent short prayers to God, prayers offered with tears of contrition and pure intention of heart.

Design by Charles Voysey. Lines by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

With Thérèse

If you are willing to bear in peace the trial of not being pleased with yourself, you will be offering the Lord Jesus a home in your heart. It is true you will suffer, for you will feel like a stranger in your own house. But do not fear, for the poorer you are, the more Christ will love you.

We are always consoled by these words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; she reminds us that Jesus' power is made perfect in our weakness.