Monday, August 30, 2021

Purity of Heart

The Law of Moses was very important for the people of Israel. They were proud of the legal system they had developed in their desire to be God’s people. “What great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”, Moses asks the Israelites in the first reading that we heard from the book of Deuteronomy.

Through the Law, they were expected to lead lives that were different, if not better than their pagan neighbors. There was a great emphasis on the observance of the Law as a sign of commitment and obedience to the Lord. But, by the time of Jesus, the Law had become so hopelessly complicated in its applications that only experts could interpret it in the many practical problems which would arise in daily life. The law was no longer a guide to help people love and serve God, but an end in itself. It was all about external behavior.

As Jesus relates in today’s Gospel, many of the laws were of human invention. They had little to do with loving God, but rather of conforming to social demands. If they were faithful to the external observance of the Law, they were “good Jews.” Even in our own day, you hear things like: “Joe’s a good Catholic, he never misses Sunday Mass.” We have no idea of what he thinks or believes, or how he relates to people outside of Mass. We judge by the external, but in most cases, we really don’t know what’s going on inside Joe.

The problem presented in the Gospel today is a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. And it isn’t the first. They ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating. Washing your hands is a sensible precaution, especially today. There were many prescriptions in Jewish law that were primarily hygienic in origin. As we know, eating with dirty hands could be a source of disease and sickness. By attaching a religious sanction to the behavior observation was more likely.

Jesus is not criticizing these precautions. What he is criticizing is the unequal importance given to these things to the neglect of what is more important, the love of God and love of neighbor. In strong words to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is useless, the doctrines they teach are mere human regulations. They put human traditions before the commandments of God”.

Enslavement to culture and tradition is a major cause of conflict in our world today, between communities, and even in families. Fundamentalism is on the rise in many countries and religions, even our own. It is a terrible source of hatred and violence in many countries and the negation of true religion, whatever your beliefs. It is a scourge. This lack of tolerance is shameful especially when many countries are experiencing a greater ethnic, cultural, and religious mix of people, due to an increase in immigration.

Where does real uncleanness come from? It does not come from food or drink. A person does not become unclean by eating pork or by coming into contact with blood, as the Jewish law stated. You may remember the scene in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter, in a trance, sees what seems to be a large sheet being lowered from heaven which contained unclean animals, according to the Jewish law. The voice from heaven says to him, “Do not call something unclean, if God has called it clean” 

Uncleanness comes from “evil intentions” that arise in the depths of the heart. Jesus then recites that devasting list of evil intentions: lust, theft, murder, adultery, greed, maliciousness, deceit, jealousy, slander, arrogance. All these are in direct conflict with Christian life, which is a loving relationship with God and one another.

In contrast to what the Pharisees and Scribes were saying to Jesus, we heard in the letter of James, “Pure religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it and keeping oneself unspoiled by the world”. In other words, religion has little to do with the rigid observance of laws but keeping ourselves free from corrupting influences and being sensitive to the needs of the weak and most vulnerable persons among us. “As often as you did it to the least of my brethren you did it to me.”

There are some people who are attracted to a religion of strict laws and regulations. It makes them feel secure. It sets boundaries and keeps everything correct and precise, there are no gray areas. Everything is either black or white, there is only right or wrong. There are no exceptions for a fundamentalist.

Many of us grew up in an era when preoccupation with sin was the norm. Is this a sin, we would ask? Is it a mortal sin or a venial sin? How many times did I do it? The concern here is not fear of sin but fear of punishment and keeping myself from feelings of guilt.

It is possible to keep all the laws and rules perfectly, as Pharisees of all ages do, and still not be a “good” person. The law-keeper is primarily concerned with himself, not God. Getting all A’s is more important than loving God and showing charity to others.

I’m not advocating the abolishment of all laws. No human organization, government, or religion can function without rules and regulations. Without them, there would be chaos. However, laws are meant to help groups to work together, to ensure justice, equity, safety, and peace. They are a means, not an end.

Unlike the Mosaic Law, the Gospel is not a code of laws, it is a way of life. It provides a vision and a guide for us as we try to love God and make our way to his kingdom. It is focused on relationships and not actions. We have all been given a conscience and free will. When we commit theft, murder, adultery, scandal, maliciousness, and deceit, I don’t think we have to ask, “Is this a sin.” Whether we are religious or not, our conscience informs us when we have committed a grave offense against God and others. Deeds speak for themselves. What lies in our hearts are the evil intentions, as Jesus tells us, that are the source of our actions.

Jesus wants us to stop being so preoccupied with the exterior part of our lives. We need interior purification first. As he said to the Pharisees in the Gospel in Matthew: “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may also become clean”. God looks into our hearts and he will judge us on how we have loved and the goodness of our lives, not just what we have done. No one can achieve purity of heart without the help of God. He is willing, but we have to allow him to do it. 

Photograph and homily by Father Emmanuel.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

He Sees Into Our Hearts

Whenever we engage with the Word, our reading is not just reading, it is an encounter - with the Person of Jesus, Word made flesh, and Splendor of the Father. Such is the truth of our own lectio divina - as we read, we discover, more often than not, that we ourselves are being read. The life we live is not our own. We are Christ’s body, part of him, in him.

And our stories are one with his. In Christ Jesus God “has become not only one of us but even our very selves.”1 Jesus himself is our story, our book, our destiny - now, today; Jesus is the Book - with the power to reflect and illuminate our life; the one Book that forever informs how we navigate the little strip of time we have been given, helping us clarify and grasp its most vital moments and their meaning.2 The wounded and risen Jesus is the key, the template that makes sense of each of our lives. He who sees deep into our hearts – reads them like a book.

A few years ago, my favorite cousin Teddy died quite unexpectedly, and I was asked to lead the prayer at his wake. Though baptized Catholic, Teddy never went to church; his family was never very religious like mine. And even when we were kids, he always thought of church as my “thing.” Certainly, there wouldn’t be a funeral Mass. But there would be a big crowd in the funeral parlor. What would I say? Teddy was very popular, an auto mechanic who always helped anyone he could, generous to a fault. The archetypal gruff giant with a tender heart. 

Then I thought, God gets all of this much better than I do. And it struck me – maybe, just maybe Teddy was now with God, and we were all being invited to see things from his perspective. Somehow the vision of the Book of Revelation became real, and I sensed that we were being invited to see the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, as the book of life was opened; invited to see Teddy being judged according to what he had done as recorded in that book.3 And you know what, Teddy had done very well, the best he could have done with what he was given. And now he got it – church, that God stuff, was not just my thing after all. He finally understood that all the while, year upon year, as he was raising his kids, fixing cars, helping folks with their flats, planting his garden, and loving his wife…God was always, always Mercy, always looking upon him with love, tremendously kind - at least as good as he had been with his kids, not a distant judge or some disinterested holy being, but Someone within him, near him, nearer in fact than he ever realized; the One who could look into his heart and really understand him. Now Teddy finally understood it, he saw face to face. His today had happened.

Now, today. What keeps me, keeps us, from living the urgency of this now of Jesus’ presence and action in our lives? I wonder if very often I don’t hear the words he speaks to me in lectio, in prayer, treasure them for a while and then take these very real words and trivialize them, like little holy mementos, place them on a shelf and look over my shoulder at them. Do I really hear? Do I allow his words to transform me – really grab me from the inside? Or, sad to admit, is part of me still holding out for a better deal, something, someone else to fill my emptiness?

Gratefully the Lord Jesus is relentless. For the “God who spoke of old uninterruptedly converses with”4 us, even today, right now. Today his Word is being fulfilled in our hearing if we will allow it. Today.5 Now, Jesus wants to free those who are oppressed, now he wants to remove our blindness, now he comes with great good news for us, now he comes to heal us for our hearts are filled with tendencies that can lead us to sin. Now he wants to make of you and me – make of us together - his compassion and his mercy-makers. But so often I find myself, despondent, walking to a nearby village with my head down, much too slow to understand. 

Living in the todayness of Jesus’ compassionate presence always involves surrender and a passover with him into a place of precariousness and uncertainty where we are invited to abandon ourselves and depend on God alone, even unto death, just as he did on the cross. This happens most often when we crash headlong into our own limitations, when I, foolish camel that I am, fail to see my own giant hump, when we do not know how to go on, when finally, in desperation, exasperation, and near despair, we hand ourselves over into God’s hands so that he can act for our good. Then our today comes.6

 For most of us some great, earth-shattering revelation never comes. What we get instead are “daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”And this is enough, more than enough for a day, today, the now of Jesus’ inbreaking and self-revelation.

Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Reflection by one of the monks.

1. Thomas Merton. 2, Katharine Smyth, All the Lives We Ever Lived, 3. Rev. 20.12, 4. Dei Verbum, 5. See Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth. What He Wanted, Who He Was, 6. Ibid., 7. Virginia Woolf.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Saint Monica

When Monica was told of Augustine’s conversion, he tells us in his Confessions that she leapt for joy, rejoiced, and praised God. This woman of faith well understood that God had given her more than she had ever dared to beg for. Augustine continues, “you changed her mourning into joy, much more plentiful than she had desired, and in a much more precious and purer way than she ever required.”

God hears our prayers; God always answers our prayers – in ways we may recognize and in ways that we may do not understand. Still, we continue to pray with confidence and quiet wonder. 

Saint Monica by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1464–65.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Repaying His Favor

Love is the only one of the movements of the soul, of its senses and affections, in which the creature can respond to its Creator, even if not as an equal, and repay his favor in some similar way... Although the creature loves less, being a lesser being, yet if it loves with its whole heart nothing is lacking, for it has given everything.

Baptized into Christ we are one with Christ forever. He calls us to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, all our mind, our very being. But how can we? We can love because God gives us the love with which to love. 

Text from Sermon 83: On the Song of Songs, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Holy Communion

Which of us is worthy - of love, of real relationship; which of us is worthy of Holy Communion each morning? Only the love of the other, earthly or divine; only that gaze of love can draw me into the reality of my belovedness. Small wonder that the intuition of the Church has placed this prayer just before Communion, “O Lord, I am not worthy.” We are not worthy. But Love has made us worthy. Indeed, in his desire for me, for you, in his dying and rising for us, Jesus loved us into worthiness. He refuses to not love us. 

Still, we know the closer we get to him, the more clearly, we see who we are. Always, with the realization of God’s nearness, there is not boasting or complacency but reverence and contrition. “Who am I?” The response of a grateful, awe-filled heart is always appropriately- "I am not worthy." Noticing the blessing, the undeserved abundance, we see clearly who the recipient is. It is I, it is you, not because of what we have accomplished but because of who God is- all Love. It’s never been about worth, but always about love, and the sweet condescension of his mercy, the tenderness you never really deserve. 

Our work is to be seized by awe-filled gratitude at Christ’s deeds on our behalf over and over again, to see clearly what God is doing in my life, in our lives together. It demands our attention and openness to the epiphanies - to believe beyond all doubt that God is choosing me, choosing us, favoring us, and blessing us beyond our imagining in ways far beyond our often-narrow comprehension, ways that are his ways, not our ways of doing things.

We may sometimes want to say with Saint Peter, “Depart from me, Lord, I am sinful.” Well, the hardest part is that he won’t go away. Even with my hardheartedness and stupidity, Jesus is not going anywhere. He just continues to love and mercy us. His love is ultimately unmanageable. He is aching for us. He can’t help himself. He is longing to take us into his wounded side as refuge.

Only what is fragile and broken can be created anew; what is vulnerable is transformable; what is sinful can be mercied. But what is stiff, stubborn, and intractable is stagnant and stuck. Allowing myself to be forgiven changes everything. God doesn’t want my virtue, he wants my weakness.

We must normalize fragmentation for one another - normalize the falling apart as the means to life in Christ Jesus. This is not careless, presumptive laziness, (“I’m broken, you’re broken; Christ will rescue us. No problem!”) Neither is it the blind leading the blind into a catastrophic fall. It is rather the weak leading the weak into a willing acknowledgment and celebration of the inevitability of our fragmentation and weakness as good news that will lead to our transformation in Christ. We need to be prepared for a “collision of desires”- our desperate need for forgiveness bound to collide with Jesus’ desperate desire to forgive and console us. 

Photograph of Brothers Guerric and Mikah by Brother Brian. Meditation by one of our monks.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Our Father, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Reflecting on how I might approach Bernard for today’s feast, I found myself drawn to the theme of freedom, which is certainly fundamental for Bernard; since for one thing he devoted a whole treatise to it as a young abbot in his On Grace and Free Choice. Freedom is also clearly a value very dear to our contemporaries, reaching back to the very origins of our nation’s existence. I did a little search for a contemporary attempt to define freedom and decided upon one that has long intrigued me, that ventured upon by the Supreme Court in the case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, in 1992, which is often noted as one of the few attempts on the official level to try to get at the essence of freedom. The majority opinion wrote this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The first thing is that liberty is expressed here in terms of a right, which in the modern sense, in a formulation I find helpful, concerns “the scope of the exercise of our power to choose, as we wish, unobstructed by the power of the will of others.” The scope here, at first sight anyway, appears incredibly broad. In fact, one of the most common critiques of the Court’s formulation is that it is superhuman. Who in human history, even the most megalomaniacal tyrants of the ancient world, would have claimed such power over the givenness of the world in which they found themselves? Yet, here, this power is bestowed on absolutely everyone as a right. Yet, upon closer examination, what, we might ask, does this power actually amount to if everyone has it? First, regarding my relationship with others: the minute I try to exercise this power I discover that I am in conflict with everyone else’s right to define their own concept of existence, and so on. You and I, all of us here, can have this absolute power to determine the meaning of existence only as long as my determination of the meaning of existence means nothing to you, and your determination of the meaning of existence means nothing to me unless we so choose. Everyone can have this power, it turns out, only if they keep it entirely to themselves, only if it remains a totally private affair, concerning themselves alone. Thus, it turns out that if everyone has this power, no one can in fact exercise it.

If I cannot determine my own meaning of existence in such a way that brings about real change in anything or anyone around me, then perhaps I can at least determine it for myself. Again, if I take this power as genuinely absolute, I soon discover that it results in a rather volatile and unstable existence since I find that I am in fact not at all bound to any of my previous determinations of the meaning of existence, not even the one I had this morning unless I freely choose at every moment to do so. Such power leaves me with no more substance than a leaf blowing in the wind, and thus cannot have any real significance even for myself and leaves me in the end without any really meaningful existence.

Since this power does not allow me in actual fact to determine the meaning of existence for others or for myself, what am I left with but a purely subjective feeling of freedom, with no foundation in the real? Such a right, then, is at bottom deceptive, an illusion. To hold it cuts oneself off from God, the world, other people, the community as a whole, and even oneself.

What has happened here is that the will as a power of self-determination and choice has been isolated from any determination outside itself, and so in this respect has become its own source and its own goal. Remaining for a moment on the philosophical level in which the court has expressed itself; in terms of the classical tradition, what is missing here is the priority of the good, which gives the self-determination and spontaneity of the will sense and meaning. In the sense associated with Plato, goodness is a self-diffusive first principle, the ultimate cause of generation; goodness, therefore, as generosity. In the sense associated with Aristotle, goodness is finality. Goodness represents the telos, the goal, toward which all things strive, it is that by which they are attracted, and in which they rest. When the will is isolated from this framework of the good, it becomes disordered, chaotic, destructive, meaningless, and unreal. Freedom has its genuine place within this twofold generosity of the good as origin and goal, the generative outpouring that gives order to all existing things.

St. Bernard shows himself within this classical line of thought when in his treatise On Loving God, he calls God the efficient and final cause of our love (De Dil, 22). Here, though, is introduced a very big difference: the actuality and perfection that is the source and goal of all our striving is no longer just the good of the philosophers, but personal, divine love, that pours itself out on us gratuitously and calls for a response.  “Why and how should God be loved?”, Bernard asks, “God himself is the reason why he is to be loved. As for how he is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love.” “What right has God to be loved?” The fact that “he has loved us first.” Man grows in freedom insofar as he grows in the capacity to love without limit the God who deserves to be loved for his own sake, “since he gave himself to us when we deserved it least” and “what could he have given us better than himself?” Man’s rights are situated within the divine right God thus has to be loved for his own sake. Here is where they find their scope and meaning.

Awareness of how God deserves to be loved is not just an idea, it is a mystery that can never be exhausted, and so is something we need to consciously cultivate at all times. Bernard insists we do this by being attentive to God’s many gifts: “For, who else gives food to all who eat, sight to all who see, and air to all who breathe?” Without these, we cannot live, but beyond these “chief gifts” lie man’s nobler gifts, of which Bernard names three: dignity, knowledge and virtue. Man’s dignity is precisely his free will. Knowledge is that “by which he acknowledges that this dignity [of a free will] is in him but that it is not of his own making.”  “Virtue”, the third gift, “is that by which man seeks continuously and eagerly for his Maker and when he finds him, adheres to him with all his might.”  

These gifts seem to me to make for a powerful recipe for human flourishing. A world view such as that of the courts constructed around an absolute free will promotes in my view what Bernard might call at best a “restless curiosity.”

The reason is based on our human condition. As Bernard puts it: “Every rational being naturally desires always what satisfies more its mind and will. It is never satisfied with something which lacks the qualities it thinks it should have. A man with a beautiful wife, for example, looks at a more attractive woman with a wanton eye or heart; a well-dressed man wants more costly clothes, and a man of great wealth envies anyone richer than he…Why wonder if man cannot be content with what is lower or worse, since he cannot find peace this side of what is highest and best?”

Such is the condition of our contemporaries who have been handed the “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. They can run through an infinite number of these concepts and never find peace for their restless heart until they have settled on the highest and the best, which can only be God himself, his love, and his plan for their life.

As Bernard says, “whoever desires the greatest good can succeed in reaching it if he can first gain possession of all he desires short of that good itself.” That is, if you could actually do the impossible and possess all that you desire, you would discover their incapacity to fill your desire and so turn at last to the God of the universe. There is another way: “If they could only be content with reaching all in thought and not in deed. They could easily do so and it would not be in vain, for man’s mind is more comprehensive and subtle than his senses.”

Yet, this is not the best way. “The desire to experience all things first is like a vicious circle, it goes on forever. The just man is not like that…he prefers the royal road which turns neither to the right nor to the left.” The path of the just is the way of those who “take a salutary short-cut and avoid the dangerous, fruitless round-about way, choosing the shortened and shortening word,” That is, God’s word in Christ, “not desiring everything they see, but rather selling all they have and giving it to the poor.”

Our world today needs badly the witness of the just who prefer the royal road, the straight path of genuine freedom, who have responded to the call to walk the way of the “shortened word” in search of the God who loved them first; and who, when they have gone astray, heed the call of love to return and take up the path once again. Let us cling to this God, and never let go.

Saint Bernard by El Greco.  Father Timothy's homily for today's feast.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

With Blessed Guerric


Blessed is he who allowed his hands and feet and side to be pierced and opened himself to me wholly that I might enter 'the place of his wonderful tent' and be protected. Indeed it is a safe dwelling place to linger in the wounds of Christ the Lord. The protection this tent affords surpasses all the glory of the world. It is a shade from the heat by day, a refuge, and a shelter from the rain so that by day the sun will not scorch you, nor the storm move you.

As we celebrate today the feast of our own Cistercian, Blessed Guerric of Igny, we wonder with him at Jesus' goodness and self-effacing love. 

Detail of a photograph by Brother Brian. Lines from The Fourth Sermon for Palm Sunday of Blessed Guerric of Igny.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021


When we hear Peter’s words this morning, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us? What’s in it for us?” We may be a bit embarrassed for him. But curiously enough, Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter for his question. He responds graciously, promises him, promises us a hundredfold, everything — thrones, preeminence for each of them, a marvelous overwhelming return for all that we have given Him.

God notices; notices what we have given; understands all that we long to offer or have tried to offer. He is aware of the gift we give, no matter how small. This is a God who deeply desires to be known, loved; a God who wants to engage us. Jesus notices. He notices and is grateful. “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name,” He says, “will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.”  He promises that God will respond that he will reciprocate. “Rest assured,” says He. “You will receive a hundred times more.” God will not be outdone in his generosity. We can afford to give everything because Jesus has promised that the return will be more than we could ever hope or dream for. There will be something for us. Dare we say, God is obligated to us - not because of any merit of ours but because God is God? The Everything he gives us is God’s Very Self – in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Jesus is the Everything we receive.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Harmony of Graces

We just listened to Our Lady respond to her relative Elizabeth with these words, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” And we might add that her body proclaims the greatness of the Lord, too. Our Lady proclaims in body and soul the graces and love that God has showered upon her, and she rejoices in the promise that in the end, we, her children, will be with her, body and soul, in heaven. This is God’s promise.

But first some background to the promise. When Pope Pius XII defined that Our Lady’s assumption was part of the deposit of faith, he referred to the great things God had done for her by using the words, “harmony of graces,” each grace building on and harmonizing with the rest. The harmony began when she was preserved from the moment of her conception from the crippling effects of original sin. It continued when she conceived the true Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and not by man. The harmony continued as she persevered in patient and enduring charity in all life’s difficulties, even to witnessing her Son’s horrible death on the cross. It rose to a new level in her maternal presence at the birth of the Church on Pentecost. And it reached its climax when she was lifted up to heaven in body and soul. This harmony of graces points to and confirms the Church’s age-long conviction that Our Lord Jesus would never have allowed the body of his mother to decay in the earth after she passed from this life.

But there is another grace which we should never forget. Our Lord Jesus has given his mother to us as our mother, and what mother would not want her children to share in everything she has? “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name...” is meant to be our song as well, a response to the great gift of immortal, unending happiness in a body and soul perfectly united in heaven. But can we even dare to think that such a grace will be ours?

I think so, because that is what God has promised, both to the Church and to Mary. I think he speaks of this in chapter five of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You know the text – “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her, to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” That is what Jesus did first for his mother by a singular grace and privilege at the moment she was conceived. And that is what he will do for us that we might be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that when he unites our body and soul in heaven. If we have a mother who wants her children to have everything that she has, and a divine bridegroom who even unto death has handed over all he has for our sake, aren’t these grounds for confidence that he will bring us at last to that blessed union of body and soul in heaven?

All of this should not go unnoticed by Cistercian monks, since our whole Order is dedicated to Mary assumed into heaven. Our mission is to witness to the immensity of God’s love for both body and soul, manifested in Our Lady’s bodily assumption. The world needs this witness desperately, especially in the face of so much confusion and despair about the true meaning of the body. Let us then come to this Eucharist to be washed, sanctified, and lifted up along with Our Lady, for indeed, “The Almighty has done great things for us.” 

Madonna of the CloudsDonatello, about 1425–35, marble, 13 1/16 x 12 5/8 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Today's homily by Dom Vincent.


Today is a great feast of contemplative joy, indeed of explosive, intergalactic joy. At once our gaze is invited to soar upwards, beyond sun and moon and stars, by St. John’s vision in the Book of Revelation: “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant”—the precious human ark containing the resplendent Word—“could be seen in the temple: … a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” How utterly magnificent! This vision of her who is, nevertheless, our sister and mother, steals our breath.

Such a dazzling cosmic vision of faith, however, looks very different to the eyes of the body: the only thing our eyes actually see in the gospel is a very ordinary, pregnant young woman sweating as she laboriously climbs hills to visit and help her equally pregnant older relative. With good reason, today’s solemn feast of our blessed Lady’s Assumption is the patronal feast of the Cistercian Order. In this great mystery, that shows forth the fulfillment of Mary’s life and its deepest meaning, we see that what truly counts in the end for any human life is not external glitter but the degree to which God’s plan of grace and salvation has been realized in it. And what is the ardent intention and desire of God’s Heart for us? That we should come to share forever in his own life and glory; that his own nature as self-spending love should rejoice in raising up to itself the very creatures that he had drawn out of nothingness. If I say that this is rightly our patronal feast as Cistercians it’s because the path that Mary our Mother followed to the attainment of glory is precisely our own: a life of dedication to prayer and growth in love that in every way is “ordinary, obscure and laborious”. The destiny of the woman in St. John’s vision—“she fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God”—is a very apt image of our own monastic existence as we await, in the hiddenness and apartness and even occasional aridity of life in our monasteries, the return of the Lord who has ascended to the Father’s glory.

We look in vain for impressive exterior events and accomplishments in the earthly life of the Mother of God. This strenuous trip on foot to Elizabeth’s house in the hill country of Judah is about as exciting as it gets at the level of visible happenings. All that is truly extraordinary, thrilling, astounding in Mary’s life occurs within the intimacy of her heart and soul. It is as if she, too, had taken vows of obedience, conversion of manners, and stability, in order to undertake the only adventure that matters, which is the voyage into the Heart of God. We strive to be hidden contemplatives, and therefore commit our whole being to the mostly invisible journey of the heart, following the lead of our Mother.

Let us recall the actual words of Pope Pius XII on November 1st, 1950, when he solemnly proclaimed the mystery of the Assumption.  We should be interested in them because these words are really describing our own destiny as Christians:  We proclaim, declare and define as a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate, ever-Virgin Mother of God, Mary, after completing the course of her earthly life, was taken up with body and soul into the heavenly glory.  Nothing could be simpler than these serene words, yet nothing could be more extraordinary than their meaning and implications. This pope, like all bishops of Rome, is here, in fact, declaring nothing new, but affirming, with the full authority of Peter, the Church’s millennial faith. The Church has always seen in Mary’s life the fully accomplished glorification of a member of the human race who, by divine intervention, became the Mother of the incarnate Word and thus came to share intimately in Christ’s Resurrection and definitive triumph over death. Today’s feast has been celebrated in the East on this date at least since the early fifth century, in the wake of the Council of Ephesus, and was then introduced in the West in the seventh century. The dogmatic definition succeeds wonderfully, I think, in saying the essential about the mystery of the Assumption in the fewest possible words. 

The titles “immaculate” and “ever-Virgin” point to the roots of the Assumption event as lying in the way that God had himself prepared a fitting earthly dwelling-place for his Son in the sinlessness of Mary and in her graced response to God’s proposal to her. In her response Mary held nothing back because she opened her spirit, heart and body with heroic receptivity to what God wanted to give her. 

God’s unique intervention in Mary’s life radically changed the whole direction of her personal history and challenged her to give up every preconceived notion of virtue and righteousness. Nevertheless, Mary still had to live out the full course of her appointed time on earth in an (externally speaking) most ordinary manner. And yet within, in the interior chamber of her prayer and in her keen awareness of God’s intense presence in her being, she was one unceasing act of gratitude, praise, and joy; in her own words: My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked upon his servant in her nothingness. Henceforth all generations will call me blessed. These words of her Magnificat mark the most significant turning-point in the human race’s understanding of itself. Small, hidden, humble Mary turned the course of world history and man’s self-understanding on its head. 

From now on, the greatest reason for any person to rejoice would be not the typically male feats sung in every epic poem (violent acts of vengeance, merciless slaughter of one’s enemies, proud triumph over one’s rivals, exploitation of others’ weaknesses, and so on). The reason for greatest joy would rather be the deeply interior feminine virtues that spring from faithful love, and that should flourish in the heart of every human being, men and women alike: hopeful expectancy, generous preparedness, intelligent listening, permanent availability for the service of others, the offering of one’s whole being as a vessel for the reception of divine love so as then to contribute to love’s circulation throughout the body of creation. This edifice of interior virtues, constructed in the first place by the divine Architect in the person of the Virgin, offered a spectacle of such splendor in his own sight that in the end the Heart of the Creator was ravished by the beauty he had himself invested in his creature. As a result, God’s sheer delight elevated Mary to his own royal status: “The Queen stands at [the King’s] right hand, arrayed in gold. So shall the King desire [her] beauty”.

Mary’s greatest joy comes from the knowledge that the all-powerful God delights in her “nothingness”, because he has found in her a human space and disposition where he can make himself at home and work unhampered. God has found in Mary a creature who will allow the Creator to be fully God in her!  In Mary, every human faculty and desire responds with perfect harmony to the desires and expectations of the Creator. This is dynamic sanctity, which overturns every convention and tradition, and value system of human society.  After Mary, only those will be called “blessed” who are poor in spirit and courageous enough to allow God to be everything in them. In Mary, God has proved that such a thing is possible, and from now on every child born of woman will be judged by the standard that the very human Mary has set.  Mary is said to have been “taken up into heavenly glory”, in the passive voice, because she made herself fully malleable in God’s hands; and this being-taken-up by another, this “assumption”, swept up both her body and her soul, because she had held nothing back because she had offered her whole being to God’s work and transforming activity. From now on, the shape of every human life will either be Marian or it will have failed in the fullness of humanity.

God wants the whole of us, body and soul, for himself.  He created our whole being and he wants our whole being back for his own delight and for our complete glorification. Notice how I naturally slip into saying our, because it is impossible to talk about Mary’s ultimate transformation in glory without, at the same time, talking about the same vocation and destiny for ourselves. Pius XII chose November 1st, 1950, as the date for the proclamation of the dogma presumably because he wanted to stress, on the feast of All Saints, the fact that Mary’s Assumption, a unique and unheard-of event if ever there was one, at the same time opened the way for the glorification, along with her, of every member of the human race. In isolation from us, the mystery of Mary really makes no sense. Can you imagine a church, or a world, in which, out of all human beings, only Mary has been saved? Impossible! No mother can be happy without her children! In the same way that “Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep”, so too Mary enters into divine glory next only after Christ, even while human history still continues; but she does so only as a trailblazing anticipation of our own assumption into heavenly life and bliss. First, the Son; then, the Mother; finally, “at his coming, those who belong to Christ”, all those who have come to fullness of life in the divine Son as a result of the earthly Mother’s obedient love; “each one in proper order”, as St. Paul says.

Today, then, as a result of our participation in the mystery of Our Lady’s Assumption through the celebration of this life-giving Eucharist, “may our hearts, aflame with the fire of love, constantly long for [the glory of God]” 

Detail of  Assumption by Maurice Denis. Homily by Father Simeon.


Friday, August 13, 2021



“What eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him…” 

I am emboldened by Saint Paul, who, when referring to what God has prepared, says, “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” We have the Spirit of God, so let us follow the Spirit’s lead and allow our hope to reach in behind the veil and touch this mystery and be touched by it. Hope is a spiritual power given to us by God as a gift that enables us to desire the kingdom of heaven. Hope enables us to trust in Jesus’ promises, not on our own strength but on the grace of the Holy Spirit. The virtue of hope is aimed at the good things that God has prepared for us.

Hope reaches out to a glory which eye cannot yet see, ear cannot fully hear, and the human heart can barely grasp. In our hope we touch the mysteries of heaven, and in the Eucharist, we receive a foretaste – of fulfillment, of communion, and of harmony in diversity – made present under the sign and sacrament of bread and wine. All of this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.

Photograph of  Abbey church window by Brother Daniel. Meditation by Father Vincent.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Feast of Saint Lawrence

As we celebrate the saints, we sometimes imagine them smiling a bit sheepishly; their heads lowered. And as we chant in their honor, perhaps they are more than a bit embarrassed by all the hoopla. They point quietly to the wounded Christ. “It’s not about us,” they insist. “It’s all about Jesus, what his tender mercy has accomplished in us.”

The saints, like Saint Lawrence whom we celebrate this morning, ultimately know themselves as mercied sinners, who have been transformed by the love of Christ. 

No wonder then that even as he was being roasted over a slow fire, Lawrence could joke, "Turn me over. I think I'm done on this side." Love made him brave and self-forgetful and even silly.


You gain nothing, you prevail nothing, O savage cruelty. His mortal frame is released from your devices, and, when Lawrence departs to heaven, you are vanquished. The flame of Christ's love could not be overcome by your flames, and the fire which burnt outside was less keen than that which blazed within. You but served the martyr in your rage, O persecutor: you but swelled the reward in adding to the pain. For what did your cunning devise, which did not redound to the conqueror's glory, when even the instruments of torture were counted as part of the triumph? Let us rejoice, then, dearly beloved, with spiritual joy, and make our boast over the happy end of this illustrious man in the Lord, Who is wonderful in His saints, in whom He has given us a support and an example…

Fresco by Fra Angelico. The quotation from a sermon on Saint Lawrence by Saint Leo the Great.


Sunday, August 8, 2021

True Food

This is the only way we ever have life within us. Jesus is very clear and blunt about it. His flesh is true food, and his blood is true drink. Any other diet leaves us empty and hollow, hungry and bereft of life. “Truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.” Those are ominous words, words that haunt and challenge us to consider whether there is life within us, real life.

Most of us spend a fair amount of time, energy, and prayer trying to create and possess the life we want. In spite of our best efforts, we live less than fully alive. Sometimes the outside and inside of who we are don’t match up. We ask ourselves, “What am I doing with my life?” We wonder if this is all there will ever be. Is this as good as it gets? As the years and decades roll by, we may find ourselves lamenting over what has become of us and our life. Nothing seems to satisfy. Many are tempted to despair at what is and what they think will be. Despite community, family, and friends, it is possible for any of us to find no place in which we really belong. Life is elusive; we may even sometimes feel that we are dying from the inside out.

But in those unexpected, inexplicable, graced moments when we truly believe in Jesus as a person and eat, ingest, and take him into our lives, we live differently. We see ourselves and one another as created in the image and likeness of God and belonging to one another, rather than as obstacles or issues to be overcome. We trust the silence of prayer rather than the words of argument or manipulation. We choose love and forgiveness rather than anger and retribution. We relate with intimacy and vulnerability rather than with superficiality and defensiveness. We listen for God’s voice rather than our own. This is a great grace: to actually seek life rather than death.

And so, Jesus tells us that he is our life and the means to the life for which we most deeply hunger. To live is not simply a matter of working for the life we want. Amazingly, he calls us to eat the life we want. The wonder that should “stop us in our tracks” is that wherever human hunger and the flesh and blood of Christ meet, there is life!

For, it is in the eating and drinking of Christ’s Body and Blood that he lives in us and we in him. We consume his life that he might consume and change ours. We eat and digest his life, his love, his mercy and forgiveness, his way of being and seeing, his compassion, his presence - and most crucially, his relationship with the Father. Yes, he seriously invites us to eat and drink our way to life! The table of God is set, and there is always a place waiting for each one of us. Let us now become what we receive.

The Savior, El Greco (and workshop), 1608-1614, oil on canvas, 72 cm x 55 cm, The Prado, Madrid. Meditation by Father Damian.

Friday, August 6, 2021


This morning we ascend Mount Tabor with Jesus and his three apostles. And we hear the Father declare, “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.

The brilliance of this morning’s Transfiguration 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 may we too be transfigured and fearless enough to be self-forgetful like Jesus. 

Photograph by Father Emmanuel.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Saint John Vianney

The Canaanite woman in today’s gospel is a perfect icon of the life of prayer that was the core of St John Vianney’s existence. For this great contemplative whom we celebrate today, prayer was indeed the “land of milk and honey,” producing amazing fruit. Like this foreign woman, consumed with concern for the soul of another, the Curé of Ars embodied a faith that was at once deeply humble, tirelessly insistent, aggressively bold, and that, above all, clung for dear life to the person of Jesus. He saw no limits to what God could do for him since his most ardent desire happened to coincide with God’s own: namely, the salvation of souls. Let us, too, now turn to the Lord, and humbly yet boldly beg him to inflame our sluggish hearts with the fire of his charity, through the intercession of St John Mary Vianney.

Reflection by Father Simeon.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Heaven's Gate


On the day I finally entered the abbey, first we prayed in this church before going to the guest house to meet Fr. Marius, the vocation director. Two weeks earlier, toward the end of my observership, my Dad had died suddenly. The Dominican Prior had picked me up and had driven me to my family's house. After the funeral and some time there to mourn with my family about my dad, my mother drove me back to the Abbey. “Tommy,” she said in her Irish way, “I haven't ever prayed in your Church, so I get three wishes. Let's go in.” We prayed for a while. I thought I might be holding my mother up, so I left the side chapel, but she did not. I waited and waited and waited. Finally, she came out with a sparkle of joy on her face. “Tommy!” she said, “I'm sorry to have taken so long, but your Father was there with me.” 

What a gift that was for me from my mother and dad and from Our Father in heaven. “This is truly the House of God!” I felt in my heart. In the first reading, we just heard Solomon pray at the dedication of the Temple, “You, O Lord my God, looked kindly on the prayer and the cry of supplication of your servants.” That day long ago, it was as if my Dad had walked in on us through heaven's gate as we knelt in prayer in the side chapel. My mother was mystic enough to perceive him. Truly this place is the Gate of Heaven. That was 48 years ago.

On August 1, 1975, 46 years ago we dedicated this Church in rites that were spread out over two days—the 31st and the 1st. I remember there were trowels and mortar and relics and oil and blazing fire on the altar. We lit the candles on the walls for the first time-- the walls that had been anointed in dedication. There was a beautiful homemade Ark of the Covenant filled with the altar relics carried on two shoulder poles by two priests. The abbots of Berryville, Guadalupe, Belle Fontaine, and Mother Angela of Wrentham joined us for the celebration. The community numbered around 65 members. Our saintly Bishop Bernard Flanagan was his usual regal self as he traced the Latin and Greek letters in the sand across the transept with his crozier. When a monk makes solemn profession of vows, he makes those of obedience, fidelity to monastic life, and stability. 

The dedication of a monastic Church is very much like a solemn profession of stability and of faithful obedience to the monastic way of life that we make corporately, even across time including all our members past and present and future. For as long as it is God's will, we monks of Spencer will be here in this holy temple to worship the Lord in the presence of all his angels and saints and all the people who come here to pray with us. And we will be here to receive thankfully all the gifts that come to us from Above. This House is a House of Prayer for all people.

The Patriarch Jacob went to sleep at Bethel with a conscience troubled by the deception of his father and his brother. Not expecting anything he lay down to sleep against a rock and then dreamed about angels ascending and descending to and from Heaven. He awoke amazed and filled with reverential fear and awe. So, he named the place “Beth-el”, the House of God. He was totally surprised by the tangible presence of God, the Intangible One. I believe that this is at the root of his reconciliation with Esau. My mother, in mourning, expected only to say a good prayer for her departed husband and was surprised by a mystical encounter with my dad.

Zacchaeus, likewise, with his conscience wounded by co-operation in the Roman oppression of his people, has the very modest hope that if he just climbs that sycamore tree over there, he might get a glimpse of this Jesus as he passes by. Thomas Merton who identified with “the man in the sycamore tree” has made it easier for us Trappists to identify with Zacchaeus in his modest expectations that stem from the fact that Zacchaeus seems to be coming to the realization that every Jew--including the poorest who is living even only somewhat uprightly--is better than himself: a corrupt tax collector. Yet, the God of surprises, incarnate in Jesus actually halts in his tracks and invites himself to stay with Zacchaeus, yes, at the home of this sinner whom everyone in town despises. This home of a sinner will become the resting and refreshment place of God in Jesus Christ, just as Zacchaeus' soul will be renewed in his conversion as a temple of God.

St. Benedict seems to have the experience of Zacchaeus in mind when he points out that in the seventh step of humility the monk “not only confesses with his tongue but also believes with all his heart that he is lower and less honorable than all the rest.” (RB 7:51) It is this kind of humility that grounds a monk in his stability as a living stone firmly planted in the ground as a foundation that builds up the community into a spiritual house of God. The gospel text tells us that Zacchaeus was “short in stature.” Well, we are all morally and spiritually “short” in some way or another, shortness of stature being unimportant. We may want not to be but certainly can be at times short in our practice of heartfelt compassion, short on kindness, short on gentleness, short on the practice of patience, short on bearing with one another, short on forgiving one another, short in faith, short in hope and short on the bond of perfection which is love.

There is a man, the Son of Man, who just passed through Jericho. Now he is passing through Spencer—he says he is coming to seek and to save what was lost. Let's try climbing a sycamore tree to get a better view of things—whatever that tree is to each one of us. If we climb that personal tree with the help of God's grace, we can be sure right now that as we continue this Eucharist, Jesus will halt in his tracks and invite himself into our house. He says to Zaccheus and to all of us here today celebrating the dedication of this House of God, “Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house!” The Eucharist is a real saving encounter with the God-Man, Jesus Christ. The time to be morally and spiritually “short in stature” is over. It is the time to grow to the full stature of Jesus Christ. Receive him with joy.

Sunday's homily by Father Luke.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Living Stones


As living stones, we are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2.5

We celebrate today the 46th Anniversary of the Dedication of our own Abbey church.  During the early years of the monastery's foundation here in Spencer, the growth of the community was remarkable. And ground was broken for our church on 19 March 1952. On 15 August 1953, the first Mass was solemnly celebrated in the newly completed church. Designed by some of the monks in collaboration with a local architectural firm, the church was built by contracted lay workers and the many monks who assisted them. The church was finally dedicated on August 1, 1975. 
We are grateful for the beauty and simplicity of our monastic church, grateful for the labor and inspiration of our monastic forebears. And we pray that we may become more and more "living stones" in Christ's own Body which is the Church. We share some pictures of the early days at Spencer from the Abbey archives.