Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Repentance of the Prodigal Son

Repentance arises from realizing that I am truly loved, and have always been loved, by an unconditional love that has remained faithful and never failed even when I have misunderstood it or not even realized it existed. Therefore, he arose and came to his father. The text says that he came, not that he returned. There is a wholly fresh quality to this particular journey that, rather than a “return”—a going back in time and place—transforms it into the beginning of something radically new. And the father, who before had done nothing but wait and hope and love silently and painfully, now gets very busy indeed! He runs, welcomes, embraces, kisses, celebrates, gives orders for the party to end all parties, and provides for all material needs—all to honor his son as if he were a prince on his coronation day.

What had at first seemed like emptiness was really not empty at all! Inaction is now a memory that crumbles in the face of the many actions the father performs in his ecstatic joy. His former silence now breaks into a torrent of words to voice the many things his heart must explode within what is really an uncontainable hymn of rejoicing. This rejoicing is the flip side of the suffering covered over by silence and patience in the long night of waiting. We now hear the father exhale the long breath of love, patience, and compassion. The father couldn’t be less interested in his son’s moral conduct or in the loss of the inheritance. The father unconditionally accepts his son back, without demanding stages of repentance or subjecting him to tests of worthiness in order to rub in his guilt and then perhaps readmit him to the family he had willfully forsaken, granting him some reduced status as a perpetual reminder of his rebellion. Not at all! The prodigal son is welcomed back, as we have said, as nothing less than a prince!

The elder son reacts badly. And yet the father goes to meet him, too, on his own ground, reassuring him that whatever is his father’s is also his and that he is loved just as he is. He doesn’t have to deserve or prove anything. He doesn’t have to think that it is only by working like a slave that he will be loved. Above all, the father’s attitude suggests that the elder son shouldn’t hide his own fear of love behind an obsession with duty. But he is the one who has to walk that path. The younger son has followed a very tortuous path to come to the realization that love doesn’t have to be earned, and the elder son is called to discover the same thing, along a path that must be his own and not an imitation of someone else’s.

The path of each of us toward grasping God’s unconditional love is personal and cannot be cloned. It is foolish to want to imitate other paths. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners says Jesus. And what better tells of God’s unilateral, unconditional love more eloquently than Jesus’ love directed at tax collectors and sinners, at those whom the pious consider to be unrighteous and unholy? What is most pleasing to the God of Jesus Christ is that, if a person’s repentance and conversion do occur in the end, they are the work of their freedom cooperating with grace, the result of their feeling that they are loved, and of their surrender to the power of this love.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam), 1636, etching, 6 1/8 × 5 7/16 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission. Reflection by Father Simeon.

 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

This Morning's Scripture

 

For thirty-eight years a sick man has been unable to reach the healing waters of the pool with five porticoes called Bethesda. Jesus heals this very desperate man, for he is himself the living spring, the healing pool with the five porticoes. In his death on the cross, this will all be made perfectly clear, for then his body will be pierced in hands and feet and side – five gateways pouring out blood and water, grace and new life for all. Ezekiel's vision will be fulfilled -  the cross will be the Tree, bearing Fruit that cannot fade or fail – Fruit that will be for us our true food and medicine – the Body and Blood of our Savior and Lord. 
Etching by Rembrandt.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Laetare

The Parable of The Return of the Prodigal Son has been a source of inspiration for many artists over the centuries. Perhaps the most famous illustration of this story was painted by Rembrandt in the late seventeenth century. It was completed during the last two years of his life. According to the eminent British art historian, Kenneth Clark, it ranks among the greatest paintings ever.

He writes, “In the painting, we see the father like an Old Testament patriarch, lays his hands on the shoulders of his repentant son with shaved head and threadbare clothes. The father’s act of forgiving becomes a blessing of almost sacramental dignity. The painting is full of emotion and truly illustrates the father’s forgiveness and love for his son.”

The parable is normally referred to as the “Prodigal Son” but in fact, the central character of the story is the father, who clearly represents a merciful, loving God.

No one can deny the appalling behavior of the younger son, his immaturity, and selfishness. He asks for his share of the inheritance from his father. Asking for his inheritance while his father was still alive was unheard of. It is the same as saying that he could not wait until his father had died. He wants his freedom, and he wants it now!

Off he goes to a foreign country, far from his father and his family. He wastes his inheritance on self-centered pleasures, and in the end, he is left destitute. He was reduced to the degrading task of caring for pigs, appalling for Jews. He was so hungry that he was even willing to eat the garbage that was given to them. One can hardly imagine a lower level of abasement and poverty. “It serves him right,” “He gets what he deserves,” might be the reaction of many people, especially those who consider themselves good and respectable.

He comes to his senses and realizes how stupid he was to abandon his loving father. He makes up his mind to go back home and beg to be taken in as one of the lowest servants. He felt deeply ashamed and prepared a carefully worded speech for his father and then he begins the journey home, in fear and trepidation that he will not be accepted back.

The average human father might welcome him back but with conditions. He would love him, after all, he is his son, but he would have to prove himself as a responsible adult before the father could forgive and forget.

But this father was different, he never gave up on his son. He waited anxiously and kept watch, hoping his son would come home. Even as his son was far off, he saw him coming. He was so excited that he ran to him. That detail has always moved me, the father couldn’t wait for his son to reach him, instead, he ran to him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. He didn’t care about his son’s speech, begging for forgiveness, having him back was enough for him. “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.”

In Rembrandt’s painting, the son is kneeling before his father with his face buried in his father’s robe, presumably weeping. His head is shaved and one of his worn-out sandals has fallen from his foot. The father is embracing his young son with large strong hands, pressing on the shoulder of the young man’s threadbare garment. It is a touching image of mercy and forgiveness.

During the father’s celebration for the return of his son, the older son makes his appearance. As he approaches the house, he hears the music and dancing and the sounds of celebration. He cannot understand what is happening and asks the servants what is going on. Enraged by the treatment his father has given to his brother he refuses to come into the house. His father comes out and tries to persuade him that it is right to celebrate the return of his brother. The older brother then recites a litany of his brother’s escapades. He squandered his inheritance and lived lavishly with prostitutes in a foreign country. Now he comes home and is treated like royalty. What kind of justice is this? In a state of boiling contempt, he stretches out his arm, points to the house, and in his father’s face screams, “This son of yours,” and the father gently rebukes him and says, “your brother.”                      

The older son was faithful, worked hard, and never disobeyed his father’s orders, and what does he get - nothing. I can understand his anger and resentment. He felt offended, taken for granted. After all, he has been a loyal, hard-working son. He did everything he was supposed to do, but for the wrong reasons. His resentment points to deeper wounds. He has never felt accepted, appreciated, or loved. Like his younger brother, he is also lost and blinded. He did not have a forgiving heart; unlike his father whose love never changes no matter what his children do. He is ready to accept them back without exception.

The interesting thing about this parable is that Jesus did not give it an ending. It’s up to us. Which brother do you identify with? Perhaps a little of each? But the real point of the story is that we see in ourselves the arrogance and rebellion of the younger son and the mean-spirited anger and resentment of the older son. We all at times have shut ourselves off from the compassionate love of God.

Lent is a time for personal conversion and renewal. It only comes about when we are ready to acknowledge our sinfulness and our tendency to evil. We pray every day in the “Our Father,” “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” We cannot change unless we know what needs to be changed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” as Jesus says at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. (Mk 1:15) Repentance not only calls for regret and sorrow for sin but a profound change, a real reordering of my life, a real conversion.

I wish to end where I began, with the commentary on the painting of Rembrandt, by Kenneth Clark. “Rembrandt has portrayed the dignity and grandeur that perfectly reflects the younger son’s sincere repentance as well as his father’s loving and merciful response. The inherent message conveyed by this spiritual masterpiece is clear. God will always forgive a repentant sinner, no matter what.”

Today we celebrate the halfway point of Lent. The Church pauses to rejoice and sing, “Laetare”! It is a Sunday of joy. It has a place apart among the Sundays of Lent. This Sunday is our foretaste of Easter joy.

Like the father in today’s parable, we also have a merciful, compassionate Father in heaven who loves us and waits for our return. Now that’s something to rejoice about.

Today's homily by Father Emmanuel.

Friday, March 25, 2022

The Annunciation

 

When Father Joseph was novice master before he met a candidate, he would ask the vocation director, “Has he fallen in love?” In other words, does he have a heart that’s available and ready for love, a heart that will know what it’s like to be in love? Surely Mary’s heart was ready; her heart formed by the faithful love of family, the love she probably spoke each day in the Shema – promising to love the Lord, her God, with all her heart, with her whole being, and with all her strength. More recently her virgin heart has opened with tender love for Joseph. Today we celebrate this heart ready for love. We call this event Annunciation, but truly it is not an announcement at all but a request, better, a proposal. For we are witness in this scene to the pursuit of love, the God of love seeking love in response. And as God’s total outpouring is met by the loving openness of Mary, two loves are made one. Heaven is wedded to earth, and Mary becomes the Ark of this New Covenant. When you love, you are always waiting to hear what the beloved wants. You learn the habit of finding yourself by giving yourself away; trusting that the one you love will not manipulate or abandon you.  This self-gift and mutual exchange are the secret we all were made for.  We celebrate today because together Mary and God found this secret together.

But how? Mary is after all so small and insignificant, the unlikeliest – young, poor, without status, an unmarried girl from a backwater. She has nothing and is nothing at all; a real nobody, but she is perfect for God. God is hooked, it’s his golden opportunity. God has been searching relentlessly, and he is ravished by the delicate beauty of Mary of Nazareth. She is after all the perfect match for a God who is always captivated by what is humble and small, ordinary. God loses himself in her; God can’t help himself; for he always goes to the lowest place. We can well imagine God’s joy at his discovery; for his relationship with Mary will allow God to do what he has long dreamed of doing. Here, at last, is one who will not hide from him like Adam in the underbrush. In Mary God, at last, finds one who is not embarrassed at her nothingness, the stuff that can scare us half to death.[1] She lets it be; she has nothing to hide.

And amazingly, Mary’s smallness is room enough for God’s immensity. God’s condescension is so loving and tender that Mary’s humanness is not obliterated but exquisitely enhanced.[2] There in the mystery of her emptiness and nothingness, God finds ample space for his total outpouring, which becomes forever a possibility for us as well through her perfect availability to God’s self-gift. Mary as Godbearer, Theotokos, allows us to be Godbearers with her.

Through Mary, in Mary God can finally be what he could not be without her. She says how, she says yes, why not. And so, she becomes accomplice to God’s loving subterfuge. Through her, God can sneak through enemy lines[3], like a warrior eager to conquer sin and death. God will depend on our cooperation too in order to break the bonds of sin and selfishness.

Still, we may want to insist like Peter, “Leave me, Lord, I am no match for you.” But God is not going anywhere. He continues to pursue us, as he pursued Mary, noticing us, lost in our isolation and confusion especially now. He rushes toward us to take us to himself. Adam may hide, Peter protest; Mary simply welcomes the mystery of God’s advance. She lets God have his way; she invites us with her to understand our emptiness and confusion as God’s opportunity. Too much has been happening. We all can feel it in our gut. But in this time of our intense vulnerability, when we cannot pretend or hide, God in Christ may have more unrestricted access to our hearts than ever. If we understand the reality of his loving pursuit, we will see it’s God’s golden opportunity. He takes our flesh to be with us and mercy us. He is here begging at the low door of our humanity, longing to make his home in our empty, fearful hearts as he did in Mary’s.

God’s pursuit, his desire to communicate the depth of his love for us will be most clearly painted in the crucifixion. There we will see where God’s desire for our flesh and its liberation has led him. We are worth so much to God that he became human in order to suffer with us “in an utterly real way - in flesh and blood…in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence consolation is present in all suffering, the consolation of God's compassionate love- and so the star of hope rises [4] (for us through Mary). Again, this morning she leans over and whispers to us as she did at a wedding in Cana: "Do whatever he tells you. Let him find you here in your nothingness and emptiness and fear now more than ever, for nothing is impossible for God. I know this for sure." Let us listen to her and go to him for all we need.
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, c. 1438-47, fresco, 230 x 321 cm, Convent of San Marco, Florence. Meditation by one of our monks.


[1] Thomas Keating, ocso
[2] See Robert Barron
[3] See Robert Barron and NT Wright.
[4] Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Bearing Fruits of Love

The life of grace and the fruits of love are truly a symbiosis between God and us, as the natural symbiosis between tree and earth. The earth, the water, the fertilizer, our very existence, and even Christ, our fellow wayfarer: all this has God given us. But we are the tree itself, and we must fully exercise all the faculties given to us by divine mercy and goodness, all the while cooperating with the richness of the earth in which we have been planted, wherever a wise Providence has seen fit to place us. If we do not do so, if we do not do our best to thrive and produce fruits of charity, then our useless presence impoverishes the land we occupy parasitically, and this death-in-life will have its consequences.

What a consolation it is to realize that all along we have had at our disposal all we need, for Jesus in the Eucharist we celebrate is, all at once, our earth flowing with milk and honey, our abundant energizing water, our nourishing fertilizer, the chastising hoe that encourages our growth, and the blessed sunlight that infuses vitality into our being. We have only not to hide from his merciful, life-giving action. We have only to make ourselves findable! For, as St John of the Cross assures us, if the soul searches for God, much more does her Beloved search for her.

Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Meditation by Father Simeon.

 

 

 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A Brother's Funeral

I had been visiting Brother Matthew Joseph every day during the week before he died. The onset of his final decline was steep and difficult. One morning he asked Lorinda to call me at Trappist Preserves with the message: “This is it.” That is what started the daily visits and the opportunity to listen to him reflect on what has meant most to him over the years. There was a big change from day to day and a growing sense of immediacy.

I chose the passage from Lamentations for our First Reading this afternoon, because those words could very well have been Brother Matthew Joseph’s own when I last saw him the morning before he died: “My soul is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; I tell myself my future is lost . . . But I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope: my portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to those who seek him; it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” In just a couple of days, he experienced dramatic deterioration, and now he knew he had come to the end. He tasted the bitter frustration of not being able to do anything except undergoing the extreme weakness he was feeling, and now he wondered “what?” He looked up at me from his pillow with a face full of vulnerability and asked, “What should I do?” Words fail at such a moment, but I gently told him: “Just be, and know that Christ has never been closer to you, and please pray for the community.” At that, he said: “I am not afraid,” and with a faint smile added: “I am praying for the community.” He seemed to relax, with a job to do. Neither I nor anyone on the nursing staff expected that he would die two hours later, but he did, and peacefully. I was happy for him when Brother Amadeus came to the refectory to tell me, although shocked by the suddenness of it. Upon later reflection, it was that which inspired my choice of the Gospel for this afternoon, the simple exchange between the humble Dismas (“the Good Thief”) hanging on a cross next to Jesus, and Jesus experiencing a similar agony of helplessness: “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your reign.” “I assure you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”

Again, words fail, but I think these two Scripture passages somehow capture a moment of a defining grace in Brother Matthew Joseph’s life, something really known only to Brother Matthew Joseph and the Lord, but nonetheless affects us all. We all knew him as quiet and keeping mainly to himself for nearly 62 years as our brother. A number of us may feel we didn’t know him very well—but in truth, no matter how introverted or extroverted we are, each one of us is ultimately a mystery to each other, and even to ourselves. Personally, I am grateful for the impressions and stories about Brother Matthew Joseph that some of you shared with me these past few days, for they point to the grace and blessing of his life among us, for which we thank God as we commend him today to the Lord’s mercy.

Here is what some of the nurses, who took such good care of him in our Infirmary, shared: “Such a kind, quiet and spiritual soul. He had the tendency to know when we needed advice (yes, that resonates with me!) or a kind word or a warm smile. He had such a beautiful smile—it could light up a room. He told us he prayed for us all every night, as we are God’s earth-angels who care for the sick and elderly. He showed us all the greatest respect. He was always ready to lend a helping hand but never wanted to impose on anyone (that, too, resonates!). He would quietly observe and would do anything to help his brothers or infirmary staff. He was at his best when he was busy and productive—he was innately motivated to be on the go. Brother Matthew Joseph would always tell us not to worry because God is in control, not us: ‘why worry?!’ He had great respect for the earth and all creatures that inhabit it. He saw the beauty in the rain, flowers, and birds. He often would wish that others could slow down and appreciate the simple beauty of God’s creation.”

I certainly recognize him in this description. Many of us remember that he worked for many years at the Porter’s Lodge and Gift Shop alongside Br. Carl and Br. Leonard (between the 3 of them you can imagine the spiritual counseling about “the precious present” that was offered, visitors!). He also did the shipping at the Holy Rood Guild, often during dinnertime and meridian. When I worked at the Guild after my novitiate, I remember being amazed at how much he got done when no one was around…. But probably he loved outside work the most. During a conversation I had with him just 10 days ago, he told me how much it meant to him to care for the abbey roads, mowing their banks with the bush-hog to keep them attractive for the brethren to walk along. During the winter, we would see him moving tons of snow with the front-loader, enjoying the heavy equipment and no doubt the solitude it afforded. After a snowstorm, I would often see him from my window at Trappist Preserves clearing the parking lot and the area in front of the loading dock—a much-needed and appreciated service. Even after he became a resident in the Infirmary, he was pretty much ubiquitous around the property in his old, maroon van (which for years was missing a side door—something that never seemed to bother him). He was ever on the lookout to see what needed to be done around the place. He told me just last week that he “kept an eye on everything, even on the Abbot and Prior to see if they were doing what they should be doing!”—I just smiled, and thanked him.

I’d say that my fondest memory of him, particularly knowing how independent he was, was how every morning after the Infirmary Mass he would help Brother Jerome (a year older than himself) make his way from the chapel to the dining room for breakfast—he would take his hand as they walked, to make sure Jerome didn’t fall. The tenderness of that scene never failed to touch me—this was something I would never have expected to see, and remains with me an icon of what brotherliness can become.

Matthew Joseph didn’t talk much, but when he did, it was usually about spirituality—and then he spoke passionately and at length. He could get pretty wound up! He told me on several occasions that what he really loved and found inspiring was the faith and witness of other Christians that he discovered on YouTube. As he was telling me this again last week when he felt so miserable, his face lit up and his voice grew strong. He described how it nourished him these past years when he had so much time on his hands in the Infirmary. He spoke with wonder, and I was struck by how receptive and moved he was by the workings of God in people’s lives. Something profound resonated in him, and he just couldn’t get enough of it. Spirituality was truly his passion. Despite the deterioration of his health and the limitations it brought, he assured me he was never bored, but experienced a new peace and inner freedom from this exposure to the spiritual experiences and insights of others.

Well, each of us is full of paradoxes, presenting consciously and unconsciously many “facets”  of who we are, but none of which reflects the whole (or simple) “light” at our core. As I said earlier, each of us is a mystery, a mystery to ourselves as well as to those with whom we spend a lifetime—but not to God. And that is all-important.

In this regard, the English Benedictine Cardinal Basil Hume once told the memorable story:

A priest started his homily at a funeral by saying: “I am going to preach about judgment.” There was dismay in the congregation, but he went on: “Judgment is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell.”

Only God knows us through and through and understands us far better than we could ever know and understand ourselves, or anyone else. Only he can truly make sense of the often confused and rambling story of our life—for who of us can explain to anyone else our deepest self, with our fears and anxieties? But if only we could whisper into the ear of someone who loves us deeply, understands us completely, and accepts us totally . . . . And here I go back to Dismas and Jesus hanging utterly helplessly next to each other on their crosses. I suspect this is what Brother Matthew Joseph did at the end when he was at a total loss as to what he could do in overwhelming weakness. His Lord was only a whisper away, and it wouldn’t take many words to whisper into the Lord’s merciful and compassionate ear the story of all his 96 years. He must have heard in reply, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Then came the moment for which the whole of his life was the preparation.

May Brother Matthew Joseph and all the departed, rest in peace.

The face of Christ by Georges Roualt. Father Dominic's homily for the funeral of Brother Matthew Joseph

                                                                                               

 

Monday, March 21, 2022

With Our Lady in Ukraine

O Mother of God.

Beholding your pure image, we fervently cry to you:

"Encompass us beneath the precious veil of your protection.

Deliver us from every form of evil by entreating Christ,

your Son and our God, that He may save us."

Image of Our Lady of Ukraine. Lines adapted from an Orthodox Troparion.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Third Sunday of Lent

Thanks to science and technology, we know that the highest point on the planet earth is Mt. Everest at over 29,000 feet. We know that the lowest point on the planet earth is the Mariana Trench, which extends almost seven miles beneath the ocean. We have been told the world's circumference is 24,901 and one-half miles and has 7.7 billion inhabitants. Science and technology can give us the measure of many things, but they cannot answer the question, "Why is there a Mt. Everest to measure? "Why is there a Mariana Trench to fathom?" "How did the planet earth and its 7.7 billion current inhabitants of the previous more than 100 billion inhabitants come to be? Science and technology cannot answer the question why is the anything to measure?"

As human beings, we feel a little better about ourselves and more in control of things if we can ask questions like why and how and get satisfying answers or lay the blame when things have gone wrong. Our egos will not allow us to be satisfied until we have a solution to all our questions, who, what, when, where, and why.   

Today's Gospel reading opens with some people telling Jesus that Pilate slaughtered some Galileans and then mingled their blood with sacrifices. This is the same vacillating Pontius Pilate who, against his own better judgment, handed Jesus over to be crucified. There is no other mention of this incident in the bible, and the only account we have at all comes from the historian Josephus. Josephus wrote of a minor uprising of Jews after Pontius Pilate took the temple money and used it to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem. Pilate suppressed the rebellion by having disguised Roman soldiers mingle with the Jewish people. Upon a given signal, the Roman soldiers took out their weapons and attacked the civilian population. This was a good-sized crowd of people, and the vast majority of them made it out without a scratch on them. But what about those that did not make it out alive? Why this man was killed but not that one? Why this woman was killed but not this one? Why this pain and suffering? The crowd asked, "Were the ones killed greater sinners than those who survived"? People wanted to know why this happened.

Jesus then tells another story of suffering. This one of when a tower fell in Siloam and killed 18 people. Along the southwest wall of ancient Jerusalem are the visible ruins of a collapsed tower that was never completed. This is believed to be that tower, and the people who were killed may have been the workmen involved in the building of the tower. More questions; How could this have happened? Why did this happen? Why did this happen now? Why?

The people came to Jesus for answers about suffering and pain, and if you listen carefully, Jesus does not give any. Jesus does go into a parable about a fig tree. He avoids the question by changing the subject to a story about a barren fruit tree. We will come back to the fig less fig tree a little later.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind. The disciples ask Jesus who is responsible for this man's sufferings. The disciples assume the only reason this man's sufferings were due to someone's sinfulness, his or his parents. Again Jesus does give an accurate answer as to the nature of suffering. Jesus does cure the man of his blindness right there on the spot, Jesus tells the blind man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, to be healed, and he stayed away from any towers.

The book of Job tells of a man who had a life many would envy; Job had his health, a loving wife and children, and a prosperous farm with abundant livestock, and overnight he lost everything but his wife. Job is then visited by his three best friends, and they drown on and on about why this suffering has come upon him, once again looking for answers but finding none. Towards the end of the book, Job gets to speak to God himself. God speaks for a few chapters asking Job questions such as "Where were you when I founded the earth?" and "Do you give the horse his strength and does the eagle fly up and your command? But even God does not answer why there is suffering. When we covered the Book of Job in Seminary, my professor said this was the most unsatisfying part of the bible; with lots of buildups but no proper conclusion, we are left with more questions than answers.

           Many people have offered reasons to those suffering and experiencing pain; God is testing you. God is punishing you. It would help if you suffered for the sake of others. That's just the way things are. It's your turn to suffer. You are here to work off bad karma. There is a curse upon your family. God never allows pain without a purpose. These comments are beginning to sound like Job's helpful friends.

There is much we do not understand, so let's look at what we know.

Suffering is universal; there is not a person here or any person we have ever known or will meet that does not have a story that would break your heart.      

Suffering is like a pebble dropped into still water, with small waves rippling out across the once still surface. When suffering happens, it often starts with one or a few individuals and then moves out to family, loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. How many people on this planet felt for the pain of those in Ukraine? And asked why?

God did not create suffering, nor does he enjoy seeing pain. The prophet Habakkuk says of the nature of God, "Your eyes are too pure to approve evil" The God who has attributes such as holiness, righteousness, love, goodness, and truth could not be the originator of pain and suffering. We address God as our Father; what father would enjoy watching his children suffer?

God is always with us, and God will never abandon us. Genesis 15: "Know that I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go," The Prophet Isaiah writes, "Fear not for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God" Psalm 138: "Though I walk in the midst of dangers you guard my life when my enemies rage.” Our eyes may not always be on God, but His eyes are always on us.

The only proper understanding that we can come to is pain and suffering are a mystery, yes, we can use it for many things, and much good has come from suffering, but pain and suffering are a mystery. A mystery that can unite us to Christ, in His pain and suffering, for He suffered far more significantly than any of us could imagine. Suffering allows us to join Him in one of the greatest mysteries of all.

Back to the fig tree, this fig tree is barren, but all the trees around it have been bearing fruit. Sometimes that can happen to people; we go through a season of pain, go through a time of suffering and cannot produce good fruit, and are not able to flourish.

In St. Paul's letter to the Romans, he writes, "We know that all things work for the good for those who love God."If anyone knew a thing or two about suffering, it would be Paul. We rarely get to choose whether or not to suffer, but we get to decide how it affects us and what we do with it.

This is the story of a woman who had such a rough start to life that her name was misspelled on her birth certificate and has wound up being called by that wrong name her whole life. This woman was born to a single mother who cleaned houses to make ends barely meet. As a young woman, she was sexually abused by relatives and family friends; things got so bad she tried to run away. She wound up getting pregnant but miscarried, and at one point was so desperate for something better she almost married a young man she did not love and would have been the wife of an undertaker. This young woman was Oprah Winfrey.

I used these two examples because both of these people knew suffering but were able to take that pain and use it to bear good fruit; they were able to do extraordinary things. But not everyone is meant to walk across the big stage. Some people use their suffering as a catalyst to change their lives, such as new careers, lifestyle changes, or maybe coming to an abbey. For some people, their personal victory over pain and suffering could be as small as just getting out of bed every day, and that person might be sitting right next to you.

 Until we see God face to face, we will not know the why's of pain and suffering, they will remain a mystery, a mystery that often we cannot avoid, but we can decide how it is going to affect us and what we are going to do with it.     Photograph by Brother Brian. Today's homily by Brother Stephen.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Saint Joseph

 

Your father and I were looking for you in anguish, Mary says to Jesus in the temple. The Gospel passage repeats four times that Mary and Joseph were the parents of Jesus, with Our Lady herself here referring to her husband specifically as your father. In intimate union with his wife Mary, St Joseph “loved Jesus with a father’s heart”, as Pope Francis affirms in the rich Apostolic Letter Patris corde that he wrote about the holy carpenter from Nazareth. The Pope highlights the paternal mission of St Joseph. Although according to the Gospels, Joseph had only the status of a legal father, nevertheless he took his paternal vocation as divine grace and mandate, and so “he [truly] loved Jesus with a father’s heart”. Such intensity of love and commitment of heart wholly transcend the limits of the law. Joseph was, in fact, Jesus’ human father because of his tender love, his attentive solicitude, and his immense attachment to Jesus in every aspect of his life. Clearly, this is a case where the New Covenant’s bonds of heart and spirit fulfill and transcend the Old Covenant’s bonds of mere flesh. The anxiety with which Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus was the fruit of this solicitude and involved both concern and anguish at the absence of Jesus, the Son they jointly loved so dearly.

Pope Francis highlights Joseph’s gift of discretion. We see that Joseph’s is a presence that, while remaining in the background, yet is always very active and efficient. Neither in today’s gospel nor anywhere else do we have words directly attributed to Joseph by Scripture; only Mary reproaches Jesus and expresses the pain that she and her husband have gone through. Joseph, too, has suffered, and has supported Mary by sharing in her distressing search; yet Joseph lives out his own anxiety for Jesus wordlessly, in contemplative silence. This discretion, revealing a presence that is intensely aware yet also self-effacing, leads us to appreciate all those people in the world who in daily life, hidden from public view, nevertheless “play a unique leading role in the history of salvation. Many unassuming persons here come to mind, who help others in totally hidden ways, sometimes even at the risk of their own lives. For instance, the man just last week in Ukraine who, after seeing his own fleeing family safely across a bridge in the city of Mariupol, went back to see whom else he could help and was instantly killed by a missile…

Indeed, in the midst of the chaos that surrounds us, we should be in awe of so many people working quietly in the background, like St Joseph, for the good of others and for reconciliation and peace. This occurs at all levels, from health workers on their graveyard shifts to volunteers on international peace-keeping missions. St Joseph should be the patron of all those who work discreetly, from the sidelines of every drama, and thus contribute anonymously to the welfare of all. These are the Joseph presences in our world, manifesting God’s own discreet yet insistent and efficient manner of healing the ills of humanity.

Out of fidelity to God’s plan, St Joseph converts his personal human project of forming a family with Mary into an offering of himself. He thus places himself at the service of Jesus, God’s own beloved Son, and the mission that the eternal Father has entrusted to Jesus. Joseph sacrifices his initial life plan to follow the greater vocation entrusted to him. His fatherly heart must gradually learn how to love more radically and give itself away more thoroughly. In this way, Joseph grows in the obedience of faith. God’s plan of salvation somehow needed to unfold in the world precisely through the distress Joseph experienced in Jesus’ infancy (think of the flight into Egypt!) and through his anguish at losing Jesus as an adolescent, to name but two outstanding moments in the Holy Family’s life.

St Joseph thus “teaches us that having faith in God also includes believing that God can act even through our fears, our frailties, and weaknesses. And he also teaches us that in the midst of the storms of life we should not be afraid to hand over the helm of our boat to God”. Although many times we would like to have everything under control, God always has a wider view than ours and knows what is best for our good. That is why we must have trust in him, just as Joseph did, without laying down conditions.

Do not be afraid: these are the words of God’s messenger to Joseph when announcing his mission. The command Do not be afraid! applies also to us and gives us the hope-filled strength to accept all the events of life with courage, and to work for the common good in all the critical and painful situations that life presents to us. The existential anxiety caused by any stressful situation can be transformed, by grace and our cooperation, into a new opportunity. The anguish that Joseph and Mary experienced when they lost Jesus was transformed on the third day into a kind of Easter anticipation, once they had seen Jesus filled with the life and wisdom that came to him from being in the house of his heavenly Father fulfilling his mission. (Three days is an unimaginable eternity to search for a lost child. I know it well because my wife and I once lost our daughter at a mall for no more than 20 minutes and we thought we’d lose our minds. And she was not 12 but only 3 years old!)

From being the guardian of the child Jesus and his Mother Mary, St Joseph has become the guardian and patron of the Universal Church, which is “the extension of the Body of Christ in history”. May St Joseph intercede for the Church, all her members, and the whole family of humanity in this convulsed world of ours, so full of political strife at home and abroad, and of devastating wars and crises of faith. May Joseph teach us, through his discretion and hidden strength, to trust in God and to work for the building up of the Kingdom of God.

The sacrament of the Eucharist we are celebrating makes the whole saving Mystery of Christ present among us and in the world. Let us welcome this transforming Mystery with an ardent heart, as Joseph welcomed Jesus.    Reflection by Father Simeon.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Forgive Us

Forgive us, Lord, for the war. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners. Lord Jesus, who were born under the bombardment of Kyiv, have mercy on us. Lord Jesus, who died in the arms of your mother in the shelter of Kharkov, have mercy on us. Lord Jesus, who was sent to the front for twenty years, have mercy on us. O Lord Jesus, for you still have iron in your hands in the midst of your cross, have mercy on us!

Forgive us, Lord, forgive us for not being satisfied with the nails with which your hands were pierced, but we continue to drink the blood of the dead, torn by weapons. Forgive us that the hands that you created to comfort one another have turned into tools of death. Forgive us, O Lord, for killing our brother again and again; forgive us for gathering stones on our field, like Cain, to kill Abel. Forgive us for continuing to justify our cruelty with our hardships, for allowing our pain to legitimize the wickedness of our crimes.

Forgive us, Lord, for the war. Forgive us, Lord, for the war. O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, we beseech Thee: Put an end to the hand of Cain! Enlighten our doubts. Do not let our will be done. Do not let us act on our own! Lord, silence us, silence us!

And when you have put away Cain's hand, take hold of him as well. He is our brother. Lord, put an end to violence! Put an end to our violence, Lord! Amen.

Our hearts breaking for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, we join the Holy Father and all God's people in praying for peace.

Text of the Pope's Prayer for Ukraine

 


Think



















Think of the Son of God, how he 
Died on the tree our souls to save, 

Think of the nails that pierced him through, 

Think of him too, in lowly grave. 

 

Think of the spear the soldier bore, 

Think how it tore holy side. 

Think of the bitter gall for drink, 

Think of it, think, for us he died. 

 

Think upon Christ who gave his blood, 

Poured in a flood our souls to win, 

Think of the mingled tide that gushed 

Forth at the thrust to wash our sin.


Crucifix in the south cloister. Lines from a Gaelic hymn at Friday Lauds.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Brother Matthew Joseph

Early this afternoon our Brother Matthew Joseph passed to the Lord. He was a devoted lay brother, a great lover of simplicity, and served in humble ways all around the Abbey, always available for even the most trivial tasks. We recommend him to your prayers, even as we, his brothers, trusting in the Lord's mercy, already beg his heavenly intercession.








Humility & Mercy

Hypocrisy, as we know from our own bitter experience, is also an “occupational hazard” of all committed Christians, no matter how well-meaning. Quite simply, the Word of God is always greater than our capacity to live it. The bar of virtue is raised too high for us by Jesus’ radical teachings. And yet, is not Unconditional Love always necessarily radical?

Recently, for instance, we have heard from the Lord’s lips commands such as “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” “Be merciful as your Father is merciful,” and “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you”. Here, the little word as means that we are to be perfect and merciful in the same way and to the same extent that God is! Who can live up to these sublime standards all the time, except God himself? The solution lies in taking seriously the name “Father” which Jesus habitually gives the eternal God. If Jesus and we are indeed this God’s true offspring, it follows that we possess the divine DNA that puts perfect love and mercy within our mortal reach. However, we can be reborn as such a Father’s daughters and sons only by first dying with Christ to our old illusory selves, and then rising to new life in him.

This process of interior death and rebirth is very gradual, though, and requires endless patience both of God and of ourselves, and this is why we must observe Lent again every year. So let us not be disheartened by our slips into the many hypocrisies of our old, false self. Our very awareness of it is a hopeful sign of good progress in humility and truth, in becoming slowly but surely conformed to the Heart of Christ. Growing in the likeness of Christ is so desirable a goal that it makes it worthwhile to risk the passing taint of hypocrisy. The alternative would be to give up discipleship altogether in despair, which would be tantamount to spiritual death. There is, indeed, a kind of cynical “honesty” and brutal “consistency” that destroys rather than builds up.

Let us, rather, strive after the humility that can risk hypocrisy as part of the great journey to union with Christ, a humility that is never surprised by its own failings and contradictions. Such humility daily grows in divine mercifulness toward others by first embracing God’s regenerative Mercy toward itself.

Photograph by Brother Brian. Meditation by Father Simeon.

 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

How We Pray

And so we pray in order to be transformed into the Lord’s likeness and thus counteract the opposite force, which is the prevalence of temptation that seeks a negative transformation for the worse that is in fact a de-formation of our good, God-given nature. In this light, we should think of prayer not so much as a virtuous action but rather as a measure of human and spiritual survival, as what prevents evil from deforming us, from making us bad or indifferent or cynical or unmotivated. In fact, giving up praying, giving up the struggle against our own innate laziness, leads us to fall into temptation not once but again and again. Above all, it leads us to no longer have hope, to atrophy our will to love, to no longer believe in ourselves, to distrust others, to no longer believe in prayer itself, indeed, to no longer believe, period. To give up prayer and the interior struggle leads us to live without the Lord and to close ourselves in on ourselves, thus shutting out the whole vital dimension of friendship with God in joyful and expectant love.

Luke thus tells us that while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face became “other”, not another face but a changed face, a face that opened itself to being indwelt by the otherness of the One whom Jesus was praying to. Prayer is a locus of transfiguration because it is a locus of alteration, a dimension where change occurs. It’s not by chance that Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray well, because it is by praying that they can enter into the covenant, that is, into God's way of life. But it is important that, before giving them indications and teachings on prayer, he himself prays and is plainly seen at prayer by his disciples. For Jesus, prayer is a space for accepting the otherness of God within himself. Because the human face is the essential place where a person’s identity becomes crystallized, as it were, we see in this episode how prayer affects Jesus’ personal identity. The fact that Jesus' face becomes Other on Mount Tabor means that his visible human face narrates the invisible Face of God. Prayer has a decisive effect on the one who prays. Its efficacy is not outward but interior, as we see here in Jesus’ case. The radiance from his face is not a reflection of the light of the sun falling on him from the outside, but rather the visible beaming forth of the inward light of his divinity.
Reflection by Father Simeon.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Second Sunday of Lent



Every year on this Second Sunday of Lent the Gospel is an account of the Transfiguration as told by Matthew, Mark, or (as is the case this year) Luke. In the passage we just heard, Luke highlights the way in which the transfiguration was preparing Jesus himself for his “departure” (exodus), which he will fulfil in Jerusalem. This mountain-top experience is a sign of Jesus being totally caught up with and bathed in the love, power and kingdom of God, so much so that it transfigures his whole being with light, and he is identified as the true prophet, the Messiah.

But what did Peter, James and John make of all this? They were stunned, confused, unable to understand how the glory they had glimpsed on the mountain (the glory of God’s chosen Son, the Servant who was carrying in himself the promise of redemption) would finally be unveiled on a very different hill, an ugly little hill outside Jerusalem. In each evangelist’s account, all that the disciples have to go on is the word that came from the cloud that suddenly overshadowed them: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

“Listen to him”—this one, stark command is the culmination of the Transfiguration event. These words of Luke allude to a passage in Deuteronomy where Moses tells the people: “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen.” Here, and again in Acts where Luke explicitly applies this same passage to Jesus, he is identifying Christ as the Messianic Prophet in whom the prophetic office finds its fulfilment and completion. And so it is that God’s voice from the cloud has but one word for the disciples (and us): “Listen to him.”

“Listen to him.” If we were to look for a spiritual Lenten practice, I can think of none better than that. “Listen to him.” In monastic life we hear a lot about “listening”; a long and rich tradition offers many levels of meaning to the practice of “listening.”

But what, in particular, are these disciples to listen for? A message? A teaching? A proclamation about the Kingdom of God? A call to change their lives by repentance, conversion and discipleship? Yes, all this, but so much more—as Jesus makes clear to them (and to us) during the Last Supper, when he said: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”

“Everything I have heard from my Father.” – This is why we must listen to him. Jesus has just told Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.”

In other words, we are commanded in today’s Gospel to listen to Jesus, because Jesus is the Father’s ultimate, definitive Word in whom the Father has communicated himself entirely, communicated everything forever, and definitively acted. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father; whoever listens to Jesus, listens to the Father. Because Jesus is the wholly dynamic image of the Father, he is the Son—and hence the definitive presence of the Father in the world.

To push this back a step further, what about “listening” and the Son himself? According to what Jesus says to his disciples the night before he died, the Son is nothing other than pure listening, pure receiving, pure handing on what is heard from the Father. The great German theologian, Romano Guardini, once said: “Everything Jesus says, he possesses. The God of whom he speaks is within him. Jesus does not speak from hearsay, nor as having received his message from somewhere. He speaks from essence/identity itself. When listening to him, we find ourselves in the presence of an interior mystery, the mystery of the God-Man.” This, again, is why we must listen to him. As Jesus told Thomas in the Farewell Discourse, “I am the way; I am truth and life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” 

Finally, what happens to us when we “listen” to Christ? We heard from Pope St. Paul VI at Vigils on Wednesday:

When we encounter Christ (in listening to him), we are illumined by a new light; we recognize the holiness of God and the malice of sin. Through Christ’s word we receive the call to conversion and offer of forgiveness. We attain the fullness of this gift in baptism, which forms us into the likeness of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, so that our whole life bears the imprint of the paschal mystery.  excerpt from the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini     

“Listen to him.” This is prayer. I believe “listening to him” is the ultimately defining and transforming core of prayer. I will end with a beautiful example of this as told by St. Katherine Drexel, whom we commemorated on the second day of Lent this year. After a full, active life as philanthropist and promoter of Catholic education for Native Americans, and then foundress of a religious congregation dedicated to serving Native and African Americans for more than 40 years, at age 77 she suffered a severe heart attack that brought that whole way of life in service of the Gospel to an abrupt end. But not her “listening” to her Lord! Now she would “listen” in another way. She moved to the infirmary, not for a few months or years, but for the next 20 years (until she was 97), where she spent her days and nights in prayer, more and more uniting herself with her Lord in the contemplative manner she had so desired as a young woman. Listen to her description:

The shadows of my life grow long. And so He speaks with me . . . He abides in my house, the house of His publican. It is as if all glory were nothing to Him, and I alone were all His care. We speak together, I listen – and thus a lifetime passes. Then comes a moment – who can tell what happens? It is as though a veil were rent and my eyes opened. A radiance not of earth surrounds Him. It is the moment of my passing hence. Blessed death approaches – that death which never corrupts the converse of the soul with God, but which lets fall all earthly sufferings, all mists and veils of faith, and shows us face to face our long desired Guest and Sovereign Master – Jesus.

Like Peter, James and John, we too must descend the mountain of the Transfiguration today and continue on our way to Jerusalem, where the silence of Christ will be most eloquent and salvific as he breathes his last on Golgotha. We may not understand the glory or the journey. But we have only to “listen” to him this Lent—all the way to the Cross and to his Hour of Glory.

Icon written by Brother Terence. Today's homily by Father Dominic.

Friday, March 11, 2022

A Crucified Lover

 

Jesus, the Law of God made flesh, does not demand of us, his followers, more than the Law of Moses did; he demands something entirely new and wildly different, something really impossible to perceive (much less enact) unless we put on the mind of Christ and begin to see the world through the eyes of a Redeemer who is incarnate Love. As far as our Lord is concerned, deliberately holding on to a grudge or harboring hatred in our heart has the same weight as out-and-out murder!

To our conventional reason, this is something preposterous, unbearable; and yet it cannot be otherwise if it is true that God is Love, if God is indeed our common Father and has given us all rebirth to his own life in the Spirit, and if all my fellow human beings are, therefore, my very own sisters and brothers.

And notice how far Jesus’ demands to his disciples go. He does not say, ‘If you have offended your brother or sister, go first and ask for their forgiveness and then offer your gift at the altar.’ Such a thing goes without saying in any moral code. What Jesus says, rather, is: “If you recall that your brother has anything against you …, go first and be reconciled with him.”

The crucial point here is that the burden of seeking reconciliation falls always on me, whether my sister’s complaint against me is justified or not in my own eyes. On this issue, in fact, and on my willingness always to take the initiative toward reconciliation, depend on the very acceptability and well-pleasing fragrance of my sacrifice of praise to God, the Father of us all. Here is the kind of “justice” that flows from the Heart of a crucified Lover.  

Crucifixion by Diego Velasquez. Reflection by Father Simeon.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

With Urgency

 

Over the past two weeks we—like Queen Esther praying to the Lord God of Israel for the salvation of her people—have “fled to our God, seized with deadly anxiety” for the people of Ukraine. We trust utterly in God’s goodness and compassion, and in God’s power to establish justice, right and a reign of peace in this world, against the destructive will of the enemies of the human.

However, as we flee time and again to take refuge from evil in the indestructible goodness of God, let us not forget this: God our Father knows what we, his children, need before we even ask him, even before we become conscious of this need. Therefore, we do not pray because God somehow needs to be informed about what is going on in the world, about how much people are suffering, nor does God need to be persuaded by us to activate (finally!) the power of his love and intervene to set aright horrible situations such as the present genocidal invasion in Eastern Europe. No! What kind of an ignorant and hard-hearted deity would that be?

Indeed, the need to pray is ours! We urgently need to turn to God over and over. We need to acknowledge God, continually and fervently, as the One from whom everything that is good comes. Our humble and insistent prayer is this acknowledgment put into concrete action. In this way, by channeling all our anxiety and sorrow toward God, we open up our whole being to the reception of grace. Our very act of ardent prayer, kindled by the fire of the Holy Spirit, makes our hearts capable of receiving and fully embracing God’s gifts—all the good things God yearns to give us—both for ourselves and for all in distress, in whatever manner and at whatever time Grace freely chooses to act.  Trustful waiting with patient love for this moment and manner to arrive is the sign that we have become attuned to the workings of God’s Heart and have allowed his Presence to make its dwelling place in ours. 

Photograph by Brother Brian. Meditation by Father Simeon.

A Monk's Life

 

To rejoice without purpose in the darkness

To plunge beneath the earth and retrieve shades

To await the emergence of the light

from the bosom of night

To be astounded at each day’s rebirth

To love the piercing light

To be gladdened by the least leaf’s tremor
in the first breeze of dawn

To hear with kindred thrill the merry racket
of warbling summer songsters

To make your whole chest gape as a wide window
for all the sky’s swift traffic to flow through

To thank for the invention of all flowers
by scattering your life’s bouquet

To feel in your veins melt down the rigid
border between eternity and time

To sense future and past embrace in one fond kiss
in the keen breath of Now

To have your heart play host to a new fire
that frightens as it burns
and brightens as it yearns

To jolt at midnight pierced by another’s pain

To bear about the ocean in your heart

To hurl past loves into the Heart of God

To see all the world’s faces focus into One Face

To sit in empty silence and so await the fullness

To smile at nothing in particular

To work as if you played and pray as if you flew

To watch as if you slept and fast as if you ate

To know that you are I am you are I am we

To be as if you weren’t:
… a monk’s life.

A poem by Father Simeon.