Thursday, August 18, 2022

Abbey Geese

 

Signaling the end of the summer, flocks of Canadian geese have returned to rest and feed in the Abbey fields on their way north. We are told that since early Roman times, geese have been used in literature and art as symbols of vigilance and divine providence. This is because of the ancient legend of the Capitoline geese who honked their warning and saved Rome from the invasion of the Gauls. As we keep watch in vigils and prayer, the geese are our late August companions.


Photographs of geese in the Abbey fields by Charles O'Connor and Brother Brian.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Being His Body

 

The Church shares its spiritual riches with its members through its common faith, its sacraments, its Liturgy and worship, its gifts and talents and most of all in charity, the love which makes us one with Christ and one another.

The Communion of Saints represents the notion that all who are in Christ serve one another in love. As Christ’s body, the Church, we are called to communion, holy communion. Our ambition is not to glorify ourselves but to bring others to Christ. For us as monks we are not called to evangelize. Our life itself is our witness. Our prayer, silence, hospitality, charity and our joy will attract others to Christ. That is our ambition. To paraphrase the words of St. Francis of Assisi to his friars: “Preach to the people, but only use words when necessary.”

Initial from an early Cistercian manuscript. Meditation by Father Emmanuel.

Monday, August 15, 2022

On Assumption Day

There is nothing that pleases me more, and nothing that terrifies me more than to preach on the glory of the Virgin Mary. For, see, if I praise her virginity, I see that there are many who have offered themselves as virgins after her. If I preach on her humility, we will find, perhaps, even a few who, taught by her Son, have become meek and humble of heart. If I want to proclaim the greatness of her mercy, there are some also some very merciful men and women. There is, however, one thing in which she does not have someone like her, before or after, and that is her joining the joy of motherhood with the honor of virginity. This is Mary's privilege, and it is not given to another: it is unique, and it is also something that words cannot perfectly describe. Nevertheless, if you pay attention closely, you will find not only this one virtue, but even other singular virtues in Mary, which she only seems to share with others. For can one even compare the purity of the angels to that spotless virginity which was found worthy to become the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit and dwelling place of the Son of God? How great and how precious was her humility, together with such perfect innocence, such wisdom without fault, and such a fullness of grace? How did you obtain such meekness, O Blessed Woman, such great humility? You are indeed worthy, whom the Lord considered carefully, whose beauty the King desired, on whose lap with its sweetest fragrance the eternal Father was brought to rest. Behold, with these acts of devotion we have meditated on your ascension to your Son, and we have followed you as though from a distance, O Blessed Virgin. Let the grace of your mercy, the favor that you found with God, be made known to the world: may your prayers obtain mercy for the condemned, remedy for the sick, strength of heart for the lowly, consolation for the afflicted, aid for those in peril, and freedom for your holy ones. And on this day of celebration and gladness, may Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, through thee, O merciful Queen, pour out the gifts of His grace upon all those who invoke the sweetest name of Mary with praise, for He is the God of all things. 

Fra Angelico, The Dormition and the Assumption of the Virgin, 1424-1434, (detail.) Tempera with oil glazes and gold on panel. The Gardner Museum.  Lines by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

New Beauty, New Fire

 

John the Baptist had promised that Someone would come to reverse things - Someone who would baptize us with fire and water- wash us clean and even burn our sins away. At last, Someone who would restore our lost innocence. That Someone, that Fire is here among us. It is Christ Jesus our Lord. And we hear the echo of the Exsultet. It is after all, what we sing about at the Easter Vigil- ‘the power of this night restores lost innocence, humbles earthly pride.’ Easter night, when the wounded Savior rises in quiet majesty. Someone at last who understands us from the inside and knows our misery. Someone who looks into our hearts, and does not judge by appearances, Christ Jesus our Lord who through his dying and rising has reversed everything. For when God refuses to resist pain and suffering, everything gets turned upside down.

God’s reign has begun, the kingdom- not a neat and tidy world, but a world of messy dynamic beauty, beauty wrought out of struggle and pain. The very messy beauty of life when Jesus is preferred above all else, he who restores our lost innocence; not a facile, tawdry beauty but a terribly expensive beauty wrought out of acceptance of differences, reconciliation of opposites, the tension of the terrible truth of my holiness reconciled with my unremitting tendencies toward sin. The truth of who I am, the truth about the Body of Christ that we are together- differences, ambiguities, bad and good patiently, exquisitely juxtaposed, blended and accepted and made one in Christ. Our truth- neither monsters nor lambs but something better more beautiful wrought out of patient acceptance. What I want to eliminate in myself or in my brother now accepted in humility and with longing for Christ’s healing and peace. He who is our Beauty, our Hope, our innocence restored, He who has covered our sins, forgotten and forgiven them, Beauty Himself who is forever scarred and wounded, holes in his heart, hands, his feet, thorn scars on his brows. His cruel death has reconciled all that separated us from him from one another from our deepest most authentic selves. A very new beauty-filled reality - not a world of all or nothing, but a world of both and. The world, the kingdom where we are wounded and beautiful like Jesus, who has reconciled all things in himself making peace through the blood of his painful cross, the blood of his Fire. 

Photograph by Brother Brian. Meditation by one of our monks.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

With Saint Clare

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

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


Photographs of the Abbey Cottage and its gardens by Brother Brian.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Saint Lawrence the Deacon

 

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. 

Small wonder 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." The love of Christ transformed him and made him brave, unfailingly generous to the poor, 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…

St Lawrence, Limoges polychrome enamel plaque, late 16th century–early 17th century. The quotation from a sermon on Saint Lawrence by Saint Leo the Great.



Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Pope Francis encourages us to notice the holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest of his people. He quotes these words of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein):

The greatest prophecy and sanctity figures step out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Indeed, the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.

We are reminded of words in our own Constitutions which speak of the monastic life  as having "a hidden apostolic fruitfulness." In the mysterious reality of prayer for and in the mystical Body of Christ, we hope that our lives in the monastery help to draw the world closer to the heart of Christ.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Children, Sheep & Servants

Today the Lord Jesus continues his catechesis in Luke concerning the attitude his disciples ought to have toward earthly possessions and the use of material things. Recall the extremely successful farmer of last Sunday, who thought his only problem in the whole world was that he didn’t have barns big enough to store his abundant harvest! The grave peril the man’s furious autonomy and self-sufficiency posed to his soul may be summed up by saying that he was incapable of identifying with the terms Jesus proposes to us in today’s gospel as defining his followers: he calls us to be children of his heavenly Father, sheep in his own little flock, and servants awaiting their Master’s return. These are all strongly relational terms, but the only relationship the rich farmer allowed in his life was a narcissistic one between himself as proprietor and his precious property, which continually mirrored his success back to his ego.

So, then, son (or daughter), sheep, servant: these are the titles the Lord Jesus gives to those who would listen to his voice and follow him to his Kingdom. We cannot be Christians or enjoy a vital relationship with God unless we desire ardently to embody what these terms signify. Indeed, we must ultimately choose between reigning supreme in the petty kingdom of our ego—a dreary nation of one—and being but a humble citizen in the resplendent Kingdom of God. Indeed, we must sell all our belongings and give alms, as Jesus commands us, so as to restructure our hearts in such a way that they will long only for the treasure of the Kingdom and the possession and enjoyment of the King’s love.

Yes, we must give up all things, but only for the sake of the greatest imaginable “deal” that ever was—if I may use so frivolous a word—the deal of St Teresa’s todo por todo, that is, giving away all that we have and are for the sake obtaining all that God has and is. We are invited to give up our paltry selves and all our sparkling toys in exchange for the eternal possession of the Maker of all things.  

The three distinct titles Jesus assigns us today describe how this “deal” is lived out. Each term highlights a crucial aspect of our growing relationship with God in Christ: first, filial love, then, grateful dependence, and third, joyful service.

We are above all God’s sons and daughters who abide in filial love with their Father. In today’s opening prayer we affirmed that “taught by the Holy Spirit, we dare to call [almighty God] our Father”, and we asked the Blessed Trinity to “bring to perfection in our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters, that we may merit to enter into the inheritance which you have promised.” Like the figures evoked in the second reading from Hebrews (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob), we too should acknowledge ourselves as strangers and sojourners on earth because we are passing through on our way to a heavenly homeland. This is our true inheritance as God’s children because, by experiencing Christ’s death and resurrection, we have become coheirs of God’s Kingdom with Christ and in him. The virtues instilled in us by the Holy Spirit make us God-like and enable us to enact our divine filiation in concrete existence. The practice of loving as Christ loves, impelled by the energy of his Resurrection, so identifies us with the eternal Son of God that we can dare to call God “our Father” in blissful unison with Christ.

We are, in second place, Christ’s sheep. I suppose no one, naturally speaking, likes to be considered a “sheep”—a stupid, vulnerable, and compliant animal continually in need of care! And yet, let’s be honest: what else are we, really? The Lord’s meaning here, when he affectionately addresses us as his little flock, is that we should find our joy in belonging to him, in being utterly dependent on the one true Shepherd of humanity, who knows where he is leading us and whose power and wisdom in doing so are completely trustworthy. If our flock is “little” it is because we, its sheep, are not rich and successful or of any account in the eyes of the world. In fact, we are precisely those who, like Jesus, have agreed to make ourselves small and lose ourselves in the blessed anonymity of the poor and disenfranchised of society, who happen to be God’s favorites.

Now, we are not only God’s children and Christ’s sheep, but also his servants. This relationship is more complex than the first two. The chief characteristic of a good and faithful servant is that he lavishes his whole life on the desires and needs of his master. In his parable Jesus pointedly speaks of the temporary absence of these servants’ Master, and of how this absence of the Master, who is away at a wedding, automatically imposes on his servants a double obligation. First, they are to distribute the necessary food to the whole household at the proper time.

The Master’s absence, in fact, is a great opportunity for these servants to show their understanding of and fidelity to their Master’s deepest will, which is that every member of his household should be protected and nourished. Therefore, each servant will show his or her true colors by the way they behave, when called upon by the situation to act in persona Magistri—in place of the Master himself. The Master’s absence is thus also a time of temptation because, at precisely such a time, each one will manifest the true motivations of his or her heart—whether faithfully to enact the goodness and justice of the Master or to take advantage in servile manner of his apparent ignorance and proceed to neglect or even abuse one’s fellow-servants. 

A further characteristic that defines a good servant is the ability to wait with heightened vigilance for the Master’s return. Quite simply, faithful love knows how to wait patiently and eagerly. The apparent absence of God, God’s invisibility, challenges our love and fidelity to live continually by faith. As we have heard in Hebrews, faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Our whole Christian existence should be shaped by absolute trust in Jesus’ promise to return to us as King of Glory.

But our expectancy of Jesus, no matter how protracted, is not a mere upward gazing with open mouth at an empty sky. The act of waiting with lively faith for Jesus to show himself in our lives, rather than resulting in any kind of interior paralysis, indifference, or gloominess, ought rather motivate us mightily to extend the Kingdom of his love.

The joyful certainty of Jesus’ impending arrival should fuel in us attitudes and actions showing that we are here and now, already before the Parousia, the Body of Jesus. As his Body, we are actively filling the world with his presence and goodness, and communicating to others the power of the Resurrection that indwells and vivifies us. In us and through us, Jesus lives dynamically right now in the world and within history! We have been chosen, like living monstrances, to show forth the real presence of Jesus in the world.

Unaccountably, against all human logic, it is through us that Christ wants to manifest his love in our convulsed world. Do we really believe this? Do we believe it enough to act on it, enough to allow our hearts to be radically transformed so that we can become more fitting vessels that receive the life of God and thus enable this divine life to transfuse our perishing world?

Finally, today’s gospel jolts us with an astounding reversal that marvelously defeats our neat logic and reveals the depth of God’s mystery in Christ. Jesus declares: Blessed are those servants whom the Master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. Yes: in the end the Master, with extravagant condescension, makes himself the joyful waiter of his faithful servants! God, it would seem, longs to bestow on us comfort and reward, longs to give us rest, longs to nourish us, to share with us his divine joy. Does this not reveal the depths of God’s resourceful humility, of God’s innermost nature as First among Servants? 

My brothers and sisters: In Jesus, God not only becomes our waiter who serves us our nourishment but, at this altar today, the divine Servant turns himself into our very food and drink. Indeed, if our hearts are open and ardently desire it, we will become what we eat as we consume Him who has loved us to the end and has lowered himself, out of a passion of love, not only to wait on us at table but also to wash and kiss our feet and hand himself over to us as our Bread of Life. I ask you: Are we not already living in the Kingdom?

Photograph by Brother Brian. Today's Homily by Father Simeon.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Transfigured

Today with Jesus we hear the Father speak to us on the mountaintop, “This is my beloved.”  Belovedness is our name written on God’s heart. We are beloved in Christ. And nothing can separate us from that love. Baptized in Christ, we have been baptized into his belovedness. Still, this is an identity that is somehow offered to us over and over, for our choosing, for our believing. When we dare to trust that we are so loved by God, we can go and do likewise. Those who have been amply loved, find it easy to be lovers themselves. Believing in our belovedness, we are transfigured. Let us hear today with Jesus the voice of the Father, and imagine the pleasure of the Father with the Son in the Spirit gazing upon us.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Our Lady of the Snows

We celebrate today this very ancient feast in honor of Mary’s divine maternity. And we recall a great basilica in Rome built in her honor dating to the 4th century - Santa Maria Maggiore.

Legend says that very late on the evening of August 5 a miraculous snowfall marked the exact spot where the basilica was to be built. Summer snow in Our Lady's honor? Why not?

What miracles are occurring even now in our midst, wonders of His grace and presence that we so often miss?

Thursday, August 4, 2022

A Question Today

 

Each of us will be transformed by our graced encounter with the risen Lord. And there is always Jesus’ question to Peter, tinged with self-doubt, magnificent in its quiet simplicity – “Who do you say that I am?” It is an achingly beautiful question that each of us must answer, “Who do you say that I am? Who am I for you? What is your experience of me in your life, in your history? How do you experience me now? Do you know that I know you, and love you well?” How shall each of us answer Our Lord? Perhaps when we come to understand who we are, how wounded we are, and who Jesus wants to be for us, we can say with Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. You search me and you know me. All my ways lie open to you. You alone are my love, my fortress, my stronghold. All I want is to know is you Christ Jesus my Lord and power flowing from your resurrection. Everything else is a pile of rubbish to me.”

Jesus did not give up on Peter, and he will never, ever give up on us. He is a relentless rescuer, the God who saves us, even chases after us because he knows us. Our life of incessant prayer requires incessant awareness of how much he understands us, knows us in all our wavering and inconsistency and nothingness, and yet cannot bear to leave us alone. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

To Strengthen My Love

I believe, O Lord, but strengthen my faith.
Heart of Jesus, I love You; but increase my love.
Heart of Jesus, I trust in You; 

but give greater vigor to my confidence.
Heart of Jesus, I give my heart to You; 

but enclose it in You that it may never be separated from You.
Heart of Jesus, I am all Yours; take care of my promise 

so that I may be able to put it in practice, 

even unto the complete sacrifice of my life.


Christ and St John the Evangelist, c. 1340, Limewood, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.  Blessed Miguel Pro’s Litany to the Sacred Heart.  



Monday, August 1, 2022

Dedication

 

We have just heard one of the most vivid short stories in the whole Bible. Its climax: “Today I must stay at your house.” These words of Jesus spoken to Zacchaeus personally resonate with us today as we celebrate the Anniversary of the Dedication of our abbey church, for this was the very Gospel proclaimed at that historic celebration 47 years ago. Actually, they are words that each of us can identify with at any time, for during the course of our monastic life we all experience moments when we identify not only with Zacchaeus (who is trying to get closer to Jesus however he can, no matter what it might cost him) but also (more importantly) with Jesus’ unexpected and arresting initiative of inviting himself to stay with us right now—yes, with you and me, when we feel like the least likely persons in town.

Moments of grace are always “unlikely” . . . both for individuals and communities. Remember, nobody in Jericho liked Zacchaeus! They would have been horrified to think that of all the inhabitants of the town he would be the one known by name to millions of people 2,000 years later. Luke’s is the only gospel that tells of him and his sudden moment of glory. Luke, of course, makes Zacchaeus one of his minor heroes, perhaps because this hardened old tax-collector fits into three of Luke’s regular themes: namely, the problem of riches and what to do about it; the identification of Jesus with ‘sinners’; and the faith which recognizes Jesus as Lord and discovers new life as a result. The Scripture scholar N.T. Wright points out that “Luke tells this story as a kind of balance to the sad tale of the rich young ruler in the previous chapter, and uses it as the final piece of ‘framing’ before Jesus approaches Jerusalem. Luke seems to be saying that this kind of healing, this kind of new life, is what Jesus has come to bring. If only people in Jerusalem could see the point and respond similarly!”

The Good News proclaimed once again in this morning’s Gospel is that Jesus’ mission is always to seek and save the lost, anywhere along his way. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house and true to form finds himself relaxing in the company of the wrong sort of people. No doubt we are the “wrong sort of people” as well, or we wouldn’t have a real reason to be here at the abbey.

I remember that during one of my first family visits many years ago, I wanted to share with one of my brothers with whom I hadn’t been able to speak privately before why I entered the abbey after 12 apparently happy years as a Dominican. As we walked up the abbey road together, I was stumbling around in my head for an explanation that I really couldn’t give even to myself, such as “God’s call”, or my long-held attraction to this way of life, or that developmentally it felt like a much better fit at age 34, or any number of pious reasons—none of which would cut it with him (or with me, for that matter). Suddenly, I had a moment of clarity and truth, and I turned to him and simply said: “I entered Spencer because I need to be here.” (Not unlike Zacchaeus climbing that sycamore tree.) It was that simple—I need to be here, just as he needs to be in his own spiritual program to which he is totally committed for over 50 years. At that moment I had the happy realization that he and I had more in common than perhaps anyone in the family, and I told him so. My life depended on entering the abbey. Nearly 40 years later that hasn’t changed. Without really grasping why at the time, I had to “quickly come down from my tree” at an invitation I didn’t doubt, and that was a pivotal mercy in my life.

Today we appreciate with deep gratitude that we certainly have an extraordinarily beautiful church and monastery, and a community that continues to inspire one generation of monks after another to seek God—but we know that this is not because we are anything special in ourselves. It is all due, moment by moment, to Our Lord’s personal initiative with us who are unworthy, difficult characters, sinners, or simply finding ourselves at the back of a crowd and can’t see what is going on. Notice that Zacchaeus seeks to see (as many of us do), but does not immediately realize that he is being sought after and saved. The wonderful truth is that we seek Christ, and we find him within the community—but only because Christ seeks us, and he finds us through our brothers.

I’d like to focus briefly on a remarkable development in this short story, and in our community’s life: namely, “Today I have to stay at your house” becomes “Today salvation has come to this house.” As Msgr. Ávila told us last week, where Jesus is, there is the casita sagrada, the “small holy house,” the space that has the two-fold purpose of revelation and healing. This “small holy house” is, above all, the persons where our encounter with the Savior is experienced, concretized, and “sacramentalized”—in the abbey church.

“Today salvation has come to this house.” This is because Jesus not only invites himself into our lives again and again, just as we are, but he himself becomes the capstone of the casita we are together in our abbey church. This is the reassuring truth we heard from St. Paul in the 2nd Reading where he tells the Ephesians and us: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him, you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Yes, “Today salvation has come to this house” . . . . precisely because we are “Zacchaeus’ house,” where the imperfect, the weak, and the sinful all find a place at the table.

We believe with St. Paul that our community is a living body, and we all belong to each other here in this casita sagrada because of a personal call from God. In this body, each member has a role to play, and a different gift to offer. The sense of belonging, however, depends on everyone being indispensable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was convinced that “In a Christian community, everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable . . . Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong but also the strong cannot exist without the weak.” Dom André Louf took this a step further when he said: “God has chosen each one of us because of our weakness, because of a concrete weak spot, our most vulnerable point, to heal it by his power and make it the ‘cornerstone and foundation’ of his house.”

And so, this morning I suggest that St. Joseph’s Abbey is a “school of humility and love” precisely because it is built on human weakness and grace, on forgiveness and healing, on divine faithfulness, and not on human achievement. The “high note” in today’s Gospel, and the hope that we celebrate on this feast day that is uniquely ours, is that the life and growth of our community are woven out of the salvation that is in Christ, not out of our personal virtue, or that of the community. As we continue our Eucharist, let us rejoice with profound gratitude for all the grace and communion that we have experienced in this church, this Domus Dei, and for the ongoing call to be members of one another in the Body of Christ.

Photograph by Brother Brian.  Today's homily by Father Dominic.