Monday, January 30, 2023

Brother Christopher


Last evening our Brother Christopher passed quietly to the Lord after a prolonged illness. He was a devoted lay brother, a great lover of this place, and dedicated to caring for the monastery grounds and making our monastery more beautiful wherever and whenever he could. We recommend him to your prayers. May he rest in peace with His Lord in Paradise.

Sunday, January 29, 2023



The Galilee of Jesus’ day was a muddle of power struggles; rich elites were getting richer and richer by burdening the poor with endless tolls and ever-higher taxes. And religious leaders kept piling on rules and regulations that assured the poor of their exclusion. Jesus arrives and announces a higher grace. (See David Brooks) He brings good news to the poor, sets free those oppressed and heavily burdened, and he is teaching the people how to hope again. Jesus is this great surge of God’s compassion rushing in with a relentless, astoundingly gentle but ferocious urgency and energy. And he is enacting a great reversal. He eats with sinners, casts out demons, and cures people no matter which day of the week it is. He touches lepers and so has become unclean. He even dares to forgive sins. Who does he think he is?


Jesus sees things differently, he grants access to the kingdom directly to outcasts and the downtrodden, offering not pity but blessing. He speaks to them this morning on a “stretch of level ground” – their level. The standards of the world are toppled. Jesus is with them, he has become poor for their sake, he is a wandering preacher, who has nowhere to rest his head. Jesus is the love and beauty of God, this breakthrough of God’s compassion in the midst of all the muck, violence, and pettiness. And as he mingles openly with his often underfed and unemployed followers, Jesus assures them: “You are seen by God. You may be poor and hungry, weeping and hated, but you are blessed, never ever forgotten.” In and through Jesus, they have been found by God’s compassion. We can well imagine their surprise as they hear his message this morning. More than one looks over their shoulder to see who he’s talking to. “Oh, I think he means us.” Jesus is not joking around nor offering false hope but assuring them of the fullness and joy that God wants for them. Jesus topples the values of the world and invites us to see the world in terms of God’s values. He names the poor makarios, truly blessed and fortunate; they can rejoice in the midst of their suffering for in God’s eyes they are favored.


Now, it’s embarrassing to admit, but most of the time I come to the Gospel Beatitudes, wondering how I’m doing. You know like: how m’I doin'? Would Jesus number me among his blessed ones? Did I make the cut? After all, I’ve had some tough breaks. Right? But am I poor enough, have I suffered enough? Fool that I am. At this point I sense the Lord giving me the time-out sign. Time out, this isn’t tryouts for the kingdom. The invitation is simply to listen, just listen to Jesus, stay with him, abide with him and notice those whom he names blessed. Notice who it is that is getting his attention and allow my priorities to be shifted.


Any of us who have had the privilege of working with the truly poor have experienced this. I remember working in Belize many years ago. I would often go to the very simple home of one family; it was a little wooden house on stilts. I loved being there with these friends. They didn’t have much. One evening they announced, “We have something special for you.” What could it be? Jello. (I hate jello.) But that night jello became sacred. Holy Communion. I savored every bit of my lime jello like never before.


The Beatitudes are not a checklist for the spiritually ambitious, but an invitation to see as God sees. An invitation to notice who Jesus is speaking to and quietly, gratefully, graciously, humbly find our place with him among those who are disadvantaged and oppressed and learn to live by a new set of standards. Abiding with the poor, staying with the poor Christ, we learn what is truly important. It’s about welcoming vulnerability and being unattached to anything less than God. It’s not about doing anything but responding to the hope and higher grace that Jesus relentlessly offers. He is our true Beatitude, though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, abandoned even unto death on a cross.


But woe to us, woe to us if, stranded in our selfishness, we are forgetful of our constant dependence on God’s mercy and compassion. Woe to us if we forget that our blessedness demands that we learn to see as God sees, and to love as God loves. Woe to us if we ignore the poor. Beatitude is about stepping into the blessedness of those who know their desperate need for God, those who have no other treasure but him.


I am reminded of an afternoon some years ago, as I was trudging down Broadway in Manhattan feeling terribly despondent as I made my way to class. I was stopped in my tracks, as I noticed, written in large letters with colored chalk on the sidewalk, these words: “I am well-pleased.” It was as if the sidewalk itself was crying out – “You are seen, you are noticed, even blest, you have been found by God’s compassion.” Maybe we could write that all over the cloister floors, on all the hallway floors: “I am well pleased.” Might be helpful.

Who is Jesus noticing? Who am I noticing? Whom have you seen? Who do you see each day around here? A brother with Lou Gehrig’s disease literally dragging himself into this church to pray Vigils. A young monk in a rush interrupted and now leaning down to an elder who wants him to read the latest notes on the bulletin board to him. The one I judge, the one I take for granted, the one I’ve made invisible. How will I notice the poor one I am liable to miss, the ignored or forgotten one - in my world, in my heart, in my mirror?

In the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus this morning, a revolution is happening, with vulnerability at the center. Inadequacy and vulnerability are the keys to beatitude, the source of all that can give us life and joy, love, belonging, and connectedness. For when I am vulnerable, I realize that I desperately need God; I realize that I desperately need others. And I come to understand that I am perfectly incomplete, perfectly inadequate, and on the way, certainly not poor like the truly economically disadvantaged whom Jesus addresses this morning, but somehow, connected by the grace of self-knowledge. Then real prayer becomes possible. And Eucharist becomes real. How blessed are they who trust in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. How truly blessed are those who know their desperate need for God.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Feast of Our Founders

"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

The Gospel passage chosen for our celebration of the feast of the Holy Founders of Citeaux concerns the problem of wealth. Wealth is an obstacle to following Jesus and to participating in his kingdom. It follows immediately upon Jesus’ encounter with the rich man. In that passage, as we well know, a man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” After he has assured Jesus that he has observed all the commandments from his youth, and yet finds his heart yearning for something more, Jesus, Mark says, looks at him and loves him and says: “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” Mark tells us that “At that statement [the man’s] face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

The rich man was without doubt a pious man. He had for many years dedicated himself to following the commandments. But he lacked the one thing necessary: the gift of being free enough from his possessions to follow Jesus’ call wholeheartedly. Despite Jesus’ clear signs of affection for him, despite his penetrating and loving gaze (he is the only person in the whole of Mark’s Gospel that it is explicitly stated that Jesus looked on him with love) a gaze that pierced through to the truth of the man, recognized his possibilities, saw what was lacking in him, and with fatherly affection showed him the way forward, he rejected the call, preferring to remain in his gloom yet surrounded by his many possessions. The vision of this man, his face fallen with and grieving, going away from the expectant, hopeful Jesus and his band of disciples is a powerful and disturbing image of the alienating power of sin. The rich man is to all appearances and by regular human standards a good man, but in the encounter with Jesus, which the rich man initiated, when faced with the offer of fellowship and communion, he chose isolation instead. In going away and in his isolation he denied himself the possibility of hearing the promise of the hundredfold Jesus just a few minutes later spoke to his disciples.

The disappointment and frustration of Jesus are apparent in his response: Jesus then looked around and said to his disciples: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are amazed at what he said, so he says a second time, (which is where today’s Gospel takes up the narrative): “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Then he extrapolates, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The image of alienation and separation is strengthened when he remember that Jesus looked around and said to his disciples. The image I have is of the rich man walking away in the other direction by himself, shoulders slumped, head down, while Jesus now looks on his group of disciples with the attention and fatherly affection the rich man so recently enjoyed, gathering them by his attentive and penetrating gaze. Throughout the history of the interpretation of the camel and the needle’s eye there have been a variety of attempts to modify or soften its meaning, as one scholar puts it, by dwarfing the camel and expanding the needle’s eye. For example, the explanation that Jerusalem had a small gate called “the Needle’s Eye” through which camels might pass, an idea we can find that already in  St.Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea ascribed to St. Anselm. In the apocryphal work, The Acts of Andrew and Peter, a needle’s eye actually grows miraculously until a camel is able to pass through it.

St. Jerome, on the other hand, in his commentary on Matthew, has the camel loaded down with possessions, making the task of an already large beast passing through the eye of a needle even more absurd. I follow the opinion that the saying fits better with what follows if it is left to its straightforward meaning of an impossible task. For when the apostles say to one another, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ answer shifts the whole matter away from human endeavor and capacity and onto God: "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God." So God can save even the rich man. Jesus has not given up on him.

We cannot save ourselves, it is a gift. We cannot so to speak pull ourselves into eternal life by our bootstraps. But we do have to receive the gift as and when it is given. And as the encounter with the rich man shows, it is not received passively but requires discipleship and leaving behind everyone contrary to it. We must allow the look of Jesus to penetrate our hearts and tell us who we are in his eyes and what our response is to be. The call to the rich man was specific to him. It was tailored to the particular idea Jesus and therefore God had of him. Jesus did not tell everyone he encountered to “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor”.  This was what was fitting for this man. But everyone he encountered was invited to enter his kingdom, to be part of the new family he was forming, each in his own way. None less or more than the others, but each according to the idea God has of them, conceived in eternity from the abundance of his love.

Wealth is a problem for Jesus because it stifles the capacity to hear and to respond.  In Jesus’ view this capacity is found most of all in the child. In fact, the passage just before that of the rich man is that in which people are rebuked by the disciples for bringing children to Jesus and he says, “Let the children come to me…for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. And then: Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it. In our Gospel for today, he calls his disciples “children”: "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! (Mar 10:24 NAB). From one perspective, Jesus is like a father to them, begetting them into his new family. But from another perspective, that of the relation of Jesus to his Father, Jesus is the Child, the archetypal child, and the disciples are children in him of the one Father. From this perspective, Jesus is the archetypal example and teacher of what it is to be a child before God. Therefore there is no paternalistic attitude here on the part of the Jesus when he calls his disciples ‘children’. Rather, it belongs to his desire to share with his disciples his communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit by granting them a share in his Sonship.

Ever-begotten anew by the Father, who is “greater than I”, Jesus lives in the amazement of having received himself as sheer gift. The Father has handed everything over to him and this knowledge is for Jesus a source of infinite amazement, wonder, and gratitude. In love, he receives the gift and hands it over again to the Father in total surrender. Jesus’ thirst is for his Father’s love and in everything he does he strives to abide in it. Jesus loves children because they thirst for love, they feel his love, surrender to it and take it with them into their lives as a matter of course. In order to remain in this love, which is precious to them because it corresponds to their yearning, they do or at least try to do, what love demands. When children behave badly, they do what they can to come back into love. They yearn for love. They receive the gift of the kingdom as the answer to their yearning.

Personally, I find it helpful to see the hopes and ideals of our Cistercian Founders, and of St. Benedict before them, in terms of an attempt to create a space for a life of spiritual childhood, that is, a space in which the freedom to receive the kingdom of God as Jesus offers it in a disposition of wonder and gratitude is fostered and realized. Of course, spiritual childhood is a grace, it cannot be manufactured, but certain conditions can be set up in which the grace may be received and flower. In his circular letter of 1998, Dom Bernardo Olivera synthesized the ideals of our Founders as expressed in the primitive documents as follows:

Authenticity in monastic observance in the spiritual life and in liturgical life.

Simplicity and poverty in everything, so as to follow and be poor with, the poor Christ.

Solitude so as to be able to live with God while building up a communion of brothers.

Austerity of life and of work, so as to promote the growth of the New Man.

Conformity to the Rule of St. Benedict that is absolute, that is, without additions contrary to the Rule’s spirit and letter.

In offering us the grace of our Cistercian charism, Jesus asks us to make the simple act of trust of embracing its ideals. Since it is our call, it is through them and nowhere else that he will be able to pull us out of and beyond our private, personal and complicated selves, into conformity with his spiritual childhood, and therefore into the joy of his fellowship with the Father and the Spirit and the whole communion of saints.

Our charism is our wealth. The particular interpretation of the Gospel and expression of its values that have been handed over to us by our Founders belongs to us and represents our unique place in the Church and in the history of salvation. Jesus has promised us that when we embrace the charism it will bear much fruit and we receive much in return. As a gift, it is something we cannot know the extent of unless we receive it. It is only in the living of it that we gain understanding. Likewise, when like the rich man we reject it we really do not know what we have missed out on, except perhaps indirectly in the sadness, restlessness and discontent we may feel. With joy and gratitude for the gift, we have received and confident that the Lord sees our desire to serve him more faithfully, generously and simply let us turn now to the celebration of this mystery in which he gives himself most fully.

Icon of the Founders written by Brother Terence. Homily by Father Timothy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Paul's Conversion


In the midst of every conflict and division that the human heart can contrive, the Spirit of Jesus always seeks to draw us together and make us one. How often we resist; insisting that we know better, our individual plan will work best.

Overwhelmed by the nearness of the persecuted Jesus calling to him and blinded by the divine radiance, Paul falls to the ground, helpless and needy at last; all his old answers suddenly meaningless.

That’s what it took for Christ Jesus to get Paul’s attention and change his heart. What will it take to break our hearts open- as churches, nations, individuals? What have we heard and seen that will make us understand once and for all that unity, forgiveness, blessed compromise, and deferring to one another out of love for Christ surpass everything?

As we complete this Octave of Prayer for Unity, let us pray that now, today we would listen to his voice and harden not our hearts, so that all may be one in him.

The most important thing of all to him was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else; were he without it, it would be no satisfaction to be the friend of principalities and powers. He preferred to be thus loved and be the least of all, or even to be among the damned than to be without that love and be among the great and honored.

To be separated from that love was, in his eyes, the greatest and most extraordinary of torments; the pain of that loss would alone have been hell, and endless, unbearable torture.  So too, in being loved by Christ he thought of himself as possessing life, the world, the angels, present and future, the kingdom, the promise and countless blessings. Apart from that love nothing saddened or delighted him; for nothing earthly did he regard as bitter or sweet.

Paul set no store by the things that fill our visible world, any more than a man sets value on the withered grass of the field. As for tyrannical rulers or the people enraged against him, he paid them no more heed than gnats. Death itself and pain and whatever torments might come were but child’s play to him, provided that thereby he might bear some burden for the sake of Christ.   

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, oil on canvas, 1600-01, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.  Quotation by Saint John Chrysostom.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Abundant Life

In a kind of fortuitous liturgical coincidence, today's memorial of Saint Marianne coincides with the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. And so at this morning's Mass, we heard this opening prayer: 

God our Creator, we give thanks to you, who alone have the power to impart the breath of life as you form each of us in our mother’s womb; grant, we pray, that we, whom you have made stewards of creation, may remain faithful to this sacred trust and constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

In 1883 Sister Marianne Cope left New York with six sisters to minister to leprosy patients in Hawaii. She planned to remain only long enough to get them settled. But the patients’ great needs led her to remain in Hawaii for four decades; she would die there in 1918. Courageous, energetic, and never daunted by any challenge, she loved the poor and most vulnerable. May the dedicated witness of Saint Marianne inspire us to reverence and protect all human life. 

And we recall her message of acceptance for the work in Hawaii:

I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones, whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders…I am not afraid of any disease, hence, It would be my greatest delight to minister to the abandoned lepers.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

We imagine that all the Gospels answer questions likely posed by a second generation of Christ’s followers, perhaps the children and grandchildren of the apostles and disciples. “What was Jesus like? What was it like to know Him? What was it like to be with Him? What was it like when He called you to follow Him?” The Gospel is then a living recollection recounted by those whose hearts burned within them as Jesus spoke to them.

How extraordinarily attractive Jesus must have been. Indeed, the truth, and goodness that He was and that He proclaimed were irresistible, for He is God enfleshed. And this morning we watch and listen as His simple invitation touches the hearts of four fishermen. Without hesitation, these first four apostles abandon father, nets, and boats to follow Jesus, immediately

Like them, our work is to make ourselves more and more available to the irresistibility of Jesus and His call and to live our lives with an urgency and attentiveness, that will make us ever available to be drawn into the Beauty of God, drawn by Jesus into a life of self-forgetfulness and self-offering. 

The bells are our constant summons to put all things aside and go to prayer. “The monks will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given and each will hasten,” says St. Benedict. “On hearing the signal the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed.” 

Truly, at the first stirrings of His call, were not our hearts burning within us? Let us remember and continually go to him without a second thought. Let us go to him again this morning, the Living Water, our Life and our Hope, as he gives us Himself and teaches us how to give ourselves away in love and service to one another.

Photograph by Brother Brian.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Our Inefficiency

The Spirit of God always surpasses our dreams or desires. The Spirit expresses for us the God in Christ who cannot be managed, who is “continually spilling over,” the God who is exquisitely present within yet ungraspable, indescribable, the Spirit who is the vital atmosphere that gives us breath and life, surrounding us and granting us greater intimacy with God, who keeps us open to the More that God is, beyond our imaginings or our manipulation. The Spirit brings unity, always respecting difference, and enlivening reciprocity.

“The Spirit is at the place of our desiring,” the inarticulate groan that begs for Christ to surround and indwell and sustain us in the incompleteness of love. And as monks we know that this is where we live- in this land of desire, somehow suspended between heaven and earth, getting glimpses of heavenly communion, visits of the Word, noticing his kind and loving presence but more often left hanging, because our desire always outstrips our present capacity. And so, we’re left suspended, longing for more, but often losing our way. We live in an in-between place- poised in faith between a promised heavenly homeland and an earthly home; puzzled and sometimes impatient because earthly existence even for all its ambiguities is at least tangible and real. And as we wait, we keep on doing what we’re doing- trying to notice the ordinary charged with mystery, in this place of already and not yet.

Some years ago, it was my privilege to work with mentally disabled children at a home in Chicago, operated by the Sisters of Mercy. It was called Misericordia- literally in Latin the home of the pitying heart. Eventually, it became a L’Arche village. I helped each week at a Mass for the children; they were wonderfully affectionate; I got so many hugs. Since they could not articulate well, they had been taught the sign language of the deaf. And all during the Eucharist they signed the hymns and responses exuberantly. "Lord" was an L that flew out from the heart; "Jesus", fingers pointing to the wounds in his hands. Mass there was like nothing I had ever experienced. I remarked to my friend, the priest who presided there, how amazing it was.  "It's no wonder at all," he said.  "You see, they're inefficient, not good at accomplishing tasks all week long, but they are perfect at Liturgy. They're perfectly at home praising and praying and loving. They get easily absorbed because they're so inefficient."

With our best Cistercian intuition, we are always trying to be efficient; more jam, more chasubles in fewer minutes, for we are after all called to work, faithful to Benedict's Rule. "They are truly monks when they live by the work of their hands." But very soon we come to realize that the efficiency, proficiency, and productivity we need to make some great jelly or the perfect vestment are not going to work when we go to prayer. We need another set of skills, skills for suspension and inefficiency- learning how to be satisfied with waiting, learning how to depend totally on Christ’s kind favor, his timing; practicing being at home with powerlessness, for Christ only wants our weakness.

Such is the continuing mode of God’s coming toward us in Christ. And our work here in this school of love, this house of his Misericordia, this home of the pitying heart of Christ, is to continually stoke our desire for Christ, so to be available for his pleasure, his timing. We know that Christ Jesus our Lord likes to sneak in like a bandit into the grey inefficiency of our ordinariness. As Michael Casey likes to say, contemplation, true prayer, depends on this “rubbish of our lives,” for it happens when we have nothing to be proud of.

Photographs by Brother Brian. Reflection by one of our monks.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Witnessing the Lamb

In any story or play, we pay special attention to the moment when the protagonist or leading character makes a first appearance. Jesus first appears in the 4th Gospel in today’s opening verse:  When John caught sight of Jesus coming toward him, he exclaimed: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Aha, say I to myself, this “Lamb of God” is what I will preach about this morning. And indeed, I did get well into my preparation when it slowly dawned on me: but in this scene, Jesus stays on the sidelines and says nothing. The focus, rather, is on John’s witness – not even on John’s baptizing Jesus, for actually the Johannine Jesus is not said to be baptized by John (or baptized at all, for that matter). No, the focus here is entirely on John’s witness, his testimony.

One clue in the text is that it consists almost entirely of direct discourse, and thus speaks powerfully to the hearer. Notice that the 4th Evangelist does not talk about John’s witness, but allows us to hear John’s witness for ourselves. This emphasis on John’s witness got me thinking about Christian witness today—and specifically, about our personal witness in whatever circumstances we happen to find ourselves.

“Witness.” “Witness” is probably not one of our favorite words in our religious vocabulary, given its juridical overtones and its association with fundamentalist groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. If someone comes up to us and wants to “witness” to us about Jesus, we may find ourselves inwardly cringing, looking for an exit, or at least feeling a certain awkwardness. I remember experiencing this over forty years ago while serving as a campus minister at Arizona State University in the Bible belt. I just couldn’t get comfortable with the somewhat in-your-face “witnessing to Jesus” by fervent students.

Well, this morning the Baptist puts “witness” right out there for us to pay attention to—making unavoidable a question that we perhaps rarely ask ourselves: namely, how are we to understand our call to witness? Perhaps some of us would rather wiggle out of this and content ourselves with just being an “implicit sign” of the Kingdom to one another, and let it go at that. But is that really enough? 

I would like to begin my reflection with the observation that there is something about Christianity that always pushes beyond “presence” to “epiphany” (manifestation). This is borne out by the earliest liturgical tradition in celebrating Christ’s birth. In the East, the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6th, which is about the disclosure of the glory of God among us and which also commemorated the Baptism of the Lord, was at first more important than the Feast of the Nativity of Christ (“Christmas”), celebrated on December 25th ever since the 4th century. Then, after Epiphany there soon follows another celebrated epiphany - when Simeon receives the child Jesus in the Temple he rejoices, “For my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” And throughout the whole Christmas season of epiphanies, we hear St. John frequently attest, “we proclaim that which we have heard, and which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands.” In a word: what has been manifested. It is this pushing beyond “presence” to “manifestation” that underlies the whole matter of “witness.”

A second point: in coming to terms with ourselves and Christian witness, we notice that our faith yearns to take visible form, to be seen, to be made manifest. This is because our faith naturally tends to be “incarnational.” After all, together we are the Body of Christ and individually members of it. St. Paul insists that at Baptism we “put on Christ”—we are now His face, hands, feet, and touch in the world; we are meant to actually see Christ in one another. It is also telling that for most of Western history, our faith has been made visible – in glass, painting, and sculpture. Ever since the Iconoclastic Controversy in the 9th century, Christianity has sought to show God’s face. In the Middle Ages, people rarely saw the image of any face except those of Christ and the saints, but in our world, we are bombarded with faces. Everywhere there are faces: of politicians, actors, ballplayers, the rich, people who are famous just for being famous. But we believe that all of humanity hungers to see another face, the face of God. The question is: How can we manifest that face?

Obviously, it would not be enough just to add Christ’s face to the crowd. The challenge is: how can we disclose the glory of God, God’s beauty?  (This is precisely the role of the Servant of God, in today’s First Reading: “The Lord said to me: you are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.”) In this world filled with images, how can God’s beauty be manifested? That, I believe, is the real question concerning religious “witness.”

Von Balthasar speaks of the “self-evidence” of beauty, “its intrinsic authority.” We recognize in beauty a summons that we cannot easily ignore. This beauty has the authority of the author of heaven and earth. C.S. Lewis said that beauty rouses up the desire for “our own far-off country,” the home for which we long and have never seen. Beauty discloses our ultimate end, that for which we are made, our wisdom, the wisdom of humanity’s final destiny. This final destiny is glimpsed in the beauty of God’s face. How can we show it now? This alone gives “witness” a certain urgency.

This leads me to the conviction that as Christian witnesses we need to present images, and faces that are different in kind from the faces that we see in our streets and advertisements. The images of our society offer entertainment, and distraction, whereas the beauty of God is disclosed in transformation, in our personal transformation. The images of our culture show the beauty of power and wealth. It is the beauty of the young and the fit who have everything. It is the beauty of a consumerist society. The Gospel, however, locates beauty elsewhere. The disclosure of the glory of God is the cross, a dying and deserted man. (“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin, the brokenness, of the world!”) This is such a scandalous idea that it seems to have taken 400 years for the first representation of the crucified Christ to have been made in 432 on the doors of Santa Sabina, after the destruction of Rome by the barbarians. The point not to be missed here is that God’s irresistible beauty shines through utter poverty.

This may seem a crazy idea until one thinks of one of the most attractive and beautiful of all saints, St. Francis of Assisi. His life is hollowed by a void, poverty, which God can only fill. Francis shows us that “to be a witness to Christ does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would make no sense if God did not exist.” (Card. Emmanuel Suhard) We see God’s beauty in Francis because his life would make no sense if God did not exist. And likewise, we see God’s beauty in one another most especially when we see that our lives would make no sense if Christ did not exist. Now, that is witness!

To conclude: our real challenge today, as we stand on the banks of our own Jordan Rivers, is to show the beauty of the poor and powerless God, the Lamb of God – a beauty disclosed above all in personal transformation wrought by forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, redeeming love. Personal witness is born of personal transformation in this poor Christ, in the Lamb of God upon whom the dove descended. It is this Lamb of God who communicates to us, pours into our hearts, the intimacy of the Holy Spirit, who in turn makes of us (poor and powerless though we are) “epiphanies” of his glory to one another. 

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

Thursday, January 12, 2023

With Saint Aelred

In Christ God has become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. It is in the wounded and risen Christ that friendship with God becomes real, for there we can see and understand the depth of God’s desire to share everything with us. For in the hour of his crucifixion, God pours out his entire self for us, desiring to unburden us, to free us from sin and death, wanting what is best for us, as any friend would. True friendship with God is now accessible, and possible because, in the brokenhearted Christ, God most high has become God most low; God has opened his heart to us, longing for our friendship. It is the wounded face of Christ that reveals the love of Father, Son, and Spirit. This everything of the Father’s love for us is most clearly expressed in the self-offering of Jesus, in his disfigured humanity.

A God who is love would be inconceivable without the reality of the incompleteness that is love, the inner voice, the deep desire that says, “I cannot be me without you. And you cannot be you without me.”* This is the truth of who God is, a God who is relationship, a God whom Saint Aelred names as friendship. In their mutual exchange, deferring to each other in love, Father, Son and Spirit utter these words endlessly to one another and to each of us. The Spirit invites us into this heavenly reciprocity, this loving exchange, encouraging us to say to God with every fiber of our being: “I cannot be me without you,” as God repeats these same words back to us. Our friendship with God in Christ through the Spirit is ultimately fulfilled in our promise to love one another as we have been loved, to create households and communities of friends, where we will try to love as God loves. It is an impossible task, only the Spirit of Jesus can help us for alone we do not know how to pray or love as God loves.

Photograph of an antique corpus in the Abbey hermitage by Brother Brian. The quotation by Jeremy Driscoll, OSB. Meditation by one of the monks.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Eternal Rest

Lord Jesus, please have mercy on the souls of your servants!

Once a month during Ordinary Time, we celebrate the Office and Mass of the Dead, praying for our deceased brethren, relatives, friends, and benefactors. Once again on this frosty winter morning, it was our duty and privilege to pray these prayers.
In his Rule, Saint Benedict admonishes the monks, "keep death daily before your eyes." The Abbey cemetery is located just outside the south cloister and provides a fitting memento mori. As we pass through this cloister, back and forth all day long, we can see the crosses marking our brothers' resting places. Our deceased brethren are still with us. Death is not fearsome but part of our monastic rhythm, a gateway to deeper intimacy with Christ Jesus who died and rose for love of us.

Requiem aeternam, Domine, dona eis.

Sunday, January 8, 2023


When I was a little boy, the most exciting day of the year for us kids was January 6th. Only in church was it called by the strange Greek name of ‘Epiphany’; to us it was the feast of the ‘Three Magi Kings’—los Tres Reyes Magos, as we called them. It was the year’s big day of presents. These were brought to us in Cuba not by Santa Claus, that unknown Nordic figure, but by the very same biblical characters that brought gifts for Jesus. ¿QuĂ© te trajeron los Reyes? was the incessant question friends would ask one another in the following days, eager to compare the bounty: What did the Kings bring you? On the eve of the feast, I would be bursting with hope and expectation. On one such occasion (I must have been around 8), something extraordinary happened to me. I was in the restroom preparing to go to bed. When I turned off the light I happened to look up at the window. What I saw stunned me. Plain as could be, I saw the star of Bethlehem shining in the night sky exactly as portrayed on Christmas cards: an intense point of light in the center, and then four beams radiating from it, with the bottom beam extending downward, far into the earth where I was. I couldn’t believe that the star of Jesus had come to shine just for me exactly as it had for the Magi Kings of old!

That night, light of Christ’s glorious Appearing pierced my expectant heart, and I have never recovered from that piercing. You might say that ever since that night I have been chronically afflicted by a sense of awe before the mysteries of the Christian faith, which for me throb with a life of their own and are always on the verge of bursting forth visibly through the barrier of the ordinary. As a fulfillment of a deeper, embryonic desire, the grace I received that night outshone even my childish greediness for material gifts. Nor did the magic of the effect disappear even after it had been patiently explained to me by smiling parents that any point of light, seen through the refraction of a metallic screen, will produce the same cruciform phenomenon. I didn’t care; I had seen what I had seen and felt what I had felt, and the awe infused into my soul was palpable and abiding.

I sometimes wonder whether my faith-convictions as an adult ought not to be attributed more to this moment when I saw my star of Bethlehem than to the many books of theology I have since read. Many decades later I experienced another starry visitation. One January morning in San Francisco (I was already well into my 50s), I sat at my desk by a second-story window. I was anxious, busy painstakingly discerning whether I should leave the university and enter this monastery. I happened to glance down into the street feeling quite distraught. The Christmas season was only just over. And what did I suddenly see? Hanging from a tree growing kitty-corner from where I was sitting and swaying forlornly in the wind as if winking at me, I glimpsed a large cardboard silver star that someone had tied by a long string to that particular branch, right in line with my line of vision. Why on earth a star offered to my sight in mid-January, attached to a tree that was definitely not a Christmas tree and had no other ornaments? Once again, my heart was pierced by the light of Jesus’ Bethlehem star, and on the spot my mind was made up to become a monk and leave behind my own ‘Persia’, the fabled City-on-the-Bay.

Brothers and sisters: All of our Christmas and Epiphany texts explode with the splendor of this same supernatural Light, which is always hunting us down; and this is little wonder since Christ is the radiance of the glory of God (Heb 1:3). With the flashing appearance of Jesus in the horizon of our world, God’s goodness and mercy have burst into the darkness of our woeful planet and of our distressed hearts. St John affirms very simply that God is light (1 Jn 1:5), and this proclamation is of a piece with his other definition of the Divine Being: God is love (4:6). Again, in the prologue to his Gospel, John affirms of the Word Incarnate that in him was life, and the life was the light of men (1:4). Indeed, if we rise to the occasion, if we admit into the inmost recesses of our hearts the explosive, luminous, and yet utterly hidden and ever so quiet Event we have celebrated this season, we will find our souls enraptured as they soar across a light-drenched landscape of awe and joy. We will not be saved until we are pierced by the Light of Christ.

Jesus is presented to us by the Gospel as the still-center of the narrative, and indeed of the whole universe, even those parts of it beyond the reach of even the $10-billion Webb Telescope. He draws all to himself by the sheer power of his bright, humble Presence. When the Magi arrive in Bethlehem and adore the Lord, we are witnessing in them all the nations of the world acclaiming the Jewish Messiah as their Savior, too. This is the dramatic manifestation of the great Mystery revealed to St Paul: namely, that the Gentiles [no less than the Jews] now have the same inheritance and form the same Body and enjoy the same promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). What ultimately counts here is not racial and religious privilege and tradition, or a superior intellectual culture, or impressive personal achievements and talents, but rather the single-minded capacity and willingness of the human heart to believe, obey and conceive the Word of God in union with our Blessed Lady, the Mother of God.

The act of beholding with awe, wonderment and glad surrender the supernatural Light manifested at Jesus’ birth, thoroughly transfigures those who gaze at it and welcome it. The light of Jesus is a transforming energy, as St Paul declares to the Corinthians: For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6). And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). Both the Enlightener and the enlightened together exult in the one Divine Light. We may say that this Trinitarian Light takes the Magi up into itself and fills them with the very joy that gladdens the Heart of God: When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Yes, it is a law of theological aesthetics that we become what we contemplate! We metamorphose into what we behold with love and adoration because the one contemplating allows himself to be penetrated and changed to the core by the power of the energetic beauty of Christ the Lord. Let us, then, be careful about what we adore….

The Magi do not receive such an extraordinary participation in the Light of God passively; they embrace it actively; they literally ‘hitch their lives to that star’, which is not a generic luminary but specifically his star, that is, the star pointing out the presence of the King they were seeking; and with intelligent docility they follow its movement wherever it may take them. They then undertake a long and hazardous but dynamic journey, with a clear goal in mind; they engage all their powers of analysis and research and do astral calculations; they delve meticulously into Jewish history and prophecy and royal lineage; and, perhaps more impressively than everything else, they lay aside all Persian ethnocentric pride and cultural prejudices in order to find the newborn King of the Jews, a people wholly alien to them. But what have they to object if the eternal God chose to enter the world by the backwater of Judea rather than the splendor of Persia? Indeed, such a reversal of mere human expectations already announces divine mystery unfolding.

All of the Magi’s efforts, all of their courage and risk-taking, all of their expanding of mental boundaries, have had but one goal: to finally satisfy the hunger of their human hearts to adore the true God, to bask in the presence of divine glory and be transformed by its rays. All of the Magi’s purpose and determination is contained in the simple words of Matthew’s text: On entering the house they saw the Child with Mary his mother. And falling forward, they worshipped him. These verbs describe a headlong physical momentum that manifests the worshippers’ desire almost to fall into the Child. Such a surprising and even abnormal impulse does make perfect sense, however, once we come to see that this Child is the active embodiment of God’s glory, and that he comes to quench the deepest hunger of human beings: namely, the yearning to be sated with the glory of God. The poet William Everson has graphically portrayed the inner force of faith driving the Magi in this way:

And they brought their camels

Breakneck into that village,

And flung themselves down in the dung and dirt of that place,

And kissed that ground, and the tears

Ran on their faces, where the rain had. 

After falling on the ground, [the Magi] opened their treasures to him: that is, they unsealed the depths of their persons in order to surrender their whole being to the divine King as a sacrificial offering due only to God. I dare say they did not return to their own country unchanged. Indeed, the text says that they returned to Persia by another way, and I don’t think this means only that they took a different road back…. Nor should we today leave from this Eucharist unchanged. Why not offer all our lives here and now, just as they are, the beautiful with the shameful, to the Infant King, our Emmanuel? After all, he, the eternal Word, has long known our darkness and yet has unaccountably been attracted to us by that very knowledge, has anyhow bounded down from heaven with great energy and joy, looking to make his pillow out of our misery.

The Adoration of the Magi, Bartolo di Fredi (Italian, active by 1353–died 1410 Siena), ca. 13, Tempera and gold on wood, 58 1/2 x 35 1/8 in. (148.6 x 89.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission. Today's homily by Father Simeon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Gazing Upon The Child

Let us gaze upon what Mary gazed upon, the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s covenants, namely, the whole mystery of Christ. On the one hand, she saw in her infant son one like all other Jewish male babies – the Gospel says, “And when eight days were completed for his circumcision…” What greater proof that he was one of us and a child of Abraham than the fact that He was circumcised! Yet at the same time, Mary could not doubt the word of the angel: “He will be called holy, the Son of God,” because “the power of the Most High will overshadow you...” The divine and the human: these are the two mysteries Mary held in her heart, not mixing or confusing them or leaving one aside. But at the same time, Mary maintained but one focus: taking her child in her arms and holding him close as only a mother can, she gazed on her little Son, this little person in whom somehow the divine and the human were personally united. Her embrace was like that Sabbath rest with which God embraced the whole mystery of His creation, but here we have the mystery of a new creation. Mary is the great sign of God’s new and eternal covenant, and she leads us to that covenant today. In the Eucharist we partake of the marvelous exchange – simple bread and humble wine become the true body and blood of Mary’s Son, our one Lord, and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Culmination of all God’s covenants, who lives and reigns forever and ever! 

The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), School of BartolomĂ© Esteban Murillo, XVII century, oil on canvas, 110 x 165 cm, Museo del Prado. Reflection by Father Vincent.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Mary Mother of God

Research has shown that learning begins in utero. There the infant is picking up cues about the world he will enter. Will it be a place of scarcity or abundance, conflict or peace? And though the voice he hears is muffled and low, an infant soon begins to recognize his mother’s voice and her heartbeat. Soon after birth, the baby will prefer her voice to all others. The mother’s voice, her beating heart, her face become the child’s first world, his emotional sustenance. She is the one who can assure him that he is treasured and loved. This among so much else is what Mary gave the infant Word of God - the assurance and security he required to begin his life with us. God depended on Mary to become a person.

Through Mary, the sublime beauty God reaches down to us to “become a person available to our senses,”* at last bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. And in her quiet, brave surrender, she has given us the little Child “who is the beauty of all things beautiful.”* She and her kinsfolk had prayed for centuries that God would, at last, rend the heavens and come down, flash his lightnings and route the foe with his mighty arm. But God would intervene in a far more astonishing way, with a baby’s chubby little arm, a baby’s tears and gurgling. Why would God have done such a thing? How could he, or put more cynically – why would he bother?

Such is the exquisite absurdity of the Incarnation, its scandal, its incomprehensibility; and most of all the wonder of the divine eros, for God has lost himself in love for his own creation and given Himself away to us. The only-begotten Word of God, through whom all things in heaven and earth were made, has emptied himself and taken our flesh from Mary. Becoming a human, he remains what he always was, God in nature and truth. And these two natures of the one Christ must never be confused or separated. That is why naming Mary Mother of God was so crucial for the bishops who gathered at Ephesus in 431. Mary had to be recognized and revered as truly Theotokos "The Carrier of God," Bearer of Him who is truly human, truly divine.

Mary has agreed to be available to God’s desire with an attentive curiosity: “How will this be for I am a virgin?” she says to Gabriel. Indeed, there were always questions. Would Joseph set her aside when he learned the truth? Why a census now, at the worst time possible during the last days of her pregnancy? And why, if God has so favored her, a poor, undistinguished virgin from a backwater, why would he allow this fulfillment of his plan to take place in a cattle stall, where she must place the Son of the Most High to sleep in an animal’s feeding trough? Why after all their careful preparations, a stable, the hay, the barnyard smell, and scruffy shepherds with tales of angels singing instead of family and friends to help her through her first delivery? The questions will continue until Calvary.

Mary notices, she notices the incongruities and lets them be, and she wonders at the incomprehensibility of God’s ways. Why becomes why not. In today’s Gospel shepherds rush to the manger, they are amazed to discover the Baby just as the angels reported. They depart, excited to spread the news. But the mood shifts and Luke tells us that Mary simply, quietly “treasures all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” These inexplicable treasures reflected on and pondered. The word in Greek is sumballousa; it means literally to throw things together. And I suppose it’s what we spend our lives doing as persons of faith, with Mary we ponder and notice God’s ways and try to put it all together, catch a glimpse of transcendent beauty hidden within the sometime absurdity and confusion.

Perhaps like Mary, very often we believe, but we don’t really understand. We don’t have to. We only need to wonder that with God, mess is opportunity. This is our work as monks - to notice and surrender. And this is where conversion and contemplation begin, and how they are sustained. Mary is our dear exemplar. Following her lead, we discover that the emptiness, ambiguity, and incongruities in our lives may be pregnant with presence and possibility even divinity. The Mother of God shows us how to throw it all together, trusting in the God, who never deceives, abandons, or demands but has come down to be on our side, to be with us and protect us, to redeem us, and teach us compassion.

Like Mary, we have been drawn and fascinated by the love and beauty God first offered, touching our hearts so deeply that we were willing to give everything else away. It is after all how we got here in the first place. Only such love is worth our lives; only such love and beauty could have claimed Mary’s heart or our own heart. We have not come here to figure out things about God but to love and more importantly let ourselves be loved by him and to experience his beauty, the God who is love. Love is never ugly, and God’s love is always creating beauty in place of irregularity and unevenness.* Hopefully we learn a blessed counter-intuitiveness. And we sense that the incongruities ultimately belong to the phenomenon of beauty because through fragmentation the beautiful will reveal the promise it contains.* It is the crucified and risen Jesus forever full of holes and wounds who reveals the beauty of God.

As the quiet coda to this morning’s Gospel, we hear that this little Boy has been given the name, Jesus, the name an angel gave to Joseph months before, a very ordinary name in its day, like Billy, Dick, or Tom. It is the name Mary spoke when she called him to supper, the name Joseph used as he showed him how to plane a rough board, the name his friends yelled at play, “Jesus, it’s your turn. You’re up.” Perhaps too ordinary in its day, it is for us the name above every other name, a name of great beauty and peace and sweet refuge. And we know that it is a name for Bread, the Bread of life and peace and joy given to us first of all by Mary.

Photographs of the Abbey creche by Brother Thomas. Numerous insights from Gerald O’Collins, Saint Augustine, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.