Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Keeping Vigil


With all his being the monk must try not to wander away from God through infidelity, and fall back into the condition of hardness of heart out of which God’s grace had brought him.  He must take very seriously his new identity as servant of God, put in charge of a particular work within Christ’s household.  His humble, obedient service out of love must embody the selfless goodness of the physically absent Master, who could return at any moment.  The practice of vigilance is, therefore, essential to a person who is not living for himself or by his own tastes and criteria, but whose joy and fulfillment in life consist in being faithful to the will of the One who has done so much for him, the Lord who has trusted him to care for what is most precious to God’s Heart.  The monk owes such service and vigilance not only to the Lord himself but to the Lord’s Bride, the Church.  The monk keeps vigil both figuratively and literally, says John Paul II, because for him “eschatological expectation becomes mission, so that the Kingdom may become ever more fully established here and now” (Vita Consecrata, 27).  The monk who shuns the practice of vigilance does so at his own peril.  He runs the risk of turning in upon himself and becoming enslaved to desires that are far below the delight God promises.  But the vigilant monk again echoes Isaiah: My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you (26:9).  This is what a loving heart is always doing: searching for the Beloved in the night.

St. Benedict wishes that his monks should keep protracted vigil during the hours of the night, while the rest of the world sleeps.  It is as if an essential part of the monk’s calling—something he owes both the Church and the world—is this generous watchfulness in prayer.  His sluggish lower nature may not at all like it, but he is appointed to act as a link of love between the slumbering world and the ever-wakeful tenderness of God.  The monk is called to be the willing vehicle for God’s tender mercy traveling through the darkness.  Could it be that my fidelity in keeping vigil in the night here at Spencer could, by virtue of the circulation of graces in the Mystical Body of Christ, bring relief from terror to one little girl in Syria or Iraq tonight?  Our faith tells me it’s in my power to have this effect, or rather in the power of Christ who dwells within me.  In this aspect of monastic life, the prayer of waiting without idols is typical.  Christ is experienced as the ever-present Teacher who through lectio, fraternal relationships, and in the depths of the heart instructs the monk and draws him ever more closely to his own Heart.

Photograph by Brother Brian. Reflection by Father Simeon


Sunday, February 26, 2023

The First Sunday of Lent

       We all have heard the myth of the phoenix, a legend about a bird of great beauty, the only one of its kind, said to live for 500 years in the Arabian desert, then to burn itself up into ashes on a funeral pyre, and then to rise from its ashes in the freshness of youth and live again and again these cycles of 500 years.  The story has made the phoenix a symbol of immortality.  We have all gone to ashes this past Wednesday and now in this season of Lent, this season of renewal, we ourselves hope to rise up with Christ from those ashes as we move forward through Lent toward the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ at Easter with joy and spiritual longing.  Lent is a time in which we try to get more serious and aware about the reformation--really, the transformation of our lives in Christ. This can bring more joy into our lives as we reawaken our spiritual longing for the ideals of Christianity, our longing for greater love for all people, and our longing for heaven itself and the vision of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we have been straying off the Way that is Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, it is a time to get back on track, to walk in His footsteps again.   In a discussion I had with our novices about what is a good thing to “give up” for Lent, we felt that one of the best answers was “SIN!”  Sin is precisely that losing of one's way on the road to heaven.  We all feel the power of temptation to turn us away from what is best for us personally and best for those affected by our lives.  Like Adam and Eve, we all feel the power of the temptation to sin.

       What does the first sentence of today's Gospel of Matthew tell us: “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”  The impulse of God to be humanly incarnate is so total that the Son of God himself takes on a humanity that is able to be tempted, and tested in every way that we are—though he never sinned.  You might say, well, that's because he was not tempted as strongly as we are.  I enjoy invoking the insight of C.S. Lewis that the person who gives in to temptation and sins, never learns the temptation's full power.  It is the person who resists it.  Jesus is the man to ask about what is the full power of the devil's temptations because he has known them in their full force.  Also, Matthew's gospel makes it clear that Jesus encountered temptation everywhere: not just in the desert, but also standing on the parapet of the magnificent temple in the city of Jerusalem, and in the inspiring high mountains of Israel. Everywhere: desert—Temple--mountains--He was tempted to the nth degree, but did not sin.  The  Catechism of the Catholic Church has a stunning passage about this:(CCC 603)  “Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned. But in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness to sin ( LET ME REPEAT: he assumed us in the state of our waywardness to sin), to the point that he could say in our name on the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'  Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God 'did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,' so that we might be 'reconciled to God by the death of his Son.'”

       The Gospel of Matthew and especially the Epistle to the Hebrews proclaims this as good news to us who so often succumb to temptation and, indeed, sin.  In Chapter 2 of Hebrews, the author writes, “For because Jesus himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted”  Later, in Chapter 4 the author of Hebrews gives a fuller statement of this good news: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

       Yes, let us all here and now with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that is this altar upon which will be enthroned the sacrament of sacraments, the source and summit of the Christian life, our bread of life in this monastic desert, in this holy temple, on this Spencer mountain—let us receive the eucharistic body and blood of Jesus Christ given and poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. Angels will come to help minister to us the medicine of immortality mystically transcending any renewal of life a fabulous phoenix ever could have known.

Today's homily by Father Luke.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Remembering Saint Polycarp

As Polycarp was entering the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, "Be strong, and show yourself a man, O Polycarp!" No one saw who it was that spoke to him, but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, the proconsul sought to persuade him to deny Christ, saying, “Have respect to your old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom…But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven said,  “Away with the Atheists.”  Then, the proconsul was urging him and saying, “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ.” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The martyrs are our holy forebears in our struggle to hold fast to Jesus amid all dangers and temptations to do otherwise. Pray for us, Saint Polycarp that like you we will be faithful unto death. 

Photograph by Brother Brian of the lavabo tower at the Abbey.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

On Ash Wednesday

Listening to today’s readings, it is hard not to feel that the Day of the Lord is at hand. Lent is a Day of the Lord. God is intervening like a winnowing fan which spares not his Church nor his monastic community at Spencer. It seems especially important to me that this Day of the Lord is calling us as a community to realize our vocation to communion and conversion; to deepen our confidence in our communal life as a remedy for the miseries of the world and our own miseries. The Prophet Joel and St. Paul are the Lord’s messengers for us in this regard.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion!” the Prophet Joel cries out. Blow the trumpet in this community to call us to one mind and one heart, to confession, to gather in prayer as a community—call the elders, the young, the infants in monastic life; have the priests of our community take up their sackcloth and cry out, “Spare, O Lord, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach…” This Lenten season is set before us as an opportunity to gather our forces as one body, to speak the truth in love, and to remember and rekindle the love that first brought us to the monastery. During Lent, the Lord will test us with fire to know how devoted we are to him in our common life, prayer, and meals together.

Paul has a similar plea for us: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Now is the time to bring any resentment or grievances from the past into the open, or at least to reveal them to a spiritual elder who knows how to cure his own wounds and those of others…” This is God’s gift in our communal life. Daily we are invited to become one body in the Body of Christ. Let us not receive this grace of God in vain.

A monastic community is a privileged place to allow the winnowing fan of Lent to do its work. The Day of the Lord is at hand when as a community we can bring hope to the misery of this world and to one another.

Photographs by Brother Brian. This morning's homily by Abbot Vincent.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

We Can Do It In Him

This morning as I listen to the Gospel, it feels like Jesus is leading us up a very high mountain, drawing us up higher and higher, asking more and more of us at each step. “You can do it! Come on. Come higher. Yes, yes. Forgive. Turn the other cheek. Lend. Give to those who can’t possibly repay. Be exceedingly kind to those who despise you or hurt you. Love your enemies. Return good for evil. Be merciful, merciful like God. Do not judge, don’t even think of it. Refuse to retaliate. Pardon. Give without expecting a return. Give. Give. Love and forget yourself.” It’s all too much. So heady. Higher and higher we go. The air gets thinner, it’s cool and misty, and I can’t see the way ahead or behind for that matter. And perhaps you, like me, feel a bit light-headed, even faint. Jesus’ message is dizzying after all. In short, he expects so much of us, too much of us, demands too high a standard of excellence of us his disciples- like the teacher or the coach we secretly loved and found absolutely infuriating, who always expected more, who had such confidence in our abilities, who knew we could do it. “I won’t accept shoddy work from you. Take it back; do it over. You can do better. I want more. I expect more of you.”

Jesus calls us this morning to be creative, to get beyond the tit-for-tat mode of reaction in our relationships with one another, to do the opposite, to go beyond the logic of our sensitivities, to respond in love and not react in fear, to do what St. Paul and St. Benedict are always reminding us. “Outdo one another in showing respect. Defer to one another.”  “Don’t be so obvious,” Jesus might say. “Do something different for a change- do good to those who hate you, even pray for those who annoy you. Give them the shirt off your back!” He sets the bar higher and higher and demands that we go beyond ourselves.  My initial response, perhaps yours too: “You’ve got the wrong party. Sorry. It’s too much. You want too much. My heart is too small. I can’t” His response is, “Of course, you can’t. But we can, I can do it through you, with you, in you. I can stretch your heart wider than you ever imagined.

Some years ago, my friend, Jack, was dating a plastic surgeon, who was interning at Boston Children’s Hospital. I remember her telling us about her work with little children in the burn unit. Children are terribly burned, and their skin has to be replaced. She told us how doctors would harvest tiny oblong patches of skin from different hidden places on a child’s body, under legs and arms, then take these teeny pieces of skin and make a series of alternating cuts halfway down on opposite sides of them, so that these little patches of fresh skin could then be stretched open like little accordions and placed in the scarred areas. New skin would grow in the little triangular gaps. It seemed wild, wonderful, and ingenious to me; something small becoming wider in no time. Healing by cutting and stretching.

Maybe that’s what Christ wants to do with our tattered hearts if we’ll let him in. But frankly, I wonder how available I am to this stretch, this conversion of heart that Jesus so desires. It’s awesome work and certainly, somewhat painful. But he promises that healing, hope, wholeness, and love will be accomplished through our availability to his skillful touch and cut and stretch. Jesus says to us, in other words, “Trust me. You can afford it.” And the good news is- if your heart has even been broken, the more slashes and old wounds you’ve sustained, the more stretchable your heart will be, and the easier his work will be. He can then make our hearts like his own Sacred Heart burning with love and mercy.  “Just as we resemble Adam the man of earth, all dust, so too,” Paul reminds us, “we are like the man from heaven, Jesus our Lord, whose heart is big as all outdoors.” And so if we would be wise, we must become foolish in the world’s eyes. We must do the “upside-down thing” with Jesus-  love our enemies, and turn the other cheek over and over again.

Recently a mother of twelve whom we know remarked to me that people sometimes ask her how she can love each one of those kids. I said, “Ya, they’re too many.” “Nonsense” she replied, “love doesn’t run out. You just love; the more you give, the more there is.” I said, “You know sometimes I feel like that, afraid to keep loving after I’ve been hurt, afraid I won’t be loved in return, afraid I won’t have enough love left.” “Nonsense,” she said chirped again. “Don’t you understand? It’s like that boy’s picnic lunch- only five loaves and two fish- but Love could bless it and break it and stretch it and make it enough to feed thousands with scads of leftovers.” “No,” she reminded me, “Love is not something you ever run out of. The more you give, the more there is.” But when I’m hurt and angry, I want to shut down close the shades and say, “Sorry, closed. No one’s home.” But Jesus begs and demands much more of us. “Open up. Give. Forgive. Be merciful. You can manage. You have no idea how big your heart is, how big it can become.”

Baptized into Christ, we are bound to live in covenantal relationship with him and with one another, and to hold to the conviction that peace and love and reconciliation and tender mercy are not far away things to hope for, but things we can and must do together, now, over and over. We are bound to believe and proclaim that love is shown in deeds, that small choices to love and defer and restrain our tongues and our judgments do matter, and that our faithfulness in little things has consequences far beyond what we could hope or imagine- far beyond the walls of this monastic enclosure because “those who love more can do more.” Love does stretch hearts wide open. We believe this because Love himself has shown us; Love himself has given himself away for us, to us on the cross and at this Eucharistic Table over and over again. Love never fails, never runs out, because a little bit of love freely given multiplies like crazy, because our tiny hearts in Love’s skillful hands can be stretched far beyond what we can possibly imagine.

Reflection by one of our monks with insights from Luke Timothy Johnson, Mahatma Ghandi, and Saint Gregory the Great.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Like a Grain of Wheat


Perhaps you know the story of that foolish college student, very drunk after partying with his friends, he scampers up the stairs to dance on the roof of his dorm and suddenly, carelessly steps over the edge and descends story past story, landing on the hard blacktop. But amazingly he is unharmed because he is limp, relaxed, and pliant. He rises quickly and is on his way.

Jesus tells us, "Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies..." If only we dare to fall. But who wants that? There is really no way to do it gracefully. Or is there? Like Jesus, we are meant to plunge headfirst into God’s arms, as dark and damp as the earth after a spring rain. Like a grain of wheat, falling into the dark damp earth to have the hard shell of the kernel rot away and then freely sprout and flourish, out of death and darkness will come abundant fruit. 

The way to fall gracefully? Perhaps just like that drunken kid, stepping out and over and down, confident in the love of a Father who cannot, will not ever abandon or forget us. We are invited to die to ourselves and fall into the humble, often embarrassing reality of who we truly are. Jesus promises that such a letting go will bear much fruit in the kingdom, as we trust in a Father who forgives us and will raise us up as he did his Son Jesus. 

Photograph by Brother Brian. Reflection by one of the monks with insights from Francis Moloney.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

He Redeems by Fulfilling

“Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law until all things have taken place.”

This morning we continue our reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Like Moses before him, Jesus goes up a “mountain”, from which he instructs his disciples in his new law.  His is in many ways a very different kind of law, but one he is at pains to show does not abolish the old law but fulfills it.

So far Jesus has laid out for his disciples a positive instruction about discipleship centered on beatitude and mission. In the Beatitudes, he laid out man’s vocation to beatitude and showed the path to the fulfillment of man’s natural desire for happiness. In them, we see outlined the face of Christ. All who strive to embody them undergo a process of becoming formed in his image and citizens of his kingdom. They become the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world”, as we heard last week.

But now he makes a shift and delimits his teaching by setting a negative boundary for their faith and behavior. He presents what they are not to believe and what they are not to do. He has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and anyone who breaks the least of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Yet if their understanding of righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees they will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

In this way, he gives the faith of the disciples shape. His goal is to create a clear and unambiguous unity between why he has come and what they are to believe and do. Only in this accord can they attain their vocation to beatitude and “be salt of the earth” and “light of the world”. And so he lays out these poles in order for them to grow in their capacity to understand his nature and follow him. Just as he is the fulfillment of all that is good, so there are many things that he is not, and the disciples must have a clear idea of these boundaries.

I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, these were holy, good, and spiritual. For they contained within them the Spirit of the Father. This original goodness can in no way be dissolved by the Son, for he likewise carries the same Spirit within himself, and his will and that of the Father are one. It cannot be that all this is simply to be canceled out. On the other hand, Jesus can in no way be reduced to a simple continuation of the old, for he is the Father’s final, crowning act. As such he gives meaning to everything that went before him. Everything that went before and contained the Spirit of the Father and strove in its own way for the fulfillment of his will, finds its fulfillment in him. Yet all of these were imperfect and so they fell short. But Christ takes all of these previous attempts in their failure, lifts them up, and fulfills them in the failure of the Cross, a fulfillment that they could not possibly attain in themselves, and which no one was able to foresee in them. Until his coming, they remained merely fragments incapable of attaining the whole of the Father’s will.

Although he is the only perfect fulfillment of the will of the Father in the world, he does not look down on all the limited but genuine strivings that preceded him. Rather, in all of it he recognizes and discovers the good that comes from the Father, and bows reverently over everything because it is an expression of the Father's will and pointed toward him. In all of it, however humble, or time-bound, he rejoices in his discovery of the love of the Father that has prepared the way for him.

Jesus gave all of it the visible fullness of his sonship so that all may share his joy of seeing how it points back to the Father as its source and discloses his loving care and attentiveness to his people and his entire creation. In Jesus, every word of the law and every judgment of the prophets finds a new life and appears in a new unity.

He goes on: “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law until all things have taken place.

Jesus looks to pour his life into every letter and the smallest part of a letter of the old covenant in order to give it visibility and fulfillment. But if he were only the fulfillment of the old prophecy, he would be an end, a conclusion. But this is not the case. Rather, his earthly life is itself prophetic fulfillment, and therefore always a beginning, always new. So in Jesus, the prophecies of the old covenant are taken up and used as a starting point to explain his own nature. An explanation that is not exhausted with his death and resurrection. After his ascension, in glory, he continues to unfold the riches of his earthly life until heaven and earth pass away. The love of the Lord is utterly extravagant and prodigal and the same passes over into his fulfillment. From him flows forth an excess of fulfillment, like a bubbling, gushing overflowing spring, sparkling in the light of the sun, that will not be spent until all things have taken place. His fulfillment is such that he needs not only his earthly life but a whole new dimension in which to pour it out. This will be the time of the Church, in her, he will carry out his work through the gift of the Spirit. In this new dimension, as everything in the old covenant was useful for him in his earthly life, so everything in his earthly life is useful to him for the continuation of his work on earth from his life in glory. The old is not useful to him simply as old, but only insofar as he has made it new and capable of use for breathing new life into all that is to come.

This is how the Lord redeems, by fulfilling. But just as he himself places his work in an inseparable connection with all that preceded it, which was sent by the Father, so he also wants to show how all those who are to cooperate in his work and his mission are to relate to these earlier missions. Jesus’s fulfillment is essentially shaped by tradition, a tradition that he has taken up anew into his own being and set in line with it. Made new in him, he passes on the tradition that he inherited to his Church and to all the vocations, charisms, and missions working in it. As Christ’s disciples, we possess the old in him and honor it by honoring him.

Our model for our participation in this task of fulfilling the old in the new is given to us by the Church in the Liturgy. Here we have the interaction of the old and new covenants working together to disclose the living Word, Jesus Christ, who is present in word and sacrament not as a past event but as a living reality. Our task is to allow him, by our prayer, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the infused theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, to so conform us to himself, that as he, the Son, came in the flesh to show the Father how good and right his creation was, to prove to him in love how much the laws and the prophecies the Father gave to his people were right and fitting, so now, in this assembly of people the Father has given him, may we likewise give him glory.

We give the Father glory and honor when we fulfill the teachings of the Son, when we live the Beatitudes, when we allow him to pour his life into everything that we do, when we strive to be faithful to the commandments in today’s Gospel: not giving way to anger; being reconciled to those we have wronged, living chastely, honoring God in our speech, and so on; when we search for the Lord in the Scriptures and our Cistercian patrimony in our lectio and study; when we appropriate our Monastic conversatio in its integrity, always rejoicing in the divine goodness in everything. And when we receive him in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the source and summit of our Christian life. So let us now honor him in the celebration of this gift. 

 The enclosure of the monastery in an etching by Margaret Walters, (1924 - 1971).  Today's homily by Father Timothy.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Our Lady of Lourdes

Today’s memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes is also World Day of the Sick. Mary is gateway to all the compassion that Jesus longs to be for us. Through her intercession, we pray for all the sick, for all physicians and health care workers, and for all who do medical research. We rely upon Our Lady's attentiveness, for she is gateway to all the compassion that Jesus longs to be for us.

Gate of Heaven, pray for us. Morning star, pray for us. Health of the sick, pray for us. Refuge of sinners, pray for us. Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us.

Image by Lauren Ford.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Please Give Me A Scrap

A Syrophoenician woman will interrupt Jesus this morning. She’s an outsider on two counts: a non-Jew and a woman now alone with a man.*  And she knows that she of all people has no right to make demands on Jesus, so she does what she has to do- she falls at his feet, and she begs. She’s got nothing to lose; she’s lost it all already, she’s desperate, and her life is in shambles. Her daughter’s very sick, in fact, she has been that way for a very long time- with an “unclean spirit.” God only knows what that means. Is it seizures, is there shrieking, thrashing? We can only imagine what this woman goes through, and what havoc it has wrought on her family. She is consumed with concern for her daughter’s welfare. She’s trapped, but she knows Jesus can help her, so she begs.

But Jesus seems disinterested and insists that he is supposed to feed only the children of Israel, not dogs. She is undaunted by his very blunt metaphor. “Fine then,” she says. “Call me a dog if you like. But even dogs get the scraps. I'll take a scrap. Please, just give me a scrap of your mercy.” 

As the “ultimate outsider,” this woman reminds Jesus and us that there are no limits to whom God calls his very own children. Jesus is magnetized by her anguish, its impact on his heart, outdone by her forthrightness. His heart stirred and somehow transformed in the encounter. And he changes his mind acceding to her desperation and so reveals himself as exquisitely human and relational. At once, truly human, truly divine

What do you want? Perhaps the message this morning is to take this woman’s lead and be insistent, even desperate. Jesus is never ever unaffected or unresponsive. 

* See Donahue & Harrington, Sacra Pagina: Mark, p. 237.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Remembering Christopher

I was pondering how to summarize the life of Br. Christopher and the words from today’s first reading came to my mind: “See what love the Father has given us that we may be called the children of God.” Br. Christopher’s life, and in fact, every life, can be summarized in this—a search for that childhood that God has given to us. Thankfully, the Father has made this search easier by revealing to us his Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Our childhood is rooted in Jesus who shows us the way of true love, especially for men—men like Br. Christopher whose deep desire was to love and to be loved.

Let us think a little bit about this love. How did Jesus love? What was it like? Immediately, the image of a man ready to serve comes to mind. And not just any kind of service, but the service of one meek and humble of heart…no boasting, no attempts at dominating—get the Father’s work done patiently and properly and move on to help others. “What do you want me to do for you?” was Jesus’ constant refrain. This was the type of manly service that Br. Christopher strove to imitate.

Another characteristic of Jesus’ love was his perseverance through all kinds of obstacles. He came to do the mighty works which the Father had given him to do, but obstacles often stood in his way, exasperating obstacles at times. “How long am I to be with you?” he would say to his disciples; “How long am I to bear with you?” Men, in particular, want to do mighty works—to exercise their strength—but frustrations mount up. Br. Christopher knew his share of frustrations. He devoted his life to caring for this beautiful abbey so that visitors would find beauty and peace here and bring some sunshine into peoples’ hearts. But it was not always easy. He had his frustrations—mostly abbots—and they were a heavy burden. But the Father wanted Jesus to relieve our burdens. We heard in the gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened.” Jesus knows our frustrations from his own experience and has the power to help us deal with them.

Finally, there is the moment when a man’s strength is spent. What he had relied on gives way. His only reliance becomes the mercy of God and the support of his friends. Think of Jesus in his passion. What had become of his mighty deeds of power? The only thing he had left—but, also, the most important thing—was his witness to the truth, even unto death. This was the love that the Father had hidden from the wise and learned of this world: that the Father’s love—his almighty strength—is perfected in weakness. I think that Br. Christopher eventually realized this truth. He endured overwhelming bed sores from his time in rehab and then the utter debilitation of his strength, only to resemble day by day, even physically, his crucified Lord. “See what love the Father has given us…” The Father’s love allowed Br. Christopher to be conformed more and more to Jesus, even unto death.

Br. Christopher was a Christ-bearer. He carried Christ in his heart, in his service, in his loyal love for his family, friends, and brother monks, especially the lay brothers. May our heavenly Father allow him now to see Jesus face-to-face; to be like him; to see him as he is—the Lord of Glory, who came not to be served, but to serve, who patiently endured the frustrations of this life, and who showed his manly courage by accepting the weakness which in fact is stronger than death.

Photograph by Brother Brian. Abbot Vincent's homily at the Funeral Mass for Brother Christopher.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

You are the Light of the World


As we advance through Matthew’s Gospel from Sunday to Sunday, we note that the Lord Jesus identifies his disciples ever more tightly with himself, with his mission.  Whatever the Son is by nature, this the adopted children of the common Father must also become by grace and rebirth in the eternal Word. And whatever he, the Master, does, that too his servants are to do. This, and nothing else, is the essence of both salvation in Christ and mystical union with God. Last week, in the Beatitudes, Jesus revealed to us the sacred laws that govern his own divine Heart and define the being of the eternal Son: namely, poverty of spirit, meekness, compassion, hunger for justice, mercy, purity of heart, peace-mindedness, readiness to suffer for the Truth…  And today the same Person who elsewhere affirms I am the light of the world (Jn 8:12) jolts his disciples with the declaration: You are the light of the world. What a mind-boggling equivalency Jesus establishes between his I and our we! It seems we are to be … him!  What an utterly simple and yet overwhelming way to manifest the sublimity of the Christian vocation!

The poor fishermen listening to Jesus must have been astounded to hear themselves referred to in terms that stretched out their significance to truly cosmic proportions. YOU are the light of the world: Christians, according to the Lord here, are not only to be ‘virtuous’ in a general sense; they are to be the salt of the whole earth, that is, they are to intensify the ‘flavor’ of every human activity, and, by their presence and influence, transform the world’s quality from mediocre to extraordinary. What is of itself insipid can become delightful and even thrilling if seasoned with joy and devotion. What would be irretrievably lost to the passage of time and decay can be preserved full-flavored unto eternity in the Lord Jesus by the salt of Christian memory. But how can I be salt and light in the life of those around me? How can I season their distress and hopelessness and thus whet their appetite for the great adventure of grace? The Prophet Isaiah spells it out in no uncertain terms in our first reading: Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them; and do not turn your back on your own flesh. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed. How amazingly counter-intuitive: we are healed by our healing others!

Jesus also says: If salt loses its taste, it is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out. Nothing can substitute for salt. (I hate so-called ‘salt substitutes’!) Insipid Christians, those who have lost their proper Christ-flavor, have also forgotten their function as the condiment of humanity, and have in fact forgotten the sacred salt placed on their tongues at their Baptism. No doubt they have allowed this to happen by too timidly blending into the surrounding environment, perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps out of fear of introducing a jarring note, a sharp, pungent flavor, or too intense a beam of light, into the humdrum rhythms of shared human existence, as if Christ had not sent them to do just that. Salt and light each imparts its own virtue, provided they remain fully what they are, just as a monk can mightily enhance the quality of all human life provided he remains faithful to the uniqueness of his vocation, albeit in the hiddenness proper to the ‘ordinary, obscure and laborious’ Cistercian way.

 ‘What the soul is to its body, that Christians are to the world’, states the ancient Letter to Diognetus. But do we not too often—even while thinking of ourselves as devoted Christians—want to be the receivers rather than the givers of salt and light, and do we not in this way become insipid and dark, and thus frustrate the divine design of salvation? Do we not habitually forget that the secret of Christ-like spiritual vitality is to give the embrace we ourselves long to receive? Christ’s disciples are themselves responsible if the world around them crouches in lethargy, woefully unredeemed. Admittedly, the disciples’ assigned task (Be salt! Be light!) appears daunting in the extreme. And yet, along with his command that we should be salt and light, Jesus has already given us the means to fulfill it. For Christ has communicated to us his own substance—the salt and light of divinity enfleshed in his human nature—and these gifts ‘turn’ and become corrupt if they are not generously consumed and communicated by us, like the manna in the desert: Let no one leave any of it over till the morning,’ [Moses commanded]. But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank (Ex 16:19-20). We cannot ‘save up’ Jesus for ourselves, against a rainy day. We are given Jesus in order that we should give him away. That is the only efficient way of keeping him!

Jesus exhorts us: Let your light shine before others. The good works of Christians are the beams of light that manifest to all the goodness their Father has poured into them. The Father cannot be seen, for he dwells in heaven. Therefore, the visible presence and behavior of Christians ought to re-present (that is, ‘make present again’) the majesty and goodness and glory of God. We might say that God hides his glory in order that it might shine out through us. This is precisely why Christians can at times be such a source of scandal. Everyone knows what Christ has made us to be by uniting us to himself. Our infidelity to his call that we be lamps shedding our light to all in the household is the reason for the darkness of the world. Christians must follow the surprising logic of the Hassidic rabbi Moshe Loeb, who taught this: ‘When someone comes to you and asks for help, you must not say to him with a pious mouth, “Have trust and cast your care on God!” What you must do is act as if God did not exist, as if in the whole world there were only one person who could help the man standing in front of you: and that person is you and you alone!’

Jesus says: People do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. The word for ‘lamp’ used here in Greek (lykhnos) more precisely means a ‘portable lamp’, and this makes the saying all the more poignant. It hints that we are a lamp in the hand of God, a light that must allow itself to be moved about by Christ as he sees fit. Because it is Christ who has kindled his light in us, Christians will also allow their Lord to choose the particular lampstand from which they will shine, and how, and when. And let us not forget in this connection that, when the Father kindled his beloved Son as the light of this world, he placed him on the lampstand of the Cross high on Golgotha Hill, where Jesus could shine the brightest. Remember that Jesus once exclaimed: I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! (Lk 12:49) How often do we, his disciples, pray for that same fire to be kindled in us?

The whole purpose of Christians letting their light shine before the world is that all may see the light of their good works and so, says Jesus, glorify your Father. Seeing the light of goodness shine forth from poor creatures like ourselves leads to the astounded glorification of God. The light that flows from a Christian’s presence should manifest God’s redeeming glory and induce people to return that glory to God in praise. Because Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist have impressed the living form of Christ upon our lives, we Christians have been made to be the visibility of God’s glory and compassion in this world.

God’s splendor and beauty are, of course, continually streaming forth in his creatures on every side; yet these are but distant reflections, in creation, of the divine qualities of eternal wisdom, harmony, beauty, and power. But we Christians—human beings who have put on by grace the dynamic form of Christ—are called to do what even the sun and the moon in all their splendor cannot do: to manifest the personal glory of God as only persons can; that is, his unfathomable mystery as intimate lover of mankind, as faithful friend, as ardent companion, and as selfless redeemer. We may be made from the clay of the earth, but, by God’s compassion, we are also filled to the brim with God’s life-quickening Breath. What have we come here to receive yet again on this Sunday morning from this sacred altar if it is not Christ’s burning and transforming Spirit?  Yes, we are re-created at every Eucharist, if we would but open our mouths wide to inhale God’s revitalizing Breath.

Sunday Homily by Father Simeon.

Our Light


Some years ago after a long semester, I went off dutifully for a week of silent retreat. I was exhausted and even a bit cranky. For days nothing seemed to be happening. Nothing the retreat director said seemed to make sense. I think I had a very bad case of acedia. You know what it's like- no energy, you feel like you're covered with a wet blanket, with a cinder block attached to each foot. Prayer seemed a quaint memory. I think I wanted to pray, but I couldn't seem to get going. The director suggested a favorite poem, a psalm, a favorite Gospel passage maybe- "Nah. I've heard all the stories before." And the antiphon running through my head was something like this: "So what. Big deal. Who cares." Acedia. A terrible case. God seemed distant, away on business. I made excuses for God. "After all God's got important stuff to take care of -- wars, famines, really poor suffering people. Who am I? Why should God be interested?"

It was only an eight-day retreat and time was running out. In a last-ditch effort, the director suggested I pray Psalm 62 backwards. "Backwards?" "Yeah, imagine Jesus is speaking the psalm to you." "O James, you are my James for you I long. For you my soul is thirsting; my body pines for you like a dry weary land without water. So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory. For your love is better than life; my lips will speak your praise." Blasphemous? Putting words in God's mouth? I don't think so, for the Lord came in on cat's feet, snuck in. Jesus spoke to me. I repeated the Psalm to Him, and He repeated it to me, back and forth. It began to sink in. It still is. And the dialogue continues. And it's what we've known all along-- that God makes the first move, that God loved us first, that our prayer, all that we do is simply response.

So how do we hear today's Gospel? Perhaps in the first moment as an exhortation, "You are the light of the world-- get to it." We've got work to do-- deeds of justice and holiness to perform to make his Kingdom come. That's true enough, but if the Lord Jesus himself calls us as a community and individually "light of the world," maybe there's something more going on.

You know Christmas was not that long ago, and we were singing, chanting like crazy-- to Christ the Light of the World. And even the author of today's Gospel only a chapter or so earlier has acclaimed Christ's bright presence by quoting Isaiah: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphthali … the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light..for those who sat in the shadow of death a light has dawned."  Christ our Light. We'll chant it again in a few more weeks at the Easter Vigil.

Well, this morning Jesus has reversed it all. "My love," he says, "you are the light of the World.  My response, perhaps yours too, is "No, my love, my Lord, it is you who are my light, my salvation. You are the Light of the World; you have lighted up my darkness. You yourself have shown me the way through my darkness to light, to you who are my light. My Lord, you are the light of the world." But the Lord is insistent-- as persistent as a lover, and he says to us: "Yes and you are the light of the world, you are my light ." Can we hear this Gospel as a mutual exchange, a dialogue of love, lovers deferring to one another?

Still, it's a bit unmanageable, right? How we will be true our name, true to him? How do you feel? What's it like to be called "light of the world," when you know, I know the truth about myself-- my secret sins, my secret self? But Jesus insists, "You are the light of the world." And I want to respond, "You've got the wrong number;" for it's dark inside. But God is not daunted by our truth, our reality. God is not surprised. He sees our truth, our reality, and embraces it. For in the exquisite madness of his Incarnation, God has lost himself in love, he himself has become our truth, clothed in our flesh, in Christ Jesus our Lord, hidden in our midst, in our sinful flesh. Our reality is no surprise to him he lives in it, loves it unto death, dwells here hidden beneath our brokenness, and redeems it. He knows us through and through and still he names us light.

Perhaps our job is to let go of all the illusions we have about ourselves, illusions about who we should be, or how much progress I should have made in the spiritual life. "Rubbish," as Paul would say. Christ only wants my weakness, frail flesh where he can dwell and shine out of us. Love blazing out of our brokenness, our broken hearts if we let him in, if we refuse to get lost in self-absorption and bravely continue to do bright deeds of love. What do we have that we have not received? If we are light, it is because of Him; it is He who has made light shine out of our darkness.

We need to go to Mary for a moment, Mary, the perfect vessel, who let all God's glory shine through. How poets and scholars love to compare her to clear glass, for that is the essence of her beauty-- her transparency, her nothingness, what scares us to death, she embraces it, and so God could make his Light blaze out of her littleness and obscurity. We come to our nothingness by a route different than hers-- through our sins, our wounds, compulsions, addictions, peccadilloes, the stuff that embarrasses us, that we'd rather be rid of, whatever, the whole lot of it. If we dare to see our truth and humbly chose to give our nothingness to Him He will make lanterns out of our broken hearts.

I'm thinking of that image-- Faustina's vision: Jesus' heart with rays like searchlights gleaming out, you've all seen it. And those holy cards we grew up with  His wounds were always shooting out rays of light. Of course. How else would the light get out? Our wounds, His wounds, what's broken, and cracked allow the light to shine out.

Are we tattered enough, frail, transparent enough to let his glory shine through our weakness. It's what he longs for so desperately-- our weakness, to transform it, make it glow with his tender mercy, and let his love blaze through us. It is He who has desired with deepest desire to share this feast with us this morning, coming to us on cat's feet, quietly; hidden in our nothingness, hidden again this morning in this broken bread. 

C. Michael Dudash, Jesus Christ study #1, oil on linen, 10"x 8". Reflection by one of our monks.

Friday, February 3, 2023

May Brother Christopher Rest in Peace


Br. Christopher O’Brien was born James Patrick O’Brien on November 10, 1939, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania to Joseph O’Brien and Mary Cullen of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, he was a proud graduate of Msgr Bonner High school in Drexel Hill. In 1957, he entered the Abbey as a Trappist lay brother postulant directly out of high school, receiving the name Brother Christopher. He pronounced his solemn vows as a lay brother in 1965.

Over the years Christopher lived the life of a dedicated lay brother, working tirelessly at many and various jobs: landscaper and groundskeeper, cook, overall maintenance, special occasions coordinator, liaison for contractors, gift shop buyer, and at Trappist Preserves, the abbey's jams and jellies industry.

Brother Christopher was predeceased by his brothers John and Joseph, and his sisters Gertrude, Mary, Helen, and Sheila. In addition to his religious brothers at the abbey, he leaves his sisters Cecilia and Margaret, his devoted nephews, Joe, Eric, and Derek, and their families, as well as numerous friends from his many years in contact with contractors for the abbey who, through brother's warmth and his welcoming hospitality, became his dear friends. With gratitude for the beautiful gift of his presence among us, the brothers commend brother Christopher’s soul to your prayers. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Loss of Wonder

This morning Jesus comes home, and his own people don’t know what to do with him. Their initial response to his mighty deeds and to the wisdom of his teaching is astonishment. They begin in wonder. ‘Where did he get all of this? What kind of wisdom is this? What mighty deeds!’ Sadly enough they refuse or simply cannot remain there. And soon the whole thing unravels. They pry and categorize and trivialize Jesus. They talk themselves out of wonder, and they try to make Jesus somehow manageable. They reduce him. “He’s only a carpenter after all. Mary’s son. We know his relatives. Come on. We know where he comes from.’ They find Jesus offensive, and intrusive. In the end, they are scandalized by him and find him altogether too much for them- that divine power could be so mundane, so accessible and so ordinary. To have remained simply in a place of awe and wonder at the person of Jesus was perhaps too frightening. And the result is tragic indeed, the tragedy of the loss of wonder. Jesus finds himself unable to perform any mighty deeds in their midst, he’s so amazed by their lack of faith, absolutely dumbfounded. He finds that it has somehow sapped his energy. And he’s as powerless as Samson with his hair cut off.

So how to welcome wonder? Clearly, these folks in Nazareth cannot do it. But can we? It’s a big question for us as monks and contemplatives. For wonder is the gateway to the contemplative gaze that allows God to be God, and allows us to be amazed at his marvels, at the beauty of his creation, at the marvels he has wrought in each of our lives. Wonder says: ‘You are God, you can do all things.’ Wonder believes that God wants to act on my behalf. Wonder beckons us to be aware, to step into God’s world, to see as God sees, and to take nothing for granted. But when our antennae get drawn in, and we refuse to wonder, refuse to notice God being God in our lives, the whole thing falls apart just like the Gospel story we just heard. ‘So what. Big deal. I know where this is coming from. It’s all too familiar.’ Wonder is then poisoned by cynicism and the need to analyze or trivialize or dissect. Wonder at turns into wonder about. And our response may become: ‘It’s just too ordinary after all’- whether it be the subtlety of light falling upon a monastery wall, a butterfly bobbing over a garden full of lilies, or the kindness of a friend in a conversation. Whatever.

Noticing the Lord's presence begins with wonder, like a whispered ‘Wow’ or ‘How’ or ‘I don’t understand.’ And perhaps that’s the point, even the most difficult thing. You don’t have to understand-  it’s alright not to understand. To allow Christ in means I don’t have to understand only believe and hope and wonder. I pay attention to his move towards me, drawing me. Faith gives me permission to gaze on beauty as well as confusion and hope against hope and dare to believe that God is working. And we allow ourselves to be disarmed by God’s inbreaking, and we respond with reverent awe.

‘Wonder requires us to acknowledge what we do not know or may never understand, to acknowledge our limits and finiteness. It is then a different kind of knowledge, a way of knowing that does not lead to certainties or truths about the world or the way things are or ought to be. It is a state of mind that like being in love colors all we know.’ (See Peter de Bolla) Such wonder is born of faith and leads to deeper faith, and deeper love. It allows uncertainties, hurts, and failures.

Wonder lets God be God, magnificent, and extravagant but also hidden, quiet and unremarkable. Wonder says, ‘Yes.’ It does not demand certitude but relaxes into a way of knowing that is beyond neat categories and complex argument. We are mindful of what God is doing moment by moment. And so we step out into the kingdom, a place of reversals and new possibilities.

God in Christ is playing in our midst right now- in what is beautiful and ordered and in what is not so beautiful, in what is hard and confusing and irregular and difficult to unravel. God is doing something, and if we don’t understand perhaps it’s all the better. For then we get to wonder, let go and watch for what God will do next. Faith allows us to wonder, and wonder fortifies our faith. 

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