Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Growing to Maturity

Below is the homily delivered by Archabbot Justin DuVall at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. I thought it was worth sharing so that others may read and reflect on it this Christmastide--and in seasons to come. -- Br. Francis

In Nativitate Domini
Ad Missam in nocte

Isaiah 9.1-6
Titus 2.11-14
Luke 2.1-14

The childhood charms that have come to paint this night bright with hope keep a good grip on the latent little child in all of us. Our memories of Christmases way, way past might not be entirely happy ones, but even those that suffer from disappointment hint at the awareness of what might have been.

Charles Dickens’ story of Scrooge’s transformation banishes sorrow in the gleeful cry of Tiny Tim, the voice of innocence that confirms the hidden goodness in the miserly old Scrooge. But the Christmas story—the one according to Luke, not Dickens—has little to say about the hidden goodness of our human nature. The Gospel story of Christmas proclaims the innate goodness of God, who became a child so that we might mature to the fullness of our human nature in Christ.

This is the grace that has appeared as the immeasurable gift of God, that real hope which does not banish our sorrows, but respectfully redeems them.

The Gospel story of Christmas begins with an awareness of our need for a savior. The birth of Christ was not God’s gift to us because we have been good; rather, it is God’s goodness to us because we need it. If we believe that our own goodness is more often than not merely hidden, and in our better moments becomes evident, then the announcement of the angels could hardly be good news.

Because we sometimes forget just how ordinary evil can be, we also forget that we need to be saved from what has come to be accepted as the way we are. It’s humiliating to need to be saved, as we heard recently in the refectory from Michael Casey. While we pray for salvation on a theoretical level, the day-to-day desires turn out quite different. We often have a hard enough time accepting help from another person with whom we live and suspiciously question his motives; why should we think it would be any different with God?

And yet even Scrooge was saved from his greed through an intervention. One of the biggest sorrows of life is to realize that we are dependent on others, a dependence that begins as infants, is modified to a greater or lesser degree through adulthood, and returns in force at the end of life. Perhaps we resist what is life-giving—whether from others or from God—because we realize that life comes to us from outside and that within us there is a push towards death. It’s the inescapable reminder that we cannot ultimately save ourselves. We need others. We need God.

If we want to enter into the joy of Christmas, we have to begin by taking to heart the proclamation of the angels: “A savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord…”

In this savior God has given us the gift of his own divine life, which often we are not too sure just how to receive. Sometimes God gives us an inestimable gift that we can only treasure without knowing exactly why he’s given it. It feels strange to us. But our acceptance of a gift that we don’t quite understand allows us to welcome God’s nearness in strange as well as in familiar ways.

When the shepherds heard the announcement of the good news of a Savior, they might have expected a savvy revolutionary who would finally and forever get rid of all Israel’s enemies. They got a baby. We can only imagine the divine sense of humor behind this revelation. It went from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least it must have seemed so to the shepherds. The immensity of God’s power was shrunken down to the familiar cries of a baby. It was a strange surprise for them that must have stretched their understanding of God’s power to save.

As children we could be taken up with the surprise of Christmas, brightly wrapped boxes that hid what we knew was a gift from a grown-up. In the mystery of the incarnation, God reverses that pattern. He surprised the grown-ups by the gift of a child. To think ourselves beyond being surprised is to be blind to part of God’s revelation. God is somehow like a child, defenseless before us, and has opened himself to being held in our arms.

Unless we prepare our hearts for this surprise, we can’t possibly hope to receive and keep the gift of God. In his immeasurable goodness God has visited us, and we carry within us that gift of God that we treasure even when we don’t fully understand it.

In the mystery of the incarnation, God shared with us his own divine nature so that we might grow to maturity in our human nature. Behind all the charm of Christmas we cannot afford to allow anything to blind us to the true meaning of what God has done. The child of Bethlehem becomes the man of Jerusalem. In him we see something greater and wiser and kinder than we are.

As we grow to maturity in Christ, we are the bearers of the mystery we welcome tonight in faith, and we are asked to carry for the world what it so badly needs, but also what it so often ignorantly rejects because it must bear the sorrows of life. There are very few people who have not at some time or another experienced deep anguish and in our lives we may be tested in ways we cannot even imagine. This burden is what God has redeemed in Christ. The sorrows of life pull us away from the full maturity of our human nature, but our faith in Christ, the savior born to us, allows us to live in such a way that true joy in life cannot be killed by sorrow.

Perhaps this sounds grandiose; but it is divinely simple. It means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves only; it means choosing generosity over selfishness; it means living humbly rather than loving gain. It is the “grace of God [which] has appeared, saving all and training us … to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age” (Titus 2.11-12).

Part of the mystery of Christmas is that we don't know in exact detail how God will fulfill our hope, but we believe that God has visited us, and we carry the presence of Christ within us. His life in our flesh was the down payment for our life in God’s future. By sharing with us his own divine nature in Christ, God brings to maturity in us his primal gift of our own human nature.

This is the mystery of Christmas in full bloom, a story whose end is yet to come.

There is a version of the Christmas story without charms. It is neither Dickens’ nor Luke’s. It comes in the Revelation of John, the book that deals with the end of all things. There a woman gives birth to a son but not in the serene company of shepherds and angels. As she cries out in childbirth, a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns opens its mouth to devour her child, but God frustrates his plan by snatching away the child and carrying the woman off to the desert. In his rage the dragon unleashes a battle of cosmic proportions.

This Christmas story is the life and death struggle for the whole of creation. It is a story for mature audiences only. In the fullness of the Incarnation God gives us the gift of salvation once and for all.

Here in the peace of this Christmas night let us open our hearts to his gift, and then we may come to discover ourselves held in the womb of the Mother of God.

Rt. Rev. Justin DuVall, O.S.B.
Saint Meinrad Archabbey Church
25 December 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009


By extending to all

Careful rest,
Harmonic stillness,
Radiant modesty,
Intelligent wonder,
Selfless delight,
Tender strength,

we are first embraced
by the One
whose tiny arms
extend beyond
and over all.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Virgin of God, why are your clothes like sails?

Looking ahead to the Gospel passage for the fourth Sunday of Advent, and an accompanying reflection by Thomas Merton, a favorite of mine, and of many.

A blessed Advent to all!

-- Br. Francis

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled."
-- Lk 1:39-45


The Quickening of St. John the Baptist
(On the Contemplative Vocation)
Thomas Merton, 1949

Why do you fly from the drowned shores of Galilee,
From the sands and the lavender water?
Why do you leave the ordinary world, Virgin of Nazareth,
The yellow fishing boats, the farms,
The winesmelling yards and low cellars
Or the oilpress, and the women by the well?
Why do you fly those markets,
Those suburban gardens,
The trumpets of the jealous lilies,
Leaving them all, lovely among the lemon trees?

You have trusted no town
With the news behind your eyes.
You have drowned Gabriel's word in thoughts like seas
And turned toward the stone mountain
To the treeless places.
Virgin of God, why are your clothes like sails?

The day Our Lady, full of Christ,
Entered the dooryard of her relative
Did not her steps, light steps, lay on the paving leaves
like gold?
Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon
miraculous Elizabeth?

Her salutation
Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John
Wakes in his mother's body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery.

Sing in your cell, small anchorite!
How did you see her in the eyeless dark?
What secret syllable
Woke your young faith to the mad truth
That an unborn baby could be washed in the Spirit of God?
Oh burning joy!

What seas of life were planted by that voice!
With what new sense
Did your wise heart receive her Sacrament,
And know her cloistered Christ?

You need no eloquence, wild bairn,
Exulting in your hermitage.
Your ecstasy is your apostolate,
For whom to kick is contemplata tradere.
Your joy is the vocation of Mother Church's hidden children -
Those who by vow lie buried in the cloister or the hermitage;
The speechless Trappist, or the grey, granite Carthusian,
The quiet Carmelite, the barefoot Clare, Planted in the night of
contemplation, Sealed in the dark and waiting to be born.

Night is our diocese and silence is our ministry
Poverty our charity and helplessness our tongue-tied
Beyond the scope of sight or sound we dwell upon the air
Seeking the world's gain in an unthinkable experience.
We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world's frontier.

But in the days, rare days, when our Theotokos
Flying the prosperous world
Appears upon our mountain with her clothes like sails,
Then, like the wise, wild baby,
The unborn John who could not see a thing
We wake and know the Virgin Presence
Receive her Christ into our night
With stabs of an intelligence as white as lightning.

Cooled in the flame of God's dark fire
Washed in His gladness like a vesture of new flame
We burn like eagles in His invincible awareness
And bound and bounce with happiness,
Leap in the womb, our cloud, our faith, our element,
Our contemplation, our anticipated heaven
Till Mother Church sings like an Evangelist.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks be to God

I, Wisdom, was beside the LORD as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
Playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the sons of men.
Proverbs 8: 30-31

Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless;
he can only enjoy, with a good conscience,
what he has acquired with toil and trouble;
he refuses to have anything as a gift.
However, the Christian understanding of life
depends upon the existence of Grace;
let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God
is Himself called a ‘gift’ in a special sense;
that the great teachers of Christianity
say that the premise of God’s justice is His love;
that everything gained and everything claimed
follows upon something given,
and comes after something gratuitous and unearned;
that in the beginning there is always a gift.

-- Josef Pieper

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
2 Cor. 9:15

Friday, November 6, 2009

Grace and Truth

‘What is truth?’
-- John 18:38

The more we seek God,
the more we learn of God;

The more we learn of God,
the less we understand God;

The less we understand God,
the more we must believe God,
and the more we must seek God.

‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’
-- John 14:6

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Garden of Life

All Souls Day, which we celebrate Monday, Nov. 2, is one of my favorite feast days. Simply put, it fills me with indescribable hope. Below is a short reflection I wrote several years ago--shortly before entering the monastery. Possibly of further interest is the A Life Well Lived link to the left.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

-- Br. Francis

Sitting at my desk, I look out the bedroom window at the back yard. Three things catch my attention there in the late afternoon sunlight. First is the young dogwood tree in the middle of the yard, the one my sister and I planted on the first anniversary of our father’s death. Next is the decorative windmill on one end of the little rock garden, the same windmill Dad fiddled with when he came to visit the day of my finger surgery more than two years ago – the last day I saw him alive and well. Then, there is the redwood-stained picnic table, the one he built himself probably 30 years ago. It made the trip from Findlay to Maumee because I couldn’t bear to part with it when we moved Mom into her condo.

In that table, I see the past, our entire family seated at it eating sweet corn on summer afternoons when it was too hot to eat inside. Or, sitting on it shelling peas with my brother after working in the garden, perhaps later playing a game of Monopoly on it with other kids from the neighborhood. I can still see everyone’s faces so clearly, but it was so long ago, and each of us has moved on in one way or another, and that table is faded and beginning to sag and rot.

In the windmill I see the present, in a way. No emotional attachment to it like with the table, except that is the one thing in my garden as it has taken shape these last couple years that my Dad touched shortly before he left this world. I remember him telling me that I needed to apply graphite powder to keep it turning smoothly. Dad always liked to fiddle around out in the yard and garden when we were kids, and when I look at that windmill slowly twirling in the breeze, it’s almost as if he’s out there right now fiddling around in my own garden.

Then there’s the young dogwood tree, the centerpiece of the yard I’ve worked so hard on. It was planted with shovels full of memories, of things left unsaid, of sorrow so deep it hurts to breathe. Yet, it survived its first winter in the ground and unfurled its leaves this spring for another growing season. Ten, 20 years, years from now, that sapling will be mature enough to dominate the entire yard, providing a canopy of twisted branches and blossoms while birds, squirrels and rabbits dart in and out of the shade it provides.

This is the future, new life springing out of the old, yesterday turning into tomorrow, fear giving way to hope. Who knows where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing when that tree reaches maturity. It doesn’t matter. It’s possible a storm could fell that tree, or perhaps a future owner of this property will cut it down. That windmill will eventually be a rusted piece of junk, and the picnic table will fall apart at some point. They are just things, and things come and go.

But for a short while at least, they provide something much more, serving as a reminder of the undying nature of the spirit. My father is not in that picnic table, that windmill nor the tree, yet they are objects that fit together somehow, tying his past to my future. And that future, I’m certain of it, consists of eternal glory in a garden that will make the one I’m gazing at now seem like a weed-infested sandlot.

The splendor of that joy will be the Garden of Life, where nothing rusts or rots away or dies. Here those in Christ will rest, undying spirits, each fully blooming, as we sing out to the Master Gardener who walks among us, the one who creates us, tends to us, and brings us into the fullness of life that only He can give.

I can’t wait to see it, to be part of it. Until then, I will tend my own garden, nurturing it with spirit animated by hope before it is immersed in complete joy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Prayer of Invitation

Lord God, the Eternal Source of all Being,

Our souls hunger for you because you have sown your Word in our hearts. So often, though, we lose our way because we are distracted, preoccupied, even focused on good things for the wrong reasons. Our vision becomes clouded, and we feed on things that ultimately leave us empty.

Lead us by your Spirit into the desert of our souls, the secret room of our hearts, where you invite us to a personal relationship with Jesus, your Son. Help us to encounter and embrace there what we truly desire, and what you truly wish to give us, in union with your church throughout the world.

Deepen our prayer through your grace so that we may listen and hear your loving invitation, your gentle call. Help us to recognize and respond to your ever-present voice through the surrender of whatever holds us back or turns us away.

May we discover--and rediscover each day--your creating power, your saving grace, your constant presence. We wish to taste and see that you are good. Fill us with your wisdom, your food for our journey toward you.

Bring our hearts into prayer, so that our whole time and being rests in you and you alone, that we may bear the fruit that your food alone provides. Lord of the harvest, feed us.

We ask all this through Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Invitation to Prayer II: Hunger for God

Where do we encounter this hunger for God and find what truly fills us? As a pilgrim people belonging to God, we are called into the desert--where it is dry, desolate, untamed, and uninhabited. God calls us where he can most fully manifest himself to us.

The desert is where we have no resources of our own and are utterly dependent on him. It is where we are overwhelmed by his infinite mercy.

The desert deep within our soul is a difficult place to go, especially in these times and in this culture. It frightens us. We try to avoid it if we can. We can take care of ourselves, we think. But it is only in the desert we realize that we can’t, and that we need God. And when we accept that, an oasis of riches springs forth from that desert to nourish us.

Prayer, ultimately, is about conversion, our transformation in Christ, and that occurs when we become aware of God’s infinite willingness and ability to supply all that we lack. His mercy and love are greater than our sin and failure. But to know infinite goodness, we must first acknowledge what is limited and imperfect.

The desert provides this contrast, and it is where Jesus invites us in prayer. Consider the following Scripture passages and notice the theme that runs through and connects them:

Bread from Heaven

In the desert the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites told them: “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”

Then the Lord said to Moses: “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you.” Moses said to Aaron: “Tell the whole Israelite community: Present yourselves before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.” When Aaron announced this to the whole Israelite community, they turned toward the desert, and lo, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud!

The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the Lord, am your God.”

In the evening quail came up and covered the camp. In the morning a dew lay all about the camp, and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground. On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?” Moses told them, “This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. The Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert. He let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”

Exodus 16:2-4a, 9-15; Deut. 8:2a, 3

Led into the Desert

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply: “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

Mt. 4: 1-4

'To a Deserted Place'

The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.

So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on food from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.”

So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all.

They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate of the loaves were five thousand men.

Mk 6: 30-44


What really strikes me about these passages is not only the care God provides for the Israelites in the desert, but the solidarity Jesus shares with all his people—including us. Just like the Israelites, he was led into the desert and tempted to turn away from it. Just like all of us, he gets hungry. After relying on the word of God as his source of strength, he then leads his followers into the desert to experience the same thing.

When he sees the crowd, he experiences gut-wrenching compassion for them as the Good Shepherd, and he begins to feed them, first with Wisdom—the word of God—then with bread.

There is a very clear connection with the journey the pilgrim people of God have made, and are making, through the wilderness to be fed the bread of life.

Michael Casey, in his book Fully Human, Fully Divine, has an interesting reflection on the passage from Mark:

It was literally a gut reaction for Jesus. It was as though Jesus absorbed into himself the chaos of the crowd and allowed it to generate within his own awareness the sharp anxiety and pain which they dimly experienced. Taking their condition on himself, he acted to reduce their confusion by clear and authoritative teaching which was simultaneously comforting and challenging. The important thing to note, however, is that Jesus did not see himself merely as a supplier of unmet bodily needs. His response was, rather, to open a relationship in which all that was his would be accessible to those who approached him. His solidarity with their pain led him to invite them to a solidarity with his connectedness to his heavenly Father.

Another point that comes across, particularly in the passage from Mark, is that of need. The apostles return to Jesus to report “all they had done and taught.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Good job!” Instead, he says, “Come into the desert with me.”

There, faced with the prospect of feeding 5,000 people, the apostles realize they can do nothing, or very little, on their own. There’s really a lesson in humility here—it is God who works wonders, and we can only experience them if we acknowledge that we can’t work them. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus tells his disciples. We need God.

The Word of God invites us to need him because as Casey says, he “has become part of human history. He is one with us in our suffering; we are one with him in journeying toward the Father, in the Spirit.”

What does this journey through the desert mean in terms of prayer? It means Jesus has been there. He knows what it’s like for each and every one of us. He knows what we each need, where we each hurt. But he can only provide it if we come to him in prayer and honestly acknowledge it, and let go of our self-reliance and fear.

Thomas Merton spoke of facing our own existential dread before we can know the joy and love of God—“where we stand alone before God in our nothingness, without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of his grace, his mercy, and the light of faith.”

That, to put it quite simply, is conversion. It may sound stark and forbidding, but Merton is in agreement with the saints and the fathers of the church when he says it is not a mournful or discouraging experience.

“On the contrary,” he says, “it can be deeply tranquil and joyful since it brings us in direct contact with the source of all joy and all life. Prayer, then, means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him. It is much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our deepest concerns. We wish to lose ourselves, and rest in his love, and rest in him. We wish to hear his word and respond to it with our whole being.”

This is a holy hunger that only God can fully satisfy.

I like the way Benedictine monk Cyprian Smith puts it:

We cannot feel God’s voice thrilling through us unless we first become aware of the tomb-like emptiness within ourselves which provides the echo-chamber for the divine Word. In prayer we lose all and find all. It is the journey, food for the journey, and the journey’s end.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Invitation to Prayer

As Christians, we are all called to encounter and embrace God’s Word to each of us individually deep within our hearts. Personal prayer is simply training ourselves to be more aware of our relationship with God and his presence in the world.

The relationship already exists; personal prayer is what nourishes it.

By this, I do not mean to imply that public or liturgical prayer is not important. Obviously, it is essential—it’s how the Body of Christ expresses itself, transcends time, and joins eternity in the praise of God. It cannot be separated from personal prayer as if they were two distinct or competing aspects of our faith. They are intimately bound with one another, just like breathing requires both inhaling and exhaling. They feed one another. Without one, the other dies.

But the focus here, for now, is on personal prayer—and more specifically, that silent surrender to God’s movement of grace within.

Trappist monk Michael Casey says:

Prayer is an attempt to realize the love that unites us with God, allow it to become more present to us, and give it greater scope to act upon us and change us. We do not produce prayer. We allow prayer to act. We do not create prayer; it creates us.

But we can listen for the invitation, for that “tiny whispering sound” in our hearts that draws us toward God. And to do that, we have to surrender to God, let go of our preoccupations, preconceived notions, our expectations, and simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, redeemed us—the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. In short, we have to let go of ourselves—or better yet, let go of who we perceive ourselves to be—so we are totally immersed in God’s presence.

It seems to me that the more I pray, and the more I study and learn about prayer, the more I discover that I really know less than ever. In the course of my monastic formation the last three years, our common life of prayer and work in the monastery, and my studies, I’ve gained a deeper knowledge of prayer, but I wonder sometimes if my prayer has really deepened. I think it has, but only time will tell. It has certainly changed, and hopefully it is moving me toward God day by day.

Ora et labora, or prayer and work, is the motto adopted by Benedictines. It is intended to be a symbiotic relationship, a rhythm of life in which intervals of communal and personal prayer, work, and our common life together as monks are interwoven into one continuous thread. Sometimes though, this rhythm may be a little out of step. Many of us like to joke that, in reality, our motto is: Ora et labora, et labora, et labora

It can seem that way at times, perhaps. We are on the go around here from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. I am far busier now than I ever was before coming to the monastery. No one, it seems, has less than three or four jobs. Part of that is our heritage here at Saint Meinrad. We are descended from German monks, and Germans know how to work.

However, a wonderful and mysterious thing occurs here each day, several times a day. No matter what we are doing, or how busy we are, we are called back every few hours to the church for our common prayer. And we have two specific periods each day—one in the morning and one in the evening—set aside for personal prayer and lectio divina or sacred reading. When the bells announce these periods, the faithful monk goes, and leaves everything else behind (physically if not always mentally).

Our ordered round of prayer in the monastery continually calls us, invites us back to listen to God in the spoken Word, and in the depths of our hearts. No matter what else we do, we constantly come back to praise God, who is the center of our lives, and who guides, sustains and completes everything we do.

Through this dedication of our time and our being with God, we are called to become more deeply aware of God’s presence at all times and in everything and everyone, and to broaden our vision on this journey toward God, who is Love.

Fr. Harry, our former novice-master, likes to say that, “Monastic life is not difficult. It’s relentless.” The same can likely be said of any state in life. It takes commitment, concentration, and discipline to faithfully live as a Christian, whether you’re a monk or not. It always has.

Our abbot is fond of saying that “Monks do not do different things than other people do. They just do them differently.”

Indeed. Monks are human beings.

We struggle. We celebrate.
We laugh. We mourn.
We fail. We succeed.
We live peaceably. We get angry.
We work. We rest.
We get tired and frustrated. We are energetic and focused.
We love, and we get lonely.
We sin, and we practice virtue.
We become distracted, and we live joyfully by grace.

And in our work as part of this monastery, we are not so different. We are teachers, administrators, writers, artists, psychologists, tailors, laborers, gardeners, students, health-care providers, retreat directors, spiritual guides, pastors, business managers, computer technicians, musicians, foresters, scholars, locksmiths, delivery persons, craftsmen, housekeepers, cooks, librarians, firefighters, and carpenters.

However, one thing we do quite differently than most people is center our lives in prayer. Through our prayer, work, and common lives together, we seek God—to know and love and serve God above all else, and our neighbors as ourselves. We do this in common and individually. We bring our lives to prayer, and our prayer to our lives. Both are one. It is a unity and integrity of life I never knew existed before coming to the monastery.

It is not only relentless, but relentlessly full of grace.

But it does not necessarily make us experts on prayer, and it does not mean that that unity and integrity can only be lived inside a monastery. Our prayer in the monastery is nothing more than the intentional offering of our time and being for the praise of God. The monastic life is a specific way in which some are called to do that. But all people, whatever their state in life, are called to this intentional offering of time and being for the praise of God. Whoever we are, and whatever we do, all Christians are called to a life of prayer.

God’s pure and simple invitation to prayer is open to all, however we live it out. Each of us is a member of the Body of Christ, and we relate to the whole through each other. But each of us also has a personal and unique invitation from God.

God’s Word is sown in our hearts, and it is there that he calls us. We are born with the desire, or spiritual hunger, to seek God, but we must truly listen for this invitation. As I’ve mentioned, to do that, we have to do something we often resist: Be still, get out of the way, and let God do the talking. We have to be willing to follow Jesus into the desert and let him feed us with the bread from heaven.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8). “For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

We all do well to reflect on these words and what they really mean. If we are willing to follow Jesus into the desert, to be fed, to seek, to knock, to ask, what is it we truly desire—deep down in our souls, which words cannot begin to express?

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks a very simple question, one he poses to each and every one of us amid our busy lives, our work, our prayer, our failures, our successes, our joys, our sorrows:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Actually, he asks the same question twice. First, he asks two of his apostles, James and John. They ask for power and glory. Wrong answer. Next he asks a blind beggar by the road, who says, “Master, I want to see.” In other words, “I want to see you, follow you.” His was the correct answer because while he asked from his deepest need, his focus was on Jesus and not himself, nor his preconceived ideas and expectations.

“What do you want me to do for you?” It takes a hungry heart to answer that question truthfully. That scares a lot of people because it means being vulnerable, acknowledging our need. We don’t like to feel that way. We don’t want to be hungry. We want to be full. But too often we fill ourselves with the wrong things and are left dissatisfied. Only the Bread of Life satisfies.

Prayer teaches us how to enter into the question. And it must be pure prayer from the heart, arising from that personal hunger—that need. It must be fiery prayer, beyond words, immersed in the love of God, as John Cassian would say.

The story is told of St. John Vianney noticing an old farmer who would sit for hours in a church. One day, he asked the farmer what he was doing. He replied, “God looks at me, and I look at him.”

This is contemplation, and we are all called to it. In heaven, we will spend an eternity doing it. Here, by God’s grace, we are given a foretaste if we are open to it. It is not complicated, and it cannot be taught. It requires only a heart completely open to God’s grace.

As Christians—especially men—we sometimes tend to over-intellectualize prayer and the spiritual life, to classify it, and systematize it. Monks do it, too. We make it something to be studied and taught, something to produce practical results like a good moral life. That is all good and necessary. Our prayer must be informed, have structure, be communal, and make us better people.

But that is not all the invitation to prayer involves. God did not become man merely to teach or introduce a system of moral conduct, or to inspire our involvement in a myriad of activities and programs. Jesus came to love us, to call us, to draw us, to invite us into his saving action of grace. We are called Christians not because of what we do, but because of who we are. “Come to me,” Jesus says, to discover who you are truly meant to be.

In this invitation, God promises us his presence. “I am with you,” he says repeatedly in Scripture. The gift of presence is the most valuable gift we can either receive or give. It is the gift of self. Prayer is simply being present to God, who is always present to us.

“What do you want me to do for you? Ask and it will be given you.”

Whatever the answer to that question might be for each of us, God has accomplished it in Christ, and he reveals it through our hunger. Our deepest desires are satisfied by our greatest needs.

We're all invited to hunger for the One thing necessary.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Triumph of the Cross

Every moment is grace, an endless opportunity to praise God.

Whether we see, hear, or respond, it is always there, even guiding us when all seems lost.

And when one moment passes, another arrives.

Each one is pregnant with the grace of mercy so that we might recognize peace in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Look, listen, and learn from the Cross.

-- Br. Francis

Love is most likely to spring from another's need of us,
and the fact of spending ourselves for another always
generates new life in us. To give life is the purpose of love,
and we love those people most of all whose needs waken
a response in us that floods us with creative energy,
causing us to put out new green shoots of life.

-- Caryll Houselander

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hope Perched on a Ledge

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the Abbey Press Thursday morning. I arrived late for work since I had another appointment and because I did not want to be there until after the bad news had been delivered.

Nine people at the Press were laid off. Everyone was told that the Press is getting out of the gift catalog business, that the Press is setting a new direction by exploring some new ventures, and that 25 more people will lose their jobs by the end of the year. By most accounts it was a grim day.

But not one without hope. The move wasn’t entirely unexpected, and in the long-term most realize it is necessary, and hope that the Press will be realigned and rejuvenated.

Still, it is always painful for people to lose their jobs, and for the people around them to experience that loss along with them. One co-worker told me of her “survivor’s guilt.” As a monk, I felt guilt, as well as apprehension, and sympathy. I tried to stay out of the way. Yet, all around me I sensed a mysterious mixture of pain and hope.

It is strange how both can be present at the same time, in the same circumstance, and within the same person. I saw it in their faces. As I walked down the corridor (in full habit), people were already helping one another box up their belongings and carry them out of their offices and into the elevator, and down to the parking lot—to drive into an unknown, uncertain future. But a future nonetheless.

A couple people were on the phone, presumably with relatives or friends. I could only imagine what these co-workers and their families would talk about later at home. Everything was eerily quiet. The atmosphere was solemn, but not morbid. There was reverence for -- and in -- this pain.

And there was this: As I walked down the hallway, each co-worker looked directly at me, smiled warmly and said hello. Sheepishly, and without knowing what else to say and with no desire to say anything else, I simply smiled back and returned the hello.

But these were not obligatory smiles, nor typical hallway hellos. Eyes met and lingered, communicating wisdom deeper than words.

Tinged with sadness, the smiles, eyes and voices were not filled with blame or shame, fear or anger. Rather, they spoke softly and clearly: “I know. I’m sorry. It’ll be OK.” I was amazed. As I passed by each person whom I knew had just lost his or her job, I was met with that same smile, full of hope.

Later in the day, as the monastic community gathered in the calefactory after the evening meal for common recreation, I was surprised again. The day was dim. Storm clouds seemed to hover just above the monastery’s tile roof. Sheets of rain deluged the already saturated ground. Lightning flashed to and fro.

And there it was, perched on the ledge of the center arched window of the calefactory overlooking the rock garden below. A handsome white dove (more likely a pigeon, but it hardly matters), taking shelter under the raised bottom transom window on the ledge, peering through the screen at the gathering monks.

The dove craned its neck to get a better look at us, occasionally pecking at the screen, while we monks bent over, gazed at it, and spoke to the bird like it was a child or pet. Even big burly monks like Br. Zachary and Novice Gary.

The dove seemed to want to come in, to be more fully in our presence; it was not at all frightened by our movement or voices. It actually seemed, rather, to be drawn by them.

“Look, it’s the Holy Spirit,” I said, trying to be funny.

Br. Martin laughed. “If it’s the Holy Spirit, he’d come through that screen.” Then he crumbled a cracker and sprinkled it along the ledge. But the dove seemed more interested in companionship than food.

So there we sat, gazing at the dove, the dove gazing at us, all of us sheltered from the downpour. When the bell rang for compline, everyone seemed disappointed to leave.

Afterwards, 15 minutes later, as I passed through the calefactory, I walked over to the window and scanned the ledge, and then looked out into the murky, sodden night. The dove was gone. The crackers were still there.

This morning, after vigils and lauds, I walked into the calefactory with my cup of coffee. I walked over to the center window, as is my custom most mornings. The sun was still attempting to penetrate the lingering mist outside, but appeared as though it would be successful.

Then I looked down, and there nestled in the corner of the ledge was the dove, its head tucked into its folded wing, fast asleep. Once again, it had returned to our little ark.

Sensing my presence, the dove awoke, preened itself, and then marched along the ledge with its bright red legs. Head cocked to the side, it peered through the screen at me. After a minute or so, it turned around, its claws grasping the rim of the ledge. It paused, and then soared out over the rock garden, its wings spread like an angel gilded with the first rays of dawn.

The morning gloom was breaking. And the spirit of hope was once again rising. For without a future, hope has nowhere to fly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Red that I See

I am walking east on the sidewalk on the north side of Iowa City's Jefferson Street, all one-way. It is morning, the day still shaking off its weariness, but the sunlight is pouring through the trees, piercing the shadows on the sidewalk, creating a cobblestone path of light and darkness.

Though I don’t really want to – for I am lazy as the morning – I pick up the pace, begin jogging, impelled to go forward. Soon my heart is heating up, my lungs gulping in the cool air.

On my right, in the street, traffic is stopping and starting, squealing and roaring. On my left, I pass a blue-gray house under renovation, a foreman prodding with good humor his groggy workers. A woman in a yellow dress passes by me in the other direction – against traffic – a cell phone attached to her right temple. Up ahead, other joggers plot perpendicular paths.

One block, and then another. How far should I go? When I’m there, I’ll know.

Lightly, a sweat breaks, the joints loosen, the stride and breath evens, the heart settles into a rhythm. I’m no longer thinking, only wondering: where am I going?

Sounds, images, thoughts rush by my ears with the wind. If it weren’t for my eyes, I wouldn’t notice any of them. Then, up ahead, to the right and left, above and below, I see the red.

Red stoplights. Red brake lights. Why are so many cars red? They race by, ripening along the way like fruit. Maroon, Ruby, Rust, Fire Engine, and Blood.

Bright scarlet canine mailboxes – fire hydrants – stand guard, unmoving, stationed on each block.

A cherry red scooter sits beneath an open apartment window, forgotten by the others. An alarm clock pulses loudly above it. Where is the driver?

Words appear. Signs with fiery capital letters. Always there, usually passed over, but now meant for me to read: EMERGENCY, SOLD, STOP, YIELD, SUPPORT THE TROOPS/STOP THE WAR.

Horizontal slashes of red piled one on another chase me along the side of a grey parking garage. Homes of solid red brick rise all around me, their picture windows watching me, inviting me in. I can see my reflection.

Below the windows are living seas of red -- pinwheels of zinnias, spikes of gladiolas, and waves of petunias.

Drenched, I turn around to head back, and see it all over again from the other side.

Buildings with lines.
The lonely scooter again, alarm clock above it still pulsing.
Canine mailboxes.
Cars racing and ripening.

All I see is red.

Stopping where I started, my eyes are lifted. Red clay bricks stacked one alongside the other rise upward, converging. At the point, more than I can see comes into view. I can climb the spire.

In the morning light I see fields of green all around me, and an eternity of blue above. All there from the beginning.

The red I could see is drowned.

The cobblestone path of light and darkness I know, no matter how far I go. Earth and sky, I am there.

Amidst all the red that I see.
-- Writing Mind Exercise,
Iowa Summer Writing Festival, July 21, 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

This is my body

Why this tumult among nations,
among peoples this useless murmuring?

— Psalm 2:1

Why do you suppose, when we speak of the Church, so often we end up speaking of it merely in human terms?

We all do it. Human nature, we might say. It is our nature to view the Church as we do other “institutions.” It is something to influence, or be influenced by. It is something to exert authority, or something by which authority can be acquired.

How often do we attempt to define the great unknown only by what we are capable of perceiving? Too often, it seems, we view the spiritual through the lens of the political. We see division rather than union.

Right versus wrong.

Us versus them.

Man versus woman.

Rich versus poor.

Black versus white.

Democrat versus Republican.

Conservative versus liberal.

Traditional versus progressive.

Catholic versus Protestant.

The list goes on.

If this is what the Church is—to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor—then to hell with it.

But this is not all it is. We know that what Isaiah the prophet tells us is true: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8).

However, like Martha in the Gospel of Luke, we become distracted, perturbed, and adamant. “You are worried and distracted by many things,” Jesus tells us. “There is need of only one thing.”

This one thing necessary captured the undivided attention of Martha’s sister Mary, who sat at the feet of Christ. The Church, after all, is not a mere human institution or political organization. It is none other than a Person—Christ Himself, who invites us to share in His divinity through the Eucharist. With Him, in Him, and through Him, we comprise the Body of Christ. This is the Church.

“He assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make us divine,” St. Thomas Aquinas tells us. “When he took our flesh he dedicated the whole of its substance to our salvation.”

“Take it,” Jesus says to his disciples after blessing, breaking, and giving them bread. “This is my body.”

The Eucharist, then, is our binding force with God and one another. It is our truest identity. Fed with Christ, what is human becomes transformed into His Body, which the Church not only celebrates but bears to the world. It is the Church’s mission to transform the world by transforming you and me into Christ, who both transforms and transcends all human institutions.

“The Real Presence of Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI says, “makes each one of us his ‘house’ and all together we form his Church, the spiritual building of which Saint Peter speaks, ‘Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious, and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house’ ” (1 Pt 2:4-5).

As baptized Christians, corporately and individually, we are made one with the Body of Christ, who mystically works through us all as the Church—human warts and all.

As St. Paul says, “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Is not the bread we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, many though we are, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (Gal 3:38, 1Cor 10:16-17).

If, like Mary, we fix our attention on Christ, the one thing necessary that unites all, then the kingdom of God is among us as the Church. Viewed through this lens, we see union rather than division, and the Church defines us rather than vice-versa.

In this way we see Christ as He is—the divine instrument of human salvation in which we all share.

Then, like shoots of the olive, we gather around His table as God’s children.

“Take it. This is my body.”

We will never fully appreciate
the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
until we see the intimate connection
that exists between the mystery
of the Holy Eucharist
and the mystery of the Church,
the Body of Christ.

— Thomas Merton

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What Is A Monk?

“What is a monk?" I am often asked. Sometimes, what is meant, or even asked explicitly, is, “What does a monk do?”

It’s not an easy question to answer because being a monk is not a job, but a state of life. Monks are among the busiest, most talented people I know, but that is not what makes them monks.

Perhaps some comparisons would be helpful. Being a husband, a wife, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, or a friend—these are not “jobs” in the same sense that being an electrician or a lawyer are jobs. Rather, they signify relationships to another—relationships that are deeper than any description or definition. Ask 10 mothers what a mother is, and you will likely get many different answers. They would likely all be right, but none would fully answer the question.

In my mind (ask 10 monks and you’ll likely get many different answers), the question is, in a very mysterious sense, the answer. The fact that it can’t be fully grasped or pinned down is what points us to something beyond ourselves and what we do.

Monks are people devoted to seeking God, and because that definition is elusive and unsatisfactory, it points to God Himself, in whom all real relationships are held.

Primarily, a monk is someone who wants to be real.

He wants to be committed to a lifetime of seeking who God really is, who he himself really is in God, and how God really manifests Himself in all of creation. He strives for this through a daily rhythm of prayer and work with a community of very different individuals committed to the same way of life.

A monk is not some mysterious, other-worldly, and perfectly pious being, although some may think him to be. If he thinks himself to be these things, then he is not being real, and therefore has not yet learned what it truly means to be a monk. A monk seeks God in the ordinary, the routine, and the mundane. That is all that truly sets him apart.

So, a monk, then, is someone who is attentive to all the ways in which God makes Himself present, so that he can be fully present to God.

He seeks God in the butterfly wafting through the meadow, praising its Creator by simply being one tiny butterfly in a vast world that will remain largely unknown to it.

He seeks God in the striking echo of one word of the Psalms recited in choir, a word heard a thousand times before but which suddenly takes on a deeper meaning for a reason he can’t fully explain.

He seeks God in the pre-dawn silence that penetrates his soul like a hand does a glove so that the two become one without anything between them.

He seeks God by suddenly recognizing and appreciating the goodness of a quality in a confrere he hadn’t noticed before, and without discussing it, is inspired to strive for that quality himself.

However, a monk also seeks God by trudging to church morning after morning, sometimes drowsy from a fitful night of sleep plagued by a thousand nagging worries.

He seeks God by praying for the ability to forgive a confrere who deeply wounded him with a sharp remark, knowing that the two must continue working on a long-term project together.

He seeks God by saying yes to a favor asked of him; one he doesn’t wish for but knows is needed.

He seeks God in the bottom of a toilet bowl he’s scrubbed more times than he cares to remember. While he’s doing that, he seeks God by thinking of all the ways the age-worn monk in the bed five feet away has done of all this through the years—remaining faithful to God’s call and encouraging others to remain faithful to theirs through his own prayer and work.

The mystery of being a monk, then, lies deep within the reality of being human while delighting in the divine. The monk strives to see, believe, and be transformed by the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ present all around him at each moment of every day.

Through his prayer, work, and life with the monks of his community, he may marvel or be confounded. Yet through it all, he is committed to integrating all these aspects of his journey to achieve what is necessary for his salvation—a real relationship with God, a real relationship with himself, and a real relationship with everyone and everything around him.

This is a monk.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Nothing Will Be Wasted

When they had had their fill, Jesus said to his disciples,
"Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted."
John 6:12

We waste an awful lot. Food, time, energy, water, money. The list goes on. Ours is a disposable society.

Everything is important, but nothing matters much.

We waste words. Many speak. Few say anything. No wonder so few listen.

We waste opportunities. They fly by every second of our lives. Every once in a while, we grab one and make the most of it. Most pass by unnoticed, never to return.

We waste knowledge, emotions, actions.

We waste joy, sadness, courage, fear, conviction, uncertainty, pleasure, pain.

We waste people. If we're honest, we'll admit we often pay attention only to those whom we like, and who like us.

We waste death. Life is cheap.

We waste the grandeur of mystery, the glorious gifts that drench us from above each and every moment we spend on this earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is budding all around us, but we see dimly.

More than anything, we waste love. God's love. Love of ourselves. The love of others.

But all is not lost. Not even close.

In John 6, Jesus feeds 5,000 people. All they had were five barley loaves (the food of the poor) and two fish. It wasn't much. In fact, in wasn't anything at all. They needed food, but had too little. Jesus fed them all. They had their fill.

Often overlooked, though, is this passage: "When they had had their fill, Jesus said to his disciples, 'Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.' " It's an important sentence. Why do you think Jesus cared about all the leftovers? Why did the writer of the gospel feel it necessary to report this? As the end of John says, Jesus did many other things that were never recorded. This one was.

Much more than a meal is going on here. Jesus is providing more than food for the hungry. These acts--this mystery--signifies something else, something much greater.

For those who need, who have nothing (which is all of us in one respect or another), God provides. He gives us Himself. Jesus gathers us, feeds us, fills us with bread from heaven. The Body of Christ becomes what it receives. We are what we eat, as the saying goes.

Then, when we're finished, Jesus tells US: "Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted." Fragments, scraps, crumbs, crusts, tidbits, particles.

Garbage, waste, trash is what we call them.

But nothing will be wasted, Jesus says. Nothing.

After everyone has received Communion at Mass, the priest and/or Eucharistic ministers consume whatever remains. They don't throw it out. Nothing is wasted.

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. ... The one who feeds on me will have life because of me," Jesus says (John 6:51, 57). We are fed by His life, and our lives as Christ are commissioned to feed the lives of others, to gather all the fragments.

Nothing will be wasted. No matter our need, nor how little we have.

Not food, time, energy, water, nor money.

Not words.

Not opportunities.

Not knowledge, emotions, nor actions.

Not joy, sadness, courage, fear, conviction, uncertainty, pleasure, nor pain.

Not people. Those we like nor don't like. Those who like us and those who don't.

Not even death. The Resurrected Christ in us gathers all the barley loaves of the poor, all the fragments and crumbs, whatever seems small and useless, and makes us One.

Nothing we have, do, or are is wasted. Everything belongs. It all matters--this grandeur of mystery, this glorious gift that drenches us from above each and every moment. We may still see dimly, but the Kingdom of Heaven buds all around us. Especially in all the leftovers.

God's love is not wasted. Not one crumb, no matter how crusty. Taste and see.

Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.
From Christ's fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Matthew 10:8; John 1:16

Sunday, April 12, 2009

If It Dies, It Bears Much Fruit

To everyone who conquers,
I will give permission
to eat from the tree of life
that is in the paradise of God.
-- Rev. 2:7

A lifeless body in a tomb.



Wrapped in burial cloths of misery, fear, and failure.

A decaying grain concealed in darkest land.

Mystery awaits the morn.

Thin light spreads over a horizon unaware of what the earth cannot contain.

The soil is soaked with divinity’s dew.

The seed of humanity sheds its rotten garments.

The wound within opens.

A tender shoot appears.

It emerges above the soil.

Pulled toward the rising sun, it is green, full of sap.

Roots crack through and discard the seed’s hard but fragile casing…

… surge through and clutch the earth…

… drink from the brimming river.

The stalk grows thicker, taller.

Stems become branches.

Buds blossom and leaves unfurl.

Within them the birds of heaven sing their song.

Hanging there is ripened fruit.

Good for food.

Pleasing to the eye.

Desirable for gaining wisdom.

Fruit better than gold.

A woman enters the land.

She seeks a burial plot, and finds the tree.

She is amazed at what has arisen there.

Taking some of the fruit, she eats.

Urged by an angel, she shares it.

Naked again, eyes are opened.

Wrapped in the light of faith, hope, love.



A vibrant body in a garden.

Planted in the house of the Lord.

Still bearing fruit when they are old.

Surrounding the Tree of Life.

Singing Alleluia!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Christ's Descent into Death

You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark, in the depths.

Psalm 87:7

This morning, for vigils of Holy Saturday here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, we heard the following reading. It is a wonderful meditation for this day of silence, waiting, and preparation for Holy Easter. Indeed, it is a wonderful reflection for each day of our lives united to the Resurrected Christ. — Br. Francis

THE PASSION is simply the record of Christ’s descent into the realm of death. This is a matter which is seldom explained, and for that reason we may fail to understand the cosmic magnitude of Christ’s passion.

Death is an evil force which, along with sin, dominates the human race. Sin and death are two names for what is really the same thing—the death of the soul and its consequence, the death of the body.

What exactly did Jesus do during his passion? He descended into death. He went down into death’s domain; he fell into its power. The depths of the earth do not mean the grave alone; they include the nether regions. Orthodox theology understands the resurrection not simply as Christ leaving the tomb, but as Christ rising up from the underworld.

The two ideas are not the same; the theological implications of the second are far more profound. Christ went down into the realm of death in that manhood of his which was under death’s dominion, and there was an actual moment when death was able to gloat: “I have won!”

But in answer to that boast we have Saint Paul’s splendid retort: “O death, where is your victory?” Death, whose name is Satan, believed that on the evening of Good Friday he had gained an everlasting victory, since Christ himself was now his prisoner.

Then all at once on Easter morning the gates of death burst apart and its strongholds were laid bare. O death, where is your victory now?

Christ was only able to conquer death by first becoming its prisoner. His purpose in submitting to death was to free the human race from its power. This fact gives a realism and incomparable grandeur to the death of Christ; this is the meaning of the word “redemption.”

Redemption does not mean some kind of ransom or settling of accounts between Christ and Satan. It means Christ’s conflict with the powers of evil, his victory over them all and his conquest of the kingdom of death.

This throws light on the rites of baptism as practiced in the early years of the Church. The descent into the baptismal font which Saint Paul likens to the entombment of Christ was a ritual representation of this descent into death. The newly baptized Christian was incorporated into Christ’s death before emerging victorious with him.

Christ’s victory is a victory for the whole of humanity. We all have to reproduce in ourselves the entire mystery of Christ—his passion, resurrection, and ascension—and baptism is a symbol of that conformity with the mystery of Christ which must continue during our whole lifetime.

Through our daily death to self, Christ’s victory over the power of evil continues to work in us until we are totally free.

— Cardinal Jean Daniélou, S.J.
(Le mystère de l’Avent, 162-164)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

This Cross

Straining under the weight, too weary to even stumble.

Staggering, unable to press forward.

Tears and sweat sap strength.

Anguish deeper than pain and fear.

There is simply nothing left.


Welling up, despair cries out.

Yet, its very sound is one of hope -- faint but fearless.

Why, O Lord?

Ears open to the voice of sincerity, humility, faith.

I can hear my nothingness.

See my dignity.

Touch my identity.

Something sterner than death arises.

Beating in harmony with a force other than being.

There is light, and it sings.

This cross I have, I must need.
Why is beyond the mind's eye,
guarded by Truth and Love.

The reply rises softly, lingers, prods.


Always present.

Rarely heard.

Help me with this cross.
It belongs to me.
Help me with it.
Together, we carry it.
With one another, and for all others.


This cross only makes sense if it is borne for another's sake.

Mystery enlightens.

Weakness is made strong.

Back straightens. Feet steady.

This cross is still here.

But now it embraces all.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Sign for All Generations

No sign will be given
except the sign of Jonah. ...
And there is something
greater than Jonah here.

-- Luke 11:29,32

Limitless God limited Himself to human form. While human beings die through no choice of their own because of choosing sin, Christ became sin and chose to die through no sin of his own.

Then he emerged from the tomb, as Jonah did from the belly of the fish.

This is our sign, and nothing is greater.

And this is why we pray for our enemies out of love for Christ, who loved us while we were still enemies.

A clean heart
create for me, O God;
and renew within me
a steadfast spirit.

-- Psalm 51:12


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lenten Prayer

As we prepare to begin our Lenten journeys tomorrow on Ash Wednesday:

Father, we are led by your Spirit during these 40 days of Lent to unite ourselves with your Son in the desert. Speak tenderly to us during this time of reflection and renewal.

Reveal and remove all obstacles that impede us from truly seeking and following you.

Roll away the heavy stone from the tomb of our sinfulness, and let the light of the Resurrected Christ radiate through our works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Raise us from the darkness, open our eyes to your light and our ears to your voice, so that our hearts overflow with the inexpressible delight of love as we drink in the dawn of Easter glory.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bona Opera

Here in the monastery, we are preparing our Bona Opera (good works) forms as we do each year before Lent begins. Each monk fills out the form detailing the good works he intends to perform during the 40 days of Lent, and submits it to the Abbot on Ash Wednesday.

The Abbot will consider each monk’s proposed good works before returning it with his blessing or suggested revision. The Abbot also includes a short inscription from the Rule of Saint Benedict that is applicable. All of this is based on Chapter 49 of the Rule (included below).

While we as monks make a special effort to do these things as part of our monastic way of life, all Christians can — and should — do something similar within their own vocation. Conversion is the goal for us all. As you read on, insert the word “Christian” for each occurrence of the word “monk,” and you’ll see that you can make a Bona Opera commitment of your own. Think and pray about it, and review it with your confessor or spiritual director (in place of the Abbot).

Typically, for Lent each monk chooses specific practices relating to the three primary forms of penance mentioned in Scripture (Matthew 6:1-18; Tobit 12:8) and encouraged by the Church — fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (or acts of charity). These are to be works aimed at our conversion in relationship to oneself, to God, and to neighbor, and they should be something above and beyond what we ordinarily do each day as monks.

For example, a monk may choose to make a special point of “fasting” from gossip, to devote an additional 15 minutes a day to the prayerful reading of Scripture, and to give “alms” by spending some extra time with elderly and infirm confreres. In any event, the good works should be sacrifices, but with due moderation, and should promote habits that could extend beyond Easter.

Above all, the good works should be rooted solely in the love of Christ in a way that extends that love to others. In other words, deciding to give up chocolate to lose 10 pounds is not a good example of a Lenten good work. Neither is cutting out all caffeine, and then becoming irritable with everyone. Both miss the point entirely.

Instead of focusing on “giving something up” for Lent, a good idea is to approach fasting, prayer and almsgiving from a positive standpoint. For prayer, perhaps one could spend 10 minutes each day simply resting in God’s presence and offering thanksgiving. Fasting could consist of turning off the car stereo or cell phone on the way to work and riding in silence (a good time to offer that thanksgiving!). Almsgiving might include taking the time to get to know someone you don’t think you’ll like very well.

By all means, give something up, but make sure it also adds up spiritually. Remember that Christ is Risen, and that light should shine through you in your good works, so that in all things, God may be glorified!


Although the life of a monk
ought to have about it at all times
the character of a Lenten observance,
yet since few have the virtue for that,
we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent
the brethren keep their lives most pure
and at the same time wash away during these holy days
all the negligences of other times.

And this will be worthily done
if we restrain ourselves from all vices
and give ourselves up to prayer with tears,
to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore,
let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service,
as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.
Thus everyone of his own will may offer God
"with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6)
something above the measure required of him.

From his body, that is
he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting;
and with the joy of spiritual desire
he may look forward to holy Easter.

Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot
what it is that he wants to offer,
and let it be done with his blessing and approval.
For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father
will be imputed to presumption and vainglory
and will merit no reward.

Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot's approval.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Belated Introduction

Come to Me,
all of you who are weary
and find life burdensome;
I will refresh you.
Take My yoke on your shoulders
and learn from Me,
for I am gentle and humble of Heart.
You shall find rest
because My yoke is easy
and My burden light.

-- Matthew 11:28-30

When I began this blog a couple months back, I had intended to properly introduce it as well as myself. But, Advent and then Christmas were soon upon us, so it seemed best to wait.

Better late than never, as the saying goes.

First, as to the blog’s title — The Yoke of Christ — and why I chose it. Those who are familiar with me know that nearly six years ago I experienced an intense spiritual reawakening or conversion. I reached a point in my life where I knew I must give myself to God, without knowing why or what for. So I did. Now, I’m a Benedictine monk, and as St. Anthony of the Desert famously said, “Each day I begin again.”

Anyway, when I sincerely called out for God’s help for the very first time at the age of 37, my heart began whispering to me in ways I had never heard before. “Come to Me” is what I kept hearing within, over and over. Accompanying this strange beckoning was a sudden and intense desire to read Scripture, which I had never done before. The words sang to me, and when I first read the passage above, my heart began to burn with an indescribable love of God. So, step by step, at times striding and at others stumbling, I began to follow and heed those words: “Come to Me.”

Several more years of transformation and discernment followed before I entered the monastery. Then, in January 2008, as I prepared to make my first vows of obedience, stability, and fidelity to the monastic way of life at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, my retreat director pointed something out to me. His observation provided new depth, meaning, and purpose to those words echoing in my heart.

Take a look at the illustration above. Where do you see Christ? My problem was — and still is sometimes — that I was viewing Christ as the driver of the oxen under the yoke. That’s a terribly distorted view of obedience. True obedience to God is freedom.

My retreat director asked me to reconsider how a yoke is used in the agricultural tradition. Vaguely, my idea was a burdensome harness thrown over the shoulders of one poor beast. Wrong. Rather, as The American Heritage Dictionary defines it, a yoke is a crossbar with TWO U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a PAIR of oxen, mules, or other draft animals working in a TEAM (emphasis added).

This altered my image of obedience as I prepared to make my vows. Now, I picture God the Father gently guiding his team, plowing and sowing the Spirit’s seed-ground of the Church so all in the world may reap the harvest of Life. And working with me (us) under the yoke (or cross) is Christ Himself. He works with us all, encourages us, and promises us joy beyond all knowing for those who “Take My yoke on your shoulders and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. You shall find rest because My yoke is easy and My burden light.”

I invite you to reflect on that image further and meditate on the Gospel passage above as you consider your own call as fellow laborers for the harvest.

That, as the story goes, is why I have titled this blog as I have.

Finally, as to the blog’s purpose. There are no grand designs, and I will post as my monastic prayer, work, and schedule allow. However, I do not intend to simply record my comings and goings. How boring! Rather, I simply hope to share a little spiritual food for thought now and then — as the Master of the Harvest provides.

Time to plow …