Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Blessing

The Lord bless you and keep you!
The Lord let his face shine upon you,
   and be gracious to you!
The Lord look upon you kindly,
   and give you peace!

      Numbers 6: 22-27

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Peace on earth

A few scenes from the area around and inside
Saint Meinrad Archabbey Church
on Christmas Day ...  

"I am with you always,
to the end of the age."

Matthew 28:20

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The circle of life

Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010
Feast of the Holy Family—A

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Colossians 3:12-21
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Grace builds on nature. Holiness emerges through the ordinary.

God coming among us in the person of Jesus means that we don’t have to stretch and strain toward the heavens. God is to be found in everyday life—especially within the family circle which radiates out from the center of our culture.

Our relationships with one another must be an expression of our relationship with God, particularly in the context of family life. The passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians offers us a simple set of qualities we must adopt for daily living as God’s family:

Praise and worship of our God in all that we do or say.

The Holy Family is our model, and through Christ—fully human and fully divine—we have become part of it. Let us live as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” each one of our days.

A little dignity, made to order

Following is the homily given by Archabbot Justin DuVall, who presided at Mass on Christmas Eve at Saint Meinrad Archabbey Church.

In Nativitate Domini
   Ad Missam in nocte

Isaiah 9:1-6
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.”

Confrères, and brothers and sisters:

The Christmas mystery which we celebrate this night began to unfold against the backdrop of a human attempt to impose order on the whole world. A Roman emperor exercised his authority over conquered peoples in an effort to control rebellion. But in the birth of the Christ, the One through whose wisdom the original chaos of creation itself had been put in order gently and mightily (fortiter suaviter), was content to take his place in the disorder of a muck-filled, mule-shed-made-an-inn.

The history of the human race might be seen as a succession of efforts to impose order where disorder—or perhaps the perceived wrong order—prevails. Far more than visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, the Christmas story is the vision of the advent of God’s kingdom by which he restores right order to the whole of his creation. It is therefore the beginning of our rebellion against every wrong order, and it gives us the gift of hope, even as we remain under the sway of continued human efforts to impose a preferred order on the world.

When Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem, to be registered in accordance with the decree of Caesar Augustus, they acted no differently than other people of their own country. They were the little people of the day whose lives were affected by decisions made from high up on the chain of command. It didn’t mean they weren’t faithful Jews who believed in the promises of God; but nevertheless, what Caesar ordered, Caesar got. The Pax Romana prevailed and its order governed the world.

In time, of course, the Roman Empire crumbled, but it heirs have been lining up ever since. The human desire to impose a world order—or even a world peace—shows itself over and over, and often without regard for the cost to the lives of ordinary folks. Tonight the span of peace doesn’t quite stretch over Korea or Iraq. Even while the United States and Russia have agreed to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons, North Korea threatens to use them against South Korea for what it perceives to be a menace to its good order, rekindling the unthinkable in a world that had grown hopeful for the banishment of such weapons. And as we are well aware, the prolonged state of war in Iraq has created a torrent of refugees whose lives have been disrupted in ways that we can’t begin to imagine from our vantage point of an unquestioned security. The little people of that region, many of them the Christian minority, are at the mercy of the powers that be.

However noble in itself, the human desire for good world order shows its flaws when it fails to engage in the difficult work of protecting the rights of everyone it affects. Mary and Joseph were among the little people of their day, and their life together was affected by the decree of Caesar Augustus that took them from the familiarity of their hometown to the uncertainties of their destination, all part of a plan to enroll the whole world.

But God’s plan for the whole world was also under way.

The birth of a child happens on its own schedule, no matter what else is going on in the world, and so while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, “the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Babies are born every day, part of the cycle of human life; it’s nothing earth-shattering. The birth of Jesus had all the humanity of any birth, but in another way it was anything but ordinary. This child would in fact inaugurate a new order that no human decree could effect. The good news of his birth, as the angels announced to the shepherds, was to “be for all the people.” And so more was at stake than simply the birth of a child to be enrolled in Caesar’s count.

We cannot forget that this child whose birth we commemorate tonight is the Savior of the world. He will not stay a small child; he will become the man who will bear the weight of human sinfulness, and be delivered to death for our salvation. This child, looking so harmless in a manger, would disrupt the world at its deepest level by sowing freedom among God’s children who—with few exceptions—are hardly capable of receiving it. * In him God restored the original good order of his creation and made it clear that anything opposed to that good order is at odds with his purpose.

When Jesus saw suffering, he healed it; when evil crossed his path, he cast it out; when he encountered sin, he forgave it; and death, the final enemy of life, he conquered. All these things are at odds with God’s good order, and none of them have a place in the purpose of God for his creation. In Christ the rebellion against every false hope began, and this hope permeates our celebration of Christmas. The good news of this night is, as the angels announced, for all peoples, and it drives the Church in its mission in the world. Mary gave birth to the one prophesied by Isaiah as the Prince of Peace, and in this birth God established his good order for the whole human race.

The birth of Christ, then, lays claim to us even as we still labor under the constraints of the present world. Christmas points us beyond the stillness of this night to the fullness of all time, because the birth of Christ is the overture to the great and final appearance of Christ in glory. The simple shepherds keeping their sheep on that night were sent on a mission to find the child who was a sign for them.

In the same way Christmas launches us on the search for the God who restores the original dignity of our human nature. It is not an aimless search, one which is content merely to be charmed along the way but not challenged by the goal. We are, after all, now enrolled in the rebellion which Christ himself leads against false hopes. St. Paul wrote to Titus, “The grace of God has appeared, saving all, and training us to reject godless ways.”

We have to live in this world, of course, and so we will necessarily confront ways that are opposed to God’s ways. But because we have been redeemed, because our true nature has been restored to us in Christ, Christmas claims us, not just for tonight or tomorrow or for the holidays—but for all our days. “Christian, claim your dignity,” we hear from St. Leo the Great, “it is God’s own nature that you share.” This dignity should make a difference in the way we live and how we grasp the truth of what God is doing in the world. St. Benedict found a way to express this dignity in how he set the order in community for his monks (Rule, Ch. 63). He dismantled the order set by society, based on class or wealth or education, and instead based seniority on a monk’s day of entrance into the community, marking the start of his dedicated search for God. For any Christian to say that he or she has been made a new creation in Christ is more than clever rhetoric; it involves both a privilege and a duty.

By celebrating the Christmas mystery tonight with faith, we will leave this church as more than people of good will whose hearts have been warmed by sights and smells and songs; we will leave this church as a people who claim our dignity over against every attempt to belittle it. Christ has redeemed all of our life, from birth through death, and everything in between.

An infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was the sign for the shepherds of the good news for all peoples. That good news equips us to meet all of life’s challenges with hope, and with the ability to give thanks in all things for the saving power of God at work in us.

Tonight we recall the beginnings of our salvation in the birth of Christ. Twenty centuries have passed, yet the mystery of Christmas has not aged; it is as fresh as it first was in Bethlehem, still straining towards its fulfillment. Tonight let us welcome Christ and the gift of life that he brings so that all our days and years and seasons may be ordered in God, and that we may know the true joy of God’s presence among us.

Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B.
Saint Meinrad Abbey Church
December 25, 2010

* Cf. The Doors of the Sea, by David Bentley Hart, pp. 86-87.

Shout like a snowflake

Saturday, Dec. 25, 2010
The Nativity of the Lord

The snow is gently falling on Saint Meinrad Archabbey this Christmas Eve. Word is we could get anywhere from 1 to 3 inches by morning. Looking around the monastery and church, I think all the decorations look as good as they ever have on this, my fifth Christmas here. Everything is reserved, but elegant. A few wreaths, lights, poinsettias, and a crèche. Perhaps tomorrow I will take a photograph or two to post here.

It has been a busy evening. Vespers at 5 p.m. Anticipated Vigils at 7 p.m. Midnight Mass (this year at 10 p.m.). I am on bells this week, my last such assignment before making solemn vows precisely one month from Christmas Day.

It has been a somewhat trying week. On Monday I began coming down with a bad bug of some sort—the same sort of nasty stuff that has been going around (someone sneezes around here, and at least half are likely to catch cold)—sore throat, head and chest congestion, coughing, etc. By mid-week, my throat had become so sore that I could barely talk, so I finally gave in and saw the doctor, who put me on antibiotics and other assorted remedies.

Not much you can do about a cold, really. Simply get some rest and let it runs its course. What has made it frustrating for me, however, has been the inability to sing the “O Antiphons” in choir this week. Barely able to speak, I have not been able to participate in chanting the Divine Office per usual, and that always unsettles me. It kills me not to be able to join in the Work of God, as St. Benedict calls it (though perhaps some of my confreres might say it kills them when I am able to join in!).

After Mass Friday morning, I commented to someone that in choir I felt like Zechariah, who was rendered unable to speak until his wife Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist. Of course, the last couple days leading up to Christmas, the Gospel readings at Mass have focused on Zechariah, culminating with his liberating and exuberant prophecy Friday morning (Luke 1:67-79). This, of course, is the Benedictus, which we chant every morning toward the end of Lauds: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free …”

It’s tough not to be able to do something you are used to doing, or want to do. This week, I wanted to sing with Zechariah’s opened mouth, but I couldn’t. Once I surrendered to this reality, however, something wonderful happened. I began simply listening to the rest of my confreres singing, letting the notes and verses flutter down around me like falling snowflakes. Have you ever listened to snow falling? It’s not a sound that shouts out, but rather one that instills a profound sense of inner peace. Yet it’s amazing how deafening a couple inches of silently falling snow can be—it seems to block out all other sound.

I was reminded of a similar experience I had this past summer while in Europe, when I had to surrender to the fact that I could not sing with all the rest (in German, French, or Italian), and simply listen to how beautiful it all was—God’s spoken Word sung back to Him in praise—in any and all languages. This is a gift, I realized, and sometimes when you receive a gift all you can do is simply accept it and be grateful for it. Period.

As nice as it may all be, what we celebrate at Christmas is not about the snow, the wreaths, the lights, the poinsettias, or even the crèche centered on a tiny infant. It is not about being able to sing out. It is about the most extraordinary gift ever given: A Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.

We are a people in need of being saved, and God’s love for us is so great that He became man to suffer with and redeem us and bring us all to everlasting life. As our Fr. Eugene pointed out in his introductory comments Friday morning, Zechariah’s Benedictus does not prophesy a cute kid in a manger, but a fierce and victorious Messiah who turns the status quo upside down. “That frightens us,” he said. “We’d rather focus on the baby in the manger, but that’s not what the season is about.”

The season is about our salvation, born of God’s immeasurable love for us—a love so fierce as to die for us, and so victorious as to conquer death once and for all. This is not child’s play, but God’s zeal to impart grace and save all.

And that is certainly something to shout about, though perhaps as silently as a snowflake.

The grace that gently falls on us in the form of an infant speaks louder and more powerfully than any word spoken before or since. This grace invites a response, but not necessarily (or even usually) spoken. Interestingly, the word “infant” is derived from the Old French form “enfant,” which in turn is from the Latin “infāns”—or, “unable to speak.” The Word made flesh, the very breath of God, silently fills us with His power and glory, and if we truly receive this gift it will keep on giving through each one of us—truly making the mystery of the Incarnation a living and present reality.

With this being the case, whether we can sing or not, we join the angels and saints in praising God, saying:

Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax
homínibus bonae voluntátis!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O Emmanuel

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

O Emmanuel,
our King and Lawgiver,
the Expectation of all nations
and their Savior:
Come to save us,
O Lord our God.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

O King of the Nations

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

O King of the Nations,
whom they have long awaited,
the cornerstone,
who make both sides one:
Come, and save mankind,
whom you fashioned
out of clay.

Deck the cloister

This morning the novices and juniors decorated the monastery's two main community gathering areas (besides the church) in preparation for Christmas. With the prior's permission, I snapped a few photos to offer a rare view of a few areas within the monastery cloister. The rooms we decorated included the refectory (dining room) and calefactory (living room). In case you're wondering, we are required to wear our habits in church, class, community meetings, and at evening meals and official functions in which we are representing the monastery. At other times, depending on what we're doing, we may wear habits or regular clothing. Putting up live Christmas trees (they smell great but are quite messy) definitely calls for grubby work clothes. -- Br. Francis

Advent wreath and “O” Antiphon banners
(by Br. Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.) in refectory.

Br. Adam, left, and Novice Michael
prepare to raise the refectory tree.

Statue of Virgin Mother and Child and poinsettias
on the head table in the refectory. In the background
is the Last Supper painting by Fr. Donald Walpole, O.S.B.

Novice Timothy places garland on the mantel.

Novice Michael adjusts
the calefactory tree lights.

Novice Timothy performs
a final inspection.

Monday, December 20, 2010

O Rising Sun

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

O Rising Sun,
splendor of eternal light,
and sun of righteousness:
Come, and enlighten
those sitting in darkness
and the shadow of death.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

O Key of David

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

O Key of David,
and Scepter of the House of Israel,
who open, and no one closes,
who close, and no one opens:
Come, and lead forth
from the house of bondage,
the captive sitting in darkness
and the shadow of death.

O Root of Jesse

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

O Root of Jesse
who stand as a sign for the peoples,
whom kings will meet with silence,
whom nations will entreat in prayer:
Come to set us free,
delay no longer.

[I think this is my favorite of all the O Antiphons]

Saturday, December 18, 2010

O Adonai

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

O Adonai,
and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses
in the fire of the burning bush
and on Sinai gave him the Law:
Come to redeem us
with outstretched arm.

Friday, December 17, 2010

I will come tomorrow: O Antiphons

Advent in general, with its hopeful longing, is probably my favorite liturgical season of the year. That is especially the case the week before Christmas when we begin chanting the ancient “O Antiphons” each evening at Vespers before and after the Magnificat, which began tonight.

The seven antiphons—one for each day preceding the vigil of Christmas from December 17 to  December 23—are called “O” antiphons because each one begins with “O”. The opening words for each day’s antiphon are (in Latin, followed by English):

Dec. 17: O Sapientia – O Wisdom
Dec. 18: O Adonai – O Lord
Dec. 19: O Radix Jesse – O Root of Jesse
Dec. 20: O Clavis David – O Key of David
Dec. 21: O Oriens – O Rising Sun
Dec. 22: O Rex Gentium – O King of the Nations
Dec. 23: O Emmanuel – [Reference to Isaiah 7:14’s mention of Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”]

Each antiphon calls on the Messiah by one of his titles from Scripture and ends with a specific petition imploring the Lord to come. Included are numerous references to the prophecy of Isaiah on the coming of the Messiah.

And, the first initial of each Latin term, read from the last title to the first (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia) form an acrostic, the Latin words ero cras, which means, “I will come tomorrow.” So, in essence, the seven-day period of calling on the Messiah by his various titles ends just before Christmas with God's response coming from the other direction: “I will come tomorrow.” Thus, there is a palpable swelling of anticipation leading up to Christmas Eve and the coming of Jesus our Savior, God with us.

To sing or hear each antiphon being chanted is quite beautiful. To be quite honest, when you’re a monk, chanting in choir four times a day, seven days a week, can sometimes be about as unromantic as anything else one does day after day. However, when special times like that of the O Antiphons kick in, everyone picks it up a notch, and there is a level of intensity and heartfelt warmth that seem to lift voice and mind simultaneously into the heavens. There is nothing quite like it, and I wish everyone had the opportunity to experience or participate in it at least once.

Barring that, however, each antiphon is a short, rich little prayer unto itself, and is worthy of reciting and meditating on as a personal prayer. So, from now until Dec. 23, each day I will post here the precise text of each O Antiphon that we chant in the Archabbey Church. Accompanying the antiphons are a series of contemporary paintings by Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Minnesota. Each piece, presenting the Christ-event from a woman's point of view, is very colorful, unique, and contemplative.

I invite you to allow these antiphons and accompanying images to embrace your longing for the coming of Christ in each and every human heart, beginning with your own. And without further ado, here is the first:

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

O Wisdom,
who came forth
from the mouth
of the Most High,
reaching from end to end mightily,
and gently governing all things:
Come to teach us
the way of prudence.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Little rewards

The other day, I picked up and thumbed through a copy of Peter Seewald’s book Wisdom from the Monastery: A Program for Spiritual Healing, and stumbled across this tasty little tidbit of trivia:
Did you know that pretzels were a food invented for periods of fasting? They were considered an ideal tonic during periods of abstinence, being both meat-free as well as nourishing and tasty. The word “pretzel” is derived from the Latin bracchium, “arm,” because the shape of the pretzel symbolizes the crossed arms of a monk: the posture of monks when they pray.
Curious, I did a little online sleuthing, and while I make no claims as to the veracity of this information, here is a quick summary of what I discovered:

One fairly consistent tradition is that the pretzel has its origins in 7th-Century southern France or northern Italy, where monks made them to give as prizes (“pretiola”, or “little rewards”) to children who had learned their prayers. The three-holed shape of the pretzel’s twisted and baked dough was used to evoke the Holy Trinity. Later, pretzels became associated with Lent, fasting, and prayer before Easter.

The Latin term bracchium noted above in the passage from Seewald’s book became “brezel” in the common vocabulary of the Germanic peoples, later giving way to our term, “pretzel.”

It should be noted that while I have never seen a monk pray with his arms crossed over his chest as Seewald describes it, the posture was employed by monks (and other Christians) in previous centuries. Significantly, perhaps, the monks of Saint Meinrad assume precisely this posture while singing the Suscipe when professing solemn vows.

Clearly, the pretzel seems to be of Christian (and possibly monastic) origin. Chewing thoughtfully over all this, I’ve come to another conclusion as well: while the hardy austerity of pretzels makes them perfect for Lent, another variation is in order for Advent and Christmas …

… dare I say it … dark-chocolate covered pretzels made by Dietsch Bros. in Findlay, Ohio. Salty. Sweet. Crunchy. All the major food groups! A little taste, perhaps, of heaven on earth. If you have ever had one (or two, but everything in moderation, as St. Benedict says), you know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, well, you have yet to genuinely experience the meaning of the word exquisite. And don’t bother with the milk or white chocolate. Out of darkness comes light.

Returning to Saint Meinrad after my trip to Findlay, I brought back a few boxes to share with my confreres during the remainder of Advent and Christmastide. Then, a month later while professing my solemn vows, I will fold my arms like a pretzel and sing the Suscipe — my own eternal and unmerited “little reward.”

How sweet it is.

One Word

Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Advent—A

Isaiah 7:10-14
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

Today we experience a slight but tantalizing foretaste of Christmas. Eagerly, we anticipate the One we have already received, and who will also come to us in fuller measure. One word expresses it—the Word: Jesus, which means “God saves” in ancient Hebrew.

God saves. God alone.

Ahaz refuses to believe it in the first reading. He prefers to rely on his own plans and devices, which is something we all do. Nevertheless, God, through the prophet Isaiah, promises something completely outlandish—a son born of a virgin, whose name will be Emmanuel, or “God is with us.”

The Gospel of Matthew points to this prophecy as being fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, who “will save his people from their sins.” God is our salvation, which He accomplishes by becoming one with us. For Joseph, and for us, it is a dream come true.

And what is the meaning of this dream? Very simply, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Taste and see that the Lord is good!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Kicking back in the Flag City

Findlay, Ohio

Since the fall semester in the School of Theology ended last week, I am taking a brief break of sorts in the area where I grew up and lived much of my adult life before coming to the monastery—northwest Ohio. I was born and raised in Findlay, Ohio, where my mother still resides.

Findlay (also know as Flag City) is a town of roughly 40,000 people in the center of Hancock County. It is largely an economically vibrant (sitting right on Interstate 75 is a big factor) and politically conservative area with deep roots in agriculture and heavy industrial trades. It is named for a fort built by Col. James Findlay during the War of 1812. Its claims to fame:

 During the 19th Century, it was a booming area in natural gas production.
 The song “Down by the Old Mill Stream” was written in Findlay by Tell Taylor in the early 20th Century.
 The city is the headquarters of Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. (for which my mother worked for many years to help put me through college).
 For most of the 20th Century, Findlay was also the headquarters of Marathon Oil Co. (now based in Houston), which still operates in the city.
 One of the area’s leading employers is a huge manufacturing plant and distribution center for Whirlpool.
 Ben Roethlisberger, the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a native son.
 Unfortunately, the city garnered a great deal of national attention in the summer of 2007 when it suffered a devastating flood from which it is still recovering.
 And, it has been well-known throughout the region and beyond for Wilson’s (Mity Nice) Hamburgs, and, of course, the incomparable Dietsch Bros. Ice Cream and Candy (where I used to work while in high school). Nothing tastes quite like Dietsch’s ice cream, and their dark chocolate covered pretzels are a unique treat.

Actually, I grew up about five miles west of Findlay (yes, I am a country boy) in the school district of Liberty-Benton—where I graduated from high school way back in 1984. I went to college about 20-25 minutes up I-75 at Bowling Green State University. My mother moved to a condo in the city in 2004, about a year or so after my father died.

Anyway, enough of memory lane. Primarily, I am home for a few days to take care of a number of financial details prior to my making solemn vows at Saint Meinrad next month. Being a man of 41 when I entered the monastery, I had accumulated a number of assets of which I must now offcially and finally dispose since the Benedictine vow of conversatio includes poverty.

However, while I am in Findlay, I also am enjoying a very rare opportunity to relax and spend some time with my family. On Saturday, I drove from Saint Meinrad straight to the Red Pig Inn in Ottawa, Ohio, where my father’s side of the family was having its annual Christmas celebration. So, I was able to visit with many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins (and their rapidly growing families).

Shannon and Ian as he reads the Nativity story to us.
Also here for the weekend were my brother Kevin, who lives in Cincinnati, along with his girlfriend Wendy (from Toledo) and her daughter McKinsey; and my sister Shannon, her new husband Ty, and son Ian, who all live in West Virginia. On Sunday, we all (including two dogs) squeezed into my mother’s two-bedroom condo to enjoy an Advent dinner and gift exchange (for the kids). It has been a very long time since I have been able to visit with all of them together outside of a huge event (such as my sister’s wedding in September). It has been a bit louder than what I am used to back at the monastery, but still a welcome respite, and I marvel at the energy level, intelligence, and quick wit of my new 8-year-old step-nephew Ian. He is a character.

Ty and Shannon
Wendy and McKinsey, who appears to really like her gift.

Bailey: When do we eat?

Tomorrow, as I did today, I will attend to a few more financial details before returning to Saint Meinrad in the middle of the week. Once I am back, in addition to continuing to work at the Abbey Press, I will have a number of things to do in preparation for vows January 25—including sending out invitations and moving into my new cell. I am looking forward to the rest of Advent, celebrating the Christmas season, and then making my solemn vows before the next school semester begins, and the next chapter in my monastic journey.

I wonder how many boxes of dark chocolate covered pretzels I can fit in the trunk of the car?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The middle way

The slype leading from the monastery to the church
at Saint Meinrad Archabbey is a middle way the monks walk through
at least five times a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010
Third Sunday of Advent—A

Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

The middle is a tough place to be sometimes. Middle child. Mid-life. Mid-level manager. Here, but not there. And here we are in the middle of Advent. The promise is made, but not fully realized, so we must be patient, as the Letter of Saint James says. This tension is inherent in many aspects of our lives, as it has been for people of all ages.

Hope is ultimately what sustains us on this journey, Isaiah reminds us. As God’s people, we are a pilgrim Church—on the way, but not quite there. The ancient Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after Moses led them out of Egypt. The people of Isaiah’s day longed for a return to Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile. The Letter of Saint James was written after the time of Christ in the early days of the Church, when the Second Coming was expected at any moment.

Two thousand years later, we are still waiting.

Even John the Baptist asks Jesus in today's Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come?"

Jesus' reply points to the works he is accomplishing that fulfill Isaiah's prophecy. He is a healing Messiah, whereas the world expects a fiery, powerful messiah. His message is that we should never let our expectations stand in the way of hope. God's ways are not ours.

And the good news is that Jesus already dwells among us: “I am with you always,” he tells us (Matthew 28:20).

How? In prayer, Scripture, in the life of the Church and its members who comprise the Body of Christ, and in the sacraments—particularly the celebration of the Eucharist. He meets us along the way as we journey toward eternal union with God.

Perhaps the middle is not such bad place to be after all. Ancient philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas taught that virtue stands in the middle course. To borrow a phrase from the lyrics of the country music song “Meet in the Middle” by Diamond Rio, “We gain a lot of ground when we all give a little. There’s no road too long when we meet in the middle.”

May we meet Christ today in the midst of hardship, fear, and sorrow, so that with joy we may herald his coming each day as a New Advent!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Our winter, God's spring

Fountain statue outside
the Swiss Abbey of Einsiedeln,
built over the site of a spring
which provided St. Meinrad
the hermit with drinking water.
Our Lady of the Immaculate
Conception is the patroness
of the Swiss-American
Congregation to which belongs
Saint Meinrad Archabbey.
From a sermon by Ronald Knox
(1888-1957, English priest, theologian, and author):

The feast of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, which we celebrate today, is the promise and the earnest of Christmas; our salvation is already in the bud. As the first green shoot heralds the approach of spring, in a world that is frost-bound and seems dead, so in a world of great sinfulness and of utter despair, that spotless conception heralds the restoration of man’s innocence.

As the shoot gives unfailing promise of the flower which is to spring from it, this conception gives unfailing promise of the virgin birth. Life had come into the world again—supernatural life, not of man’s choosing or of man’s fashioning.

And it grew there unmarked by human eyes; no angels sang over the hills to celebrate it, no shepherds left their flocks to come and see; no wise men were beckoned by the stars to witness that prodigy.

And yet the first Advent had begun.

Our Lady, you see, is the consummation of the Old Testament; with her, the cycle of history begins anew. When God created the first Adam, he made his preparations beforehand; he fashioned a paradise ready for him to dwell in. And when he restored our nature in the second Adam, once more there was a preparation to be made beforehand. He fashioned a paradise for the second Adam to dwell in, and that paradise was the body and soul of our blessed Lady, immune from the taint of sin, Adam’s curse.

It was winter still in the world; but in the quiet home where Saint Anne gave birth to her daughter, spring had begun.

Man’s winter, God’s spring—the living branch growing from the dead root.

For that, year by year, we Christians give thanks to God when Advent comes round. It is something that has happened once for all; we look for no further redemption, no fresh revelation, however many centuries are to roll over this earth before the skies crack above us and our Lord comes in judgment.

Yet there are times in history when the same mood comes upon us, even upon us Christians—the same mood of despair in which the world was sunk at the time when Jesus Christ was born. There are times when the old landmarks seem obliterated, and the old certainties by which we live have deserted us. The world seems to have exhausted itself, and has no vigor left to face its future; the only forces that seem to possess any energy are those that make for disruption and decay.

The world’s winter, and it is always followed by God’s spring. Behold, I make all things new, said our Lord to St. John.

Let us rejoice, on this feast of the Immaculate Conception, in the proof and pledge he has given us of that inexhaustible fecundity which belongs only to his grace. And let us ask our blessed Lady to win for us, in our own lives, that continual renewal of strength and holiness that befits our supernatural destiny.

Fresh graces, not soiled by the memory of past failure; fresh enterprise, to meet the conditions of a changing world; fresh hope, to carry our burdens beyond the shifting scene of this present world into the changeless repose of eternity.

-- A Word in Season: Monastic Lectionary for the Divine Office,
IV, Sanctoral, Augustinian Press, 1991, p.241-243. 

All shall be her children

On the holy mountain is his city
cherished by the Lord.
The Lord prefers the gates of Zion
to all Jacob's dwellings.
Of you are told glorious things,
O city of God!

'Babylon and Egypt I will count
among those who know me;
Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia,
these will be her children
and Zion shall be called "Mother"
for all shall be her children.'

It is he, the Lord Most High,
who gives each his place.
In his register of peoples he writes:
'These are her children'
and while they dance they will sing:
'In you all find their home.'
                          -- PSALM 87

Bad jokes, fresh hope

A snippet from community life in the monastery today on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

As I mentioned last week, one of the monks here, Fr. Benedict, had to have his left leg amputated due to a chronic medical condition. Fr. Benedict, 83, has been recuperating from the surgery in the monastery infirmary the last several days, but is now starting to get out and about a little on his motorized scooter. A quiet man, almost always seen with a rosary in his hand and ready with a "God bless you," he also is a quick-draw when it comes to puns and bad jokes.

This afternoon he was tooling through the monastery calefactory, so I said hello and asked him how he was doing. Without missing a beat, he pulled up the blanket on his lap, pointed to where his left leg used to be, smiled, and said, "I'm a leg up on the resurrection!"

God bless him.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dashing through the snow

In the final analysis, it probably won't amount to much, but we are receiving our first noticeable snowfall here this morning at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. It began coming down as we were celebrating Mass. The photo is taken from the hillside just outside my cell window where there is a large mass of holly trees.

As I approached them, I rediscovered that walking down a steep hill lightly covered with snow while wearing slippers is not such a good idea. No more broken toes or anything, though. ... So, let it snow ... (Sorry, I couldn't resist).

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fresh and green are the pastures ...

Jesus had compassion for them,
because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a sheperd.
Matthew 9:36

The Lord will be gracious to you when you cry out,
as soon as he hears he will answer you.
A voice shall sound in your ears:
"This is the way; walk in it,"
when you would turn to the right or to the left.

Isaiah 30:19,21

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Turn, turn, turn

Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010
Second Sunday of Advent—A

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-9
Matthew 3:1-12

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” declares John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. He then goes on to say, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”

This is really the heart of God’s everlasting message to us: Turn to the Word made flesh, the person of Jesus Christ. Too often, it seems, we limit Christianity by associating it too closely with our own social and political agendas. It becomes what we do rather than who we are.

First, though, we are called to repent—or turn—to the “kingdom of heaven” (the term used by the ancient Israelites to avoid mentioning the unutterable name of God). This means committing oneself to conversion of heart. Then, the Baptist says, we must produce good fruit as outward evidence of our inward turning or conversion. This is discipleship, and it renders us capable of genuinely welcoming one another as Christ welcomes each one of us. As St. Cyprian has written, “The kingdom of God means Christ himself.”

This Advent, let us turn to Christ, the Word made flesh who dwells among us so that His bud may blossom within us, producing fruit that fills the earth with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.

Then justice and peace shall flower for ever.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Br. Mauritius earlier this fall with Fr. Bonaventure

SPECIAL FEATURE: A guest post from our resident Swiss monk at Saint Meinrad -- Br. Mauritius from the Abbey of Einsiedeln:

Br. Francis asked me if I would write some words about my stay at Saint Meinrad for his blog. It is a pleasure for me to do so.

It has been almost four months since Br. Francis and I took the airplane from Zurich, Switzerland to the U.S. The time has passed quickly; the first semester is almost over. I have been attending very interesting classes. My main focus is on pastoral theology, and I have learned a lot in the subjects of “Sacrament of Reconciliation,” “Catechetical Ministry,” and “Adolescent Spirituality.”

I have gained many new insights, especially from “Ministry to Families,” in which I learned to look at a person not only as an isolated individual but more as a member of a larger interacting family system. I recorded two simulated counselling sessions on videotape in which I acted as a priest counselling a couple or a family in trouble. Later, I analyzed and discussed the tapes together with the teacher.

In the same way, I recorded two simulated confessions. I was the confessor and Br. Francis was one of my penitents. Of course, because of the seal of the confessional, I cannot reveal what he confessed. (I never expected that he would steal money from his boss! : )

In addition to classes, each seminarian is assigned to a place of ministry at a nearby parish, school, or hospital to gain practical experience. I have been assigned to Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Haubstadt, Indiana, about an hour west of St. Meinrad. On Wednesday evenings I go there to teach religious education to a high school freshman class, which I enjoy very much.

As you can see, the formation here at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology is very practical. It is good preparation for the various situations a priest is likely to face in his ministry.

In the past few weeks I have been able to take two very nice trips. I visited two daughter houses of Saint Meinrad (grand-daughter houses of Einsiedeln). First, I drove eight hours north to Aurora, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where I stayed for three nights at Marmion Abbey. The monks there were very welcoming and friendly. I attended classes at the Military Academy run by the abbey and experienced the Homecoming festivities taking place that particular weekend.

On the way back, I stopped in Terre Haute, Indiana, and went to the cemetery looking for the grave of Father Bede O’Connor, one of the two first monks from Einsiedeln who came to the United States in 1853 to establish Saint Meinrad. Father Bede, originally from England, worked in various parishes and missions in the area and later became vicar general of the Diocese of Vincennes (the diocese in which Saint Meinrad was located at that time). He died in 1875 in Terre Haute and was buried there.

The grave of Father Bede O'Connor in Terre Haute

During the Thanksgiving break I visited New Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas. While planning for the trip, I asked around to see if one of the many seminarians here from the Diocese of Little Rock lives nearby and could take me. I was very happy when seminarian Joseph Chan volunteered to do so. It turned out to be an unforgettable trip. Joseph was very well organized and we had a good time together on the road. He left me at Subiaco, where I spent my first American Thanksgiving.

The monks there were very kind and hospitable and immediately made me feel at home. I attended two classes at their high school. One night the basketball team played a game against another school. Some of the students are from China. I tried to tell them the few Chinese words taught me a couple years ago by Fathers Johannes Dong and Andreas Pan, two Chinese priests who used to live with us in the monastic community at Einsiedeln. I was very surprised that the students understood me, and asked me if I really came from Switzerland!

Father Hugh Assenmacher, who wrote a book about the history of New Subiaco and shared his immense knowledge with me, was willing to show me the location where the old monastery used to be until a fire destroyed it in 1901. The spring where the first monks drank is still visible. Father Wolfgang Schlumpf, the founder, was convinced that the water had healing properties. I tried it, and it had a heavy taste of iron.

This was a special moment for me—to stand at this historic place where several confreres of mine used to live, pray, and work. The monks of New Subiaco consider Einsiedeln to be their motherhouse. Even though it was Martin Marty, the first abbot of Saint Meinrad, who had the initial idea for a new foundation in Arkansas and who sent the three first monks there in 1878, in the following years many monks came directly from Einsiedeln to support the recently begun abbey in Arkansas. So, perhaps one can say New Subiaco Abbey was founded in cooperation between Saint Meinrad and Einsiedeln.

The view of New Subiaco Abbey from the field where the monastery
was first located. A fire destroyed the first building in 1901.

Worthy of special note is Father Gall D’Aujourd’hui, who used to be a teacher at the monastery school in Einsiedeln in the 19th Century. With his missionary enthusiasm he convinced eight of his young students (not yet monks) to join him in an adventurous undertaking. Father Gall and the so-called “Eight Beatitudes” left Einsiedeln in September 1887. All of them persevered, underwent their priestly formation in the new foundation in Arkansas, and became monks there.

There is another Benedictine foundation besides New Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas—Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro, which was established by sisters of Maria Rickenbach in the Swiss canton of Nidwalden. On the journey back to Indiana we stopped there for a short visit.

It was really impressive to see how important a role the Swiss Benedictines played in the building up the Catholic Church in Arkansas in the 19th Century. Today, things have changed. The great periods of missionary work of Swiss Benedictine communities is over. Switzerland itself has become a field of “New Evangelization.” Even though there is no radical anti-Catholic movement anymore as there used to be in the period of the “Kulturkampf,” the Church still faces many challenges. I dare to predict that, in the years to come, the main focus of Einsiedeln’s mission will be the homeland.

Meanwhile, I continue to study eagerly at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology and am looking forward to finishing my first semester Dec.10. -- Br. Mauritius

POSTSCRIPT: Although he is too modest to have mentioned it, Br. Mauritius is also taking Spanish classes, adding that language to his fluency in German, English, French, and Italian. He was also a big hit as the King of Nineveh (complete with crown and beard) in a monastery skit based (loosely) on the story of Jonah and the fish. Over the Christmas break, he has plans to visit some other monasteries in the U.S. Many thanks to Br. Mauritius for sharing this post and his life with us here at Saint Meinrad . — Br. Francis