Monday, August 22, 2011

Please visit my new blog:

The Path of Life
One Benedictine Monk's View
from Saint Meinrad Archabbey

Please click here.
The Yoke of Christ blog will remain in place, but nothing new will be posted here.
Thank you.
Br. Francis

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stepping forward ...

I have moved--to a new blog. It is called The Path of Life. Please click on the link and join me there.

"Path of Life: Musings on Meeting the Miraculous in the Midst of the Mundane" will be much the same as this blog, but with a different theme and look. You can read a fuller explanation by following the link above to the new blog.

I will not be taking down this blog. It will remain in place. However, I will no longer be posting anything new here. Please continue to join me on our journey together toward everlasting life ...

Br. Francis

Friday, August 12, 2011

In God we trust

NOTE: For some reason, I found the following Psalm particularly striking this morning while our monastic community was reciting it during Vigils. Surely, in one way or another, it is a prayer we can all relate to and make our own. The larger question is this: Can we also make it Christ's? Saint Jerome once said of it: "This Psalm shows Christ in his passion." So, what does it mean if it is both my (your) prayer and also Christ's? Something to meditate on ...
-- Br. Francis

Psalm 56

Have mercy on me God, people crush me;
they fight me all day long and oppress me.
My foes crush me all day long,
for many fight proudly against me.

When I fear, I will trust in you,
in God whose word I praise.
In God I trust, I shall not fear:
what can mortals do to me?

All day long they distort my words,
all their thought is to harm me.
They band together in ambush,
track me down and seek my life.

You have kept an account of my wanderings;
you have kept a record of my tears;
are they not written in your book?
Then my foes will be put to flight
on the day that I call to you.

This I know, that God is on my side.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not fear:
what can mortals do to me?

I am bound by the vows I have made you.
O God, I will offer you praise
for you rescued my soul from death,
you kept my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk in the presence of God
and enjoy the light of the living.

PSALM-PRAYER: Jesus, you trusted in your Father's protection and kept silent when you were tormented. Give us that same confidence and we will gladly suffer with you and for you, offering the Father our sacrifice of praise and walking with him in the light of the living.

-- Adapted from the Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. 4, p.892

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fear not

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name:
you are mine.
When you pass through the water,
I will be with you;
in the rivers you shall not drown.
When you walk through fire,
you shall not be burned;
the flames will not consume you.

Isaiah 43-1-2

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

We are involved in salvation

"There is a vocation
for suffering with Christ,
and through it the possibility
of being involved in his salvation.
Christ continues to live
and suffer in his members.
The suffering experienced
through union with the Lord
is his suffering, and is a fruitful part
of the great plan of salvation."

Edith Stein (St. Benedicta of the Cross)

Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) was a German-born Jew who in her teens lost faith in God and embraced atheism. She went on to become an accomplished philosopher, scholar, and teacher. Later undergoing a conversion, she was profoundly moved by reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, and was baptized Catholic in 1922. When academic pursuits were no longer possible for her under the Nazi regime, she was granted her longtime wish of joining the Carmelite order in Cologne in 1933, taking the name Teresa, Blessed of the Cross. In 1939, she was smuggled into the Netherlands as the anti-Semitism of the Nazis erupted into World War II. However, she and her sister Rosa, who had also converted and had joined the Carmelites with her in the Netherlands, could not escape the grasp of the expanding Nazi regime, which distrusted all Jewish-born Christians, particularly intellectuals. Edith and Rosa were arrested by the Gestapo Aug. 2, 1942, and along with many other Jews, were taken by cattle car to Auschwitz. A week later, on Aug. 9, 1942, they were among those killed by the Nazis in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonized by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1998. Read more about her life here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

God's passionate embrace

Once I had a very vivid dream that has remained with me for some time. It involved a girl that I had a big crush on as a youth, although in the dream we were both adults. I have not seen this woman in probably more than 20 years, and we never dated, so I have no idea why she suddenly would have appeared in my subconscious.

It was not a sexual dream, although it was certainly sensual. As I have reflected on it, however, its meaning seems to go far beyond mere physicality. In it, I have come to recognize our long loneliness as human beings on one hand, and on the other, God’s intense longing to bridge the chasm of fear between us, drawing us into his loving presence.

In the dream, I was sitting in a chair when this woman entered the room near me. Our eyes met. Though I had an intense desire to get up, go over, and embrace her (and could tell from her gaze that she was inviting me to do so), I simply could not work up the courage.

So I just sat there. And I was miserable as we just looked at one another for some time. With her eyes, she questioned whether she should, instead, come over to me. While I did not turn away from her gaze, for whatever reason I was still too fearful to answer with my own eyes and say, “Yes, please do.”

Why, I thought, would she want to come over to me? To me?

Miraculously, though, she did. Smiling, she came over, and without a word, leaned over, embraced me, and held me tightly. We remained locked together like that for what seemed like eternity, as supreme happiness and joy flowed between us.

Although I was incredibly attracted to this woman, (and she, beyond my comprehension, was incredibly attracted to me), there was absolutely nothing lustful about the encounter. We were lovers immersed in a passionate embrace, but not in the lascivious sense we so often consciously imagine or fall prey to in today’s sex-obsessed culture. We were infinitely satisfied simply holding one another like that, and I was overwhelmed that her love for me would be so great that she would come to me, bend over, and take me to herself despite all my trepidation.

All my anxiety melted away in her arms. I was at peace—full of joy, comfort, love, and trust in a love greater than my own, which I was eager to reciprocate beyond measure.

OK, I hear you – TOO MUCH INFORMATION! As I said, it was a very powerful and vivid dream.

But I will dare to shock further by suggesting that this dream presents an image of God we all too often ignore or dismiss—God as a passionate lover!

God loves us immensely, as the woman in the dream loved me beyond my wildest dreams. Like her, God invites us to embrace him. And when we won’t—or can’t—God comes to us. Smiling, and without so much as a word, God leans over to our level, embraces us, and holds us tightly, inviting us to remained locked together like that for eternity as supreme happiness and joy flow between us.

Sound erotic? It is! It is Holy Eros! As I have reflected on this dream, I have realized that it was not this woman (whom I barely know and haven’t seen for years) that I was embracing. Rather, I was embracing the self-sacrificing, holy, and pure love being offered to me by God, the lover of souls (Wisdom 11:26). Yes, that is a very powerful and provocative idea, but it is not a new one, and it is one we need to be reminded of.

Scripture and our Christian tradition present us with many images of God’s everlasting love for us. They are too numerous to cite here, but following are a just a few, along with one citation from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament for each. So, in the light of Scripture, God is a:

-- Parent: (Isaiah 66:10-13; Luke 15:11-32)
-- Disciplinarian: (Deuteronomy 8:5; Hebrews 12:9-11)
-- Sibling: (Genesis 45:4-5, 14-15; Mark 3:34-35)
-- Teacher: (Psalm 119:33-40; Mark 6:34)
-- Shepherd: (Ezekiel 34:11-16; John 10:11-16)
-- Healer: (Jeremiah 33:6-9; Mark 6:56)
-- Friend: (Exodus 33:11; John 15:12-16)

In addition, it seems that we typically have no trouble focusing on the image of God as the Supreme Being who judges and punishes.

None of these images, presented by God through his Word, are wrong in and of themselves. However, there is another that encompasses all of these but which we typically fail to recognize or respond to. And I would suggest that it is the primary way in which God wishes to relate to each and every one of us.

This is the image of God as a passionate lover, a God who really digs you, and a God who wants absolutely nothing but to have that passionate love reciprocated. Just as two spouses unite in the total gift of self, God wishes to embrace each one of us, and remain locked together like that for eternity as supreme happiness and joy flow between us.

Like marriage, it is a covenant relationship. It is an erotic love (energized with individual desire, but disciplined and purified) that leads us to agape (self-giving love directed outward to encompass and generate life among all). Agape is totally selfless, only seeking the good of the beloved, and is most fully expressed in the love shared among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, of which Christians are invited to share (John 13:34-35).

As the Cathechism of the Catholic Church states, “God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God, who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes” (No. 1604, emphasis added).

And as anyone who has had an honest, committed, chaste relationship knows, the most passionate lover sharing him or herself in this way also displays many of the other qualities above that are associated with God. The truth is that God is beyond our imagining. No image suffices. God is all of these and much, much more.

However, if one takes a step back from Scripture and tradition with an honest view toward the whole, this is what emerges: GOD IS LOVE (1John 4:8,16). Those three words express it all—creation, redemption, resurrection, and everlasting life. Scripture, tradition, and all of salvation history up to this very moment are chapters in an epic love story of a God who pursues us with almost insane jealousy in order to draw us into a love beyond imagination.

This nuptial relationship we are called to share with God, and through God with one another, is expressed both implicitly and explicitly throughout Scripture. In that regard, the following passages are just a few of the many worth meditating on: Exodus 6:7; The Book of Ruth; Psalm 45; Isaiah 62:5; Hosea 2:19-20; John 17:26; Revelation 19:1-9.

But the most prominent illustration of this within the canon is the Song of Songs, which is in everybody’s Bible but (I’m willing to bet) rarely read. It is a beautiful love poem with a strikingly erotic tone. God is the Lover, and God’s people are the beloved. Here are a few lines:

How beautiful you are, how pleasing,
   my love, my delight!
Your very figure is like a palm tree,
   your breasts are like clusters.
I said: I will climb the palm tree,
   I will take hold of its branches.

I belong to my lover
   and for me he yearns.
Come, my lover, let us go forth to the fields
   and spend the night among the villages.
Let us go early to the vineyards, and see
   if the vines are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.
   Both fresh and mellowed fruits, my lover,
   I have kept in store for you.
           -- Song of Songs 7:7-9, 11-13, 14

Whew. Once I was in a class on Human Sexuality and Christian Maturity, and one of the seminarians, after hearing a passage like that read aloud exclaimed, “THAT’S in the Bible?!”

Yes, that’s in the Bible, and for good reason. In poetic fashion, it describes God’s relationship with his beloved people, who are increasingly drawn into spiritual union with the Lord through the bond of perfect love. Saints—doctors of the Church—have written beautiful commentaries on the Song of Songs. St. Bernard and St. Francis de Sales come immediately to mind. Others have contributed poetic meditations in the same vein, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Theirs was a passionate love for God, who loved them passionately, and sometimes these saints expressed this is erotic terms. As the introduction to the Song of Songs in the New American Bible states, “In Christian tradition, the Song has been interpreted in terms of the union between Christ and the Church and particularly by St. Bernard, of the union between Christ and the individual soul.”

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Pope Benedict XVI boldly declares that God’s love is personal: “God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape. The prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images” (No. 9).

In their book Holy Eros: Pathways to a Passionate God, James D. and Evelyn Whitehead write that “Christian thinkers today, Pope Benedict XVI and Charles Taylor among them, are returning to the ancient image of eros as an apt symbol of God’s radical love. This is an eros known through and beyond sexual arousal; its vital energy courses through the world, enlivening and healing human hearts. Experienced as affection and also as compassion, in desire and also in hope, eros becomes ever more generous as it folds into that most capacious love described in the Bible as agape” (p.5).

I wonder why it surprises us, makes us so uncomfortable, to be told so explicitly of God’s intensely passionate love for us? And yet it does—despite its solid roots in Scripture and tradition. For thousands of years, God’s people, generally speaking, have been fearful of intimacy with God. Giving in to such fear has resulted in increasingly horrifying manifestations of human sin and pain. Yet, God still pursues us with steadfast love, hoping we will all one day realize that a person will only love truly when he or she is truly loved.

As Philosopher Charles Taylor states in Holy Eros: “We have to recover a sense of the link between erotic desire and the love of God, which lies deep in the Biblical traditions, whether Jewish or Christian, and find new ways of giving expression to this. … This terribly fraught area in Western Christendom, where the sexual meets the spiritual, urgently awaits discovery of new paths to God” (p.16).

In the Gospel at today’s Mass (Matthew 14:22-33), Jesus is walking on the stormy Sea of Galilee when his disciples, being tossed about by the waves, spot him from their boat. They are terrified. And he says to them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Longing to be with Jesus on the water, Peter calls out to him. “Come,” Jesus responds. So Peter gets out of the boat and miraculously begins walking on the water toward Jesus—until his fear returns and gets the best of him. He begins sinking, but Jesus catches him, draws him up safely out of the water, and returns with him to the boat.

The stormy seas of life frighten us as well, and despite our long loneliness we are afraid to bridge the chasm of fear between us and God. Yet Jesus beckons from the water, “Do not be afraid. Come.” God longs to draw us into his presence with the passion of a lover, but will not force us to do anything against our will. We are invited to step out of the boat, but if we begin to sink, God’s arms will catch us. And if we won’t—or can’t—“step out of the boat” as the other disciples could not and I could not in my dream, God comes to us, as the woman in my dream did.

At some point, of course—whether we are single, married, or in religious life—we must not only chastely reciprocate God’s passionate love for us in the manner suitable for our state in life, but also get out of the boat (out of the chair, in my dream). Then, we must help others bridge that chasm of fear separating them from the love of God. We must become the woman in the dream, as it were. Like God, we must be willing to approach the fearful soul with a smile, bend over, embrace, and share the supreme happiness and joy flowing from God’s passionate love.

But it cannot be done until we first accept God's embrace. As Passionate Lover.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Welcome (back)!

Today at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, we have three monks to either welcome or welcome back:

X Anushka Fonseka, who this evening before Vespers will be invested as a novice in our community. Anushka, originally from Sri Lanka, came to Saint Meinrad as a candidate a couple months ago. Prior to that, he lived in Mobile, Alabama, where he was an engineer. Read more here.

As I type this, he is receiving his corona, or tonsure, courtesy of Br. Martin "Scissorhands" Erspamer. May God bless Novice Anushka's discernment with peace. We are glad to have him here.
X Br. Luke, who has been in Switzerland at our mother abbey of Einsiedeln most of this past summer, as I was last year. It has been an eventful year for him, as he also lost his father this summer (last summer, he lost his mother). It is good to have Br. Luke back in the fold, and we look forward to hearing of his adventures in Europe.

I haven't had much chance to speak with him yet, but he visited several places I didn't get around to last summer-- such as Chartres, Paris, and Leuven.

I trust that he returned with some Swiss chocolate ... if not, we may have to send him back!
X Br. Thomas Fässler, of our motherhouse of Einsiedeln, who arrived here with Br. Luke. As did Br. Mauritius last year, Br. Thomas will be studying in the Seminary and School of Theology here this next school year and living with us in the monastery. (Br. Mauritius, incidentally, is soon heading for the Holy Land to improve his Hebrew language skills in preparation for Scripture studies.)

I had the privilege of getting to know him a little last summer in Switzerland, while we were both still junior monks. Br. Thomas made his solemn profession last month. It is a joy to have him here! 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The bigger picture

The following caught my ear this morning during the second reading at Vigils. It is good reminder of our need to pray for perseverance and greater trust in God--through whom all things work together for good (cf. Romans 8:28)--whether or not we can see or understand within present circumstances. -- Br. Francis

The less we connect
the providence of God
with all that happens,
the more we are upset
with the smallest
annoyances in life.

Fulton J. Sheen

Friday, July 29, 2011

The better part

NOTE: Today's Gospel (Luke 10:38-40) is particularly meaningful to those with a monastic vocation, but it has relevance for all Christians. Listening to it today at Mass, I was reminded of the following reflection I wrote back in August 2005 after my very first visit to Saint Meinrad. While I was here for a few days of retreat at that time, I met with one of the monks here for spiritual direction, and he had specifically recommended this Gospel passage as one to meditate on as I continued my discernment. As I wrote this, I think (with the Holy Spirit's guidance, of course), I was trying to teach myself something.

Our love for God can be more readily stirred if we simply content ourselves to rest in him, in silence and peace. Our own tired attempts at prayer can often end in frustration, and while our Lord certainly appreciates sincere effort in calling out to him, prayer without a heart truly centered on God is simply recitation.

After all, do we really know what to pray for? Only God can see our true needs from the perspective of eternity. Perhaps the better part is being content with listening to what God has to say to us rather than telling him what we think we need.

Jesus imparts this message in the gospel story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42). As Jesus visited her home, Martha busied herself waiting on him and her other guests. Her sister Mary, the gospel tells us, “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” Martha was upset by this, not because Jesus didn’t appreciate what she was doing, but because she felt all the work was left to her, and she resented Mary for it. “Tell her to help me,” Martha says to Jesus.

Instead, as he so often does, Jesus gently turns our weak and limited thinking inside out. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things," he says. "There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Jesus was not criticizing Martha's effort, but drawing her attention to the motivating focus which is essential for any effort. She was focused on what she was doing rather than on the reason why she was doing it--to serve the Lord.

Mary, on the other hand, was completely focused on Jesus, sitting at his feet, listening to him. Her gaze was on Christ, so she was choosing the better part. She was content with simply listening to what the Lord had to say.

In the context of Luke's entire gospel narrative, it must be remembered that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, where suffering and death awaited him. Surely his heart was burdened by this, but also grieved because he knew that many in the world would continue to disregard the salvation he would soon be offering through his death and resurrection. God Incarnate was sitting among the guests at Martha’s house, and so his perspective was eternal. The reason he was there was to restore fallen humanity, yet it had to pain him deeply to know in advance that his gift of love would later be refused by so many, up to this very day.

Considering this viewpoint, which seems more suitable--being fussed over by Martha, or gaining Mary’s full, undivided, and loving attention and devotion? Mary, of course, had chosen the better part.

So it must be with the disciples of this generation. Yes, we have work to do. But we must not forget why we do it – to build up the Kingdom of God for his greater glory. And yet the Kingdom does not depend solely on each one of us. God knows who we are, what we are capable of doing or not doing. He has already won the victory. It is our “task” to simply enter into this truth, to be enlightened and encouraged by his spirit of love.

This spirit is best communicated to us when we engage in silent praise of our Creator and Redeemer--focusing solely on him, letting God's intimate will enfold our hearts.

This is principally accomplished in three ways. First, through Scripture, which invites us to listen with our hearts to God through his living Word. This same Word has a unique message for each one of us -- instructing, admonishing, and comforting us individually through the universal account of salvation history.

Then there is prayer, which is fueled more readily by sincere and ardent longing for God--to seek, know, and do his will above all else. There are distractions to contend with at times, but often our biggest distraction is the one who is praying! We must truly place ourselves in God's presence, listen to his voice, unite our heart with his will, and refrain for a time from busying about. It means emptying ourselves completely so his illuminating light can pour into our souls.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the Holy Eucharist, the Bread of Life, which encompasses all, continually renewing and transforming us, providing the nourishment necessary to hear his voice and follow his will.

In essence, all three of these elements are presented in Luke's account of Martha and Mary. The Eternal Word, Jesus Christ, was speaking to those present. Mary was listening intently, gazing on Christ, praying in purest form in simple adoration. And all of this was taking place at a meal with Christ as the guest of honor, which speaks in some way of the Eucharist that he would later offer in fuller fashion.

So, let us take every opportunity to make ourselves available to Christ, listening intently to what he says in the depths of our hearts while we focus solely on him, transfixed by the splendor that is our God. Then, in Eucharistic fashion, we can go forth from the table, having been instructed and nourished to go about the work God has entrusted to us, with Christ as our inspiration and strength.

Just as we partake of several meals a day to nourish our bodies, so we must regularly replenish our souls by partaking of God's Word, the gift of prayer, and the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

This is the better part, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him in silent praise--in all our ways and through all our days.

Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest
in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.

Psalm 131

Heaven for 21 minutes

A little slice of heaven from the Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette.

Read it by clicking here.

Br. Francis

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Picture perfect

"The very contradictions in my life
are in some ways signs of God's mercy to me."
Thomas Merton

What do you notice that is special
in this photo? Me neither.

Yesterday I spent some time in Louisville, escorting several sabbaticants with Saint Meinrad's Institute for Priests and Presbyterates around town. Our stops included the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, the Cathedral of the Assumption (with a guided tour by current IPP Director Fr. Ron Knott, the former pastor at the cathedral), and a variety of museums. While I have been to these places before, yesterday I did something very simple that I've been wanting to do for a long time--take a picture of downtown's intersection of Fourth and Walnut (now called Muhammad Ali Boulevard).

Before explaining why, allow me to back up a bit. As I've mentioned before on this blog, the life and writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) have long held my interest. Surely, the same can be said for a great number of people. Merton, one of the most influential (not to mention prolific) spiritual authors of the 20th Century, was a monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, about an hour south of Louisville. Although I ultimately discerned that Trappist life was not for me and came to Saint Meinrad to be a Benedictine monk instead, I spent a considerable amount of time looking at and visiting Gethsemani back in 2005. It is a wonderful place, and because of Merton's popularity as a writer and social commentator, is probably the most well-known monastery in the world.

Shortly before the monk's sudden death, Merton named Bellarmine as the repository for his manuscripts, letters, journals, tapes, artwork, photography, etc. The idea was to maintain a central collection of his vast work that was accessible to others without intruding on the necessary solitude integral to the monastic life at Gethsemani. Today, the Thomas Merton Center ( serves as a regional, national, and international resource for scholarship and inquiry on Merton and his works.

(As an aside, our tour guide yesterday at the center related an amusing story. Merton himself came to the center to deliver some manuscripts one day, dressed in his grubby work clothes worn in the fields surrounding Gethsemani. Not recognizing him and apparently distrustful of his appearance, a receptionist turned him away. Merton simply shrugged, and walked back out with his undelivered manuscripts, only to be met along the way by the college president at the time, who apologetically ushered him back in!)

Whenever I visit the Merton Center and see his old typewriter, his handwritten notes and letters, his work boots and camera, and shelf upon shelf filled with volumes containing his writings, I am simply overwhelmed by the breadth of his interests, the depth of his commitment to the monastic life, and the abundance of words he wrote during a relatively short lifetime (not to mention their insight and wisdom).

Merton was an extremely bright, high-spirited, yet very complex person filled with self-acknowledged contradictions. Like anyone else, he struggled with sin, with the meaning of life, with who he was, and how he was called to live out his vocation (in his case, as both a monk and a writer, a hermit and a human being intimately involved with the world in which he lived.) He was born in France, spent periods of his life in England, New York, and Kentucky, and then Southeast Asia, where he died. He lost his mother at a very young age to cancer, his father (who often left him alone for long periods) later to a brain tumor, and his brother to World War II. He fathered a child out of wedlock as a young student in England, when he was known as a hard-drinking agnostic.

Later he underwent an intense conversion, was baptized, and eventually discerned a religious vocation as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, where he once again would have to undergo a number of difficulties and transformations. He, his abbot, and the entire monastic community struggled with this "hermit of Times Square." Toward the end of his life, he both embraced and spearheaded inter-religious dialogue, and also fell madly in love with a woman for the first time in his life. Ultimately, but not without great struggle, he remained true to his Catholic faith and his monastic vows--perhaps even deepening his understanding of those commitments. In short, the Merton who entered the monastery in 1941--though the same man--was a much different person than the Merton who was accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok in 1968.

His was an intensely lived life of contradiction in pursuit of holiness, which is why I have included the quote at the top of this post.
OK, back to Fourth and Walnut. It was at this corner, during a trip to see a doctor in Louisville in 1958, that Merton had his famous "epiphany," which he wrote about later. It was a life-altering moment for him, which is often quoted by others more than 50 years after the fact. This is how he described it:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fouth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. ... It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. ... I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depth of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they reall are.
So, I wanted to take a picture of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville where this light dawned on Merton, and I did. The site is utterly unremarkalbe. There is a bronze plaque commemorating the moment, but you really have to look for it. I've seen it many times, but even on this afternoon while specifically looking for it, I walked right by it before having to double back. Surrounding it are traffic signs and signals, a lamp post, a trash can, and a bicycle rack. Nearby is downtown Louisville's Fourth Street Live entertainment district.

And if you look closely at the picture below, you'll notice that the plaque is not only enveloped in obscurity, but also in seeming absurdity. Directly across the street from the spot where this cloistered monk had an inspired revelation on a crowded street corner -- is a Starbucks. All this strikes me as extremely funny, and better yet, perfect! I am positive that Merton would feel the same way.

So, after taking the pictures, in mid-afternoon 97-degree heat, I went across the street and got a cup of piping hot coffee. It was perfect.

Totality of time

NOTE: An excerpt from our second reading during Vigils this morning that I thought was worth sharing:
It seems difficult to convince good Christians--even monks, nuns, and priests--that a time should be set aside for prayer. Even the expression to "set aside a time for prayer" causes a violent reaction in those who think there is no longer any need for prayer.

If the important thing is to give our time to the service of others and consecrate it to human relationships, it no longer seems very clear why a time must be reserved for converse with God. The idea of a direct relationship with God has lost meaning for many people. Relationship with God is now achieved through a relationship with our fellow humans.

But if we wish our prayer to blossom into a constant alertness to the mysteries of God, it is difficult to imagine how this can happen if we do not wish to consecrate a little time to it. Some people will be able to give each day some time--short or long--to prayer. What is important is that God's love should become the object of our total attention if only for a few minutes each day.

The fixing of our attention on the invisible is a burden which can be borne only by faith. The Church knows this very well. That is why she has instituted times of prayer, special periods in which we direct our attention to the divine mysteries. It is for this reason, for example, that she has set apart the Lord's Day with its ritual and its prayers. In Christ and through his eyes, the Church contemplates the divine mysteries, and she invites the faithful to do the same. She tries to make them recognize in this dedicated time, somewhere outside time, where God is. The seeing Church invites us to become attentive at a time and a place which become the basis from which to contemplate the invisible and the eternal. This time, cut out of our ordinary time, gives notice of that which lies beyond time and space.

Christ himself, Son of God though he was, gave time to personal prayer as the gospels mention several times. We know he spent many hours and sometimes whole nights in prayer. It has been suggested that he prayed only to give us an example. But I think that, as a man, he had to spend time in prayer. This time was essential for the awareness of his relationship to God to come to fruition within him as a man. The relationship with God he enjoys throughout eternity had also to be realized during the years he was a man.

Yves Raguin, S.J., How to Pray Today, 1974

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pressing forward

Just a quick note to say that I haven't fallen off the face of the earth. My apologies for the dearth of postings lately. As I had mentioned a couple weeks ago, it's a busy but exciting time. I hope to soon be posting more regularly and also incoporate some changes for this blog site.

In the meantime, however, other duties call. While I am not normally in the habit of promoting Abbey Press products here, two projects I've been heavily involved with this summer may be worth mentioning and of interest to readers of this blog:

1. Hot off the presses is a book I edited titled Thirsting for God: Prayers from a Monastery, published by Abbey Press' Path of Life Publications. This full-color book features the original poems, prayers, and reflections written by 20 monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, as well as photographs taken from around the "Holy Hill." In one small way, it is a testament to the Gospel lives of prayer coursing through this place.

 2. Upcoming (in September) is anothor book I am editing that it is in the production and design stage now at the Abbey Press. It will be called Sacred Rhythms: The Monastic Way Every Day, and is a compilation of titles that have been published as part of our Notes from a Monastery booklet series. This series, featuring the wonderful artwork of Br. Martin Erspamer, O.S.B., presents in each booklet one aspect of the the Rule of St. Benedict as it may be applied by anyone living in the world. The booklets--now chapters in the upcoming book--have been written by Benedictine and Trappist monks and nuns from around the country, oblates, and other well-known religious and lay authors familiar with the Benedictine way of life.

Anyway, that is what is keeping me occupied at the moment. In addition, I am preparing to give Candidate Anushka his novitiate retreat shortly (he will be invested as a novice Aug. 5; please keep him in prayer). I'm also working on an essay for the next installment of the Saint Meinrad Studies in Pastoral Ministry series, edited by Fr. Denis Robinson, O.S.B., who is the rector of the Seminary and School of Theology here. Each installment focuses on a particular theme. Last year was celibacy. This year, it is imagination. My essay in the book is (tentatively) titled Buried Treasure: Unearthing the Art of Faith through Journaling and Creative Writing. Good stuff, I hope. Pray for me, through the intercession of St. Francis de Sales. I leave you with just a snippent from that essay as I continue to plug away at it:
Christina Bieber Lake, in her 2005 book The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor, says that we are becoming "posthuman"--striving for made-to-order lives, even made-to-order bodies. We are seeking to perfect ourselves without God, "to become like gods," as in the downfall of Adam and Eve. Lake notes that we are moving away from "a healthy view of the self--the conviction that we are created beings, made in the image of God, but limited and dependent--toward an unhealthy belief that we are cosmic accidents whose only hope is to remake ourselves into whatever image fits our fancy."

A faithful imagination is our defense against this. It acknowledges God as the beginning and end of the equation, and invites him into everything in between. Imagination is freedom from self. It is trusting in the revelation that our limited human nature is redeemed through incarnated grace. Imagination is bearing the imprint of Christ in our very being--human beings borne from God's imagination. We are players, characters, true persons in God's story of human creation, incarnation, and redemption. Imagine that.

UPDATE NOTE: You may purchase the Thirsting for God book here. -- PAX

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Strong as death is love

It has been HOT here the last several days--as it has through much of the country. The high recorded in Evansville on Tuesday was 99 degrees. With the extremely high humidity levels, the heat index was near 120. Weather fit neither for man nor beast. Merely step outside at 8 a.m., and immediately break into a sweat.

Apparently, an atmospheric tipping point was reached Tuesday afternoon about 3 p.m., when a severe thunderstorm accompanied by torrential downpours burst upon us. As it it began, while I was typing away in my office at the Abbey Press, I remember thinking, "Oh, good, now it will cool down a little--at least for a while." That it did, but first it got very LOUD.

A few days ago, I posted something with some references to fireworks, thunderstorms, and God's voice resounding over the waters. If God addresses his people out of the storm (cf. Job 38:1), then yesterday he certainly had a lot to say. Along with the wind and 2-3 inches of rain, there were some particularly close lightning strikes. One literally made me--and my co-workers--jump a few inches off our seats. Later, as I headed back up the hill to the monastery for Vespers, I noticed two trees not more than a hundred yards from the Press with long streaks of stripped-away bark from top to bottom. This morning, I took a picture of one of them, shown above (the Abbey Press is in the background).

The area where this lightning struck is where the original monastery and church once stood when the first monks arrived from Switzerland in the mid-19th Century. Still, the damage was not nearly as severe as it was a few weeks ago when a tornado hit the other end of the campus. Thankfully, no one has been injured.

I, for one, would much rather listen to God whisper than shout. However, it is wonderful to consider that the Source of that incredible power unleashed in these storms is infinitely greater than anything we can possibly experience or imagine in this world. And it is from that life-energizing, death-stripping power that we are invited by the God of Power and Might to "see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are" (1John 3:1).

That knowledge, informed by faith, will make us stand taller than any tree, withstand any heat, and survive the strongest storm. As we heard God say to a startled Moses in today's first reading at Mass (Exodus 3:1-6, 9-12), "I will be with you."

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

Psalm 29:7-9

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hearts overflowing

As we progress in this way of life
and in faith, we shall run
on the path of God's commandments,
our hearts overflowing
with the inexpressible delight of love.

Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue 49

NOTE: For more on the feast of St. Benedict, whose memory we honor today, and for some of my personal reflections in connection with it, please see my post from earlier this year by clicking here. Also, the photograph headlining this blog (for today) was taken last summer at Sacro Speco (Sacred Cave) in Italy, where it all began for St. Benedict and his Rule. For more on that, see my June 1, 2010 post Clinging to the Rock.  PAX

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Resounding on the waters

One evening last weekend while I was on vacation, my brother-in-law carefully maneuvered his boat from the Ohio River onto the Muskingum and up into Marietta, Ohio. Anchored there with many other boaters as dusk fell, he and my sister, mother, nephew, and I prepared to watch the city’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display over the water.

As the show began, it quickly became obvious that the only way to watch with ease was to recline on our backs or slouch down in our seats and look straight up into the starry sky. The shells were exploding directly over our heads, high above the river. Each soaring flare and burst of shimmering color was quickly followed by a splitting boom that seemed to slice the heavens and shake the mountains around us as if we were meeting God at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Positioned as we were, with our bodies parallel to the river and just a couple feet above the water, we also experienced an almost indescribable sensation. Each boom was quickly followed by a resounding echo that seemed to travel along the river and then back into our very bones through the water directly below us. If you’ve ever been on or near a lake or river during a thunderstorm or a fireworks display, you know what I mean. The water magnifies the sound descending from above.

The sensation reminded me of the theophany of Psalm 29, which describes the presence of God revealed in a thunderstorm over the water:
The Lord's voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
For some reason, this imagery again came to mind as I listened to the opening lines of today’s Gospel reading at Mass (Matthew 13:1-23). The text describes Jesus sitting down by the sea, and as large crowds gather around him, getting into a boat and addressing the people standing along the shore. This is a perfectly practical act in and of itself. Jesus needed space from which to address his followers, and the water from which he spoke would have magnified his voice for all to hear.

However, there are deeper, theological implications as well. Imagine standing on that shore and listening to the power and force of Jesus’ message being carried by the water directly into your bones. The Word made Flesh, God Among Us speaks, and the water magnifies the sound descending from above:
The Lord's voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
From a boat used by human beings to sail across the water, the God of glory thunders, and his Word is magnified and carried throughout the world. This image, of course, can be connected with that of the story of creation in Genesis, in which the wind (or spirit) of God sweeps over the waters (Genesis 1:1-2).

So what is being communicated to us through these passages from Holy Scripture? Perhaps the key to pondering this further lies in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel—specifically Matthew 14:22-33—in which Peter is called forth by Jesus to walk on the water with him. Here we have the fearful disciples in a boat being tossed about by the waves on the stormy sea. Suddenly, Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water!

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells them.

Then Peter expresses some measure of faith. “If it’s you,” he calls out, “command me to come to you on the water.” A bold request! Jesus has no problem with it. “Come,” he says.

So Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. However, when he loses focus, he begins to sink and cries out for help. Jesus reaches out and saves him, and the wind dies down.

In the ancient world, the sea represented darkness, danger, and death. So, in a very real sense, these passages and images from Scripture illustrate God’s redeeming power over these elements, manifested fully in the person of Jesus, which means “God saves.”

However, God doesn’t want us to simply listen to the message of salvation from the safety of the shore. Neither does he wish us to cower in fear as we are tossed about by life’s storms. Jesus invites us to step out of the boat, to break out of our comfort zones and leave behind excessive concerns for health, wealth, control, and security.

He wants us to participate in his redeeming power over darkness, danger, and death. He desires for us to come to him, to magnify his voice, and carry his Word over the waters, echoing to the ends of the earth.

There is nothing to fear. If we begin to sink from time to time, he will be there to catch us. And we don’t need to be as spectacular as a fireworks display. We simply need to walk with Jesus above the stormy waves and through the abyss, giving witness to the power of God that turns back the tide of darkness. As St. Francis of Assisi would say: “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.”

God’s voice can thunder through our lives if we allow his Word to travel through us like the Muskingum River carrying and magnifying the sound of booming fireworks descending from above. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the perfect model in this regard. She doesn’t say much in Scripture, but her witness to the Word born from her womb has echoed for 2,000 years. Her life, like the river during the fireworks show, magnifies God’s voice for all to hear. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” the pregnant Mary proclaims to Elizabeth (Luke 1:46) in the Magnificat, the canticle of praise we sing each evening at Vespers.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Come, and with the Spirit of truth and love … move on the water’s face bearing the lamp of grace; now to all humankind let there be light” (a line from the hymn God, Whose Almighty Word, by John Marriott).

We’re all called to be part of the grand finale!

The Spirit blows where it wills

Every moment and every event of every person’s life
on earth plants something in his soul.
For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds,
so each moment brings with it
germs of spiritual vitality
that come to rest imperceptibly
in the minds and wills of men and women.
Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost,
because men and women
are not prepared to receive them:
for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere
except in the soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.

Thomas Merton

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Scattered seed

Sunday, July 10, 2011
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time—A

Isaiah 55:10-11
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

In the opening verses of Scripture, God blesses humanity, saying, “Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). In the closing verses of the Bible, John is shown “the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. On either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year” (Revelation 22:1-2).

God calls us, his children, to be fruitful according to his Word—but not of our own accord. It is God’s lavish generosity that plants, waters, warms, and produces the growth that leads to fruitfulness.

It may seem to us sometimes that God’s graciousness is wasteful and foolish. The seed of his Word is scattered recklessly for all, but is often met with indifference, ignorance, opposition, and despair—both in the world and within our own hearts. As St. Paul says in today’s second reading, “we know that all creation is groaning in labor pains.”

However, marvelous effects result whenever just a few seeds are sown within receptive hearts. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “the one who hears the word and understands it bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” God’s generosity cannot be outdone. His Word, like the rain sent from the heavens to water the earth, will achieve its end.

Despite the barren, rocky, thorny terrain within and around us, those tiny seeds watered by heavenly dew will produce abundant, sweet fruit hanging from the branches of the tree of life in God’s garden (cf. Rev. 2:7).

Let us taste and see!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Looking ahead ... and back

The incredible view of the Ohio River from the deck
of my sister and brother-in-law's home in West Virginia.

Having returned to Saint Meinrad Archabbey last evening from my two-week vacation, it will take me just a while longer to "catch up" and resume posting here more regularly. It is a busy but exciting time, as I am involved with a number of writing and editing projects at the Abbey Press, and for the School of Theology. In addition, I will soon begin working on my thesis to complete my Masters in Theological Studies degree and undertake further studies toward a graduate certificate in spiritual direction. And, of course, there is always plenty going on in the monastery itself. In addition, I hope to soon implement some changes regarding this blog, tying it in more closely with my work for the Abbey Press.

For now, I thought I would simply share a few photos from the last week or so:

My nephew and godson Ian cheers on the home team while watching the Reds
and Indians play in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, the Reds lost,
but the postgame fireworks were fabulous (and loud)!

Ian fuels up.

My brother Kevin looks for a chance to swipe Ian's hat.

My sister Shannon and her husband Ty.
St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati
where we went to Mass. Built in Classic
Greek style in 1845, it is the oldest cathedral
west of the Alleghenies still in use as a cathedral.
Mosaic behind the cathedral altar depicting Christ
bestowing the "power of the keys" upon St. Peter,
and Peter's imprisonment in Jerusalem and Rome.

Ian gets ready to tube on the Ohio.

Faster, Dad, faster!

My mother can't wait for her turn!
Evening Prayer on the river.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Saint Meinrad tornado

I received word today that while I have been away on vacation, a tornado hit Saint Meinrad in the very early morning hours of Sunday, June 26. No one was hurt, I've been told, but there was some significant damage in the area, including on the grounds of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

You can view some photos (including the one above) taken by Fr. Eugene and posted on the Saint Meinrad Facebook page here.

As you can see, the damage includes roofs being torn partially or completely off several buildings, collapsed structures, and uprooted trees. It appears that most (but by no means all) of the damage was at the bottom of the Hill in the corner of the campus where the Abbey Press warehouse and shipping plants are located, the physical facilities buildings, and the Gessner House.

The tornado touched down at 2:12 a.m. at the southern edge of the campus and moved east-northeast for about five minutes and 2.3 miles. Wind speeds were clocked at 95-100 mph.

Fr. Kurt, the monastery prior, reports that this is the closest and most violent encounter Saint Meinrad has had with a tornado in his 41 years at the monastery.

In an unrelated matter, we have also learned that the father of Br. Luke (who is in Switzerland as I was last summer) has died after a long illness. Last summer while I was away, Br. Luke's mother died. May they both rest in peace.

If you would, please take a moment to pray for Br. Luke's entire family and for all those throughout the country affected by the severe weather and flooding this summer and past spring.

As for my vacation, things have thankfully been much more pleasant than they apparently have been back home in Indiana. I have been visiting with a number of family members and friends, doing some bass fishing, watching some baseball, and doing some writing for a fun project that is long overdue. I plan to be back at Saint Meinrad July 5.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Joy in Mudville

A few scenes from Saturday night
(Louisville 9, Toledo 2)
Great seats--right behind home plate!

Muddy disagrees with the
ump's call at the plate.

(L-R) Uncle Kenny, Jim "Chicken Man" Gerschutz, Uncle Joe

Cousin Patty
really likes french fries!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

'Do this in memory of me'

Sunday, June 26, 2011
Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ—A

Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a
1Corinthians 10:16-17
John 6:51-58

“Remember” Moses tells the Israelites in today’s first reading. Remember how God has directed you, guided you through every affliction, strengthened you, protected and delivered you, and how he has sustained your life with food and drink from heaven. “Do not forget,” Moses instructs the people—whose long and trying journey to the Promised Land prefigures our Christian journey in this world.

Remember in this sense means quite simply: “Trust God.” Trust that you are in his presence every step of the way, and that he will care and provide for you. Trust that you are being fed spiritually through Word and Sacrament with food and drink from heaven. Trust that we, though many, participate in the very life of Christ, the Bread of Life who gave his life that we might live forever.

This is how we are to recall the reality of God’s presence in our lives, and share Christ’s very real presence in a unique and special way during the Eucharist, where time and eternity meet. It is important to keep in mind that today’s Gospel passage from John follows shortly after the multiplication of the loaves. After miraculously feeding the crowds with only five loaves and two fish, the people hungrily pursue Jesus. And he tells them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.”


Friday, June 24, 2011

Ordinary beauty

Earlier this week I began a two-week vacation. I spent the first few days away from the monastery but still on the grounds of Saint Meinrad Archabbey--in a house we own on the edge of the property. Primarily, I wanted to be near our library to do a little research for a writing project I'm working on, but it was also nice to just relax. I feel well-rested!
Now, I am off to both Ohio and West Virginia to spend time with my family and friends, especially my mother. I also plan to catch a couple ballgames and do some fishing, as well as reading and writing. I hope to do a little blogging as well.

During the last few days I also did some hiking in the area, and took a few photos, which are posted here. Nothing spectacular. Just ordinary, everyday beauty graciously given by God.

Br. Francis

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who made the world?

'The world is charged with the grandeur of God'
Gerard Manley Hopkins

This past weekend, I led a retreat at our guesthouse titled Reading the Sacred in Creation. Preparing beforehand, I pulled together a great deal of source material for both my own relfection and (hopefully) that of the retreatants--Scripture, saints, and spiritual authors. More importantly, the point of the retreat was to actually read God's Word in Creation itself to guide us toward joining together in singing nature's continuous hymn of thanks and praise to the Creator of all.

This morning, I ran across these pieces by the poet Mary Oliver. They would have been perfect for the retreat. Since that moment has passed, I thought I'd post them here:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth
instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her
enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms
and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know what a prayer is.
I do not know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with you one wild and precious life?

-- Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

 It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest, but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

-- Mary Oliver, Praying