Monday, February 28, 2011

Limitations and prayer

I've encountered several very insightful reflections along the following lines lately in my personal reading. Worth sharing, I thought. -- Br. Francis
Perhaps the best definition of an adolescent is that of someone who has not yet experienced his limitations, and therefore has not had to accept them. Prayer helps us by making us conscious of our limitations.

Every person, one day or another, becomes aware of his poverty as a creature. And since this experience is a crushing one, the natural temptation is therefore distractions, or, as Pascal said, diversions. There is an "impatience with one's limitations," a natural temptation that urges us to flee before such limitations.

We do not know what our real needs are, and we must learn them all over again each day. Prayer brings us back to what is most authentic in man's quest for happiness. Prayer makes us free; it preserves what is most fragile and most precious in us: the integrity of our desire, that desire which, in final analysis, is nothing but the need for God. This is what prayer preserves in us, and must teach us every day, this need for God, which is the distinctive, most profound trait that separates man from the animals. Man is the only being who turns to God to obtain what is lacking for his own fulfillment.

Does not the awareness of our limitations already imply a call from God? Does not prayer then appear as man's response to the invitation made to him by God?

Is not the true call of God almost always made in the discovery of our inadequacies?

-- Fr. Bernard Bro, O.P.
French Dominican priest, theologian, and author
Magnificat, February 2011, p.386-387

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The way to God

"The way to God leads through our weaknesses and powerlessness. When we are stripped of all power we discover what God has in mind for us, what God can make of us when God fills us completely with divine grace. The place where we meet our own powerlessness is precisely where we become open to God. God educates us through our failure, through our 'backsliding.' Then God guides us on the path of humility that alone belongs to God."
Anselm Gruen, O.S.B.
Monk of the Abbey of Muensterschwarzach, Germany
(Heaven Begins with You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers, 1999)

Listen quietly, speak boldly

During Vigils this morning we heard the story of the call of Samuel (1Samuel 3:1-20), in which the boy Samuel is awakened in the middle of the night by a strange voice. Three times he goes to the old priest Eli, who finally tells him that if he hears the voice again, he should respond, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." Samuel does as he is told, and grows up as a "trustworthy prophet of the Lord."

The response of Samuel, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening," is a good, short way to enter into prayer, reading of Scripture, or meditation. God is always speaking to us, of course--through his Word and our common worship, through his other servants around us, and in the circumstances of daily life. Sometimes, though, we have to quiet ourselves in private prayer and simply listen for that "tiny whispering sound" within (1Kings 19:12).

This is not easy. Like anything worthwhile and fruitful, it requires time, patience, and perseverance. Moreover, it requires an open heart receptive to God's voice. Too often, our approach to prayer can be more along the lines of "Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking!"

We need to be still, if not outwardly, at least inwardly. However, a lot of thoughts and feelings can distract or frustrate us. During these times, it may be helpful to simply pray the opening words to Psalm 70, which we chant or recite daily in the monastery: "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me!" Sometimes, these are the only words I can pray, and I will utter them to myself several times a day.

Perhaps it might be better if I said, "Speak louder, Lord, for your servant can't hear you!" Perhaps I'll try that.

In any case, we do well to keep in mind the words of St. Paul: "Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer" (Romans 12:12). The heart of God which holds us is always open. "This is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us" (1 John 5:14).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Worry not, wild flowers

Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time—A

Isaiah 49:14-15
1Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

In 1988, jazz artist Bobby McFerrin’s a cappella song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” soared to the top of the charts and eventually won a Grammy Award. The song became a cultural phenomenon, and its lyrics were widely quoted (sincerely or ironically) in everyday conversation, on T-shirts, on television, and even in political campaigns. Somehow, the expression—based on a longer maxim by the late Indian mystic Meher Baba—had tapped into what humanity longs most deeply for—peace.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus clearly says, several times over, that we are not to worry. “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan?” he asks. Throughout the Gospels, he tells his disciples many times, “Fear not!” Yet, worrying is what many of us do best, and hearing messages like this can pile guilt on top of our anxiety because we know we should have more trust in God.

Jesus, though, is not denying our legitimate concern for human needs, but rather is admonishing us to stop being so preoccupied with our wealth to the point that it enslaves us and deprives others. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” Jesus tells us.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines mammon as “riches regarded as an object of worship and greedy pursuit.” What’s really at stake is not genuine concern for our daily bread, but rather an attachment to material wealth and comfort that supplants our reliance on God, who IS our daily bread.

It is interesting to note that Isaiah portrays God as a mother in today’s first reading, while Jesus calls him Father in the Gospel. Perhaps the point is that we should approach God more as a loving parent who both cares and provides for us rather than merely as a benefactor. When we embrace that sort of loving, trusting relationship, then we become true “stewards of the mysteries of God,” and we will find the peace of Christ the world does not give (John 14:27).

Be happy, don’t worry!

Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon
in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.

Matthew 6:28-29

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Happy honking

Fr. Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O.
Photo by Peter Jordan

Although it didn’t make CNN headlines, one of America’s most prominent monks died this past week. Fr. Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O., died on Friday, Feb. 18, at the age of 95. He was the oldest member of the community at the Trappist monastery of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (about a two-hour drive southeast of Saint Meinrad).

Gethsemani is well-known these days for its fudge, fruitcake, and cheese (the production of which pays the bills), but most especially for being the home of the monk Thomas Merton, one of America’s most prodigious spiritual writers of the 20th Century. Merton died in 1968 at the age of 53, and is buried at Gethsemani. Fr. Matthew was a contemporary of Merton’s (at one time serving as his confessor), and was a talented and much sought-after writer, speaker, and spiritual guide in his own right.

(I must confess at this point that I am partial to monks as spiritual writers!)

I have been to Gethsemani a number of times, and spent a good deal of time there a few years back while I was discerning a religious vocation. Ultimately, I realized that Trappist life and Gethsemani is not for me, but the place and people there still hold a special place in my heart. It is a wonderful place.

While I cannot claim to have known Fr. Matthew, I did meet him a couple times, and heard him give one of his renowned “compline talks,” which he continued to present up until the last few years. The last time I was there in 2007—as a novice of Saint Meinrad Archabbey making the mid-novitiate retreat—he was still coming to church, pulling his motorized cart up to the choir stalls and praising the Lord in the daily chanting of the Psalms. I remember him as very warm, engaging, and full of wisdom and spiritual insight.

The Abbey of Gethsemani’s website -- -- has posted Fr. Matthew’s obituary, and also has available for reading many of his homilies and writings. If you haven’t read any of them, I invite you take a look. Below, with the permission of Gethsemani, I have posted one of his more well-known homilies, delivered in 1985. Enjoy.

May he rest in peace.

Wild Geese, “Followship,” the End of Time
by Fr. Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O.

[An edited version of this homily on Mk 1:14-20 was published
in The Call of Wild Geese, Cistercian Publications, 1996.]

A few afternoons ago I was out back, burning trash, when I heard the unmistakable call of geese from far away to the north. It took me a while to find them high in the sky against dark clouds — mysterious, impressive, flying in splendid formation in that sweep of wing which is so majestic, so deliberate, a flock headed south with purpose.

But then, when they were just over Gethsemani the V-shape fell apart for some reason, and where there had been order there was chaos and a mess. Dissension. I thought: some want to stay over here like they did last year, some want to keep on going, or maybe it was just that the leader tired and no fresh one was forthcoming. So they wheeled about, several hundred of them, with great noise, each telling others that something had to be done. Now and then a single goose would take a try at leadership and wing off with a few others following him, but no more would take him up on it, and so that would peter out, only for another to try it.

It took ten or fifteen minutes for them to reach a consensus, and then, suddenly, one gander took the lead, the others followed, and in a matter of moments a great echelon appeared in the sky, the honking happiness resumed, and they were off to Nashville and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. And I went to Vespers thinking about it.

The readings in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the Eucharist these past several weeks have been pretty heavy. Grim stuff, most of it, about the end of all things at the end of time, wild imagery and fiery horsemen carrying out the orders of an angry God.

One brother asked me, “Why do they read such stuff? The visitors must be very upset to hear all that.”

“Well,” I said, “they are perhaps not the only ones to be upset; it may be a question of something we ought to hear and think about.”

Which says it, I think. For however you may describe it — and it is a challenge to the imagination — the end is to come one day, sooner or later. The lesson is: this place, this earth, this universe, is temporal. It is not forever. Tennyson’s brook that goes on forever, the eternal mountains and the everlasting seas, are poetry, not reality. It is all going one day. That much is certain. How, we are not so sure. When, certainly not. And what will follow is also a rather vague scenario: something new, renewed, that we know. And, most strange of all, we are part of it.

What makes such readings rather hard listening, it seems to me, is that we live in an age in which the end is very possible. If we cannot destroy the entire universe, we are capable of bringing an end to the one that is home to us. Hence, the Scriptures do not sound nearly as wild as they once did. An angry God is a possibility. And He is our God.

And if there is to be a final disintegration, we deal also with the collapse of a culture we live in. When whole cultural patterns fall apart, we have a preview of the final act, and it is no less trying to the men’s souls than the actual performance. I do not spell out the details of this scene. Things do change. And they change enormously and they change fast. We live in the midst of disintegration. New things come, are in process, yet have not come yet. No consensus.

And there is another [disintegration]: the personal apocalypse which is death. If the days of the world and the universe we know are numbered, if cultures shift and fade, so do our days, too. Come early, come late, the end will come, and the stars will fall from our heaven and the earth shake beneath our feet, the angels of God will come to announce the end of all things for us. Death, the great mystery, is closer than today’s sunset, for any one of us could be gone before the sun goes down this afternoon.

When the delightful order of the flying geese fell apart in confusion, chaos — how fitting a revelation of our feelings about the ultimate destiny of the world. How like the cultural confusion we know when patterns of behavior break down, values disappear, codes and cults collapse, everything loose and wild and crazy. Like the music that tells it, the world rocks and reels. Which again is the way we feel, I suspect, when death comes down our corridor, to our door, opens and enters: everything we knew and loved slips away and we approach the edge of the cliff and know we are going over it in some mad dream.

The geese stayed together. No one took off on his own. That, for one thing. So, no panic. Second, they knew there was a leader among them and they knew he would emerge. A leader all would accept, and no one would impose. Nor could one take the honor to whom it is not given.

When the leader emerged, something electric happened: they all agreed, they all followed, order returned, the journey began again. The happy honking told their peace. The leader emerges from consensus and when emerged, there is communion. Without the communion you can never get anywhere. The geese would still be wheeling around Gethsemani skies if they did not know this. No community gets anywhere without leadership and without the followship which is consensus in action.

Fellowship without followship is fraternity-house theology, not Christianity. And followship without leadership is a kindergarten, for there is no communion of action. And if every bird is not flying full with all he has, the pattern falls apart: no free loaders.

There is no beauty without the harsh dedication to the common, to the love of Jesus with one another and for a dying world that so needs the witness of men who believe what they say. Who can make a pattern against the dark skies of our times? It can be a marvel of beauty to restore hope to the wondering and confused: we know where we’re going and we know how to get there, and honey, we’re on our way.

Faith, then, in the face of ultimate apocalypse. Faith in the midst of mixed times. Faith in the face of our own disintegration, is what we need. There is no magic, secret formula. Not a solution for your problems. It is rather to affirm that God is in us and in our midst.

Who guides geese, guides us. We believe that. We mean it.

The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery, Cistercian Publications

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Swiss-American (Part II)

Br. Mauritius and 90-year-old Ermida Itin, the sister of his father's
godfather, Bruno Itin. She came to the U.S. in the 1950s and used
to work as a waitress at Bruno's Swiss Inn in West-Lafayette, IN.

SPECIAL FEATURE: Once again, I have asked Br. Mauritius from our mother Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland to write a guest post about his experiences thus far while studying here at Saint Meinrad.
-- Br. Francis

I was in prison and you visited me

I begin this report on Dec. 10, 2010, the day the fall semester ended. That particular evening, Brother Zachary invited me to the prison in Branchville, IN, where he is a chaplain and teaches catechesis. He asked me to speak to the prisoners about my time in the Vatican and my experience as a Swiss Guard.

I had previously found some books in the library and printed out some pictures which I could show during the visit. It was a unique and enriching encounter for me. The guys had a lot of questions and the two hours went by very quickly.

“The prisoners are only a few drinks away from us,” Br. Zachary said to me when we had left the security check points behind. That statement probably contains a great deal of truth.

My name, Mauritius, is difficult for some English speakers, and I have heard various versions of it—Morris, Maurice, Mauricio, Morishus. The best and shortest one, however, I received in the prison—Bro Mo! I really like it.

I was a stranger and you welcomed me

On Saturday, Dec. 11, I left Saint Meinrad for the Christmas break. I would return three weeks later. Seminarian Pete Logsdon from the Diocese of Lafayette took me in his car. We headed north for four hours, and arrived precisely at the intended time, 6 p.m., at Bruno’s Swiss Inn in West-Lafayette, IN.

This restaurant was opened by Bruno Itin in the 1950s. Bruno used to work as a baker in my ancestors’ bakery back in Winterthur, Switzerland. My grandfather Ernst and Bruno must have been pretty close friends. Otherwise, there would be no reason for Bruno to become the godfather of Ernst’s son Rudolf who many years later would become my father!

In 1951, shortly after my father was born and baptized, Bruno immigrated to the U.S., where he first worked for a construction company in Gary, IN, and then for a pizza place in the area. He decided to start his own business and moved to Lafayette where “Bruno’s” quickly developed into a successful and widely known restaurant. When Bruno died in 2006, his three children took it over and still run it today.

When I entered the dining room, a man looked at me and (really!) asked me: “Are you a Honegger?” So I knew I was at the right place. It was a warm and generous welcome. I was introduced to so many people that I hardly had time to eat the delicious “Bruno dough” appetizers and the huge, house-made pizza.

I was especially surprised when 90 year-old Ermida started to speak accent-free, Swiss German to me. She is Bruno’s older sister who, shortly after his departure from Switzerland, followed him to the U.S. and worked for many years as a waitress in his restaurant.

I spent the night at the house of Bruno’s son and his wife Karen. When I told them of my plans to travel to North Dakota, they looked at me and said: “No, with this light jacket, you definitively cannot go to North Dakota.” In order to save space in my suitcase while coming from Switzerland in August, I had brought only my light blue jacket. How could I know at that time where I would celebrate Christmas and what the weather would be like? So they equipped me with a heavier coat, gloves, warm socks, and a pair of “180’s” to cover my ears.

I experienced so much generosity and hospitality for which I am deeply grateful. Saint Benedict writes in his Rule that in all guests, Christ is received. So, they definitively earned some credit in that regard!

After attending Mass at the cathedral in Lafayette—where several of my fellow seminarians are going to be ordained to the diaconate (on their way to the priesthood)—I took the bus to Chicago. That Sunday afternoon, a terrible blizzard hit. All the roads, even the interstate, were covered with snow. Several cars went off the road. When we eventually arrived at the bus terminal in Chicago, I told the driver, “You did a good job; this was not easy today.”

Chicago – cold and windy

Father Edward, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, lives and works as a pastor at an inner-city parish in south-side Chicago. He had invited me to spend some time at his rectory. This was a unique opportunity for me. Fr. Edward hosts four young men with whom he prays, celebrates daily Mass, and shares a kind of community life. Two of them, Anthony and Stalone, are from India and study at the nearby technical college. Matt, a seminarian, is doing a pastoral year and works as a campus minister at the same school. Alex, from Wisconsin, volunteers at the parish food pantry which distributes food to homeless people and poor families of the neighborhood.

One morning, I helped at the pantry and was able to see how it functions. It was sad to see the poverty of these children of God. Many were African-American, but there was also, surprisingly, a great deal of Chinese. Most did not speak English.

I also spent some time getting to know Chicago. I visited the Art Institute, the Museum for Science and Industry, the Museum of Eastern Cultures, and Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein.

White Christmas

I flew out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Bismarck, North Dakota. The woman at the check-in counter surprised me twice. First, she told me that I must pay $25 for my baggage, which I had not expected. Further, when I showed her my passport, she was able to name several cities in my native Switzerland where she had been—but she had no idea where Bismarck was, the American town where I was going. She even asked me whether it was in the United States! Obviously, Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, is not one of the most frequented travel destinations.

Assumption Abbey in North Dakota
The flight went well and I arrived safely—but my suitcase did not. It stayed in Chicago—what poor service! It was the first time I ever had to pay extra for my baggage to be lost! However, the airline promised to send it to me by the next day.

Father Valerian, a monk of Assumption Abbey, was waiting for me at the Bismarck airport and drove me to the monastery. He proved very helpful in dealing with the whole missing baggage issue. One consequences of the lost baggage was that I was forced—not less than a whole day—to wear the Beuronese habit long worn by American Benedictines. It was hard to accept, and I did it very reluctantly. In my opinion, the opposite should be the case—the monks who live in monasteries founded by Einsiedeln should wear the Swiss Benedictine habit. (More later on this difference between Beuronese and Swiss customs when I speak about Mount Angel.)

Assumption Abbey was founded in 1893 by Fr. Vincent Wehrle, a Benedictine monk from Einsiedeln, who later became the first bishop of Bismarck. It is located in the small town of Richardton, right at the railway that connects Chicago with the Pacific Ocean. Today, however, no train stops anymore because there is only cargo transport, mainly coal. Persons travel by car on the highway.

Richardton was originally a settlement of German-speaking Catholics. The monks served as pastors and teachers for the population. The Abbey still runs a cattle ranch. Since the closing of the monastery school, several monks of the community are away from the monastery working as teachers, pastors, chaplains, or missionaries among Native Americans. Fr. Damian, for example, is a teacher at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. Another monk, Brother Anthony, is a student at Saint Meinrad, and was my classmate last semester.

I enjoyed my stay at Assumption Abbey and felt well-integrated in the community. Especially for the Christmas celebration, the monks did a great deal of preparing, cooking, and decorating.

Go West

I left North Dakota on Dec. 26. I took the flight from Bismarck to Denver, Colorado, where I caught a connecting flight to Portland, Oregon. Despite the gain of two hours because of the different time zones, it was late night when I arrived there. Still, Br. Mark, the guest master of Mount Angel Abbey, was waiting for me at the airport to pick me up.

The weather at Mount Angel is totally different from North Dakota. Because it is near the Pacific Coast, it is always quite mild. There is snow only on the top of the mountains. Some days it rains heavily.

Mount Angel Abbey was established in 1882. It is not, however, an Einsiedeln foundation. In 1873 another Swiss Benedictine house, the Abbey of Engelberg, started a monastery in Missouri, today Conception Abbey. The two pioneer monks were Fathers Frowin Conrad and Adelhelm Odermatt.

Fr. Frowin, who became the leader of the new foundation, was fascinated with the new and powerful reformed monasticism of Beuron (in Germany). He thought it was more effective than the Swiss way of Benedictine life. He increasingly introduced Beuronese customs and abandoned the Swiss tradition, which displeased Fr. Adelhelm and the abbot of Engelberg. They even considered it as a betrayal of the Swiss heritage.

When in 1881 the foundation was raised to an independent abbey, Fr. Adelhelm was not willing to transfer his stability to Conception. After consulting with the abbot of Engelberg, he left Conception to head west. He was to establish the real “New-Engelberg” that would carefully keep the customs of the Swiss motherhouse. And even its name “Mount Angel” is a reminder of this intention—it is the English translation of Engel-Berg.

Under the influence of Frowin Conrad, the first abbot of Conception Abbey, the entire Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation (including Saint Meinrad and Mount Angel) adopted some Beuronese customs (for example, the Beuronese habit). However, Mount Angel, of all the monasteries I have visited in the U.S., is the one that is most similar to the way of life I was introduced to at Einsiedeln. I enjoyed the beautiful liturgy of the Christmas Octave, the silent meals with table reading, and I felt very much at home. Mount Angel Abbey runs a seminary and school of theology similar to Saint Meinrad.

Icon by Br. Claude at Mount Angel.
St. Maurice is on the left.
Mount Angel is also the only monastery of the congregation that celebrates the memorial of Saint Maurice, my patron saint. He is one of the patrons of the Abbey, and on a wall in the refectory there is a large icon of Mary and St. Maurice to her right. The icon is the work of Br. Claude, a monk of Mount Angel.

Back in the Midwest

I returned to Saint Meinrad on Jan. 4 (thanks to seminarian Peter Bucalo, who picked me up at the Louisville airport), just a day before the January interterm classes began. During this two-week period, students focus on one subject only. I did an insightful independent study on spiritual direction.

Before the spring semester started, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. It was a good experience of another type of Benedictine monasticism—stricter, more silent, and contemplative. The monks there, wearing a white habit with a black scapular, rise to pray Vigils at 3:15 a.m. every day.

I also have had the privilege to witness the professions of two Saint Meinrad monks. On Jan. 20, Novice Michael made his temporary vows and received the name Br. Elijah. And finally, on Jan. 25, I was a guest of honor when Br. Francis promised stability, obedience, and conversatio morum. I was happy to get to know his mother and family at that occasion.

Now, we are about three weeks into the spring semester. Again, I am taking very interesting classes, and am grateful to have the opportunity to gain such sound pastoral formation. I am enrolled in the following courses: Homiletics, Introduction to Pastoral Care and Counseling, Priesthood and Spirituality, Liturgical Practicum, Crisis Ministry, Spanish, English, and Greek. I have already celebrated my first “practice” Mass and delivered my first “practice” homily. On Wednesday evenings, I continue to teach religious education to high school students at Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Haubstadt, IN.
--Br. Mauritius

SOME FINAL NOTES: In a few months, we will have other visitors from our mother Abbey of Einsieldeln. Abbot Martin plans to visit in May, when he will speak at Commencement in the school. He will be accompanied by Br. Alexander. In addition, just as Br. Mauritius is doing now, Br. Thomas will join us next fall to study at the school here.

In the continued effort to strengthen our ties, one of our junior monks, Br. Luke, will be visiting Einsiedeln this coming summer just as I did last year.

Incidentally, we have another Swiss monk here visiting with us for a few days, though not from Einsiedeln. He is Fr. Armin Russi from Mariastein Abbey, who is the guestmaster there and spending several months in the United States on sabbatical (mostly in Wisconsin). So, Br. Mauritius has someone to speak Swiss German with!

During a weekend in early April, Br. Mauritius and I plan to travel to my hometown of Findlay, Ohio. We will stay with my mother, and I will show him the sights in Findlay, Toledo, and the surrounding area where I lived, worked, and prayed for many years. If there's time, on the way we may stop in Maria Stein, Ohio, which is named for Mariastein in Switzerland (the name means St. Mary in the Rock). The area is heavily German Catholic, and a number of churches were established in the region in the mid-19th Century by a Swiss missionary priest by the name of Francis de Sales Brunner (same patron saint as mine!). The town is noted for its Shrine of the Holy Relics. Hopefully, we will get a chance to make a brief stop.

I am still working up an itineray of sorts, but there are two musts--Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, and Dietsch Ice Cream and Candy in Findlay (but of course!).
-- Br. Francis

What is the yoke of Christ?

Come to Me,
all of you who are weary
and find life burdensome;
I will refresh you.
Take My yoke on your shoulders
and learn from Me,
for I am gentle and humble of Heart.
You shall find rest
because My yoke is easy
and My burden light.
-- Matthew 11:28-30

Judging by the statistics recorded by the host of this site, a good number of people stumble upon my blog while searching the web with the keywords “what is the yoke of Christ?”

Good question.

It can be a confusing term. Yokes aren’t used much in the modern world. It is a wooden harness used to guide oxen or other draft animals while plowing fields. The yoke still exists in some developing countries and within more traditional cultures, but by and large it has been replaced by tractors or other mechanized equipment.

Used as a verb, “yoke” means to join or to unite. In a figurative sense—used frequently in the Old Testament—it can mean something more severe: to subjugate, or force into labor or bondage, as with a beast of burden, or worse, a slave.

Jesus, drawing on this same image, which would have been well-known in his time, gives it a deeper meaning—obedience under the law of freedom, or Love (see passage above from Matthew), and as we know, God is Love. St. Paul also uses the term in the New Testament, telling the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

So, why did I choose to title this blog “The Yoke of Christ”?

It’s a long story, but about eight years ago while living in the Toledo, Ohio, area and working as a newspaper editor, I experienced an intense spiritual reawakening or conversion. I reached a point in my life where I knew I must give myself to God, without knowing why or what for. So I did. Now, I’m a Benedictine monk, and as St. Anthony of the Desert famously said, “Each day I begin again.”

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

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

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

The Latin root of the word “obedience” means “listen.” So, to obey is to listen. As you know, the heart of any healthy relationship is listening. Obedience is a relationship in which those involved genuinely listen and respond to one another in love. It is listening and love in action. It is more about our relationship with God and one another than it is about simply following commands.

Put another way, obedience to God is true freedom.

However, I suspect that is not the way most of us think about obedience. It is certainly not the way I thought about it prior to making first vows in 2008. My retreat director then asked me to reconsider how a yoke is used in the agricultural tradition. Vaguely, my idea was a burdensome harness thrown over the shoulders of one poor beast.

Wrong. Rather, as The American Heritage Dictionary defines it, a yoke is a crossbar with two U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a pair of oxen, mules, or other draft animals working in a team (emphasis added).

This altered dramatically my image of obedience. Now, I picture God the Father gently guiding his team, plowing and sowing the Spirit’s seed-ground of the Church so all in the world may reap the harvest of Life.

And working with me (us) under the yoke (or cross) is Christ Himself. He works with us all, encourages us, and promises us joy beyond all knowing for those who “Take My yoke on your shoulders and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. You shall find rest because My yoke is easy and My burden light.”

So then, what precisely is the yoke of Christ for us? It is the vehicle of grace on the path of life by which we progressively and obediently come to know, love, and serve God. It means being a disciple of Christ, being true to one’s vocation in life—which may be lived out in many different ways.

For me, it is the monastic way of life. So in a sense, the Benedictine habit and cuculla I put on every day symbolizes the yoke of Christ. To paraphrase the words of Archabbot Justin Du Vall at my Solemn Profession Mass, it symbolizes the right mind of obedience through which I return to Christ.

This yoke, this right mind of obedience under the law of freedom, this Love, is symbolized in different ways for those living out other vocations. It may be a wedding ring, or a clerical collar, or it may be something less visible but no less demanding—such as an illness, loneliness, or other difficult circumstances.

Whatever it is, it means working in tandem with Christ for the love of God. And this is something only a life of faith can bestow. As Jesus said many times, “Your faith has saved you.” This most be our hope, no matter how weary we might be, no matter how burdensome life may be. The yoke of Christ is easy, his burden light. In him we find rest.

Although it is difficult to give to one who asks, it is even more so to allow one to take what belongs to you, without asking it back. I should have said that this seems difficult, for the yoke of the Lord is sweet and light. When one accepts it, one feels its sweetness immediately, and cries out with the Psalmist: “I have run the way of your commandments when you enlarged my heart” [Psalm 118:32]. It is only charity that can expand my heart. O Jesus, since this sweet flame consumes it, I run with joy in the way of your NEW commandment. I want to run in it until that blessed day when, joining the virginal procession, I shall be able to follow you in the heavenly courts, singing your NEW canticle, which must be Love.
—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Everything is in vain without love

From a treatise on charity by St Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)

Charity is a right attitude of mind which prefers nothing to the knowledge of God. If a man possesses any strong attachment to the things of this earth, he cannot possess true charity. For anyone who really loves God prefers to know and experience God rather than his creatures. The whole set and longing of his mind is ever directed toward him.

For God is far superior to all his creation, since everything which exists has been made by God and for him. And so, in deserting God, who is beyond compare, for the inferior works of creation, a man shows that he values God, the author of creation, less than creation itself.

The Lord himself reminds us: Whoever loves me will keep my commandments. And this is my commandment: that you love one another. So the man who does not love his neighbour does not obey God’s command. But one who does not obey his command cannot love God. A man is blessed if he can love all men equally. Moreover, if he truly loves God, he must love his neighbour absolutely. Such a man cannot hoard his wealth. Rather, like God himself, he generously gives from his own resources to each man according to his needs.

Since he imitates God’s generosity, the only distinction he draws is the person’s need. He does not distinguish between a good man and a bad one, a just man and one who is unjust. Yet his own goodness of will makes him prefer the man who strives after virtue to the one who is depraved.

A charitable mind is not displayed simply in giving money; it is manifested still more by personal service as well as by the communication of God’s word to others: In fact, if a man’s service toward his brothers is genuine and if he really renounces worldly concerns, he is freed from selfish desires. For he now shares in God’s own knowledge and love. Since he does possess God’s love, he does not experience weariness as he follows the Lord his God. Rather, following the prophet Jeremiah, he withstands every type of reproach and hardship without even harbouring an evil thought toward any man.

For Jeremiah warns us: Do not say: “We are the Lord’s temple.” Neither should you say: “Faith alone in our Lord Jesus Christ can save me.” By itself faith accomplishes nothing. For even the devils believe and shudder.

No, faith must be joined to an active love of God which is expressed in good works. The charitable man is distinguished by sincere and long-suffering service to his fellow man: it also means using things aright.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time—A

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
1Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Each and every human being is called to be holy, to be perfect. After all, we are created in the image of God, who is holy and perfect.


Difficult, yes, but not impossible, and it is not more difficult than the abundant assistance granted to us through Christ, through whom we can do all things. Superhuman strength is not required, only the will to turn away from the wisdom of this world.

The wisdom of this world tells us to look out for “Number One,” to exact “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” to never give or do more than what is necessary. This is all foolishness in the eyes of God because it never ends there. Violence begets violence.

God’s wisdom reverses the tide. Take no revenge, the Book of Leviticus tells us. In the Gospel, Jesus says precisely the same thing. A cutting remark answered with another quickly spirals into an argument—or worse. Grudges and acts of selfishness have similar capacities to build upon one another. However, when such acts are met with gentle yet firm kindness, mercy, and generosity, our “enemies” are taken aback. Love is given the space to take root and grow in the foolish light of the Cross, which reconciled us to God while we were still enemies.

God’s grace provides the strength to go the extra mile. Perfection is reached one step at a time on the path of holiness, and it all begins within each heart God has fashioned in His image. Love begets love.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cats and Dogs

I am not much of a cat person. For me (and I know others disagree or could care less), man's best friend is a good dog.

There are always exceptions, of course. Socks the cat, who has adopted Saint Meinrad Archabbey as her home since late last summer, is one of those exceptions. As I've mentioned in previous posts, she showed up one day as a scrawny kitten, lapped up the attention by monks, guests, and students, and now earns her keep catching mice and enertaining guests. Guests to the monastery have made donations to help feed and spay her, and Br. Zachary has supplied a "cat igloo" on the guesthouse porch for the cat to take refuge from the wind, snow, and rain.

Socks (perhaps we should call her Scholastica,which would be more fittinging in many respects) is such an exceptionally friendly, playful, people-loving cat that she almost seems like a dog sometimes. On this sunny, unusually warm February Sunday afternoon, I took a walk outside. Waiting for me, it seemed, outside the monastery door near the rock garden was Socks, who ran to greet me. I sat down on the steps for a minute, and she wasted no time hopping into my arms to have her neck and ears scratched. Within seconds, she was purring contentedly. When I got up to continue with my walk, she began prancing around and showing off atop the retaining wall, so I stopped to take a few pictures (I had remembered to grab my camera before going outside). Naturally, this prompted her to become even more animated. What a ham.

Below is Dixie, the dog I had for 13 years before coming to the monastery in 2006. Giving her up (to a good family) was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I never saw her again--she died almost three years ago. It may be difficult for some to understand, but Dixie taught me a lot about life. Although I "saved" her from the pound when she was a very sick, scrawny, and timid puppy, in very real ways Dixie helped "save" me. I will probably always miss her.

I doubt she would have gotten along too well with Socks. Then again, for Dixie, Public Enemy No. 1 was not a cat, but the S-Q-U-I-R-R-E-L.

Dixie (1993-2008) on squirrel patrol in our former back yard.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yes or No

Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time—A

Sirach 15:15-20
1Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37

The choice is ours.

Drawing on God’s commands to the Israelites as communicated by Moses (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), today’s first reading from Sirach uses the word “choose” three times. “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him,” we are told. We can either choose to trust in the ways of God or to trust in our own ways.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that he has not come to abolish the commandments given to the Israelites in the time of Moses, but to fulfill them—to deepen our understanding of them. God’s Word to us through the ages is made present to us in the person of Jesus. “I say to YOU” is a personal address by Jesus to each one of us.

His concern is that we live our lives by something more than merely observing rules of conduct or attempting to avoid breaking them. What counts is the spirit with which we do things. Love, after all, is a decision. It is choosing the good, choosing life.

When we do this, our eyes are opened more fully to the mysterious, hidden wisdom of God so that we can grow to maturity in the Spirit by following Christ.

May our “Yes” mean “Yes,” and our “No” mean “No.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mysterious and visible

Church of Notre Dame de Liesse (Our Lady of Joy) in Annecy, France.

Some more thoughts from my Ecclesiology and Ecumenism course relating to the work of Charles Cardinal Journet, a Swiss theologian (d. 1975) who was an instrumental figure of the Second Vatican Council. We are currently reading the first chapter of his Theology of the Church, and were asked how Journet describes the visibility of the Church. Following is what I came up with.
—Br. Francis

Cardinal Journet speaks of the Church as both mysterious and visible, with the chief emphasis on mysterious. He draws upon the analogy (and spiritual reality) of the soul manifesting itself through the body. So, the invisible soul of the Church fashions, nourishes, and directs the visible body, bringing to light what is unseen. Journet’s view of the Church is incarnational and Trinitarian—the invisible Holy Spirit is the soul of the visible Church, the Body of Christ, who manifests Himself as an offering to God the Father.

The mysterious, invisible, and divine life that animates the body makes visible and communicates His presence through the movement of the various members of the Body, just as a person’s interior disposition reveals itself through his or her words and actions. Journet notes that these external manifestations—i.e., works of love—comprise the Body of the Church, and are the means through which Christ is made visible in the world—a visibility, he says, that is distinct from that of human societies.

This “evangelical sanctity,” as Journet terms it, of the individual members of Christ’s Body (lived authentically, of course) is what combines to make the Church visible. However, the Church is also made visible through the hierarchical dispensation and reception of the authority entrusted to her, namely in the teaching of the Word of God, worship, the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), and common prayer.

Journet notes that this visibility here and now is seen dimly, since it is immersed in the visibility of a fallen world. The Church’s mission, therefore, is to transfigure matter by spirit, to transform what is dark into light.

All this is intimately intertwined with the humanity and divinity of Christ, whose Body as the Church extends His presence here and now, as He makes all things new before He comes again.

“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus said, referring to His body (John 2:19) prior to His passion and death. After His resurrection, He tells the apostles, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Friday, February 4, 2011

Food for thought

I am taking a class this semester on Ecclesiology and Ecumenism, which thus far has been quite thought-provoking, to say the least. Our instructor is Fr. Guy Mansini, O.S.B., and we have begun by reading some works by Jean-Marie-Roger Tillard, O.P., St. Augustine, Pope John Paul II (his 2003 encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia), Charles Cardinal Journet, and also Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council. For each reading, we are given a couple questions to answer in a short essay. Below is my most recent submission. It is no masterpiece, but I thought it might be worth sharing (and if I turn out to be totally off-base on the subject, I promise to either correct or retract as the case warrants).
-- Br. Francis

Why is there no Church without the Eucharist? So to speak, what is the “ecclesiological accomplishment” of the celebration of the Eucharist?

Holding the key to this question, it seems, is 1Corinthians 11:23-26, the oldest written account we’re aware of that describes the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The passage explains the practice of the Early Church as received from Christ and handed on to us through the Apostles. The paschal mystery—the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—is the central and sustaining event in the faith of the People of God and life of the Church. The gift and mystery of the bread and cup was entrusted by Christ to the Church, through the Apostles, at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday of the Triduum, as He told them: “Do this in remembrance of me.” As John Paul II points out in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Last Supper foreshadows what follows over the next three days.

The Eucharist, then, signifies and makes fully present this singular event, uniting it with all eternity. This ultimate sacrament of the unity of the People of God expresses what it is and what is achieved by it—the salvation of mankind through Christ’s gift of self on the cross. As we sing during the celebration of the Eucharist, “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.”

If, as St. Augustine says, we become what we receive in the Eucharist, then we offer ourselves with, in, and through Christ as His Body for the salvation of the world. As the Church, we pray as Christ through the Holy Spirit that all may become one body, and one spirit in Him as a total offering to God the Father.

So, it is through the Eucharist that the Church becomes a sign and sacrament of the salvation of mankind as obtained by Christ through the paschal mystery we celebrate. As the Body of Christ, we are a living sacrifice of praise through that Whom we receive and that Whom we are.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Salt and Light

Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time—A

Isaiah 58:7-10
Matthew 5:13-16

God’s presence and power shine most brightly through human weakness. Cases in point: Sarah, Moses, Hannah, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius of Loyola, Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother Teresa, and many, many more throughout the course of salvation history.

When we are weak—not insincere or arrogant weakness, but truthful, humble weakness—then we are strong. Weakest—and strongest—of all is Christ, God made man, crucified as a common criminal as he saves us from our sins and defeats death.

With a true awareness of who we are before God, our light breaks through the darkness like the dawn; like a glowing, mountainside city in a dark countryside; like a lamp lit to illuminate a shadowy room, or like a stained glass window in a church. Human frailty does not prevent us from drawing closer to God. Rather, when it is freely acknowledged, it becomes the seasoning of our redemption, purifying and preserving us in the name of God.

When the light of the Gospel shines through our shortcomings, failures, and faults, we come to know that our faith rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

This is what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.