Thursday, March 31, 2011

Exposed by the light

Sunday, April 3, 2011
Fourth Sunday in Lent—A

1Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

For the second Sunday in a row this Lenten season, we have a lengthy, intriguing, and exceedingly rich Gospel passage from John focusing on our call to conversion in Christ. Last week, the symbol of living water was employed to signify new life in Christ. This week, it is primarily light—or more specifically, the gift of sight.

Just as with the Samaritan woman last week, the nameless blind man in today’s Gospel is gradually drawn into a deeper recognition of Jesus’ identity. As he is questioned about his newfound sight, he first refers to his healer as “the man called Jesus.” Later, he calls him a prophet. Still later, he recognizes him as a man from God, and finally, after being excommunicated from temple worship, he converses with Jesus, confesses his faith in him, and calls him Lord.

Here, there is a progression of faith that will be signified in a very visible way during the liturgy for the Easter Vigil. At that time, the Easter candle will be lit from a fire outside the darkened church, and then lead us inside as we exclaim “Christ our light. Thanks be to God.” One flame gives light to all, and the church’s interior is illuminated for the celebration of the Easter mysteries. Gradually, we are led into the light. Once in darkness, we become children of light through Christ, the Light of the world. This is the good news we celebrate each and every Sunday and proclaim each day throughout the year.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are moving in the opposite direction. Arrogant in their own self-appointed light, they gradually move into the darkness, unable to see or believe in the true light of Christ. Ironically, having cast out the man who was blind, they become blind themselves and end up outside the illuminated church.Rather than rejoicing in the blind man’s newfound gift of sight, they judge, condemn, and ridicule. They cannot see beyond appearances—their own preconceived notions of what constitutes true sanctity.

As we move this Lent toward Easter, we must each ask ourselves: “Which direction am I headed?”

In the words of the priest as he lights the candle at the Easter Vigil, “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”

Monday, March 28, 2011

Francis and the 'spirit of liberty'

A few weeks ago during his weekly general audience, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a reflection on an often-overlooked 16th Century bishop and doctor of the Church, who nevertheless has had a profound impact on authentic contemporary spirituality and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

This historic figure happens to be a favorite of mine, since I took his name for my monastic profession. He is, of course, Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the patron saint of writers and the Catholic press. A renowned spiritual director and prolific writer, his most famous work is Introduction to the Devout Life.

Almost 400 years before Vatican II, he was a leading proponent of the universal call to holiness. St. Francis believed wholeheartedly (a rare position at the time) that everyone is called to a life of faith and prayer and holiness, and that such a life can (and must) be lived out concretely and daily within one’s given state—whether as a married couple, a religious, a widow, a single person, a factory worker, etc. His spirituality also emphasized God’s enduring and overwhelming love for all people, which he developed most fully in his masterpiece Treatise on the Love of God.

Although not a monk, much of St. Francis’ spirituality has a distinct Benedictine flavor to it, as has been pointed out in 20th-Century studies by monks of Maredsous Abbey in Belgium. Blessed Columba Marmion, O.S.B., once said of him: “I am convinced that of all the modern mystical authors, St. Francis de Sales has more of the spirit of St. Benedict.”

For these reasons and several others, I have a special affinity for this saint, and although he is not as well-known as someone like St. Francis of Assisi, he has much to offer and teach those interested in the spiritual life today. That is why I have a section of this blog to the right designated “The Wisdom of St. Francis de Sales” in which I share excerpts of his writings. So, when a confrere pointed out to me that the Pope had recently given a reflection on Francis de Sales, I eagerly looked it up and asked the translator (the original address was in Italian) for permission to reprint the entire piece here. Whether you're Catholic or not, the Pope's comments are worth reading and reflection on.

Below, then, is the catechesis given during Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience on March 2, courtesy of ZENIT News Agency ( Accompanying the text of the Pope’s speech are some photos I took last summer when I had the joyful privilege of visiting Annecy, France, where St. Francis de Sales lived and worked, and is entombed (for more on my 2010 visit to Annecy, click here and here).

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Dieu est le Dieu du coeur humain [God is the God of the human heart] (Treatise on the Love of God, I, XV): In these seemingly simple words we see the essence of a great teacher's spirituality, St. Francis de Sales, bishop and doctor of the Church, of whom I would like to speak to you today.

Born in 1567, in a French border region, he was the son of the Lord of Boisy, from an ancient and noble family of Savoy. Living across the span of two centuries, the 16th and 17th, he brought together the best of the teachings and cultural conquests of the century that was ending, joining a heritage of humanism with mysticism's longing for the absolute. His formation was quite complete: He did his higher studies in Paris, dedicating himself to theology as well, and at the University of Padua, he studied jurisprudence as his father wished, finishing brilliantly with a degree in utroque iure, canon law and civil law.

During his tranquil youth, while reflecting on the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, he had a profound crisis that drove him to question his eternal salvation and God's predestination in his respect, thus suffering as a true spiritual drama what were the principal theological questions of his time. He prayed intensely, but doubt tormented him so strongly that for some weeks he could scarcely eat or sleep. At the height of this trial, he went to the church of the Dominicans in Paris, opened his heart and prayed thus: "No matter what happens, Lord, you who have everything in hand, and whose ways are justice and truth, whatever you have established in my regard ... you who are always a just judge and merciful Father, I will love you, Lord [...] I will love you here, O my God, and I will always hope in your mercy, and I will always repeat your praise ... O Lord Jesus, you will always be my hope and my salvation in the land of the living" (I Proc. Canon., vol I, art 4).

The 20-year-old Francis found peace in the radical and liberating reality of the love of God: to love him without asking anything in return and to trust in his divine love; not to ask any longer what God will do with me: I will simply love him, regardless of what he does or does not give me. Thus he found peace, and the question of predestination -- which was being discussed at that time -- was resolved, because he no longer sought what he could have from God; he simply loved him, abandoned himself to his goodness. And this would be the secret of his life, which would shine in his principal work, Treatise on the Love of God.

Overcoming his father's resistance, Francis followed the Lord's call and on Dec. 18, 1593, was ordained a priest. In 1602 he became bishop of Geneva, at a time when the city was the stronghold of Calvinism, so much so that the episcopal see was "in exile" in Annecy. As pastor of a poor and tormented diocese, in a mountainous landscape in which he knew well both its harshness and beauty, he wrote: "I found [God] full of sweetness and gentleness among our highest and roughest mountains, where many simple souls loved and adored him in all truth and sincerity; and deer and chamois ran here and there among the frightening frost to proclaim his praises" (Letter to the Mother of Chantal, October 1606, in Oeuvres, Mackey publishers, T. XIII, o. 223).

And yet the influence of his life and of his teaching on the Europe of that time and of the following centuries was immense. He was an apostle, preacher, writer, man of action and prayer; committed to carrying out the ideals of the Council of Trent; involved in controversy and dialogue with Protestants, experiencing more and more the efficacy of personal relationships and of charity, beyond a necessary theological confrontation. He was charged with diplomatic missions at the European level, and with social tasks of mediation and reconciliation.

However, above all, St. Francis de Sales was a guide of souls: from his meeting with a young woman, Mrs. de Charmoisy, he got the idea to write one of the most well-read books in the modern age, Introduction to the Devout Life. From his profound spiritual communion with an exceptional personality, St. Jane Frances de Chantal, a new religious family was born, the Order of the Visitation, characterized -- as the saint wished -- by total consecration to God lived in simplicity and humility, in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well: "... I want my Daughters -- he wrote -- to have no ideal other than that of glorifying [Our Lord] with their humility" (Letter to Monsignor de Marquemond, June 1615).

He died in 1622, at 55 years of age, after an existence marked by the harshness of the times and apostolic toil.

St. Francis' life was relatively brief, but lived with great intensity. An impression of rare fulfillment emanates from this saint, demonstrated in the serenity of his intellectual research, but also in the richness of his affections, and in the "gentleness" of his teachings, which have had great influence on the Christian conscience. He embodied several meanings of the word "humanity," which, today as yesterday, can denote culture and courtesy, liberty and tenderness, nobility and solidarity.

His appearance had something of the majesty of the landscape in which he lived, also preserving simplicity and naturalness. The old words and the images with which he expressed himself surprisingly sound like a native and familiar language to people's ears even today.

To Philotea, the fictional recipient of his Introduction to the Devout Life (1607), Francis de Sales addressed an invitation that might have seemed at the time revolutionary. It is the invitation to belong completely to God, living his presence in the world and the tasks of one's state in fullness.

"My intention is to instruct those who live in the city, in the conjugal state, in the courts [...]" (Preface to Introduction to the Devout Life). The document with which Pope Leo XIII, more than two centuries later, would proclaim him doctor of the Church insisted on this extension of the call to perfection, to sanctity. He wrote there: "[true piety] has penetrated to the throne of the king, in the tents of army heads, in the praetorium of judges, in offices, in shops and even in shepherds' huts [...]" (Brief Dives in misericordia, Nov. 16, 1877).

Thus was born the appeal to the laity, that care to consecrate temporal things and sanctify the every day, on which the Second Vatican Council and the spirituality of our time insist.

He spoke of the ideal of a reconciled humanity, harmony between action in the world and prayer, between the secular state and the pursuit of perfection, with the help of God's grace, which permeates the human and, without destroying it, purifies it, raising it to the divine heights. To Theotimus, the adult, spiritually mature Christian to whom he would address a few years later his Treatise on the Love of God (1616), St. Francis de Sales gives a more complex lesson. It supposes at the beginning a precise vision of the human being, an anthropology: man's "reason," in fact the "reasonable soul," was seen as a harmonious structure, a temple articulated in more spaces around a center, which, together with the great mystics, he called the "summit," the "point" of the spirit, or the depths of the soul.

It is the point in which reason, having passed through all its degrees, "closes its eyes" and knowledge becomes altogether one with love (cf. Book I, Chapter XII). The fact that love, in its theological, divine dimension is the reason for being of all things, in an ascending ladder that does not seem to know fractures or abysses, St. Francis de Sales resumed in a famous phrase: "Man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is man's perfection; love is the perfection of the spirit, and charity is the perfection of love" (ibid., Book X, Chapter I).

In an epoch of intense mystical flowering, the Treatise on the Love of God was a true and proper summa, as well as a fascinating literary work. His description of the itinerary toward God starts from the recognition of the "natural inclination" (ibid., Book I, Chapter XVI) inscribed in man's heart to love God above all things, despite being a sinner.

Following the model of sacred Scripture, St. Francis de Sales speaks of the union between God and man by developing a whole series of images of interpersonal relationships. His God is Father and Lord, spouse and friend; he has maternal and nursing characteristics. He is the sun of which even the night is a mysterious revelation. Such a God draws man to himself with bonds of love, that is of true liberty: "because love does not force or have slaves, but reduces everything under its obedience with such a delicious force that, if nothing is as strong as love, nothing is as lovable as his force" (Book I, Chapter VI).

We find in our saint's Treatise a profound meditation on the human will and the description of its flowing, passing, dying, to live (cf. Ibid., Book IX, Chapter XIII) in complete abandonment not only to the will of God, but to what pleases him, to his bon plaisir, to his approval (cf. Ibid., Book IX, Chapter I). At the summit of union with God, in addition to the raptures of contemplative ecstasies, is placed the reappearance of concrete charity, which is attentive to all the needs of others and which he calls "ecstasies of life and works" (Ibid., Book VII, chapter VI).

Reading the book on the love of God and even more so the many letters of direction and of spiritual friendship, one perceives what an expert St. Francis de Sales was on the human heart. To St. Jane of Chantal, he wrote: "[...] Here is the general rule of our obedience, written in capital letters: DO ALL THROUGH LOVE, NOTHING THROUGH CONSTRAINT; LOVE OBEDIENCE MORE THAN YOU FEAR DISOBEDIENCE. I want you to have the spirit of liberty, not the kind that excludes obedience -- this is freedom of the flesh -- but the liberty that excludes constraint, anxiety and scruples" (Letter of Oct. 14, 1604).

Not for nothing, at the origin of many paths of pedagogy and spirituality of our time we rediscover the stamp of this teacher, without whom there would be no St. John Bosco or the heroic "little way" of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Dear brothers and sisters, in an age such as ours that seeks liberty, even with violence and disturbance, the timelines of this great teacher of spirituality and peace should not be missed, a teacher who gave to his disciples the "spirit of liberty," the true one, as the culmination of his fascinating and complete teaching on the reality of love. St. Francis de Sales is an exemplary witness of Christian humanism; with his accessible style, with words that at times have the touch of poetry, he reminds that man bears inscribed in his deepest self nostalgia for God and that only in him is found his true joy and most complete fulfillment.
Translation by ZENIT:
Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Like a dry, weary land

God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

For you love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.

On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for you have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand holds me fast.

Psalm 63: 1-9

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Give me this water

Sunday, March 27, 2011
Third Sunday in Lent—A

Exodus 17:3-7
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

“I thirst,” Jesus said from the cross (John 19:28). The Son of God longs for our faith in him, our conversion, our eternal union in the Holy Trinity. And to prove it, as St. Paul says, he died for us while we were still sinners.

For this reason, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman—a foreigner in a hostile region, and a sinner—“Give me a drink.” She has come to the deep, dark well to draw stagnant water because it’s all she knows. Yet, hidden in her heart is a thirst for something more life-giving, and Jesus patiently draws that holy desire out of her. He slowly and lovingly turns her toward conversion by offering her “living water.”

However, the Gospel passage is not about water, but rather life in Spirit and truth that Jesus offers to us all. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus extends this invitation: “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him’” (John 7:37-38).

Without water for our bodies, we die. And without the living water of the Spirit, our souls remain submerged in the Samaritan woman’s deep, dark well of lifeless water. However, Jesus does not force our hand. He engages the woman on her terms. He allows her to direct the flow of the conversation.

Gradually, she begins to trust him, and finally says to him, “Give me this water.” The moment for her conversion has arrived, but Jesus does not condemn. Again, he slowly and lovingly states the facts, and then allows her to absorb and respond to them at her own pace.

The Samaritan woman prefigures the Church. Just as Isaac, Jacob, and Moses meet their wives at a well, Christ engages his Bride (the Church, and our individual souls), and offers us his life-giving Spirit.

Just as with the Samaritan woman, Jesus is patient and loving with us. His hope is that finally, like her, we will believe, leave behind our old water jar (way of life), and pick up a new vessel that pours his Spirit into the lives of others.

He alone satisfies our thirst for eternal life. Let us ask him, “Give me this water.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Signs of spring

Bradford pear tree in bloom.
Lent is a sleeping spring
in the earth:
the seeding and quickening,
from the sown red seed
of the Lord of Love,
to the season of trees in bud
and the white flower on the thorn.

It is not easy to see
the Eternal arms,
wide to the world-embrace
in the little reach
of man's capacity.
It is not easy to see
Christ crucified
in the human race
when death is commonplace.

Long ago
men carved the crucifix
from the wood of flowering trees--
rosewood, and pearwood, and lime,
and pine, and chestnut,
and walnut and sycamore.
On Easter morning,
Christ unwinds the burial bands
and lays them by:
the balm and the spikenard,
the anointing of tears,
the soundless snow
of the white sleep of death,
the body of Christ lays by.

He sets his feet on the dust.
He extends his open hands
with a supreme gesture of love.
He uncovers his heart.

man is listening
for the first footsteps
of the risen Christ.

He hears
an unseen bird singing
and leaves opening
one by one
in a multitudinous green solitude.

Caryll Houselander, "Holy Saturday"

Daffodils in the monastery rock garden.

Monk tales

One of God's gifts to humanity is a healthy sense of humor, and living in a monastery provides plenty of opportunities to use and express that gift. Any household or group of people who regularly interact with one another is bound to encounter situations that seem so incongruent that all anyone can do is laugh. And when there are 60-70 people of widely varying ages, backgrounds, temperaments, education levels, interests, and abilities who live, work and pray together 24/7 as we monks do, a good sense of humor is even essential!

All this came to mind last evening as I prepared to wait tables in the refectory just before the evening meal. As I busied about, I noticed a single banana on a counter. Not a strange sight. Apparently, someone had set it aside. But I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had transcribed in permanent marker on the peel in block letters: "DONALD".

For some reason, that struck me as awfully funny, and it added an extra spring to my step as I continued preparations for dinner. Why in the world, I thought, would someone label a banana? Not five feet away was a huge bin of bananas (and in much better shape than "DONALD's," I might add). Now, to be fair, we have a Fr. Donald who lives in the infirmary. He is 93 years old, and is still pretty with it, although he can't move around as much as he used to be able to do. No doubt, the banana was intended for him. I can only guess that at some point, whomever had prepared his meal to be taken over to the infirmary had labeled the banana to identify his tray.

Whatever the case, here was an apparently forgotten, half-rotten banana near a bin practically overflowing with perfectly ripe bananas. But, lest anyone dare, the rotten one belongs to DONALD, so hands off !!!

Two things (among many) that I think monks do exceptionally well (in most cases) is laughing at themselves, and sharing stories with one another that are passed down through the years. Perhaps from time to time, I will share a few as I blog. Two such stories come immediately to mind. They didn't happen in my presence, but occurred within the last several years and have been told and retold. The stories with real lasting power, it seems, are not only funny, but also reveal some kernel of truth about a particular situation or person.

Br. Zachary likes to tell the story about Br. Stephen's smile. Br. Stephen died a couple years ago, may God rest his soul. He didn't smile much, although he had a wry sense of humor. In his later years, he could be a bit grumpy and demanding at times, which is only natural for those whose bodies are aging and infirm. Anyway, one day Br. Zachary was in the refectory quietly preparing for that evening's meal. Suddenly, Br. Stephen's motorized scooter roars into the room and comes to a screeching halt. Br. Zachary goes over to assist Br. Stephen to his seat. As he does this--God knows why--Br. Stephen orders him: "Here, hold this!" He then places something in Br. Zachary's hand.

Looking down, it becomes obvious to Br. Zachary that Br. Stephen has extracted his set of false teeth and deposited them in his hand for safekeeping.

Momentarily speechless, Br. Zachary finally says, "Why,  Br. Stephen, how lovely! You've given me your smile!"

Perhaps my favorite story is that told by Br. John Mark about an encounter he had with another monk shortly after he joined the monastery about eight years ago. The other monk was Br. Jerome, who is now 82 years old. One of Br. Jerome's pet peeves is running across a depleted paper towel holder. In his view, no one but him seems to want to take the time to replace them, although a cabinet full of fresh rolls is usually just a few feet away. This of course, is a problem that plagues every household known to humanity. It exasperates Br. Jerome, and he will say so--though he also proudly (and truthfully) proclaims, "I've mellowed" over the years.

One day, the still impressionable Br. John Mark--new to monastic life and eager to soak in the wisdom of his elders--came upon Br. Jerome in the hallway. Br. Jerome was juggling an armload of rolls of paper towels, and appeared none to happy about it. Br. John Mark, unaware of the other's ongoing struggle over the aforementioned issue, says, "Wow, Br. Jerome, you sure have a lot of paper towels there."

To which Br. Jerome responds quietly but firmly: "I live meekly in a state of war."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seeking the still, small voice of God

Monday, March 21, 2011
The Passing of our Blessed Father Benedict

Proverbs: 2:1-9
Acts 2: 42-44
Matthew 19:23-30

It is often fruitful during lectio divina, or sacred reading, of Scripture to focus in on particular phrases loaded with meaning and to reconfigure them into short little prayers or “holy reminders.” Today’s first reading from the Book of Proverbs is ripe with such juicy morsels:

Receive my words.
Treasure my commands.
Turn your ear.
Incline your heart.
Seek understanding.

Before we speak or act, we need to be still and listen, to incline our hearts to the wisdom of God, who is always present to us. With such wisdom at our common disposal, we are rich beyond measure.

Through the intercession of St. Benedict, let us make known the riches of God’s glory by preferring nothing whatever to Christ, so that he may bring us all together to everlasting life!

Benedict's blessings

Tomorrow--March 21--we celebrate the Solemnity of the Passing of Our Holy Father St. Benedict here at Saint Meinrad. And there are plenty of things to celebrate as we honor the founder of western monasticism whose "little rule for beginners" has inspired millions of Christian disciples for over 1,500 years.

In a way, St. Benedict has two feast days during the liturgical year. Up until 1962, it was March 21 (the date of his death in 547 A.D.) in the old Roman calendar. It was moved to July 11 (the date of the transfer of his relics) to free the early part of the year up for the Lenten observance. Much of the Church observes the feast day now as a memorial on July 11, though a number of Benedictine foundations still reserve March 21 to honor the saint. Here at Saint Meinrad, we observe March 21 as a Solemnity and July 11 as simply a feast day. Many other monasteries celebrate on July 11, but doing so here would not be as feasible because it's during the summer when all the seminarians and students are away and many monks are off on summer assignments or vacation.

From a personal standpoint, I will always be partial to July 11, because that is the day my house sold in 2006, freeing me up to quit my job and come to the monastery a few months later. It was an enormously trying period for me because I still had not heard back about whether or not my application to the monastery had been officially accepted, and yet I had to get the house on the market and sell it if I was going to have any reasonable chance to be here for the beginning of candidacy in the fall. And I could not quit my job until the house sold. It was not a good time to be selling houses in the area where I lived, so I was taking an enormous leap of faith all around, and I felt very overwhelmed.

It still makes me smile as I recall that I received not one but THREE offers for the house on July 11, when my house had only been on the market for 10 days and other nearby homes in my price range had been sitting idle for months. I was amazed and very fortunate. Needless to day, it was a huge consolation and confirmation that I was on the right track, and everything quickly fell into place after that.

In any event, now that I'm here, I honor the memory of St. Benedict on March 21 along with the rest of the monastic community at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. And this year's celebration has a little extra punch to it. Visiting with us is the newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Christopher Coyne, who will be presiding at Mass tomorrow. In addition, many of our Benedictine oblates are here for their annual retreat, and they will join the seminarians and the monastic community at Mass and for dinner afterward.

We've had some "bonus" guests as well. Six Trappist monks (who also follow the Rule, but live it out a little differently than Benedictines) from the Abbey of Gethsemani are here to celebrate with us--two juniors, two novices, and two formation directors. Our novice and juniors will spend some time together exchanging observations. (Gethsemani, obviously, is the Kentucky monastery where Thomas Merton lived in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and is within a two-hour drive from Saint Meinrad.)

In addition, yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting with Benedictine retreat leader and author Jane Tomaine (St. Benedict's Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living). She is in the area giving a series of worskshops at the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in nearby Ferdinand where the Sisters of St. Benedict reside. It was her first visit to Saint Meinrad, although I have worked with her through my association with Abbey Press Publications (she wrote "Living Simply" for us in the Notes from a Monastery series launched in 2009; hers was one of the initial booklets in the series, and it is still one of the most popular).

And, of course, on the eve of this feast, I am also fondly recalling my brief stay last summer at Sacro Speco (Sacred Cave) in Italy, where it all began for St. Benedict and his Rule. (See June 1, 2010, post Clinging to the Rock )

So, there is much to celebrate and be thankful for. The witness of so many different people striving to live out St. Benedict's vision within their own particular vocation is truly an inspiration. May St. Benedict continue to blesss and guide us as we all seek to prefer nothing to Christ.

God our Father,
you made St. Benedict an outstanding guide
to teach us how to live in your service.
Grant that by preferring your love
to everything else, we may walk
in the way of your commandments.

Stir up, O Lord, in your Church, the spirit
with which St. Benedict was animated,
that filled with the same spirit,
we may learn to love
what he loved
and practice
what he taught.

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

'Rise, and do not be afraid.'

Jesus came and touched them,
saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid."
And when they raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

Matthew 17:7-8

Thursday, March 17, 2011

So funny it's scary

Little Emerson is full of simple wonder, terror,
and joy when his mother blows her nose.
When did we forget to be so free?

Strength that comes from God

Sunday, March 20, 2011
Second Sunday in Lent—A

Genesis: 12:1-4a
2Timothy 1: 8b-10
Matthew 17:1-9

How often have you received a word of encouragement at the precise moment at which you needed it? A phone call, an email, a “chance” encounter with a friend, the simple wisdom of an innocent child, or an inner epiphany of sorts that sheds new light on everything.

We’ve all received them at one time or another. Occasionally, such moments provide strength we did not realize we had to accomplish something we would never have dreamed of previously. In today’s first reading, the patriarch Abraham is called by God to leave everything behind to go somewhere else for a purpose yet to be revealed. But the command comes with a promise of untold blessing. So, by faith, Abraham sets out to accomplish by grace God’s design for him.

Such a promise is revealed in the Gospel as Jesus appears transfigured on the mountaintop to Peter, James, and John. Significantly, in Matthew’s chapter (16) before this scene, Jesus had begun to foretell his crucifixion and speak of the high cost of discipleship for anyone wishing to follow him. So, the Transfiguration is a moment of light, a word of encouragement to the same three apostles who will later be present during Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. After his death and resurrection, it becomes a source of hope and strength in their mission of spreading the Gospel and enduring hardship and persecution.

As St. Paul says in the second reading, “bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God,” because Jesus has “destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Like Abraham, God has designs for each one of us, and it is by his grace that we CAN accomplish them!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Awash in God's tears

Normally each morning during our lectio period after Vigils and Lauds, I pick up Scripture (typically that day’s readings for Mass, which immediately follows), or some other type of spiritual reading. This morning, after meditating on the Scripture passages for Mass (Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 11:29-32), something next to my chair caught my eye—the March 14 issue of America magazine, with an article titled “Weapon of War: Who will Protect the Women of Congo?” It is a gut-wrenching account of the unthinkable brutality that has terrorized the people of Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo for years.

I wouldn’t usually advise reaching for a news magazine (even a Catholic one) to pore over as lectio divina. Scripture or the writings of the saints, Church fathers, or other spiritual authors are much more conducive to prayer. However, the America article seemed to fit somehow into my own reflection on the Mass readings and other circumstances around the world and closer to home.

I won’t even attempt to describe the political and social climate in the Congo region that has immersed it in warfare for almost 20 years, and how the world has responded (or not). There are numerous and complex sources of conflict which I am not capable of commenting on. However, on the simple level of our shared humanity, what is going on in the Congo is utterly horrifying, and almost none of it makes the headlines.

According to the article, since 1994 five million Congolese have been killed in the conflict. FIVE MILLION !!! That is more people, by far, than populate the city of Los Angeles. If that weren’t enough, rape is one of the primary “weapons” used by rebels and various forces. As the article describes it, villages are routinely raided by troops who savagely beat the male citizens, and then force them to watch as they repeatedly rape their children, wives, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers. Thousands of women have been subjected to this by forces seeking the upper hand over one another through intimidation, terror, and degradation, the article states.

Needless to say, the violence has had a devastating effect on the surviving victims at the deepest of human levels. I can’t think of a more apt depiction of hell on earth.

Unless it’s Japan. A 9.0 earthquake is destructive and traumatizing enough. Fleeing and watching (for those so “fortunate”) the immense rolling waves of the ocean that literally swept whole coastal towns off the map adds insult to injury. No one yet knows how many thousands were killed because the damage is so severe. As rescuers pluck through the debris looking for survivors, radiation is seeping from a number of damaged nuclear reactors as controllers scramble to prevent complete meltdowns that could inflict even more pain and suffering on the people for generations.

The other day, a former newspaper colleague of mine wryly remarked on his blog: “It will be futile to make any more ‘disaster’ movies. The whole planet is a disaster movie these days. Probably always was, but now we can be sure that every act of God (and there are plenty) will be captured on video and served up piping hot within minutes.”

My friend is right, though I don’t agree with his sentiment of blaming the God whom he claims not to believe in for all this mess.

Closer to home, the much-too-young father of a fellow monk lies unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator in a hospital bed, surrounded by stunned and frightened family members who simply can’t take it all in. That is a scene I can certainly relate to.

Sheer madness. Where does it all end?

Or, even better, why?

Good questions. I am reminded of a conversation related to me by a good friend grieving over the loss of her 42-year-old husband (and a friend of mine) to cancer. She was speaking with her father, and cried out to him, “It’s not fair!”

And he responded, “You’re right.”

My friend told me that she has always appreciated that response. Her father didn’t try to ease his own discomfort by offering up empty platitudes or attempting to explain anything. He didn’t tell her not to feel the way she did. He simply acknowledged her pain and entered into it with her. He filled his daughter’s grief with his presence.

That is a key insight for us all, I think, and reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by the French poet Paul Claudel: “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it, but to fill it with his presence.”

OK, but still, why the suffering in the first place?

Humanity has struggled with that question for millennia. I won’t attempt to deceive you into believing that this blog will finally and absolutely answer it.

I don’t know how it all works, but from the perspective of faith, I will say this (hold on to your hats!):

We suffer because of sin.

Go ahead, scream and curse at me. Get it out of your system, but please read on.

I am NOT saying that the good people of Japan, or Congo, or that my confrere’s father or my friend’s late husband—anyone—deserve what they are getting because of their sins. That would make me the most detestable of all.

But the simple fact of the matter, quite obviously, is that ours is a sorely broken and fallen world. Why? Because our choices matter in this life (and the next). We are not independent of one another, despite what our culture tells us. Everything we do or say or think as human beings has a ripple effect on the lives of other human beings and the world around us far beyond our capacity to see or discern—like a small pebble dropped into a pond that sends ripples out in all directions.

Yes, it is difficult to accept and is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that present difficulties arise from our personal sins, although our own failings may cause us—or others—to suffer. Rather we suffer because of original sin—the fallen nature of humanity.

Original sin was NOT, as my blogging colleague writes, “eating a measly little apple.” It was pride—the intentional decision to turn away from God, to control our own lives apart from the Creator, to “be like gods” (Genesis 3:5).

This separation continues to hurt us to this very day. It manifests itself in our various sufferings because it’s not how we were created to live. Death entered the world because we turned away from the Life that is God, who in his justice honors our free will, our choices. However, God did not invent death, and he does not inflict it as punishment.

I keep a newspaper clipping in my Bible of a letter to the editor written a number of years ago. It struck me then because the writer so succinctly captures our plight:

“By granting us free choice in our affairs, God allows the consequences of our bad choices to impact us and, to our shame, innocent future generations. God’s ‘vengeance’ [as it were] is to allow us to live in the world that we have chosen to physically and morally despoil.”

Fine, one may say, then how do you explain earthquakes and tsunamis?

Simple. I don’t. I cannot comprehend the inner workings of the cosmos any more than anyone else. But I am convinced that we are all connected to one another and everything around us in myriad ways unseen. When we fractured our relationship with God, who created us in his image of Perfect Goodness, the world came along with us. We are of the same substance, formed from the ground, and one with it. “Adam” means “man” in Hebrew; it is a play on the similar-sounding word “adama,” which means “ground”.

So, who knows?

But most of us are not committing atrocities like those being committed in Congo, and are trying to lead decent lives. We’re good people, right?

Yes, that may be true, but the darkness of heart that leads some to commit such acts as outright murder, rape, etc., surely lurks in the hearts of each and every one of us in one way or another. We should not try to fool ourselves into thinking that we are “more civilized” than others. Some of history’s greatest acts of barbarism have been carried out by the most “intelligent” and “civilized” of societies.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know what is truly in our hearts. Secretly pleased in another’s misfortune because it improves our own standing. Falsely and maliciously harming another’s reputation because of a long-nursed grudge. Focusing our attention on materialistic self-indulgence while turning a blind eye to the needs and suffering of others. In one way or another, to one degree or another, it’s all there, and it affects us all.

Jesus explicitly says that those who harbor murderous or adulterous thoughts are just as guilty as those who act on them (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28).

Then what are we to do? Sit in sackcloth and ashes like the citizens of Nineveh in today’s first reading from the prophet Jonah? Well, it wouldn’t be a bad start.

More important, I think, is interior repentance—recognizing and owning up to our individual and collective failings and their untold effects on the rest of humanity—that leads to outward transformation of ourselves and the world.

I am reminded of something our instructor (Fr. Guy Mansini, O.S.B.) said in Ecclesiology class the other day. A little out of context here, but still applicable, I believe:

“All the truly important things that happen in the Church happen secretly and silently, not publicly.”

If this is true, and I think it is, we all have a lot of work to do. And it starts in each one of our hearts.

Rather than focusing on who or what may be responsible for acts of war and violence, earthquakes, man-made disasters, and illness, the vital question for each one of us is this:

“Is your heart ready to return to God, to welcome restoration of that fractured relationship—no matter what else may be happening?”

In other words, whatever the case may be for those caught up in the world’s tragedies, where do you stand? If your earthly life would cease this day, would you be ready?

Jesus says as much in the Gospel of Luke: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those 18 people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (13:2-5)

I am absolutely and irrevocably convinced that at the point in time (and it will happen), that every single person on Earth finally turns to God in all humility within his or her heart, eternity will fully enter in, and all pain and suffering will cease.

When we stop looking for and assigning blame, and begin to acknowledge the Creator in whose image we were made, and our true relation to one another, on THAT day, we will say to God in sincerity and truth:

“It’s not fair.”

And God will say, “You’re right.”

Then, our eyes will be opened, and we will realize that Jesus has entered so fully into our sufferings that he has taken them all to himself and given them to God with one last gasp: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

At that moment, we will realize for joyful infinity that we have been in God’s embrace all along, awash in his tears.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lenten feast

Sunday, March 13, 2011
First Sunday in Lent—A

Genesis: 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Romans 5: 12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The Word of God is not something outside us. Rather, the Word is a Person already written on our hearts. We have only to open ourselves to the presence of the Eternal Word, to hunger for the Word made Flesh, and then share this Life of Christ with the world.

This is borne out in the first sentence of today’s first reading: God “blew into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life.” And as we know from the Gospel of John (1:1), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Word is our very breath!

Jesus, fasting in the desert for 40 days in today’s Gospel, is tempted by Satan three times to turn away from God the Father in ways that should be familiar to us all. Each time, Jesus resists with words from Scripture. “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God,” he declares.

This is inspiration for us all, especially during Lent. Jesus was also human. While fasting, he was hungry. But when tempted to distrust and disobey God, he turned to the very Word that gives us life because he IS Life (John 6:27).

As we make our own Lenten journey into the desert where temptation can serve to strengthen our holy resolve, let us meditate more deeply on God’s gift to us in Word and Sacrament. As Pope Benedict XVI said during his Ash Wednesday general audience, “He does not really fast who does not know how to nourish himself on the Word of God. Lent invites us to more faithful and intense prayer and to a prolonged meditation on the Word of God.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dust to dust

O Lord,
make us know
the shortness
of our life
that we may
gain wisdom
of heart.

Psalm 90:12

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bona Opera (revisited)

NOTE: With Ash Wednesday this week beginning the season of Lent, I am re-posting here something which orginally appeared on this blog two years ago. Information provided by the webhost of this blog indicates that many readers have been searching for this piece or something like it, so I thought I would re-post to make it more accessible.

A most blessed Lenten season to all --Br. Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Blossoming believer

Congratulations to my nephew Ian, 8, who was baptized today. Although I was not able to be at the ceremony, I agreed to be one of his Godparents, and am keeping him in prayer today--along with my sister Shannon and her husband Ty. May God bless them all and uphold Ian in faithfully living out his baptismal promises as the Kingdom of God gradually unfolds within him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lenten Prayer

God our Father,

Your Son, taking on our humanity, was led by your Spirit into the desert to confront the passions that threaten to mislead us all. In the garden, he willingly accepted the agony of knowing what it is to be cut off from God when we follow those passions. And on the cross, he became sin itself to release us from its grip.

Descending into the depths of hell, he showed us how to confront and accept our humanity so that we may rise with him in Easter glory, take on his divinity, and ascend to you in Spirit and truth.

During this Lenten season of heightened prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, help us to enter into the true Passion of Christ to confront and overcome the human passions that threaten to delude us into self-exaltation. Grant us the humility that allows us to be more human, more like Christ--who humbled himself for us. May we know the joy of descending the ladder of humility with him, so that we may ascend to you with him through self-knowledge.

Increase our faith, hope, and love, so that through self-sacrifice we may seek the things that are above while keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground from which we were formed by you, the Creator who gives us all that is good, and promises more than we can imagine.

Through the same Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Spirituality from below

"If you want to know God,
learn to know yourself first."
Evagrius, a Desert Father 

There are many people who have become fascinated too soon with spiritual paths. They think they can take these paths while skipping the difficult path of self-knowledge, the encounter with their own shadow side. The Desert Fathers warn us about spirituality that seeks to take heaven by storm: it can easily share the fate of Icarus, who made waxen wings and then plummeted when he came too close to the sun.

It’s important that piety keep its feet on the ground, that it penetrates everyday life and work. St. Benedict describes this spirituality from below in the chapter of his Rule on humilitas. He takes Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28) as an image for our way to God. The paradox of our spiritual path consists in the fact that we ascend to God by descending into our own reality.

By descending into our earth-boundedness (humility is derived from humus, or soil) we come into contact with heaven, with God. When we find the courage to climb down into our own passions, they lead us up to God.

The Church fathers see in Jesus Christ, who first descended into hell before ascending into heaven (Eph. 4:9), another model for our ascent to God. Like Jesus, we first have to go down into our humanity before going up to God together with him.

Spirituality from below points out that we come to God through careful self-observation and sincere self-knowledge. We don’t find out what God wants from us in the lofty ideals we set for ourselves. Spirituality from below believes that we discover God’s will for us, that we can find our vocation, only if we have the courage to descend into our reality and deal with our passions, our drives, our needs and wishes. The way to God leads through the encounter with myself, through the descent into my reality.
Anselm Gruen, O.S.B.
Monk of the Abbey of Muensterschwarzach, Germany
(Heaven Begins with You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers, 1999)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Reaching for the Light

Spring is officially still a few weeks away, but signs of its impending arrival are popping up amid the relatively mild weather of late. For about a week, I have carefully noted the green shoots from a cluster of crocuses poking through the dead leaves in the monastery courtyard just outside the refectory. Now, they have begun blooming. Always a welcome sight--and a mysterious sign pointing to a much larger truth with a much greater promise for us all.

From the ground up

Sunday, March 6, 2011
Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time—A

Deuteronomy: 11:18, 26-28, 32
Romans 3: 21-25, 28
Matthew 7:21-27

Take “these words of mine” into your very being, Moses tells the ancient Israelites. Listen to “these words of mine” and act on them, Jesus tells the crowds. It is no accident that this same phrase is used by both Moses, who prefigures Christ, and Jesus in addressing their followers—and us today. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, and by giving us his very body and blood on the cross, his words become ours, and should become the very foundation of our daily lives.

If you’ve ever watched a house being built, you know that it seems to take a considerable amount of time to prepare the ground and set the foundation. Once that is accomplished, the rest of the building seems to rise relatively quickly. When it is completed, however, the work doesn’t end. The home still requires regular maintenance and occasional repairs if it is to withstand the rains, floods, and winds of life.

So it is with our souls, and two things are key. First, the strength of the foundation determines the stability of the entire structure. It must be set solidly on rock, not shifting sand. Secondly, the inner life of the structure must be filled with the grace of faith in Jesus of which St. Paul speaks in the second reading. One is not opposed to the other. Faith must animate our works, and our works must build our faith.

As we prepare this week to begin the season of Lent, let us take these words of Christ to heart, so that we remain set solidly on rock without fear of collapsing amid the storms of life.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Your fury has swept down upon me. Your terrors have utterly destroyed me.
They surround me all the day like a flood, they assail me all together.
Psalm 88:17-18

North Main Street looking south in Findlay Tuesday.
Photo by Dave Zapotosky, The (Toledo) Blade

I am not sure who the patron saint against flooding is, but if you know, perhaps you can invoke him/her on behalf of my hometown of Findlay, Ohio (about a five and half hour drive to the northeast of Saint Meinrad).

Once again, Findlay is under water.

This past weekend's heavy rainstorms and melting snow cast the muddy brown waters of the Blanchard River that snakes through the city's center over its banks yesterday. The river crested at 16.42 feet (more than 5 feet above flood stage, which is 11 feet). Although once again causing significant damage and inconvience, many residents are grateful that the flooding was about a foot lower than initial forecasts had warned. And, thankfully, though the high waters have disrupted lives, they haven't claimed any.
Still, things are a mess, and this has been happening quite often in recent years.
Actually, the city is still attempting to recover from a devastating flood in August 2007, when the river crested at 18.5 feet (tying the record set in 1913), and caused an estimated $60 million in damage. Then, adding insult to injury, it happened again in February 2008, as the river crested at 16.5 feet. Remarkably, just over a year later, another "smaller" flood affected the city, with a crest of 15.4 feet. And now, March 1, 2011 is added to the list.
Findlay has a long history of major floods (click here to see a short video from the website of the town's newspaper, The Courier,, and the latest instances have made national headlines.
The 10 highest recorded crests of the Blanchard River are as follows, according to The National Weather Service (all registered as major flood stages):
Aug. 22, 2007 -- 18.5 feet
March 13, 1913 -- 18.5 feet
June 14, 1981 -- 17.43 feet
Feb. 11, 1959 -- 16.76
Feb. 7, 2008 -- 16.5 feet
March 1, 2011 -- 16.42
Jan. 22, 1959 -- 16.1 feet
June 2, 1997-- 15.42 feet
March 9, 2009 -- 15.41 feet
Dec. 1, 1927 -- 15.4 feet
I remember the 1981 flood very well. I was in high school at the time, and recall my friends and I helping a business owner or two near the river on Main Street move equipment and place sandbags. The others occurred while I was living away from Findlay, but I heard plenty about them. (I should note that a number of  "lesser" but still significant floods are not on the list above, some of them from the 1990s). One of my uncles used to own a business on North Main Street that was seriously affected with each flood.
My mother, who still lives in Findlay, is high and dry in the section of town where she is (though she is cut off from the majority of the city). Still, I have plenty of relatives and friends right now who are not so fortunate, and are dealing with this for at least the fouth time in four years.
I won't speculate on all the reasons why this is happening. Flooding is a myterious phenomenon, and must be lived with to a certain extent, perhaps. Part of it is due to the geography. Findlay sits a little lower than the miles of flat farmland surrounding it, so it becomes a bowl of sorts. Major residential and commerical development in the city's outlying regions is likely a contributing factor. Who knows all the reasons? Obviously, the issue has become a major source of frustration and controversy for many residents and officials, and it is clear something must be done to address it. Steps have been taken in that regard, but it is a long and costly process.
Things seem to be easing this morning in Findlay, from what I have heard and seen. Massive cleanup, once again, continues, however. And though the waters may be receding back into its banks of the Blanchard River, their power remains to rise again ...