The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Fr. Rupert -- Dressed for action

NOTE: As many of you likely know by now, this past weekend we lost a very holy and faithful monk -- Fr. Rupert Ostdick, O.S.B. He was 95 years old (read his full obituary here). Though 95 and suffering from spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease, Fr. Rupert was still a very active member of the monastic community (he got around on a motorized scooter), rarely missing community prayer times, meals, meetings, and other gatherings. He passed on to his eternal reward quite suddenly early Saturday morning as he was getting dressed in his infirmary room before the beginning of Vigils and Lauds in the Archabbey Church.

Today was his funeral Mass and burial, and below is the homily delivered by Fr. Eugene Hensell, O.S.B. For those of you unfortunate enough to know Fr. Rupert, a few clues to his personality and bearing may make help make more sense of the allusions made in Fr. Eugene's homily. First, Fr. Rupert was a very joyful, gentle, and gracious man, a true gentleman in every sense of the word. He always had a smile for everyone he met, and he never (or rarely) forgot a name. He was also someone who disliked disorder. To put it mildly, Fr Rupert was very precise about everything he did -- from his daily routine to his diction. And like a Timex watch, he took a licking and kept on ticking. When I first arrived at the monastery 10 years ago, one of his arms was in a sling, the result of a serious bicycling accident (he was 85 at the time). When he healed, and I suspect with the Abbot's orders, he switched to a sleek-looking, low-riding tricycle. In the years afterward, there were other falls and mishaps. Once he tripped in the monastery refectory and broke his neck. As he waited for the ambulance in the infirmary, he was dictating, in very precise terms, all the details of his prescription medications for the nurse. Another time, I actually watched him fall down the stairs ahead of me as we walked to church. That didn't stop him either. And on the day he died, he was dressing, as he would any morning, for morning prayer in the Archabbey Church. Fr. Rupert, a good and faithful monk (not to mention tough), was always ready for action. Now, may he rest in peace.
"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”


Stories about watchfulness and being prepared for the coming of the Son of Man originated at a time in the early Christian Church when expectations were very high that the second coming of Jesus would happen very soon. It did not. Gradually these stories began to be applied to the need of every believer to be prepared for the moment of death: a time when one would meet the Lord face to face. We are admonished, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” Those who are prepared for the Master when he comes will be treated to a remarkable experience of reversal.  The Master will invite the servants to sit at table and he will serve them. Still, the overall emphasis on being prepared for the unexpected remains the same. “But know this, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Even for that servant who is faithful, there is still very much about the hour of death that is unknown and beyond anyone’s control.

In spite of all this, I would like to suggest that no one tried harder to keep all the unexpected and unknown aspects of both life and death under control than did Fr. Rupert. Obviously, he could not control the actual moment of his death. But that did not deter him in his efforts. He simply opted for second best—to control every aspect of life. Fr. Rupert was a monk and a priest of deep faith and strong convictions. Almost every day of his very long monastic life, he was dressed for action and had his lamps lit. He left nothing to chance. He allowed for no randomness. His entire approach to life might best be described by a phrase taken from a poem by Wallace Stevens. Fr. Rupert had what Steven’s refers to as a “Blessed Rage for Order” (Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West). Here we must not misunderstand the poet. The word “rage” does not refer to intense anger. That certainly would not fit Fr. Rupert. Rage in this context describes a profound sense of enthusiasm, the virtue and daily dynamic that allowed Fr. Rupert to engage life fully right up to the last second of his 95 years.

For all we know, Fr. Rupert is this very moment sitting at the Master’s table, and the Master is serving him. He always seemed to enjoy on occasion sitting at the monastic head table, so no doubt he would enjoy the step up. The somber truth is, however, we do not know factually what happens after death. We hope and we pray, but in fact what happens after death is shrouded in mystery.

In his Rule for monks, Chapter 4 which deals with “the tools for good works,” St. Benedict says, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you wherever you may be” (RB 4:47-49). Since factually we begin dying the very day we are born, I like to think that St. Benedict is really attempting to focus our attention on the fullness of life which reaches its crescendo at the moment of death.  He is not referring simply to the final act of death itself. St. Benedict is admonishing us to pay careful attention to how we live. Life is a glorious gift from God. Do not squander even one moment of it. We do not know when the Son of Man will come and our life will be completed through death. Fr. Rupert took this teaching of St. Benedict very seriously because he was a faithful and obedient monk.

Prepare as he might, Fr. Rupert did not know that his moment of death would be on Saturday, January 14, 2017, around 5:00 a.m., as he was getting dressed for action with his lamps lit. If he had known, no doubt his “Blessed Rage for Order” would have included detailed instructions setting forth how everything was to be done. Throughout his long 95 years Fr. Rupert focused his energies far more on life than on death.  It was precisely by focusing on life that, in fact, he prepared for death. In that long preparation, Fr. Rupert taught us some very important lessons.  Sometimes he used words, but most of the time he taught by example:

n  Lesson one: Live life to the fullest. It is an amazing gift from God.

n  Lesson two: Do not be overwhelmed by the many hardships you may encounter along life’s journey, but trust in the healing processes of life which constantly manifest the grace of a loving God.

n  Lesson three: Do not be afraid to try new things at any age. When you can no longer ride your bicycle, get a tricycle and keep on pedaling.

n  Lesson four: Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.

--Fr. Eugene Hensell, O.S.B.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mystery of the Incarnation

NOTE: A wonderful meditation about the meaning of this season by an ancient monk and theologian.


The Word of God, born once in the flesh (such is his kindness and his goodness), is always willing to be born spiritually in those who desire him. In them he is born as an infant as he fashions himself in them by means of their virtues. He reveals himself to the extent that he knows someone is capable of receiving him. He diminishes the revelation of his glory not out of selfishness but because he recognizes the capacity and resources of those who desire to see him. Yet, in the transcendence of mystery, he always remains invisible to all.

For this reason the apostle Paul, reflecting on the power of the mystery, said: Jesus Christ, yesterday and today: he remains the same forever [Hebrews 13:8]. For he understood the mystery as ever new, never growing old through our understanding of it.

Christ is God, for he had given all things their being out of nothing. Yet he is born as man by taking to himself our nature, flesh endowed with intelligent spirit. A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and the Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses, and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.

For surely the word of the Law and the Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate.

Here is the reason why God became a perfect man, changing nothing of human nature, except to take away sin (which was never natural anyway). His flesh was set before that voracious, gaping dragon as bait to provoke him: flesh that would be deadly for the dragon, for it would utterly destroy him by the power of the Godhead hidden within it. For human nature, however, his flesh was to be a remedy since the power of the Godhead in it would restore human nature to its original grace.

Just as the devil had poisoned the tree of knowledge and spoiled our nature by its taste, so too, in presuming to devour the Lord’s flesh he himself is corrupted and is completely destroyed by the power of the Godhead hidden in it.

The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery forever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature wholly man without lacking either nature, neither the divine by which he is God nor the human by which he became man?

Faith alone grasps these mysteries. Faith alone is truly the substance and foundation of all that exceeds knowledge and understanding.

--St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 -- 662)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Distractions in prayer

"Whenever I am weak, then I am strong."
2 Corinthians 12:10

Do not imagine that the important thing is never to be thinking of anything else [during prayer and meditation] and that if your mind becomes distracted all is lost. I have sometimes been terribly oppressed by this turmoil of thoughts, and it is only just over four years ago that I came to understand by experience that thought is not the same thing as understanding. I asked a learned man about this and he said I was right, which gave me no small satisfaction.

For, as the understanding is one of the faculties of the soul, I found it very hard to see why it was sometimes so timid; whereas thoughts, as a rule, fly so fast that only God can restrain them. It exasperated me to see the faculties of the soul, as I thought, occupied with God and recollected in Him, and the thoughts, on the other hand, confused and excited.

As I write this, the noises in my head are so loud that I am beginning to wonder what is going on in it. My head sounds just as if it were full of brimming rivers, and then as if all the water in those rivers came suddenly rushing downward; and a host of little birds seem to be whistling, not in the ears, but in the upper part of the head.

I should not be surprised to know that the Lord has been pleased to send me this trouble so that I may understand it better, for all this physical turmoil is no hindrance either to my prayer or to what I am writing now, but the tranquility and love in my soul are quite unaffected, and so are its desires and clearness of mind.

It is not good for us to be disturbed by our thoughts or to worry about them in the slightest; for if we do not worry and if the devil is responsible for them they will cease, and if they proceed, as they do, from the weakness that we inherit from the sin of Adam, and from many other weaknesses, let us have patience and bear everything for the love of God. … The clacking old mill must keep on going round and we must grind our own flour; neither the will nor the understanding must cease working. … So it is only right that we should have patience … and not blame our souls for what is the work of our weak imagination and our nature and the devil.
-- St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle

Sunday, January 1, 2017


Mary, Mother of God, pray for us

The Word took to himself the sons of Abraham, says the Apostle, and so had to be like his brothers in all things. He had then to take a body like ours. This explains the fact of Mary’s presence: she is to provide him with a body of his own, to be offered for our sake. … The angel Gabriel used careful and prudent language when he announced his birth. He did not speak of “what will be born in you” to avoid the impression that a body would be introduced into her womb from outside; he spoke of “what will be born from you,” so that we might know by faith that her child originated within her and from her.

By taking our nature and offering it in sacrifice, the Word was to destroy it completely and then invest it with his own nature, and so prompt the Apostle to say: This corruptible body must put on incorruption; this mortal body must put on immortality.

This was not done in outward show only, as some have imagined. Our Savior truly became man, and from this has followed the salvation of man as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole man, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself.

What was born of Mary was therefore human by nature, in accordance with the inspired Scriptures, and the body of the Lord was a true body: It was a true body because it was the same as ours. Mary, you see, is our sister, for we are all born from Adam.

The words of St John, the Word was made flesh, bear the same meaning, as we may see from a similar turn of phrase in St Paul: Christ was made a curse for our sake. Man’s body has acquired something great through its communion and union with the Word. From being mortal it has been made immortal; though it was a living body it has become a spiritual one; though it was made from the earth it has passed through the gates of heaven.
--St. Athanasius

Monday, December 26, 2016

The trouble with Christmas

NOTE: The following is the homily delivered this day in the Archabbey Church by Fr. Guerric DeBona, O.S.B., on this Feast of St. Stephen. Here, he considers the troubling juxtaposition of the joy of Christmas with the bloody martyrdom recalled in the feasts which fall within the Christmas Octave: St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents on December 28, and St. Thomas Becket on December 29.

I will never get the Christmas Octave. I don’t know about you, but these days following the joyful celebration of the Lord’s Nativity continue to baffle me.

Unlike the Easter Octave, these days seemingly lack a sense of continuity, happiness, and peace certainly present in the eight days celebrating the Lord’s Resurrection; that time cascades us though Christ’s appearances, echoes the Spirit’s power in the Acts of the Apostles, and draws the Church into the transcendent sequence Victime Pascale Laudes.

By contrast, after unbundling the joy of yesterday’s solemnity, the Church today wears red—not to extend yesterday’s peace as much as to razor us jarringly into the often gruesome deaths of martyrs. Stephen, Thomas Becket, and the Holy Innocents create a path for the Christian community which resembles nothing less than wading through rough terrain with more than occasional glimmers of dangerous broken glass.

Paradoxically, it would seem as if secular culture excels at extending the joys of Christmas.  People receive bonus checks and often have off several of the days following Christmas to spend with their families. Not a few parents will be gingerly assembling a young child’s doll house or mustering instructions for the latest video game. There will be visits to the Miracle Mile in Chicago or the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Plaza on Fifth Avenue, not to mention office parties and open house get-togethers amid the dazzling lights on Christmas trees. These are the “Partridge in  a Pear Tree” days of “four calling birds, three French hens, and two turtle doves.” They delightfully extend Christmas Day into not just a few, but 12; people of good will then are all led back to the stable and join the Wise Men on the Epiphany.

Sounds like a good idea to me; nobody ever dies when friends raise a fluted glass of asti spumante and kiss under a mistletoe. So, I ask again: who put the bloody Octave in Christmas?

Well, I will hazard a guess. St. Stephen, Deacon and Proto-Martyr, put the Octave in Christmas by kick-starting sober Christianity’s service written in blood. The difference between the Easter Octave and these days following Christmas is that this Octave concerns witness while Easter realizes its fulfillment.

Stephen’s diaconate of service and testimony becomes linked with Christ’s own witness when the Lord says in today’s Gospel (Matthew 10:17-22): “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.” These are sober words about real life Christian testimony, which traces its origins to St. Stephen. And indeed, the account of Stephen’s stoning in Acts (6:8-10; 7:54-59) mirrors Jesus’ own self-gift and surrender and service. 

Ironically, in Acts, Luke uses the word “martyr” or “witness” to describe the folks who laid down not their lives, but their garments at the feet of the arch-persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus. Clearly, there are many ways of witnessing, but the only authentic testimony is linked to Christ’s own. As the responsorial psalm today reminds the Church, we are taken up into Christ’s sacrifice by the witness of the true martyr Stephen: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

So Stephen’s death, which we commemorate this day, sets the tone for what we rightly call the Christmas Octave because the witnesses who follow the Lord’s Nativity make his coming in the flesh an ongoing historical reality. By contrast, the office parties, the new toys, and the holiday sales will all be left as so much tinsel on the ground, together with last year’s Christmas tree. Jesus’ less than charming admonition to his disciples acknowledges the reality of his coming a human being in time, in a world which did not receive him.

His disciples will certainly provoke wrath with their testimony because witness is, by definition, never done in secret. Witnessing must become proclamation, which Stephen himself does in recounting Israel’s history in a new way, now that the Messiah has come. “A clear and unequivocal proclamation,” Pope Paul VI says, is the result of witness because “there is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed.” Even in his last breath, Stephen proclaims the name, as he asks the Lord to receive his spirit.

The Feast of Stephen asks us to exchange our white baptismal garment for a red one. The witness of monastic life each day begs that the Lord receive our spirit in service and fraternal charity.

I have a sense that sincere and authentic witness as proclamation is becoming more and more urgent these days for the Church as it evangelizes the Word become flesh in this culture. Some say we are currently living in an environment of post-truth, where lies and falsehoods traffic as history. Social media can fabricate and weave and unweave stories in a tapestry which rivals Penelope’s long-suffering stitching in Ithaca as she waits for Odysseus to return.

Until Christ comes again, it is the Church’s mission to be at the ready to unravel lies, proclaim the truth, and retell history through the lens of God’s coming in the flesh: good news to those held captive by poverty and injustice, liberty to prisoners, sight to the blind. And our lives and speech will proclaim that truth again and again, just like the first martyr.

May St. Stephen, deacon and proto-martyr, make us better witnesses to the Kingdom and to the Anointed One who has so sublimely come to bring that Good News to our heart’s threshold.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christian, remember your dignity

"The grace of God has appeared, saving all."
Titus 2:11

Today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness. No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all ...

Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's Kingdom.

-- Saint Leo the Great

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Today is born our Savior

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light; 
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing ...
For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful.

Isaiah 9:1-2, 5-6