The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Benedict's New Year's resolutions

Up until nearly 10 years ago, when I began the journey that eventually led me to the monastery, I typically rang in the New Year drinking heavily, and then spending the first day of the new year nursing a hangover while watching college football bowl games. Thankfully, that is not part of my routine any longer. New Year’s Eve and Day around here are rather reflective, joyous since we are still celebrating Christmas, and subdued compared to my former way of life.

Most of today for me will be spent performing necessary chores and continuing reading and research on my master’s thesis. As I do most days, I will likely take a walk. Yesterday, I visited via Skype with immediate family members gathered in my hometown of Findlay, Ohio, to celebrate Christmas. Later this evening, I will do some lighter reading for pleasure or indulge one of my more frivolous pursuits – playing the computer game Baseball Mogul. I’m addicted, I’ll admit. A complete waste of time. But it’s fun!

As a community, the monks here will celebrate First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God this evening, followed by dinner and recreation together. Today is the seventh anniversary of the election of Archabbot Justin DuVall, and the occasion is marked with an abbot’s conference immediately following Compline. Most of us will likely be in bed by 9 p.m. I might possibly stretch it to 10 p.m. Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, we will celebrate the solemnity. A few monks may peek at some of the bowl games. Most likely, I will spend the day reading and writing and visiting with confreres. In the afternoon, I may enjoy a walk, and perhaps a nap.

Mostly, though, I find New Year’s Eve and Day conducive to prayer and reflection—for the year that is ending, and the one we are beginning. One of my favorite meditations for such times is St. Benedict’s Prayer of Firm Purpose of Amendment, which is based on Chapter 4 of the Rule, the “Tools for Good Works.” It is a perfect set of New Year’s resolutions for anyone, monk or not. It goes like this:
O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge myself to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength.

Not to kill. Not to steal. Not to covet. Not to bear false witness. To honor all persons. Not to do to another what I would not wish done to myself. To chastise the body. Not to seek after pleasures.

To love fasting. To relieve the poor. To clothe the naked. To visit the sick. To bury the dead. To help in trouble. To console the sorrowing. To hold myself aloof from worldly ways. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

Not to give way to anger. Not to foster a desire for revenge. Not to entertain deceit in the heart. Not to make a false peace. Not to forsake charity. Not to swear, lest I swear falsely. To speak the truth with heart and tongue.
Not to return evil for evil. To do no injury: yea, even to bear patiently any injury done to me. To love my enemies. Not to curse those who curse me, but rather to bless them. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.
Not to be proud. Not to be given to intoxicating drink. Not to be an over-eater. Not to be lazy. Not to be slothful. Not to be a murmurer. Not to be a detractor.
To put my trust in God. To refer the good I see in myself to God. To refer any evil in myself to myself.

To fear the day of judgment. To be in dread of hell. To desire eternal life with spiritual longing. To keep death before my eyes daily.

To keep constant watch over my actions. To remember that God sees me everywhere. To call upon Christ for defense against evil thoughts that arise in my heart. To guard my tongue against wicked speech. To avoid much speaking. To avoid idle talk. To read only what is good to read. To look at only what is good to see.

To pray often. To ask forgiveness daily for my sins, and to seek ways to amend my life. To obey my superiors in all things rightful.

Not to desire to be thought holy, but to seek holiness. To fulfill the commandments of God by good works.

To love chastity. To hate no one. Not to be jealous or envious of anyone. Not to love strife. Not to love pride. To honor the aged.

To pray for my enemies. To make peace after a quarrel, before the setting of the sun.

Never to despair of your mercy, O God of Mercy.



A good number of people ask me what we monks do in the monastery to celebrate Christmas. I usually tell them we spend a good part of the day in church ... and another good part of the day eating!

In many ways, we celebrate Christmas in similar fashion to other people, but not in all ways. In the weeks leading up to December 25th, while the rest of the world celebrates the "holiday season," we observe Advent, a holy period of anticipation and yearning for the coming of the Lord. The liturgies gradually build in intensity, especially the week before Christmas with the "O Antiphons." A large Advent wreath is suspended from the ceiling in the monastery refectory (dining room), where we listen to specially selected seasonal readings during dinner. On several occasions after Compline, we go to the Chapter Room to listen to Advent conferences given by the abbot or various monks.

Four or five days before Christmas, a tree is erected in the monastery calefactory (our large living room), and another is placed in the refectory, along with other decorations. There are no gifts under the trees, however. Just before Christmas, the church is adorned for the Eve festivities.

Then, on the 26th, when many Christmas trees are tossed to the curb and the "holiday season" fades into preparations and resolutions for the New Year, we continue to celebrate Christmas! The 25th was just the beginning. Christmastide, after all, runs through the Solemnity of the Epiphany (January 8) and (for all intents and purposes) the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (January 9). During this time, in church we chant special antiphons and hymns praising the graces of the Incarnation, and a festive atmosphere continues to permeate the monastery.

Contributing to this are a good number of guests--including several young men visiting to observe and discern our way of life, and family members and friends of a few monks. Social time is extended. In addition, we have a table in the refectory laden with goodies provided by various benefactors which everyone is free to share.

Specifically, this is the schedule we observed in the monastery for Christmas Eve/Day:

December 24

5 p.m. -- First Vespers of the Nativity
6 p.m. -- Dinner
7 p.m. -- Christmas Vigils
10 p.m. -- Christmas Mass in nocte

After Mass (close to midnight), monks enjoyed refreshments and socialized in the refectory. Guests gathered with several monks to share refreshments in a public gathering area within the school.

December 25

7 a.m. -- Breakfast (Not just cereal and bread. On this day, breakfast is hot, with eggs, pancakes, and also fruit.)
8 a.m. -- Christmas Lauds
9:30 a.m. -- Christmas Mass in die
11:45 a.m. -- Midday Office
Noon -- Christmas Cheer (A social period in the calefactory with food and drink, ending with the singing of the Resonet, a traditional hymn stemming from our ties with Einsiedeln.)
12:30 p.m. -- Dinner (with talking; no table reading; prime rib!)
5 p.m. -- Second Vespers of Christmas
6 p.m. -- Casual supper with more socializing
7 p.m. -- Compline

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Small wonder

The more they were oppressed,
the more they multiplied and spread.
Exodus 1:12

It is odd, yet also fitting, that the joyful celebration of Christ’s birth is followed so closely by the feast days of the first martyr Stephen and the Holy Innocents. These gave their lives (the little ones unknowingly) so that Christ’s Gospel might live and be proclaimed throughout the world, just as Jesus himself would do willingly 33 years later. St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, each in their own way, perpetuate Christ’s eternal sacrifice, submitting to their persecutors so that Christ’s light may live and grow in the hearts of all people.

As the French poet Charles Peguy recalls in the case of the Holy Innocents, “They are the eternal imitations.”

It may be rather easy to believe that a small child is closer to Christ than most of us who are more acquainted with the scars of sin and struggle. In the witness provided by young children, we are often reminded that “unless you have the heart of a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (cf. Matthew 18:3; Mark 10:15).

However, more than sweet and simple innocence is involved here. Becoming like a little child means turning our hearts to be completely dependent on, trustful of, and obedient to God. It means proclaiming the message of Christ’s salvation in word and deed through self-sacrifice—whether martyrdom comes with swift and deadly blows or with the tiny, annoying pinpricks of daily life.

It also means that Christ speaks to us daily in the smallest of details, the most unlikely (even painful) of events, and in the people many of us dismiss as not worth the effort or notice. Just as with the manger at Christmas, the empty tomb at Easter, or along the road to Emmaus after the Resurrection (cf. Luke 24:13-35), Christ lies hidden yet always present at the heart of our lives, waiting to be discovered with childlike wonder.

Most of all, it means that the power of sin and death which seeks to defeat Life itself absolutely cannot win. The destruction which evil inflicts before our eyes is ultimately its own undoing, all through the power hidden in childlike dependence on, trust in, and obedience to God. Pharoah ordered that all newborn Hebrew boys be thrown into the river. Yet Moses—plucked from that same river—survived to lead his people out of slavery. Hundreds of years later, Herod ordered the massacre of all newborn boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Yet the infant Jesus—escaping in the arms of Mary and Joseph—survived and emerged from Egypt to save all people from slavery to sin by handing over his own life.

The pattern has been set, and the event continues in each one of our lives to this very day. If we seek Christ, he will be found. If we ask, we will receive. And if we pick up our cross daily, follow him, and lose our lives for his sake, we will gain Life itself.

Througout it all, the Holy Innocents dance with delight around the Christ child. In harmony, the "eternal imitations" rejoice in the hope stored up for all in heaven.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Light shines in the darkness

Today a light shines on us,
for the Lord is born for us.

He is called
Wondrous God,
Prince of Peace,
Father Forever,
and his reign
is without end.

Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011
The Nativity of the Lord

Isaiah 9:1-6
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14
Darkness blankets the earth. Night descends and we seek rest, security, and peace. The dawn promises hope, newness, and joy, but it is a long time coming. Sleep is elusive, fear and worry creep in, and loneliness torments. We toss and turn throughout the long night.

Under the cover of night, we are haunted by the demons of war, oppression, violence, injustice, poverty, racism, disparity, corruption, crime, abuse, lust, greed, selfishness, jealousy, anger, conflict, hostility, isolation, guilt, shame, despair, depression, exhaustion, addiction, illness, pain, grief, sorrow, and death. All the result of the sin of pride inherited from our first parents, humanity’s choice to spurn the God of all and “be like gods” ourselves (cf. Genesis 3:5).

It is a dark, dark world—like Pottersville in Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life. Except that Pottersville didn’t exist. It would have existed if it had not been for one man, George Bailey, famously portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. His goodness, his light, kept the evil darkness of Mr. Potter at bay. His light provided hope for the good people of Bedford Falls. And when the darkness threatened to overtake even poor, desperate George Bailey, something small and wonderful happened:

God stepped in.

So it is with us. While “It’s a Wonderful Life” provides an apt metaphor for God’s presence in the world, the Incarnation we recall in the feast of Christmas surpasses all wonder. God became man. God entered the darkness—not to eradicate humanity’s woes, but to give them meaning and purpose within a fallen world grasping at straws. Christ is our hope in a world of darkness. His “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The theme of light piercing the darkness is prevalent in all of today’s readings. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone,” prophesies Isaiah. “The grace of God has appeared,” writes St. Paul. “The glory of God shone around” the shepherds as the angel of the Lord announced the birth of Jesus. It is interesting to note that this light of God’s glory does not eliminate the dark night. Rather, it shines through it to provide hope and guidance. Christ, the Light of the World (cf. John 8:12), promises to lead us through the darkness, and—if we follow him unreservedly—to keep evil at bay, to even thwart it. As John the Baptist’s father Zechariah prophesies in the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79) which we chant each morning at Lauds: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Christmas reminds us to seek that light again, to follow it, to become that point of light along the dark and narrow path of life. Our rejoicing in the light that Christ provides should, like George Bailey, provide a beacon of hope for others on the same journey. We all must become the light that shines in the darkness. As Jesus told the disciples of his day and ours, “You are the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world. … Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly father” (Matthew 5:13,14,16).

A Savior is born for us from God’s zeal, or passion, as Isaiah says (9:6). Interestingly, a few sentences after today’s Gospel passage ends, Luke tells us that the shepherds who had seen the light “went in haste” and found Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus lying in a manger (Luke 2:16). They were eager to find the source of the light, and after seeing Jesus, expressing the zeal of God’s love, they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

The light shining in the darkness of that first Christmas night had transformed them, as it should with us today. St. Paul reminds us of this in the second reading when he says that the “grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age” as we await the final coming of Christ (Titus 2:11-12). This is our baptismal call as Christians.

The darkness shall not overcome us because God has stepped into it, has shown and given us the light, and because he leads us into the light for all eternity. As the Book of Revelation says:
God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain. … They will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever (21:3-4; 22:4-5).

Friday, December 23, 2011

What are we waiting for?

Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting. As Advent progresses, we hear more and more about the beauty and splendor of the One who is to come.

But Advent does not lead to nervous tension stemming from expectation of something spectacular about to happen. On the contrary, it leads to a growing inner stillness and joy allowing me to realize that he for whom I am waiting has already arrived and speaks to me in the silence of my heart.

Just as a mother feels the child grow in her and is not surprised on the day of the birth but joyfully receives the one she learned to know during her waiting, so Jesus can be born in my life slowly and steadily and be received as the one I learned to know while waiting.

-- Henri J.M. Nouwen
The Genesee Diary

O Emmanuel

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

O King of the Nations

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Night light

Come, Lord Jesus,

Before I can
bear your light
to the world,
I must first
receive you
in the dark and silent
night of my soul.

Come, Lord Jesus,
shine in me.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.

O Rising Sun

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


"What Christ asks of you
is not sinlessness, but diligence."

Blessed John Henry Newman

O Key of David

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Root of Jesse

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011
4th Sunday of Advent—B

2Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

“We plan; God laughs,” as the saying goes.

Even with the best of intentions and at our most virtuous, we still cannot begin to imagine the wonderful things God has in store for each one of us. “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1Corinthians 2:9-10).

Adam and Eve sin, distorting God’s image in humanity.

SURPRISE!!! “I will send a Redeemer,” God says (cf. Genesis 3:15).

Abraham and Sarah grow old without children of their own.

SURPRISE!!!  “I will give you a son,” God says, Isaac [which in Hebrew means laugh, by the way]. “And your descendants shall be great” (cf. Genesis 21:1-8; 22:17).

The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, then freed through the hand of Moses, but then face certain doom in the desert, trapped between the Red Sea and their Egyptian pursuers.

SURPRISE!!!  “I will part the sea so you can cross and fight for you,” God says. (cf. Exodus 14:10-31).

The Israelites are freed, but are still hungry in the desert, and resigned to dying of starvation.

SURPRISE!!!  “I will rain down bread from heaven,” God says. (cf. Exodus 16:4).

King David decides to build a permanent home for the Ark of God’s Covenant.

SURPRISE!!!  “It is I who will build a house for you, and your kingdom shall last forever,” God says. (cf. today’s first reading).

Jerusalem is besieged, the temple looted and destroyed, the people exiled to Babylon.

SURPRISE!!!  “I will free you,” God says. “Through my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, I will lead you back, rebuild you, comfort you, redeem you, espouse you, give you a new name, rejoice in you.” (cf. Isaiah 7:14; 9:5-6; 40; 42; 49; 53; 61; 62).

A young, virgin peasant, betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, goes about her daily duties without notice.

SURPRISE!!! SURPRISE!!!  SURPRISE!!! (apologies to Gomer Pyle) “Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with you,” says the angel Gabriel. “Through the Holy Spirit, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus, Son of the Most High, and his kingdom will last forever” (cf. today’s Gospel reading). And God becomes man, born in a lonely, shabby stable and placed in a manger from which animals feed.

Jesus grows, calls disciples, preaches, teaches, cures and heals, works great miracles, blesses, forgives sins, raises the dead, confronts and confounds religious leaders. Then he is betrayed, abandoned, imprisoned, mocked, scourged, crucified, and put to death as a common criminal as his disciples scatter in fear, sorrow, and desolation.

SURPRISE!!!  “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” asks the Resurrected Christ, before ascending to the Father and then sending the Spirit upon his disciples. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (cf. John 20:15; Matthew 28:19-20).

God’s Word to us in Scripture has been fulfilled, but has not been exhausted. Great surprises await each one of us if we are open to receive them—our small part in God’s great plan for all of humanity in building up the Body of Christ. Think you have it figured out? Think again! God alone has the final word, and he laughs.

SURPRISE!!!  “Yes I am coming soon” (cf. Revelation 22:20).

As Gomer Pyle would say: "Shazam!"

O Adonai

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Memphis: Part II

When I was in Memphis two weeks ago for an oblate conference, I had the opportunity to visit the National Civil Rights Museum, a complex built around the well-preserved former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed on April 4, 1968. I was not prepared for how solemn and moving an experience it was.

As a white boy growing up in northwest Ohio in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, I was a world away—on many different levels—from the civil unrest and the struggle to desegregate the South that helped characterize that era. What a horrifyingly ugly period of American history. While the pain of that struggle has produced great fruit a generation later, seeds of despair, division, and disparity still remain sown in the American soul.

I am currently reading Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which I have found to be surprisingly engrossing. It lays bare much of the genteel ugliness that was considered acceptable not all that long ago. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, the novel tells the story of a group of black maids and a white socialite who team up—amid terrifying risks—to write a book about what it's really like for “the help” working in white Southern homes. I had just started reading it when I visited Memphis (just across the border from Mississippi), and I discussed it with one of the oblates who has also read the book. She is not from Memphis originally but has lived there long enough to understand what the book conveys. She arrived in Memphis not too long after King’s assassination, and vividly recalls the turmoil of that time. When she was reading The Help, she said she asked lifelong Memphis residents about its accuracy. “They said that’s exactly what it was like, and everyone had help back then,” she told me.

Reading about it or hearing about it, however, is one thing. Living it as an African-American is another, and that is something I obviously cannot begin to imagine. But the book had piqued my interest, and suddenly I found myself in Memphis for the first time. Many years before coming to the monastery (when I was in my late 20s), I spent a considerable amount of time traveling and staying with friends in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, but that was along the “touristy” Gulf Coast at a time when my mind was on much different (and far less important) things. At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I was confronted with that genteel ugliness as never before. The museum’s realistic exhibits don’t just recount history—they almost bring it to life (for example, a life-size replica of a lunch counter protest, and video footage of actual events).

And then there is the Lorraine Motel. I had known that King was killed in Memphis, but I didn’t know what he was doing there and the larger backdrop of the sanitation worker strike he had come to support. There is a 20-minute film documentary upon entering the museum which includes the powerful recollections of Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who was standing beside King at the Lorraine when King was shot. He provides a good deal of insight into the last hours of the civil rights leader’s life, as well as reflection on why he was there and lived to tell about it. “Every crucifixion needs a witness,” Kyles says in the film, which also includes footage from King’s eerily prophetic “Mountaintop” speech made in Memphis the night before he died (snippets of those remarks appear below).

In the documentary, Kyles noted that King was an intelligent, talented, well-educated, and charismatic leader who could have been anywhere but Memphis that fateful night, doing anything he wanted to do. The death of this man--both beloved and reviled--came not as a result of the celebrity self-indulgence so common in our day, Kyles said, but from a single bullet while working on behalf of garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Christ-like self-sacrifice gave life to King’s dream. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, and the remarks King had given in his last speech (again, excerpted below) indicated that he sensed his movement would have to continue beyond Memphis without him.

The Lorraine Motel is like a moment frozen in time. The scene is preserved almost exactly as it stood on April 4, 1968—including replicas of the actual automobiles outside King’s motel room. Across the street, you can walk through the former boarding house where it is said that James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot (we won’t get into the various conspiracy theories here; they are myriad).

On the second floor of the Lorraine Motel, through a glass panel, you can peek into the room where King visited with colleagues before stepping out on the balcony to go to dinner. A few feet from the railing, you can see that a square of concrete from the balcony has been removed—the spot that had been stained with blood.

Walking toward the motel and museum, oblate Noe Longoria (my very gracious and generous Memphis tour guide for the day) remarked how eerie the surroundings felt. The same sense of solemn unease had also come over me. The only other time I recall being overwhelmed by such a palpable yet indescribable feeling was at the Colosseum in Rome. I left both places more informed, desiring to know still more, and sure that I had been on sacred ground.

A mountaintop.

On a motel balcony.

In Memphis, Tennessee.


The promise of freedom.

The Mountaintop Speech (excerpted)
April 3, 1968, Memphis
Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live.

We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. … You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

I don't know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
-- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

O Wisdom

Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

"O" Antiphons

Last year at this time, I posted the ancient “O” Antiphons on my former blog, The Yoke of Christ. This year, I thought I would pull them over to my new one. As I mentioned last year, Advent, with its hopeful longing, is probably my favorite liturgical season of the year. This is especially the case the week before Christmas when we begin chanting the ancient “O Antiphons” each evening at Vespers before and after the Magnificat. This will begin with Vespers on Saturday—tomorrow evening.
The seven antiphons—one for each day preceding the vigil of Christmas from December 17 to  December 23—are called “O” antiphons because each one begins with “O”. The opening words for each day’s antiphon are (in Latin, followed by English):

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

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

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

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

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

I invite you to allow the antiphons and accompanying images to embrace your longing for the coming of Christ in each and every human heart, beginning with your own.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I have always loved Christmas crèches, and the Saint Meinrad Archabbey Library has quite a collection of them from around the world on display right now. Yesterday, while taking a study break, I shot a few pictures from the dozens of crèches exhibited (the one photographed above is not one of them; more on that in a minute).

The exhibit features crèches from the monastery collection, as well as the Catherine A. Smith Nativity Collection, donated to Saint Meinrad in 2002 in memory of Charles Patrick Smith, who studied for the priesthood at Saint Meinrad and later served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Ms. Smith is his sister, who collected the Nativity sets from her travels around the world beginning in 1971. Displayed along with the crèches are drawings depicting the birth of Christ made by area children, which is a nice touch (for more information on the exhibit, click here).

Posted below are photographs of my favorites from the library exhibit. It seems I was primarily drawn to crèches carved from natural substances such as wood or stone—particularly from one piece.

There is something about crèches that captivates me, something I cannot explain. I could literally sit and gaze at any one of these for hours. This has been a lifelong fascination.

The crèche shown at the top of this post (not from the library collection) is more traditional in the Western mold, and is probably at least 50 years old. Aesthetically, it may be nothing special, but it is dear to me because it is the one my family had while I was growing up. During the Christmas season, it would be placed on top of the sewing machine near the door to the garage in our family room—a high-traffic area.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in front of this crèche. In the evenings, I loved to turn off all the lights in the room and then switch on the tiny bulb placed within the roof of this crèche so that it would be the only light in the room. And I would stay there gazing at it for a long time.

Years later, once we kids were grown up, and my parents moved out of our childhood home, my mother asked me if I wanted to keep the crèche. I have had it ever since, and have faithfully hauled it out of storage every Christmas.

Today, it is in my cell in the monastery, placed on a writing table directly in front of my reading chair. In the evenings, I can still turn off all the lights in the room and then switch on the tiny bulb inside the crèche so that it is the only light in the room. And now, if I keep the shutters to my window open, in the background is a view of the twin sandstone spires of the Archabbey Church.

Linden wood, from Salzburg, Austria

Stone bas relief, from India.

Carved wood, from Kenya

Carved wood, from Munich, Germany

Carved coal, from West Virginia

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The universal call to holiness

“God commands Christians, the living plants of his Church,
to bring forth the fruits of devotion,
each according to his or her position and vocation.”

St. Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales

It goes without saying that as monks, we receive many individual prayer requests from a good number of people. Praying for someone is something we are happy to do, and prayer is something we take very seriously. It is at the very heart of our lives.

However, in many cases, the person making such a request of me will follow it up with a remark somewhere along the lines of: "You're closer to God than I am."

I never know how to respond to such a comment, so I usually say nothing. In my heart, however, are two persistent thoughts: "I certainly hope not!" and, "That's funny. I was thinking the same thing about you!"

Each and every one of us--monk or not--has the need for, right to, and obligation of fostering a personal relationship with God rooted in prayer, which is simply conversation with our Creator. We are all called to such a relationship, though we are each called in different ways. My call is as a monk. Yours is as a _______ (fill in the blank). This is the universal call to holiness espoused by the Second Vatican Council. But the concept didn't originate there. It goes back to God's creation of humanity.

Nearly 400 years before Vatican II, St. Francis de Sales, the saint whose name I received upon my first monastic profession, enunciated this vision in a particularly unique and straightforward manner in a book that is still a spiritual classic today: Introduction to the Devout Life. All people, he said, are called to holiness, and can (must) carry out lives of devotion according to each person's individual position and state in life (married, widowed, laborer, businessperson, etc.). 

This universal truth greatly appeals to me, and is one the world needs to rediscover on many levels. In my opinion, the call to holiness is something many of us are simply afraid to claim as our own. This is one of the reasons I was so inclined to take the name Francis de Sales.

I am currently researching my thesis as the final step toward receiving a Masters in Theological Studies degree (God willing) in the spring. A number of people have asked me what I am writing about. Though I don't pretend that everyone is interested in such academic matters (and I certainly don't plan on posting my finished thesis here), I thought I would at least post below the brief project proposal as I submitted it. Yes, the topic is St. Francis de Sales and the universal call to holiness as expressed in his Introduction to the Devout Life, and with a comparison to Vatican II's Lumen Gentium.

Needless to say, I have a lot of reading and writing to do in the next few months. In the process, I hope to learn more about the thought of my patron saint, for whom I possess a great deal of devotion, and with whom I experience a deep connection in so many ways. Although I am quite familar with much of his life (1567-1602) in the French-Swiss border region as a bishop, spiritual director, and writer, and have read many of his works, I am somewhat embarrassed to acknowledge that I've never read Introduction to the Devout Life cover to cover. I am currently addressing that deficiency. In addition, I hope to find in his words a way to re-articulate his vision through my own prayer and work as a monk of Saint Meinrad in the 21st Century. I've certainly read enough of him to know how relevant he is for our age.

So, those are my goals these next few months. Please pray for me. You may be closer to God than I am, you know.

Thesis Proposal

The Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the “universal call to holiness” is an ancient concept, reaching back beyond the budding of Christianity (cf. Lev 11:45; 20:7). It finds its fullest expression in Christ and his Church, which in its entirety, is called to be a sacrament to the world. All God’s people, the lay faithful just as much as clergy and religious, are called by Christ to be holy in the context of their family lives, work, and civic responsibilities, but primarily through who they are—not merely what they do. Like the early Christians, the lay faithful are, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “not called to abandon the world, but to transform it in light of the Kingdom of God.” And they do this by being who they truly are in their everyday lives—People of God.

Unfortunately, through much of the Church’s history this concept has been either distorted or discarded. Today perhaps more than ever, the connection between faith and daily life is under constant threat in our increasingly “fragmented and frenetic society” (New Catholic Encyclopedia).

The lay faithful—indeed all of us—need to rediscover the centrality of Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments and what it means to be holy today, to seek and find the extraordinary through the ordinary, to live as People of God safely borne along the stormy seas of this world.

Nearly 400 years before Vatican II, St. Francis de Sales wrote Introduction to the Devout Life, an “instant best-seller” and popular spiritual guide even today. Writing in the waning shadow of the Middle Ages and in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, de Sales proposed something seemingly revolutionary at the time—a universal call to holiness. At the time he wrote, only clergy and religious were deemed capable or worthy of leading truly holy lives. However, this bishop of Geneva—through Introduction to the Devout Life and his many letters of spiritual direction—recalled the notion that all Christians are called to lives of holiness, and he set about demonstrating how. The New Catholic Encyclopedia calls Introduction to the Devout Life “the first spiritual treatise written specifically for the laity.”

In his preface to the work, de Sales writes: “Almost all those who have hitherto written about devotion have been concerned with instructing persons wholly withdrawn from the world or have at least taught a kind of devotion that leads to such complete retirement. My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court, and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary life as to outward appearances.”

Writing within his own time and circumstances, St. Francis de Sales has something just as important to say to us today about what it means to be holy. His work in many ways prefigures the emphasis that Vatican II and the Church today place on the universal call to holiness. Indeed, Pope Paul VI noted that “no one … more than St. Francis de Sales anticipated the deliberations and decisions of the Second Vatican Council with such a keen and progressive insight” (Sabuadiae Gemma, 1967). It is a message and voice that desperately needs to be heard in this age, in which the separation of faith and daily life is sometimes honored as virtue.

For my Master of Theological Studies degree concluding exercise, I propose writing an analysis of Introduction to the Devout Life in light of Lumen Gentium, and other post-conciliar documents and papal exhortations, addresses, and letters. I propose not to delve so much into the history of the development of the concept of the universal call to holiness, but rather, what St. Francis de Sales specifically has to say about it in this work, and to examine its ramifications for today’s lay faithful. In other words, what spiritual guidance is St. Francis de Sales offering the lay faithful—in his time, and in ours? How does Introduction to the Devout Life, written long before Vatican II, apply to the Church’s renewed emphasis on the “universal call to holiness?”  How does St. Francis de Sales say that all are called to “the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity?”

“All Christians in any state or walk of life
are called to the fullness of Christian life
and to the perfection of charity.”

Lumen Gentium 40

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

True joy

In popular [contemporary, secular] terminology, joy is happiness. For the religious person joy is happiness in God. Joy is not simply a fleeting feeling or an evanescent emotion; it is a deep-seated result of one's connection to God. Although the more secular definition of joy may sometimes describe one's emotional response to an object or event, wonderful though it may be (a new job, for example), religious joy is always about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God.

-- James Martin, S.J.
Between Heaven and Mirth:
Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter
Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

Advent light and joy

Advent renews the invitation to us to live in expectation of Jesus and not to cease to await his coming. The vigilance of heart that the Christian is always called to exercise in everyday life characterizes this time in which we prepare ourselves with joy for the mystery of Christmas.

The Christian is invited to live Advent without letting himself get distracted by the lights [of commercial messages] so that he can fix his interior gaze upon Christ and know how to assign things their proper value. If in fact we remain “vigilant in prayer and exultant in praise,” our eyes will be able to recognize in him the true light of the world who comes to illuminate our darkness.

True joy does not come from diversions, being drawn away from life and from its responsibilities. True joy is linked to something much more profound. It is important to find moments for rest, for relaxation, but true joy is connected with our relationship to God. Those who have met Jesus in their lives experience a serenity and a joy in their hearts that no one and no situation can take away.

In this Advent season let us strengthen our certainty that the Lord has come among us and continues to renew his presence of consolation, love and joy.

Pope Benedict XVI
December 11, 2011 Angelus message
Translation by Zenit

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advice on living from the dying

Blogger Bronnie Ware, who worked many years in palliative care, and thus has spent a good deal of time with people in their final days on this earth, reflects on the top five regrets expressed by the dying. It is good advice on how we should all live.

Read her post here.

The Church's labor, protection

"Behold your mother."
John 19:27

Our Lady of Guadalupe
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head of crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

Now have salvation and power come,
and the Kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Anointed.

-- Revelation 12:1-6a, 10ab
Pray for us.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rejoice always

Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011
3rd Sunday of Advent—B
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
1Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Rejoice always.”

“Pray without ceasing.”

“In all circumstances, give thanks.”

“Do not quench the Spirit.”

St. Paul’s brief words in today’s second reading comprise a commentary in and of themselves on the whole of Christian life. This is how we are to live.

Why? Because as Isaiah foretold in the first reading, Jesus Christ has brought glad tidings to the poor, healed the brokenhearted, proclaimed liberty to the captives, and released the prisoners (cf. Luke 4:16-21). This he has done in some way—many ways—for each and every one of us as individuals who fit into God’s overall plan of redemption and eternal life. We are each poor, brokenhearted, captive, or imprisoned by something in our lives, and it is the Light of Christ who frees us.

However, as Fr. Eugene pointed out in his powerful homily today in the Archabbey Church, it is difficult for us to rejoice for any sustained amount of time. It’s much easier to be critical, negative, and sorrowful. It is difficult for us to stay focused on the fact that while things in this world are not—and never will be—perfect, from the Christian perspective they are often good enough. Why? Because we are liberated people living in a world that is not be- and end-all. That is a cause for rejoicing!

So the season of Advent, Fr. Eugene remarked, is a time to remember what we already have in Christ Jesus, while also looking forward in hope to what is to come.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we go around blissfully ignorant or indifferent, grinning like idiots, singing “Don’t worry, be happy.” After all, St. Paul saw more than his fair share of hardship. He encountered resistance, conflict, and his own sins. He was beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and eventually martyred. Yet, he tells the Thessalonians (and Philippians) to rejoice always as he did.

Why? Because like a lamp, he carried within himself the Light of Christ to help illuminate our dark world from within. He delivered the good news that in Christ, God has clothed each of us with a robe of salvation. As St. Paul himself says, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”

For this reason and this alone we must rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, and keep the flame of the Spirit stirred within us. When we each do this—testify to the Light--Christ the Living Flame will come in all his glory to gather all to himself, and our thirst will be eternally satisfied.