The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, September 29, 2012


"How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less
than a house of God; this is the gate of heaven!"
Genesis 28:17
This weekend at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the re-dedication of the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln. It is a solemnity for us here on the Hill.
The church was constructed beginning in 1899, and was dedicated and officially opened in 1907. There have been two major renovations--in 1968, and again in 1997, both of them quite extensive, particularly with the last. While the exterior of the church looks much the same as it did in 1907, the interior looks quite a bit different than it did originally--though the architectural integrity has largely been kept intact.
Of course, the feast is about much more than the building itself. Through this celebration, we commemorate all those "living stones" who have joined their prayer to Saint Meinrad Archabbey--whether as monks, students, oblates, or guests--within the larger Body of Christ, yesterday, today, and forever. In this spirit, let us pray as Solomon did upon the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem--recounted for us in the first reading for Sunday's Mass:
O Lord my God, listen to the cry and to the prayer your servant makes to you today. Day and night let your eyes watch over this house, over this place of which you have said, "My name shall be there." Listen to the prayer that your servant will offer in this place. Here the entreaty of your servant and of Israel your people, as they pray in this place. From heaven where your dwelling is, hear; and, as you hear, forgive.
-- 1Kings 8:28-30

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mystery and manner

"My mother and my brothers are those
who hear the word of God and act on it."
Luke 8:21

As Catholics, we profess and strive to live an incarnational spirituality. The world has sacramental character. Every thing, every person and every circumstance somehow fit together in God's universal plan of salvation--though, surely, at times redemption may seem improbable or impossible.

But nothing is impossible for God, and so by faith we regularly come to him in Word and Sacrament to be fed for this journey of "mystery through manners, grace through nature," to borrow a famous phrase from author Flannery O'Connor. It is a work in progress.

In this light, I have been struck by the words of the closing prayer being used at Mass each day this week (below). It is worth reflecting on how God's grace molds and shapes us so that we can, in turn, incarnate that grace in the world around us--with the understanding, of course, that manner will never outpace mystery. After all, as St. Paul said, we hold this treasure in earthen vessels.

Graciously raise up, O Lord,
those you renew with this Sacrament,
that we may come to possess your redemption
both in mystery and in the manner of our life.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Baby blue

Yes, yet another picture of my new nephew Evan.
This uncle can't help it.
Evan turned 3 months old last week.
Those big blue eyes are quite striking, yes?
I detect in them an ornery streak
not unlike that of his mother.
Uncles, of course, have no ornery streaks.
Onward and upward, Evan!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cultivating peace

"If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all."

Mark 9:35
Sunday, September 23, 2012
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time—B

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Mark 9:30-37

An examination of conscience reflective of today’s Mass readings:
1. Am I so offended by another’s goodness that I attempt to cut him or her "down to size"—even make false accusations to place myself in a better light? Do I envy another’s accomplishments, achievements, or success to the degree that I try to “one-up” him or her, or act otherwise out of anger, bitterness and resentment because someone else has received what I believe I deserve more?
2. Is my aim in my work or other activities to serve the interests of my family, community, place of employment, parish, or other group, as well as individuals who may benefit from what my talents and resources have to offer? Or is it, rather, to gain recognition from and authority and power over others, to humiliate all potential rivals and build myself up?
3. Do I project my own inner anxieties, failures, and trials onto others, so creating external conflict and turmoil around me? Do I accuse unjustly, engage in gossip, or participate in detraction of others? Do I “argue along the way,” even in terms of religious matters, as did Jesus’ disciples?
4. Do I truly seek and strive after the peace which God alone can provide? Do I place myself completely under the protection and guidance of God, through whom I live, and move, and have my being?
5. Do I pray for the pure wisdom from above to act peaceably—with gentleness, sincerity, and compassion—in all I say or do?
6. Do I welcome within my arms all that are represented by the child which Jesus takes in his arms in today’s Gospel—the weak, the sick, the poor, etc.? Do I see myself as the servant of all, as Jesus did?
7. PRAYER: Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto yours. A clean heart create for me, O God, and renew within me a steadfast spirit.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Great love or little?

"Her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

Luke 7:47

In the Gospel reading for today's Mass (Luke 7:36-50) Jesus connects forgiveness with love. The woman who enters the house of the Pharisee to weep at Jesus's feet scandalizes everyone else by her mere presence. In their eyes, she is a sinner. She is an intruder--an uninvited guest. And yet, Jesus tells them all that because the woman's many sins have been forgiven, she shows great love.

Paradoxically, love is something that the Pharisee and his guests lack. They are not bad people. In fact, in today's world, they would be considered upstanding citizens, parishioners, or members of the congregation. They follow and uphold the Law. They do what is right and just. In them there is no wrong--but to a prideful fault. Indeed, what need do they have of a Messiah? They have made themselves like God--the sin which led to the fall of Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 3:5) and made the world the broken place it is today.

And that is Jesus' point altogether. We cannot truly love unless we've been forgiven, and to be forgiven means acknowledging our weaknesses, limitations, and our sins--which every human being has in abundance by definition. It means being honest with God, with ourselves, and with others about who we really are. It is true humility. Mercy, after all, triumphs over judgment (cf. James 2:13).

For this reason, Jesus says to the Pharisee and his guests: "One to whom little is forgiven, loves little." And to the woman, he says, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Some have died as martyrs for the faith, and others have gone to heaven without doing so, but we must all be martyrs of love, if we wish to arrive there. This love must deprive us of all comfort in life, and load our shoulders with the cross. It must make us embrace hardships and overcome them by the burning charity God has kindled in us. Like all strong affection, it makes a person forget himself, and care only for the Beloved, who in this case is God himself, and his most holy will.

-- St. John of Avila

Church of sinners

Ran across this excerpt from a letter by Catholic author Flannery O'Connor (+1964) to a friend in 1958. Its profound sentiments, I believe, are universal and relevant in any age:

Your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death.

Christ was crucifed on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won't teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn't walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water.

All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature.

God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can't understand this but we can't reject it without rejecting life.
 -- Flannery O'Connor to Cecil Dawkins
December 9, 1958
Collected Works, p.1083
The Library of America, 1988

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Catholic identity

"Be more human": Those three words engraved on a sign on a crucifix in Switzerland opened up for me a portal of understanding — in terms of my faith, my vocation as a monk, my self-understanding, and on a more universal level as well...

 ... Read more at Toledo Faith & Values, a hub website in Toledo, Ohio, for Religion News LLC's three-year community religion news project, funded through the Lilly Endowment. The recently launched site provides non-sectarian coverage of faith and values news in the Toledo region. As a former resident of the Toledo area, and at the invitation of former newspaper colleague David Yonke, the site's editor, I will be making occasional contributions--writing about Christian prayer, spirituality, and monastic life.

Within reach

Sunday, September 16, 2012
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time—B

Isaiah 50:5-9a
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35
From this morning's Gospel commentary at Vigils:

When the Lord tells us in the Gospel that anyone who wants to be his follower must renounce himself, the injunction seems harsh; we think he is imposing a burden on us. But an order is no burden when it is given by one who helps in carrying it out. To what place are we to follow Christ if not where he has already gone? We know that he has risen and ascended into heaven; there, then, we must follow him. There is no cause for despair—by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ's promise. Heaven was beyond our reach before our Head ascended there, but now, if we are his members, why should we despair of arriving there ourselves? True, many fears and afflictions confront us in this world; but if we follow Christ, we shall reach a place of perfect happiness, perfect peace, and everlasting freedom from fear.

One who claims to abide in Christ ought to walk as he walked. Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as he was humble. Do not scorn his lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation. Human sin made the road rough. Christ’s resurrection has leveled it. By passing over it himself he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway.

Two feet are necessary to run along this highway; they are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top. Well, the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing.

-- St. Caesarius of Arles

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Another moment in our hearts

As you may recall, last year this date -- the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- fell on a Sunday. Providentially, the Mass readings that day dealt with the theme of forgiveness--an eternal message of truth that is just as relevant a year later (and every day hereafter). Here is a link to my post on this blog from that day one year ago:

Br. Francis

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wisdom's fruit

Remember, Christian, the surpassing worth of the wisdom that is yours. Bear in mind the kind of school in which you are to learn your skills, the rewards to which you are called. Mercy itself wishes you to be merciful, righteousness itself wishes you to be righteous, so that the Creator may shine forth in his creature, and the image of God be reflected in the mirror of the human heart as it imitates his qualities. The faith of those who live their faith is a serene faith. What you long for will be given you; what you love will be yours for ever.

-- Pope St. Leo the Great

Jesus in a word: "Ephphatha!"

One word sums up the mission of Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday in his Angelus address: "Ephphatha," which is Aramaic for "be opened." In his reflection on Sunday's Gospel (Mark 7:31-37), Pope Benedict said because humanity is inwardly deaf and mute as a result of sin, God became man in the person of Christ so that we "become able to hear the voice of God, the voice of love speaking to our heart, and learn to speak in the language of love." For this reason, Jesus' words and actions recounted in Sunday's Gospel are re-enacted during the Rite of Baptism. The Pontiff's address is a fruitful meditation on Jesus' own words to each one of us, and our common call as baptized disciples of Christ. Below is the English translation of his remarks provided by Vatican Radio.

Ephphatha! ...

And may our response always be:
"Speak Lord, for your servant is listening!" (cf. 1Samuel 3).

At the heart of today's Gospel (Mk 7, 31-37) there is a small but, very important word. A word that -- in its deepest meaning -- sums up the whole message and the whole work of Christ. The Evangelist Mark writes it in the same language that Jesus pronounced it in, so that it is even more alive to us. This word is "Ephphatha," which means, "be opened."

Let us look at the context in which it is located. Jesus was traveling through the region known as the "Decapolis," between the coast of Tyre and Sidon, and Galilee, therefore a non-Jewish area. They brought to him a deaf man, so that he could heal him -- evidently his fame had spread that far. Jesus took him aside, touched his ears and tongue, and then, looking up to the heavens, with a deep sigh said, "Ephphatha," which means, "Be opened." And immediately the man began to hear and speak fluently (cf. Mk 7:35).

This then is the historical, literal, meaning of this word: this deaf mute, thanks to Jesus’ intervention, "was opened." Before, he had been closed, insulated, it was very difficult for him to communicate; his recovery was '"openness" to others and the world, an openness that, starting from the organs of hearing and speech, involved all his person and his life. Finally, he was able to communicate and thus relate in a new way.

But we all know that closure of man, his isolation, does not solely depend on the sense organs. There is an inner closing, which covers the deepest core of the person, what the Bible calls the "heart." That is what Jesus came to "open," to liberate, to enable us to fully live our relationship with God and with others. That is why I said that this little word, "Ephphatha – Be opened," sums up Christ’s entire mission. He became man so that man, made inwardly deaf and dumb by sin, would become able to hear the voice of God, the voice of love speaking to his heart, and learn to speak in the language of love, to communicate with God and with others.

For this reason, the word and the gesture of '"Ephphatha" are included in the Rite of Baptism, as one of the signs that explain its meaning: the priest touching the mouth and ears of the newly baptized says: "Ephphatha," praying that they may soon hear the Word of God and profess the faith. Through Baptism, the human person begins, so to speak, to "breathe" the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had invoked from Father with that deep breath, to heal the deaf and dumb man.

Let us turn in prayer to Mary Most Holy, whose Nativity we celebrated Saturday. Because of her unique relationship with the Incarnate Word, Mary is fully "open" to the love of the Lord, her heart is constantly listening to his Word. May her maternal intercession help us to experience every day, in faith, the miracle of '"Ephphatha," to live in communion with God and with others.

-- Pope Benedict XVI
September 9, 2012

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Finger of God

Sunday, September 9, 2012
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time—B

Isaiah 35:4-7a
James 2:1-5
Mark 7:31-37

“The Spirit is called the finger of God,” said St. Gregory the Great. “When the Lord put his fingers into the ears of the deaf mute, he was opening the soul of man to faith through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah, as we hear in today’s first reading: “Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”
Jesus’ actions in the Gospel, then, are signs that God’s long-awaited promises of deliverance, redemption, and healing have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh. However, we must look beyond Jesus’ many acts of physical healing throughout the gospels for what they ultimately signify. They are signs of something much greater: “By freeing some individuals from the earthly evils of hunger, injustice, illness and death, Jesus performed messianic signs. Nevertheless, he did not come to abolish all evils here below, but to free men from the gravest slavery, sin, which thwarts them in their vocation as God’s sons and causes all forms of human bondage” (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 549).
And so, in today’s Gospel, Jesus “took [the deaf mute] off by himself away from the crowd.” The afflicted man enters the presence of God’s Word in silence and solitude, and only in that setting does he become able to hear and speak as one should. True deliverance, redemption, and healing from earthly evil are brought about by a personal encounter with Jesus Christ (often mediated by human disciples; as we hear in the Gospel, the deaf mute is brought by others to Jesus, and they beg Jesus to heal him; he does so, but only after leading him away from the crowd so they can be alone).
Religion is not merely moral instruction and doctrine. It is not about personal wealth and health. It is certainly not a political cause. At its heart, true religion is a relationship with the God who comes to save us. And he meets us in the silence of our hearts, which his fingers shaped from the beginning.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What is a monk?

“What is a monk?" I am often asked. Sometimes what is meant, or even asked explicitly, is: “What does a monk do?”

It’s not an easy question to answer because being a monk is not a job, but a state of life. Monks are among the busiest, most talented people I know, but their jobs are not what make them monks — any more than one person’s occupation makes him or her a husband or wife....
 ... Read more at Toledo Faith & Values, a hub website in Toledo, Ohio, for Religion News LLC's three-year community religion news project, funded through the Lilly Endowment. The recently launched site provides non-sectarian coverage of faith and values news in the Toledo region. As a former resident of the Toledo area, and at the invitation of former newspaper colleague David Yonke, the site's editor, I will be making occasional contributions--writing about Christian prayer, spirituality, and monastic life.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rising from the ashes

  The Abbey ruins, south view.                                                 © Saint Meinrad Archabbey

Today is the 125th anniversary of what is commonly referred to around here as the "Great Fire." On this date in 1887--only 33 years after the first monks arrived from Einsiedeln in Switzerland to establish a Benedictine monastery and school in southern Indiana--the steadily growing abbey was destroyed by fire. Already in 1887, the pioneer monks had endured a great deal to build what is now known as Saint Meinard Archabbey--among them financial distress, drought and stifling heat and humidity, crop failure, poisonous snakes, severe illness, internal divisions, and back-breaking labor in the fields and sandstone quarry. Yet the community had persevered, and the new foundation was slowly taking shape.

What followed next must have been absolutely heart-breaking. The story, as told by Fr. Albert Kleber in his History of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 1854-1954:

© Saint Meinrad Archabbey
For thirty-three years the pioneers had worked hard in swamp and field, in forest and quarry, in church and school. After years of privations, of toil and sweat, the monumental stone building raised its gables over the wondering forest. The monks’ hearts beat high as within those majestic walls they chanted the divine praises, taught young men both natural and sacred sciences, in keeping with the rhythmic beat of monastic life.
On Friday forenoon, September 2, 1887, the community concluded the annual retreat, as a spiritual preparation for the opening of the scholastic year. At noon of that very day, as the community had just sat down to dinner, the shrill cry, “Fire!” suddenly pierced the air and every heart. Fierce flames raced through the corridors, broke through the roof, then leaped skyward, taking with them the toil of all those years. Within less than two hours the window openings—black holes in the gutted massive building—stared into space.
The summer had been exceptionally dry, and furthermore, on that fatal September 2, there was a strong wind from the south. It was a student, who chanced to be in the garret near where the fire started, who first noticed it; but by the time he ran to fetch a bucket of water and to sound the alarm the fire had gained headway not only in the garret but had worked its way through the roof where the wind whipped the flames northward and westward over the sun-parched shingles. A seminarian, who had spent his vacation at the Abbey, ran to the bell tower to spread the alarm abroad.
The [monastic] community, as yet unaware of the situation overheard, tried with buckets of water to put out the fire in the garret; but the people who came running from the town and the farms and saw the flames rushing across the roof knew that the building was doomed. They ran into the monastery and called out to the monks: “Save what is to be saved, for the monastery is lost!” and unasked, set to work to take out of the crypt whatever they could.
The library of some 10,000 volumes was over the entrance to the monastery. The entrance was on the first floor, in the middle of the east side of the main building; a stone stairway let up to the stone platform in front of the entrance door. The books, some of them large tomes, were thrown down from above, most of them landing on the platform and on the steps, whence people tried to carry them to safety even at the risk of being hurt by falling books or by firebrands from above. Even children were at hand with their little express wagons to help bring books and other things to safety. Only about one-tenth of the library was saved.
Flaming shingles, whirling high and as far as a thousand feet, alighted [other structures on Abbey property and in the nearby town]. Throughout the neighborhood, people had to be ready to put out fires starting here and there in the dry grass and weeds.
The seminarian who was ringing out the alarm from the Abbey tower stayed at his post until the flames, having raced to the north end of the main building, leaped into the belfry and turned it into a huge torch. In quick succession bell upon bell crashed down, each tolling its own funeral knell.
It did not take long for the blazing roof to collapse onto the ceiling of the top floor, there to find new fuel, and so on in quick succession down from floor to floor to the bottom of the basement. Finally, a little after one o’clock, the massive stone walls were a blast furnace shooting flames and billowing smoke into the sky. By three o’clock the flames had subsided.
As disastrous as the day was, Kleber also notes its redeeming qualities. No one was killed. The Blessed Sacrament was carried from the crypt that was then being used as the community’s worship space to the modest wood-frame church nearby that had been built by the monks shortly after their arrival from Einsiedeln in 1854. (Construction on the current Archabbey Church, in all her sandstone, Romanesque splendor, had not yet begun; it was built from 1899 to 1907.) When the wood-frame structure was also threatened (but not consumed) by flaming debris, the Blessed Sacrament was moved once again to a home in the town. Townspeople and Benedictine sisters from the area began taking up the task of housing and feeding monks and students. Then, toward evening, Abbot Fintan, most of the monks, and many townspeople retrieved the Blessed Sacrament and solemnly processed to the original wood-frame church. “Thereupon,” Kleber writes, “the choir monks, using the few breviaries that had been saved, chanted Vespers and Compline; and so the chanting of the Divine Office suffered no interruption.”

Their home, church, and primary place of work was demolished by fire, reducing to smoldering ruins all the back-breaking toil, economic hardship, and internal struggle they had endured and invested over the previous 33 years. Yet the monks of Saint Meinrad still gathered, as they would any other day, to sing God’s praises, offer thanks, and pray on behalf of the world.

And then, the monks, along with many townspeople and students, began the long and arduous task of cleaning up, making short- and long-term plans for the school and monastery, and rebuilding. The vast majority of their work still stands today—stone upon stone chiseled (by hand), hauled downhill by oxen- or mule-drawn carts from the Monte Cassino sandstone quarry and over as-yet unpaved roads, and then laid in place with hoists and pulleys.

Today, 125 years later, those three-foot thick sandstone blocks may be singed in places, but they are as solid as ever. Together, they enfold the echoes of voices past, present, and future, as the monks of Saint Meinrad gather daily to, borrowing Kleber's words, "chant the divine praises in keeping with the rhythmic beat of monastic life."

And so the beat goes on ...