Ascension Week to Pentecost
Last weekend was as glorious as one could ever hope -- bluest of sunny skies, temperature at 75, with a gentle coaxing breeze. Just right for roaming in the woods, doing contemplation on the deck, and celebrating the Iris as flower of the week. Monday, equally special in its own way, consisted of a warm spring rain, with all of nature responding to affirm green as God’s favorite color. The windshield wipers and I gave antiphonal thanksgiving -- for each and for all. Close to Ava is a highway park that almost always has at least one car in it. This time there were three, each equipped with children, admiring by participation the three waterfalls made playfully melodic by the rain.
It seems that our Superior can do almost everything. This time I was greeted with him clearing a section of woods with a back hoe. Close to the rear monastic entrance was a muddy hole, with two hired electricians equally muddy -- and Fr. Cyprian as apparent supervisor. Evidently the water line run last month to the garden was under reconsideration, digging below the frost line as a precaution. The manure has been spread and the garden is ready for planting and replanting from the greenhouse. Br. Alphonse arrived in Saigon only to be placed immediately in a three week quarantine at a local hotel. The two Vietnamese monks with approved visas are still waiting release from Vietnam, while two more have begun the application process for visas. A silent stocky Vietnamese person named Francis, without any monastic apparel, showed up as my neighbor in choir. Turns out that he lives in this country, lost much of his family to the virus, and is here as a Cistercian observer. A cell close to mine had a note on the door reserving it for a “Br. Austin who will arrive in early June.” He is from Texas and will be a Cistercian Observer. Starting in June, the Guest House will begin a selective opening, cautious of the virus risk involved in each request. Fr. Jesus of the Nazareth Hermitage came over for a friendly conversation; he will be an excellent addition to their laura. They also have a male applicant from Hawaii who will be visiting, ironically living only a block from the church where Fr. Jarek has been assigned. My labora was primarily in the Bakery, not only showing my proficiency with red cherries but I am now rivaling Rembrandt in brush strokes with Karo syrup. A trip to OReilly Auto Parts for a drier belt revealed that the founder lives in Ava, and since his son (I believe) became a monk, he gives Assumption Abbey not only wholesale prices but an additional 10% discount. There are now ten propane tanks in our parking area, the result of switching to a supplier who promised a better contract. The swallows have returned, trying again to teach aerial acrobatics to the pigeons. Speaking of pigeons, since we have been unsuccessful in potty training them, we have a new power washer to scrub clean the cloister. At latest count, the dozen goldfish that I bought last fall have shown themselves to be significantly diverse sexually.
The Tuesday homily identified this week as “Alone Week,” with Christ having ascended and the Holy Spirit not yet descending. Appropriately, all of the day’s scriptures have to do with “farewells,” with the pain of having to say “goodbye.” Thus in Acts we hear St. Paul saying to his church in Ephesus, “All I want is to be able to finish the race, to complete the task that the Lord Jesus has assigned me, but this I know. You will never see my face again.” And with mutual tears, he leaves. Then in the gospel of John we hear Jesus say, “I have finished the work, Father, that you have given me to do, so I come to you.” And he too leaves with a farewell. I don’t know about you but I do not do “goodbyes” well. The last time I was here, it was painful to say farewell to Br. Alphonse and Fr. Jarek, both of whom I will likely never see again. Thus if my aging gets to the point where I will no longer be able to drive and thus cannot spend my monthly week with you, “my final farewell would be painful.” As one gets older, we lose our friends faster, often without a chance even to say farewell. Last Tuesday the Spirit prompted me to call a dear priest friend with whom I had not spoken for quite a while. To my shock he is now blind, unable to read, to use his computer, or even watch TV. “Then what do you do with your time,” I asked. “I relive my memories.” When our conversation ended, he said, “Your call and your prayers mean so much to me!” He is close to finishing his race, completing well the task to which God has assigned him. But physically he is now all alone. Given all this, it is appropriate that on that day we observed the Memorial of Pope John I, who in living faithfully came into severe conflict with the King. He was summoned, and there, not knowing his fate, he died, described as “an old wretched man, ill and worn out,” whose grave bears this epitaph: “A victim for Christ.” The psychologist Eric Erikson, in analyzing the states of life through which we pass, identified our final stage, the stage of farewells, as living the tension between despair and integrity. And our readings for the day name two things that are crucial for living well this tension. The first is, before the final farewell, to be able to say, “I have run the race, I have finished the course that the Lord has set before me.” While we can never do this as well as we would wish, it is good enough to be able to say, “I’ve given it my best shot.” This is integrity, while despair awaits those who have lived without any sense of there even being a race track. The second dimension is this. As Jesus bids farewell to his disciples, he makes this promise: “For you I shall pray.” My aging priest friend was so thankful for my prayers because they reminded him of the Christ who holds him and each of us every moment in his prayers. Whatever the loneliness we might have to bear, whatever the cross that still awaits, the good news is that Christ is in prayer with us until the end of time. Never shall we be alone, no, never. In trusting this, the poet Alexander Pope once said, “One can then be content to die without even a stone to mark the grave.” Therefore perhaps the most powerful words that a person can say to another is this promise: “I shall pray for you.”
Sunday’s homily for Pentecost recalled when two weeks previously I was visiting flea markets looking for lamps in anticipation of electrifying our HSRC Log Cabin Hermitage. To my surprise there was a group outside a coffee shop who shouted for me to join them. They were a Catholic bible study group who apparently meets weekly to discuss the upcoming Mass readings. They needed help to make sense out of the Ascension. Their problem was in taking the story literally, bogged down with such issues as how Jesus could elevate without oxygen, and if heaven was a planet. So I shared how the New Testament writers were less interested in how key events happened as they were in helping us understand what difference they make in the living of our lives. And what I shared with them then about the Ascension is true as well of Pentecost. And as I prepared my homily I saw more clearly how Ascension and Pentecost are deeply related, reoccurring every time we celebrate Mass. What we do at the altar is to take the bread and wine of our daily existence, the existence into which Jesus became incarnate, and in raising these elements we are repeating the Ascension. Jesus was one of us not just for 32 years, but in the Ascension he takes with him our humanity, raising it into the very being of God -- and in the Eucharist this happens over and over again. Thus raised with the broken body of Christ is our own brokenness, sins, sorrows, doubts, and suffering, lifted as an ascension into God where they are shared, forgiven, refined, and purified, woven into the fabric of the Kingdom that God is weaving. And in elevating the wine, Christ takes with him our creativity, joys, kindness, loving -- taken up as enrichment into God himself as He is becoming “All in all.” This ascension at Mass climaxes with these words: “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever.” In response the congregation sings forth, “Amen.” This ascension of the wine is like making a toast, saluting the vision of the Kingdom of God in which we are being called to participate. Then the Pentecostal descent begins as enablement -- as an acting out of the day’s Responsorial Psalm when we prayed: “Lord send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” Since we are being called to participate in this renewal of the earth, the altar is now prepared as a table, and the body and blood of Christ descends to us in a downward Pentecostal motion -- so that in eating we are nourished, empowered to play our role in the bringing of the Kingdom. These elements blessed by the Holy Spirit have become the Lamb of God who indeed has entered under our roof, healing our souls so that we can have supper with him -- being fed “through him and with him and in him.” Then comes the crucial Dismissal, because the very reason for our coming together is to be empowered so that we can be dismissed into the world to act as the living body of Christ. Sometimes the Spirit’s dismissal may happen as the book of Acts describes it -- like “a driving wind” that will enable us to make “a bold proclamation as the Spirit prompts us.” At other times, it may feel more like Pentecost as described in the day’s Gospel -- as a peace that is like Jesus breathing upon us. But whatever we are called to be and to do, we leave Mass with Jesus’ final Ascension assurance -- that “I am with you always, until the end of the world.” Thus at every Mass, Ascension and Pentecost happen, over and over again, by which we and the world are renewed into wholeness.
My you have a happy Ascension into Pentecost,