Ash Wednesday


Dear Friends,


It was a gorgeous day as I left for the monastery, with a bright sun glittering on the melting snow. But there was sadness because Brian Walsh, a Family Brother, had suddenly died this past week, without warning. It had been his hope to complete the requirements for life-status and gain the right to burial in the monastic seminary -- but he was still on his 6 month commitment. Our prayers are very much with him.


Each monk chose on Sunday a book for Lenten Lectio, so I submitted a book to be blessed when I arrived. On the N. Y. Times best selling list, it is “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a Native American botanist who combines her scientific training with her Potawatomi culture, developing a life-style of reciprocal relationship with all of God’s creation.


I was surprised by all that had happened or came to my attention regarding the one week that I was gone. LEEDS lighting was installed in the Bakery, using both yellow and white versions for the sake of eye care. Automatic lights have been placed in the kitchen storage room and the walk-in cooler. The Vietnamese are “Americanized” sufficiently that we now have pizza at least twice a week! The weather featured four inches of ice, a record -- while this week had a spring-like 60 degrees. The two men who tried to intimidate Jill were caught several days later trying to burglarize a home. Jill is going on Social Security, supplemented by several days each week at the monastery. Thaddeus went to Vietnam with Fr. Michael to visit the Motherhouse. Fr. Basil is receiving physical therapy for his arm because of incomplete surgery some years ago. The monks are hospitably passing the cold virus around among each other. New Melleray has seven reported cases of Covid virus. It seems that all the Vietnamese monks have a Tablet and a Smart Phone. The slope to the church stalls has been increased. The new Compline has become well-perfected, but I still miss the darkness. Five pigeons continue to make their mid-day visit to measure our hospitality. For Mardi Gras, four of our monks joined with members from Nazareth Hermitage and the Franciscan Community in undertaking an extensive Br. Joseph-inspired hike through the woods. Meanwhile at home, the rest of us had a special conversational meal, but the bottle of wine and two kinds of ice cream arrived unseen after most of us had gone through the cafeteria line. But the office of None was done at the conclusion of the meal, giving us the afternoon off. Ash Wednesday dawned beautifully, and was punctuated by three elements: deep-purple vestments, the imposition of ashes during Mass, and a main meal of cold water and bread. I marveled that one monk consumed five slices of bread with only a small glass of water. Confused by the scripture against displaying signs of fasting, half of the monks mashed away the ashes shortly after receiving them, while the rest of us wore them until Compline. Br. Austin left Saturday to spend time with his ailing grandfather. I was given a letter from a prisoner who will be paroled in September, asking spiritual guidance from us; and then a call from the prison inquiring what we are prepared to offer.


Some of you have asked for a review of the monastic schedule as it is now being lived, so here it is: 3:15 AM rise. 3:30 AM Vigils. 4:30 AM communal Rosary. 6:00 AM Lauds, followed by Mass. [Sunday -- Lauds at 6:30 AM, 9:00 AM Mass.] 9:00 AM Terce in the Infirmary Chapel. 9:10 AM Labora [earlier for Bakery workers, with Terce done there with a blessing of the cakes.] 11:45 AM Sext, followed by the main meal, and communal cleaning. 1:00 PM Siesta (optional). 2:00 PM None in Infirmary Chapel. 2:10 PM individual Lenten Lectio in Chapter or Library. 3:00 PM Labora. 5:45 PM Vespers. 6:30 PM prayers for the dead (optional). 7:40 PM Compline. 8:00 PM Retire. The Sacristy Bulletin Board indicates the weekly assignments of Priest, Deacon, Prayer Leader, Antiphons, Reader, Lauds, Church Server, Refectory Server, Mass reader, dishes.


My Thursday Mass began with a confessional recognition of the ambiguity of our lives -- observing the memorial of Katharine Drexel who, born into luxury, founded her Missionary Sisters with 49 foundations including Xavier University; but it is also the date when in 1991 police beat to death Rodney King, evoking one of the largest race riots in our history. The homily began with Moses declaring to the people the decision that confronts each of us: “Choose you this day between life and death.” The early evangelists presented this same choice using the words of Jesus that appear in today’s gospel: “To be a follower, deny your very self, take up your cross daily, for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his live for my sake will save it.” For the first three centuries this choice literally risked death -- symbolized by every pope during this time was martyred. But beginning with the 4th century, when Constantine became Emperor, it suddenly became advantageous to convert. So many Christians fled to the desert -- because it was no longer their HEAD that was at stake but their SOULS. As Jesus asks, “What good does it profit you if you gain the whole world but destroy your soul?” Although there are many places in today’s world where it is the FIRST choice that must be faced -- that of life or death -- for more Christians have been martyred in the last century than ever before. But for us Christians living in this country, it is the SECOND choice that confronts us: to choose between following the hollow promises of our society, or choosing the integrity of a faithful soul. I am convinced that the temptations that Jesus faced for 40 desert days are the very temptations with which our society now tempts every citizen. These I have previously identified as the three P’s:

the lures of possessions, prestige, and power. These promises at the heart of the American Dream are for the Christian the anatomy of sin. What is now at stake is saving our souls from the corruption that inevitably rots lives that live both IN this society and OF it. Last week I saw a cartoon of a person on his knees trying to contemplate -- while all around him were images of a McDonald’s Big Mac, a smoking gun, money, a naked woman, UTube, booze, drugs, internet gambling, Face Book, cigarettes, Zoom, pornography, Google -- on and on. If we are honest, we cannot deny that this is a realistic portrait of the situation in which monks find themselves. Therefore Lent is a time for deep honesty -- for we are living in a period when the Church not only places a black cross on our forehead, but is itself undergoing the deep humiliation of its own blackness, shouting not only to each of us but to the whole of Christendom: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” In 4th century many who fled formed monasteries, and those of us who already belong to one, are also being called to regain the radicalism of those early monks: to witness to our society that to be Christian is an either/or choice, and no longer a “both/and” one. We are being called to become as self-sufficient as possible, minimizing our interaction with the capitalistic structures and values that are threatening to overtake us. To paraphrase Jesus’ warning in today’s gospel: “What good does it do for Assumption Abbey to have impressive growth and to grow prosperous through an expanded Fruit Cake business, if we lose our souls by minimizing the radical reason for our very existence. Lent is a time for rethinking what it really means to be a counter-cultural faithful remnant.


May all of you have an intentional Lent.


Grace and peace,


Fr. Paul

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