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Ash Wednesday 2024

Dear Friends                                                                           Ash Wednesday Week


The few days before coming to the monastery were wonderful ones.  Three of my daughters came to the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center to celebrate my 94th birthday in advance.  A particularly satisfying gift was that they helped me take on several demanding tasks, using their expertise and willingness with ladders.  The weekend climaxed with my Kansas City Chiefies winning the Super Bowl, for two in a row, a rare achievement.  The whole “Chiefs Kingdom” would be co-mingling Mardi Gra and Ash Wednesday with a huge victory parade and trophy presentation.  But what followed on Sunday evening was an ominous weather report for the next day:  heavy rain, snow, or both.  But travel turned out not to be as treacherous as expected, only cause for caution.


The monastery was enveloped in silent winter hibernation.  I expected little change.  The Garth, usually nature’s center point of our monastery complex, was finally totally barren, with an ice cover for our sleeping gold fish.  Cut flowers attempted a bit of cheer in the church, and there were about 25 plants huddled warmly together in the hall for winter care.  Especially pleasing among them were six of our Christmas poinsettias that have survived in all their redness.  January was Clean-the-Bakery Month, and February marked the beginning of baking -- with safety and enthusiasm.  There was added excitement over the final arrival of two new Vietnamese brothers as our “valentines” -- Br. Kolbe and Br. Lawrence.  Br. Gabriel, who has been a godsend to us, will soon be returning to California for resumption of his priestly studies.  And Alberic #1 is presently at New Melleray (his Mother House) for one of his three monthly service times there each year.  And yet this mix makes Michael optimistic about being able to make this year’s goal of 30,000 to 31,000 fruit cakes, baked on a six day per week schedule -- with time off for saintly celebrations.  At the moment, Michael is the only member of his family without the flu.  The “Friends of the Abbey” finished refurbishing our cemetery crosses, but in their eagerness to arrange them in strict military rows they rendered a bit ambiguous which graves belong to which monks.  A corrected sketch is in the making for use at our All Souls celebration.  Apparently the Cistercian Order Constitution requires corporate rosary, which is being done daily after Vigils.  Additionally scheduled is now lectio-divina, done individually but in corporate presence after None in either the Chapter Room or Library. 


Fr. Cyprian and I, the “remaining two,” always have a short session of catch-up, beginning with sharing the most recent marks of aging.  Fatigue and arthritis topped the list this time.  Apparent to both of us is the contrast between our Trappist and Cistercian spiritual presences.  Key for the Trappist intentionality is silence and contemplation, with the goal of living in contemplative Presence.  The Cistercian characteristic that we observed is more that of communal togetherness. Yet despite our professed “aloneness,” the two of us usually end up sharing reminiscences of the “the good old days” with the “good old gang.”  Mardi Gras and my Birthday were combined at Tuesday lunch -- with conversation, extra cookies, a sung “Happy Birthday,” and some “Lucky Money” that was apparently my portion of the Lunar New Year celebration the week before.  Nice.  Yet of the many requests we receive for prayers, my heart this week especially went out for the lady from Ava who is suffering from brain cancer, with less than a year to live.  May all that she experiences for the last time on these rarefied days be special, encountered as if for the first time.


I was given a cardboard heart with chocolates for Valentine Day.  Traditionally Lent begins at First Vespers of Ash Wednesday when we meet in the Chapter room, have read the appropriate sections from St. Benedict’s Rule, and receive back the blessed book that each of us has chosen for disciplined reading.  This tradition was postponed this year until Thursday evening in order to accommodate our two newly arriving monks. The book I chose was “The Roots of Christian Mysticism” by Olivier Clement.  We had the traditional Imposition of Ashes on Wednesday, with a meal of bread and water.  My favorite formula for this is: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Rev. Cathleen, our HRSC Associate Director, prefers “star dust;” while the poet T. S. Eliot declares to our society: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”  Our Superior has given free room and board to Fr. John Adams from the Buffalo Diocese to stay with us for six months.  He is a friend of Sr. Dara of Nazareth Hermitage.  Apparently that diocese is in turmoil over such matters as the closing of parishes. Fr. John’s assignment is to create a “program” for “Spirituality and Healing.”  As a registered psychologist, he in turn will give period talks to the community.  He and I had a long session together, and he might visit HSRC. On Friday he gave the community a presentation on “Listening.” We just received a notice that Br. Andre died in France.  He was a contentedly aged curmudgeon who gladdened our monastery the years that he was here.  The St. Joseph Benedictines of Mary (women) who are presently using our facilities on Route N will be having an open house on March 19.  Their new 18 million dollar monastery on Route P will formally open this Fall.  My assignments this week were as Refectory Server, Antiphon Reader, Deacon twice, and Priest on Saturday.  My Lenten discipline is to write a short “Life of Jesus,” pulling together what I think I have learned about him through these many years.


When I am scheduled to preach, I first like to ponder over all the scriptures until a theme begins to emerge that unites them.  The theme I found this Saturday was -- “we are called to a change of heart by being renewed in the Lord to follow Christ’s ways and not our own.”  This is about what we might expect from scriptures assigned during Lent.  And yet two-thirds of the day’s scriptures are diametrically opposed to what the Gospel calls “Christ’s way.”  Thus Isaiah instructs us to “stop making false accusations and using malicious speech,” and instead “give bread to the hungry and healing to the afflicted.”  Sounds good, but notice the key word that follows:  that word is THEN.  When you have done these things, THEN “will your parched land become like watered gardens, and your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt.”  Similarly our Responsorial Psalm asks God to “teach us the way we should follow,” and by doing so, here comes that word again, THEN God “will have pity, will forgive, and will be good to us.  We must remember that these first readings are from the Old Testament, and that the radical change we find in the New Testament occurs with where the word THEN is placed.  It always appears in the totally opposite place.  John’s letter makes this profound change clear when he declares: “It is not we who loved Christ, but Christ who first loved us.”  This change is what turned St. Paul’s whole life upside down following his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road.  Previously he had been an accomplished practitioner of the Old Testament law, whose motivation is to receive the rewards that await one who is obedient.  Thus the syntax identifying Paul’s former life was this:  “IF you do, THEN God will do.  It all depends of where the THEN is placed.  And so Paul’s conversion happened when he was claimed by realizing that the love of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross was for HIM.  THEN he was enabled to love as he has been loved, forgive as he has been forgiven, and give to others as he has been freely given.  No longer is the syntax that of doing what you MUST in order to receive what you WANT, but because you have already RECEIVED all that matters, you are freed to live a life of joyous thanksgiving.  Put into a sentence, the heart of the Gospel is never that of DOING in order to GET but is a matter of living out what we are continually and undeservedly being given.  Thus the readings for the first half of Lent are not instructions concerning what we are to do as much as they are a making clear of what we are unable to do -- without Christ, about whom our readings for the last half focus.  How utterly contrary this Christian approach is to the syntax characterizing our modern society.  If we are really honest, everyone knows that “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Everything that appears on TV to be free is only a gimmick to trap us into giving.  This is what makes the gospel so hard to believe -- that it is indeed FREE; it is totally a GIFT; and its heart is all about GRACE.  Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is a simple story that makes this clear.  Jesus sees Levi the tax collector; Jesus loves him; Jesus says, “Follow me.”  And he does. So elemental.  Levi does not do anything to deserve being called.  It simply happens -- he stands up, immediately leaving everything behind, and follows Jesus.  The syntax is so clear -- God acts first, enabling us to live a life of response.  This is possible because, as Jesus puts it, “I have come for the unhealthy.”  And as Luther put it, we are unhealthy because “All our acts are like filthy rags.”  Why?  Because our motive, even as children, is always to receive.  We are self-centered and selfish.  And no matter how much we get, it is never enough for us to feel whole and complete at the core.  As a result, conversion occurs when we who are of “little price” are claimed by Christ as “the pear of great price.”  As the Breviary puts it:

                        “For the wonders that astound us,

                          For the truths that still confound us,

                          But most of all that Love has found us,

                          Thanks be to God.”

And so as we begin this season of Lent, let our primal focus be less on our own doing and more on being in love with the Christ who already is unconditionally in love with us.  Then our doing as acts of love will follow spontaneously.


My dear friends, in the midst of our war-ravished world, may this Lent nevertheless be a true adventure for each of us -- from desert through crucifixion to Resurrection by Ascension in Pentecost as foretaste of the Kingdom to be.




Fr. Paul

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Happy Birthday 🎉!

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