When I left the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center there were patches of snow decorating the landscape. But as I went further south, there were none left, leaving a cold winter landscape of naked trees stark against a frowning sky. The monastery had the same feel of silent hibernation. Yet new fencing and piles of rich soil provided signs that our already large garden would become a fourth larger by spring.
I was sorry that I had to disappoint Br. Gabriel because the lady at the “Bait Place” along the way indicated that they would not have any more gold fish until spring. So perhaps by Easter I may be able to get 7 more to complete his dream menagerie for our Garth Pond. But he may be leaving at the end of the year to care for the flock of 80 chickens at our California monastery
I scanned the two bulletin boards for assignments -- priest on Sunday and Thursday, Deacon on Monday and Friday, and reader at all Vigils, Sexts, and Vespers. On the door of my cell was a surprise note. A friend of the monastery gave an extra $100 “to be used for us remaining Trappist monks to dine together at Rockbridge” -- which is a lovely “Trout Farm Resort” 10 miles further down Route N. So at Fr. Cyprian’s suggestion, the monks voted that the four of us would do just that at noon on Monday, celebrating my 90th birthday! How thoughtful. Also awaiting was a special birthday card signed by all the monks.
I found Br. Francis in his office, and presented him with a copy of the Kansas City Star newspaper put out to commemorate the Chief’s Super Bowl victory. Only he, and probably Fr. Cyprian, would have any clue as to the significance of this event after a 50 year hiatus. Fr. James Finder spent an overnight with us, and may be preparing his Rule in anticipation of becoming a Family Brother. I spent time also with Jim Delo from Louisiana who also is interested in the Family Brother program.
Fr. Bruno and Br. Ambrose are still away, so in addition to substituting for Jill in the Guest House, I helped to decorate fruitcakes. The bakery provides a contemplative calmness to this labora, as rhythmically the pecans have their assigned places; then an adornment of alternating red and green cherries; and finally the whole is baptized with a syrup gloss -- ready to be offered up in prayer as “a hint of the Eucharist feast for friends gathered in celebration.” A bit more on the noisy side, I received a demonstration of our saw mill. It is like a large band saw placed on its side. It really works! It appears to be Fr. Thaddeus’ favorite “toy.” I also did three spiritual direction sessions and a confession.
Finishing my 15th and final book is concurring nicely with my 90th birthday, giving me a sense of being on a “threshold” into a new phase of my life. Previously my “doing” was central and my “spirituality” was supplemental, but now “being” will become central and incidental “doing” will be supplemental. I used this week at the monastery in practicing for this transition -- especially intent on an expansion of contemplative time, and a more intentional “practicing of the presence” through transforming the natural dialoguing of “I” with “me” into an ongoing I-Christ one. Reading will now be less a speedy harvesting of information and more a slow and mellow deepening into what I already “know.” What a threshold this might well be -- as this extravert doer transitions into being more fully an introvert contemplative. Will the result be boredom marinated in tedium, OR . . . As with Merton’s famed prayer, I will be traveling without really knowing where I am going, but trusting that I am being led. I wrote two pages in a beginning effort to give substance to what this Threshold might be like.
Sunday was World Marriage Day, and so we prayed for all marriages and committed relationships, especially for those that are in trouble; for the lonely who do not have any one to walk with them on their life pilgrimage; and forgiveness for when we have failed to be friends to persons in need along the Jericho Road. In the homily, Isaiah insisted that we share our bread with the hungry, our shelter with the homeless, and our clothing with the naked. The Psalmist underscores this by speaking of “giving lavishly to the poor.” These are given not as suggestions, but as absolute requirements for persons of faith. Regardless of how well we might or might not be doing this, all Christians would probably concur that this is what we OUGHT to do. But then disagreement arises -- over the WHY. Serious giving to those in need makes little sense for many persons in our society, for their motivation is rooted in acquiring all they can for themselves in order to live as extravagantly as possible. In fact, it was over this “why” that the Protestant Reformation began -- over why we are to do good things. Protestants charged Catholics with contaminating the gospel by holding that we are to help others in order to earn our redemption as a reward. This is called “works righteousness,” in which the focus is on what we have to do in order to earn forgiveness. But it is in the day’s gospel that the “why” becomes clear. If we do good things in order to receive something, then our self-centered motivation is to aggrandize ourselves in the eyes of others; but if our good works are done selflessly, it is God who will be glorified. A key temptation is to do the right things for the wrong reasons. Thus it is important for us to realize that Vatican II made clear, once and for all, that Catholics and Protestants are in complete agreement as to the “Why.” The epistle reading from Corinthians says it all, in one sentence. “When I was with you I spoke of nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Nothing! Looking at a crucifix is all that we need to know -- that God in Jesus Christ has given us everything, even his own life, in order that we might have the fullness of life, forever. What more could one ever want than such amazing grace, such unconditional love. This changes everything -- for from now on all that we do is no longer motivated in order to receive, but is done spontaneously out of sheer gratitude for what God has already done for us.
Sunday afternoon there was a knock on my door, and there was Fr. Thaddeus our Superior. He had just made a beautiful new gown for me. “Your old one was worn and a bit short,” he beamed. How thoughtful. I had tears. Let me share as well my appreciation for Br. Nicholas who has the stall next to mine in the Church. Before every office he comes early and finds the appropriate places in the Breviary for both of us.
On the way to Rockbridge on Monday, the four of us were surprised that for several miles there were blue and white signs on both sides of the road indicating that this was State Park land. And at one point there was a new road and a large sign reading: “Bryant Creek State Park.” The waitress said it would officially open in spring.
Thursday was my actual birthday. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate it than to be the celebrant at an altar in the midst of the monks whom I love. I focused the Introductory Rites less on sins and more on intense gratitude for God’s ongoing graciousness. In contrast, the homily began with King Solomon -- whom I find to be a spoiled brat, an arrogant egoist, and a selfish exploiter. So there! He was raised in a gorgeous mansion; God created him to be one of the most brilliant persons of his time; his father David had assembled all the materials needed for him to build a glorious temple for God; and there were almost 1,000 beautiful women in his harem. But enough was never close to enough for him. Scripture blames his foreign wives for introducing idolatry, but his idol worship had begun long before that. An idol is whatever symbolizes where one’s heart really is, if it is not centered in the true God. From an early age, Solomon’s idol was Solomon. And in serving only himself, his greed split the kingdom in a civil war, the rich became richer and the poor poorer, and Solomon exploited whomever and whatever would make him look good. His sin was not in having idols as much as in making himself into one. Throughout scripture we hear of God using pagans to bring judgment on God’s people and/or their leaders in order to bring them to awareness of their idolatry. 9-11 could well have been such a time for our nation. The terrorists figured that they could inflict maximum damage on us if they could destroy those symbolic places that they regarded as functioning as our idols. They chose two: the twin towers as the trade center for a global capitalism exploiting the rest of the world; and the Pentagon as citadel of our global military supremacy. And so as we encounter Solomon’s idolatry, we might well ask ourselves if the terrorists were right in identifying the idols of our own insatiable passion for possessions, power, and prestige. The gospel reading speaks of Jesus having the power to cast out demons. And so it could be that our idolatrous society is fostering unclean spirits in each of us -- in which, like Solomon, we have a yearning for more than we need, a desire to aggrandize ourselves over others, and a willingness to destroy our environment for the sake of convenience and comfort. If so, Jesus can heal unclean spirits. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord of mercy.
At dinner, there was a birthday cake with appropriate trimmings, and an off-key but energetic serenade. After serving as Deacon at Mass on Friday, I left for my hermitage, truly blessed. And I arrived home to find my five beloved daughters waiting for me -- for more celebration. How fine!
May surprises greet you too all along life’s path.