Dear Friends, June, 2020
It has been 16 weeks since I was last at the monastery, missing four of the regularly scheduled weeks -- as the coronavirus has raged. On June 7, I observed alone my 28th anniversary as a life-vowed Family Brother. While the monastery remains closed, a recent call said: “You are living as a hermit, and you are one of us, please come.” So on Monday I took the familiar pilgrimage, as hot temperatures were scheduled to continue into the week. Things felt normal, for I was leaving with telephoned instructions from Fr. Cyprian to buy two jugs of paint thinner for projects he had waiting for me (two is a holy number); Br. Gabriel asked me to buy 7 goldfish (also a holy number) to add to the zoo he is creating in the Garth (he has already captured wild rabbits who certainly in due time will reach a holy number); and Fr. Alberic informed me of the two homilies and masses he has scheduled for me.
Global warming, indeed, as the trip felt not like June but a lazy August afternoon, as farmers hayed their fields, and fluffy clouds were pasted lifelessly on a blue cardboard backing. Along the road, Queen Anne’s Lace testified to stateliness, as among them dancing daisies persisted in smiling. In contrasting color were Dog-eared Asters, and is it Fleabane with the tiny dainty daisy imitation, rendered a bit silly perched on top of long gangly stems? I was pleased to be going from one hermitage-setting to another one, while all around in society come reports of depression as persons under “quarantine” become even desperate in having to live alone, haunted by having to face themselves as their roommate. While in the villages through which I passed a church used to be its center, now a new Dollar General store is providing the focus.
I wasn’t sure what might have evolved at the monastery during my absence, but not much, as it turned out. Fr. Thaddeus has removed some of the woods by the sawmill for the sake of better negotiation in hauling large tree trunks to the “saw mill.” Rumor has it that his goal is lumber to build a new carpentry shop, but he suggested to me it might become a “chicken coop.” At the moment he is building an elaborate reading stand for the church. The lush garden of spring has given way to the pickings of summer. Three white pigeons (another holy number) have been gifted with a home in the Garth on a tall pole, contentedly swooping as swallows flit with amazing radar in clearing insects from the vaults of the cloister -- carefully instructed by Br. Gabriel that the new goldfish are “untouchables.” Rumor has it that there are actually two male and two female pigeons, and that the invisible one is in the bird house sitting on eggs. Alas, it turns out that the rabbits have been exiled east of Eden for having devoured the rose bushes. But the pool has been restored, the new décor being white with a “vibrant” Marian blue trim, as Mary “herself” presides calmly over the whole scene from a blue pedestal. Br. Gabriel has been struggling with intestinal problems that after tests seems to be a severe case of acid reflex.
Some of you expressed concern about monks in the heat. While the Infirmary (with some cells) has air conditioning, the church and refectory have ceiling fans, and there is a small fan in each of our older cells. Fr. Cyprian is now walking without a cane; and Br. Francis can boast of an impressive loss of weight (I drilled seven new holes in his belt for him -- again a holy number). The Nazareth Hermitage worships with us daily for Mass. Sr. Marian has had a stroke, but is recovering surprisingly well through the 24/7 loving care provided by Sr. Dara and Sr. Margaret. Four Vietnamese are staying in the Guest House awaiting the opening of flights to Vietnam. A monk from New Melleray is with us for several months to discern a possible change of stability. Two new Vietnamese priest-monks have been approved by the U.S. for interviews when the embassy in Saigon reopens after the Corona Virus subsides. Fr. Thaddeus announced that, as of now, the monastery will be opened for retreatants and guests on August 1.
Wednesday was the Memorial for Fr. Joseph Cassant, a Cistercian Saint who seemed to have been incompetent in almost everything he tried, leading a priest who knew him to say, “If Joseph makes it as a saint, then there is a good chance for all of us!” His relic is embedded in our Altar. What he models for us is humility, impulsed by perseverance and a simple love of Jesus. The Old Testament reading for Mass was the story of Elijah’s final day. His closing words were his gift to Elisha his successor. “What would you have me do for you?” This is a question that would be useful for each of us to be asked. What does our hearts really want? -- wealth, prestige, possessions -- an air conditioned cell? Not for Elisha: “Give me a double share of your spirit.” In other words, “Help me to be like you!” Or as St. Paul asked --“Give me the ‘Spirit of Christ’ so that “it is not I but Christ who worketh within me.” And immediately after Elijah’s upward chariot flight, Elisha tears off his former clothing and puts on the mantle of Elijah, becoming Elijah. Each of us is wearing a mantle that we are living. For many it is the mantle of being scarred by a parent, or controlled by family expectations, or wounded by the love we never received. But in contrast, the Psalmist can celebrate his mantle: “The path God you have marked out for me is my delight.” This means putting on Christ’s yoke so that our mantle-yoke is that of becoming the version of Christ-likeness that God has designed for each of us to become. But in tragic contrast are the many persons who instead of reaching the end of their life with thanksgiving, slam down the cards of their existence, muttering that they were dealt a “lousy hand” -- dying in bitterness over the “portion and cup” that has resulted from the mantle they have chosen to wear. [This homily was chosen to be put on our Website.]
Friday was “The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus,” and Saturday “The Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” In the reading for Vigils, “heart” was well defined as “the inner reaches of the human personality, including the mind, soul, will, and spirit -- the core of one’s being. It is the place where a person thinks, remembers, feels, desires, and makes decisions.” That is helpful for a little Protestant boy who used to wonder if Catholics also had celebrations for Jesus’ spleen, lungs, and tonsils.
Sunday’s homily had to do with “conditional sentences,” about how they can describe our human dilemma but also the gospel as well, used in contrasting ways. A conditional sentence most often uses the words “YES, BUT.” Much of our lives have been tormented by these words -- remember when we were young: “Yes, you can go out and play, BUT you have to clean up your room first!” Or even “Yes, I love you, BUT you have to obey me better!” Much of our lives are stained by conditions -- the YES, BUTs. Lent is the time when we are deluged with conditional sentences, variations on Ash Wednesday’s YES BUT” -- “YES I created you, BUT you are only ashes and to ashes you will return.” Conditional declarations occur throughout scripture. At the very beginning, Adam says to God, “Hey it wasn’t my idea, it was Eve’s.” “YES BUT,” says God, “You ate it too!” And in the New Testament, Peter can say, “Jesus I walked on water with you” -- “YES BUT,” says Jesus, “you doubted and sank!” Or all the disciples can say, “Jesus we were with you in Gethsemane” -- “YES BUT,” says Jesus, “you all fell asleep.” And the crowds can say, “We laid down our coats on Palm Sunday for you to ride over” -- “YES BUT,” says Jesus, “you were also the ones who screamed, “Crucify him.” Ah yes, our human condition is tragic because of the YES, BUTs.
And yet, ironically, the Good News comes to us also as YES BUTs, heard in a reverse way. Therefore to Peter, Jesus subsequently says, “YES, you betrayed me, BUT
I died for your sins.” To the disciples, Jesus subsequently says, “YES, you ran away, BUT I came like a shepherd looking for you!” In fact, all of today’s readings can be understood in this reverse YES-BUT way. “YES,” God says to Jeremiah, “terror does surround you on every side, BUT I am with you as a mighty champion.” “Yes,” God says to the Psalmist, “you bear insult, and shame covers your face, BUT I will show to you bounteous kindness and great mercy.” “Yes,” Jesus says to St. Paul, “sin came into the world through one man, BUT I am the one man through whom grace abounds for all.”
“Yes,” Jesus says to his apostles in Matthew, “they will try to intimidate you, BUT not a single sparrow falls to the earth without your Father’s consent.” Our dilemma, then, is that we hear the YES-BUTS of the first kind, over and over again in judgment, until our ears can be closed to the abundant YES-BUTS of the second kind -- where with Christ all conditions are overcome, for he has the final BUT.
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The Coronavirus quarantine is a negative YES BUT, and yet in the YES BUT of enforced solitude may we be draw deeper into the Sacred Silence than we might otherwise have gone.
So be it.