It has been almost two months since I was last at the monastery, having cancelled my September visit because of the aftermath of some kind of virus. The health of the community will be interesting to see, as well as the fluidity of the monks. As I left the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center we were promised that the severe blistering of the past weeks would likely end this week, along with the gift of rain. We’ll see.
The first sight of the monastery was the lushness of the garden, adorned with huge leaves of various sorts, only half of which I could identify. The Cistercians continue to “play checkers” with the monks. Our Superior Fr. Basil is spending a month at the Mother House in Vietnam, reviewing for the Abbot there the progress being made at Assumption Abbey. Alberic #1 is spending a month in the Philippines, ending with participation in the Anniversary of our Trappist Daughter House there. Br. Gabriel has returned to help until new monks arrive. Br. John of the Cross has arrived for the summer, playing well the organ. Br. Ignatius passed his Embassy interview, but alas, Roberto, who yearns so much to return here, was denied his (although he will persistently try again in September). A Vietnamese woman retreatant has been eating the evening meal with the Vietnamese monks. Austin has permanently departed. Family Brother Jim Delo was with us. The colds are still being generously shared. Our dogs and cat have abandoned us, apparently having found the “promised land” elsewhere. I drove Fr. Michael to get a passport picture so that he can spend several introductory years at the Mother House before returning. Jill is now part-time. A group of eight retreatants came on Friday. The indoor plants are all in the cloister breathing in the last of the summer sun. During the night about a month ago, a storm toppled a healthy tree, breaking through our three entry cables, plunging everything into darkness. Thankfully the Electric Coop repaired the damage within half an hour. A small portable air conditioner has been added on the left side of the Church. A delicious cake appeared on the Feast of the Assumption, wishing Mary and us “A Blessed Feast Day.” My assigned tasks for the week were as Antiphon leader, Server in the Refectory, and hearing Confessions. Meanwhile, Fr. Cyprian is serving as acting Superior over it all.
All things have their end, among which is our beloved Band Saw that left the Carpentry Shop and is on the loading dock awaiting transport to the dump. We thought the same for our commercial grade $700 relatively new microwave, sitting quietly on a table in the Refectory awaiting proper burial. But after a week and a last minute jiggle of the cord produced a resurrection, it is back in service until the need for a more vigorous jiggle. There is something graceful in seeing daily through my cell window three deer grazing peacefully among our graves, with two monks praying over the cemetery after every Vespers. Every time I pass the Tabernacle of Relics outside the Sacristy I find myself touching it gently as a way of feeling the “great crowd of witnesses” who gives historic length to our monastery. Meanwhile small colorful bouquets of the last zinnias of the season adorn the halls and Church. And in an effort to be more Cistercian, the monks now say the Rosary together after Vigils, and have half an hour of Lectio Divina daily after None in either the Chapter Room or the Library.
Although not likely to win any aesthetic prize, a contraption has been constructed from the Garth roof composed of a six foot piece of blue-green 8” pipe, connected to a red watering can, supported by a paint-speckled step-ladder, emptying by hose into the pond -- where our gold fish are greatly flourishing since their six-fish origin years ago. As promised, rain blessed us on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by cooler weather.
Our confession at Wednesday mass focused on forgiving our desires for power, possessions, and prestige, that tempt us to sin. Our scripture from Ezekiel may be one of the most appropriate ones to be read and pondered in our day. His prophesizing is not against the sheep but against the shepherds. Instead of pasturing the sheep, the leaders are feeding off of the sheep -- drinking their milk; wearing their wool; slaughtering their fatlings; and lording harshly over them all. In contrast, what shepherds are called to do is to strengthen the weak; heal the sick; and bring back the strays. Therefore, says God, “I am coming against the Shepherds, with I myself shepherding my sheep” -- so that all can say, as in today’s psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.” One would think that the shepherds of today’s Church would be different -- that they would be earnestly inviting a frightened and insecure world into the safety and security of Christ’s beloved community. But instead, week after week, we are learning that more and more of our shepherds are such that not even our children are safe. What we are learning is that the pastors with the largest churches and thus the most power are those most likely to be guilty of Ezekiel’s judgment. As the saying goes, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is frightening to hear parishioners say, “What Father wants, Father gets.” This is why Jesus saw the most helpful recruits for his Kingdom being the poor, the needy, the widows, the orphans, and the sick -- for these have already been humbled. For the others, however, their hope is, as the Virgin Mary insisted, that our God is the One who “scatters the proud in their conceit, casts down the mighty from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.”
My friends, the Church of Jesus Christ is today under Ezekiel’s judgment -- judged by the very Christ whom we are called upon to incarnate. And with this judgment of the Church comes as well judgment of our society, which is contaminating our Church. Pope Francis in his prophetic book, “The Joy of the Gospel,” boldly declares that the power of possessions knows no limits -- so that our capitalistic system tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, and destroys whatever is defenseless against the interests of a deified market which becomes the only rule. "Strong words! We can all be caught up in this web of greed, so that in my social justice work I have found that even persons who have made their way out of the poverty ghetto are still likely to be critical of those who remain. “I made it;” they say, “so your poverty is your fault.” But today’s gospel makes clear that the heart of the Good News is never our efforts to earn God’s love, of winning for ourselves a place in Christ’s Kingdom. Instead, the Christian is to live a life totally in thankful gratitude for the unconditional love that Christ has already showered upon us all. “Reward” is not a word that should appear in any Christian’s play book. Thus in today’s gospel parable we are told that those who have worked a full day for God in his vineyard should never be envious but should be joyful for all who enter God’s employment, no matter how recently they have begun. Legislators should never neglect the poor by charging that they have not earned equality ------ for equality is their birthright, for no other reason than their having been born as children of God. Our God is amazingly generous -- in sowing everywhere, in seeking relentlessly the lost sheep, and in racing breathlessly up the lane to welcome home every prodigal child.
The Sunday scriptures were likewise expansive and inclusive, using words such as “all” and “every." Thus Isaiah speaks of God gathering together every nation of every language, even from the most distant lands -- so that everyone can see God’s glory. All peoples shall be brought to the Lord, Isaiah says, coming by all means possible, from elaborate chariots to lowly donkeys. The day’s Psalmist is likewise expansive, insisting that all of us “go out to all the world and tell the good news.” Likewise Luke’s reading tells us that even on the way to his death, Jesus nevertheless stopped in every city and every town along the way to preach the gospel. The Nineteenth Century and half of the Twentieth echoed such optimism -- being called “the Age of Reason” and the era of “Christian World-wide Expansion.” One of the most prestigious ecumenical publications was called “The Christian Century,” reflecting the full global expansion of the gospel expected during that generation. But when we turn to today’s reading from Hebrews, the mood becomes subdued, declaring that God disciplines even those whom he loves. Luke’s gospel likewise turns dyer, using the analogy of the “narrow door” as response to whether more than a few persons will ever be saved. While many will try to enter, Jesus says, they cannot, for the Master of the house will declare, “I do not know you!” Then there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth.” Yet he promises that “people will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and they shall all feast in the Kingdom.” But then Jesus again turns to warning: “Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.” Conservative Catholics tend to interpret such readings as calling for an urgent rethinking of Vatican II, restoring heaven as the rightful focus of the gospel. Endorsed by conservative bishops, Ralph Martin’s book “Will Many Be Saved? declared what must be “unashamedly stated” is that “the eternal destinies of human beings are really at stake, and for most people the preaching of the gospel can make a life-or-death, a heaven-or-hell difference.” In contrast, progressive Catholics insist that Vatican II must be more rigorously followed, declaring, as does the Ordo summary of today’s readings, that “no ethnic or religious group possesses exclusive rights to the Kingdom, for no one is excluded, because all are called to praise the Lord.” With such a contrast as this, it is no wonder that our beloved Church is split. But can it be that in our tragic time the “narrowness of the door” is a criticism of the Church itself -- that God is calling forth a radically faithful remnant of believers, like this monastery, who are to become counter-cultural communities capable of outlasting our society that is fast approaching the outer edge of extinction. But whichever choice one makes, it must be serious -- whether the focus is an individual one or a corporate one; whether the focus is primarily on the destiny of souls or on the Church called to face the narrow door. Whichever it is, we live in a time when God is calling for serious decision.
In the meantime, let us face global warming with gratitude for the cool autumn weather with which we may still be undeservedly gifted.
Be faithful. Fr. Paul