Fr. Basil, Superior, has asked that I make clear that these reports represent my perceptions and not necessarily that of the monastery.
Dear Friends, Advent/Christmas 2022
Here I was driving to the Monastery, five days before my scheduled Christmas week. As some of you already know, on December 15 our brother Francis died in the hospital of serious infection likely from dental surgery. He died on his birthday (82) -- only shortly after his older sister Eileen’s death (92 years) on the Feast of Christ the King. Bishop Rice presided, and Bishop Liebrecht did the homily. Fr. Cyprian gave the eulogy, as follows:
: “Francis was born on Dec. 15, 1940, the youngest of three children. He attended schools taught by Augustinian Friars and entered that Religious Order in later years. He was a novice in California and made final vows there. He did library work and taught in a coed high school. He transferred to the Trappist Monastery in Vina, CA, where he added retreat conferences and orchard work to his other services. He made solemn profession there on Christmas Eve in 1966. In 2003, Francis came to Assumption Abbey at Ava as a guest helper. In June, 2008, he changed Stability to this monastery. Here he was Vocation Director along with his other work. He helped to administer a Family Brother program and continued having conferences with small groups. He persevered as a faithful monk (and a loyal Rams fan). Bro. Francis is survived by his brother monks and many friends. He was the last surviving member of his family.” The Funeral Mass
was very meaningful, but standing by the graveside was a frigid act of love. For those of you who have never witnessed a Trappist committal, the monk is garbed in his cowl, incensed and sprinkled with holy water and liturgy. Just before he is lowered on a plank into the deep grave, the Superior covers his face with a linen napkin. Then each monk takes his turn in covering our brother directly with dirt. “From dirt you come, and to dirt you will return.” Afterwards a fine luncheon completed the event with good fellowship, greeting old friends such as our former Superior Fr. Thaddeus. Br. Francis’ place in the Refectory will be preserved for at least a month.
As I drove to the monastery for the second time in a week, winter gloom had descended, with varying colors of dismal grey. I shall miss my brother. The monastery had returned to “normal,” whatever “normal” in a monastery may mean. :-) Baking fruitcakes has halted until February, giving time for rest and a thorough cleaning of the Bakery. This year we baked a record number of fruitcakes, about 32,000 -- and again sold out. We sold more single cakes this year, and gained a number of new customers. It was a blessed year.
Fr. John Chrysostom, Vice Abbot of our Mother House is Vietnam, came for what was scheduled to be a short official visit.But he developed a stomach ailment that required a longer time for recuperation.Fr. Alberic (NM) and Fr. Michael are leaving on January 5 for Vietnam.Fr. Alberic (Trappist) will be there for perhaps 6 months and Fr. Michael (Benedictine) for probably two years -- both in preparation for becoming Cistercian monks. Jill’s scheduled hip replacement will be rescheduled on a later date.A new series of colds is making its rounds, but thankfully no Covid.Fr. Bruno and others installed a sound system for communicating bell sounds in the first floor hall -- but on Wednesday the bells were early at Vigils and wouldn’t stop at Terce. A fresh trailer-full of manure now graces our garden, spread by four monks on Wednesday morning. Two features added this past year are a daily communal Rosary after Vigils, and scheduled Lectio Divina after None. Also monks are invited in the afternoon to do “Charity Work” -- meaning volunteering to do anything they see needing attention. Our regular Communal Retreat usually held the third week in January will not be held this year.
Fr. Ignatius was priest on Tuesday, and although because of his accent I could not understand much of his homily, it was refreshing to have his youthful freshness liturgically present.On Wednesday we observed the memorial of Peter Canisius, a brilliant German Jesuit who in the 16th century was important in the Counter Reformation.Instead of attacking Protestants, his answer was to reform his own Catholic Church.With him as model, our confessions focused not on judging others but on our own short comings. All our readings for Mass stood in heavy contrast to the society in which we are immersed.From Song of Songs we read:“The winter is past, the flowers appear, and the song of love is heard in our land.”Love?Really?The dirge of our society is more one of hate, of polarization, of conflict.Then from Zephaniah we read:“Be glad and exalt with all your heart.The Lord is in your midst; you have no further misfortune to fear.”No more fear?Really?Ours is a time of war, mass shootings, and uncontrolled inflation!And from Psalms, we read:“Cry out with joy to the Lord; sing a new song to our God.” Singing?Joy?Songs?Not today with the suicide rate in our nation at a record high, and nearly half of our teenagers living in a state of depression.And so the Christian theme of happiness rings hollow for many persons today, singing about Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer as fantasy pretending in the midst of a world shadowed by fear. While for them it may be true that long ago there was a manger, probably a Christ child; maybe Wise Men with gifts, and perhaps even shepherds hearing singing angels. But that was long ago, while today even real Christmas trees cost more than most persons can afford.Yes, our society is tending to give up on the Christmas gift of Hope.And so it should come as no surprise to the Christian that one of the most frequently used words in all of scripture is the one word -- “COME.”Advent is filled with this word, as at Vespers we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”In fact, all of scripture ends with this word:“Lord Jesus, Come!”Our world today is in an advent time of grayness and gloom, robbed of the Christmas hope of being able to say the word “come” with any confidence. The Christmas message, then, comes as a challenge -- to wager on the Christmas vision that makes Advent not an end, but a beginning, in which we no longer live in despair but live a life immersed in this one word, “Come.”And how does this feel?It is to experience in the center of one’s soul a deep positive yearning -- a longing, a hope.Expressed in other words, our world is living in a perpetual Christmas Eve, frightened that in the morning there will be nothing under the tree, the angel will have fallen from the tree top, and the Wise Men will have returned to their far country in disappointment.Actually, if yearning is present at all with many folk, it is too small, far too small.We need to hear St. Paul when he declares that YEARNING is the state of the whole cosmos, that all of creation is longing in travail. Christian hope, then, pervades all things, urging us and creation forward toward the Impossible Dream -- the promised Kingdom of God.In today’s gospel we encounter Mary as the one who trusted that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled. And so we too are called to trust -- that every time we stand before this altar and make a manger out of our hands, that we will receive the only Christmas gift that matters. In receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we will be given the gift of yearning -- of hoping lavishly, of longing, of thirsting, of hungering, of pining, of being lured and urged toward the cosmic homecoming -- trusting that what is yet to come will be the redemption of all things, and an adult Christ-child shall lead us.
Our liturgy intensified during the week as we moved toward the Advent climax. Our Vietnamese brothers couldn’t wait, so on Wednesday they cut and installed huge Christmas Trees in Refectory and Church, complete with blinking lights. On Thursday a large crèche set appeared in front of the altar, and apparently the Jesus figure couldn’t wait either. And that afternoon even our “White Christmas” came early, the first exciting snow for some of our Vietnamese monks -- and a shocking 0 temperature. The large star that I made years ago still glows over the garth, while an addition of colored lights blink over the patios of the ground floor cells. On Saturday Eve we retired after Vespers at 6:30 pm, so that we could rise at 10 pm for Vigils, followed by “Midnight Mass” with the Superior presiding. Then came refreshments and fellowship -- true joy. Eventually returning to bed, we rose at 6 am for the Shepherds’ Mass, with Fr. Cyprian presiding. And after Lauds came Christmas Day Mass. I began it by sharing how we were especially blessed because it is a rare and rich occurrence when Christmas occurs on a Sunday -- giving us a double witness concerning the day’s meaning. Christmas marks the birthday of Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promise made from the beginning of time that God would enter our history with a love that binds us together in a bond that can never be broken. Today’s reading from Isaiah states this promise -- that there would be One who would bring good tiding of peace -- restoring, comforting, redeeming -- so that the whole earth will experience the salvation of our God. Today’s Psalm likewise beckons us to sing joyfully to the Lord for he will come with kindness and faithfulness. And our Gospel declares too that in the beginning was the Word through whom all things came into being, and that Word will shine in darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Maybe so, but as early as the very first churches there was doubting -- doubting sufficient to force St. Paul to admit that there had been a delay in God’s promise, forcing him to find reasons for why God’s promise has been postponed. And such questioning can today become even more intense -- for 2,000 years have passed and the Kingdom that Jesus promised to occur even before some of his hearers had died, has not yet happened. All we know for sure is that we are immersed in a world that is polarized as never before, fragmented by threats of nuclear disaster -- living in a time characterized by FEAR. Expressed as a question that many are inwardly asking-- can the Christmas Dream be trusted any longer? This is where having Christmas happen on a Sunday becomes relevant. Every Sunday during the year is to be regarded as being the most important of all observances because Sundays celebrate the Resurrection. Christmas and Easter belong together -- so that held together as if a common happening these two central events from the past become in their fullness an event happening in the present. God’s Christmas Incarnation that happened in the past was the disclosure that God is the Incarnate One, and therefore becoming incarnate everywhere now -- that Christ is being born again and again in the beauty of every sunrise, and being resurrected in every sunset. The fulfillment of the Christmas promise occurs even in the giggle of a tiny child, the smile of a forgiving neighbor, the gentle falling of the first snow. And at every Mass, all such moments are raised with Christ’s body into God himself, as in Easter foretaste the Christmas promise is coming true. And as we raise the Easter Chalice we toast in foretaste the coming of the Christmas Kingdom, when God shall wipe away every tear from our eyes, the lion and the ox will play together, and war shall be taught no more -- for we shall be dwelling in the peaceable kingdom, celebrating the marriage feast of the lamb. As our today’s Ordo puts it, “We recognize in the Christ Child a genuine fulfillment of our nameless yearning for some elusive land long promised.” Yet we are not fully there yet -- for tomorrow we will observe the martyrdom of St. Steven, and the following day we will celebrate the martyrdom of the Apostle John, and then follows the martyrdom of the innocent children killed by Herod, and the following day we will face the martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket. Christmas celebrated only by itself can sometimes seem to end us in death and sad memories. But when tied to the Sunday Easter Vision, the vision for which our martyrs wagered their lives, then this Christmas day can take on all of the Christmas promise that we need -- the promise that death shall be no more, for us and for all creation -- as even at this very moment God is gloriously becoming All in all.
I left after Mass for the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat where I will be joined by 14 members of my extended family for a post-Christmas Christmas. May you too, and the whole world, have a Happy and Glorious Christmas. Fr. Paul