Dear Friends, Lent, 2023
For my February week at the monastery, I chose Ash Wednesday and the beginnings of Lent. As I left the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center it seemed like spring, with temperatures in the 60’s. Trees and fields seemed to be on tip-toe, eager to hear the starting bell. But, alas, the prediction (which didn’t happen) was for a late week rain possibly mixed with snow. Our usual threshold of spring is St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) when the forsythia emerges just as an ice storm strikes -- and then there is Spring. Yet to my surprise along the south side of the monastery, there were eight (I counted them) daffodils in bloom, while the host of others dared to show only two inches of green stems.
Interesting how things can change in three weeks. The Bulletin Board indicated that Nazareth Hermitage had sponsored last weekend for the three contemplative communities a hike up the mountain to Fr. Robert’s old hermitage; but due to mud, it was changed to the relatively new Bryant Creek State Park Trail. The Prayer Board was stripped of requests and we begin again. We now have eight resident monks, but several new Vietnamese monks have been selected by the Mother House to be processed by the Immigration Department, one of which was a former Novice Master. Fr. Bruno brought with him from Vietnam bronze Stations of the Cross, and has mounted them in the Church -- beginning at the right-front by the organ, going to the rear, traversing the back, and ends at the left-front by the Presiding Priest’s chair. They are beautiful, about a foot in length, but, unfortunately, they are mounted too high for their loveliness to be fully appreciated. We have a new Altar Cloth, beautifully embroidered on all four sides. Instead of having a monk read from a book during the noon-day meal, we have increased our diversity most days by listening to Vatican World News with reporting and commentary by British women and men. Wednesday evening the book for Lent that each of us has chosen was blessed by the Superior and distributed, to be read at least each evening at 7:00 PM until Compline; an appropriate reading from the Rule of St. Benedict was read. After Vespers most of the Vietnamese monks now meet together in the kitchen for Vietnamese cuisine, language, and, apparently, jokes. So it is happening as we fully intended, that our Trappist monastery is now their Cistercian monastery, and we are the welcomed guests. Jill’s hip surgery is scheduled for Monday, Feb.27 -- payers. She brought me a SuperBowl cup honoring my Chiefs. The Carpentry Shop Band saw is now outside the kitchen no longer to cut wood but to cut cooking bones. The electronic bells that ring before each office are almost deafening if one happens to be in the hallway. My alarm clock is almost always flashing 0-0 when I arrive, indicating the instability of electricity in the mountains. On Friday two sturdy workmen were here to repair something-or-other. I learned that the hosts in the Church and Chapel Tabernacles are consumed and renewed once a month, on a day when there is a recited Mass (Monday or Friday). I hear several confessions. Our Ash Wednesday fast was of bread (with a taste of cherry bits!) and water (hot or cold). And it seemed right for there to be rain that morning, breaking into blue skies and sun by afternoon. Our winter colds seem to have been reduced to two monks. My problem in arthritis. Two pigeons have returned. The Ladybugs are back. And now you have “the rest of the news.”
Our Ash Wednesday homily began by recalling that one of the best things that Holy MotherChurch has done for us, almost from the beginning, is to take secular time and reform it into a pattern that helps us live in a way different from other people. Twice each year we are given Special Time in which to rehearse in depth the primary rhythm of Christian life so that we may be able live it more faithfully during Ordinary Time. This tri-partite rhythm of Christian life is that of Promise, Gift, and Response. We live this first as Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. And now, beginning on Ash Wednesday, we live this rhythm a second time -- as Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. During this time no alleluias are to be said, no flowers are to decorate our altar, no musical instruments are to be played except to aid our chanting, and that day is a time of universal fasting and abstinence. Last Palm Sunday we waved palm branches jubilantly in celebrating Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem, shouting “Alleluia!” Yet we were also among the ones who just 5 days later shouted, “Crucify him.” And so today in repentance we take one of those palm branches of our jubilation and burn it into ashes to dirty our foreheads. Indeed we deserve to be marked with those ashes, and to be told in no uncertain words, “Remember that you are dust!” And, furthermore, warned, “To dust you shall return.” Our world would become so much better if only the leaders of our major corporations and the leaders of our congress would be faced with these words: “Remember you are dust.” As the poet T. S. Eliot put it, “I will show you fear in a handful of ashes.” Humility may be the one Christian virtue most missing in our world today. Thus renewal begins with humility, and only then can we be brought to hear the alternative Ash Wednesday words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” How wise the Church is in bringing us to this awareness twice each year, once with an Advent yearning out of winter weariness, and once with a Lenten humility out of cumulative guilt. The color for both, of course, is purple. Lent itself is divided into two parts. During the first half, our Lenten readings are taken from the synoptic gospels, and the theme is conversion. The way in which the Church does this is by choosing gospel readings that state the kind of persons that we should be -- not with the thought that we are that, but with the intent of bringing us to the humility of knowing what we are not. Thus during these first three weeks of Lent we hear about mutual forgiveness, about loving our enemies, and about losing our hardness of heart -- those very things that we keep failing to be. Then in the second half of Lent, our gospel readings are all from John -- and the theme appears in Jn. 3:16, the one verse that probably appears in every Protestant Sunday School room in the country: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.” Thus the readings from the first half of Lent are ethical; the second half Christological; the first half is to puncture our pride; the second half to give us a gift we don’t deserve; the first half says, “You should, but you can’t;” the second half says “You can’t but God can.” Today, then, marks the beginning of a great adventure, up the Lenten mountain toward Easter, 40 long days and 40 long nights. There will be stumblings, there will be mistakes, and there will be failings. But the good news for Ash Wednesday is that every stumbling/ mistake and failing can bring us closer to Good Friday where God Himself suffers and endures every one of our shortcomings, so that on Easter morning we may look back over the road less traveled, and see that we have been led by God all along the way. [Ashes were then imposed.]
I began Mass on the First Sunday of Lent by sharing my appreciation of how diverse our monastery is -- with varying diets and cultures and customs -- from the Philippines to Vietnam to the United States. And so I wondered if we all had the same tradition of having had a bedtime story read to us. For me, it was always my mother who did the reading, probably not because she wanted to but because that was what good mothers were supposed to do. And so she found a book that apparently was intent on making little children do what little children were supposed to do. This book was all about a perfect child named Edward, and Edward could do no wrong -- because he was perfect. It did not take many evening readings to make me utterly dislike Edward. I totally disliked that kid because I don’t think he ever once played in a mud puddle. Rather than reading about Edward, I wish mom would have read me instead, if only once, today’s reading from Genesis. It is the story about Adam and Eve, and they are my kind of folk. The story tells us that why God created the two of them was because God had fallen in love with the world that he had created, and wanted to share it with someone else who could delight and create with Him. So God breathed his very own breath into them, and created them in his own image. Then in the middle of Eden He placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the kind of knowledge that God himself had -- and surely God knew that Adam and Eve would eat of that tree, simply because they were not supposed to. The question must not have been “if” but “when.” I remember a number of years ago when my family and I spent a Sabbatical year in France. One day in Paris we were standing under the Arc of Triumph where their unknown soldier was buried, a sacred place for all French people. A police man sternly instructed the crowd of tourists that we were never to step over the line marked on the concrete floor. But as soon as he turned his back, Amy, my 6 year old daughter, stuck out her foot and extended it over the line. Just like Eve; just like Adam -- just because they weren’t supposed to. Kierkegaard once said, “I don’t know why Adam and Eve did what they did, but hearing their story I understand now why I do what I do.” The name Adam can mean “first person,” but I prefer the alternative meaning -- it can mean “every person.” Yes, Adam is my name, and his is my story. So what then do we do with Jesus -- was he sicklingly perfect in every way like Edward, incapable of ever messing up, ever? No, thank God, Jesus was not Edward. That is why today’s gospel reading is so important. We are told that Jesus was tempted for 40 days and 40 nights -- that’s a lot of relentless tempting. And his temptations were the most serious ones, those that are at the heart of all temptations -- the 3 P’s: yearning for power, for prestige, and for possessions. Even more, when Satan finally leaves Jesus, he does not give up, not at all. He simply steps aside, waiting the next opportune moment. He would come back, again, and again. Thus throughout his life, Jesus tasted deeply the lures of sin. I know that we are supposed to agree with the book of Hebrews in saying that “Jesus was like us in every way EXCEPT SIN.” I wouldn’t put it that way. Jesus said that we are not supposed to use diminutive names for other people -- yet recall the choice names he had for the Pharisees! Jesus taught about always turning the other cheek, and yet He lost his patience several times with his disciples, yelling: “How long must I put up with you!” And when he was preaching at Nazareth and amazing the hometown folk with all his wisdom, he suddenly lost it. Probably in retaliation for the way in which the local folk had treated him when he was a strange child, he condemned them with such vehemence that they tried to murder him. And Mark tells us that at Golgotha what we have is not a picture of a perfect, strong, confident Jesus like Edward, but a person “filled with fear and distress.” Yes, Jesus is our kind of person, because he is like us in all ways WITHOUT exception so that our Lenten hymn at None can testify, “Christ bore all our sins AS HIS OWN.” Yes, the story that makes all the difference is not about a person like Edward who was utterly perfect, incapable of ever doing anything wrong, but it is the story about a Christ who is truly one of us in every way -- and that is what makes it the greatest Lenten story ever told.
May Lent for each of us be just as God hopes.