Fr. Basil, Superior, has asked that I make clear that these reports represent my perceptions and not necessarily that of the monastery as such.
Dear Friends, January 2023
We were in the middle of our new winter “normal” as I left the HermitageSpiritual RetreatCenter for my January week at the monastery -- wavering almost daily between 60 degrees and freezing. The monastery was hibernating nicely in the Ozark hills, but I was uneasy about tomorrow’s conference which I had requested with Fr. Basil, the Superior, and Fr. Cyprian. As Vespers began that evening, I sensed what might happen, for there were only six monks present. And sure enough, our one hour meeting at 9:00
AM ended with this conclusion. Because our few monks are already stretched thin, it is impossible to replace Br. Francis in his position as Assistant Director for in-house interviews, evaluation, and ongoing formation. Therefore it is with sadness and regret that Assumption Abbey at this time can no longer continue to sponsor its Family Brother Program. This decision involves all persons in the program at whatever level, except for our four Life-Time Promised Family Brothers. Assumption
Abbey will continue to honor its agreement with them concerning the right of burial in the monastic cemetery. Each can come for short-time living within the Community during the monthly week when Fr. Paul is here to prepare for them a room in the Cloister. They shall stay with the monks -- wearing a smock, eating with the community, and having a place in choir. They shall not leave during this period. Fr. Paul has volunteered to try periodic ZOOM calls with them for spiritual formation. He also encourages all others who have created their Rule or are in the process of doing so, to live it faithfully; and he is willing to be accessible at least by email [email@example.com]. I am very sorry that this has to be.
After a recent fall, Fr. Cyprian is now using a four-pronged cane, and has decided no longer to preside at daily Mass. Jill is scheduled to have her hip replacement on February 27, taking perhaps a month to recuperate. We request prayers for her. With vacations being part of the Cistercian tradition, Fr. Bruno is visiting his other family, as is Br. Hilary, who will be on loan to us until his philosophy courses begin in the spring. Fr. Bruno’s idea is being effective, of tapping into our public address system with the sound of cathedral bells five minutes before each office. But it is not clear how our retreatants will like having the sound of Big Ben resounding in the hallway at 3:15 AM. During a period when the temperature reached 7 below zero, our Chapter Room was without heat. I find it interesting how many bell rings occur at the conclusion of the Angelus, depending on who does the ringing. The present spectrum ranges from 18 to 40.
January is our traditional month for total cleaning of the Bakery, waxing the floors, doing any needed painting, and sealing the perimeter against insects. Surprisingly the Orchid House and the Green House, wrapped in plastic, have survived well -- the former being vacant since Br. Gabriel’s departure, but the latter is thriving nicely. A nearby farmer cleans his barn every winter and presents us with the results for our garden.
Tuesday was the Memorial of St. Francis de Sales, a 16th century bishop whose goal was to win back Protestants not through force but through love. His most famous book, “Introduction to the Devout Life,” demonstrates how every one of us can be holy. With him as our model, we confessed that which in each of us is less than devout, asking for forgiveness and the strength that only the Holy Spirit can give. In the day’s reading from the book of Hebrews, we are told that sacrificing animals can no longer be regarded as the way of becoming perfect. No matter what the Old Testament may say, God neither desires nor delights in such sacrifices. Now the central point is -- WHY NOT? It is because sacrifices aim in the wrong direction -- for they begin with the assumption that making things right with God depends on US rather than GOD. In contrast, Christ takes away the old Covenant, giving us a new one rooted in this profound reversal -- that it is God in Jesus Christ who offers HIMSELF as a supreme sacrifice of love for US. We need to get this straight, once and for all, as it may be the hardest part of the Christian faith for us to learn. In the responsorial psalm, the Psalmist says, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.” But in our Hebrew reading, these words are not said by us but by Christ -- “It is I,” he says, “who come to do God’s will.” The heart of the Christian Way of Life begins always with, and is grounded in, what God does for us, and never, never the other way around. The result of this reversal is radical, for in today’s Gospel we are told that it renders problematic even the status of Jesus’ own mother and brothers. They do NOT come into the house where Jesus is teaching, but instead they send a message to him to come out to THEM. Had they come inside to JESUS, that would have made all the difference -- for then they would have been like Mary of Bethany rather than like her sister Martha. When we understand this important point, we are then faced with a second misunderstanding that many people have regarding the Christian faith. Jesus insists that his real Mother and Brothers are those who do the WILL OF GOD. What does this mean? In the Old Testament, the “will of God” is often interpreted as meaning “commands,” and “rules,” and “laws”-- as if God is like a demanding parent who insists on strict obedience -- yes or no, right or wrong, my way or the highway. But such an understanding is in profound contrast to the portrait of God that Jesus teaches. His God is not a Commander-in-Chief, but is our “daddy,” our companion, our friend, who is deeply in love with each of us. And when we are loved unconditionally by such a LOVER, we are able to realize from WITHIN that relationship what would PLEASE our Father. Thus, as Christians, our behavior is to emerge from so knowing our Father through his Son that we can sense what our Father is hoping for and dreaming about. And doing this is to experience God luring and urging us to be co-partners with Him in building the Kingdom of God.
Tuesday gifted us with a beautiful five inches of snow -- yet coming at night, we were robbed of the descent, but blessed by a transformed dawn. This was a week of celebrations -- in addition to honoring St. Francis de Sales on Tuesday, on Wednesday it was the Conversion of St. Paul; on Thursday the celebration of Robert, Alberic, and Steven., the founders of our Cistercian Order; Friday marked the memorial of two disciples, Timothy and Titus; on Saturday we honored St. Thomas Aquinas; and on Sunday, of course, the Resurrection. On that day I slipped in the death of ROBERT FROST, one of the most beloved of American poets. He is especially known for such poems as “The Road Less Taken,” calling us to choose not the popular paved Interstate, but to take the rocky, weedy, less traveled path which for Christians leads toward Calvary. This, Frost says, “makes all the difference.” The day’s homily began with identifying one of the most neglected parts of Jesus’s teaching -- those to whom he is addressing his good news. All of the day’s readings make this clear and undeniable. Beginning with the prophet Zephaniah, we find God crying out to the humble and lowly, announcing that they are the remnant that God is preparing for His Kingdom. Likewise in the day’s Responsorial Psalm it is the poor in spirit that God chooses, those Jesus identifies as the stranger, fatherless, blind, bowed down, hungry, and imprisoned. St; Paul’s letter to the Corinthians totally agrees. God chooses those who are not wise in the world’s eyes, who are not affluent but lowborn -- those despised for being different because of the color of their skin or the place of their birth. God chooses these whom the world counts as nothing in order to reduce to nothing those who regard themselves as being something. And in today’s Gospel from Matthew, we confront again in the Beatitudes that those to whom the good news is being extended are the poor, the sorrowing, the lowly, the hungry, the thirsty, the persecuted, the insulted, and those slandered as being nothing. Now it is important for us to understand WHY Jesus reserves his Kingdom for such persons. It is because only the humble, or those who have been humbled, who know how to RECEIVE GIFTS. Yes, ironically, one of the hardest things for a person to learn is NOT so much how to GIVE gifts as learning HOW TO ACCEPT THEM. Thus the reason why the gospel is closest to the humble is that they are able to accept God’s gifts AS GIFTS, because through no decision of their own, they find themselves “on the road less traveled.” I learned this from my mother, who had a very hard time accepting any invitation from anyone to come to their home to share a meal. The only way that she could accept even a few such gifts was if she could immediately pay them back by inviting them to our house for a meal. She did not want to be indebted to anyone. Only if she could feel that she DESERVED a “gift” could she accept it. Oh how I wished that someday my mother could have accepted a gift graciously by being humbled sufficiently just to be thankful. But for that to have happened, her understanding of the Christian faith would have had to be reversed. Instead of trying to be perfect as a way of feeling worthy, she would need to have confessed herself as being unworthy -- and when humbled, she could then have thankfully received THE gift from the God who is the giver of undeserved gifts. This was most powerfully brought home to me in the sermon that Fr. Thomas Keating preached at Fr. Basil Pennington’s Funeral Mass. Basil was a huge and commanding presence, filling every space with his presence and actions. He was well-published too, a person that the world could admire. But as Keating said, those persons who seek to save their lives through their own accomplishments will bring themselves to ruin. And so it was that in being rendered helpless for 67 days by a car accident did Basil undergo the needed process of purification -- of experiencing the loneliness, depression, and interior poverty that reduced him to being simply a humble human being whose only claim to fame was that of being loved by God. I would like to hope that monks, who have been chosen by the rocky path of relinquishing everything, would not need to be further broken in order to be humble persons for whom God has good news.
Lent seems to be coming early this year, with Ash Wednesday on February 27. May the remainder of Ordinary Time bring us deeper awareness of the discipline needed to stay faithfully on the road less taken.
I pray that in a deep sense we may somehow be able to continue our journeys together. .