Dear Friends, January, 2021
It was a grey, brown, and wintry day as I drove south from the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center for my January week at the monastery. Cattle were like frozen statues, trees thin and pleading -- the only respite being an occasional tree-top cardinal or a happy little yellow pickup passing by. This is hibernation time, of going inward, drawing warmth from memory and imagination. I turned off my hearing aids and what before had sounded like driving a Mac Truck now felt like floating in the serenity of a Lincoln Continental. What I began feeling was a deep thanks, as in recalling the conclusion of last week’s medical examination: “He is the healthiest 90 year old man that we have examined.” Thankfulness for the Retreat Center which provides multiple experiences for both seekers and faithful, with more persons scheduling retreats now than ever before. Thankfulness for the sunrises and sunsets, surrounded by forest and lake creatures as friends, spotting last week for the first time a pair of otters. Just to be alive, tasting and seeing that “the Lord is good.” For two hours I felt sustained by a hope beneath the pandemic’s valley of the shadow of death, and underneath the insurrection questioning our societal foundations. Yes, down deep, hope still remained, wrapped in promise. A sign outside a Baptist Church provided unsubtle guidance: “God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.”
As I drove onto the silent monastic lands, I was not surprised to see Fr. Thaddeus at the open door of the carpentry shop, in the midst of piles of freshly cut timber. “What are you building this time?” His imagination never stopping, he prophesized that a second smaller greenhouse was being born, this time to expand Br. Gabriel’s “calling to raise orchids.” Apparently the chicken coup is again on hold. “How is Fr. Bruno and the virus?” “He’s better.” “Great, when is he returning from California?” “He won’t be; he’s taking Fr. Peter’s place in restoring the gift monastery there.” “Oh.”
Consulting the first bulletin board, I was scheduled for masses on Tuesday and Sunday, and doing the antiphons for the offices. The board with Prayer Requests, interestingly, asked more this time for “personal intentions.” Hmm. The Labora Board reflected that January is the month of respite from baking fruit cakes, only naming “Laundry” and “Cooking” as precise assignments, the rest being deliciously vague -- like invitations to meld work with play. Part of my “play” was assessing the condition of what we call “Leon’s Old Hermitage,” “training” Fr. Alberic (of New Melleray) to care for it.
The pool centering the Garth is filled to the top, guaranteeing four feet of water to protect the gold fish from the surface ice. Our ten pigeons continue to keep watch at daybreak from the highest roof, like sentinels wooing that all is well.
In beginning Tuesday’s mass, I centered our Confession time by recalling that Monday was the beginning of the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” and Martin Luther King’s birthday as witness to racial equality. Together they are a call for us to affirm diversity, glorying that God has created us to be his “coat of many colors.” I recalled in the homily that in the roughly 600 homilies that I have preached from that pulpit, I try to find a theme that can unite the day’s readings. So I named some excerpts from the day’s readings to see if the monks might discern the same theme that I had. From Hebrews there were four: “God will not forget your work.” “You will inherit the promises.” “Be fully assured of that for which you hope," And ”seize the hope that has been placed before you.” There were two from Psalm 111: “The Lord will remember his covenant forever;” and “Great are the works of the Lord.” Finally one from Mark: “Christ is Lord even of the Sabbath.” The unifying theme that I drew from these is that God has made a covenant with us promising that our work along with His will accomplish that for which we hope.” Immediately rises the question: “For what should be hope?” Some parts of scripture suggest “eternal life.” But this is too small a hope from too small a God. God’s covenant is cosmic, promising a new heaven and earth, in which “God will not forget our work” for it will contribute to GOD”S hope -- a world in which inequality will be eliminated, when all shall have enough to eat, where each person will have meaningful labor, where all shall be sheltered, and where none shall die for lack of health care. For monasteries this is a call to model for the world a community of peace, justice, and love. Then when others wish to know what Christian hope is all about, we can reply, “Come and taste our life, and then you will know.” As I walked from the altar to the sacristy, I was overcome with a humbling sense of gratitude, that the “portion and cup” that has been dealt out to me centers in being a priest.
As my daily Lectio, for the last month I have been systematically reading the Bible from beginning toward end. Eleven of the books from Leviticus to 2nd Chronicles have been sobering, bring me to acknowledge that if these were the only scripture, the “God” therein described would be my enemy. “Fear” emerged as the stimulus for obedience, motivating a frantic passion to escape the ruthless anger of a jealous “God” -- one who specializes in vengeance, slaughter, plague, warfare, and threats of massive extermination. But during this week at the monastery, I reached 2nd Isaiah. How wonderfully compassionate, caring, promising, and faithful is the God of these pages -- with lyric beauty is described a tender God of restoration, one so in love with us that he carves our names into the palm of his hand. This God “feeds his flock like a shepherd,” “gathering the lambs in his arms,” pressing them to his bosom,” promising that for us will come “a man of sorrow who will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, bearing our sins in a “chastisement that makes us whole.” Thank you Jesus!
Sunday’s homily shared the heavy responsibility assumed by those who created the Lectionary, especially in approaching long stories that needed to be divided into separate parts for different days. As a result, each part takes on a meaning distinctly its own, such as today’s reading in which we have only the first part of the Jonah story that is cut into three parts. It portrays a faithful prophet whose witness is able to transform a sinful city. But the second part is quite different -- about how our egos can poison the most successful of acts. The third portion is about a whale and our inability ever to really escape God. And there is yet a fourth with still another theme -- the need for us to imitate God by becoming marinated in compassion for those who are hurting. Analogously, each one of us inevitably creates from our lives our own lectionary -- cutting our life into parts with contrasting themes, and then arranging them so that particular ones take on a major significance that colors the rest. This has become clear to me in doing spiritual direction. I find that my primary task is to help persons identify their major stories, and then to discern from these their story of stories -- the one that determines the flavor of the rest by being repeated over and over. When this is found, if it does not bring meaning to being lived fully, together we try to integrate that story into one that has a “happy ending,” so to speak. Thus, for example, many alcoholics have as their defining story one resembling that of the prodigal son, but their part of the story is broken off so that the apparent ending is about living in a far country with nothing but husks reserved for pigs. Blessed are those who can be opened to claim as their own the rest of the story -- the one about returning repentantly home only to be greeted by a loving Father God racing up the road to embrace them. The tragedy of the human condition is that each of us tends to live a damaging half story that is permitted to define our whole. Jesus keeps telling all kind of stories in hopes that there will be one whose plot we can identify as our own -- but with a transforming ending that can complete our half story. Thus for those us whose story is one of being worthless, or unwanted, or rejected, or a host of other negative themes, there is a scripture story tailor-made for each of us. Actually they all tend to end up having something of a common theme. As the old hymn puts it, “I love to tell the story, of Jesus and his love, for it satisfies our longing as nothing else can do.” Life is about being “lost and found.”
I returned home to be involved once again in a society whose story was radically cut on January 6 -- leaving us with the plot of a fractured dream that once seemed able to sustain us in meaning. Will our future be destined now to keep repeating itself as the story of us acting at our worst. Or is there yet a “rest of the story” that can birth us into a redemptive whole?
Join me in hope,