The trip from the HermitageSpiritual RetreatCenter to Assumption Abbey made it official that fall is over. Leaves that remained fastened to trees were a deep brown, and trees without leaves stood as skeletons on this Halloween Day. The whole landscape was that of a weary and worn world, about ready to be traded in for a new one. So let us gather up this year’s gifts for a genuine Thanksgiving, and with the vision of Christ the Kingdom may we be ready for a new Advent beginning (Nov. 27). And may the mid-term elections in a week grant hope more than despair for that New Year.
The exterior of the monastery continued the bleakness, as, with the help of some Vietnamese nuns who shared the harvest, the garden has been stripped naked, ready for its winter hibernation. Inside, the only visible change confirmed the old adage that what goes round comes around. Three decades ago, there was a clock that with a light stared relentlessly down on all our church proceedings. Then a new Superior exiled it, apparently witnessing to the timeless nature of our liturgy. But more recently a rectangular digital time piece appeared; and then this week there appeared a large clock, much like the one we had long ago, declaring that it is later than you think. Somehow related, I was told that our Trappist monastery in Snowmass, CO is closing, and its beautiful valley sold. This was very sad for me, because it was there that I was first bitten by monasticism, and that has made the difference.
All Saints is a central Solemnity of the Church, with our reliquarium honored by placement in front of the altar. It is when the best of those who have gone before us have been chosen by the Church to lead the way for the rest of us -- nurturing our faith so that we might be able to persevere to the end. Yet this date has been shadowed when in 1952 the first Hydrogen Bomb was tested -- its fireball being miles in diameter, and its radioactive fallout spreading across several continents. We humans are capable of sainthood, yes, but we are also capable of destroying the earth. And so we began our mass by confessing our ambiguity and our trickery. ^^^ It seems that there is a deep need in each of us to have a saint or at least a hero or heroine -- someone who can give us hope. As a boy, I was a Protestant, and Protestants don’t have any religious saints from which to choose. Thus all my friends and I chose make-believe heroes that never really existed. My closest friend chose Superman, while my choice was Batman -- maybe because he always had with him a boy companion named Robin, whom I dreamed of being. We would wear old towels as capes and fantasize ridding the world of evil. Then in grade school we were taught to honor secular saints -- Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. But I think school kids today no longer have any secular heroes, for it has become a characteristic of our time to expose the clay feet of everyone who once qualified as a saint. Statues are being pulled down, Columbus is depicted as exploiting Native Americans, Washington had slaves, Jefferson had illegitimate children, Martin Luther King had a penchant for women, and even Mother Theresa had a questionable way for raising money for her missions. To paraphrase Psalm 53, “Is there a good person left? No, maybe not even one.” As a result, adults today have been resurrecting as their own the comic-strip heroes once reserved for children. Huge amounts of money are being spent in creating spectacular movie versions of Superman, Spider Man, Wonder Woman -- and mythological figures of all kinds. They are colossal hits because it seems that in our chaotic times people want to fantasize about a time when there was a clear distinction between good and bad, and we are on the side of the Good, vanquishing the Bad. Even the old cowboy movies are being resurrected, where the good cowboys wear the white hats and the bad cowboys wear the black ones. These become our heroes in a society frightfully polarized -- so that we can pretend to be wearing the white hats. But all of this is to live an illusion, for deep inside we fear that the hats which all of us are wearing are only different shades of grey. Therefore without heroes rooted in reality, we are left rudderless, left to eulogize billionaires, emulate rock stars, and idolize football quarterbacks. But we Christians, don’t we at least have our Feast of All Saints. Yes, but even some of these saints are being exposed as having clay feet. Vatican II discovered that saints like Christopher, who used to decorate the dashboards of countless cars, actually never lived. Saints such as Cecilia, celebrated by a host of great composers as the Saint of Music and Creativity, even she is now known to be mythological. As for saints who actually lived, they tend to be creatures of their own time, so that when viewed by modern standards, they often appear to be neurotics, and some even masochists in their efforts to get themselves martyred. And so, measured by today’s standards of Christian perfection, it might be said here too that “No, there may not be many left.” Thus what we are beginning to learn is that all true saints know themselves ongoingly as forgiven sinners. The only Pope fit for the office is a person who never seeks it, doesn’t want it, and, if gifted by it, knows himself to be unworthy of it. Our own Fr; Robert, who would be my candidate for sainthood, wanted nothing more than to “grow old loving his God.” Of the saint whose relic is embedded in our altar, all that can be said for him is that he “persevered.” In today’s reading from Revelation the saints are presented as those from every nation, race, people, and tongue, who desire simply to sing to God. Our Psalm identifies saints as those who long only to see the face of God. John’s letter identifies the “children of God” as those who want nothing more than to be like their God. And today’s Beatitudes describe as saints those who do not even sound like saints -- for they are the lowly, the poor in spirit, the sorrowing, the hungering, the thirsty, the merciful, the persecuted, the insulted, and those who are being slandered. It would seem, then, that Jesus’ candidate for sainthood might well be the poor widow who placed in the offering box the last penny that she had. Maybe in the end, saints are not known as much for their accomplishments as for the depth with which they are motivated by the love of God alone, wanting nothing more than to love the one they know as Lover. As Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will.” This is why God’s saints are able to empty bed pans gracefully, and accept rejection, abandonment, and even death, with a wink of the eye towards the God who loves them.
All Soul’s Day was busy with Masses at 6:00 AM (Fr. Basil), 11:00 AM (Fr. Cyprian), and 5 PM (Fr. Albert #2), with work in between.After the early Mass, we went to the cemetery to honor each grave, remembering who they were, incensing and sprinkling each with holy water.It was especially meaningful for me and Fr. Cyprian, as we had memory images of most of the deceased monks. On the way back, we shared the question of which of us would be the next to go.Colds continue.Our fruitcake sales are down a bit from last year, but not enough yet for worry.A youthful Fr. Ignatius arrived from Vietnam on Wednesday evening That bequeaths to our community nine priests, and two brothers. However in January, Fr. Alberic #2 will be going to our monastery in Vietnam for several months, and Fr. Michael for a year -- preparing to become official Cistercians, one having been Trappist, the other Benedictine. At the end of my last visit, there was some disagreement when at the last minute the Superior decided not to permit a Family Brother to make his one year promise. He later told me that the issue is that Family Brothers are a drain on the monks, taking but not contributing with their labor. He asked Fr. Cyprian and me to look into the matter. During my present visit, he indicated wanting to expand the discussion to include all of the monks. We provided in advance for the monks the one page description of our present Family Brother program. The communal sharing lasted 1 ½ hours on Thursday at 3:00 PM. Fr. Basil did much of the talking, but three other monks contributed. Basically there was an affirmation that our “Trappist” program become a Cistercian Family Brother Program, with strengthened oversight. Father Cyprian and I took notes and spent Friday morning creating a martyr text, giving it in the afternoon to the Superior for scrutiny. Saturday morning we added another page to the text. In the afternoon he approved of everything except one sentence, which has been removed. I will send the finished document to the present Family Brothers within several days, and put it on our web-page. Whew!
Our readings for Sunday had as their theme, “Death and Resurrection.” In Maccabees we are confronted by an Israeli mother and her seven sons, who have been arrested and tortured -- attempting to force them into disobeying their faith. As the first son is being killed, he cries out for himself and his brothers, “We are ready to die rather than betray our faith,” confident that “God will raise us to live forever.” All the brothers in turn make the same declaration. In our Responsorial Psalm we are promised, “Lord, when your glory appears, our joy will be full.” And in our Gospel reading from Luke we are told that in the age to come, at the resurrection of the dead, we will no longer be able to die, for then we shall be the “Children of the Resurrection.” For me, the basic issue regarding Resurrection is whether eternal life is a reward to be earned or a possibility that is an undeserved gift. One of the key hedonist philosophers who claimed happiness to be the goal of life has wisely insisted that the person who seeks happiness will never attain it. Happiness should never be the goal of living but a consequence. So it is with the hope of resurrection. Those persons who live their lives for the purpose of earning an afterlife are those perhaps most unworthy of receiving it. If you love me in order to get into heaven, do me a favor -- don’t love me, for I do not like to be used. There is little difference between persons who live their lives in order to become rich, and those who live in order to get eternal life. Both are selfish, the only difference being that one is playing the game on the worldly plane, the other on the otherworldly one. I cringe whenever I hear the phrase, “Great will be your reward in heaven.” While a person might be first attracted to Christianity by such scripture verses, I believe that we come to touch the heart of the gospel when we hear Christ say, “When you have done all that I have asked of you, you are still unworthy servants, for you have only done your duty.” Christianity is not about getting; it is about receiving. Christians are those who love, not in order to get anything but in thankfulness for the unbelievable Divine love that we have already received. As monks, we believe that God gives us only one day at a time. So at Compline, we hand back our life to God, hopefully with interest; and sprinkled to remind us of our Baptism, we are able to walk fearlessly down the Golgotha hall into the Great Silence, which is like death -- our final words those of Jesus: “Into your hands, Lord, I give you my spirit.” And if we are awakened the next morning, it is a miracle -- it is Resurrection -- the miracle of one more day, unlike any other -- given as sheer gift. Indeed, “Christ is risen today.” Lauds is our thanksgiving for that gift. Thus if today turns out to be my final day, how can I not be overwhelmingly thankful, for it means that I have been gifted with 33,581 gift days, not one of which I have had any reason to expect or deserve. That is an incredible number of “thank you” cards that I owe God. Bernard of Clairaux understood this so well in declaring that “I love because I love because I am loved” -- not in order to get anything more, but simply to love God for its own dear sake. To want more is to be greedy. So if it turns out that there is NO afterlife for me, still my life will have been more than I could ever have imagined. And if it turns out that there IS more life for us after death, that too will be a sheer gift that we have neither earned nor deserved. Either way, “Thank you Jesus!”
May our Thanksgiving be genuinely thankful, and our Advent a truly new year.
In caring friendship,