Fr Paul's September Newsletter
Dear Friends, September 12-18, 2022
I thought that my drive to the Monastery would be a hot, dry, brown fall day, the product of having had no significant rain in almost a month. Surprisingly, things were a cool green, made colorful by patches of Black Eyed Susan's (and associates) making gallant attempts at a “second coming.” The monastery grounds were nicely mowed, and the only real change was in the Garth. Many years ago, after constructing a cross-shaped pond in the center, I built a rock hill on the one end, laying stones horizontally with ledges. These formed the basis for a waterfall, complementing a fountain in the center. Last week Fr; Michael and Br. Gabriel disassembled the “hill” and replaced it with one that has a concrete block foundation, surrounded by mortared stones set on edge, resembling a Utah landscape. The front has five “steps” leading up to a level top, inviting a permanent visitation by a concrete Virgin Mary. The back is hollow and open, the whole is being surrounded by a 15 foot concrete cone, and the steps are destined to become a waterfall. Interesting. The intriguing apparatus that once led roof water to the pond has vanished, replaced by a portable electric water purifier. And meanwhile, the gold fish are proliferating, the garden is thriving, the swallows have left, the zinnias are persevering, and colds are still being generously shared. Br. Gabriel left on Wednesday to resume his studies, and our Superior Fr. Basil will return next Wednesday -- making 9 ¼ of us. Br. Roberto surprisingly failed his second Embassy interview, so it is not likely that he will be coming; but Br. Ignatius will arrive Nov. 1. Michael’s children are in need of prayers: Isaiah, his oldest, is experiencing an allergic reaction; Aaron has fever with Covid; and Zachary, the youngest, required arm surgery after a serious fall. And Jill is scheduled for a hip replacement on December 7.
There were numerous celebrations this week: the Name of Mary; John Chrysostom; Our Lady of Sorrows; Cornelius and Cyprian; Robert Bellarmine and Hildegard of Bingen. On Tuesday we celebrated the “Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” making graphic St. Paul’s insistence on “knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. ”This day recalled for me one of the most important events in my life. In 1986, 36 years ago, I was invited by the World Council of Churches to participate in an “Ecumenical Spirituality Conference” in Indonesia. I decided to add a side trip to the Holy Land. I arrived in Jerusalem on Friday, a total stranger without a clue about what to do. Then I spied a sign reading “Catholic Tourist Center. I hardly said more than a sentence before the lady in charge ushered me to the door with hurried instructions of where I could meet a Franciscan-led stations of the cross -- the REAL stations. I ran, and there they were -- about 30 folk at the first station, with a Franciscan monk carrying a heavy cross. As we slowly walked from station to station, the scene became uncomfortably real -- as open-air Jewish merchants pushed us out of the way. Finally we arrived at the entrance of an ancient church whose history I did not yet know. We went in and immediately mounted a well-worn staircase, onto a ridge with countless lamps hanging from the high ceiling. We slowly inched forward, as one-by-one each person knelt before a huge altar, doing something that I couldn’t see. But the time it was my turn, I saw that they were putting their hand down into a hole in the rock. I whispered to the stranger behind me. “What is that?” The response almost paralyzed me: “That’s the hole where Christ’s cross stood.” “THE REALCROSS?””YES”“THIS IS CALVARY?”“YES!”I AM THERE REALLY!! . . . I cried. . . As it turned out, I was kneeling at the site where the Crusaders had rebuilt the destroyed church that Constantine had constructed in 325. It was the spot where the Empress St. Helena had found Christ’s cross. There was still more to experience, namely the tomb where Christ was buried and rose. But that did not really matter, for I had placed my hand in what for me was the center of the cosmos. Even so, I had not yet realized the full implications of this happening until 24 years later -- when I was pondering what I should place above the altar in the Rustic Hermitage that we had just built at my Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center. Years before, a blind student had given me a lovely walnut cross, but I never knew what to do with it. Suddenly I went and got it, and, hardly realizing what I was doing, went outside and gathered an acorn and several twigs. Then with glue it took me only 20 minutes to turn that beautiful cross into a rugged crucifix. Now it was right -- so much so that it has remained hanging there these many years! That was the day when I learned finally that for me an empty cross says too much, and too little. What my faith required was not an empty cross but a crucifix. That makes all the difference, realizing that God is a SUFFERING God -- symbolized perfectly in the Eucharist when we lift up into God all the suffering and disease and hurts of the world -- where God agonizes with us! No matter how bad things may get, God bears it all with us as our Companion God who suffers. Therefore, with St. Paul, may we vow this day “to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
On Friday, at 3:15 PM, five of us went to the Nazareth Hermitage for an Ice Cream Social, celebrating Sr. Rose’s Profession of Vows, and Sr. Grace’s Clothing as a Novice. Perhaps there is such a thing as a “super-sin,” because on Saturday the Bell Ringer rang the Bell mistakenly at 2:15 A.M. :-)
All of the Sunday Mass readings had one theme: “the plight of the poor. ”This concern is not only for individuals who are poor, but even more is it a critique against any society that is structured so that the poor will remain poor. Put in American terms, wrong is any system that sells the “American Dream” as a way of keeping the poor in poverty with a hope that is unavailable for them. Amos is furious against all such merchants who cannot wait for the Sabbath to be over so that they can exert again their greed, so obsessed with profit that they bend whatever rules stand in their way. Yet in our country, not even is there a Sabbath respite, for 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, there is being relentlessly advertised what is not needed, structuring society so that, in Amos’s words, “the needy are trampled and the poor destroyed.” In radical contrast, the Psalmist declares that all of us are to “praise the Lord who lifts up the poor, who raises the lowly from the dust, and from the dunghill raises them to sit with princes. ”This concern for the poor is no minor theme for the Church, for its ideal is a monasticism that makes poverty one of the three life vows. Years ago when I was teaching at the seminary, I began taking this vow seriously, spending my off-time working in the poverty ghetto of Kansas City. Soon I came to see the hypocrisy of this, because at night I could return to the comfort and security of my home in suburbia, where the police were my friends, the streets were drug free, and the school for my children was college-preparatory. I was living in a system where I was being favored in every way. The gospel was calling me not only to BE poor but to identify WITH the poor. So my family and I made the hard decision to move into a tenement house in the inner city, where everything was structured for us to fail, including my five daughters who entered a school producing failures, and walked streets shadowed by drugs and violence. While I found the poor to be hard-working and generous, yet almost all the kids that I helped have been killed, are in prison, or are drug addicts. The system was structured against them, with odds they could not handle. To teach my students what I was learning, I devised a new version of the popular game called Monopoly -- the game devised during the Great Depression to deceive the masses into believing that the America Dream was available for all who worked hard enough. But my version of the game was more truthful -- exposing the lie that everyone begins at the same place in the same condition. So I divided the players into two groups: one group beginning by already owning one-third of the most valuable properties; were given 6 times more money (the difference between real owners and their workers); a perpetual Get Out of Jail Free Card; etc. When I explained these rules one group was enthusiastic, while the under-privileged group refused to play, determined that there was no way for them to win. This is what we hear in today’s Gospel, as Jesus cries out: “You cannot serve two masters; for either you will hate the one and love the other. You cannot give yourself both to God and to money.” And the truth is that money controls our society. In contrast, Augustine insisted that “Christ came for the poor!” Never before in our history has the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” been as great as it is presently, structured inevitably to worsen. Now how does all of this relate to monks who have taken the vow of poverty? Well, St. Benedict insisted that in every monastery the Abbot is to examine yearly each monk’s cell to determine if there had accumulated possessions inappropriate for anyone living the vow of poverty. If that were done today, how would each of us fare? Further, it used to be a tradition here at Ava that yearly we would see a report of our income and expenditures; and it was our responsibility to be sure that it reflected our poverty vow, giving at least 15% of our income to the poor as a tithe. Further, if, as St. Benedict insisted, we are to treat strangers as if they are the Christ, then shouldn’t our retreatants be invited without cost, instead of indicating an expected fee? Even further, most towns in Missouri indicate places where victims of tornadoes or floods can come for temporary emergency shelter. Are we on such a list? On and on could go such questions. But in conclusion, the Gospel calls us to examine our living in order to be sure that we reflect the liturgy that we celebrate -- remembering our Eucharistic Prayer that claims as our model the “Christ who always showed compassion for children and the poor, becoming neighbor to the oppressed and the afflicted..., saving the poor when they cry, and shepherding the needy who are helpless.”
As darkness increases during this fall season, may it do so for you with serene color.