Dear Friends, August, 2021
On the drive to my August week at the monastery, the summer wildflower competition had slowed to a lazy autumn pace -- with Black Eyed Susan's being the only specie to last the whole season. Only occasional Golden Rod provided any competition, with an occasional Rose of Sharon in a farm house yard providing an accent. Fluffy cotton candy clouds played slow hop scotch on the horizon. With weeks of temperatures bouncing between the 80’s and 90's, the fields were open-mouthed yearning for a drink.
The flourishing monastic garden was entering its harvest phase. The monastery appears deserted, for last Sunday the community voted unanimously, because of the Delta virus infections escalating tragically in Missouri, to close the Guest House for the foreseeable future -- at least until December. Only the priests now consume the blood of Christ at Mass. It is interesting to appraise the health of the community by how many commune by intinction -- there are presently three. If many choose intinction on a particular day, the deacon can become “high” on Jesus. J The change in décor was noticeable. In hopes of reducing electricity costs by two-thirds, all lights are being replaced by far more intense LED bulb illumination, courtesy of Fr. Bruno as electrician (who recently returned from several years doing construction at our monastery in California). For me, the change was most noticeable in the church, where the former soft yellow contemplative glow has been replaced by white-blue glare. It will take a while for me to feel fully worshipful in a space illumined as if a miniature football stadium. J There are plans to change the lighting in the Bakery as well, but Fr. Cyprian shared an article that insisted that LED lighting can cause muscular degeneration, especially with older persons. There are still no flowers in the church, only what we used to call a large “Mother-in-Law Tongue” plant. Incense is no longer placed on the altar but on a nearby stand. The whole community says the Rosary together daily after Vigils.
Meanwhile, other than needing a haircut, the Garth remains alive with Zinnias and Dahlias -- with multiple pigeons and two turtles. Only the tomato plants in the flower planters have quietly surrendered, while the flourishing garden is entering its harvest phase. The dawn fog in the valley resembles a hug chalice filled with frothy pink wine.
Br. Ambrose is on a trip; and before I return in September, both he and Br. Gabriel will have left for English language school in California, and then beginning several years as theology students. Two new priests from Vietnam have joined us: Peter Tu (who resembles a young version of the Fr. Peter whom we lost to the virus) and Peter Bin, a bit younger. Both are energetic and playful, with beautiful coal-black hair. One has a moderate attempt at English. They have already been incorporated into the community, one as baker and one as laundry man. By September the community will be composed of 13 residential monks, of which 7 are priests.
Br. Andrew has been hobbled with arthritis, but with a fine attitude is presently under medication, confined to a wheel chair that he calls his new toy. Because of the shortage of workers due to the pandemic, Sisco is no longer able to serve us. My assignments were antiphons for offices, presiding at two masses, and in addition to my official Bakery competence in syrup painting, there has been added to my vocational profile efficiency as a cherry halfer and a tray washer. It is possible that the “Assumption Sports Association” is adding archery to its offerings.
The readings for our Wednesday homily contain two of the most difficult parables in scripture -- but I will share only the New Testament one in this report. It is the story about the owner of an estate who goes out at dawn to hire workers, again at noon, then at mid-afternoon, and finally late in the day. All goes well until he pays his workers, giving the same amount to each one, even those who worked for only one hour. There are three ways in which we might understand this parable. First can be through political lens -- but this can’t be the right interpretation, for every labor union member knows quite well that the only just wage is when each worker is paid according to how long one works. Therefore any owner who pays unequally according to his own whims is utterly unjust, deserving to have a strike called against him. So we might try another interpretation -- by using an historical lens. Throughout history persons have come to work in God’s plantation at different times -- first came the Jewish leaders, such as Moses followed by Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Amos, and Isaiah; then came Jesus, and through him the Gentiles. Jesus may be saying that no matter when a person chronologically is chosen by God to work in the Kingdom, each person who enters will be equal in God’s sight -- for all are his daughters and sons. Further, Jesus may be judging the Jews for their believing that they deserved special privileges because God chose them first, rather than seeing that they were called first not to receive more but to give more, modeling for others the joy of laboring side-by-side with God. As the “suffering servant,” they were to be the first in order to give themselves to the world by being willing to be last. There can be a third meaning, seen through spiritual lens. The landowner is God, and his plantation is the earth. God calls everyone, beginning with Adam and Eve, to work with him in nurturing Eden into the Kingdom of God. Thus the most wonderful life that is possible for each person is to respond, working side-by-side with Christ in giving birth to God’s dream. The authenticity of our Christian faith, then, depends on our attitude toward those who have not had the privilege of working with Christ for as long as we have. If we feel jealousy or envy toward them, this discloses that we are selfish, interested only in getting as much as we can for our own greedy selves. In contrast, true Christians feel immense sadness for those who have not had as much time as they in the joy of being partners with Christ in tilling the new heaven and earth. Christians are those who want for everyone the joy of having everything with which God has already gifted them.
Friday was celebrated with a day free of labora, in honor of our beloved Cistercian abbot, Doctor of the Church, and “Theologian of Love -- Bernard of Clairvaux. There were flowers in Church, and the Superior was met with applause in announcing that there would be talking during the meal. Chicken and French Fries were the feature, with wine that we had a hard time opening, and melted ice cream. Blessed Bernard would have applauded the joviality. It must have been the “Tooth Fairy,” but when I rose on Saturday morning there was a note on my door: “Chiefs 17, Arizona10.” Go Chiefs!
The gospel for Sunday portrayed perhaps the most serious crisis in Christ’s ministry. Jesus had just declared that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; but he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Immediately the response is one of horror. “This sort of talk is hard to endure. Can anyone possibly take it seriously?” Many of the cries came from his own disciples, and as a result many of them “broke away,” refusing to be ‘in his company any longer.” Then Jesus turns to the few remaining disciples and asks them directly: “Do you want to leave me too?” Perhaps in desperation, Peter responds that they have no one left to whom to turn. What was happening here is what has happened throughout the years, severely damaging the Church -- that of taking much of Biblical language literally. The disciples who left really thought that Jesus literally wanted them to become cannibals -- eating him one finger at a time for breakfast, with a slug of his blood for happy hour. The primary error of Fundamentalism is taking scripture too literally. In contrast, religious language is the language of poetry, the rhythm of drama, and the emotion of liturgy. As opposed to the digital computer language of our time in which things are either “yes” or “no,” there is the Church’s language of analogy, simile, and metaphor, as when we sing of tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, with songs of joy and the aroma of prayers -- with “maybe’s” and “neverthelesses.” The problem that our gospel reading describes has reoccurred through the centuries when we do not understand Jesus when he warns that it is the spirit which gives life, and not the letter of the law. Recently in my local county newspaper a woman wrote a letter to the editor taking issue with a local atheist who thought that by ridiculing a literal portrait of scripture he had demolished Christianity. Patiently she explained that just as childhood involves a rich playful interaction of fiction with fantasy, so growing up we should not write off everything that is not literal. We need to have scriptural interpretations opened by metaphor (e.g. that God is a “rock” or an “eagle,” yet God is neither); or through simile (e.g. referring to Christ as being “like a shepherd, leading his flock,” while Christ was never a shepherd); or through parable (e.g. “there was once a man who had two son . ..” when Jesus was making this up); or by hyperbole (e.g. “cut off your offending hand”); or dated material (e.g. stoning persons to death, or owning slaves); or as pre-Christian writings (such as “bashing foreign babies against a rock”). What my neighbor was addressing was this dilemma encountered by the early disciples, and many persons today, in which for the literal-minded the poetry of Christianity appears ludicrous -- thereby being deprived of envisaging the beautiful imagery of a God “who makes the clouds his chariot, and rides on the winds of the wind,” and for whom “the hills sing with joy and the trees clap their hands.” Poetry is the language of Christianity, music its sound, dance its gesture, drama its liturgy, story its conveyor, and bread with wine its taste -- wrapped in a spirit-filled imagination. So understood, scripture becomes rich with what Pascal called “the language of the heart.” So often when the Church forgets this, she has attempted to nail beliefs down precisely as concepts, resulting in a dissipation of their deeper meaning. Thus, for example, instead of “transubstantiation,” or is it “consubstantiation,” or maybe “transfiguration,” let it be sufficient that “real presence” remain profoundly immersed in the sacred evocations of mystery.
May we all awaken each dawn with a generous smile, and at every vesper time tuck in the day with a story about gratitude.