As I drove away from the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center, I was achingly thankfully. The local United Methodist Church's Volunteers in Mission Team had chosen us as a project -- and so all of last week we were sent off with prayer to labor together in the blazing hot sun with a committed companionship that witnessed deeply to Christ’s presence in our midst. Among things accomplished were trenching over three hundred feet of cable to electrify the Log Cabin, installing an air conditioner in the Rustic Hermitage, graveling many of our paths and the parking lot, cutting some of the drift wood into firewood to beautify the shore line, etc. Several women provided us with breakfasts and lunches. The project involved the equivalent of 58 person-days over six days. I am delighted with them and with the results! So merrily I drove through the lazy droughted summer hills at 90 degrees, with only an occasional farmer in umbrellaed tractor cutting hay. The only flowers were the purple asters with drooping petal-ears like scolded puppies. My hope was that my assigned labora would have nothing to do with gravel carrying or ditch digging. Red cherries would be just fine.
What I found was a monastic community in shock. My first clue was that Fr. Thaddeus and Fr. Basil had exchanged stall locations in church. Confirmation came the next day when I was asked to sign a message of farewell and promise of prayers for Fr. Thaddeus who had been named Superior of the monastery at Monterey, California, taking the place of our Fr. Peter, now deceased! He told me later that he was going only as an act of obedience. Our community was formally told on Sunday, and by Wednesday he was gone. He will be deeply missed, not only for his friendly, consultative style, but for his diverse talents at carpentry, tailoring, and just about everything. Apparently there had been some rumors, but I was not told for fear I “would come and organize a protest rally.” I probably would have. :-) Special prayers for Fr. Basil who is now our Superior.
Then, after also losing Br. Alphonse recently when he went to Vietnam for three years of theological studies, I received a second shock -- that in August Brs. Ambrose and Gabriel will leave for Monterey to do intensive English studies at a university, then going somewhere else for their theological studies. But at least two ordained monks, both named Peter, are scheduled to come here in July, and Br. Roberto (who previously lived with us before leaving for his theological studies) and Br. Ignatius are supposedly applying for visas. The tallest person in our community is now Brother Austin (a former Emergency Room worker from New Orleans) who was permitted by Fr. Thaddeus to come as an observer. Looking as if in his 20’s, outgoing and intelligent, he will be an excellent non-Vietnamese candidate. Francis #2, a Vietnamese from Texas, continues as an observer.
Only slightly less shocking was a newly introduced Vietnamese “delicacy.” It is a slightly larger apparently chicken egg. The protocol is to open the smaller end of the egg with a spoon, and there is a dead chick -- that one is supposed to eat, starting with the head and a little sauce. My response is to consider organizing Catholic bishops to declare this a forbidden form of abortion!
The altar was adorned with three lovely orchids and a resurrection plant. The new orchid greenhouse is almost finished, lacking only several more pieces of plastic covering. The roses in the Garth, severely trimmed last fall, are now gloriously in bloom -- red, pink, yellow, and white. The flock of swallows has now all arrived for the season, pleased with themselves as they show off their skills in weaving in and out of the colonnades. Summer has officially arrived with permission granted to wear only our habits without an additional robe at the Daily Offices. A large hall ceiling fan and open transits above each cell door are almost adequate, with six overhead fans in the church. We now have beautiful new reversible green-white stoles with a golden Jerusalem cross embossed on each end. What a fine replacement for the old ones, whose color resembled a stagnant cesspool.
Thursday’s homily began by sharing that as I continued to read the Bible from beginning to end, my conclusion is that, as St. Paul put it, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels”
-- with almost every character having “muddy feet.” Often we read of an angry God with a severe temper expressed in violence, commanding Israel to wipe out entire cities, leaving not one living thing remaining. And in today’s epistle we have an angry St. Paul who is hurting, feeling rejected by the Corinthian church that he founded -- distraught about seemingly having been disregarded and unwanted. He admits that what he is writing to them is folly, but he can’t help himself -- confessing his jealousy, reminding them that he took no money for his preaching, bragging that he is in every way at least as good as those whom he ridicules as “super apostles,” meaning the disciples. Poor Paul, bruised and hurting, so much in need of feeling loved. Yes, scripture is given to us in earthen vessels -- with portraits of God as projections by an aching people, with a gospel proclaimed by apostles who are fragile reeds. Then in the day’s gospel we have presented the Lord’s Prayer -- which brings us to recognize our own earthen fragility. Jesus summarizes his prayer in the verse that follows: “IF you forgive the faults of others, THEN your heavenly Father will forgive you your faults.” The key word is IF, implying that God’s forgiveness is conditional, given as a reward for our good works. Therein comes the realization that to be a Christian requires far more than a teacher. We need a savior. On our own we are unable to be like Jesus, live as he lived, or obey what he taught. Thus we with St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans are brought to confess: “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Alcoholics Anonymous is thoroughly Christian in being grounded in this Pauline confession: “I am an alcoholic [or any kind of addiction] and am helpless to do anything about it.” I can’t, but God can! John’s first letter puts well this heart of the gospel: “In this is love; not that we loved God but that God loved us.” This has nothing really to do with us, but has everything to do with God -- who always does the heavy lifting. It is impossible for us to forgive without first being forgiven, and to love without first being loved. Therefore the whole of scripture must be read through the eyes of having been embraced by the unconditional and undeserved forgiving love of Christ. This is why the last thing we do before consuming the body of Christ at Eucharist is to confess: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And the word that Christ does indeed say is: “I love you.”
At midweek a call went out for the heftiest monks to appear at the back dock. Into the cloister were carried heavy pieces that together will apparently form a ten foot second-hand serving island for our dining room, complete with heating trays and soup vessels. Long have I wanted to build something like that, but, hurrah, there it is, ready made.
But alas, the next day I heard “the rest of the story.” It is from a remodeling of the Red Dragon in Ava, reclaimed for us not for its original intent but for whatever wood can be salvaged. Shock #4.
All of the readings for Sunday were about water. Job speaks of the God who “shuts and opens the doors of the sea.” Our Responsorial Psalm portrays sailors “tossed by waves so high that their hearts melt away in terror.” And in Mark’s gospel Jesus himself is in a boat tossed about by a huge storm. What these passages are disclosing are the two diametrically opposed aspects of water. Not only is it refreshing and life-giving, but also destructive and deadly -- often not enough or too much. With Job, his family is obliterated by water, even though he is living a good life. But when God finally speaks out of the storm cloud, he opens Job’s eyes to the incredible majesty of the Universe, asking where was he when God was doing all of this. Thus is raised the question of questions: “Cannot you [and we] trust that such a God knows what he is doing?” The Responsorial Psalm asks the same query: can we not trust that such a God will hush the storms to a gentle breeze, bringing sailors home to a safe harbor? And in our gospel we see Jesus living such trust, the kind that makes it possible for us too to say, “Quiet, be still!” Jesus so trusts God that he can sleep with awesome serenity even through a hurricane. And in being awakened, he rebukes us for not trusting God. How different this is from the attitude of the world, that when things seem out of control takes it as anxious proof that there is no One somewhere out there who is lovingly in charge. All of this brings us to understand better the sacred way in which the Church uses these contrary aspects of water for our good -- in the fundamental act called Baptism. Immersion is its most graphic expression. We are helplessly plunged backward into the water, three times experiencing the three days of Christ’s death; and three times we are “saved” as the priest functioning as Jesus raises us from our death. Our rising is our first resurrection, for as Paul says in the day’s reading, we become reborn creatures in which “the old has passed away and now all is new." In being buried with Jesus, our death has been died, and we can now trust that resurrection will be the final word -- for God knows what he is doing, no matter how things might appear to the contrary. Thus while all things need water in order to survive, it is baptismal water that we all need in order to be made whole. So let us never stray far away from being able to touch “holy water” -- for in submerging our fingers and drawing them forth, we are reenacting, over and over again, Christ’s primal act of redeeming us.
May we all have a reborn summer, hot or cool.