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Fr. Pauls November Newsletter

Fr. Basil, Superior, has asked that I make clear that these reports represent my perceptions and not necessarily that of the monastery as such.



Dear Friends,

We were blessed as the HermitageSpiritual RetreatCenter was surrounded by leaves as beautiful as we have ever had. But as I traveled toward the monastery, it seemed that this Fall needed to have a conductor. Although the leaves had begun last week to turn, and some others were now beginning their pilgrimage, most of them had either turned brown and dropped, or were a drab dark green, patiently waiting. It was only two weeks since I had been to the monastery for October, shortened by my desire to celebrate All Saints and All Souls with my brothers (Nov. 1, 2). It will be a longer time in December when my month’s time there will be at Christmas time. The monastery had an empty feeling, as Alberic #1, who has stability with New Melleray monastery, was sent by his Abbot to the Philippines as temporary chaplain at a Trappistine monastery there. Because NM is hurting for monks, from now on Alberic will alternate time between Ava and New Melleray. Alberic #2 was sent to the Mother House in Vietnam for more of his introductory immersion there. That leaves only six residential monks. One monk in Vietnam has been approved to come, and three others have yet to have an interview of the U.S. Embassy. Two monks in this country will be coming this week on loan for a month. My assignments were Presider for All Saints and Sunday masses, Deacon for All Souls, server at Noon meals, helped Jill create a display for rosaries in the gift shop, and fruitcake decorator. I was delighted to find that I had not lost my talent with red cherries. The October wholesale month for selling fruitcakes went as hoped, and November is beginning hopefully. A man named Patrick has been hired to help fill fruitcake orders. The last of the zinnias were picked just before our first hard frost on Monday night. Our Prayer Request Board had been overflowing, so it was “purged.” and now we are starting over again. I wonder about those persons for whom we have been praying, especially those who were suicidal. I continue praying for them without request, whether alive or dead.

Our Solemn Celebration of All Saints at dawn was shared with a few guests and with Nazareth Hermitage, 17 of us in all. I began with sharing that this is one of the finest of celebrations because it is the Saints who have gone before us that provide the models and the hope that we need in order to live our faithful best. And for all the Saints, their lives began and ended with the confession of their sins, and so that was what we did:

-- Lord, may you judge us more for our intentions than our actions -- Lord have Mercy.

-- Christ, may your Saints intercede for us that we night be more able to do what is right. Christ have mercy.

-- Lord, may we never forget that without You we can do nothing -- Lord have mercy.

May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life

Our homily began with a reading from the Book of Revelation, the Book that tends to give me trouble. It has in it some of the most beautiful passages ever written; but it also has some of the most violent and blood-thirsty verses possible. And so, characteristically, our reading began with four angels who have been given “the power to ravage the land and the sea.” But then, in contrast, we are given the image of a crowd so huge that it cannot be counted, people from every nation, race, people, and tongue -- dressed in white robes, waving palm branches, and before the throne singing: “Praise and glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, and honor, power and might to our God, forever and ever, Amen! Awesome! And who are all these people, we ask; and we are told, “These are those whose robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Our Responsorial Psalm identifies these as “the people who long to see the Lord’s face.” Then in our reading from Matthew, Jesus tells us more concretely who they are -- they are the blessed who are poor in spirit; the sorrowing, lowly, merciful, the peacemakers hungering and thirsting for righteousness. These are the most likely candidates for heaven. But how are we to deal with the destructiveness of the God described in the book of Revelation? It is by finding the pearls of great price in scripture with which we can distinguish the heart of the gospel from those parts that are more likely the opinion of its writer. I think that one of these gems is provided by today’s first letter from John. In Christ Jesus, it declares, “we see what LOVE the Father has bestowed on us.” And he continues: “Dearly beloved, we are God’s children,” with the promised hope that “we shall be like him.” To love as we have been loved -- that’s it, that is what matters. It is not for Divine wrath that we await, but for the awesome Kingdom of God rooted and grounded in love. Now just as the book of Revelation provides us with awesome love as over against unacceptable violence, so it is that today we observe not only All Saints Day but also the anniversary of when in 1952 our country exploded for the first time in history a nuclear fusion bomb, so powerful that it made the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima appear inconsequential. Its fusion fireball was miles in diameter, its mushroom cloud rising even higher into the stratosphere, spreading potential destruction over hundreds of miles, and spewing radioactive fallout over multiple continents. My friends, never before has this magnitude of evil ever even entered the human imagination, and, even more evil, never before has humanity witnessed the horror of having our leaders even CONSIDER using such a monstrous tool of destruction. And so, on this special day, we can see clearly the enormous contrast between the selfish power of which we humans are capable, and the life of humble love incarnated by our saints. On this All Saints Day, we need to pledge ourselves to emulate this saintly love that alone is powerful enough to stand face to face against the evil of which we all are capable. And yet emulation of the saints is not easy, for what might seem saintly in one generation can appear neurotic in the next. Or the craving for martyrdom by a saint in one century may look like a suicidal death-wish in another. Or the self-inflicted suffering of a saint in one period may appear as neurotic masochism to the next. So what can we take from All Saints Day that can be helpful in living a Christian life? Perhaps it is that we should evaluate the Saints, and ourselves, not so much by what is accomplished as by whether our motive is in response to the unconditional love shown us in Christ Jesus. No matter what we may attain in this life, we will always remain, in Christ’s words, “unworthy servants” -- YET unworthy servants who are loved by Christ. This is true of all of the saints -- that what rendered them saintly was that they gave away their lives in order to find them. It is not I who live, said St. Paul, but Christ who lives within me. It all depends on whom one gives one’s life. Tell us who your favorite saint is, and we will know much about who you really are. +++

At our “All Saints Feast” at noon there were only four of us, with the other monks involved in visa matters. Our celebration ended in the evening with Adoration and Blessing.

I have decided that a primary difference between us Trappists and the Vietnam Cistercians is silence and its accoutrements. Our motto has been “Speak only when it improves the silence.” Theirs is more like “Be silent only when you have nothing to say.” Thus for us during work time in the Bakery, the silence led to a gentle and thoughtful atmosphere where we intersected work with contemplation. In contrast, sound is now the mark of a driven efficiency, finding ways of doing what we did in half the time. Indicative was a recent change at Sext when formerly the cook and server would go to the kitchen to arrange our noon meal while the community remained in prayer, awaiting the signal to ring the Angelus bell. But now the bell is rung efficiently precisely at noon, whether ready on not, forcing a hurried preparation. I remember when we Trappists would tie a piece of cloth on each door knob and take it to the knob on the other side of the door, that way not even the closing of a door was permitted to make a sound.

Our primary All Souls Mass climaxed with the community exiting by chanting our way into the frozen dawn, to the Cemetery. I was given the Protocol on which was written a short summary of the life of each monk (sometimes with sly humor), to be read at each grave as the Superior provided Blessing and Incense. The only problem was that the protocol stated that the graves were in rows of three -- but it had not been updated. They actually were in rows of four! I adlibbed about the graves what were without statements. How fond I am of these 21 monks, many of whom were (are) my friends. Fr. Cyprian and I remained in the cold, reminiscing. We had two other Masses during the day -- that more or less just “happened” whenever, rather than with a known schedule. We tend to call this the “monastic way.” Frs. Ignatius and Peter presided. The Superior left during the day to conduct a Retreat for a Vietnamese congregation in Carolina. Apparently he does this well.

The 31st Sunday is usually a memorial for Saint Silva, of whom it is said that every day on her cherished silver tray she brought fresh vegetables to her son, Saint Gregory the Great. One day, when he had nothing left to give a beggar, he gave away the tray. Our confession section was concerned about what we were ready to give away to others. Our first reading, from the prophet Malachi, portrays God as shouting -- “My name will be feared among the nations, and on you who do not glorify my name, I will send a curse.” Oh my, is this really who our God is -- One who thunders, who threatens, and who curses? The philosopher Charles Hartshorne insisted that we should bring to our reading of scripture the very best of our own experiences. Thus, he stated, we should not impute to God any characteristic that we would never tolerate as characterizing a human father. Sometimes we are afraid to say “no” to a theologically offensive part of scripture, and instead, by believing it, we can contort the heart of the Gospel. As a boy, I was fearful of God -- the watching God, the spying God. I was taught to live as if there were Divine monitoring eyes judging me day and night. This may be one of the reasons why some persons leave the church as adults-- because of the fearsome God they were taught as children. What’s more, persons who retain this fearsome portrait of God tend to treat others in the same way that they believe their God is treating them. As a result, many are wounded by the paralyzing fear of always being wrong. Now what I find very interesting is that the word in Scripture that is often translated as “fear” can also be translated in a very contrasting way -- it can mean “awe.” What an incredible difference that can make: as to whether we believe that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” or whether we believe that being awestruck by God is to be our beginning. By translating the word as “awe” means stretching our imagination to its limits in portraying our God. It means gladly approaching our God through the latest telescope, awestruck by the utter mystery of the Creator roaming endless space, creating galaxy upon galaxy -- with a beauty that is utterly breath-taking. This is the God who dawns our incredible world every morning in all its splendor, and every evening bathes our earth with the dazzle of uncountable stars. No longer is this a terrifying God that is to be feared, but a God whose claim upon us is one of total amazement. And at the center of this amazement is the miracle of miracles that the Psalmist utters in acclaiming: “What are humans that you God are mindful of us.” “Awesome” is the word for the God who knows every hair on our heads, and holds the entire cosmos in the palm of God’s hand. This is the God who revealed himself to the fearful Job, so that then in amazement he was able to trust that a God so awesome must certainly knows what He is doing. This is the God that we have in today’s Responsorial Psalm -- not a fearful One, but a God in whom the Psalmist has “found peace; my soul stilled and quieted like a weaned child.” Likewise Paul states his model for being a Christian by reminding the Thessalonians that “when we were among you we were as gentle as any nursing mother fondling her little ones, for you had become so dear to us.” Then in today’s Matthew reading, the Pharisees are portrayed as models of what we should not be -- for they are arrogant, prideful, even hateful. “They bind up heavy loads on other’s shoulders,” rendering them fearful. In contrast, says Jesus, the greatest among you will be those “who serve the rest.” And he continues, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” Thus while a fearsome God can bring a person to self-hatred, the God of Jesus invites us to live a life of awe concerning all of life as a gift from the God whose love is awesome. Ours is not a vengeful God who inflicts suffering and death on us, but is a God so in love with us that he endures for our sake all the sufferings and crucifixions that we inflict upon him. As one of our Eucharistic Prayers puts it, “You God love the human race, always walking with us on the journey of life.” Thus may we be clear -- that the heart of our God is the AWESOME One who turns the other cheek, walks the second mile, is Father of us his Prodigal children, is the Widow who turns everything on end in searching for us her lost coin, and the Shepherd who carries us home on his shoulder. Awesome! In the end, we should not be fearful of suffering being inflicted upon us by a jealous God, but instead our anxiety should be that we not cause suffering for the God who suffers for us. + + +


May the beauty of this autumn awake us to a Thanksgiving when we can truly be thankful for the awesome gifts that our loving God continues to shower upon us.


Faith, Hope, and Love to you all!


Fr. Paul

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Elizabeth Gann
Elizabeth Gann
06 nov 2023

Thank you for your words, especially concerning "silence". And you reminded me about fruitcake! I will soon put in an order. We are blessed by you, thank you. Elizabeth & Family

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