Dear Friends, October, 2020
As I left the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center, we were probably one third of the way through a strange autumn. Perhaps it was the drought, but while half of the trees were still green, the other half were being stripped as brown and crumpled leaves were rapidly falling. Along the way, an occasional maple offered some yellowness, some hickory made a poor imitation, and the lowly sumac provided occasional sparks of red-scarlet in varied shades. The corn was dry, brown, and limp. In the New England that I have known, at this same time leaves were likely growing in radiant readiness toward a crescendo, one in which the Psalmist could shout “Glory” and the liturgy would sing of “Christ the King.” But here in the Ozarks, the whole looked shabby and felt used -- dirty, drab, and worn out. Sagging “For Sale” signs and an occasional abandoned house provided dots of sadness. The cold mornings hinted of November, ready to be covered by a first frost, and finally put to sleep with a benevolent snow. I tried to shift the eyes of the beholder, remembering as a child the smell of burning leaves, running through the colored crunch of piled leaves, competing to find the prettiest leaf, and throwing handfuls happily at each other. An abundance of small Trump signs along the way had been supplemented by larger red ones, and the motto changed from “Make America Great” to “Keeping” it so. Businesses were no longer hesitant to express their clear preference. Today was the commemoration of Columbus Day, while in other states it became “Indigenous Peoples Day” in remembrance of our sordid past. At a gas station, cautious eyes peered over the top of masks, as vigilant bodies maintained social isolation.
I told some of you about the “end of an epoch” when Sr. Miriam was buried October 5 beside the other two founders of Nazareth Hermitage -- after a closed funeral mass at the Abbey. Fr. Jesus, a new member of that community, gave her last rites. Nazareth now has a Mary, a Joseph, and a Jesus. A few sheep could complete the scene. We miss no longer sharing Mass with them.
In the Garth, our four pigeons sought the afternoon sun (with six occasional feathered visitors), the goldfish hid in the shadows, and the swallows had gone south for the winter. Our hymn for Lauds began, “God of day and God of darkness, now we stand before the night.” Our Vesper hymn, entitled “Christ in the Rubble,” has us sing: “O Christ within a world at war, where love and hate fight for the soul.” But welcoming smiles and four amazing pots of live mini-chrysanthemums (over one hundred blooms in each) surrounded the altar as sentinels of promise.
I was delighted that Fr. Alberic had spent last week at the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center for a private retreat, the first member of our Ava community to do so. Other monks expressed interest in doing the same. Fr. Bruno has still not returned from California, two Vietnamese monks continue to await interviews at the American Consulate in Saigon, and Brothers Roberto and Ignatius have expressed interest in joining us. Fr. Alberic of New Melleray, who is with us discerning a possible change of stability, occasionally does a Latin Mass with the Nazareth hermits. He has a lovely chanting voice. Fr. Thaddeus is presently building a 15 foot high shed with used metal roofing to protect the saw mill from rain. Thinking that he has cut enough oak lumber, he has chosen and leveled a spot nearby for the Chicken Coop. His large plastic-covered green house is proving its worth, already growing with lush cold-weather vegetables. Jill has returned with a working schedule of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday -- mainly to receive fruitcake orders by phone.
My assignments were as reader at Vigils, Sext, and Vespers, organist at Compline, and meal server. Labora was building an “L” shaped desk, and proving myself again the master “banister painter.”
Tuesday’s homily began with Jesus being fed up with the Pharisees, nagging him about little things like hand washing. “You fools,” he shouts, likening them to clean cups with a thick coating of greed on the inside. What Jesus is saying is that even if we do plenty of good things, as long as our motive is rooted on ourselves, they are sins. The motive for the Pharisees is to be seen, praised, and admired. “Hypocrites,” he labels them -- no doubt referring as well to some of us who pretend to be who we are not. In the Book of Acts what the disciples are told to preach is living the “NEW LIFE.” This entails not just doing good things but being transformed, having one’s life turned up-side-down, no longer with ourselves as center but focusing on the poor, widow, orphan, and marginalized. But how on earth can we be “born again,” becoming “new creatures” who “shine like stars in the sky in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation”?
It begins with the recognition that every human being is created with a defining craving to be loved UNCONDITIONALLY -- which alone can free us of ourselves to become the loving persons we were created to be. But we try to earn such love by meeting the conditions that others set, trying to do whatever will please them so that they will think us worthy of their love. But it can’t work because we can never do enough for long enough -- and this “love” disappears, often resulting in hurt and anger. My own mid-life crisis occurred when I was burned out by doing, doing, doing -- and in being brought to a halt, I was brought to realize that all these years I was still trying to please my parents, even though they were long-since dead. What I needed in order to become whole was unconditional love -- to be loved not for what I did but for whom I was -- namely a “child of God.” This is the kind of love that only God can give, to hear God promise to each of us: “I love you, and no matter what you may do, I will forgive you, and will never stop loving you.” This is what one of our Eucharistic Prayers calls “a bond of love that cannot be broken.” There is no greater love than this: that God in Christ suffered and laid down His life for us. This is the only love that can heal the wound of our lovelessness.
On Friday we remembered Br. Boniface on the date of his death. I prayed that in heaven God would give him a chainsaw to play with.
Sunday’s homily began by viewing the Bible in terms of a Drama with three Acts, each having the theme of “God’s Call and Human Betrayal.” Act One begins when God chooses an insignificant tribe to be God’s special people, to train them for a mission of redeeming the world into becoming one where swords will be pounded into plowshares, and where peace and justice will kiss. So He sends Moses to enable their “Exodus” from slavery. But instead of being faithful in response, they choose to worship the golden calf. Even when God gifts them with the “Promised Land,” they continue to betray Him. So God lets them be taken into slavery for a second time -- called the “Babylonian Captivity,” a tragedy that Jeremiah calls “an incurable wound that cannot be healed.” So ends Act One. Act Two begins with today’s reading from Isaiah in which God again forgives, offering a new beginning. But ironically the major actor is not a faithful believer like Moses, but God chooses an irreligious power-hungry Emperor named Cyrus. Although Cyrus destroys city after city, and has absolutely no knowledge of God, nevertheless he “miraculously” issues a proclamation that frees Israel to return home, beginning again their mission of being God’s special people -- the event called the “Second Exodus.” And although they will betray God yet again and again, our concern today is to recognize that God’s work with Cyrus is not rare -- but discloses how often God works incognito, in the most surprising variety of disguises. God tends to use the most unlikely folk to do His will -- tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and sterile women. Therefore God continually calls us the Church to discern “the signs of the times” in order to detect God’s latest disguises. Perhaps God is presently exposing our vicious racism through the movement called “Black Lives Matter.” Or perhaps God is shouting at us through enormous wild fires as a warning about our role in causing the tragedy of “global warming.” Or perhaps even through the Corona Virus God is warning us about the lethal consequence of destroying our balance with nature, and the need to abandon our competitive individualism for the sake of structural community. Instead of projecting God in support of our own self-interests, we must discern where God is actually working anonymously. And if God specializes in working with unlikely folk, it is likely that He is calling each of us for something special.
I will have only one week at my hermitage before returning to the monastery, this oblique scheduling done so that I can participate in All Souls and All Saints Days (Nov.1-2).
Until then, may the love that cannot be broken lead us, step by step, along the path that is chosen uniquely for each of us.