Fr. Basil, Superior, has asked that I make clear that these reports represent my perceptions and not necessarily that of the monastery as such.
On the morning of my trip to the Monastery, we were able to repair a minor leak in the roof of one of our hermitages at the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center, painted the damaged plaster, and painted the interior shade of the chapel light. So I was ready. It was a perfect autumn day, on the cool side with sparkling blue sky. But surprisingly, most of the trees and pastures were still a vivid green, with only occasional red accent by sumac and yellow markings by Black Eyed Susan’s and her relatives. Nestled in the wooded Ozark hills, the monastery appeared just as a monastery is supposed to be -- modeling silence, stillness, seclusion, and solemnity. What a contrast to our noisy, competitive, hyper, and driven society. Unlike the last time, nothing physical seemed to have changed, just little things such as the last zinnias and roses of the season from the Garth, adorning the church. Fr. Bruno has been focus on cleaning the land and caring for the Garth, while Fr. Peter has undertaken bringing the garden to completion. Fr. Michael is now in Vietnam on a six month Visitor’s Permit to continue fulfilling the three year requirement of Motherhouse residency in order to transfer to the Cistercian Order. Fr. Alberic #2, likewise desirous of such a transfer, will leave Monday for his second time of several months. Fr. Acutis has returned, but will be going to Vietnam shortly. Fr. Basil has been doing some retreats in various places, usually taking several monks with him. Some lay folks who have had a long relationship with the Abbey in doing helpful projects, including our exterior Stations of the Cross, have recently realigned the crosses in our cemetery. They will be installing one more cross to complete the present grave markings. The number of fruitcakes baked this year seems destined to be around 31,000. Presently most cake orders are to wholesale dealers, but with a large number of order forms having been sent out last Friday, the office will soon be a flurry of activity. Michael Hampton, our multi-talented employee capable of doing almost anything, will soon need to focus his activity just on orders and shipping. Fr. Jesus recently took his first of two vows before the local bishop to become a Diocesan Hermit, assigned to Nazareth Hermitage. The newly formed monastery in California, with Fr. Thaddeus as Superior, is located near a Vietnamese community that it serves, hopefully drawing some recruits. It is useful to the Order because it is close to a university where courses in English are offered. My assignments were as Deacon on Tuesday, priest on Wednesday and Sunday, Reader at Vigils, Sext, and Compline, and Server in the Refectory.
The theme of Wednesday’s homily was one that characterizes almost every scripture reading if we dig deeply enough to find it. It is the theme of “surprising grace.” We began with the well-known story about Jonah and the whale, but without the whale -- when God asks Jonah a second time to go to the city of Nineveh and there declare that in 3 days God will destroy that city because of its sins. Jonah has already tried to flee from God, only to discover that God is everywhere -- even inside the belly of a whale. Even being saved from drowning by God’s act of surprising grace was not yet enough to change Jonah. So finally he goes, grudgingly, only because God seemed to leave him no option. Now why was Jonah SO resistant? Shouldn’t we sympathize with him over such a task because Nineveh was an enormous city, taking three days just to walk from one end to the other? But what we discover, when the Ninevites repent and are “surprised by grace,” is Jonah’s faulty motivation. God discloses himself as being a God who at heart is motivated by grace more than punishment, by mercy more than judgment. But rather than being joyous, Jonah is furious -- insisting that if God would have just gone ahead and obliterated Nineveh, he would have been a happy man -- because then he would have been acclaimed as a great prophet. But, as it turned out, Jonah appears to be a fraud because he proclaimed to be true what turned out to be false. And what we learn is that the very reason why Jonah fled God in the first place was because he knew that at heart God IS “gracious and merciful, rich in forgiveness.” Therefore Jonah would only have been willing to go to Nineveh if God would have promised not to use his “surprising grace,” so that when Jonah prophesied the destruction of a city, then, by golly, it would have been destroyed! But what Jonah feared was what happened. When Nineveh was “surprised by grace,” it made Jonah look bad -- but only because Jonah’s real motivation was his own self-aggrandizement rather than the repentance of 120,000 Ninevites. “Surprised by Grace” (Joy) was the title of C. S. Lewis’ story of his life; and it is the uniting theme of all of scripture. God keeps surprising us with his grace, shaking us out of our self-centeredness, and opening us to the unconditional love that forgives. This theme was made clear when in our Responsorial Psalm we repeated, “Lord, you are tender and full of love.” And again in the day’s gospel we are taught the Lord’s Prayer that witnesses to the Kingdom of God as God promise of “surprising grace” for the world. And now today we are honoring a person through whom God pulled off one of the most surprising acts of grace that the Church and the world has ever known. On this day we remember Saint John XXIII. His election as Pope was totally unexpected, for apparently he possessed no special wisdom and exhibited no unusual skill in administration. In effect, he seemed to be a no-body, chosen because neither conservatives nor progressives had sufficient votes to elect the kind of person that each would have liked. So they chose this gentle old man whom both sides assumed would be harmless and ineffective -- an innocuous peg to fill the papal hole until the Cardinals could figure out what to do with their impasse. “Easy does it,” could well have been the expected motto. But instead, what occurred was one of God’s most surprising acts of grace -- when this insignificant, tottering old man, within one year of his election, called for a Second Vatican Council, intent, as he put it, “on letting into the Church the fresh air of modernity.” Indicatively, this Council that he convened was the first one to be addressed not only to the Church but to the whole world. Today, his Feast Day, marked the opening day of that Council. As the old saying puts it, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans for the future.” And so it was with the Church when through this Council God’s “surprising grace” resulted in some totally unexpected and profound changes, among which were these:
-- Celebrating the Eucharist in the languages of the people.
-- Resurrecting preaching as indispensable for spreading the Word.
-- Administering communion in both kinds.
-- Insisting on a greater role for the laity and especially for women.
-- Intensifying concern for justice in the world.
-- Making decisions collegially.
-- Honoring individual conscience.
-- And exercising serious ecumenism.
I do believe that had Vatican II happened 400 years ago, there would have been no reason for a Protestant Reformation that split the Church. But be that as it may, I give personal thanks for it was only because of Vatican II that I became a Roman Catholic. Thanks be to God for his “surprising grace.”
Our Responsorial Psalm for Sunday’s Mass, called “The Good Shepherd,” is among the most cherished of the Psalms. And at its center is one of the most important of Biblical themes. Listen to these words: God, “you spread the table before me in the sight of my foes; you anoint my head with oil and my cup will overflow.” erererb;p
Here we encounter a key Biblical promise -- that of Banquet. And yet this psalm makes me uneasy -- because the Psalmist’s claim is for the Banquet to be only an honor for him, insisting that “his foes” will not be invited but instead will look on from afar so that they will be envious. Therefore a better version of the Banquet appears in today’s reading from Isaiah. This is how the prophet put it: “The Lord of Hosts will provide for ALL people a feast of rich food and choice wines, will remove the veil from all people, death shall be no more, and all tears will be wiped from our eyes.” I’ll drink to that! Then in today’s gospel from Matthew, not only is the Kingdom of God likened to Isaiah’s Banquet, but Jesus makes clear what he means in saying that it is “for all.” He gives us a parable in which God the King, in effect, declares that invitations be taken into every city ghetto, every Native American reservation, every poverty hollow, and every bombed out Hiroshima -- for no one, no one, no one is to be without an invitation. And it is for this Banquet that daily we pray: “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Scripture tells us that one of Jesus’ favorite activities is to eat and drink with friends; and in the Last Supper, he does so with the world -- for as Vatican II puts it, the Eucharist is a banquet of common solidarity for the world in foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Our Gospel reading, then, tells us WHO are invited to the Banquet; and then, with Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we are given a sense of who are most likely to ACCEPT that invitation. Put another way, St. Paul is concerned with how we might be brought from the self-centeredness characteristic of Psalm 23 to the universality expressed by the prophet Isaiah. As St. Paul states: “I am experienced in being brought low -- in knowing what it is to eat well or to go hungry, to be well provided for or to do without.” Here he is echoing the beatitudes where they declare that the best odds for Banquet-entry belong to the poor and the meek. And in contrast to the disciples quarreling as to which of them will sit at Jesus’ right and his left, Jesus says that when we are invited to the Banquet take the lowest seat. This motif of a Banquet is so central in the Gospel because it is a promise that flows back over all of history as its culmination, and back over each of our lives as goal. And so for the true Christian, it will be enough simply to be at the Banquet -- good enough if only we have a chance to see our God through the doorway into the kitchen where we will be contentedly washing the dishes. And so in preparation for that Banquet let out daily prayer be the one written by Ignatius of Loyola, and later paraphrased by John Wesley:
“God, may I be no longer mine, but yours.
Put me to what you will;
rank me with whom you will,
put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.”
Or as St. Paul puts it more succinctly; “Whether we live or whether we die, we are yours.” That is more than sufficient.
Friends, may the glorious color of this oncoming Autumn be a foretaste for each of you,