When I left the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center for the monastery, spring had left daffodils and forsythia as her harbingers. But as I drove, I was surprised by the abundance of Ornamental Pear, not only intentionally adorning driveways but wandering as well into the woods. Neither the Red Bud nor the Dogwood had made more than a hint, but, with a warm Holy Week, by Easter Day both had joined in the Resurrection. I made a slight detour into Bennett Springs, and I probably should not have been surprised that the warm sun had brought out a plethora of fisherpeople with their jubilant children. But I was a bit disappointed that Fr. Donald’s Yearly Daffodil Extravaganza had passed its prime. But the Dandelions were thriving.
The most striking change within the monastery was the placing of a Black Madonna beneath the cross on the front wall of the Refectory. It is about 5 feet by 4 feet, and is a beautifully adorned tapestry. I like it! And also the small two-keyboard organ that was contributed now officially has replaced our previous key-board. While before, the organ led the chanting, with the new one it tends to provide support. The Leeds lighting seems to be completed. Some of the Swallows have returned to the Garth, the Goldfish have found a way of increasing, but it seems as if the pigeons may have given up hope for a monastic change of heart. On Palm Sunday evening after Compline, a neighbor was driving by and saw flames in the woods behind the monastery, called Br. Joseph of Nazareth, who called Fr. Cyprian, who alerted several of the younger monks, and had a hard time finding a functional phone number for the local fire company. But they came-- and by 10 P.M. all was under control. I slept through it all. This event was reminiscent of 20-30 years ago when some evangelical Protestants decided that Catholic “idolaters” were not welcomed -- and so during every Holy Week they would set fires around the monastery as their witness. Hopefully this was not a presage. Nazareth is now at full capacity, thriving economically with contributions and their incense business, and thriving spiritually as a community of compatible diversity. Unfortunately the Benedictine Sisters have decided not to continue renting the facility owned by Assumption Abbey in which they now live. They wanted to buy but the deed worked out between Assumption Abbey and the Vietnamese was that they could not sell any of the property for 20 years. The sisters decided not to take that risk, and have purchased considerable acreage on a hill off Route 14. Having developed an elaborate model for their new monastery, they will probably break ground this spring. We have some tension between Fr. Albert’s historic assumptions regarding Holy Week liturgy, Fr. Alberic (New Melleray) as “master of ceremonies” whose penchant is more pre-Vatican II, and the Superior. Perhaps as conciliation at Palm Sunday lunch we had Protestant evangelical music. I suspect that I was the only one who knew what it was. J But I confess a secret hope that the Vietnamese might discover a bit of Bach and Handel. Speaking of sleep, for the first time in a decade, I slept through Vigils with the soundest of sleeps -- and yet, predictably, without a glitch, Br. Joseph quietly assumed my parts at the liturgy. And just before Lauds, I turned to the Superior seated behind me, and indicated with a few gestures and words my regrets for having missed Vigils. With a supportive smile and a mini-sign of the cross, my guilt was assuaged. So fine “when brothers dwell together in unity.”
A different Monstrance is now being used, more colorful than the subdued “Trappist” one that we purchased with the money remaining in the saving account of Family Brother Clayton Fountain -- when he died in Solitary Confinement at the Federal Prison in Springfield. It doesn’t feel quite right to put it in storage; so I am contemplating if it would better serve its purpose on loan to our Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center where we do not have one. The favorite intersession for the week was for the people of Ukraine and the conversion of President Putin. There are many tragedies named for prayers on our Prayer Board, but the one that punctured my heart read: “For Kim whose husband just committed suicide.” A few of the younger monks are emerging as interested in the annual spring resurrection of the garden. Our neighbor Dane continues to recycle our food-remains through the pigs at his form. The monastery remains closed to retreatants and visitors, with a reopening date still unknown. A generously shared cold has been the only malady thus far. Our front doors are now locked for security purposes. Unrelated, we now have automatic lights for the visitor’s hall, the storage room for the kitchen, and the walk-in cooler. It is becoming a “tradition” at supper time that a Vietnamese dish is prepared and around the kitchen serving table the Vietnamese monks comfortably share a repast in their native tongue. Br. Austin is conducting weekly several classes in English. It is interesting that at Terce and None, prayed in the small Infirmary Chapel, each monk has come to habitually assume the same place daily around the altar. Br. Alfonse sent a long letter sharing his time in theological training. I hope this reflects his abiding interest in returning to Ava. Br. Roberto (who was here before) and Fr. Ignatius have been approved for interviews at the American Embassy in Saigon. Fr. Basil, our Superior, will leave April 20 for a regular consultation with the Motherhouse in Vietnam. Fr. Michael visited his ailing mother in Vietnam, and has returned. Br. Andrew’s son will be coming here on May 13 to take him permanently to a nursing home in Paris. Cistercian changes that have occurred include a corporate Rosary daily after Vigils, a daily solitary half-hour of Lectio Divina after None, a Gaudeamus (a common meal with conversation) on Maundy Thursday evening, and a few monks are saying prayers for the dead at the west door of the monastery overlooking the cemetery. While the Trappist daily schedule called for morning and afternoon work periods, the Cistercian way is labora in the morning, with the afternoon for study or unscheduled “charitable work,” meaning seeing something that needs done and freely doing it. My regular assignments included reading at Vigils, Sext, and Vespers; being a priest at two Masses and Deacon for two Masses, and Server at the noon meals.
My homily on Wednesday of Holy Week began with an Isaiah reading that is a special one for me, for it was read at my ordination. It reads: “God has given me a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary. Morning after morning God opens my ears that I may hear. And I have set my face like flint.” That’s pretty much the story of my life -- trained to speak fluently especially to the outcast; and gifted with an imagination that helps me discern the daily yearnings of the Holy Spirit. Yet through the years I am learning with difficulty that in setting my face like flint, the direction must be set by God -- and not me! As today’s Responsorial Psalm put it, going off on my own direction has led to feeling like a stranger, or an outcast, or even having a broken heart. In today’s Gospel we encounter Jesus in the same condition, but not by his own doing. Realizing that death is imminent, he yearns for one last time to eat the Passover with his disciples. But what occurs is anything but warm companionship. Instead, it is an event of perfidy. He quietly says, “One of you will betray me.” Now you might expect that eleven of the disciples would know that they are innocent, wouldn’t they? But no, for they ALL become distressed, gasping in fright, “Is it I?” Ah, that is the key question addressed to each of us: “Is it I?” And the answer is Yes. There are hundreds of ways in which to betray Jesus, for as the old hymn puts it: “All of us must return to God in order to be forgiven for crucifying Christ on earth again.” Then the hymn marks the heart of our betrayal when we sing, “Lord, free every heart from pride and self-reliance, defeating our Babel with your Pentecost.” Recently I have been going through my theology library, reading the comments and summaries that I had written in the margins. And what I am finding is a common theme: “Without you God, we can do nothing right.” This is because the heart of sin is being motivated by “I, me, and mine” -- setting our faces like flint toward our own self-interest. Three favorite questions that American corporations like to ask on job applications are these¨ “Are you ambitious? Are you aggressive? Are you competitive?” The answer expected is a sturdy “Yes” if you want the job. But if you are a Christian, the answer must be a steadfast NO. Each of us must undergo conversion, a radical turning so that we are no longer the center of our own lives. This is why the eleven disciples all gasped -- for while they were following Jesus toward his death, they were involved in sheer pettiness -- about which of them would be greatest in the Kingdom. This is betrayal, and it happened often. So it is with many of us so-called Christians. We too follow Jesus -- but as a way of getting something for ourselves -- even attempting to escape hell. But as one theologian put it, that is like a person refraining form adultery out of fear that the spouse might return. Love is not truly love of God if our motivations are to get something for ourselves. This is sin, even if the goal of our good behavior is to get to heaven, to have our prayers answered, or to gain happiness -- for these are all about me. Even coming to an awareness of our sin is not our doing, but is the gift of a loving God offering us forgiveness. All is gift, even life itself; and sin is taking any of it as a right we deserve, or a reward we have earned. Daily we must ask, “Is it I?” Yes, for “without you, God, we can do nothing right.” Getting this straight is what Lent is all about. And it is why every Mass begins with confession.
It took four pages of single-spaced scheduling and description posted on major doors and bulletin board in order to prepare us for the Triduum -- plus ample rehearsals of which in the past we were noticeably in need. The determining feature of our 4 PM Maundy Thursday liturgy was washing the feet of each monk by the Superior. My assignment was reading the 14th chapter of John. Beginning that evening solitary monks took turn keeping watch all night at the Altar of Repose. There was the evening common meal. On Good Friday morning at 8:30 each monk read one Psalm sequentially, interspersed with several read corporally. At our 3:00 P.M. liturgy, three of us took parts reading the long gospel -- as everyone stood, prostrating themselves with the last Lords of Jesus. I chanted the Intercessions. At 8:45 AM Saturday morning, a tradition has begun of walking the outdoor Stations of the Cross in the woods as our Terce -- with or without mud. This year began ominously with threatening clouds, only to end with us standing at Station 14, focused on the White Resurrection Cross across the stream, now glowing with the first rays of sun. Easter Vigils stand out as so major a Church event that it is hard to believe that it was largely lost until Vatican II. Long but impressive are the nine scriptures that provide the contours of Salvation History. HHHAs a vigil, it is not permitted until dark, which for us mean our regular 3:15 A.M.
If you are tired of reading, you might choose to skip my Easter Day homily -- which began with Peter’s first sermon preached after the Resurrection. It can be summarized in one sentence: “Resurrection means eating and drinking with Jesus after he died; and those who dine with him will have their sins forgiven.” The theme that is emerging is that Resurrection has something to do with bread and wine. In the gospel reading, we find Mary Magdalene early on Easter Day, while it is still dark and the disciples are asleep. What is she doing out there in the darkness? All Mary knows is that she is yearning for the one she loves, for in loving her he had healed her. In suddenly realizing that the stone was rolled away, she runs to tell Peter and John. Racing to the tomb, the description of what they see is strange. The wrappings are on the floor, but the cloth covering the face of Jesus was carefully rolled and put in a place by itself. Not yet knowing the meaning, they just went home. But Mary stayed, and was rewarded with such an awareness of Jesus that she ran to the disciples: “He is risen!” And that very night, as they were eating bread and drinking wine, the Resurrection occurs to them also. Again we see appearing the theme of bread and wine. Likewise, on that same day, two of the disciples are walking to Emmaus, and they too recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. Thus the early Church came to recognize this vital connection between the sharing of bread and wine, and the Easter appearances. So vital were such experiences that they called it the “Real Presence.” And with this was recognized a powerful symbolism. They began taking a piece of linen cloth like the one that had covered the face of Christ, and they would unroll it on a table as if they were in the empty tomb. And on it, they would place bread and wine. And there would happen again the Easter event -- for it was then for them too that Christ rose in the eating and drinking. And so on Easter morning we too are gathered to unroll a linen piece of cloth [I showed it], and we will spread it on the altar [I did so], and on it we will place bread and wine, believing that at this very Mass there will reoccur for us too an Easter happening -- that the Resurrection will occur as “Real Presence.” So it is that from the very beginning, the Resurrected Christ has been known “in the breaking of bread.”
May the fifty days of Eastertide bring peace to the world, and hope to your soul.