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Holy Week 2024

Dear Friends,                                                 


All along the Saturday road to the monastery, Nature was practicing for Palm Sunday.  While the trees showed little signs of awakening, nor had the Dog Woods yet really appeared, the pastures were sporting a welcoming green while the Red Buds were readying to lead the reveille procession into Easter.  And Fr. Donald’s epic daffodil exhibit surrounding the monastery simple could not wait for Easter.  Cathleen Burnett, Associate Director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center came with me for the week.

The only visible exterior “improvement” was a gazebo-like edging built along the outer border of the garden, for reasons yet to be revealed.  For the Trappists, Holy Mary holds special honor.  I just found out that Cistercians hold a comparable honor for St. Joseph, the “father” of Jesus.  Last week, on his Feast Day, the Ava monks attended the nearby Benedictine Order of St. Joseph open-house at their new monastery, which is within half a year of completion.  Apparently they had over a thousand persons, complete with cotton candy and hot dogs.  Fr. John, the trained psychologist who is staying with us for the year, conducted the second training session on “Seeing God in Seeing Others.” He provided a chart for ranking one’s listening abilities. I don’t know anything about the spawning adventures of gold fish, just enough to report that the larger fish don’t seem to be with us but we are the grandparents of countless tiny additions.  Br. Gabriel has returned to his classes in California.  Fr. Lawrence and Br. Kolbe, our latest Vietnamese monks, are fitting in well, with the former helping Fr. Alberic #2 and Fr. Peter with canonical duties, and Fr. Alberic #1 with the organ.  Each monk is now given one retreat day each month.  The scheduled lectio divina after None has been increased in length from half to three-quarter of an hour. The “music” that we hear during our noon-time meal still sounds like Country-Western.  Fr. Alberic #2 has received a two-month Visa to return to our Mother House in Vietnam.  A Vietnamese woman named Mary (Tu), who spends her time as a cook at various monastic locations, has begun with us until December. My responsibilities included twice as priest, three times as Deacon, reader, and server at the Refectory. The Lenten book I chose is one I have read twice before, and I am still finding it one of my favorites -- “The Roots of Christian Mysticism,” by Olivier Clement.  While he uses the word “mysticism,” I prefer the phrase “poetic theology” -- providing the affective dimensions of Greek Orthodoxy as a welcomed supplement to the moral emphasis characterizing Western Christianity.  It was meaningful when the Superior greeted me with a huge smile and a “Welcome home” 


On Sunday we met in the Chapter Room after Lauds for substantial Holy Week chanting practice. The Superior was Presider for the Passion (Palm) Sunday celebration, beginning at the exterior Gate -- with grey skies, wind, and frigid temperature.  After liturgy, gospel reading, and distribution of palms, we processed with chants, finally entering  the church with “All Glory Laud and Honor.”  Three of us took turns reading the long Gospel, when at the proclamation of Jesus’ death, we all fell prostrate on the floor.  The Nazareth hermits worshipped with us, bringing a prospective member.  But I was truly “shocked” to learn about Fr. Jesu.  Only recently having been consecrated with difficulty by his Bishop as resident priest for Nazareth Hermitage, he is now in the process of entering a Camaldalese monastery.  Fr. John will do masses for them three times a week until summer, and the hermits will worship with us on other occasions. I fondly remember the way it used to be, when Fr. Matthew Kelty once characterized us this way: “Silence is the greatest single factor in Trappist Spirituality.”


We began Wednesday’s homily with the passage from Isaiah that is one of my very favorites.  I was still a graduate student at Yale that I first heard it.  Maybe it was because I had it applied to me a number of times, namely “The Lord God has given you a well-trained tongue that you might know how to speak to the weary, a word that will rouse them.”  Maybe, but how best to use my tongue -- as a professor, a writer, a therapist, a philosopher, maybe, could it be, a priest?  How much I yearned to be able to say of myself what Isaiah said of himself when he said, “I set my face like flint.”  But for what?  Thus my ongoing prayer was Isaiah’s closing words:  “Lord, in your great love answer me.”  But one thing especially stood in the way of my entering seminary.  I know that this is going to sound very strange, but please stay with me.  A primary issue was the one raised in today’s gospel from Matthew -- the role of JUDAS in the passion story.  Since I was a boy, I have had a strange fascination with Judas. At the church of my youth, the communion rail had 12 kneeling places, each carved with the name of a disciple.  The Judas kneeler was second from the left side.  I remember it well, because most persons refused to kneel there. But instead it was the place that I consistently sought out for communion.  I have often wondered why I had this affection for Judas, and I finally think I know.  It was because he seemed to have been given a bad rap, been misunderstood, and perhaps wrongly accused.  I fully realize that scripture doesn’t agree with me, portraying him as a traitor, a thief, a betrayer -- one fully deserving to kill himself for his despicable action.  And yet, what if Jesus had NOT been betrayed; what if instead Jesus married Mary Magdalene and died of old age playing with his grand children?  What a terrible thought -- because Jesus HAD to die or there would never have been any “Good News.”  And yet all the gospels have no sympathy, assigning to Judas the worst of motives.  Today’s gospel portrays Judas as boldly asking the Chief Priests how much they will pay him if he hands Jesus over to them.  Sounds greedy; but he was the very disciple who kept the money purse for all the disciples.  So if money had been his motive, he could just have taken the purse and run away, maybe being the one who married Mary Magdalene.  Another gospel pictures Judas’ act as beginning when Jesus approvingly praised a woman for anointing him with very costly ointment. Judas protested, declaring that it should have been sold to help the poor. Yet Jesus chastises Judas, saying that she was anointing him for his upcoming death, even though no one had yet betrayed him.  Could it be that Judas wanted to report Jesus to the religious leaders as a way of disciplining Jesus for not following his own teachings?  Yet that same gospel writer quickly writes off that possibility, declaring without evidence that Judas is simply a thief.  And yet when Judas learns that it is the Roman Authorities and not the Religious ones who have custody of Jesus, he immediately repents, returns the monday, and takes his own life.  But if money had been his motive, suicide makes no sense. Then at the last supper, Jesus is asked by a disciple which of them is to betray him.  And he replies, “The one to whom I will give this morsel of bread.”  He gives it to Judas who immediately leaves, perhaps to do obediently what he had just been chosen to do. Furthermore, throughout the gospels we are given Old Testament prophecies that seem to indicate far in advance that betrayal was predestined to happen.  Was Judas predestined, having no choice?  Now if you ARE confused, SO WAS I -- for the simple truth is that SOMEONE HAD to betray Jesus, otherwise he would never have died for our sins.  Resolution came for me when I first read the Breviary reading for Holy Saturday describing what Jesus did on the day between Crucifixion and Resurrection.  We are told that he went to the Realm of the Dead.  And there he looks for Adam and Eve, as being his lost sheep.  Then, taking them by hand, he leads out all those who had ever been in bondage, out into the light of freedom.  Now if Christ forgives Adam and Eve, then surely his bountiful love will extend as well to the new resident -- the one whose name is Judas.  Was it Judas who had decided, or was it decided for him; was his motivation one of selfishness or was it well intended; was he misinterpreted or was he the misinterpreter?  We cannot know, but what we do know is that God is always in charge.  And so I thank God for Judas, for Judas did what I COULD NEVER HAVE DONE -- AND YET SOMEONE HAD TO DO IT!          

Thus with belief that Christ’s unconditional love extends as well to Judas. the path toward seminary became clearer.  But imagine my surprise when the scripture chosen by the Bishop for my ordination was this very same Isaiah passage, the one beginning with the words, “The Lord has given me a well-trained tongue,” and ended with having “a face set like flint.”  And so may all of us understand better the “good news” as being this:  if Christ’s forgiving love can embrace Judas, then none of us is without hope. 


The Paschal Triduum began at 4:00 PM with celebration of the Last Supper, the Tabernacle open and empty.  Central was the washing of the monks’ feet by the Superior.  It ended with a Procession of the sacred hosts to the Altar of Repose in a separate chapel, where at “Gethsemani” we continued to pray with Jesus.  Then the church altar was stripped, and the crucifix covered with a purple cloth


Good Friday observances began at 8:30 AM with a service of shared psalms.  We fasted at Noon with bread and water.  And at 3:00 PM the long gospel reading is read in parts by three of us.  Veneration of the cross was with a kiss, followed by Communion.


On Holy Saturday (8:45 AM) the community walked the exterior Stations of the Cross, which passes several spring-fed brooks and beautiful waterfalls.  The older monks returned from whence they came, while the younger ones risked climbing the steep hill into the cemetery. 


Early Sunday morning (3:30 AM) was the celebration of the Easter Vigil, the central feast of the Church Year. The whole of salvation history is rehearsed with nine scriptures and chants, climaxing with the declaration of Resurrection to the persistent ringing of the bell. The reaffirmation of faith followed, then the homily, intercessions, and dismissal.  It was well over two hours in length


Our Easter Day Mass (9:00 AM) began with a scripture of what was likely St. Peter’s first sermon.  So it is interesting to see what he chooses to share from the puzzling but intriguing weeks since Christ’s death.  He begins by reporting that Jesus was above all a healer; and that after he was killed, God raised him from the dead. Then he makes this interesting statement: “God granted that the risen Christ was not to be seen by all, but only by those of us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead . . . resulting in the healing of our sins.” Today’s responsorial psalm anticipates this by acclaiming that “the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” concluding with the words: “It is wonderful in our eyes.”  Beautifully stated, and yet there is a huge jump between the puzzling resurrection accounts of several weeks before, and this confident witness by Peter. The resurrection stories are enigmatic, mysterious, and truly puzzling.  Indicatively the day’s Gospel begins in darkness, while all is asleep -- except for Mary Magdalene, the woman who first encounters the stone that the builders rejected as being the one rolled away from the tomb’s entrance.  She runs to Peter and to a second disciple identified as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” -- apparently meaning John, the writer of that gospel.  Notice how he provides very specific but irrelevant details -- namely that the two disciples run side by side, but then this disciple whom Jesus loved outruns Peter.  “Finally arriving,” these are the words used to describe Peter as being slow, apparently out of politeness; John lets Peter go into the tomb first.  But we are told that all that Peter does is see the mess, and leaves.  Period.  But then we are reminded that the one whom Jesus loves, the one who was the first to arrive, this one now goes in, truly sees, and is the one who believes.  Apparently Peter doesn’t believe, but the one whom Jesus loves, he is the one who believes.  Yet the scripture passage ends with this cryptic statement about both of them:  that “they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus HAD to rise from the dead.”  I don’t know about you but I very offended every time that John gets a chance he identifies himself as “the one whom Jesus loved” -- such arrogance!  Does he mean to say that Jesus didn’t love any of the other disciples?  While not aware of it, throughout this whole passage John is an arrogant boaster -- wanting us to know not only that he is the one loved by Jesus, and that he alone entered the tomb and believed, but even that he was the one who won the foot race.  And yet John’s obnoxiously competitive craving always to be first, always to be the winner, always to be the one most uniquely loved  -- in this he is not alone.  Not long before, on their way to Jerusalem where Jesus was to be martyred, what they did all along the way was to argue fiercely as to which of them would be first in the Kingdom.  In fact, two of them even had the arrogance of recruiting their own mother to make the case to Jesus that her two sons should be #1 and #2 in his kingdom.  Therefore something very significant indeed had to happen to the disciples during the few intervening weeks leading up to Peter’s sermon.  Remember that Peter identifies Jesus’ life as being all about healing; and that resurrection is the healing which Jesus effects after his death.  Remember too how today’s gospel ends by saying that John and Paul had not yet understood the scripture that Jesus HAD to rise from the dead.  And why was this necessary?  Because not only John and Peter but all the disciples NEEDED TO realize that Jesus HAD to rise from the dead -- FOR THEM!  THEY, AND WE, WERE IN NEED OF RADICAL CHANGE.  Now how was it that they got to the point of having their arrogance punctured?  It was the Crucifixion that did it, for it eradicated all of their arrogant hopes of being #1 in anything.  No other way could have halted them from their game of playing “god.”  And so Peter tells us that once punctured, they are then able to experience the resurrection by eating and drinking with the Christ who forgave their arrogance.  Only then did they truly have something well worth preaching about. To a world blinded by self-centeredness, their message and ours is clear:  “Once we were blind, but now we can see.”  And what is it that we can see?  We see as model a loving Christ who wills to be last rather than first, who wills to give rather than to receive, and one who wills to die for others rather than to live for himself.  What a refreshing gift this is, for the disciples and for us, to be able to say with St. Paul in today’s reading: “Now we are HIDDEN with Christ in God.”  And with such sheltered humility we can then look out upon the entire cosmos, in all its length and breadth and height and depth, and then embrace it all with a huge EASTER YES! 


On the way to my other home, curiosity enticed us to take a slight detour to see the new women’s monastery in the making. It is impressive!  And now may each of us in our own humble way take our Easter high and spread it out over 50 days and 50 nights of faithful living as joyful and thankful human beings.


Alleluia to you all!


Fr. Paul


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