Third Week of Easter
It seems that everything that grows competes each spring to present itself as the most beautiful expression of creation -- for God and for us. Around my Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center, it seemed that this year’s award would be a tie between lilacs and red buds. As I drove toward the monastery, however, a close competitor became the budding leaves on the trees, the shade of green that only has the emerald green of late summer as its rival. But then a front runner became the nameless brilliant yellow patches in the fields, each stalk bearing a cluster of tiny yellow flowers -- sufficient for me to stop and do them justice. But it was around Bennett Spring that it happened. In every valley there were dogwoods, like snow generously sprinkled under every greening tree, accented by an occasional red bud. Oh my! Wow! Out loud I kept exclaiming at each turn, until my jaw grew tired. I have seen dogwood performances many times before, but nothing quite like this! The Grand Award of the season had just been awarded. Legend has it that it was from a tall and stately dogwood tree that the wood for the cross came. Consequently, either as punishment or through shame, dogwoods consequently would be a stunted tree, the center of its blossom like a crown of thorns, and its edges dipped in blood -- yet the whole tree was to be a burst of brilliant bleached white as expression of having been forgiven. So let’s hear it for forgiveness, as I arrived at the monastery immersed in a white floral baptismal gown. I pray that every human being during their lifetime may be gifted by wading into the frothy waves of an ocean, by climbing a 14,000 foot snow-topped mountain, by shuffling through the orange-red maple leaves of a New England autumn, and by witnessing a dogwood Spring in the Ozark hills.
Not much physical had changed at the monastery, except the purchase of several electric tooth bushes. The future Orchid Green House remained a skeleton, delayed as Fr. Thaddeus continued on as baker. Yet he manages to play with his new table planer, smoothing rough-cut 2 x 4’s. There were only 8 of us at Vespers, some away on trips. But I was particularly saddened that Nichols had decided to leave us, after well over a year here. He was a tiny timid man, made even shyer because he knew no English. Yet with often-unnoticed actions, he expressed his heart -- as in coming early to each Office and marking my Psalter with ribbons identifying the assigned psalms. Apparently his childhood dream of being a missionary was not able to be quiet by the silence. Peter’s room is now sadly cleaned, as well as Matthew’s. Br. Alphonse will be leaving for Vietnam on April 28 to begin theological studies. I will miss his youthful exuberance. May I live long enough to see him return. Fr. Alberic from New Melleray, who has been with us for perhaps six months, has decided to go in the near-future to our Motherhouse in Vietnam for six months, thereby able to transfer from the Trappist to the Cistercian Order, and return to Ava. Fr. Jarek, in London caring for his sister who has cancer, returned Friday with the news that she is recovering, and that he has finally been assigned a parish, and is leaving Monday -- in Honolulu! He will scout out the beaches there for a communal visit. J Fr. Cyprian received prayers and a serenade Friday in celebration of his 64th anniversary as a priest. Even with all of our monks now having received their second vaccine shot, we remain careful but hopeful. The number of pigeons pledged to be faithful for the long haul seem to have been reduced. Oops, I was just told that the rest of them are nesting -- so, instead, we will be adding to the population explosion! The benefactor couple, who have lived with us for over a year when Vietnam closed its borders, was driven by Thaddeus to their children’s home in Chicago. The two visa-cleared monks coming from Vietnam should be arriving in May. On the bulletin board was a notice about a convent of Benedictine nuns near Gover, MO who are trying to raise $200,000 to build a tall security fence 3,000 feet long, complete with cameras and guard dogs, due to three shootings during Lent that have penetrated the Abbey, one bullet almost hitting the Abbess as she slept.
My assignments were two homilies, reader at Vigils, Sext, and Vespers, organist for Compline, and substituting in the bakery for Fr. Basil who fell and hurt his arm. It was satisfying to learn that I had not lost my proficiency in the rhythmic placement of red cherries. The process of going from baked cake, to decorating, to glazing, to wrapping, to boxing, to stacking used to take a three-person Trappist team all day. The Vietnamese monks have reduced the time to three hours, and on Tuesday we did it in two. I noticed that the brochures we include with our cakes now speak not of being baked by Trappist monks but Cistercian ones. We left the bakery with two cute tiny mice caught in a glue trap, pleading for help. L
During Tuesday’s homily I shared how I mark with pen those Vigil readings in my Breviary that have special appeal for me Then as a discipline this Lent I used the most marked ones for lectio divina. In doing this, I discovered two readings that spoke with particular depth to me. Interestingly, each of them was useful in preparing my two homilies for the week. The one illumining Tuesday’s readings was by John of Damascene. He was raised in an elegant 7th century Muslim Court, only to give away all that he had and becoming a monk in the Dead Sea wilderness. This reading was his autobiography written in slightly more than one page. He begins by declaring that God led him from his father’s loins and his mother’s womb. And from the moment of his birth, the Holy Spirit graciously led him every step of the way, adopting him as a son and enrolling him in God’s holy church. He shared that he was nursed with the spiritual milk of Christ’s word, kept alive with the solid food of Christ’s body, and drank from the chalice of Christ’s blood poured out for the world. He identified the cross as Jesus actually carrying him, a lost sheep, on his shoulders -- leading him to graze in green pastures, and refreshing him with the teachings of Christ’s shepherds. And when it was time, God called him into ministry in spite of his sinfulness, confessing that he did not know why God would do such an amazing thing. So all he can do is ask God’s spirit to continue guiding him along the straight path, opening his mouth by telling him what to say, and through the Holy Spirit making his tongue ready to say it. Therefore whatever did, he concluded, let it continue to be in accordance with your will, now and until the end.
I shared that I had been pondering why this particular reading struck me so strongly. It may be because it so different from how most of us would summarize our lives. I would likely begin by saying that I was born in Appalachia, went to Maple Park elementary school, etc. -- giving the details. But John of Damascene mentions absolutely none of this, because for him the details are simply incidentals resulting from what is truly important -- namely the basic plot of his life as a pilgrimage with God. Nothing else matters, for he was convinced that what happened to him was not “by chance” or “good fortune” but by the providence of God. Likewise this is the way in which the Psalmist in the day’s reading summarized his own life, doing so in one sentence: “Into your hands, Lord, I entrust(ed) my spirit” -- every step of the way. So it was how Jesus summarized his whole life, ending it with near identical words: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” And in today’s story from Acts, Stephen is portrayed in the same manner, as so trusting himself to God’s leading that he becomes a graphic imitation of Christ -- crying out as he was being stoned, as did Jesus, that God not hold this sin against his killers, and commending himself to God, again with Jesus’ own commendation. I think it not by chance that Paul was present at Stephen’s stoning, where unknowingly the image of Stephen’s death was burned into Paul’s mind as the portrait of someone whom he would soon meet on the Damascus Road. In my case, my life’s summary is echoed in today’s gospel -- having to do with being discovered by the Bread of Life with which we shall never hunger, and drinking from a chalice through which we shall never thirst. I then ended by inviting each of us to write a one page spiritual autobiography entitled, “How God has been leading me,” identifying those persons who have functioned as Christ figures along the way.
Although the little man in the box insisted on it, I was sure that he was kidding. Yet with previous temperatures in the 60’s, on Tuesday they plummeted to 40. By afternoon, yielding a magnificent snow for several hours -- with huge flakes pretending they were dogwood blossoms.
I confess that with the dietary selection available on some days, tofu has become the item of choice. In our Garth is a purple flower that looks like a smaller version of lilac inverted -- but it seems determined to take over the place. Its concentrated blossoms are impressive, if only, like many of us, it were not so pushy.
I began the homily for the fourth Sunday after Easter by sharing how in the Bible we see the nature of God being increasingly clarified, developed, and enriched -- until in the Christ event the full nature of God is definitively declared. All of the day’s scriptures intersect in identifying what the heart of our God is really like. In John’s first letter, we hear: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us.” In Acts, after healing a cripple, Peter declares that it was done through love by the stone that rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. And the gospel identified how in building upon this foundation everything is turned upside down. Previously in scripture we were led to believe that God loves those who deserve it, those who earn it, those who are worthy of it. But what is totally different with Christ is that the stone previously rejected is now at the heart of the gospel -- as the incredible news that God loves even those of us who do NOT deserve it, that God does NOT abandon those of us who abandon him, that God is seeking out every lost sheep and running to embrace every prodigal son. John declares this by identifying the God incarnated in Christ as the good shepherd -- the one so in love with his sheep that he lays down his life for us. Then Jesus adds one thing more, something quite intriguing -- that he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold; and that he must go and lead them also, so that we may all become one flock, with one shepherd.
For a long time I have been a bit perplexed as how to observe Holy Saturday. Are we supposed to pretend that Jesus is dead even though that very night at Easter Vigil we will celebrate him as risen? I reminded the monks that in my Tuesday homily I indicated two Vigil readings that have impacted my faith more than the rest. The one most helpful in illuminating this day’s scripture was “An Ancient Anonymous Homily” for Holy Saturday. It expresses in a most amazing way the deepest level of God’s love. Its theme is about Christ’s “other flock,” and helps unpack the meaning of our creed when we declare that “Christ descended into Hell.” This ancient homily suggests what happened on Holy Saturday. Listen to the portrait he draws. Jesus enters hell to raise up “all who have slept ever since the world began.” He is especially searching for our first parents, regarding them as his primal lost sheep. And when he finds them, Adam shouts in terror -- but Jesus takes him by the hand and gently responds: “Arise from the dead, for I am your God, inviting you and all who are held in bondage to come forth.” “I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.” And so, “Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me, and I am in you.” He shows them the spit on his face, his forehead bleeding with thorns, and his back torn open from whipping. It was for you, he shares, that I endured all this -- and so “a throne awaits you, the banquet is ready, the bridal chamber awaits, and the treasure houses of all good things lie open.” The kingdom of heaven “has been prepared for you from all eternity.” Then Adam, Eve, and Christ together lead the way, harrowing hell of its residents, and robbing death of its power. I concluded my homily: “Friends, the stone that seemed inconceivable has become the cornerstone -- for the heart of our God is pure love, beyond all imagination.”
This seems an appropriate way to end this long report -- on a Sunday that is officially set aside to “Bless the Fields and Flocks.” So let us live out in full joy the time remaining in our fifty day Easter Season, climaxed with the Pentecostal gift on May 23.