On the Road!

A few weeks ago, Brother John received a request from a pastor in the Canandaigua area. Like so many of our parishes, two in this part of the Rochester Diocese had recently merged into a new one named St. Benedict’s. Pastor Michael Costik’s request was: Would we be willing to help St. Benedict’s familiarize parishioners with their new patron and with the Monastery “down the road”?

Brother Gabriel asked me if I’d like to respond to Father Michael on behalf of the Monastery. “Of course!” was my immediate reaction. Who wouldn’t want to “sell” the Monastery?

And so I introduced myself via email and phone to Deacon Claude Lester. Claude had come to Mt. Saviour for his discernment retreat prior to ordination, so he was especially enthusiastic about introducing parishioners to our place of prayer.

The target event was a celebration of Benedict’s feast day, nicknamed “Seven-Elevenish” since it was scheduled for the Sunday closest to the feast — this year, on July 8. They planned a BBQ lunch at the community center where there would also be displays of the parish’s ministries.Monastery items

Deacon Claude wanted a special table for Mt. Saviour to feature information on the monastery. The Brothers and I agreed on what to take up: pictures of the monastery chapel and grounds, pamphlets describing accommodations and directions, information on becoming an Oblate, and objects available at the gift shop. I also selected a number of books on Benedict and monasticism available in the shop.

Sunday July 8 was a splendid day for the ride up through the hills to Bloomfield Monastery Tablewhere their community center is located (formerly St. Bridget’s). Straight ahead as I entered the door, the Monastery table was the major focus. Behind the Monastery table was a huge quilt, each square made by a family telling something about that family.

Deacon Claude had already done a good deal of work to publicize St. Benedict. Here he is at one of the displays.
Deacon Claude Lester

I was introduced to the parishioners who headed up various ministries. One was involved in providing shelter for homeless families. Another was a food pantry, open three day a week, stocked with food donated by a number of local people and businesses. I liked the outreach aspect of this ministry. Another nine-year project continually raised funds to help missions in Kenya. I was impressed that these were hands-on ministries that focused on helping the truly needy. I had to interrupt my ministry pilgrimage when I woke up to the fact that I had my own project to publicize!

It didn’t take long to realize that just standing by our table, waiting for the world to come to me, wasn’t going to accomplish much, so I grabbed a handful of pamphlets and prayer cards. Going from table to table, distributing my goodies proved to be much more effective – and fun. I was able to answer questions including, “What’s an Oblate?”  Occasionally I’d meet someone who (a bit embarrassed to admit it) was not a Catholic. This provided an opportunity to share thoughts on ecumenism and our need to rely on one another.

The warmth and enthusiasm of these parishioners was very exciting to me. They certainly expressed the hospitality of our patron saint. What is more, as I was on my way out, Father Michael assured me that they’d be planning a group trip to visit Mt. Saviour. We know they’ll love it.Mt. Saviour

The Forgotten Person

Some theologians have referred to the Holy Spirit as the Forgotten Person of the Trinity.

Christians are hardly likely to forget the Holy Spirit, since they make the sign of the cross thousands of times a year. But the question is: what do we know about *him*?

The Holy Spirit is not so much forgotten as hidden. By *his* very name, the Holy Spirit is the most esoteric, the most abstract, and consequently the most difficult to understand of the Trinitarian persons. For us, the other Two Persons are more approachable: Jesus, first of all, because He became one of us, sharing totally in our humanity. The Father is described intimately as our Abba (Daddy), the One to whom Jesus constantly refers. But the Spirit? Words will consistently fail us when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit slowly but powerfully emerges, but only in symbols or metaphors because He is not material and therefore not visible. The New Testament’s first referral to the Spirit is when Mary is found “with child through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:18), or in Luke when Gabriel tells Mary how she can become a mother, the mother of the Messiah.

The Spirit as a dove hovers over Jesus at his baptism, a symbol of his calling to bring the good news of salvation to all.

When Nicodemus comes secretly at night to question the new Rabbi, Jesus attempts to describe how a person can be “born again” in the spiritual sense. He refers to the Spirit as “wind”, an unseen but powerful force, only perceivable by its effects.

The Samaritan woman at the well is bold enough to question Jesus as to where God must be worshiped. We too think certain conditions must be met before we worship: there’s a right place to worship, a right person to preach to us, a right congregation to worship with, a right style of liturgy to be observed. If we can find all of these in one place, that’s where we’ll worship. Jesus simply corrects both us and the Samaritan woman with a few words:

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
(John 4:24)

Unfortunately, that leaves us with no more excuses!

Perhaps the most troubling references to the Spirit are made after the Last Supper. Seeking to comfort his disciples, Jesus tells them:

“. . . grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6b-7)

How could Jesus’ absence be better? How could the invisible Spirit comfort the disciples who were losing the visible Christ?

Recall the first stirrings of creation:

The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

In the beginning of our spiritual life (and for much of it throughout), we too are formless and void. In order to become spiritual beings we need to be emptied of all that prevents God from shaping us into his image. The emptying process can be almost unbearable. We don’t even know how to pray! But St. Paul encourages us with words from his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.

We are constantly being emptied, separated from things or persons we love and consider absolutely necessary to our existence: parents, spouses, children, siblings, dearest friends, homes, our life work, and finally from our health and life itself. Such separations leave us destitute, desolate, abandoned. At moments like this we might question God’s love for us.

This reaction is so totally human, and therefore Christ totally understands. He knows that we are incomplete until, ironically, we are emptied – even of his own physical presence. Space must be created in us, making room for the Spirit of God who will accomplish the final act of our divinisation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives is Christ’s crowning achievement for us, since it enables us to transform even an evil world into a place of love and truth.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14: 16-18)

I love the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in “God’s Grandeur.” He traces the beauty of the world as God created it, followed by its near destruction by man’s greed and materialism, but ending in sure hope through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the One who renews the face of the earth.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

Trinity 1

“You are gods . . .”

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John 1:14a

“The Son of God became human so that we might become God.”
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation.

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made human, might make us gods.”
(St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc., 57:1-4)

The feast of the Incarnation coincides with Palm Sunday this year. Because it’s such an important feast, I’ve chosen to explore and celebrate it in this post.

Even as a very young person, the Incarnation struck me as a most alluring miracle. Back then, I didn’t know about the astonishing comments from Saints Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, quoted above. Somehow, for many of us, the truth that Christ first existed as God and then became man, existing in time in a specific place, living and dying as a human being in every way – somehow this half of the truth is much more acceptable than the second half. After all, God can do all things, so becoming a human being is certainly not out of reach. That half of St. Athanasius’ statement is credible.

But the rest of the statement – so that we might become God – may sound as blasphemous to our ears as it was to the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel of John, recently read at a Lenten Mass. (Ch. 10:31-41) In this passage, the danger surrounding Jesus has come to a head as the incredulous crowd takes up rocks to stone him. Jesus says:

“I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’”?

An indisputable line of reasoning which Jesus’ enemies refuse to accept.

Jesus repeatedly referred to God as his Father, to being sent by God, and to being obedient to everything he hears from God. Furthermore, in many passages from the Gospels, he frequently refers to God as our Father. Every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we refer to God as Father. Are we too blasphemous?

We commonly believe that certain qualities that apply to Christ cannot possibly refer to us. Especially divinity. And this is where we come to the second half of Athanasius’ outrageous statement.

I think it’s safe to say that part of Christ’s mission on earth was to teach us how to live as children of God.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) Jesus teaches us how to imitate God the Father, how to take on godlike habits and attitudes. He points out the basic teachings of the law, but then calls his followers to go beyond them. Difficult as those commands are (and have been for millennia already), Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. But it’s impossible for us to go higher on our own until we have received the teaching and example of Christ, along with his strength through the Holy Spirit, i.e. grace.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill”; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

The message and teachings of Christ call us to go beyond what is humanly good in order to achieve what is supernaturally holy – in other words, to become God-like. The second Vatican Council confirmed that we are ALL called to this holiness, which is the same as what Athanasius and Thomas meant by saying we are all called to be gods. The God we are called to imitate, and whose children we are, is the God who has total and infinite love for all humanity – the just as well as the unjust.

The purpose, then, of the Incarnation and why God became man, was to redeem us, to show us what divine love is, to model holiness, and to receive through Christ the ability to partake in his divine nature.

At every Mass we repeat God’s invitation to transformation, to holiness. As the priest mingles the sacramental water and wine, he says, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

If this were an impossible ideal, we would not have had so many urgings from Christ to dare follow him into the imitation of God. In doing so, we are divinized; we become God’s children, and become the face of Christ in this, our life on earth.

The King of Love

I’m not sure where I stand regarding this Feast of Christ the King. Yes, this trait of mine can sometimes be a nuisance, but I need to dig into statements or phrases which, through repetition,  may have lost the full strength of their meaning. I need to test their truth, to be dazzled by the newness of their authenticity.

So what’s challenging about the concept of Christ as king? After all, in the gospel for this Feast, Christ actually refers to himself as a king who separates the sheep from the goats, the charitable from the uncaring.

What causes me to ponder this theme are other contradicting parts of the gospel: Jesus of Nazareth, a man of humble origins (the carpenter’s son!), performs some astounding miracle that so impresses the crowd that they  rush at him to make him king – just like that! No polling or voting on their side, no armed forces on his. For Jesus, king-making has nothing to do with spectacular deeds. Furthermore, he frequently emphasizes the importance of rejecting honors and choosing the last place.

The simple, unaffected man from Galilee has a totally different style. Instead of taking people by force, he issues gentle invitations to a life of inner peace and ease.

Come to me, all you who labor, and I will refresh you. My perfect love for you will lift from you the burden of seeing yourself as unloved. If you come to me, if you come to know me, you’ll realize how lovable you really are by loving me and loving others in me. My way is not to dominate you, to be a fearful tyrant, but to be a comfort to your false sense of worthlessness. And even that invitation will not be forced on you.

Jesus did not want to be associated with empty worldly ambitions, and expressed that early on by resisting Satan while in his desert of preparation. For Jesus, the throne of power came from the God of Love, and the favors to be dispensed were those of Love given, accepted and shared. People were not invited to the feast because of battles won, nor for any splendid inventions or even artistic creations; not for nations founded nor for roads built to connect one conquered people to another; not for taxes imposed, collected by force and used to pay for the luxuries of  higher-ups.

The crown that ultimately was placed on Jesus’ head was one of mockery, meant to shame him. But Jesus couldn’t be shamed because he had already totally surrendered Himself to whatever his Father found necessary. Having already taken the lowest place, he could go no lower. I think he must have even rejoiced to be given that Crown of Thorns. He knew only too well the consequences of ambition and greed: nations at war over which would have the highest place, the most power over people, ownership of immeasurable wealth, buildings and clothing that reflected power and greed.

Christ’s idea of royalty was reserved for the kind, the brave and the caring, even if their lowliness separated them from the haughty and made them the  subject of sneers and mockery.

The kingship of Christ was the last word of greatness: the victory of Love over cruelty and injustice. The hymn expresses it beautifully: The King of Love my shepherd is.

 

Two Saints: a Perfect Blend

September 4 is the feast day of my patron saint, Rosalia. Not too many people in this country have that name and even fewer know her as a saint. Because she was also somewhat connected to the Benedictines, I thought I should tell you something about her.

Sources tell us that Rosalia was born in Sicily of Norman nobility and was perhaps a descendant of Charlemagne. In spite of this aristocratic background, she was drawn to live as a hermit and spent most of her life in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, a short distance from Palermo. Benedictines in a nearby monastery witnessed and admired Rosalia’s life of prayer, solitude and penance. Along with these monastics, many local people climbed the mountain to come close to Rosalia, attracted by her reputation for holiness. Rosalia died in 1160 at the age of 35.

A few hundred years later Palermo was threatened by the plague. Ardent prayers to Rosalia were believed to have spared the city and gave birth to an enduring devotion to the  “Dear Little Saint,” or “La Santuzza,” as she was affectionately called in the dialect.

Bringing Rosalia closer to home, my eldest brother’s birthday falls on her feast day. His age this year: 92! Following the tradition of being named after the paternal grandmother, two of my cousins were also named Rosalie; one of them (my favorite) lived to be 93. It doesn’t hurt to be connected to such longevity!

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, when I became a Benedictine Oblate I chose Mary Magdalene for my second patron. She is known as the Apostle to the Apostles because Jesus commissioned her to tell the other apostles of his Resurrection. We don’t know anything about her apostolic activities after that, though legend has it that she spent time evangelizing in France. Last year, Pope Francis elevated her feast day to the same level as the Twelve.

Rosalia and Magdalene together add up to give me a perfect model for my spiritual life: solitary prayer and spreading the word of Christ. St. Ignatius refers to these combined traits as being a “contemplative in action.” This is such a sound teaching, compared to the divided concept of being either a Martha or a Mary. Quiet prayer inspires us to serve Christ and then it supports us in that service.

Traditions eventually do change. Not too many children today are named “after” anyone in their family or even in the family of saints. I guess the theory is they must make their own glory.

As happens so often with young children, I didn’t care much for my given name. As I recall, the main reason was that the capital “R” was difficult to write in script! The other reason was that it was so “different.” There were not very many children of my ethnicity in my school. Instead, I was surrounded by Mary Pats, Susans, JoAnnes, etc. Back then, I didn’t know anything about La Santuzza, and certainly nothing about Mary Magdalene except for her wrongful association with the Gospel’s women of ill repute.

Once I began to learn more about these wonderful women, I came to appreciate the power of their example. Before I even knew that St. Rosalia had been a hermit, it seems that some of her spiritual genes had been passed on to me in my fascination with the eremitic life. And I deeply loved the passionate devotion of Mary Magdalene as she stood by the cross and later clung to Jesus in her joy and relief at seeing him after the Resurrection.

I often pray to these saints and would be happy to imitate them in their love and devotion to Christ. Through this brief post at the very least, I hope to bring honor to their names.