This month is dedicated to the Blessed Mother and fittingly ends with the Feast of the Visitation on May 31. In the gospel for that day we hear, Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39) Recall the context: This Gospel follows the Annunciation, where Mary has just encountered the angel Gabriel, agreed to be the mother of Jesus, and conceived Him in her womb. For a young, unmarried teenager in any era, this is startling, even shocking, news. While most would want to fall to the floor and curl up in the fetal position for a good, long cry, Mary does not.
As I write this, we are still in the throes of winter; so an “arctic” story seems appropriate even though you will be reading this as we approach Lent.
Alfred Lansing authored a book that captivates the imagination of the reader as it tells an almost unbelievable story, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. The story starts in England, where explorer Ernest Shackleton is recruiting a crew to sail with him to the South Pole. By then, fabled British explorer Robert F. Scott had already perished with four of his colleagues in their attempt to be the first to reach it. Such exploration was not for the faint of heart.
As I write, the autumn beauty is at its peak. It seems to anticipate November, the month of All Souls. The colorful leaves reflect the impermanence of life. They remind us of the beauty and fragility of the cycle of life. They must let go and die in order to nourish new life in the spring. I read of a woman who developed a ritual using leaves as a symbol of those who have left us. She gathered a collection of autumn leaves, in different sizes, shapes, and colors. On some, she wrote the names of the deceased who played a role in her life. On others, she drew a simple heart shape for those whom she recalled but whose names she did not know. Others she left blank to symbolize the unknown. Then she created a bunting of the leaves and hung it from a tree where they moved softly in the breeze. She imagined the wind whispering their names and carrying them to the heavens.
As you read this, we’ll be enjoying the transition from the stickiness of summer to the cool breezes and breathtaking colors of autumn. In the more rural areas of the world, autumn is often referred to as harvest time, and Matthew calls God “the Lord of the harvest” (9:35a). I am reminded of a preacher driving by an impressive farm. The fields were beautifully cultivated and abundant with well-cared-for crops. The barn was clean, neat, and freshly painted. A row of fine trees led from the road to the house, where there were shaded lawns and flower beds. It was a gorgeous sight to behold. When the farmer who was working in the field drove near the road, the preacher stopped his car and hailed him, saying, “God sure has blessed you with a beautiful farm.” The farmer stopped, thought a moment, and then replied, “Yes, He has, and I’m grateful. But you should have seen this place when He had it all to Himself.” Metaphorically, each of us is given a plot to work, seeds to sow, and produce to reap. While we celebrate autumn just once a year, we need to experience the spirit of harvest daily. In so doing, we make an abundant return to “the Lord of the harvest.”
Someone once wagered Ernest Hemingway that he could not write a story in six words. The writer won the bet when he came up with: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” There is a literary genre called the six-word memoir, or the six-word story. The premise is to communicate much in a few words. One example is: “Penniless weirdo. Struck lottery. Overnight genius. These short, short stories provide few details, but there is sufficient substance to convey the essential meaning. Could there be a six-word Easter sermon? We could say it prosaically: “Died on Friday; rose on Sunday.” Or more eloquently as the angel did: “He’s not here; he is risen.” Or musically as did Georg Frederic Handel: “O death, where is thy victory?” Actually the Church has been proclaiming a bold, six-word Gospel practically since the beginning. It says in the space of six scant words that the whole world
has been dramatically changed by God’s grace and power. They are six words you know, and I pray you have them etched in your mind, engraved on your heart, and ready on your lips: “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
We’ll soon be embracing the grace-filled season of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Some years ago, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Director of Ministry Formation and Field Education at Benedictine Saint John’s University, introduced me to John Berney Crome’s painting, Great Gale at Yarmouth on Ash Wednesday. The canvas invites us into the Lenten season with a visual story of turbulence featuring clouds and waves converging on the coast. The clouds belie the invisible power of the wind. That wind in turn stirs up the waves tossing the boat and slapping the coastal buildings. The clouds are varied: large white ones as well as dark storm clouds. The central black cloud is especially imposing; it is smeared, in the shape of a cross, much like the sign marked on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Lent calls us to conversion on the journey to Easter. That path is often through rough waters. We are tossed in the waves of our own desires and poor decisions; we are assaulted by our temptations and selfishness.
One richly meaningful Scripture passage
to which I often turn is Romans 8:28: “We
know that all things work for good for
those who love God, who are called according
His purpose.” That profound truth
reminds us that God the Father brought
good out of the worst tragedy of history,
the crucifixion and death of His Son, Our
Lord. Through Christ, the Father continues
to bring amazing good out of deplorable and
disgraceful situations, and we are called to
hold on faithfully to that central truth even
when we cannot see the good. That wisdom
does not mean, of course, that we just let
evil prevail and not do anything to oppose it
when it is in our power to do so; God sometimes
uses us to bring about some good.
However, even when we are called to fight
actively against evil, we must do so within
God’s call, in cooperation with His grace,
and with the love of Christ.
Every now and then, though less often than I would like, a phrase from the readings at Mass touches my heart and then sticks with me. Toward the end of the Easter Season, when Gospel passages were taken from Saint John, we heard Our Lord assert, “’I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now’” (Jn 16:12). Then He adds that when the Holy Spirit comes, “’He will guide you to all truth’” (Jn 16:13). The words “much more” give me encouragement. When my prayer, both private and communal, is dry over long periods of time, it seems that the Lord is not saying anything to me—at least nothing that I can experience as touching me or changing me. I then wonder whether if I am being hard of heart and failing to listen. Perhaps the Lord has given up on me and on the possibility of my further renewal in Christ. (I know that God never gives up on us, but sometimes it certainly seems to be the case when I feel that I have “lost” Him.)…
Perhaps among the least palatable verses of the Rule are those of the sixth and seventh steps of humility. St. Benedict tells us, “The sixth step of humility is that a monk [be] content with the lowest and most menial treatment and [regard] himself as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he is given” (RB 7:49). The seventh step may sound just as degrading; it stipulates that a person be “convinced that he is inferior to all and of less value, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: ‘I am truly a worm, not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people’ (Ps 22:7)” (RB 7:52). How can such statements be reconciled with our Easter faith, which proclaims that we have been redeemed through the…
What impression do people generally have of monks – or other vowed religious? At least for Catholic Christians it is probably that those who profess religious vows are spiritually strong, and there may be some truth to that. In order to profess vows of obedience, stability, and conversatio morum (or the better known vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience), a person must have achieved a certain degree of spiritual maturity and the ability to make sacrifices of lesser things for a higher good – ultimately for God Himself. St. Benedict says in his final chapter of the Rule that those who observe the Rule “can show that we have some degree…
Perseverance is essential to any worthwhile endeavor. Every wholesome undertaking involves trials which tempt us to give up, and only the grace of perseverance will enable us to proceed on the chosen path despite the hardships. In his instructions concerning the reception of novices and the profession of vows (RB 58), St. Benedict says that newcomers must be tested to see if they have a genuine vocation (58: 1-2); a prospective monk must keep “knocking at the door” (58:3) and “[persist] in his request” to enter the novitiate. During that time of formation as a novice, the new monk must show forth “eagerness for … trials” (58:7) and “be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead him…
A paradoxical saying that often comes to my mind, attributed to G.K. Chesterton, is, “Everything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” It stands in sharp contrast with the seemingly opposite adage, “Everything worth doing is worth doing well.” Both are true in their proper contexts. Surely, Chesterton was not saying that we should be careless or slovenly in doing the tasks given to us. On the contrary, we should do our very best. However, even when we exert our maximum effort, the results (if we are honest about them) are still somehow flawed. If we have perfectionistic tendencies (as many people seem to have nowadays), then we rarely…