Saturday, August 12, 2017

CANTICLE OF THE BIRDS

.
True story. Thursday morning at morning prayer, as we were singing the hymn for Lauds, a bird began chirping happily, her voice coming through the open window behind me. As she sat on her branch in the garden, she seemed to be consciously joining her voice to ours, enjoying singing harmony to our baritone voices.


So, this morning, as I sat in church at 5:30 for meditation, I noticed the busy chirping and chattering and trilling going on outside in the garden. I thought I recognized the voice from the other morning. I occurred to me that the birds had been awake for some time now, and were singing Vigils. (Vigils is the first prayer hour of the day, and Matins consecrates the hours of the night, of silence and darkness; it’s a time of prayerful, quiet waiting for the coming of the Lord, who, the Gospels say, will come in the early hours of the night.)



I enjoyed listening to their singing, and began looking forward to having them join the monks for Vigils in half an hour. At the appropriate time, the bells in the church tower sang out, calling the monks to prayer. I’d never noticed how loud the bells are. I tried to hear the birds voices underneath the insistent calling of the bells, and noticed that, one after the other, the voices stopped as the ringing continued. When the tower bells stopped, and the morning quiet returned, the birds had stopped their singing.


Figuring that this was just a temporary pause, I still hoped to hear from them again when we began Vigils ourselves in the monastic choir. No such luck. As we sang, I heard nothing more from the birds’ choir in the garden. I was truly disappointed that we monks had to do this on our own.


It occurred to me that maybe the birds, once they heard the bells for Vigils, decided that they would now hand over the task of praising God to the monks who were filing into church. The birds, I figured, had all gone off in search of breakfast, having finished for the moment their duty of praising the Lord. But then, I thought, birds and monks are not the only creatures called to praise the Lord. All of creation is involved in a constant song of thanks and celebration, from the angels on down. Since I couldn’t hear the birds, I began imagining the trees in the garden praising the Lord by lifting their branches toward heaven; I saw the sun’s rays sifting gently through some open windows as Sister Sun sang her praises; Sister breeze joined us as well, through the same open windows. I couldn’t see the sky, but I sensed that clouds were joining us as well in our work of praising and thanking God. I do wish, though, that the birds had joined in as well. But, to be fair, they had been singing Vigils since four o’clock, and deserved a rest.
   
You might enjoy re-reading Francis of Assisi’s take on this experience of all creation praising the Lord, his “Canticle of the Sun.”


Some of his early verses read:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

ON HOLDING DOORS

.
Last Sunday evening our freshmen arrived to begin their orientation week, during which they learn about how our school works, and what we’re about. They stayed here from Sunday to Friday (yesterday), and slept on the gym floor at night.


One of the things that the new students will pick up eventually is that we hold doors for one another. There’s a lot to this simple gesture; let me start with a little story that shows that I'm not the only one who thinks so.


“THEY HOLD DOORS!’

The owner of the company that prints most of the abbey and school’s brochures and newsletters was showing me around his new facilities. He was especially proud of the mammoth offset printing press that was loudly clacking out a river of printed pages as we stood watching.



When the foreman of that part of the shop came over to greet us, the owner, who had visited our school a month ago, introduced me as a teacher from St. Benedict’s Prep.  Then he immediately added, enthusiastically, “You know what they do in that school? They hold doors for you. It’s amazing!” he was genuinely enthused as he continued, “I visited there last month and these kids would stop and hold the door open for me. I didn’t think kids did that anymore!” The foreman nodded in agreement.


I was pleased to hear that our kids were actually doing what we had been teaching them to do, and also because they had made such a good impression on this visitor.


“AFTER YOU!”


Holding doors is not an automatic reflex, especially for teenagers, who are usually oblivious to their surroundings. But I always take the trouble to call a student’s attention to the fact that he has just let the door slam in my face. Many a time I’ve called a student back, saying, “Hey! Excuse me? Would you please come back in the door and try this again. Thanks. Now, this is how you hold the door for someone behind you.” And, since good example is the best way of teaching, I and the rest of our staff usually make a habit of holding doors for students as well.


I don't contend, mind you, that holding a door for someone is fulfilling some biblical command or anything like that. But there certainly seems to be something important and valuable about the gesture. Why else would this president of a company be so impressed by our kids’ habit? Could there be some deeper message behind such a simple gesture?


There’s no gospel passage that records Jesus’ holding a door for someone and saying, “After you!” But I have no trouble imagining such a scene. He always seems extremely aware of the people around him, like the blind Bartimaeus sitting by the side of the road, or Zacchaeus  perched on a tree branch, or the paralytic lying alone at the edge of the pool of Bethesda.


I don’t want to make too much of a simple act of good manners, but, maybe the gentleman from the printing company sensed that holding a door for someone is an outward sign of an inner reality (which is the definition of a “sacrament,” by the way). When someone who gets to the door before me pulls it open and steps aside and says, “After you,” I sense the world is a slightly better place because of that person’s simple, thoughtful deed, and my faith in the basic decency of people is reinforced a little more.


Picture it: a world in which everyone holds the door  for everyone else!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

THE FIELD, THE TREASURE, AND ME

.
One of the side-effects of living a monastery in the middle of a city is that I have to constantly rethink and re-discover the meaning of the “peace” that St. Benedict wants his monks to pursue. I had occasion last week to think once again about peace, when I spent a few days at St. Vincent Archabbey in rural Pennsylvania.
St. Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, PA


I sat on a bench in front of the abbey church, high on a hill. In the valley below, the early morning mist was lifting from the farm fields; on the far side of the valley, a long, dark, green-blue ridge stretched against the eastern horizon like a great ocean swell that was frozen in place a million years ago. From behind it, the gray sunrise was starting to paint bright pink edges on the clouds, as the birds in the pine trees filled the gentle breeze with their quiet morning songs. The scene could not have been more peaceful.


But I knew from long experience that this wasn't the important kind of peace. Think about it. When Jesus said, “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you,” he could not have been promising them serene, tranquil and stress-free lives, since he knew that they would have to live out his gift of “peace” in the midst of constant difficulties, struggles and persecution. So, whatever Jesus and Benedict meant by peace, he must have meant some interior state that can exist alongside of stress and in spite of conflict.  


Then I happened to notice one of the farm fields in the valley, and remembered the parable that begins “The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field.” A man was walking through that field when he came up the treasure, and out of joy he went and sold everything he had to buy that field. The man had only one concern: to possess that treasure; single mindedly, he gave over everything to concentrate on possessing the treasure. So he had peace, because his life had only one “center.”


There was the secret to inner peace that I can find even in the middle of a crowded city: to have only one single center of my life.  When my life revolves something other than Christ, or even around multiple centers, each one demanding attention, then my inner life becomes hopelessly disordered -- the very opposite of peaceful -- and the confusion in my heart and mind make inner peace impossible. The noisy competition of rival centers in my heart and mind can crowd out the gift of peace that the Lord is offering me.


St. Gregory described this situation with tongue in cheek: “The mind which is disordered by a rabble riot of thoughts suffers, as it were, from overpopulation.” That surely sounds like my situation, at least at times: my mind and my heart get overpopulated by the insistent demands of my false self or my inner two-year old. I lose sight of the fact that there’s really only one thing necessary.  


So, I brought back from Pennsylvania the image of a field, in which are a treasure and a man whose life is about to change completely when he finds the treasure. I practice putting myself in his place, and responding with joy and self-abandon the way he did.

Now I have an image of “peace” that I can bring with me on Monday when I start teaching my Logic course in our Summer Term.   
.
.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

THE CARTWHEEL

.
About a block from home, nearing the end of my daily walk, I notice four kids walking past the monastery, coming in my direction. Even from this distance I can hear Big Sister practicing a loud football cheer, as three year-old Little Sister jumps and hops along beside her. Behind them, teenage Older Brother bops down the street, with four year-old Tiny Brother taking quick little steps to keep up. They all stop at the corner of King Boulevard and Springfield, waiting for the green light, with Big Sister clearly in charge, even as she continues to practice urging on her invisible team a with loud, enthusiastic cheer. When the light changes, they start across King Boulevard.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Older Brother, who is halfway across, throws himself into a stunning cartwheel -- with arms and legs stretched perfectly straight, he is transformed, for two magical seconds, into a shiny spinning bicycle wheel. He finishes the cartwheel, and slips smoothly back into full walking stride, bopping to the other curb next to Tiny Brother, who doesn't seem the least bit surprised at his brother’s unorthodox way of crossing the street.

I burst into the widest smile ever, delighted with the surprise, and marveling at the carefree, spontaneous exuberance of Older Brother. If that’s how I felt when I saw the cartwheel, I can only imagine how God must have felt when he saw it, the Creator who gave him those supple arms and legs, and who filled his soul with dance music.
I imagine God's smiling as "King David and all of Israel" leaped and danced before the Lord in the procession of the Ark of the Covenant; and I imagine that same smile when, as Wisdom was helping  God create the world, she danced before him.
I would like to think that in our day, God must still delight in watching every one of his children as we learn take our first steps, or learn to ride a bike, or learn how to solve algebra equations, or calm a colicky baby.

In the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, we learn that, at the end of time, all of creation will rejoice together, delighting and rejoicing before God’s presence. I can picture us all, people from every age and nation, shouting hymns of adoration, casting down our golden crowns around a sea of glass, bopping to celestial music in our heads, shouting cheers for invisible football teams -- and maybe even busting out into perfect, spontaneous, stunning  cartwheels in the crosswalks of heaven.
Older brother in the crosswalk was just warming up for heaven.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ON ASSIGNMENT

.
ACTING LIKE A CLOUD


Yesterday I received a small package from a woman named Aline, with whom I’ve corresponded once or twice; I’d sent her a copy of one of my books. In the package was a book, the collected poems of Karol Wojtyla. Enclosed was a thank you card, on the back of which she had written:


“Good morning!
I was up at dawn today
As God was doing cloud assignments --
One to go; one to stay!
They followed gracefully.
If only we were willing to respond gracefully,
Wouldn’t our days unfurl
Graciously, reassuringly?


Someone will say that clouds are not persons, they don’t have free will, and so they have no choice but to obey the Cloud-Maker, and so of course the cloud formation was just as God wanted it. But the poet knows that we are not clouds: she says, the clouds “followed gracefully,” but in the next line she says, “If only we were willing to respond gracefully” -- only persons with free will can be “willing” and “respond.”  There’s our glory: clouds can do nothing but follow, while we can make a free, loving choice to respond willingly to the Lord’s request, the Lord’s “assignments.”
 
SPEAKING FOR THE FATHER


The gospel at mass that afternoon, part of the address of Jesus to his apostles as he sent them out on mission, included these verses:

“Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mt. 10:19-20)


All of us are apostles, sent out as part of our Baptismal vocation, to bring the Good News to people around us. And Jesus tells us, “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” That’s a sobering thought: Whenever I speak, it better be the Loving Father speaking through me. Words of insult or vengeance or untruth are surely not what Jesus expects me, his apostle, to be spreading around the world. I have to develop the habit of evaluating my words with the criterion Jesus gives me, “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”


THIRTY OR SIXTY OR A HUNDREDFOLD


The Gospel at mass on Sunday, July 16, tells the parable of the sower and the seeds that yield varying amounts at harvest, “a hundred or sixty or thirty fold (Mt. 13:9). As I meditated on this earlier in the week, I realized, uneasily, that with all the talents the Lord has given me, and all the loving people he has put into my life, and all the times he has protected me from evil, He must certainly be expecting me to produce a hundredfold, rather than just thirty or sixty. My response to that insight was one un-scriptural word: “Yikes!”



AND SO …


When the Lord assigns me something to do, He’s counting on my free, willing response. Often the assignment is the same as the one Jesus gave to his apostles, namely, to ;et the Spirit of the Father speak through me. To paraphrase my friend’s poem,
“If only I were willing to respond gracefully,
Wouldn’t my days unfurl

Graciously, reassuringly?”

Saturday, July 8, 2017

ON DRAWING THE PASCHAL MYSTERY

Okay, so I’m not saying that my mom intended to teach us theology when I was five years old; but listen to this story and make up your own mind.

My brother and sister and I would  ask her to draw something. She’d sit down and we’d gather at the kitchen table and stand close, craning our necks, waiting for the magic to start. Suddenly, countless quick lines would began to pour from her pencil onto the paper, looking at first like threads for a spider web; then they would quickly arrange themselves as if by magic, into a nose, a pair of eyes, a mouth. We would stand mute, entranced. We never tired of watching this almost divine trick: she could create people out of nothing. But that’s not the theology part -- that came next.


After the outline of the sketch was completed, she would go back to fill in the shadows. Her trained artist’s hand would swiftly darken the right areas until, one after another, the parts of the flat, two-dimensional figure would start to come to life: the head became round, the eyes sank into their sockets (I used to stare at them, willing them to blink), the lips became full, the nose stood out from the rounded cheeks. A powerful, warm sense of satisfaction would always flood my soul as I watched how the dark parts made the sketch complete.

Mind you, I was a pretty normal kid. I liked playing catch and riding on swings and playing in dirt and rummaging through my oldest brother’s private stuff, and at the time I didn’t know much about pain and suffering and evil. Yet I knew instinctively that there was something mysterious and beautiful in the way the shadows caused the rest of the drawing to come to life. And each time I watched my mother draw, the lesson sank in a little deeper: the dark parts are the important secret ingredient of reality, they give it a quality if wouldn't otherwise have.

That was decades ago. Sorrows and sins and suffering have drawn plenty of dark lines into my life, and the agony of grief has etched deep shadows against the joy, the love, and the satisfaction that have characterized my life. Part of me is still standing at the kitchen table, marveling at the way the Artist uses mysterious black shadows to shape me into the person He wants me to be.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

GARDEN LADY

.
There’s this woman who sometimes shows up in your life dressed in bermudas and a wide-brimmed straw hat. She’s worth paying attention to.

We decided it was time to redo the cloister garden; so last Monday, a man drove in on a little Bobcat tractor with a mechanical shovel on the front, and scraped off a thick layer of grass and weeds, like a giant peeling an orange. It was hard to watch as the machine rudely uprooted familiar hedges and shrubs, every last one, and as the man and his a helper lifted the Blessed Virgin off of her concrete pedestal in the center and leaned her against a wall. From there she presided mutely over the proceedings as her garden was scratched into a big scar of soil, dusty stones, snips of roots and shards of branches bleaching in the June sun.

Our pet cat surveyed the catastrophe from beneath a wheelbarrow, dismayed that his familiar home had suddenly become a desert of dirt, bordered with remnants of weeds, bits of strangled hedges and wisps of wilted grass. I sympathized with the poor animal.

Next afternoon this lady in bermuda shorts and a wide-brimmed straw hat appeared holding a clipboard; she stood in the center of the new wasteland, slowly surveying it with a practiced eye. Watching through a closed window, I became totally engrossed as she pantomimed to the brother monk in charge of the project, drawing expansive sweeps with her arms, carefully pointing to the exact places where phantom flower beds and planters belonged, and slicing with her clipboard the path of slates that lead to the statue of Mary.

For her, this was not a patch of dirt, but a patch of possibilities and promises. I swear, she could see the new garden already spread at her feet, as real as the dirt she stood on. Which is some trick, when you think about it.

Sometimes you stand in the middle of a messy situation, horrified at the hopeless wreck that the man in the Bobcat has wreaked; you even take some pictures of it for the record, with your cellphone. You keep staring, but all you see is a chaos of clods and yanked-up roots, and piles of worn-down slates torn from pathways. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get to see past that scene, but you stand there and hope. But, ah! Sometimes you’re given the eyes of Faith and Hope, and you glimpse a vague shape, a hint of meaning beneath the dried out soil of the disaster. Slowly your arm sweeps in a vague semicircle that might be a flowerbed, or your clipboard slices a line in the air in front of you, that might be a slate walkway. But, face it, most of the time you hang on, waiting in vain for the lady in the straw hat to come.  


Still, sometimes an act of kindness catches you off guard, or a loving look from someone, or a beautiful sunrise grabs your heart, giving you a quick glimpse of a beautiful garden. Which is quite a trick, when you think about it.

.