Saturday, January 20, 2018

150 Years of St Benedict's



This past week was an important one for us here at the abbey. On Monday, I received my copy of a 168-page commemorative picture book entitled Ever Dear: 150 years at St. Benedict’s Prep. The book certainly lives up to its title, taking the reader on a whirlwind ride though the history of the school, with the help of photos and text. That provided a good framework for the next two events.

On Wednesday a young man, J.P. Lodato, began his period of postulancy in preparation for starting novitiate at Newark Abbey (date to be determined). This brings to five the number of men in various stages of formation (i.e. not yet in solemn vows). No one could have predicted this three years ago, when we numbered twelve members.

Then on Friday we officially began the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding in 1868 of St. Benedict’s, marking the occasion with a special assembly of the entire St. Benedict’s family. For the first time ever, our family included children from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Just seeing all those kids together was a thrill in itself, but then, as part of the prayer service, we sang, and sang, and sang, loudly and proudly, “our” songs, composed years ago by Rev. Peter Winstead while he was coming to morning convocation here to lead us in song. Rev. Winstead is deceased, but we still sing his songs -- louder than ever, it seems to me! Also present at the “convocation” were plenty of alumni, especially men who had served in student leadership positions as students. Also very much present were the deceased monks, teachers and alumni of St. Benedict's Prep whose prayers and inspiration help keep us going. You can watch the entire program on the school's web site, but I suggest you skip to about 20 minutes into it, when the singing starts. The fixed camera is located above and behind the five-hundred students of the Prep and Middle Divisions, but you can still hear their singing.

An appropriate ending to the week came after the morning assembly when I overheard an alumnus from the 1990’s say to Fr. Edwin, “You saved my life.” Lots of educators know that as  teachers they  change young people’s lives, but around here we also get to hear, now and then, an alumnus tell us “You saved my life.”

Those words were the perfect ending to an already great week.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

LIVING A DREAM

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St.Benedict’s Prep, founded in 1868, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. We’re planning all sorts of special events to mark the occasion, one of which is a play that recounts the history of the school in a series of brief vignettes.

Twice this past week I attended after-school meetings with the student actors and Miss Pat Flynn our drama director, to look at the first version of the play, written by students in two different drama classes over the past year or two. The plan is to start with this script and work it into something that fits the personalities of the present cast.

As we read through the script I got choked up a few times, especially during the scenes about the closing of the school in 1972, and hearing voices from the past repeating what they said back then (many of the lines are direct quotations from the original people as cited in books about the school).
I came close to tears listening to a kid read prophetic lines from a speech given by the then abbot, Martin J. Burne, challenging the school community at a centennial banquet in 1968 to begin to respond to the racial and socio-economic changes taking place “at our doorstep.” Within four years the school suspended operations, and Abbot Martin’s dream seemed dead.

Our Family vs. their team.  Note Medals
As the read-through went on, I relived all the emotions of grief and anger, fear and confusion as the monastic community split apart both ideologically (over whether we could or should respond to the challenge posed by the growing presence of African-Americans applying to the school) and then physically (when a dozen members transferred to another community).
For me, the play is about the Easter theme: the death and resurrection of St. Benedict’s,


But for the student authors, the theme is that since its beginning, the school has been a place where students of differing ethnic groups come through the front door and forget those differences and become one family. At first the Germans and the Irish formed the family, strange partners at the time, since they came from two ethnic groups that had plenty of mutual animosity. But, once inside the building, they all became simply “Benedict’s men,” giving their parents, I suppose, an important lesson in breaking down walls of prejudice. Then came the Italians, then the Poles, and a wide variety of others.

Students from various s**t hole countries
As a student here in the late 1950’s, I took it for granted that my classmates were Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Irish, English, and so on. We were all brothers. Period.
Missing at the time, of course, were African-Americans and Latinos -- they would come later, as the population of Newark continued to evolve. In response to the changing population of Newark, the school itself had to undergo changes that rocked its foundations, but somehow, through the grace of God, St. Benedict’s come through the period of revolution or evolution with its former ideals intact: Black kids and White and Latinos walked through the same front door, and were transformed into a family of “Benedict’s men.” Today, on the 150th anniversary, the family includes Muslims and Buddhist, kids who speak Arabic, others who speak a couple of African dialects, and a good handful who speak Haitian Creole.

After the read-through on Thursday, I walked back to my room in the monastery feeling proud and grateful that God has blessed us with such a diverse family in St. Benedict’s. Then I turned on the radio to listen to the news. That’s when heard the quotation from our President, crudely slurring the countries of Africa, Haiti and Latin America, as if targeting on purpose the homelands of so many of our family members here at school.
I prefer our dream to his.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

THE GIFT OF THE MAGI

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A NEW PERSPECTIVE

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m reading a book entitled The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, by Richard Rohr. I’m taking my time, trying to digest the ideas and their implications. Rohr presents a whole different way of looking at the mystery of the Trinity, a different perspective on the Father, the Sound and the Holy Spirit at work in the world and in me. Every couple of pages I highlight a sentence and say to myself, “Ah! That makes so much sense!” I highly recommend the book. There’s a website you might like to visit.


EPIPHANY GIFT

This morning I began reflecting on the readings for tomorrow’s solemnity of the Epiphany using some of the ideas in Rohr’s book. One of the points he makes is that when we start from the point of Trinitarian theology, we find a great foundation for interfaith dialogue and friendship. Intelligent dialogue with other religions is much easier when we are not using Jesus as our only “trump card.”

Up to now, we’ve generally used Jesus in a competitive way instead of a cosmic way, and thus others hear our belief at a tribal “Come join us -- or else” level. A far cry from the Universal Christ of Colossians “who reconciles all things to himself in heaven and on earth.” In short, we made Jesus Christ into an exclusive savior instead of the totally inclusive savior he was meant to be. ….

Once Christians learn to honor the Cosmic Christ as a larger ontological identity than the historical Jesus, then Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and spiritual-but-not-religious people have no reason to be afraid of us. They can easily recognize that our take on such an Incarnation includes and honors all of creation, and themselves, too.

This passage from page 210 of the book assumes the premises set out in the first 200 pages, of course, but maybe you can see that it was a perfect prelude to reading the story of the visit of “magi from the east” who came to worship the infant king of the Jews. From one point of view you’d have to say that they are intruders, pagans, who are out of place in the middle of this story of how Christ came to earth to save us Christians. Fortunately they return home right away, so we don’t have to think about how they fit into the plot. But from the perspective of Trinitarian theology, which includes the notion of a “cosmic Christ,” it makes perfect sense that people from all around the world would be attracted to the incarnate One “who reconciles all things to himself in heaven and on earth.”    

I enjoyed reflecting on the Epiphany story from this different perspective. The wise men from the east were welcome guests who had as much right as any human being to seek, find, and honor their newborn Savior.   


The magi seemed to bring with them this morning not just the three famous gifts, but also a challenge for all us Christians to see Christ not as the exclusive savior sent for us Christians, but as God’s gift to the entire universe and all those who dwell in it.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

ANNA'S EXAMPLE

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The gospel readings at mass for Dec. 29 and 30 tell the story of the infant Jesus’ being presented in the temple by his parents. The main actor is the holy Simeon, who takes the baby in his arms and prophecies to Mary and Joseph (Lk 2:20-35).


Then Luke following his practice of matching a male character with a female one, even if the female character doesn’t add much to the story, introduces Anna:

There was a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:236 ff)

It seems to me that Anna’s role is different from Simeon’s: While he addresses only Mary and Joseph, she goes further, and “spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

As I was reading this morning, I came across a little note I’d written to myself in the margin next to the verses about Anna: “How do I speak about Christ to people who are awaiting salvation, who are waiting for Him to come?” I’d left the question unanswered, but there it was, demanding an answer this morning.

How do I speak about Christ to people who are awaiting salvation, who are waiting for Him to come?”  

Do my actions toward others offer them hope that God really does care about them and watches over them?

Does my example of  patience, or confident trust in God, speak to people who are looking for Christ to come into their lives?

Does my way of carrying myself speak to others of the boundless love of God for everyone and everything in God’s creation?

Anna’s speaking of Christ to everyone within earshot is a good basis for a new year's resolution: To be sure that my actions every day make it easier for people to believe that God loves them. I have a new class of students starting next Wednesday; I hope I can be Anna for them.

Have a Blessed New Year!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

CHRISTMAS IN PERSPECTIVE

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This year when we set up the manger scene in the church we relocated it from just inside the front entrance, where you could easily touch the figures, to the other side of the sanctuary, where it is visible by everyone in the church, but considerably farther away. The first reasons for the move were practical ones (e.g. it saves a couple of hours of setup time). But I find that placing the infant in the manger at a little distance also has another effect.


Sitting in the nave for 8:45 mass this morning, I noticed that the nativity set was about 20 yards in front of me, off to the left, leaving this “empty” space between me and the empty manger. This distance was, it seemed to me, a good counterbalance to our usual way of thinking of the nativity. I think that many of us, in reflecting on the mystery of Christ’s birth, concentrate on the romanticized scene of the cute infant lying on the clean straw and wearing a shiny white tunic. The deep mystery of the incarnation gets reduced to a cuddly object of pleasant meditation, associated with gentle carols and memories of childhood holidays.  


At my 5:30 meditation earlier this morning I decided to read Luke’s familiar account of the birth of Jesus not in English but in the language in which he first wrote it -- Greek. I was betting that, although I know the meaning of the Greek words, they wouldn’t evoke the warm feelings (what the linguists call “affective connotations) that they do in the English translation.

I was right. In Greek, “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” was not a picturesque and familiar episode of a nice, sanitized story, but a stark account of a child’s being born in unsanitary squalor, without even a proper place to sleep. A pretty unpromising start to the story of the Savior of the world! I’m fairly sure that this is the way that Luke intended for us to read it: Jesus came to identify with the poor and oppressed, and so chose to be born in poverty, among unpleasant animal smells, with no real place to lay his head.


As I reflected on the unemotional Greek text, it was easy to recall that the story of Bethlehem is connected with all the other “mysteries” of the “Christ event”, including his miracle- working, his preaching, his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. We tend, naturally, to neglect these interconnections and concentrate instead on one mystery at a time, separating each from the entirety of the Mystery. The liturgical celebrations that seem to concentrate on just one event at a time always use the orations and readings to place that particular mystery in the larger context of the entire Christ event.


So, having the nativity scene a little less accessible this year can be a thought-provoking and, I hope, unsettling lesson for us who worship in St. Mary’s church this Christmas. “Jesus isn’t in the familiar place, where I’m used to finding him!” Maybe this is an invitation to look for him coming to earth in some new and different places in your life. “Baby Jesus is no longer close enough for me to look into his eyes and touch his hand!” Maybe this new distance can remind you that the birth of the Word made flesh is, after all, a deep and incomprehensible event.

The twenty yards of distance between you and the manger leaves room for the other mysteries of Christ’s life, such as his passion and death and resurrection. In fact, I have to go to a funeral two days after Christmas. Thanks to the new location of the manger scene, maybe the contrast with the birth of the Savior won’t seem as jarring.

All of that being said, let us rejoice and be glad, for Christ is Born for us! Come, let us adore him!
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A BLESSED CHRISTMAS!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

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In his chapter on “The Keeping of Lent,” Benedict says “The life of a monk ought always to be a little Lent.” In the past week I've been reflecting on the idea that “the life of a Christian ought always to be a little Advent.”


Advent is not a time of sitting around in a state of passive waiting while singing “Come Lord Jesus!” That would not be a state of hope, but an invitation to boredom. Blaise Pascal once complained that the problem with Christians is that they spend all their time waiting for something.

The fact is, however, that we humans seem to be “Advent people” by our very nature. Eric Hoffer once observed that, while one can imagine a perfect butterfly or a perfect pine tree, one can’t imagine a perfect human being: We are by our nature perpetually unfinished, always striving toward completion but never achieving it.

This is our uniquely human characteristic. It is this perpetual unfinishedness, this constant longing, that gives us our thirst for knowledge, our curiosity about the world, our impulse to create, to climb mountain peaks. We have this innate feeling that there’s always more to do, to learn, to accomplish.

Some humans try to satisfy this built-in longing with created things: a bigger house, more popularity, a larger bank account. But these always leave us unsatisfied -- perpetually unfinished.


Our faith gives to this state of constant longing a religious dimension, its true meaning: This is our Advent condition -- constantly longing for fulfilment, but also preparing for the Lord’s coming, and making room for Him in our lives.

Early this week when I attended the funeral of my 79-year-old cousin, Peggy. Left a widow at a young age, she raised four children, providing them with a good home and a good education. I knew this part of her story. But I was surprised when I learned, by listening to her fellow parishioners and then to her pastor in his homily, that there was a whole other side of Peggy that I really didn't know about. It seems that she was deeply involved in several parish activities and associations, offering her time and effort and talents to help anyone she could. The more I heard, the more I marveled at how much good she did with her charity.

I don’t imagine that she thought of her life as “a little Advent,” but that’s what it was. As a widow, she must have known a lot about that human feeling of longing and incompleteness and unfinishedness, but her response was to spend her life as an Advent, a time of fruitful waiting. Instead of spending her life trying to fill up her perpetual unfinishedness with the pursuit of earthly things that don’t last, she spent it in loving her family, and in doing good for the poor and needy, and serving her church.

When she died during the first week of Advent, her period of longing was over, and her unfinishedness disappeared in a blaze of glory. St. Paul advises us not to try too hard to imagine what God has in store for those who love the Lord, but whatever that may be, Peggy got to spend the last weeks of Advent in heaven.

I thank her for teaching me and so many others, that “the life of a Christian ought always to be a little Advent.”


Saturday, December 9, 2017

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS

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This week has been a swirl of endings and beginnings, some of them little and others momentous, although it’s not always easy to tell one from the other.

ENDINGS. Wednesday I finally emailed to Liturgical Press the manuscript of a possible book Easter meditations -- definitely felt like an ending. That night my cousin Peggy in Pittsburgh passed away; she had been very sick in recent weeks; another ending. The readings at mass this past week have been referring to the “end time,” when Christ will come again; that qualifies as an ending, right.




Annunciation - Rosetti
BEGINNINGS. Of course, the First Week of Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. Then, on Thursday night postulant Mark Dilone began his year-long novitiate period -- a beginning that’s a great sign of hope for our monastery. The next day, the gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was Luke’s account of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel greets the maiden Mary with strange news: God is on the move again, but this time the Word is to become flesh and will dwell among us as one of us; that’s more than new, it’s unheard-of.  


TWO FACES. Most philosophers have realized that beginnings are also endings. The Romans had this god called Janus, the god of doorways and thresholds. His image often appeared above the lintels of Roman houses: a head with two faces looking in exactly opposite directions. Janus didn’t have to decide if he was blessing a going or a coming, a beginning or an ending on any specific occasion.




The Israelites' faith had a similar insight: God is the God of history, and the darkest of times always gave way to new and brighter realities, and things that looked like endings usually turned out be beginnings of something new that God has planned.

PASCHAL PARADOX

The pairing of endings and beginnings is brought to a climax in the Christian faith in the paschal mystery: What appears to be the end of Jesus's life (his death and burial) marks the beginning of something not just new, but immeasurably better, a transformed, immortal life in which all of us will eventually share.


So, as I drive out to Pittsburgh for the funeral, I’ll have lots to think about. During this season when we chant "O Come, O come, Emmanuel," we're also praying for the coming of the One who conquers death itself, and who assures us that Peggy's death is also the beginning of her life in the presence of God, who is Love -- boundless, perfect Love.