Saturday, July 20, 2019

WAY BEYOND WORDS

If you read the preceding post, then maybe you'll forgive me for not having posted anything since then.

Over the past month I've visited the beautiful south of Ireland, and then Hungary and Slovenia. The incredible beauty of each of these places was beyond my powers of description. But I absolutely felt God's presence in the beauty of sunrises in the mountains, the peacefulness of wide rivers, the power of rushing underground streams, and the mysterious silence of sunsets on bays. And that's hardly the beginning.

I once had an editor who allowed me only three exclamation points per book. Well, he'd be disappointed in me if I were to try writing about what I experienced on my three and a half week's journey.

While I won't even try to describe the beauty of the places I visited, I can share some of the things I learned about myself. I learned several spiritual lessons that I'm already aware of, and I'm sure tons of other insights will come along later. But here's a beautiful one. I get along in a few different languages, and so am not used to being totally out of it in a non-English-speaking environment. But Hungary was a humbling place. Their language is not an Indo-European one, which means that I was completely clueless the entire two weeks I was there. This meant that I had to depend entirely on my English-speaking host to interpret every word of what what going on around me. This dependency was a source of a powerful lesson: If I felt so completely dependent on her while I was visiting, that was only a pale hint of my total dependence on God for literally everything, from my heartbeat to my intellect, from my faith to my friendships. Everything. So the experience in Hungary was not so much humbling as it was enlightening in that regard.

Here are a couple of places I found awesomely pretty:

Lake Bled in Slovenia - it's actually prettier than this.

Pannonhalma Abbey, Hungary. concelebrated Sunday mass 

Kylemore Abbey - attended mass with the Benedictine sisters

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland


View from where I stayed for two nights in Slovenia
Fishermen's Bastion overlooking Budapest - had a cup of coffee here

So, I thank the Lord for this incredible experience, and for bringing me home safely. Amen.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

GOD AND NOISE

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Ever been at a wedding reception, seated next to a relative you haven't seen in 25 years, but the DJ's music is blasting so loud that the two of you can't hear one another speak? This describes many of the receptions I've attended recently. I'm not going to complain about it in this post, but would like to use the experience as a background to make more vivid these few lines about ourselves and God, translated from the German poet Rilke:


We would like to hear his words,
but we only half hear them.
The big drama between us
makes too much noise
for us to understand each other.

I see myself reflected in these lines. "The big drama between us" describes pretty well my relationship with the Lord, much of the time at least. God must wonder, "Why does Albert make everything so difficult between us? Why does he have to turn everything into a drama, a contest of wills?"

I can Imagine Jesus shaking his head in exasperation at my foot dragging, my cowardice, my hard-heartedness and whatever else makes it so hard for him to draw closer to me. I picture him shouting in my ear, trying to overcome the constant roar of DJ music that I play in my head -- a rabble riot of random thoughts, worries, plans and memories. Meanwhile Jesus is sitting right beside me. We look at eachother and shrug. No use trying to communicate in the midst of all this noise. He seems more disappointed than I over the fiasco.

Tomorrow I take off for three weeks in Europe. I hope that being surrounded by the natural beauty of southern Ireland and the hills of Hungary will allow Jesus and me to get into some good conversations. I really do hope so./

Please pray for my safe journey, and for my conversation with Jesus.


Friday, June 14, 2019

NEW AND OLD

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WHAT'S NEW? This is Friday night at 7:55. Exactly one week from now I'll be in a plane charging
down the runway, taking off for Ireland. As part of my celebration of 50 years of priesthood, I asked Abbot Melvin if I could take a tour of Ireland. I have Irish on both my mother's and my father's side, but have never been to the Emerald Isle. I'm signed up for a week-long bus tour of southern Ireland, and I admit that I'm starting to get excited about it. After that,while I'm on the other side of the Atlantic, I'm also going to visit friends in Hungary, and stop by the great monastery of Pannonhalma there. I'll hang around with them for two weeks, doing, I hope, not very much except a little touring. I suppose I'll keep you informed of what I'm up to.

WHAT'S OLD?
Br. Asiel, one of our junior monks, has been cleaning stuff out of our monastery's attic. Which is, if course, a thankless task. Well, he brought me a cardboard carton filled with stuff of mine. So, during this past week's retreat (which was wonderful, by the way), I spent time sorting through this stuff that I'd saved from high school and college, and from my early days as a monk in Newark (starting August of 1969).

I sent some good material to the monastery/school archives, where it belongs, and then proceeded to sift through a pile of letters, photos and such. I bade a somber farewell to a whole lot of things that I couldn't manage to let go of forty or fifty years ago. As you can imagine, this exercise brought back all sorts of memories and emotions.  There was a note written to me by a girl I taught in 1973 at St. Vincent's Academy telling me how very important I'd been to her that year in helping her grow up, and another from a girl who claimed that her life would be different (better) because of all the time I spent talking and listening. There were, in fact several reminders of how I'd been was touching people's lives fifty years ago. Combine that with several of the 50th anniversary cards I received several weeks ago from students and parishioners thanking me for being there for them.

So, as I gently placed these notes into the paper recycling box, I made sure that their messages stayed behind with me, along with the faces, the sounds of various laughs and accents, and the tears that people trusted me with. The note paper was old, but the memories written there are very much current events, shaping how I respond to people today. I've been thanking the Lord for the privilege I've been given of being able to touch so many people, most of whom I don't even realize I've touched.

So, that box that seemed full of old faded memories was in fact full of a lot of new gifts from the Lord. The contents have been transferred to my heart -- and Br, Asiel is happy that there's one less box in the attic. I might suggest that If you've got some boxes like that around, why not open one and enjoy what's in it. That's also an act of charity toward whoever winds up cleaning out your attic one day.

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Saturday, June 8, 2019

BEING AT PENTECOST

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Here's a guided meditation that I use with my students when we're studying the Pentecost event. It assumes you know the story of the descent of the Spirit in Luke's gospel. Try reading it slowly and reflectively.

A large group of us disciples are in a large room.
Morning light is filtering in through the closed shutters ast one end,
Noise is filtering in from the street just outside the window...
Children's voices,
a fruit seller calling to advertise his fresh oranges.

The room is dark, except for the dim glow of a single oil lamp in the corner by the door...
you can smell its oily black smoke.
The remains of lunch are still on the table: some scraps of bread and fish and fruit.

We're just sitting here, not knowing what to do.
It's been several days since several of us heard the Lord tell us to go back to Jerusalem and wait for something to happen, then he disappeared from sight.

But that was over a week ago. Have we missed something?
Did he already send us a sign and we missed it? I'm starting to wonder.
I know that some have started drifting away from our group
-- a few familiar faces are no longer in the room.
There are a couple of whispered conversations, some of the voices sound frightened;
We still keep the shutters closed so no one on the street can see in...

What's that sound? It's not coming from the street. How can it be the wind?
I can't feel it on my face.
The others look up -- they must hear it, too. We're looking at one another,
puzzled expressions on every face.

The sound is louder now -- this is getting scary!
We ask ourselves what it could be.
Suddenly it's quiet again. Dead quiet except for the man selling oranges;
I can hear a fly buzzing around.

The room seems to be getting brighter but the shutters are still closed.
I look around and see that each of us seems to be glowing...
no -- it's more like there's a tiny flame above everyone's head;
but I'm too scared to look any closer.
Suddenly I realize that this must be the sign we've been waiting for!

We look around at each other...The flames disappear as quickly as they came.
I ask James,
- What the heck just happened?
- Did you see it?
- Yeah I saw it!
Other voices chime in.
-That was weird. Was I seeing things?
- Are you guys scared?
Peter answers right away ,
- No, just the opposite. I don't feel afraid of anything right now!
Others at,
-Neither do I!
- So why are we hiding in here like a bunch of rats in a hole?
I agree with them, and ask,
- If that's the sign, then what does it mean?
Peter almost shouts,
- It means we've just been changed! We're now messengers! The Lord's message isn't just for us in this room any more. We have to go and spread the news that He has risen, and that he's saved everyone in the world. ... Not just us disciples ... Not just Jews ... Everybody!

Someone throws the shutters wide open and the morning sun floods the room.
The street noises pour in, including the sound of a crowd of people right outside.

Peter says,
- I'm going out there to tell people what just happened to us,l to tell them about the Lord. Anybody else coming?
Peter grabs his cloak and strides toward the locked door.
We all stand up and hurry to catch up with him.

I blow out the oil lamp on the way by.
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Saturday, June 1, 2019

STAGE RAGE

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The past three days the students at St. Benedict's Prep presented the results of their five-week projects. The freshman Backpacking course, required of all freshmen, involved backpacking 53 miles on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. A powerful presentation came from a project that involved two teachers and eight students on a road trip through the deep south to visit places that are significant in the history of the Civil Rights movement.

For me the most powerful presentation, though, was "Stage Rage," a play written and acted by students dealing with personal struggles in their lives -- usually involving their families.

A few years ago, when we were offered a grant that called for an artist and a counselor to collaborate with at risk kids on an arts project. The basic idea was “art as a healing modality.” That was the origin of “Stage Rage.” One of the original offerings in Spring Projects Phase of 1974  was “Children’s Theater,” in which students wrote their own play, designed portable scenery, and traveled to schools in the area to present their production. For this new project, however, Pat Flynn, head of our Drama Department, collaborated with Ivan Lamourt, Director of our Counselling Center at the time, and, following the Children's Theater model, helped the students, who’d been selected from among the kids in therapy, to produce a play based on their experiences. “Stage Rage” is still being produced each spring. It consists of daily theater exercises with Pat to support the the kids’ ability to create a performance piece, as well as group therapy with one or more of our trained counselors.   

Then, in consultation with the counselors, the students discuss what they want to include about themselves, and what they don't. Details are omitted or adjusted, according to the wishes of each student. The students then book performances at local middle schools, and have a discussion with the audience after each performance.

Watching the kids present their play, you realize what these young kids have suffered in their families or neighborhoods or extended families. You cringe at hearing them tell of the kind of abuse whether psychological, physical or, or even in some cases sexual, that has been visited on them.

I'm always in awe at the courage of these kids who are willing take the risk of acting these things out in front of other people -- especially 500 of their teenage peers.

The key to understanding how the actors get the courage to create and act out sometimes painful scenes from their histories is this: They want to reach out to students younger than themselves, and encourage them to get help sooner rather than later. The actors invariably want to book more schools than the five-week time frame will allow, and are frustrated that they don't have more opportunities to discuss the play with the audience afterwards.


The faculty members who travel with the students when they present the play tell me that the kids in the audience will sometimes blurt out: “That's me!” when they hear a certain actor describe his suffering on the stage. That somehow is enough to encourage our courageous kids to open their lives and their hearts.  




Saturday, May 25, 2019

ROADBLOCKS OR GUARDRAILS?

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The first reading assigned for mass today (Saturday) is from the Acts of the Apostles.

They traveled through the Phrygian and Galatian territory
because they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit
from preaching the message in the province of Asia.
When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia,
but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them,
so they crossed through Mysia and came down to Troas.




If you look at a map, you can see a pattern: Paul and Timothy wanted to head back eastward to certain cities in Asia Minor, but "they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia." Ever wonder what that's all about? How did the Spirit "prevent" them?

Then they finally came to Mysia. I say finally because Mysia is about as far west as you can go in Asia Minor -- it's on the sea. But the two missionaries still seem determined to turn back eastward to continue evangelizing Asia Minor: "When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia,
but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them." Foiled again! So, they decide to head northward, following the coast. "So they crossed through Mysia and came down to Troas." Now Troas, too, as you can see on a map, is also on the sea. It's like being in San Francisco, where the next stop is China.

As they stood at the waterfront in Troas, lamenting the fact that their plans for evangelisation were constantly falling apart, and thinking of themselves as inept missionaries, they would have been looking across at Macedonia, Greece -- that's Europe. They retire for the night, wondering what to do next.
Mosaic of Paul's vision at Troas

During the night Paul had a vision.
A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words,
"Come over to Macedonia and help us."

God's plan for their missionary journey had been staring them in the face. For weeks now, circumstances of different sorts had been being nudging and pushing them westward, in the opposite direction from where they wanted to go.

When he had seen the vision,
we sought passage to Macedonia at once, 
concluding that God had called us to proclaim the Good News to them.

They "concluded" that they were to bring the gospel to Europe for the first time. Their conclusion was helped, obviously, by Paul's vision, but it was still a conclusion based on events: They looked at those mysterious setbacks that had kept upsetting their own plans, and recognized how those circumstances had been pushing them westward toward Europe.

Although you and I don't normally receive visions to help us interpret the setbacks in our lives, this passage can encourage us by suggesting that God uses the seeming failures in our lives to move forward the plot of our personal history. Why not pray to Paul and Timothy that we'll be able to see God's mysterious will working itself out in the struggles and failures in our daily lives?







Saturday, May 18, 2019

GIDEON AND US

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A couple of days ago I received the nicest card from a high school classmate. After congratulating my on the fiftieth anniversary of priestly ordination, he wrote "but really even greater is your major contribution to the success of our high school. Nobody back in 1972 gave the school a chance for revival; the amount of work that was involved and the amount of money needed seemed insurmountable problems. But you guys dreamed it and you did it."

Needless to say, his note made me feel very grateful -- to him for having taken the time to write it, and to God for doing the impossible through us.


Early in 1972, the dozen monks who were left in Newark after the closing of St. Benedict's Prep and the departure of more than a dozen fellow monks for another monastery, took a leap of faith: with almost no money and even less idea of exactly what we were getting ourselves into, we issued a press release stating that the Newark Benedictines were planning to open a small school for boys in the buildings that once housed the now defunct St. Benedict's Prep. Thank God, as you know, our dream came true beyond our wildest imaginings. Although to be honest I didn't have any dreams about the future, I was just helping our community to do what we saw was the right thing. 


Coincidentally, I had just been reading the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges. You'll see how appropriate it is. Gideon had been called by God to assemble an army and attack the Midianites:  

Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the troops that were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was north of them, below the hill of Moreh, in the valley. The Lord said to Gideon, "The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, "My own hand has delivered me.' Now therefore proclaim this in the hearing of the troops, "Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.' " Thus Gideon sifted them out; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. Then the Lord said to Gideon, "The troops are still too many; take them down to the water and I will sift them out for you there.” (Judges 7:1-4, RSV Trans.)

Using various tests, the Lord finally whittled the number of soldiers down from the original 30,000 to just 300. Then, satisfied, the Lord told Gideon, “Now you can go into battle because when you win, you’ll have to give me all the credit.” And that’s, of course, what happened.

Gideon and his 300 men
Over the years, that’s turned out to be the way we've operated: a small group, a shrinking group in the monastery, actually, until the last five years or so, going on with the work and trusting the Lord to do for us what he did for Gideon. Fairly often people will compliment me, “You monks, just a dozen of you, have done such a wonderful job there at St. Benedict’s: All these beautiful buildings, graduates going to great colleges, and so on.” I agree that God worked through us, but it wasn't us by ourselves -- clearly that would be impossible, it could never have happened. God has arranged it so that the victory clearly belongs to him!

Let us join our voices to those of Gideon and his soldiers in praising the Lord for his goodness.