Saturday, April 23, 2011




My experience of Easter this year will be richer than usual thanks to the book we’ve been reading at table in the monastery the past few weeks, Thomas A. Mc Cabe’s Miracle on High Street : The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J. As the title indicates, (our street name was changed from High Street to King Boulevard about 30 years ago) it recounts the history of our school, St. Benedict’s Prep, with special emphasis on the events surrounding its closing and subsequent re-opening.

Despite squirming several times as the author quoted extensively from “Father Albert’s journal,” it was gratifying to listen to the retelling of the story of those terrible days during and after the school’s closing in 1972, the scary days of our reopening it a year later against all reason, and the elation that came as the new school, incredibly, began slowly to come to life and even prosper. As I listened to the account I started to hear it as a real Easter story, complete with suffering, death and resurrection. The book reminded me that I had been privileged to participate in a real-life instance of the paschal truth that “through death comes life.” And the story is still unfolding.


This past Wednesday I used the reflection on p.162 of my book Pilgrim Road during my morning meditation period. The chapter recalls my experience of watching a large group of people dance the traditional Catalonian “sardana” in an open square in Perpignan, France. I’d written about how the experience put me in mind of a song, “My Dancing Day” (which I mistakenly referred to as “medieval”).

The familiar song, which first appeared as a Christmas song in 1833, has as its main theme Jesus as the leader of life’s dance. He describes his own life as a series of movements in a dance, and then invites us all to join him. (A couple of verses show an anti-Semitic bias, but the beautiful plot makes it worth the effort to simply ignore or get past the offending lines.) Here are a few verses:


Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at naught,
Judged me to die to lead the dance. Chorus

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love's deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance. Chorus

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance. Chorus


The reflection question in Pilgrim Road reads: “The image of the crucified Jesus leading the dance suggests that his suffering gives meaning to our own pain and affliction, making them part of a mysterious pattern, part of the dance. Think of a time when the crucified Savior has asked you to follow him in the dance by sharing his pain and suffering” (Pilgrim Road, p.162).

As I read this I immediately thought of Walking in Valleys of Darkness, my book that was just published this February, in which I recount five episodes in my life when the Lord had indeed asked me to join “the dance” through sharing his pain and suffering. The question at the end of the meditation proved to be a provocative one: “What was your response to his invitation to join in the dance of his suffering?” This led me to a series of strange and wonderful images mingling the dance with the various chapters in my book that detail some very hard times. Here are a few:

DANCING ON CRUTCHES. For eleven weeks I hobbled through the dance on crutches, learning a lot about how some folks continue to dance despite disabilities of all kinds.

DANCING IN THE DARK. I danced holding hands with my brother monks in a circle in during the process of re-opening St. Benedict’s; we went on in the pitch dark, tentatively making up the steps as we went along and trying not to worry too much about how the dance would turn out.

GETTING PULLED INTO THE DANCE. When my brother Bob died I was so weighed down by grief that I staggered and fell trying to dance – in fact, for a little while I just sat down and sulked instead of dancing. But lots of friends pulled me up and coaxed me back into the circle.

DANCING IN THE DARK – REPRISE. In the fifth chapter of Walking in Valleys of Darkness I link arms and dance in solidarity with the thousands of professed religious who, like me and my brother monks, are living in ever-shrinking communities, sharing the uncertainty and looking for God’s will for us in our radically changed circumstances. We have to make up new steps as we go, while all the time dancing in the dark. That has a familiar feel to it.


On Good Friday I was wondering what all of my clumsy and unsatisfying attempts at dancing have to do with Easter. Then I came across a phrase in Out of the Depths, Bernhard Anderson’s 1970 book about the psalms. Toward the end of his chapter on the so-called “psalms of lament,” Anderson writes “Laments are praises in the time of God’s absence, or, stated differently, in the time when his presence is hidden” (p.72).

Hmm... “when God’s presence is hidden.” Yes! That little expression gave me a new way of looking at the dance.

There are times, of course, when God’s presence is so easy to see that it practically overwhelms us. For example, after the beautiful bittersweet service on Good Friday, as I was walking out of the packed church I stopped to smile at a two-month-old infant. The mother read my thoughts and without a word handed me the baby to hold. It seemed to weigh almost nothing as I held it in my arms against the pleats of my black ceremonial choir robe. The infant seemed to enjoy all the activity and, and smiled back at all the faces passing by. After the heavy somberness of the Good Friday service the contrast of this innocent smiling infant made God feel very present at that moment, and I easily pictured myself in Jesus’ dance wearing my choir robe and holding that tiny infant.

But what about those times when I’m grieving or frightened or in pain? God just doesn’t seem to be involved in the dance at all, and Easter seems like a pious fairy tale. That’s when it’s hard to keep dancing.


I’m starting to realize this year that Easter is a much more subtle event than I once thought. Surely it’s about shouts of joy and celebrating Christ’s victory over suffering and death. But the issue is this: how do we, who are living in the time in between the first Easter and the final coming of Christ, how do we experience Easter while “we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?”

Our experience of Easter must of necessity be limited in its scope; we cannot while on earth experience the fullness of the Easter mystery. My fellow Benedictine, Fr. Demetrius of St. Vincent Archabbey, explains it this way:

In God's loving plan, the victory was never meant to take place here, much as we would like that to happen. Thus we must endure the painful twinges that are inevitable for those who are on a journey. Legitimate but provisional attachments must give way to permit the only attachment that will never need to be broken -- our attachment to the Father in Jesus and the Spirit. We will know then that this world, though a wonderful place to visit, was never meant to be our real home. The Spirit helps us to understand this as he creates in us a kind of homesickness -- an aching void -- that can never be filled with anything less than God. -- Demetrius Dumm, O.S..B. A Mystical Portrait of Jesus, (Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2001) pp. 64-65


So this is the way I see the dance right now: We’re all holding hands in this immense sardana circle. At any given moment many of us are filled with joy at God’s many gifts0 as we dance, rejoicing in the beauties of nature and the works of artists, in our own love of family and friends, or in the awareness of being loved by God. But many of us are also dancing while weighed down by grief, worried about financial problems or our children, or burdened with physical pain or any of the countless dozens of other dreary difficulties that life usually involves. But here’s the message of the Paschal Mystery: Dancing with us all the time, usually unseen and unnoticed, is the wounded, suffering, crucified and risen Jesus who once promised us “I will be with you always, even to the end of time.”

Tonight at the Easter Vigil we will follow the lighted paschal candle in a processional “dance” into the darkened church and proclaim “Light of Christ!” May the Easter Vigil celebration with its songs and scriptures, its gestures and its candles, its incense and its bells encourage us and strengthen our faith so that we may continue to dance as best we can and help our brothers and sisters to do so as well.

Easter celebrates Christ’s winning the final victory for us, the victory that insures that one day we will all be able to join in the Easter Sardana in heaven, in one big circle with the rest of humanity, each of us dancing in our own unique way the steps of the “general dance.” At that time Jesus will no longer be our invisible partner but the ever-present and visible Lord, the Lord of the Easter Dance.



  1. Fr. Albert-As a student of yours during that troubled final year, it took awhile to hash out what "went wrong." You and your brethren did a good job of camouflaging what was happening behind the doors of the Abbey. I finished reading McCabe's book and found it wonderful, especially the similarities to the contemplation of moving the Hive in the past. Ironically, I found the Benedict's rejuvenation in your writing in Pilgrim Road for Holy Saturday. I am sure that if you, Abbott Melvin and your fellows fled St. Benedict's and Newark Abbey in 1973 with the others as the monks of St. Martin's did in 1783, 520 High Street would have become another dilapidated and abandon building in Newark. Imagine the ghosts of the lives of the many who you have helped and who have helped you searching in vain for their future. Today, those lives are filled with promise, hope, and the spirit of goodness and Godliness because you believed in your mission.
    You are to humble a man to realize, the monks of Newark Abbey have been the invisible partner that have helped so many rise to be a giving and loving part of humanity. When I attended class at Benedict's, I was happy to be part of a tradition. Now I am proud to be part of giving hope to others.

  2. Thanks for your kind and loving comments. Recently I've started to realize more and more just how wonderfully the Lord has changed our mourning into dancing over the years. I'm glad that you see it too!