Saturday, December 22, 2012


I first learned the term chiaroscuro in a college Art Appreciation class. My life in the past few days has been very much a chiaroscuro picture, contrasting areas of light and darkness, and the image I’ve been carrying in my head is my favorite Christmas painting, done by a master of chiaroscuro, Georges de La Tour (1593-1652). 

The Adoration of the Shepherds - Georges de La Tour
 More than once I’ve stood and gazed at this masterpiece in the Louvre, admiring how the painter uses his signature effect of making light radiate outward from the painting as if you could turn off the lights and the painting would illuminate the darkened room. I’ve always loved the subtle but definite way this painting depicts Christ as the Light. Over the past few days, however, this picture has taken on a deeper, more personal meaning for me as I’ve experienced the light and the darkness alternating all around me. 

Saint Joseph the Carpenter, La Tour
  First, teaching my sophomores during the final days before Christmas break I became more acutely aware of the horrible heavy burdens that some of them are carrying – burdens that only get heavier during the holidays: a family member abusing drugs, an absent parent, a sense of being lost or without direction. One of my students, whose father died a year ago, has been hanging around my classroom and seeking me out to say hello when I show up in the school cafeteria. When I scowled at him for not being able to finish his whole exam in the time allotted his face clouded over and he looked as if he were about to burst into tears. I asked him, a little too gruffly, “What?” And he blurted out “I’m afraid that I’ve disappointed you.” Ouch! I answered him “Never! You could never disappoint me! Come here!” And I hugged that tall gawky sophomore right there in Room 23 in front of whatever classmates were still around. I suppose that reassuring gesture would get me fired in a lot of places, but it shed a huge ray of light in his darkness. (He finished the test later). Darkness and light.

Second, during these days I’ve met lots of young alumni returning to visit the school looking happy and full of hope. Light.
Le Nouveau-nĂ©,(The Newborn)  La Tour
Third, on Thursday I directed our fortieth annual school Christmas Program of readings, songs, slides, and brass instruments retelling the Christian story from creation through the final coming of Christ on the clouds. This year’s program took place in the shadow of hurricane Sandy (whose devastation is still all too evident in nearby towns) and the funerals of the little children in Connecticut, and in the face of ominous talk about a “fiscal cliff.” As the stage lights shone on the choir and we sang one joyful song after another I sensed that we were shining like a light in the darkness.
 Fourth, in the past few days I’ve seen two different alumni who are now close to being street people. One of them, the brightest student I ever taught, is alternately disappearing into and reappearing out of the dark fog of alcoholism. But both of them keep coming back. Not so much to St. Benedict’s Prep but to “the Abbey” where they find that the light is still shining for them in certain monks, a light that can give them a little bit of hope that maybe there is still a way for them to survive their battles. Light shining in the darkness.

Finally, Friday morning we had our annual Christmas convocation with the students, during which we watched, as always, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Toward the end I had to keep dabbing my eyes with my handkerchief. I thought about the ripple effect of the things we’ve done with and for our students over the years, and how many thousands of good things must have happened as a result. The Director of Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Hospital, the founder and director of a successful drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, a broadcast reporter for NPR (Jon Capehart). How many thousands of people have been touched by them because of what these former students learned from us monks? The light gets reflected, passed on and magnified.

So, this Christmas I’ve become more and more conscious of how much light radiates from our little monastery in the middle of downtown Newark.

May your Christmas be filled with the light of the Newborn Savior, and may you pass that light on to many others!
Palestinian children in Bethlehem lighting up the darkness

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