Saturday, February 15, 2014


"Beautiful" is not one of the first words that people associate with center-city Newark. So I always enjoy showing guests around our monastery and grounds. Our quiet monastery garden is pretty, especially in summer, and the lawn with picnic tables under trees is a pleasant surprise. I often hear people use the word "oasis" as they walk around behind the monastery. The cultivation of a sense of beauty is an important part of the monastic tradition, and so we try to make our environment beautiful: out daily liturgy is celebrated with care (lauds and vespers are always sung), and our church with its decorations is as beautiful as you could want. We have paintings, icons and statues in the hallways. The pictures and carvings that we place around the school emphasize African art because we want our students to experience artistic beauty that feeds not just their souls but their sense of pride in their own heritage.

I just came from lunch. One whole wall of the monastic refectory is made up of windows that open onto the cloister garden. The scene today was gray with fine snowflakes swirling onto the shrubs and plants that have over the past two weeks been transformed into graceful curves and swells that are just vague reminders that there are living things wintering somewhere underneath them. We have nothing much to do with planning that kind of beauty, but I like to stand at one of the windows (sometimes with a brother monk doing the same at another window) and enjoy the beautiful, peaceful majesty of the garden in the snow.

Our lives are filled with beauty around here - yes, in downtown Newark. In fact just last Sunday I encountered a kind of beauty that one does't get to experience so easily out in the suburbs.


I had finished saying the 8:30 bilingual mass at nearby St. Augustine's church for a congregation made up of a lot of Spanish-speaking folks, working poor, a couple of native Africans, and a number of Anglos who come to help the Missionaries of Charity to serve lunch to the poor people who come for a midday meal. There are also about 25 beautiful (there's that word again) children who get picked up in vans by the sisters and come for mass, breakfast and catechism, There are also several street people who are regulars at the mass.

As I was walking across the church to leave, a man in his 30's walked up to me. Holding up a tightly folded dollar bill he asked me "Where's the box? You have a box for this?" Before I answered his question I said to him "Wow! You look really upset. Come on, sit down with me for a second." We sat in a pew. I asked him. "What's your name?" I always ask a persons' name, it seems to go a long way toward putting someone at ease. "Anthony. I've been having a rough time lately. I'm homeless and things are starting to get to me." His voice began to crack and he turned to look at me. "I don't want to talk about it right now, 'cause if I do I'm gonna break down."

I could see he was telling the truth, so I just listened to see if he had more to say, but he really didn't and I wasn't about to ask. So I said, "Well, okay then, Anthony, how about a blessing?" "That'd be great, father, I can use it!" So he sat there and I stood up and extended my hands over his head and prayed out loud for him, asking the Lord to give him strength to carry the cross he'd been given, and also to send him the gift of peace.

He answered "Amen!" and stood up.

Then he repeated his first question: "Is there a box around here? In my parish growing up there was always a box for offerings." I told him that we don't have a poor box in the church, but that he could give it to me and I would be happy to pass his offering on to one of the sisters. His gratitude was written on his face. "Thanks! I appreciate it!" He handed me the folded bill and then he turned and walked away.

As I continued toward the exit I began to marvel at this anxious, homeless person, who had come to church to pray and look for some consolation -- and to give an offering to God. How beautiful!

So many of us keep asking God all the time to give us all sorts of gifts, to make an offering to us as it were. Not Anthony, though; he came here in his turmoil and sadness to offer something to God. As I stepped carefully along the snow-covered sidewalk I thanked God for letting me see yet one more kind of surprising beauty that you can encounter in the inner city. Another proof that God is alive and active in downtown Newark.

I'm blessed to be surrounded by so much beauty.

1 comment:

  1. Father, thank you for this beautiful post. You are a blessing. I am honored to serve at St. Augustine with such a fine and holy priest.

    Deacon Brian