Category Archives: Chapter Talks (Public)

Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael Casagram – Sept 29, 2019 – Having Leisure Time

+HAVING LEISURE TIME                                      Chapter Talk, 29 Sep. 2019

This morning I would like to talk about the value of leisure time in our lives as monks. I am drawing again from Michael Casey, his book Grace, on the Journey to God.  The wisdom of what Casey shares with us is that leisure is not the opposite of work as is generally supposed but, as practiced in our monastic tradition, it is right in the midst of our work “a time and space of freedom and recuperation, in which the deep self can find fuller expression and, eventually, reach its perfection.”

We are about to move into our busy season of the year with the afternoon pre-packing about to begin and then the Thanksgiving and Christmas shipping. Tt is helpful to realize this extra work is not opposed to a holy leisure and may even serve its very purpose.  As Casey reminds us:

“If I give myself entirely to the task at hand, engaging my skills and putting my heart in what I am doing, it may not matter much what the work is. Whatever it is, I will come away refreshed and happy and the task itself will probably be better done. “

The practice of holy leisure becomes “the natural overflow of a heart that is undivided, that simply lives each moment and performs each task as though nothing else in the world mattered.” I have seen this go on again and again during the shipping season, when our work demands our full attention while underway.  To select the right items listed on the shipping label, to pack them carefully in the right box and have it sealed properly, requires real concentration. To do so becomes when rightly motivated, our way of serving the living God and meeting the needs of the community.

At the same time, as monks we are not to be defined by the work we do, for our life exists “primarily to facilitate the spiritual growth of those” who participate in it. There is always an ongoing discernment that goes on. While we need to work to support ourselves, we have to be careful not to exclude other activities that have as their main purpose the enrichment of the lives of the members. Casey brings to our attention that:

“Insofar as there is the possibility of choice, the range of activities embraced, encouraged, or allowed should grow out of the possibilities present by gifts and talents of each. Such occupations offer the possibility of self-expression and ultimately will be found to be fulfilling and character-forming.”

We advertise our products as made by the monks themselves and this is more than just a clever selling pitch. What our life represents to those who buy from us  is something they honor and value as truly contributing to the improvement of society and the values that will sustain it. I would like to think that our society and those who support us are growing in appreciation of what builds up rather than undermines authentic human growth for the future.

Michael Casey draws on Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, the Basis of Culture that many have probably read. It was a favorite of Fr Flavian who served as abbot of the community after Dom James. Pieper tells us:

“Leisure is a form of silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality. Leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity of steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Leisure has a wonderful way of grounding us in what’s really going on, freeing us from all forms of distraction that would pull us away from dealing with what needs to be done at a given time in our lives. It implies a deep appreciation of silence that is so treasured by our way of life. It is a silence “not only as the absence of outward noise and clamor, but also as an inner stillness that is the hallmark of an undivided heart. “ Anyone who has tried to enter into conversation with someone who is distracted or while you yourself are preoccupied with an aside, knows the value of total presence to one another. Authentic prayer, where we are fully open to the divine presence is dependent on just this kind of inner stillness. It is this that holy leisure cultivates in us.

As is true of anything precious in our lives, leisure is also a very fragile reality to maintain. Casey tells us, and I will end with this quote:

“[Leisure}…needs to be defended; there are too many things that can displace it or so modify it that it loses its particular character. A group that really tries to give its members room to breathe is a blessing. Time and space are, of their very nature, quantifiable and therefore limited. The gift of time is a very precious one: time for oneself, time for one another, time to listen, encourage, and support, time to step back and discern, to assess the quality of actions, time to develop culture and ritual and good liturgy. Space for people to grow, space for different gifts, space for the stranger, space to pass through crises. Leisure is, as Pope John Paul II often insisted, about building a culture of humanization.”

+Experiencia and Our Community – Fr. Michael Casagram- May 12, 2019

(Chapter Talk by Fr. Michael Casagram to the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani):

When we began reading and sharing within community on the Experientia Project it was suggested to me that I might talk about it and our sharing on March 9thduring a Chapter talk. I thought to attempt doing this, this morning.

Early on in our discussion on March 9th it was mentioned that major changes have taken place since the mid-sixties, e.g. changes in our practice of silence, the unification of the Lay brother and choir religious, the praying of the Office in the vernacular, as instances. Generally it was felt that these changes were for the better though some aspects of our observance have been lost. I’ve wondered whether we are at a point where we might discuss in greater depth both the gains and losses of this period as a way of refreshing and deepening our experience of monastic life.

One does not want to idealize the past, for as many of us who lived through it know, it is only what the Holy Spirit is calling us to today that will give lasting vitality to our life. There is no doubt in my own mind that God is calling us as a community to live more authentically our way of life but how to discern this divine invitation demands a lot of soul searching if we are going to be really open to the Holy Spirit and not impose our own limited insights onto others. Back before Vatican II with the Spiritual Directory for Religious and The Book of Usagesour life was highly regulated. So much so, there was very little room left for personal initiative or responsibility. Now we are allowed more time for personal prayer, lectio divina, other reading and manual labor that is of service to the community.

As was said during the dialogue on the Experiencia Project, the monastery is to be “a school of charity, a chance to grow, to serve, to evolve—it is a training ground where we get to discover and appreciate diversity.” Another pointed out that: “In a world of fear and friction, we are a community of love and praise.” One does not have to expose oneself much to daily news, to experience just how polarized our country and world are so that to have an oasis of peace and mutual respect is important not only to members of the community but to the many visitors and retreatants who come here. Many of us have heard from them personally just how much this means to them who spend time with us.

This does not mean our community life is without struggle. Hardly a day passes for any of us without challenge for then we are brought to the limits of our own ability and have to rely more completely on the grace of God. I suspect in fact, that this is why we are here in the first place, that we might come to know the limits of our own resources so that in humility, we may experience the wonder of an all loving God. Initially we may have been attracted to this life as a way of truly seeking God, having experienced the movement of grace in our lives. Gradually we have to know what seeking God really means, for when push comes to shove we learn that only divine initiative can overcome what separates us from union with the Divine. The human heart has an unquenchable thirst for the divine, a yearning that only intensifies as the relationship deepens.  Faith alone, received as an undeserved gift, overcomes the divide.

Another brother said in our dialogue: “I can’t separate my experience of getting to know monastic life and life with my brothers from getting to know myself.” I don’t think it can be said often enough, just how intertwined all three of these aspects of our life are with one another. I suspect this is why St Benedict speaks of cenobites as being the strongest kind of monks. After all, we are destined to reflect the very Trinitarian of God, the close and fruitful exchange within the three Divine Persons. Should it surprise us then, that we enter into this through our lives with one another and come to know who we truly are in the process of doing so? Our relationships are constantly revealing what the love of God is all about and teach us in a thousand ways how to grow in this love.

Dom Bernardo Bonowitz, drawing on one of the early Cistercians, Baldwin of Forde, tells us of how our community life “leads to an experience of communion with one’s fellow human beings…  Beginning as a lowly communion in fallen human nature, this experience of oneness with others, particularly in the context of a monastic community, comes to flower in a communion of grace and finally in a communion of glory.” Self-knowledge is at the heart of it all, for then we see our own humanity in its continual need of grace through which it reaches its true destiny, realizes its full potential. A growing self-knowledge not only exposes us to but guides us through the degrees of humility that St Benedict elaborates so well in his Rule. It grounds us in the true self that becomes more and more made in the very image and likeness of God. It teaches us, as one member of the community has observed “the wisdom of insecurity” that “leads us to ask for help” both from one another and the divine source of all good.

Much more could be said about the exchange that went on in early March and during our last sharing in groups. The Experiencia Project has a great potential for building us up personally and as a community, and for making our life ever more attractive to those seeking religious commitment.

Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael Casagram 3/31/19 – The Presence of God Through Reading

+THE PRESENCE OF GOD THROUGH READING         Chapter Talk 31 March 2019

This morning I thought to share some reflections on spiritual reading from a book on Discernment by Henri Nouwen that may have value for our lives. We are all dependent on others to help us clarify our path along the spiritual journey into divine life. Spiritual reading or Lectio Divina is one of the chief means we have for exposing ourselves to the wisdom or spiritual insight of others so as to enlighten our own paths.

We use reading in order to acquire knowledge or to master a field but spiritual reading is different. Nouwen tells us of a:

“reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires, a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words.. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people. As we learn to read spiritually about spiritual things, we open our hearts to God’s voice. Discernment requires not only reading with the heart but being willing to put down the book we are reading to just listen to what God is saying to us through its words.”

You may be aware of the fact of how Henri Nouwen came to learn the art of spiritual reading. It was from Fr Louis or Thomas Merton whom he considers “one of the important spiritual pioneers of the last century.” Nowen writes of Merton as one who “also witnessed to me about how to read the people placed in your path, as well as events and signs of the times. God is always speaking to us, but it requires spiritual discernment to hear God’s voice, see what God sees, and read the signs in daily life.”

God is continually drawing near to each of us and to our community amid the daily circumstances of our lives and of our life together. If we are spiritually attentive, if our hearts become interiorly free every day provides the means of becoming spiritually transformed into the living presence of Christ, for our own benefit and for that of all those around us. It is all about seeing deeper into the events that surround us, of opening ourselves to grace under whatever way it seeks to fill our lives.

Like Mary, the mother of God, each one of our lives is to be full of grace, as we too allow Christ to grow and come to maturity in us. Angels may be coming to each of us if we have the faith to recognize the divine visitors and are able to respond to the invitation they may have for us. I know that reading The Story of the Soul, the life of St Therese of Lisieux when I was in minor seminary was transformative in my life as it opened for me the meaning of contemplative life.

How many of us here have been deeply moved by what Jean-Pierre de Caussade called the “sacrament of the present moment.” His book assures us “that God is speaking and revealing his will in every moment of every day, and that we can discern God’s presence and guidance through simple prayers.. when, each moment becomes a sacrament of joy, gratitude, and loving acceptance of the will of God manifest in that moment.”

Thomas Merton was himself profoundly changed by his spiritual reading of the book called The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson. There he learned to experience God for the first time as “pure being, non-contingent and independent of any act of existing.” As Merton wrote in his own words:

“.. I discovered an entirely new concept of God—a concept which showed me at once that the belief of Catholics was by no means the vague and rather superstitious hangover from an unscientific age that I had believed it to be. On the contrary, here was a notion of God that was at the same time deep, precise, simple and accurate and, what is more charged with implications which I could not ever begin to appreciate, but which I could at least dimly estimate, even with my own lack of philosophical training.”

We have been hearing a lot in the Liturgy these days about opening ourselves to the presence and power of the Word of God. We as monks are continually being exposed to the inspired Word in the Divine Office and Eucharist each day. We are in a privileged position but one demanding of us an inner quiet if we are going to hear with our hearts and be moved by the Holy Spirit. Only then does it have its full effect in our lives. One of the early desert fathers tells us: “Just as it is impossible to see your face in troubled water, so also the soul, unless it is clear of alien thoughts, is not able to pray to God in contemplation.

So whether it is our time spent at spiritual reading, at the Liturgy or whatever work we are asked to do, we have many opportunities to experience the presence of a continual and deeply loving God. God’s love for us uses every opportunity to become manifest so that ours may become one with his own.

Chapter Talk – 11/11/18 – Fr. Michael – Developing a Contemplative Consciousness

+DEVELOPING A CONTEMPLATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS     Chapter talk: 11 Nov. 2018

Recently I have been going through a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen called “ God’s Beloved” by a Michael O’Laughlin that came out back in 2004. Many of us are familiar with Nouwen as a spiritual writer who was especially gifted at articulating what goes on in many of our lives. As Robert Ellsberg recently said in his lecture at Bellarmine:

“By the time of his passing, thirty-two years later [after coming to the States from Holland] in 1996, he had become one of the most popular and influential spiritual writers in the world. His popularity was only enhanced by his willingness to share his own struggles and brokenness. He did not present himself as a ‘spiritual master,’ but—like the title of one of his early books—as a ‘wounded healer.’ Those who knew him were aware of how deep his wounds ran.”

In this Henri Nouwen was a lot like Merton who reached so many people through his Seven Story Mountain.Both had a living faith and a sense of their own vulnerability, weakness and sensitivity. As they shared their own experience, what was going on in the lives of countless readers was able to be articulated and understood perhaps, for the first time. There was a “down-to-earthiness” in both of them which takes on more and more meaning for our own time.

O’Laughlin quotes from Merton the following:

“Contemplation is not vision because it sees ‘without  seeing’ and knows ‘without knowing.’ It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing.’ Or better, we know beyond all knowing or ‘unknowing.’

This is an experience that all newcomers to the monastery go through and in fact, what those who are long members of a community may go through again and again, this experience of unknowing. There is always a way in which we want to have some grasp on what is happening in our lives, want, in a way, to make sense of it but this is where real faith can take place. You would think that someone like Henri Nouwen with all his popularity and success as a writer or teacher, would have been satisfied or fulfilled but the opposite was true. We are told that he “was afflicted by an inordinate need for affection and affirmation; he was beset by anxieties about his identity and self-worth; there seemed to be a void within that could not be filled.” This, it is suggested is what led him to make several moves in his life, from one place or project to another. He moved from Holland to America, to Notre Dame and then to Yale, to our monastery of Genesee and then to Latin America, to thinking of becoming an affiliate of Maryknoll, then to Harvard and finally visiting a number of L’Arche communities in France and Canada, he settled down somewhat at one in Canada.

In the midst of all this Nouwen was drawn into a contemplative experience, like that of Merton in many respects but one that was uniquely his own: He writes:

“We are called to be contemplatives, that is see-ers, men and women who are called to see the coming of God.. The Lord’s coming is an ongoing event around us, between us, and within us. To become a contemplative, therefore, means to throw off—or better, to peel off—the blindfolds that prevent us from seeinghis coming in the midst of our own world. Like John the Baptist, Merton constantly points away from himself to the coming One, and invites us to purify our hearts so that we might indeed recognize him as our Lord.. Thomas Merton invites us to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God. He continually unmasks the illusions that we know God and so frees us to see the Lord in always new and surprising ways.” (The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice, pp 196-97)

When Nouwen speaks of Merton inviting us “to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God” there is something unsettling about this but also clarifying and freeing. The danger of any of us is the inclination to try to tie God down or to cling to a certain understanding of God that then puts limits on God’s way of acting in our lives and in the lives of others. Again, it is only when we approach God with faith that we are able to allow God to move freely in our lives. This can be a real challenge and it certainly demands of us a deeper faith or trust if God is to act pervasively in our lives. As they yielded to this mysterious divine presence, there continually opened new horizons in both Merton’s and Nouwen’s lives, horizons that allowed them to accomplish all that they were destined to do.

Any one of us becomes open to these new horizons to the extent that we allow faith, hope and love take hold of us. To do so is to come to realize our full potential. We are all invited to participate in God’s very own life and in doing so our lives are transformed. We allow ourselves to accomplish all that we have been destined to do during our brief sojourn on this earth.

 

Chapter talk by Fr. Michael Casagram 10/14/18 – Our relationship to Christ

+SOME REFLECTIONS ON OUR RELATIONSHIP TO CHRIST      Chapter 14 Oct.’18

When Fr Eugene Hensell was with us this last time and spoke to us about Christ being a Messenger of Divine Wisdom, he mentioned Dom Columba Marmion as also one who communicated this Wisdom within our Benedictine tradition. Having had a respect for Marmion in my own early monastic formation I thought to pick him up again and share some of his reflections with you this morning.

We have most all of Marmion’s writings in our library and I found a small one that was unfamiliar and have spent some time going through it. It is called SPONSA VERBI: The Virgin Consecrated to Christ.  The book was quick to renew my appreciation of Marmion and to provide what I feel to be, worthwhile material to share with you this AM. Most of you are familiar with Marmion from your own reading so no need to give you background other than to say he is an outstanding Benedictine writer from the early part of the last century, dying Jan. 30th in 1923.

His book, SPONSA VERBI or Spouse of the Word draws heavily on the writings of our own St Bernard, especially his conferences on the Canticle of Canticles. It is not easy for us as a male community to speak of ourselves as Spouses of Christ but if one is familiar with the vocabulary of St Bernard, the relationship of the soul to Christ cannot be better expressed if one is going to captivate its true depth. For Dom Marmion:

“The greatest gift made by God to the human creature is that of his supernatural adoption by grace into Jesus Christ the Word incarnate. The sovereign Being, infinite in all perfections who neither depends on or has need of anyone outside Himself, allows His immeasurable love so to flow over and permeate His creatures that they are elevated thereby to a participation of His life and Felicity. This gift exceeds the demands, surpasses the powers of nature, makes man the child of his Heavenly Father, the brother of Christ, the temple of the Holy Ghost.”

What Marmion reminds us from the very start is how this is all about the movement of grace in our lives, its ability to transform our inner selves so that we begin to share intimately in the very life of God. There are levels or participation in this life or stages of growth before one reaches this sort of communion. We may start off as simple servants, following divine commands as well as we know them. Then we can become the friends of God,  experience something that is a mutual caring. From there we can experience ourselves as children of God, “their life is one of honor, obedience and love give to their Father.”

This stage can develop into something more intimate where one’s relationship to God is like that to a Husband where there are no secrets and the soul “shares with him the greatest intimacy of love.” At this point there cannot be a more intimate union. Monks, by reason of their way of life are drawn more and more into this deeper communion with the Divine life. In fact, I believe this is what draws most of us to the monastery, a sense that communion with the Lord is the only thing that will truly satisfy our deepest longing.

Marmion sees this notion of intimacy with the Lord as grounded in the Gospels. He writes:

“It is in the Gospels that the idea is expressed in all its plenitude; there is its real source; there it stands most clearly revealed. The Incarnate Word, unchangeable Truth, does He not give Himself to the spouse in person in front of whom come the virgins destined to form His court? Is it not from His lips that the most prodigious invitation ever fell that could touch the human heart? ‘All things are ready: come ye to the marriage.’”

Then there are those chapters in John’s gospel, namely 13-17 that speak so intimately of the relationship Jesus wants to have with his disciples, an intimacy that He Himself shares with the Father. A little further on Marmion quotes from one of St. Bernard’s sermons on the Canticle of Canticles:

“When you shall see a soul leave all things to adhere to the Word with all her strength, live by Him, all herself to be guided by Him, conceive what she should bring forth by Him; a soul, in short, who can say: for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain, then you can indubitably recognize her for a spouse of the Word.”

Marmion saw clearly that in seeking this communion with the Lord it demands a willingness to leave all things in order to adhere to the Word with all her strength. It is a matter of entering into that unfathomable love of God for us involved in the self-emptying of the eternal Word in taking on our human flesh. It seems to me that this is why the whole mystery of the Incarnation was so dear to the early Cistercians, the way it so effectively manifests the love of God for us. Marmion shows, (and with this I will close) the excellence of our religious state and asks:

“Will not the contemplation of your high dignity inflame your hearts with a generous love for Him, who without your merit has predestined it for you? I shall essay [write], in the first place, to show you how the sacred Humanity of Jesus is espoused to the Word; for it is there that we shall find the best model of the intimate union that the soul contracts with Christ… May the Immaculate Virgin, from whose fruitful virginity was born the King of Kings, aid us in our task.”

Chapter Talk August 12, 2018. Fr. Michael. St. Benedict’s Use of Sacred Scripture

+ST BENEDICT’S USE OF SACRED SCRITPURE Chapter Talk Fr. Michael 12 Aug. 2018

Since Fr Elias has been giving us an ongoing commentary on the Rule of Benedict, I thought to touch on an aspect of the Rule not often addressed but important for our daily lives as monks. This is St Benedict’s use of Sacred Scripture as the basis and foundation for all that he is seeking to convey in his Rule. Benedict is clear from the beginning in his prologue, how he is seeking to arouse the monk from sleep, giving him a lively sense of God’s presence and action in his life. He saw clearly as the commentary RB 1980 puts it “the value for one seeking to live by the Gospel, of a practical compendium, an abridged version, containing those precepts that applied most directly to the organization of monastic life.”(1) The scriptural quotations Benedict uses are not embellishments but are normative for all that he wishes to convey.

The reason for my touching on this aspect of the Rule is a book I have been going through called Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by a Chistopher Hall. He does a wonderful job at showing the freedom with which early authorities in Church had in going about scriptural interpretation. They developed four levels of meaning a scriptural text may have: the literal or historical sense, the allegorical or Christological sense, the tropological or moral sense and finally the anagogical or eschatological sense. These levels are based on how writers like St Paul and the gospel of John had already approached the text. These various interpretations were then developed by Origen, one of the earliest and most learned of all the early fathers. They were further developed with varied emphasis given by the different schools of thought, especially the Alexandrian or Antiochene schools. These were all familiar to John Cassian who was to be such a formative influence in the life and thinking of Benedict.

St Benedict was not at all confined in his use of scripture as we so often are in our day by the great emphasis in most of our own lives, on the historical critical method or approach to scripture. For Benedict, the Word of God was living and active, sharper than any two edged sword. He experienced first hand the way Scripture speaks directly to the reader or hearer of the Word. As was true of so many of our early Cistercian fathers after him, Benedict thought biblically, the inspired Word shaping the very pattern of their thought. I have found this most striking in the thought of St Bernard, to where it is not easy at times to distinguish between his own thinking and that of the scriptural writers themselves.

Benedict is said to have as many as 124 O.T. citations or references and 168 from the
New. This is partly due, no doubt, because of the fact that in those days they did
not have all the reading material available as we do. And when they read
Scripture back then, they often did so out loud so that the text left a more lasting
mark on their minds and memory.

We too are exposed to the living Word of God all day long whether through the
Divine Office, our participation in the Eucharist or in our private reading. We too,
may find it refreshing when a scriptural text suggests itself while we are dealing
with a difficult aspect of daily life, or when a text comes off the page in our
private lectio. Though there have been some real advantages that have
come through the use of the historical critical method of interpreting the
Scriptures, we have lost to some degree the deep sense of their sacredness.

Origin, as was true of many of the Fathers had a wonderful awareness of how all
of Scripture is inspired by God, every word of the sacred texts. Origin, Christopher
Hall tells us, insisted that” Christ, the Word of God, speaks throughout the biblical
narrative recorded in the Bible. His words are not only those ‘which He spoke
when He became man and tabernacled in the flesh; for before that time, Christ,
the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets..’ The words of Moses and of
other prophets ‘were filled with the Spirit of Christ.’” All this is to say that the way
we approach the Scriptures makes a huge difference in what we discover there. If
we are caught in an overly rationalistic or scientific method we will miss the full
depth of their meaning and the many messages they may have for us in our
everyday exposure to them.

What Benedict and the early Fathers loved to do was to ruminate or ponder on
the sacred texts, open themselves to the personal and transforming message they
contain. We can constantly discover new meaning and relevance for our lives if
we let the divine Word come off the page and speak to our hearts. This means, of
course, bringing to them an openness for this kind of personal
experience.

Chapter Talk Fr. Michael June 10, 2018

+UNLESS YOU LET HIM WARM YOU MORE Chapter Talk 10th of June, 2018
Fr. Michael Casagram
After an email exchange with Fr Elias, I thought to continue with a few reflections on Pope Francis’ recent exhortation Gaudete et Exultate. In it Francis has a section called “In Constant Prayer” where he speaks of how “holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration.” I am reminded of Benedict telling us in his Rule that a monk is: “to guard himself at every moment from sins and vices of thought or tongue, of hand or foot, of self-will or bodily desire.” He is to “recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour.”
Pope Francis then quotes from John of the Cross on how we are to “try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything. Always go to God and attach your heart to him.” So much of our life is designed precisely to bring about this continual awareness of the divine presence so that it infiltrates and transforms all that we think, do or say. The danger for any of us all day long, is to take charge of our lives, to take control rather than let grace inform all that we do. Allowing grace to govern our lives does not stand in the way of exercising our freedom which God respects at all times, but enables us to use our freedom in a way that is wonderfully creative, fulfilling our deepest longings.
To develop this openness to grace throughout the day is greatly assisted by having moments alone with God which Pope Francis, quoting Teresa of Avila describes as “nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with him who we know loves us.” We can make prayer a complicated thing and again there is a tendency in us to do this, to develop techniques that work for a time but then, all too easily, becomes routine or habit without inner content and the engagement of our deeper selves. Seeing prayer as friendly intercourse, or heartfelt conversation with God, allows it to become intimate, engaging of the whole of our lives, giving them purpose, full of vitality.
We are daily engaged in the prayer of the Church through the Divine Office but
for these Offices to become fully fruitful in our lives and the whole Body of Christ,
it is so important that we take time for personal and private prayer. In a real way
the one enforces the other, increase the depth of each other. Francis speaks of
how “contemplation of the face of Jesus.. restores our humanity, even when it
has been broken by the troubles of this life or marred by sin.” He then asks us:
“Are there moments when you place yourself quietly in the Lord’s
presence, when you calmly spend time with him, when you bask in his
gaze? Do you let his fire inflame your heart? Unless you let him warm you
more and more with his love and tenderness, you will not catch fire. How
will you then be able to set the hearts of others on fire by your words and
witness? If, gazing on the face of Christ, you feel unable to let yourself be
healed and transformed, then enter into the Lord’s heart, into his wounds,
for that is the abode of divine mercy”
Here Francis is basing himself on a sermon of St Bernard on the Canticle of
Canticles. For Bernard, our hearts come alive and energized is when we immerse
ourselves in the wounds and open side of Christ. “For me,” he writes:
“whatever is lacking in my own resources I appropriate for myself from the
heart of the Lord, which overflows with mercy. And there is no lack of clefts
by which they are poured out. They pierced his hands and his feet, they
gored his side with a lance, and through these fissures I can suck honey
from the rock and oil from the flinty stone—I can taste and see that the
Lord is good.”
A little further on St Bernard goes on to say:
“If the mercies of the Lord are from eternity to eternity, I for my part will
chant the mercies of the Lord forever. But would this be my own
righteousness? ‘Lord, I will be mindful of your righteousness only.’ For that
is also mine, since God has made you my righteousness.”
This is a lot like what Ronald Rolheiser has been telling in the book, Sacred Fire,
recently being read in the refectory, about the value of affective prayer for our
lives. Through it we are able to express our deepest longing and hope from life.
Nothing so much delights the human heart as to love and to be loved. And in the
evening of life as St John of the Cross has so beautifully reminded us, this is all
that will really matters. We have only to take the time, have the nerve to honestly
express what is really going on in our lives given to God

Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael – 3/11/18 – Mary, Pondering in her Heart

+Mary, Pondering in her Heart                                               Chapter Talk 11 March 2018

This morning I would like to touch upon one final aspect of Ronald Rolheiser’s book, Sacred Fire. as a way of entering into these final weeks of Lent. We can find in Mary a paradigm of mature discipleship as one who became a true follower of Jesus through her pondering the mystery of the One to whom she gave birth. Fr Elias spoke last Sunday of “reading that touches the heart, [that] brings us into touch with the history of our heart, that is, all the events, moments, and realizations that have shaped who we are.” Mary, pondering the events in her own life, became not only a hearer of the word but one who kept it, lived it with the whole of her being.

We all too easily think of pondering as simply a matter of thinking something through in all its depth and implications which is something we get from a Greek philosophical point of view. In Hebrew thought, as Rolheiser brings out, to ponder means “to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind, knowing that whatever energies we do not transform we will transmit.” Taken in this sense, Mary’s standing at the foot of the cross where her Son was dying, is the authentic expression of what real pondering brings about. On the surface she seems to be doing nothing. “She does not speak, does not try to stop the crucifixion, and does not even protest its unfairness or plead Jesus’s innocence. She is mute, seemingly passive, overtly not doing anything. But at a deeper level she is doing all that can be done when one is standing under the weight of the cross, she is holding and carrying the tension, standing in strength, refusing to give back in kind, and resisting in a deep way.”

It seems to me that so much of our own way of life like that of Christians giving authentic witness throughout the world, consists in this kind of pondering. By doing so, we transform the tension in our lives and in the world around us so as not to transmit the negative energy of evil we experience. While there are times to protest, to object to injustice and do all we can to stop it, more often than not in our world today, something far more than shouts and protests is needed. This is when we too are asked, to stand at the foot of the cross where we and so many in our world are suffering, so as to absorb its bitterness by refusing to participate in its energy.

As monks, it seems to me, we do this all day long as we stand in choir and allow the full range human feeling expressed in the psalms, to pass through our hearts and from our lips. Our public prayer is that of the whole human family, often giving expression to some of its deepest anguish as well as its joyful praise. A wide variety of human suffering finds expression through these many hours standing in Choir. At times we can begin to think of it as a relentlessly boring ritual but is it not at these very times that we can let ourselves become one with the cry of the rest of humanity. Thus we come to deal with what’s going on within our own hearts in choir, as well as what is being experienced in the wider human family. And isn’t this the wisdom, the beauty of what takes place there that so inspired St. Benedict to remind us that nothing whatsoever should be preferred to it.

This kind of prayerful pondering is the very thing that Jesus allowed to be acted out in his own life. Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world is a metaphor used by the very first Christians for interpreting his death. It is fully consistent with a long history of the Jewish people and their offerings of sacrifice. This is why, as Rolheiser points out, “his followers would, almost spontaneously, ascribe the image of sacrificial lamb to him, and that is the concept of the scapegoat. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is not just any lamb, he is the scapegoat lamb.” It became a symbolic animal, invested with all the tensions and divisions of a community and then was chased off to die in the desert.

Jesus functions like the sacrificial scapegoat, taking away the tensions and sins of the community not by some type of psychological transference or spiritual magic as did the ancient scapegoat. Rather, Rolheiser tells us:

“he takes away the tensions and sins of the community by absorbing them, carrying them, transforming them, and not by giving them back in kind. [For the first Christians] in their understanding, Jesus did this by functioning like a water purifier, a filter of sorts. In looking at his death, they understood this: he took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love, he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness, he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessings, and he took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness… He took away the sins of the world by absorbing them, at great cost to himself.”

As we enter into these final days of Lent and allow ourselves to reflect on Christ’s suffering and death and on Mary’s pondering, more than admiration is asked of us. It is a call to imitation. What took place in their lives is to continue to unfold in our own. God’s redeeming work continues through each of our lives as we live in community and allow the love that filled their lives, to fill our own. Each of us as St Paul reminds us, is invited to fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ so that the whole human family may be healed, realizing the image and likeness of God in which it was first formed.

 

Chapter Talk – 2/4/18 – Fr. Michael – Go Sell Everything…and Come Follow Me

+GO SELL EVERYTHING..AND COME FOLLOW ME          Chapter Talk 35, Feb. 2018

This morning I thought to continue with some reflections that Ronald Rolheiser shares in his book called Sacred Fire. At one point he gets into those words of Jesus to the rich young man, that were so transformative in the life of St Antony the early monk. Jesus tells the young man that he lacks “one thing. If you would receive eternal life, go sell everything that you have, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.”

Rolheiser then uses one of the great desert father stories as a means of interpreting these words of Jesus:

“Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts: now what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not become all flame?’’

One of the things I think many of us have learned over the years is how those entering a monastic community like ours, are highly motivated. We have looked at what the world has to offer, perhaps even looked closely at what other religious communities have to offer and felt neither one nor the other were for us. God leads each one of us here for reasons that often we do not fully understand, reasons that our friends or family have also had a hard time trying to grasp.

It is not that we are any better than those who have chosen another way of life either as a married person, the single life or as an active religious, it’s just that the hiddenness of this life is what attracted us. The caption over the gate near the entrance to our retreathouse, “God Alone,” captures some of the meaning though I am one of those who have felt that my life here is anything but about God Alone, given over as I want it to be, a life given to God out of love for all my brothers and sisters. We recently listened in the refectory to Rolheiser expounding on prayer, especially the public prayer of monks and religious as being the prayer of the whole human family and not at all a matter of private devotion. At the center of our life is the Divine Office where we give expression to the longing of all of humanity and not only of all humanity but of all of creation.

“For Creation awaits with eager expectation.” St Paul tells us, “the revelation of the children of God… We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Sometimes in choir we may feel, or the cantors feel, there is too much groaning going on but we can never really escape the labor that goes on there. When feeling the weight of it, we might simply remember what St Paul has reminded us so long ago, that we are a part of something far larger than our own lives, bringing about a transformation through the presence and working of the Holy Spirit, of a whole new creation whose life will never end.

Roldheiser tells the story of a group of priests he came to know, the leader of whom had become fed up with the mediocrity in his life. He had worked hard at fulfilling his priestly duties but then would go looking for compensations in order to deal with tensions this work was causing him. Gathering a group of priests around him, they decided to become totally transparent with one another. They began meeting on a weekly basis and told themselves:

“We want to be priests whose lives are fully transparent, so that when people see us, what they see is truly what they get! We call ourselves a group for ‘radical sobriety,’ though none of us has ever had a problem with alcohol; but none of us has ever had full sobriety either. Full sobriety is full transparency, and full transparency is full honesty.”

Transparency is never easy for any of us but isn’t this what we are seeking through community life? And isn’t this what will help us all in the Order to move toward the “refounding” of our communities as is talked about these days?  One of the youngest in the group of priests who gathered for this purpose, admitted of finding what they were doing one of the hardest things he ever did in his life. “Not the confession to others, since I trust them, but being thirty-eight years old and trying to live like Mother Teresa. That’s hard.” And then he added: “But it’s also the best thing I have ever done! I have never been this happy.”

We, as a community, have worked toward this kind of transparency though there is always room to grow. It is this transparency that enables us to recognize who we truly are before God, allows us to lift our hands in prayer in such a way that we too in our own time, “become all flame.”