Thursday, March 13, 2014

Burying the Fat

Each year I usually get some little booklet for Lent that has daily reflections.  There were some 'freebies' sitting out in our mail room so I grabbed one with reflections by Fr. Thomas Connery.  

There was an interesting tidbit of information in the reflection for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday which said, In medieval times monks would give up butter, lard and fat for Lent.  They had an Ash Wednesday ceremony called "Burying the Fat," in which they put butter in a casket, held a funeral service and actually buried the casket  They took it quite seriously.  They felt it was their way of sharing in the sufferings of Christ.

I tried to imagine my community doing this...

There we are standing around an open coffin...Sr. Rita, our prioress, tosses in the Crisco while we sing an appropriate funeral song...

Next, Sr. Jane, subprioress, tosses in the butter and margerine sticks...we sing something somber...

There is debate as to whether the canola and olive oil should go is 'heatlhy' after all.  But's Lent!  "It all has to go!!!!" roars our prioress.  

We slam the coffin lid down and carry it out back where we drop it into the earth and each toss in a shovelful of dirt to cover it up.  For good measure we stand on the top of the 'grave' and stamp the dirt down with our feet.

While I may poke a little fun at my ancestors in the monastic timeline,  it does give me food for thought...or fat for thought.   There are other things I could be serious about burying.

Even discerning a life choice such as whether to enter a religious community will entail burying a few things.  

I would suggest tossing in these two things:  

 1.  The desire to make a decision only after you are 100% sure.  (This one can really slow you down or in fact paralyze you).  I've come to realize that God lets us live with a whole lot of ambiguity in these matters.   I think it is a matter of strengthening our faith.  As much as we might not like to stumble around in the dark, it is those times when we have to exercise the most faith and trust in God.  

2.  The desire to find the perfect community.   The reality is that there are no perfect communities.   And if there were, as soon as you would enter it, it wouldn't be perfect anymore (unless you are willing to claim that you are perfect).   The women and men in religious life are human with their own weaknesses.  God wants us to live with each other with all our annoyances and disagreements in order to teach us to really learn to love each other and practice self-giving and humility.   God does not promise us rose gardens in our communities.  

There are a host of other things that may need to be buried at some time.  But I suspect God is even willing to help us do the shoveling if we just ask...


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Has the Pope written yet?

I had just arrived in my office this morning when my phone rang.  Our own Sr. Maria Victoria was on the line, "The letter I was expecting finally arrived.  If you want to see it swing by the portress desk."  I had no idea what she was talking about but was curious and so I trotted 15 yards down the hall to our front entrance.  

A little back ground information needed:  Sr. Maria Victoria was born in Argentina and made Final Profession on January 18 of this year.  

Sr. Maria Victoria reads her Profession Vows

"The pope finally wrote back,"  she said as I approached her desk.  She gave me an envelope with the return address of the Aspostolic Nunciature in Washington DC.  Inside was a blue rosary case with the papal seal containing a pearl white rosary and a picture of Pope Francis signed "Francesco."  Alas, there was no actual letter in the envelope.
And, the signature was printed, not written, on the card.

She grinned as she related how after Cardinal Bergoglio was elected she had sent a congratulatory card to him at the Vatican.  "I told him I was from HIS city in Argentina and we were praying for him because that is what our community does."  She also had sent him a birthday card last month with an invitation to her Final Profession.    And just yesterday Maria Victoria's younger sister had written to her asking cheekily, "Has the pope written back yet?"

Our Sr. Cathleen Marie got wind of the fact that Sr. Maria Victoria was trying to contact the pope and decided in December to e-mail Pope Francis himself, but alas the e-mail returned to her.  

So she e-mailed L'Osservatore Romano (the Vatican newspaper) asking them to tell Pope Francis about Sr. Maria Victoria with the suggestion that he call her.   (With periodic news reports that Pope Francis has called someone out of the blue, maybe it's not so far fetched.)

So, at least someone somewhere in the halls of the Vatican forwarded these requests to the Apostolic Nuncio office in Washington DC where they dutifully sent a rosary and a card.  

Heck, it's better than nothing. I hear a phone ringing?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

At the Gate of the Year

Happy 2014!  To begin this new year I would like to share one of my favorite poems: 

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown."

And he replied,
"Go into the darkness and put your hand 
into the hand of God
that shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!"

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God

Trod gladly into the night
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.

So heart be still!
What need our human life to know
If God hath comprehension?

In all the dizzy strife of things
Both high and low,
God hideth his intention.

Minnie Louise Harkins 1875-1957

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mt. Carmel meets Monte Cassino

 In listening to the vocation stories of my sisters here in community, I have found that several of them considered Carmelite life before settling on our own Benedictine community.  I was also among that group.  My discernment ‘road’ wound through visits to two Carmelite monasteries in Maryland where I was living and working at the time. 

 Pretty much every Catholic who grew up in a devout home was exposed to the Little Flower at some point because of her reputation for being a powerful intercessor in heaven.  I found an old yellowed, dog-eared copy of The Story of a Soul  (St. Therese’s autobiography) in a box of books that had been sitting in the ‘junk’ room of our farm house when I was in high school and was intrigued enough to read through it.  Because of that exposure, when I found myself discerning a contemplative religious vocation, it was natural to think of Carmelites first.  (I had not even heard of St. Benedict at that time)   Considering there is a Benedictine Convent in a city close to where I grew up and that I was born in a Benedictine-run hospital, I must have not been paying attention when I was younger!

So, I visited a place called Port Tobacco, MD.  I had a lovely drive through the countryside of southern Maryland to get to what was the first Carmelite community established in the U.S.   I drove up to a structure that had a WALL stretching as far as I could see.  I went into the little house that had a sign “Guests” and entered a small room without a door but with a ‘round thing’ jutting out of the wall.  There was a door bell to ring, so I did, and a voice from the other side of the wall said, “Praise be to Jesus” and asked me what I wanted.  I told the voice I was there to visit with Sr. so-and-so.  Then the ‘round thing’ jutting out of the wall began to turn.  “Take this key and let yourself into the the visitor’s parlor next door” the voice called out.  Sure enough, there was a key there lying in the ‘round thing’ which I now know is called ‘The TURN.’  I thought to myself, “this is a little spooky...if I just got in my car and left right now, they would never know who I was...”   

But I didn’t...

I bravely went next door, let myself in to the visitor’s parlor and sat down in a room divided in half by a ‘grille’ consisting of a wall about waist high with widely spaced bars on top of the wall going up to the ceiling.  I was soon joined by 2 brown-clad Carmelite nuns.  I had a delightful conversation with both of them that afternoon as they explained what their community was like and I told them a little about myself.  They gave me a video to bring home that was a documentary on their life style and showed what their place beyond the WALL looked like.  So I drove home, watched it, was fascinated and attracted by what I saw......but never went back to continue discernment with them.  

I guess it just wasn’t my call...

I still continue to appreciate the works of St. Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross and other Carmelite writings.  They do feed my contemplative soul.

Fast-forward to the year 2013.  We had been in contact with a Carmelite community in Jefferson City, MO over the years because they were in the altar bread production business to support themselves just as we are.   In the past few years their community had dwindled down to just three members and it was clear that they could not continue to live in their now too-big monastery.  Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the idea was put forth that perhaps they could somehow share in our life up here in Clyde, MO.  The more we prayed and discerned, the more it just seemed like the right thing to do.  

We greet the arriving Carmelite sisters at
the front entrance to our monastery

So we were pleased to welcome into our midst on December 2nd, three Carmelites from southern Missouri who have turned one of our guest houses into the newly re-located Carmel of the Sacred Heart and St. Joseph.   

Hugs were given all around as the Carmelites stepped out of their vehicle.

There is no intention to become  Benedilites or Carmedictines...

But we do look forward to sharing our distinct contemplative lifestyles and traditions in order to make this corner of northwest Missouri even more of a power house of prayer!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thankful for the healing power of faith

The end of November has once again rolled around and Thanksgiving is looming upon us.  I try and take stock of what I am thankful for each time this holiday rolls around.   Of course there are the standards:

my faith...

my community, family and friends...

my health...

This year I am especially thankful for the young adult Catholics I have met the past year.  I had the opportunity to spend time at Mizzou (slang for the University of Missouri) for a busy student retreat the first week of this month.  The students who participate in this retreat are in love with their Catholic faith and wanting to go ever deeper into prayer and living with God's presence in their lives.   It gives me hope that 'all is not doom and gloom' for the future of our church or our world.  

Some of these splendid young adults also happen to be related to me!  I have already mentioned my niece Sarah in an earlier post this year who spent 2 months volunteering at our monastery this past summer.  My niece Kelly, a senior pharmacy student at Creighton University, loves adventure and loves to trot the globe.  She is currently in Uganda doing a 6 week pharmacy internship.  

She writes a great blog about her adventures and I want to share this post in particular she wrote about being thankful for the healing power of faith:

I've been in college for eight years now studying to become a pharmacist, but throughout all of those years and endless hours of study, I've honestly never felt like anything more than a student. The concept of graduating and being a doctor seemed absurd to me.

But for the past month in Uganda, people assume I’m a doctor. They bring their sick children to me, and plead with me to help their beloved grandparents, husbands, wives, friends, and children. And I've done the best I can.

It’s truly humbling to have people place such hope in you, especially when you know your own limitations and frailties and doubts and humanness. But it’s a powerful thing as well. It’s made me fight to be a better doctor, wanting to answer their faith with medicines that I know can offer them real hope in life and in health.

I've seen patients recover. I've had patients return to the pharmacy to see me and to shake my hand with tear-filled eyes because they were healed. I've seen patients in the hospitals rebound from terrible infections, waiting with a smile the next morning when I see them on rounds.

But I can honestly say that I don’t know if their recovery has much to do with me. Here in Uganda medicines, facilities, diagnostic tests, bandages, means for operations and even physicians are all lacking. I’ve seen patient wards where three tiny children share a hospital bed because there is no space to hold them all. The disparity between the healthcare I have seen in the US and here in Uganda is tragic, and to be honest, numbing.

Such disparity should quite honestly be a death-sentence – and result in a hopeless situation for many of the people here. But the miraculous thing is that it’s not. Despite what they're lacking, I believe that these patients largely recover because of what they have in abundance, faith. The doctors and nurses pray together before starting rounds. Many of the patients have rosaries clasped in their hands. People walk miles in the rain to attend church services where they sit shoulder-to-shoulder on hard wooden benches for twice the length of time as the same prayer service in the United States, lengthened by a genuine joy and desire in their praise and in singing.

The people I’ve met here have faith that extends far beyond the fleeting realms of mortality. When the limited accessibility to healthcare means that hope for healing in a traditional sense is lost, they cling to hope in an eternity greater than this life, free from the burdens of their heavy labors and travails.

As I was rounding with a doctor on a pediatric ward today, I realized that in my time here I've not only become a student of pharmacy, but a student of faith and hope. The ward I was in was pierced with the desperate, heart-wrenching cries of sick and sometimes even dying little children. Their mothers held them, fed them if they would eat, and waited. They didn’t demand answers from the doctors. They didn’t pace nervously around the room. They just sat with their babies in their arms and faith in their hearts. I tried to hide my own heart full of panic and desperation, and replace it with a calm and persevering faith to match theirs.

This week I’ve learned that the resiliency of the human spirit carried by faith is absolutely miraculous. And today, I’m thankful for that lesson. I’m thankful for the healing power of faith. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

All Saints

November always brings with it the solemnity of All Saints on the very first day.  We Catholics are privileged to recognize the ''Communion of Saints."    We have a wonderful custom at First Vespers of All Saints of gathering in our relic chapel and then singing the Litany of the Saints before we process into our main chapel for Vespers.   Our relic chapel contains over 550 relics and is one of the largest collections in the U.S.   It is an ideal place to begin our celebration; in the actual presence of the saints!
interior of relic chapel

Our chapels are also a stopping off point for the local "tourist industry."  With a local population numbering at 82 in the nearest town of Clyde, there aren't a lot of 'tourist' type activities except for ourselves and nearby Conception Abbey.   There isn't even a good coffee shop within 20 miles!

I gave a tour to a class of 8th graders just last week.  As you enter our relic chapel your eyes are drawn to a glass covered altar at the far end of the chapel in which you can see a clothed body reposing.   Now inevitably, the first question these kids always ask in a bit of a whisper is -"Is that a real body back there?"
St. Beatrice the Martyr

It certainly isn't something one sees every day!  "If you aren't afraid to look," I tell them, "you can actually see the bones of the hands through her gloves and the bones of the feet through her slippers."  This either brings a look of fear or excitement.   St. Beatrice is a martyr from the catacombs near Rome and is thought to have been about 13 years old when she was martyred in the early centuries of the church.

Being in a room full of relics of so many holy men and women really gives one pause.   Some of these saints were willing to spill their blood for the faith such as St. Beatrice.   None of us know for sure what we would do if faced with the situation of giving our life for our faith.

St. Therese relics
One of the more popular saints for our visitors is St. Therese of Lisieux.   She is also my confirmation saint so I have a great respect for this cloistered Carmelite.

I have no doubt the saints would have just described themselves as ordinary people like you and me...not doing anything extraordinary...just living their lives as best they could with the help of the grace of God.

...that is really our call, heroic circumstances required...just continued faithfulness day after day in good times and bad...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Westward Ho!

I had the wonderful experience of traveling to the Pacific Northwest the first week in October to attend a Benedictine vocation director's meeting.  It was held at Queen of Angels Monastery in Mt. Angel, Oregon which is in the lovely Willamette Valley - the destination of wagon trains back in the 1840's and 50's.  I had never been to Oregon or Washington so I was glad to have the opportunity to see this magnificent part of our country.

Our congregation is a 'sister' monastery to the Benedictine women at Mt. Angel.  Five sisters arrived in Maryville, Missouri from Maria Rickenbach, Switzerland back in 1874 to start a new foundation.  In 1876, a few more sisters arrived from Switzerland to help the new foundation. Sr. Bernardine Wachter was in this group and in 1882, left for Oregon to start a new foundation that would become the current Queen of Angels Monastery.   It seems the fledgling foundation in Missouri had a lot of women with differing opinions on how the community should live out its Benedictine charism in America which eventually led to a foundation in South Dakota and Arkansas as well as Oregon.  God used all things to spread the Benedictine charism in the U.S.!

They have this lovely redwood sequoia smack dab in the front of their monastery.  According to the story, a sister back in 1893 found a little sapling next to some nearby railroad tracks and planted it there not knowing what kind of tree it was.  

Of course one lesson from this is - be careful what kind of 'seeds' you plant.  Another is - take delight in the surprises God gives us when we plant 'seeds' in reckless abandon.  If they are meant to be, they will take root.  If not, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

I was also able to spend a few vacation days up at Mt. Hood after our meeting.  I was warned it rains a lot in Oregon and therefore was prepared with the proper jacket, boots, etc.  I was hoping God would take pity on me, though, and dispense the clouds enough to let me see the actual summit of Mt. Hood since I had travelled all the way to Oregon...I've seen it in calendar pictures after all.  And besides, God knows I love mountains!   Well Day 1 was this... 

Day 2 was rain in copious amounts...

However, Day 3 was this!!!!! least part of the time.

It became this before long...yes, the summit IS right there just above that snowy ridge. 

It's not unlike getting glimpses of the 'summit' in our spiritual life or discernment journey.  Is it not wonderful when the clouds part and THERE IT IS?!  God seems so near, so close, so beautiful.  And then, the ceiling lowers, visibility is reduced to 10 ft and nothing is familiar.  

However, all that rain in Oregon molds the beauty that is there, even if you only get glimpses of it now and then.  I mean, how many times have you seen ferns growing up the side of a tree?  Unless a lot of rain falls, that isn't going to happen.   I think it is God's gift to us when He lets us see the goal, the summit of our life in Him.  But we can't stay there, the beauty is too overwhelming in this life.  So I will be content to slog around on the forest floor until the next great 'lifting.'  There is plenty of beauty to see here...