28 February 2006

One Last Alleluia

In a time-honored monastic custom we will "ring out" one last Alleluia tonight after Evening Prayer. It will be the last one we sing until the Easter Vigil. There is something very significant about abstaining from certain rituals during the holy season of Lent. We "fast" -- in a sense -- from the Alleluia and the Gloria; we refrain from decorating the chapel or choir with flowers. Our senses are deprived of familiar and comfortable signs of celebration and consolation.

Our Lenten journey is a symbol of our Christian pilgrimage. Much like St. Peter's statement in today's Gospel, we are called to leave behind many things if we are to follow Christ. Like the rituals that we leave behind during Lent, however, all that we give up to follow the Lord is given back to us. The Alleluias are sung again, the flowers, decorations, festive music, etc., are given to us again and again during the Octave of Easter: a week of Easter Sundays. And so it is with all that we leave behind when we follow Christ; it is returned to us in ways we could never have imagined -- in this life and in the life to come.

As we bid farewell to the comforts of Ordinary Time and begin this most sacred of seasons, let us ask the Lord for the grace to lay aside all that separates us from Him. May all we undertake or offer up be pleasing in His sight and may its fruit be the charity with which we treat our neighbors.

"These forty days symbolize the life of the Christian, of each one of us. If we do not struggle we shall not be victorious . . . . And let us not entertain the vain hope of being saints in three months! Let us also shun both spiritual avarice and the ambition which occasions so much disorder in our hearts. May God be blessed. Amen."
St. Francis de Sales

26 February 2006

The Desert

In some ways it is very fitting that on the last Sunday before Lent we hear the prophet Hosea talk about the desert: "Lo, I will lead her into the desert and there will I speak to her heart." The desert is a symbol of privation -- a lack of water and shade, a lack of comfort and company.

The Lord's "speaking to our hearts" is not limited to when we are in a desert -- spiritually deprived of consolations. For the Lord speaks to us constantly. It is, however, often easier for the Lord to get our attention when we are in the desert; there is less to distract us from His word.

In several of his sermons from Lent, St. Francis de Sales encourages us to fast from all things which could lead us away from God, not merely food: frivolous things which we look at and listen to, useless things we speak and think. And, as with all acts of penance, he cautions us that the end of all these "fastings" should be a greater charity in our daily life. So, we approach this Holy Season of Lent, let us embrace the desert -- in whatever form it shall take for us this Lent -- and let us welcome the Lord's word into our hearts.

"Long and immoderate fastings displease me greatly . . . . We are greatly exposed to temptation both when our body is too much pampered and when it is too much weakened. One makes it insolent with ease and the other, desperate with affliction. . . . Lack of moderation in fasting renders the best years of many unprofitable in the service of Charity."
St. Francis de Sales

24 February 2006

Complaint Department

Perhaps one of the more tempting vices is that of complaining. One of the reasons it is so tempting is because it very often goes unchallenged. We don't usually complain to those who are unsympathetic; we normally seek out someone who will agree with our sentiments. St. James, in today's first reading, challenges us to resist this temptation. Easier said than done.

When we resist an opportunity to complain, we practice the virtue of patience. We may, however, speak candidly and simply of a difficulty without the risk of complaining. Sometimes it is necessary to make known our needs in a given situation. In this case, it is not complaining if it is done in a spirit of simplicity.

St. Francis de Sales speaks eloquently about the temptation to complain. His words reveal a keen understanding of the human condition:

"Do not complain . . . but above all, do not make your complaints to those who are easily excited to anger and ready to think ill of others. If it is necessary to complain at all, either for redress, or in order to relieve your own mind, let it be to some one of a peaceable disposition who truly loves God; for others, instead of soothing you, will only excite you still more: instead of extracting the thorn from your foot, they will but drive it in the deeper."

22 February 2006

St. Peter's Chair (and his toes)

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. We honor him to whom the Lord entrusted the power to loose and to bind. The picture to the left is the foot of his statue in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. For centuries, pilgrims have passed the statue and rubbed his right foot, praying for mercy when they approach him at the pearly gates. It may seem odd to celebrate a "chair" but a thoughtful look at St. Peter would give us reason to be filled with hope.

St. Peter was a fisherman by trade. He was among the first disciples called by the Lord. He was trusted by the Lord and he was named the "rock" on which the Church is built. His track record in the Gospels, however, is a little spotty: he got the message that Jesus is the Messiah, but he did not get the message about Jesus being a suffering Messiah. He wanted to defend Jesus and protect him from suffering but, as the Lord predicted, he denied him the night he was arrested. St. Peter's humanity is tangible and encouraging.

St. Peter is a great sign of hope for all of us. The Lord called him; the Lord knew him -- his strengths as well as his weaknesses -- and the Lord used him for great things. The Lord knows each of us. He knows us better than we know ourselves. And he will use us for his own good purpose if we let him. He calls us despite our weaknesses and shortcomings and he gives us the grace we need to persevere -- if we ask.

The "foot" of St. Peter (toes worn away by the hands of pilgrims) is a beautiful symbol of this hope. Rubbing his foot reminds us that it was Peter--in yet another moment of not understanding the Lord's message--who did not want the Lord to wash his feet. And for centuries, pilgrims have touched the symbolic foot of this intrepid disciple--as much as sign of hope as of devotion. As we celebrate this Feast today, let us pray for greater unity in the Church and for an abundance of blessings for the successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI.

20 February 2006

Devotion and Discussion

The writings of St. Francis de Sales are timeless in that they are as applicable to daily life in the 21st century as they were in the 17th century. They are also "ageless" in that they are as applicable to college life as they are to life in the world of business and life in the monastery.

This semester, some students from George Washington University's Catholic Newman Center are visiting us on Sunday evenings for Evening Prayer and a discussion of St. Francis de Sales' book, The Introduction to the Devout Life. (Perhaps we could name the informal group, "Colonials for Devotion.") Click here for a virtual visit to the GWU Newman Center. Last night's topic of discussion was "friendship and relationships." This is an excerpt from our readings last night:

"...it is needful for those who are in the world, and seek after virtue, to bind themselves together in a holy and sacred friendship, by means of which they encourage, stimulate, and forward one another in doing good. . . . True friendship is always pure, courteous, and loving, and only changes to a yet more perfect and holy union, which is a lively representation of that blessed love which we shall enjoy in heaven."
St. Francis de Sales

18 February 2006

Lethal Weapon

During a trial, when an attorney asks a witness a question that is later stricken from the record it cannot be stricken from the minds of the jurors. In most cases, this is done deliberately. The attorney knows that he is asking a question which will be deleted from the official record, but he knows that the judge cannot "strike it" from the minds and hearts of the jurors. This is true of our own speech as well. When we have spoken unkindly of someone, we cannot ask our hearers to "unhear" our careless words. We can replace something that was stolen; we can fix something that was broken; we cannot take back words that have been said.

St. James, in today's first reading, has some strong words of caution about how we speak. Our tongues can be lethal weapons, "tiny sparks that set forest fires ablaze," if we do not use them charitably. The power of speech is as mighty as the proverbial pen (to say nothing of the sword!) Perhaps a good "litmus" test for our speech would be to ask ourselves if we would say the same words about a person if the person about whom we are speaking were in our midst. In some cases we might indeed say the same words, but we might say them more gently or more kindly. And when we find ourselves listening to unkind words about others, it is helpful to communicate, at the very least, a lack of interest and -- better yet -- a gentle disapproval. Folks around us will be less likely to speak uncharitably of others if they know that we dislike hearing it.

"Above all, let us carefully keep silence on occasions that mortify us. Let us be charitable and humble, both in our thoughts and words."

St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

16 February 2006

Earthly Jewels and Heavenly Riches

Today's first reading from the letter of St. James is an uncomfortable reminder to most of us who are inclined to "size up" a person during a first encounter. A person's external appearance -- the rings to which St. James refers -- the way he speaks, walks, etc., can tell the observer many things. We might be tempted to speculate about a person's education, family background, work experience, etc. For some people, these "judgments" come naturally, quickly and often uninvited. Arthur Conan Doyle's famous character, Sherlock Holmes, is the epitome of such swift and, in his case, accurate judgments.

The Lord would invite us not to nurture such judgments. At times it is necessary to use observable facts to make a judgment or a decision: when hiring an employee, choosing a new roommate, and the like. For most of us, however, our day to day encounters with our neighbors do not find us in a decision making capacity. We are challenged to look beyond a person's external appearance and comportment and to receive our neighbor as warmly as we would receive Christ. When we receive our neighbor with an open heart we are much more likely to think about and speak about our neighbor in a kindly manner and in doing so, we might just change the world, one kind thought at a time.

"Rash judgment engenders anxiety, contempt of our neighbor, self-complacency, and a hundred other most pernicious effects. Among these, slander, the true bane of society holds the first place. . . . He that could deliver the world from slander would free it from a great share of its sins and iniquity."
St. Francis de Sales

14 February 2006

New Olympic Event: Prayer

The Olympics, established in the 8th or 9th century B.C., began as a festival to honor Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Greek men gathered and competed in various sporting events for two reasons: to give honor and glory to their city-state and to give honor and glory to Zeus. (Women, by the way, were allowed to own horses and earn victories in equestrian events.) This year, Winter Olympiad XX revives an old dimension of the Olympic Games: giving honor and glory to God.

Zenit news agency reported on Sunday 12 February, that Fr. Gheller, a Salesian priest from Turin, along with representatives from several movements in the Church -- CL and Folkalare, to name two -- have arranged for Eucharistic adoration to take place in three Churches during the winter Olympic games. They have designed an inviting program for athletes, volunteers, and spectators alike. The project, called Cor ad Cor, Fr. Gheller explains is from the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales and Bl. John Henry Newman: the heart of God speaking to the heart of man.

Click here to read about the project it in English. Click here to read about it in Italian. Click here to visit Zenit news agency.

In a sermon on the mystery of the Visitation in 1618, St. Francis de Sales encouraged our sisters to cultivate a deep devotion to the Eucharist:

"How you should be overwhelmed with joy when you are visited by this Divine Savior in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar and by the interior graces you receive daily from His Divine Majesty through the many inspirations and words which he speaks to your hearts."

13 February 2006

Snow Day

Monastery Myth: Only students enjoy snowdays.

Fact: Teachers (and that includes sisters) enjoy snowdays, too. (They even pray for them once in a while!) Here are a few shots of two of our number enjoying the wonders of snow.

Sister Anne Francis enjoys her first snowfall.
Nicholas the guard dog has learned that chasing a snowball is not the same thing as chasing a tennis ball!
Sister and Nick take a moment's break from exploring the snow.

12 February 2006

The Leper Who Asked

"If you will it, you can heal me" (Mk 1:40). The leper's words to Jesus in today's Gospel are very striking. Surely if the leper were able to cure himself he would not have approached Jesus. How tempting it is for us, sometimes, to fall victim of our own independence. It is easy to ask the Lord only for what seems humanly impossible: a cure, a miracle, etc.

he more we can do technologically and scientifically the less, it might seem, that we "need" God. Recently, we received a gardening catalogue and in it there was an advertisement for a "plant cloning kit." The consumer could purchase a kit in which a carrot is cloned from the tissue of another carrot. No seed to plant, to seedling to water and no sprout to feed. The process by which nature produces and reproduces can be avoided, bypassed and, in the minds of many, "improved." In an age where we can clone carrots, sheep, cats and (gasp) humans, it might seem that Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe has been replaced. Not exactly. He has been replaced to a certain degree, but only in the minds and hearts of those who view human advancement as an ultimate good.

The leper in today's Gospel asked for something which seemed humanly impossible. Most of us do not suffer from an incurable and ostracizing skin disease, but we meet small challenges in our daily lives. It can be a grand temptation to think that we do not need the Lord's help in the little quotidian activities of our lives. To ask for the Lord's help in our daily undertakings is to offer to Him the work that we do. Our prayer for help -- even if it is a silent and brief one -- sanctifies our work, our play and our personal encounters.

St. Francis de Sales gave advice to our early Mothers and Sisters about making a short prayer before all we do:

"And let them not forget to do this even in little things which seem unimportant, or even if they are employed in whatever they like, for instance, eating, drinking, resting, recreating, and the like, so that, following the Apostle's advice, all they do may be done in God's name and for His good pleasure alone."

10 February 2006

St. Scholastica

St. Scholastica, born in the late 5th century, was the blood-sister of St. Benedict, father of western monasticism. One of the most outstanding characteristics of the Benedictine family is their warm hospitality. In his Rule for monks (and nuns) St. Benedict says that when "hospes venit, Christus venit" (a guest comes, Christ comes). This is the root of Christian hospitality and it is a particular focus in the charism of our Benedictine brothers and sisters.

There is a lesson in this for all of us who strive to live well our baptismal promises. Often it is easy to make room for a guest, a stranger, a visitor, whose stay among us is limited. It is harder, at times, to make room for those with whom we are familiar when they seek the hospitality of our own hearts. Welcoming a guest is not always limited to strangers and newcomers. Those who ask for our time, seek our attention and, at times, try our patience are also "guests." They, too, deserve to be welcomed as we would welcome a stranger, as we would welcome Christ. When we notice that a colleague, a friend, a family member, etc., is knocking on the door of our hearts, it is another hidden opportunity to welcome Christ. For what we do for the least of his little ones we do for him.

"If one soul is as much troubled about a mere nothing as another would be about some great matter, it must equally be relieved and sent away satisfied. Are we not debtors to all? They come in search of consolation; must we not give it to them?"
St. Jane de Chantal

Among the most endearing accounts of St. Scholastica is one written by St. Gregory the Great. Click here to read it.

08 February 2006

From the Inside Out

Seventeenth century science did not always produce an accurate knowledge of botany. This led St. Francis de Sales to make use of some very creative -- albeit inaccurate -- similies when comparing the spiritual life to examples found in nature. Perhaps one of the most endearing is that of the almond tree: he posited that if one were to take an almond, carve a word or a letter into it, and plant it in the ground the fruit of that tree would all bear the same emblem. We know from modern studies in biology and botany that this would not work. His point, however, is clear and it is not altogether different from our Lord's message in today's Gospel.

Jesus speaks in response to those who were overly concerned about the Jewish dietary laws. He declared all food clean and explained that "uncleanness" has its source in a person's heart and not in the food he eats. For if we nurture negative thoughts, hurt feelings, angry responses, etc., we are bound to manifest the negative energy in our actions and our words -- even if we ourselves are unaware of it. St. Francis de Sales' botanical example suggests that if we "plant" and nurture kindness in our hearts, then the fruit of our thoughts and feelings will be made manifest in good deeds and kind words. In many ways it is easy to nurture the negative feelings which arise in our hearts because they bring with them great energy; kind feelings or thoughts may not always come naturally, but they do have a way of displacing the negative energy. Let us ask for the grace to sow seeds of kindness in our hearts and for an abundant harvest of good fruit.

"If we remain close to the Savior, meditating on him and giving heed to his words, his actions and his affections we shall gradually, by the help of his grace, learn to speak, to act and will like him."
St. Francis de Sales

06 February 2006

The Glory of the Lord

Several years ago, our faculty read Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach. One of the striking insights he provides into the vocation of teaching is that "Technique is what you do until the teacher shows up." In one sense, that is what is going on in today's first reading when the Israelites are dedicating the temple. The priests offered hosts of sacrifices -- countless oxen and sheep -- and the glory of the Lord so overwhelmed them that the Levitical priests could no longer carry out their charge. "Technique" is what a teacher practices until he grows into his role as "teacher." Sacrifices and offerings, the 'ministering' of the Levitical priests, were the methods by which the Israelites related to the Lord until the Lord revealed himself in his glory and took possession of the temple.

Sometimes we are reluctant to allow the Lord to move us to a new place in our spiritual lives because we are comfortable where we are. We like our routine: the prayers we say, the times and places we pray, etc. Regularity is good; arguably, it is indispensable in any serious life of prayer. Resistance to growth, however, is not good. It is difficult to discern the difference. When the Lord is inviting us to let go of our "burnt offerings" because he wants to fill us with himself -- much like the cloud that overwhelmed the priests in Solomon's temple -- he is not negating the goodness of our "burnt offerings" or the sincerity of our intentions; he is inviting us to grow. And sometimes growing means letting go of what is comfortable, retiring the "techniques" when the teacher arrives. Anyone who has made the transition from "technique" to "teacher" knows well that the process is a life-giving one -- not only for the teacher but for all those affected. So too, with our prayer lives, it is life-giving for us and for those around us when we allow the Lord to have His way.

04 February 2006

Double-edged Sword

The gifts that we have received from the Lord -- be they spiritual, physical, intellectual, etc., -- are just that, they are gifts. They are ours to cultivate, to use, and to share; they can be used for good works or for less-than-good works. They are, in this sense, double-edged swords.

Today's first reading about the young king Solomon is, perhaps, the quintessential example of this. Most people, when they think of Solomon, are familiar with his wisdom, the understanding heart for which he asked. It is admirable that a young king, when asked what gift of the Lord he would like to have, sought wisdom and understanding. And it is clear that Solomon began to use this gift to serve his people. Solomon's story, unfortunately, has an unhappy ending. His "understanding heart" was not always used to serve the God of Israel; his later years as king were marked with great infidelity as he built temples and shrines to the neighboring gods, worshiped by some of his many wives. Solomon intended to serve Yahweh unreservedly and his request for wisdom and understanding was well-intentioned. He did not, however, persevere is using his gifts for the glory of the God of Israel and the service of His chosen people.

Most of us are not asked in a dream, as was Solomon, which gift we would like to receive from the Lord. We usually discover the gifts we have been given -- often with the help of people and circumstances we encounter at different points in our lives. Our gifts, too, are double-edged swords. We can use them to serve those around us or we can squander them on endeavors which are not pleasing to God. In remembering that our gifts are from the Lord, we are reminded that they are not "ours" to keep; when we ask for the grace use them for the good of those around us, we act with humility. Let us pray for the grace to use wisely the gifts we have been given. Let us pray for the wisdom of Solomon and the fidelity of heart of his father David.

"We must know that there are within us two kinds of gifts, some which are both in us and of us, and others which are in us but not of us. When I say 'of us' I do not mean they do not come from God . . . I mean they seem to be actually of us. Such gifts are health, riches, learning, and the like. Humility prevents us from esteeming ourselves on account of these gifts."
St. Francis de Sales

02 February 2006

Vita Consecrata

On 6 January 1997, the Pope John Paul II declared 2 February to be World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. He had a threefold intention in this commemoration. First, that the day -- the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord (Candlemas) -- be a day of thanksgiving for the gift of consecrated life. Secondly, that the people of God grow in knowledge and understanding of consecrated life as a vocation which invites men and women to intensify the baptismal promises that were made for them. Lastly, that this Feast day be a day for consecrated men and women to celebrate together "the marvels which the Lord has accomplished in them."

This year, as we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord and reflect upon the gift of our vocation as daughters of prayer and daughters of the Church, we recognize our newest solemnly professed member, Sister Leonie Therese who made her final profession on 15 October 2005. She is pictured at right receiving the solemn blessing at the hands of Rev. Stephen Spahn, sj.