Monday, March 26, 2012

To Die or not to Die

5th Sunday of Lent, Year B
Jn. 12:20-33

Jesus says to us, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”.  There are many ways for us to fall.  We can be struck down by illness, beaten down by adversity, tripped by an unseen obstacle or felled by our own human weakness.  But there is only one way to die in the sense that our Lord uses the word here.  In order to pass over the threshold into a new and fruitful life, we must freely abandon our old life through the willing acceptance of the pain this relinquishing entails.  If we do not, then like a seed which never sprouts, we will simply rot away.  We will forever be alone; alone with our precious selves, our horded up “life” that we end up losing anyway because we never gave it away to another, or to the wholly Other.

This timeless truth of the spiritual life is well symbolized by the Poor Clare investiture ceremony.  Last Sunday, our then Postulant Joscelyn was dressed in a bride’s white finery as an image of her youthful life.  

Then the earth colored Poor Clare habit was placed over her, and sheltered by this modest tent, she quickly slipped out of her gown and let it fall to the ground.  Holding on to the hand of Mother Abbess, she then stepped over the bridal dress, and with that step, entered a new life.  At the completion of the ceremony, Joscelyn received her new name, Sister Mary Angelique of the Infant Jesus, leaving behind her worldly identity to become the Bride of Christ and to participate with Him in His mission to redeem the world by willingly sharing in His passion through prayer and penance as a Poor Clare Nun. 

Sister Angelique has said yes to the call of God, has died and risen; but this is only the beginning.  Day by day she will have ample opportunity to renew her yes, her dying and her rising.  Just as the bride of an earthly husband abandons the carefree independence of girlhood and must be faithful to a new life of mature responsibility, so must a Poor Clare.  All women are called to the fruitful gift of self, only the mode is different according to each one’s vocation.  Each day we are called to a new life, but only on the condition that we die to the old.  If we agree to die through love, we will be united to the one we love and will bear abundant fruit.  If we refuse, we will be alone.  That kind of aloneness is more deadly than physical death.  Scripture says that “for the sake of the joy which lay before Him, Christ endured the Cross, heedless of its shame”.  Let us choose life and not be afraid of the suffering it involves.  Its worth it!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wedding Gowns

Which of these dresses is a wedding gown? 
The Poor Clare would answer “Both!”

On the right is pictured the wedding gown worn by the Grandmother of our Postulant Joscelyn and which Joscelyn herself will wear on her investiture day next Sunday.  Our community preserves the ancient tradition of dressing in bridal finery on the day a Sister receives the habit of our Order in imitation of our Mother St. Clare, who 800 years ago dressed in her finest gown and left her home the night of Palm Sunday to consecrate herself to Christ at the hands of St. Francis. Along with her Grandmother’s dress, Joscelyn will also wear our own mantilla that for the past 40 years each postulant has worn, only to exchange it for the white veil of a novice.

Pictured with the white wedding gown is a newly sewn, grey-brown Poor Clare habit which is our daily reminder that we are Brides of Christ.  Yes, the cross-formed habit is our wedding dress that we wear every day of our lives.  Like the Church, we are Brides that still await the arrival of the Bridegroom.  On our investiture day we celebrate the solemn engagement, the first step toward the wedding feast.  The next step is the Profession when we are espoused to Christ.  This espousal is then made firm at Final Profession.  Then we live every moment in expectation of His coming to claim us at the end of our mortal days.  Even now, however, we experience foretastes of that future, heavenly joy.

Joscelyn begins her private retreat in preparation for her investiture tomorrow.  Meanwhile, the rest of us are making final preparations.  Pray for her and for us!

Sister Francis Maria-
our ace habit maker

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Transfiguration Sunday

Happy Transfiguration Sunday!  I love the striking juxtaposition of readings at Holy Mass for this 2nd Sunday of Lent.  In the reading from Genesis, Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, his son, his only one, whom he loved.  Then , in the Gospel of the Transfiguration the Father identifies Jesus as His Beloved Son.  It is so clear how Abraham is a faithful icon of the Heavenly Father, willing to sacrifice what was most precious to Him for the sake of love.  On Calvary, however, there would be no substituting ram as there was on Moria.  And yet, Jesus, the Beloved Son would return more surely to His Father, but only after He had passed through the gates of death and even Hell itself. As we continue our Lenten journey, may we draw ever closer to the mountain of myrrh where the true sacrifice of the Lamb of God isconsummated.  May the thought of Him never leave our minds.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Making of a Novice

Yesterday was the memorial of St. Agnes of Bohemia, a 13th century Poor Clare Nun who was also the contemporary and confidante of our Mother St. Clare.  Although these great Saints never met, they carried on an affectionate correspondence over many years.  The four extant letters of St. Clare to St. Agnes are a precious heritage to the Church and especially to their Poor Clare descendents.  To celebrate this day, I would like to share a letter of a modern Poor Clare, our new novice Sister Marie Elise, who was clothed in the habit of St. Clare on December 12 of last year. Whenever a novice receives the habit, it is our custom that she write a letter sharing her reflections of the ceremony for the benefit of her Sisters.  Sister Elise is a native of Vietnam who emigrated with her family to the United States when she was a teenager.  She adds a distinctively Far Easten flavor to our community.  Here are excerpts from her reflections:

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good!
  For His love endures for ever!

“Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” (Mt. 16:24-25).  Following the footsteps of Christ, I entered into the world of Poor Clares.  A world that is filled with wonder, a world that emphasizes so much humility, and especially the Holy Poverty.  What is this all about?  What is the secret that attracted many men and women from generations past until now to embrace this kind of life?  This life has produced many saints for the Church.  This made me ponder and search for its secret.  I searched all the books that spoke about Franciscan humility and Holy Poverty and this was very interesting and delightful for me.  But God had a different way to teach me where I least expected it when I was open to embrace the way of the Poor Clare life.  He used His life as a lesson. And for my deeper understanding, and so that I might remember the lesson longer for he knew so well that I am a forgetful student), He applied the lesson on my very own life experience.  But He failed to inform me He would do it this way.  That is why I felt miserable in the midst of suffering and being stripped of everything.  This is not a fun way to learn!

I was not experiencing so much the clothing things, but on the stripping off.  Stripping of all that was dear to me and of all that I am proud of.  Our Mother Abbess is sweet and sensitive and she asked me about whether I am nervous or excited about the investiture.  She asked, “Will you cry on that day?”  My answer was the same every time:  No!  She said that she is nervous and excited and will cry for me.  The day before the investiture, Mother Abbess asked me the same questions and I felt sorry to give her the same answer and she told me that I am strange!  I smiled at her and said to her in my thought, “Yes, I am strange, just as you are strange to choose this kind of life, different from the norm of the world—to be poor and unknown.”

On the other side, our Mother Vicaress, my Dear Mistress, seemed very calm with no emotion, but she does have them.  She is American, but somehow to me she has a typical characteristic of Vietnamese mothers, who usually do not express their feelings and their boundless love for their children in words.  But they express their love in the willing embrace of all the hardships of life for the sake of the happiness and wellbeing of their children.  And so maybe it is not hard for me to recognize the unspoken messages of the loving care of my dear mistress which lay under her hardworking and numberless sacrifices in providing all my physical and spiritual needs.  It is also very interesting for me to observe how the community Sisters prepared for my investiture day a month ahead.  Their love, care and joy made me feel so special.  I felt like a bride in the village of the countryside of Vietnam.  Her wedding brings joy and excitement to the whole village.

The day has come!  Everybody is excited including Mother Vicaress, except me.  And I am not worried either because Mother Vicaress told me not to.  I know that she is a well prepared person.  Throughout the ceremony, I just follow what Mother Vicaress tells me what to do.  My turning point came at the cutting of the hair.

  It is embarrassing to have the hair cut in front of people. I saw every sister looking at me, and my imagination gave me all the figures of what I might look like to them.  I did not want to know what the sisters see and what they are thinking about me, so I closed my eyes and shut down my imagination completely.  I surrendered.  In the stillness of mind and heart, in the complete surrender, my spiritual senses started to open.   I saw Mother Abbess represented God, disfiguring me and destroying my self image which I love and hold on to.  Then I saw myself in the chaste, pure heart of Jesus.

And as Mother put the headcover on my head, I saw the door of Jesus’ heart slowly close before me. It was shut completely when the veil was put upon me.  Then I heard the voice of Jesus say to me, “You are mine”.  My heart filled with happiness and the joy of interior freedom of being possessed by God.  Then my tears started rushing through my closed eyes.  I cried!  When Mother Abbess gave me the signal to rise for the pax, I rose up from the kneeling position as a new person, not so much by appearance, but from within.

After the ceremony, I followed Mother Abbess and Mother Vicaress to the parlor to greet my family.  I gave them my hair, but they were reluctant to accept it.  That was understandable because in my Vietnamese culture, we only keep the hair of the deceased.  But this was appropriate, for when I told them I would be entering the monastery they cried, for in their mind I was dying.  I did have a great visit with my family.  With the high technology, I was able to talk to all my family in different places, including Vietnam at the same time.  It seemed like we had a family reunion at the parlor.

I am sorry that I do not remember what the program the Sisters did for me was about.  Perhaps the reason I do not remember is that when I saw the Sisters dancing before me, all I could see was their love, which is imprinted very deeply in my heart.  I knew that they had spent much time and effort  to prepare the program despite their busyness.  Personally, I would prefer the Sisters to not spend that kind of time and energy on me, but I treasure whatever they did because that is one of the ways they show their love and care.  In the same way, you have shown your love and care by spending time and energy making cards for me. It is really true that everything will pass with time, but only love remains.

The day ended with recreation, but I began a new life—a life in Christ alone.  Holy Poverty has stripped me of self love and self interest, and has reduced me to such a state of nakedness that I appear to myself to be truly nothing.  It buries me in humility and humility is truth.  Holy Poverty then raises me up above all that is very dear to human nature, which tries to captivate me:  honor, talents, knowledge, esteem, affection, the respect and love of men, so that I can belong exclusively to God.  For I am made for God alone.  Now I boast in nothing except Jesus Christ Crucified.  May then God be praised forever, Amen!