Sunday, December 29, 2013

God's Poetry-A Tribute to the Infant Jesus

Our Sanctuary Creche

On this Feast of the Holy Family, I ask God to bless all of our families with His Christmas Peace!  I also offer here a poem by one of our novices that she shared on Christmas Day:

God’s Poetry—A Tribute to the Infant Jesus

O Wisdom of eternity, You Who made the stars, Who tamed the sea out of chaos and formed the molded land. You struck your flame in barren sky and breathed upon it life.  Your infant world You then adorned with all created beauty.  And all things had their being from the image of Your Eyes.

O Ancient Lord of Israel, You Who fashioned man, Who knit together flesh and sinew and built up bone and rib.  O Adonai, You placed in him Your Spirit, the noble gift of mind, and raised up Your own children, descended from Your Love.  You taught them your Divinity and guided them by laws, until someday Your people should fully resemble You.  You set man on the wings of greatness, till he should soar, and share the glory of 
Your Magnificent Goodness.

O Lovely Rose, O Beautiful Child, O Perfect Flower blossoming from Adam’s seed.  The fertile lands and radiant seas were wed with galaxies of stars to form the womb who’s labors bring forth the Son of God.  Time was made to be your cradle, and all creation to be the mirror of Your Face.  On the blanket of eternal Love was inscribed Your Name: Jesus our Salvation.  You are our Reality, the Joy of our existence.

O Gate of Grace, O Royal Key, God chained in human limbs to make the captives free.  Child of Light, in the darkness of sin You are our protection.  My Bridegroom, My only Love, You’ve made Your nuptials beneath the veil of death and in the tomb of pain.  From the abyss of our despair, desolation and delusion, you wed our ugliness and have pity on our shame.  In the embrace of Your Mercy you kiss our wizened face and lift our deathlike countenance unto Your glorious realm.

O Oriens, O Morning Star, O Dawn of Heavenly Light, You are gentleness of dewdrops upon the rolling fields.  Like rain of silver shimmering, You rest upon the fleece; You justice and Your peace are the white light of grace.  The splendor of Your Kingdom is flush upon Your Cheeks.  Robed in glory of Your Holiness, You are the Prince of Peace.

Yes, O Tiny Child, born so small and weak, You are the Prince of Peace.  Transformed your soft white baby’s skin, weaved by Virgin Pure, becomes the bloody Sacrifice, our newborn Paschal Lamb.  Destined to be the nations’ King, You are the Mighty God.  Drawn from heaven on angels’ wings to the hard bed of the Cross.  Rest now, swathed in mother’s mantle and filled with virginal milk.  The cold is but a foretaste of Your Love’s Bitter Cup.

O Emmanuel, our only Hope, the Luster of our race.  Your precious tears our ransom paid with song of our repentance.  You are the Gift of Reconciliation, and the seal of Love.  ‘Neath Bosom of the Triune God You are the Spring of Blessings, the Way of Truth, of understanding, the Source of all perfection.  You, O Little Jesus, are Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end.  For You was set the course of stars and cosmos spinning journey; and shrouded round you lays the dense mantle of eternal Mystery.

Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain to receive power and might, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and praise.  Before You the mountains shall bow, the cedars of Lebanon shall bend their branches, and the streams shall leap like the yearling hind.  The valleys shall flow with the milk and honey of Your Name, and the seas shall prostrate before You.  All created majesty shall rise like roaring flame… just to adorn Your Feet.

Precious child, Treasure of my heart, Holy Presence, Sacrament of Love.  It is You Who are Reality, You are Life itself, and in Your Father’s splendid poem, written just for You, 
He has written me.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Novitiate Christmas Tree Decorating

Christmas Tree decorating in the Novitiate is...

  ...dangerous business! 

This is our "Charlie Brown Tree" constructed with authentic Barhamsville evergreen branches.

  Handle with care!

Guess who broke the first Christmas ornament...

         ...and the second!
Time to clean up, Sisters!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Newsletter

Donated Poinsettias from our Generous Benefactors Awaiting their Christmas Debut

            Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares
             Christmas, 2013

                      Behold, I stand at the door and knock.

                       Our dear Friends, 

We left you last issue standing before the ready-to-open door of our August novena in  honor of our Holy Mother St. Clare, but just before it opened, who should come knocking but a group of parishioners from St. Bede’s Church in Williamsburg!  They were members of the “Young at Heart” ministry, led by seminarian Miguel Melendez, stationed for the summer at St. Bede’s. They wanted to know more about us and visit our monastic dwelling place.  Since some of them are senior citizens, they did not think they would be able to come for the early morning Mass, but chose to arrive a little later for  some prayer time and parlor gatherings.  For this latter, Seminarian Miguel divided the large group into three smaller ones.  Mother assigned a few sisters for each group to answer their questions and share a little about our life.  Our new friends truly proved to be “young at heart” as they very enthusiastically participated in the informal discussions and, before heading for Richmond to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor, joined us in choir for the chanting of Sext.  We entrusted their many prayer intentions to our Holy Mother St. Clare as we began her great novena the following day.     

            You may remember that last year, we experimented with once more having our novena services in the evening with different priest-speakers, as do other of our Poor Clare houses.  However, our remote location and that dusky hour prevented many of you from attending, so we decided to return this year to having those prayers immediately following our morning Mass.  Since August 11th fell on a Sunday this year, both our morning and evening Masses were very well attended.  We thought of each of you, our dear friends, knowing that, if you could not be here in person, you were very much so in spirit, and we are sure you felt the intercession of our Holy Mother St. Clare very strongly those days.

            Did you know that August also marks the beginning of the Church’s harvest season?  A priest-friend pointed that out to us some years ago.  He said it begins on August 15th, anniversary of the day when Our Lord stood at the door of the life of Our Lady and led her forth into the glory of heaven.   That is why, in many places, an offering of produce is brought to the church to be blessed, in honor of her who is the first fruit of Jesus’ own Death, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven.  We had never thought of that before, but when we looked at the liturgical calendar – oh, so many saints and blessed from that time all the way up to the great solemnity of all the saints and beyond –  spilling over right to the threshold of the First Sunday of Advent!  Just like our own first-time vegetable garden this year!  (Remember, we told you a bit about it last issue.)  As of this writing, it is still producing Asian vegetables and perhaps some chard, but our novitiate sisters had a wonderful time growing squash, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes, and even a few potatoes this season.  They are even looking forward eagerly to a repeat performance next year.

            September found us joining our Holy Father Pope Francis and so many others around the world knocking on the doors of the Divine Mercy for His gift of peace in our world, especially in the Middle East.  This vigil of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament reminded us of the prayer the Angel of Peace gave to the three shepherd children in Fatima early in 1917, telling them to pray it especially for the end of the current World War.  Do you know it? It runs like this:  “O my God, I believe, I adore, I hope, I love You.  I ask Your pardon for all those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope, do not love You.” Such a simple prayer of adoration and intercession, yet it had such large consequences then!  Why not now as well?

            The following day saw us opening our doors to our long-time priest-friend,  Monsignor Arthur Calkins, an outstanding Mariologist and theologian, who gave us several days of retreat/classes on the triple make-up of our human nature, demonstrating from Scripture and the writings of several Fathers and Doctors of the Church that we are body, soul, and spirit – not just body and soul.  From there, Father went on to speak of our Blessed Mother and her pre-eminent role in the economy of salvation as mediatrix, co-redemptrix, etc. as spoken of in the Council documents and various papal writings.  We are so grateful to Father for all the riches he shared which we will spend many hours unpacking in the coming months.

            October, and the feast of our holy father St. Francis on its fourth day found us once more in Italy, this time accompanying our Holy Father, Pope Francis, on his pilgrimage to Assisi, hometown and major shrine of his great patron.  Many and varied as his stops were, we especially relished the one he made to our protomonastery of Poor Clares there.  And we could tell he relished it, too.

A  particularly beautiful door opened a few days later on October 7th.   That feast, of the most Holy Rosary, saw us welcoming our dear Sister Mary Joyce, who came to us a couple of years ago from India, as a permanent member of our community.  We celebrated in high festive Poor Clare style, with a special ceremony in our chapter room after Holy Mass, which included the bestowal of a new crown of thorns (her original one had broken many years ago when she went on foundation from Kerala to West Bengal) and a new ring of espousals to match those each of us receives at our solemn vows.  We kept the whole day like a bridal day, with some of Sister’s favorite music (a tape of the Syro-Malabar Mass) as well as some favorite Asian dishes at our meals. 

It seemed only a short time after doors closed on that beautiful day that, on November 9th,  another very lovely door swung open as our then-postulant Erin entered into the fullness of noviceship with the reception of our Holy Habit and a new name and title as well.  Many of you may remember from past reports in this missive the suspense that precedes this particular event, mostly surrounding that latter revelation.  Yes, many and varied were the guesses and suggestions submitted to Mother on this point, but to each she only smiled and said they were very good, but also very wide of the mark.  Finally that moment of the ceremony arrived when Mother said, “Dear Sister, in the future, you shall no longer be called ‘Erin,’ but … Sister Maria Christi of the Immaculate Conception, with your nameday on December 8th.”  Oh, what a perfect patroness Sister Maria Christi has  -- and Mother was right: we could never have guessed it!

And now we have crossed the threshold of a brand-new liturgical year, as everything turns once more to the Little One Who crossed into our world through the smallest of doors: the womb of his  Immaculate Mother Mary.  As we watch for His coming, we pray with Holy Church that our Father keep us alert -- He comes in so many guises – so that, when He comes and knocks at the doors of our own hearts, He may find us watchful in prayer and exultant in His praise.

                                               A blessed Christmas to you all! 

Our Masses at Christmas

                   December 25                       Midnight Mass                      12:00 a.m.
                                                           Christmas Morning                     9:00  a.m.

                   January 1                            New Year’s Day                      8:00  a.m.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Why December 25th?

One of our Sisters has a great interest in the “Hebrew Roots” of our Catholic faith.  Based on her biblical research, she has an explanation of why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th.  I personally, have a somewhat different opinion, but I will give her a hearing.  In a Franciscan community, we excel in diversity!  And we aspire to unity which is not the same as uniformity.  So, here is my beloved Sister’s contribution:

Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?  There is a reason, and a very profound biblical answer to this question.  When the elderly priest Zachariah went to offer incense in the Temple in the 34th week of the year which would be in the Jewish month of Tishri on the feast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, his encounter with the Angel Gabriel occurred.  At the end of his priestly duties he returned home and Elizabeth conceived.  The small child was destined to point out the Lamb of God who atoned for the sins of the world.  What better time could divine providence choose for the one who was destined to be the forerunner of the Lord?  Nine months after Tishri, we reach the Jewish month of Tammuz, June/July.  And that is why the Church celebrates John’s birth on June 25th.  The Angel Gabriel came to Mary when Elizabeth was in her 6th month, Nisan or March/April which would be Passover.  So our Paschal Lamb was conceived on Passover and nine months later he came forth as the light of the world on December 25th which is the Jewish Feast of Lights, Chanukah.

May we follow the daughter of Zion, Mother of the Word, who kept pondering all these things in her heart.  And by imitating her simple obedient biblical faith, may we too become a light bearer to the world.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Baptist’s Question

On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, traditionally called “Gaudate Sunday” (Latin for rejoice), the Church gives us a story about a man who definitely was not rejoicing.  John the Baptist, the faithful forerunner of the Messiah, languishing in a dark prison for being politically incorrect, asks a question of Jesus:  “Are you the one who is to come or do we look for another?”  The answer Jesus gives may seem enigmatic to us, but would be crystal clear to John:  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the poor have the good news preached to them.  Such were the signs of the Messiah that John would be the first to recognize.

But why would the great St. John need to be reminded of what was obvious?  Because even the great ones of the spirit come finally to a terrifying darkness where only questions seem to fill the emptiness.  Even Jesus on the cross asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And before that, in the garden of olives, His prayer had an implied question, “Father, IF it is possible, let this cup pass from me…”.  We can love St. John here in his moment of crisis, for it gives us hope when we face our own darkness and questioning.  No one born of woman is greater than the Baptist, so we are in good company if we suffer as he did.  May we also turn to Jesus in our critical moments and receive from Him our answer.

One of our Sisters, meditating on St. John’s trial wrote the following poem:

The Baptist’s Question

The shining lamp now burning low,
Buried in his dungeon hold,
By dark oppressed he begged to know
If you were he who was foretold.

Justice had been his flaming word-
The cutting ax, the winnowing fan.
But tales of mercy were what he heard-
The saving wine, the Son of Man.

Your faithful friend would understand
Your bridegroom’s festive wedding song.
His flesh foretelling at Herod’s hand
Your righting of the ancient wrong.

Forerunner of your agony,
His dungeon was Gethsemane.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Did the Jar Get Opened?

This was the burning question at our evening recreation at the end of Thanksgiving Day.  Earlier, while the Sisters had been busily occupied with that traditional feminine activity occurring after dinner called “doing the dishes”, Sister Joyce walked into the kitchen with a sealed jar of marmalade, asking if someone could help her open it.  This jar was a fancy affair, its top encircled with wire and supported by a rubber seal.  Several of us tried unsuccessfully to pry the lid off by hand.  Others offered advice.  Soon various tools appeared: two kinds of screwdrivers, several knives, can openers, even a crow bar.  Some Sisters remembered the neglected dishes and continued to wash and dry, but with one eye on the more interesting activity around the jar.  The postulants who were waiting to wash the dishtowels that were still being used, gathered at the door to watch.  Finally, it was observed that a little marmalade had seeped into the seal and perhaps this was the problem.  So far, all of our efforts had simply produced a crack in the stubborn lid, occasioning a worry that broken glass would make the contents inedible if we continued.  And so it was decided to put the jar into the always warm bake oven, hoping the marmalade would melt.  This done, we went our separate ways of prayer and work.

And so the question was asked:  “Did the jar get opened?”  Yes!  How?  Sister Pius took some pliers and pulled the rubber seal out!  Only our inventive Sister Pius would ever even think of doing it that way.

So much effort went into our opening of that jar of marmalade, yet it all cannot compare with what our God has had to do, in order to open our hardened human heart:  no less than the Incarnation and the Crucifixion of the Son of His only begotten Son!  Why do we keep ourselves so stubbornly closed to His love?  We have begun the blessed season of Advent, when we constantly cry out to our Lord, “Come!”  “O come, O come, Emmanuel!”  Yet, when He comes, do we open to Him?  At one point in our jar opening operation, one Sister remarked, “It’s sealed as tight as if it had poison in it!” Yes, or precious treasure!  These are the two things we seal away from all comers:  poison that may do harm or treasure that we might lose.  Are we afraid to let God into our hearts for fear He may discover our poisonous selves and reject us?  Or, at the other extreme, are we afraid He will take something precious from us and leave us bereft?  These fears have no basis when we are dealing with an all-knowing and all-loving God.  He made us, so He knows of what we are made and He knows that we are very good.  But He also made us for Himself, and as St. Augustine says, our hearts will ever be restless until they rest in Him.  We can only find our ultimate happiness when we give ourselves to Him.  And we are not left bereft, for in giving we receive more than we give away—infinitely more:  God Himself.

So, it will be a happy day when we can answer yes! to the question:  Did the heart get opened?  Come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What are these Wounds? Christ the King of the Universe

Blessed Feast of Christ the King of the Universe!  In Year C of the Liturgical Cycle, we view Christ on the royal throne of the Cross.  Here is a poem by one of our Sisters who contemplates and questions the Crucified King:

Chapter Room Crucifix

What are these Wounds? 

“What are these wounds, my Lord, upon Your breast?”
Asked one among the household of His own.
“These wounds are made by those I favor best.”

He who replied, the King upon His throne,
Bore wounds as well in hands and feet and side.
With light resplendent all the bruises shone,

And as he held their mirror to His bride,
A sadness infinite was in His eyes.
Yet love and lasting pity flowed full tide

And broke upon the shores of her disguise
To wash her gently back against His breast.
“Am I not more to you than self’s vain prize?”

Then she through whom the sword of shame had passed
Asked not, “What are these wounds upon Your breast?”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Collards Charism

Since our new novice, Sister Maria Christi, had been duly invested with our Holy Habit, and her new clothes were becoming a bit rumpled, spotted and wrinkled so that she ever more looked like the rest of us frayed Franciscans, we were able to at last pick, prepare and cook our collard greens under her expert supervision.  We found out that what us Yankees did not know was that you have to cook collards the day before you eat them because the cooking literally takes all day.  Although Sister Maria Christi was quite limited by our Poor Clare custom of only using seasoning on feastdays (unfortunately, Thursday was not such a day), and of course, the Louisianan tradition of using pork fat was completely out of the question, she declared the end result quite good and we concurred.

I must confess that I never had much affection for greens before I began growing them, but now I am sold.  They are such amazing things, providing us faithfully with iron-rich nourishment when everything else in the garden is devastated by frost.   On Friday, our community celebrated what we call “Foundation Day”.  This day commemorates the beginnings of our Bethlehem Monastery.  On November 15, 1956, a group of Poor Clares traveled from their monastery in Cleveland and arrived in what was then Warwick, Virginia.  After some time in a temporary residence, they moved into their partially completed monastery and began their simple monastic life of prayer and penance. At first the community seemed to flourish, but then the unsettling years following the 2nd Vatican Council revealed serious problems.  The first community finally dissolved, with some Sisters returning to Cleveland, others going to other monasteries and some going back to secular life.  But a second community, formed by generous Sisters from Roswell, New Mexico, along with one brave Sister from the former community, restored Poor Clare life in Virginia in 1972. 

Other trials, sometimes severe ones, have afflicted this community, but by the grace of God, it has always survived.  Two of the re-founding Sisters have attained to their eternal reward.  The others are our aging elders that give daily witness to the younger newcomers.  After forty some years, it can be said that our community is a lot like those collard greens out in the November garden that have withstood the test of hoary frost again and again.  Here we stand in a death dealing, wintry world, providing it with a wholesome, though perhaps rather strong tasting spiritual nourishment:  iron for the building up of blood for the Mystical Body of Christ!

Friday, November 8, 2013

All is Ready for Erin's Investiture!

All is ready for Erin’s investiture tomorrow.  Or, at least all is ready as it is ever going to be.  The ceremony will take place after Holy Mass, here in our Chapter Room.  Mother and Erin will sit before the altar for the first part, which is a para-liturgy of a biblical reading, psalm and then an exhortation by Mother Abbess on the spirit of our Holy Order.  Then begins the investiture proper when Erin is slowly transformed from a postulant to a novice.

From left to right clockwise:
headcovering, basket and scissors for cutting hair, breviary,
 flower crown and pins, handkerchief, Franciscan Cord 
Here is my table with everything I need to give to Mother for the clothing of a novice except the habit tunic (that is on a separate tray to be blessed at Mass).  As Novice Mistress, I am also “Mistress of Ceremonies” with all the responsibility that implies.  If something goes wrong, it will probably be my fault.  Several times today I have practiced and I think I have it memorized:  Take off shoes, give habit, cord, scissors, headcover, breviary, crown, crucifix.  I know when Erin is supposed to sit, stand, kneel.  I will be ready to give a gentle press of the hand if necessary.

When all has been accomplished, Mother will give Erin a new name which she will carry with her for the rest of her religious life.  All the Sisters will be leaning forward with anticipation and mounting excitement.  At this writing, no one knows except Mother and God Himself.  Check back here tomorrow to find out!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Announcing the Investiture of Postulant Erin!

Sewing hands and singing hearts proclaim at Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares that there will soon be a new novice in our midst!  Postulant Erin will receive the Holy Habit of our Mother St. Clare this Saturday, November 9th, feast of St. John Lateran Cathedral.  She begins her retreat tomorrow to prepare her soul for the great event even as we continue to prepare her monastic trousseau.  Please join us in prayer for her preparation.

Erin has a great love for the Psalms and so I am sure she will be using these ancient forms of prayer in the coming days.  Here is a poem she wrote, celebrating the place the Holy Psalter has in her life:

Key of David

The key is the Tree
Master the riddle
since nothing
shall pass
Not one jot nor tittle
‘til He comes to pass
through the lock
 Leviathan’s depths…

so come now Nocturnal
to bar, gate, and
break open the seal
O Verbum Supernal.
Lift up the gates with Your
David’s 150
with Your Canticum
with Your Paschal

This wheat crush and sift
Your Passion
inside me
Your Passion
inside me.

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Saints Day

One of our best loved traditions is decorating our devotional shrines with holy cards of saints on All Saints Day!  Here is a view of the novitiate altar.  The actual display extends out on both sides.  Blessed feast to all saints in the making!  Tomorrow we will pray for our beloved departed that they too may join the saints in heaven to praise our good God who offers salvation and peace for those who love Him.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

First Frost

Yesterday, Postulant Sarah told me she had completed her cleaning, and was there anything else she could do?  So I sent her out to the garden to assess the damage caused by that morning’s frost.  As I have mentioned before, this is my first year of fall gardening, and so I was unsure as to when the first fall frost would hit here in Barhamsville.  At our old stomping ground in Newport News, the frost would come in mid-November.  But I had a suspicion that it would come earlier here, being as we are a bit further north, a bit higher in elevation and quite a bit further inland from the regulating ocean waters.  Although expected, a frost always seems to be a surprise when it arrives.  And so, I was duly shocked when I observed the tell-tale white glimmering on the monastery roof as I passed on my way down the hall to Holy Mass this week.

Here is what Sarah saw in our frost-bitten garden:

Buckwheat dead (I had hoped we could harvest a few leaves as salad)

Beans finished (we did get a few handfuls)

Eggplant MOST unhappy (I had not been paying much attention to these as they were rather a disappointment during the summer.  But low and behold!  There was a bumper crop of eggplant fruits hiding under the withered leaves!  You just never know…)

Collards untouched (These are SUPPOSED to get frosted before you pick them.  Louisiana-born Postulant Erin says she knows how to cook them.  She gets her chance this Friday)

Chinese Cabbage flourishing  (our Asian Sisters are excited!)

The advent of the frost heralds the ending of the growing season, just as the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time proclaims that the end of the liturgical cycle is in sight.  In today’s second reading for Holy Mass, St. Paul speaks of his own immanent death as a “pouring out” and a “dissolution”.  The dying of the year reminds us of our own death.  This can be frightening, especially for those of us who feel the cold in their bones and see the frost whitening their hair and cheek.  Our culture worships the springtime glow of youth, caring little for the experience of age.  Yet we as Christians know that eternal life follows only through the door of decline, death and decay.  Just as the onslaught of winter is inexorable, so is the flowering of spring inevitable.  Local wisdom has it that the harder the winter, the better the spring.  Perhaps it is, however, that the slowly limiting autumn is more taxing than the winter, just as old age is sometimes more feared than death itself.  But in these moments, let us look forward to the eternal youth that will be different from our first flush since it will be enriched by the harvest of wisdom gleaned from our lives well lived or from our mistakes well learned.  Like St. Paul, let us await the crown of glory that will be placed on our heads by Him who has gone before us and who Himself is called the Day-Spring!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Poor Clare Cross Prayer

Several times a day, Poor Clares pray with arms outstretched in what we call the “Cross Prayer”.  I always smile to see a new postulant gradually getting used to this usually unfamiliar prayer position.  They must be told what it is not:  it is not calisthenics (one, two, arms above your heads, touch your toes…), it is not ballet (I have seen lovely coronals), it not an act of defiance (hands raised in the air clenched as fists or pushing out), it is not wimpy (elbows bent and sinking—come on, you can do it!).  No, it is none of these, but it is an act of penance offered in union with our Lord’s Passion on behalf of all our suffering brothers and sisters. 

I think of the Cross Prayer whenever we have today’s reading from Exodus that describes how Moses climbed a mountain to pray for Joshua and the Israelites as they fought their enemies.  When Moses raised his hands, Israel had the better of the fight, but when Moses lowered his hands, the enemy had the battle go their way.  As Moses grew weary, his companions, Aaron and Hur supported his hands so that Joshua was able to finally win the victory.

In this story from the Old Testament we have a foreshadowing of the entire Church.  Contemplative monks and nuns pray on their mountains of solitude for the Church militant fighting the battles of salvation.  But monastics need the support of the hierarchy, represented by Aaron the priest, and their good benefactors, represented by the layman Hur.  Although we do not literally hold our hands up in prayer continuously, yet our whole lives are spent as a sacrificial offering for the embattled Church.  We are ever grateful to our faithful priests who give us the inestimable sustenance of the Sacraments as well as their instruction and advice.  We are likewise grateful for our friends who sustain us in our material needs.  Without the support of our Aaron and Hur, we could never live our monastic, contemplative lives.  Nor could they well do the tasks God asks of them without the vivifying grace that flows through the channel of our prayer.  Whatever our diverse vocations, let us be united in the Heart of Christ for the furthering of His Kingdom!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hol(e)y Kale!

Last Monday, feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, our dear departed Mother Rosaria celebrated her nameday by obtaining for us some much needed rain.  She had been an avid gardener in her day, so must have seen the dryness of our soil and said something to whatever angel is in charge of Barhamsville weather.  It has been raining on and off ever since.  The precipitation stopped long enough on Tuesday, however, for the novitiate to harvest kale, first fruits of our fall gardening efforts.

I had heard that fall gardening was a delightful adventure free of the summertime plagues of weeds and bugs.  While I am far from denying that it has been a delightful adventure, I must say that there are fewer weeds, but just as many bugs—at least on the kale.  In fact, it seems that most of the vegetarian insects find their home on kale.  The ants are herding literally hundreds of aphids on the undersides of the leaves.  I suppose that they are providing lots of wonderful honeydew for the milking ants.  Cabbage worms live out their life cycles from egg to pupa while they chew a Swiss cheese design alongside the sucking aphids.  Meanwhile, the word is getting around to the carnivorous spiders and ladybugs that a meal awaits them on the Poor Clare kale crop.

Theoretically, it probably would do us little harm to eat a few bugs along with our kale, but…well…we just somehow prefer to get our protein in another form.  So, after picking, we set up large laundry tubs full of water outside the garage to try to wash off the unwelcome protein.  A question arose as to whether we should save leaves with many holes in them.  One clever postulant said, “We are in a monastery; we eat holey things!”  Very nice pun!  But then I began to think.  What is a hole?  An empty space.  What does it mean to be holey?  To have lots of empty space.  And what does it mean to be holy (note the absence of the e)?  To be like Jesus who “emptied Himself” as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians. And in the 2nd reading today at Holy Mass, St. Paul again tells us that “if we have died with Him, we shall also reign with Him”.  So the emptiness is destined to be filled with glory:  filled with the utter fullness which is God!  All the troubles and trials of this life, the bugs, as it were, empty us of our selfishness, pride, sin so that we can receive well the love of Jesus.  It is a worthwhile exchange.  But always we must remind ourselves of “the joy which is set before” us so that we, like Jesus, can “endure the cross (or the bug), heedless of its shame.”  Becoming holey is no fun, but it is only a necessary step along the way.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pope Francis at St. Clare's Monastery in Assisi

Our Holy Father Pope Francis did not neglect to visit his Poor Clare daughters during his trip to Assisi!  Here is an excerpt of his message to them and to us:

Vatican City, 5 October 2013 (VIS) – Shortly after 4.15 p.m. the Pope reached the Basilica of St. Clare, where the cloistered nuns of the order founded by St. Clare, friend of St. Francis, reside. The pontiff descended into the crypt to venerate the body of the saint and then, in the chapel of the choir, prayed before the cross of St. Damian, which according to tradition spoke to St. Francis, telling him to repair His house. In this chapel the Pope, accompanied by the Council of Cardinals, met with the cloistered nuns and spoke with them off the cuff, beginning, “I thought that this meeting would be like the ones we have held twice at Castel Gandolfo, alone with the nuns but, I have to confess, I don't have the courage to send the cardinals away. Let us all remain together”.
“When a cloistered nun consecrates her life to the Lord, a transformation occurs that we do not usually understand. Normally we assume that this nun becomes isolated, along with the Absolute, alone with God; it is an ascetic, penitent life. But this is not the path of a Catholic or indeed Christian cloistered nun. The path always passes via Jesus Christ. Jesus is the centre of your life, of your penance, of your community life, of your prayer, and also of the universality of prayer. And therefore, what happens is contrary to what we imagine of an ascetic cloistered nun. When she follows the path of contemplation of Jesus Christ, the path of prayer and penance with Jesus Christ, she becomes greatly human. Cloistered nuns are called upon to have great humanity, a humanity like that of the Mother Church; to be human, to understand all aspects of life, to be able to understand human problems, to know how to forgive and to pray to the Lord for others”.
“Today during Mass, speaking of the Cross, I said that Francis had contemplated it with open eyes, with open wounds, with flowing blood. And this is your contemplation: reality. The contemplation of Christ's wounds! This is why it is so good when people attend the visiting room of a monastery, asking for prayers and talking about their problems. Perhaps the nun does not say anything extraordinary, but her word is inspired by her contemplation of Jesus Christ, because the nun, like the Church, is on a path to becoming an expert in humanity.
“The second thing I wanted to say to you, briefly, relates to community life. Forgive and support each other, because community life is not easy. … Make sure that the monastery is not a purgatory, but rather a family. Look for solutions with love; do not harm anyone among you to solve a problem. … Cherish community life, because when the community is like a family, the Holy Spirit is among the community. … I beg for you the joy that is born of true contemplation and of a beautiful community life. Thank you for your welcome and pray for me, please; don't forget”.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Feast of St. Francis

Happy feast of our Father St. Francis!  

I just posted a new video on YouTube about his Stigmata.  Here is the link:  Stimgata of St. Francis

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Panis Angelicus

At our evening recreation period last night, I noticed Postulant Mary had brought with her several books.  “What are you doing?” I asked.  She replied that she was translating the song, “Panis Angelicus”.  She knew the words:  bread…angels…I commented that now she needs to know how the words relate to each other.  That’s called grammar.  She said that could wait.  We laughed.

I began thinking…panis angelicus…bread of angels…What a really strange phrase that is!  It comes from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and refers to the miraculous manna that fed the children of Israel during their forty year long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The manna would mysteriously appear after the evaporation of the morning dew each morning on the desert sand, ready for the people to gather and eat.  I suppose that the Old Testament writer assumed that this bread was also good fare for angels as well as for men.  After all, it came from heaven, just like the dew.  But my rational mind objects:  angels are pure spirits, without bodies and so without need of physical food.  Ah!  But they do feed, nevertheless!  And their food is God Himself.  Forever they gaze upon the Divine Beauty, the Infinite Good, and draw their life and being from that never ending Source.

In the New Dispensation, the Holy Eucharist is our Panis Angelicus our Bread from Heaven come down to give us strength for our journey through the desert of life to the Promise Land of Heaven.  And we too are able to gaze upon Him daily, just as the angels do, although our look must penetrate the veil of faith.  If it were not Sunday, today we would be celebrating the feast of the Archangels, so we ask their intercession as we share their table.  Wednesday we will remember our Guardian Angels too.  Friday will be the Solemnity of our Father St. Francis who is called “Seraphic” because of his great love.  We are flying high this week!  Join us in our hymn of praise!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fourth of July Pictures

Postulant Mary, Postulant Erin,  Novice Sister Angelique, Novice Mistress Clare, Postulant Sarah

 We still have one of those non-digital cameras that uses real film needing to be developed.  It takes us a while to fill up an entire roll.  So here we are at the end of September looking at pictures taken on the Fourth of July.  But they were worth waiting for!  Above is our novitiate with their novice mistress standing in our large courtyard.  Some are holding burnt out sparklers.  These are fireworks considered safe for us!

Here are our two Sisters from India.  Sister Prabha holds a live sparkler and Sister Joyce smiles beside her.  Of course, fireworks originated in Asia, so ours "safe" kind are rather anti-climatic for them!  They do big time fireworks for New Year's, but are happy to join us for American Independence Day.

Sister Pius and Sister Jean-Colette look on with approval!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stigmata of St. Francis

Today is a great day for the Franciscan Family as we celebrate the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis.  “Stigmata” is a Latin word referring to the Roman custom of making a mark on slaves with a hot branding iron designating them as the property of their master.  Toward the end of his life, St. Francis saw a vision of a crucified man borne on the wings of a seraph.  When the vision disappeared, St. Francis found that his heart was burning with intense fervor while his hands and feet were pierced with nails and his side had an open wound as if made by a lance.  Christ crucified had marked His faithful servant with His own brand-marks made by the fire of divine love.

In the history of the Church, there have been over 300 recorded “stigmatists”, but St. Francis is distinguished in being the first to bear these mystic wounds.  Then, his were not just open, bleeding, painful wounds; his hands also had the likeness of nails imbedded in flesh.  It is rare to see the stigmata of St. Francis authentically portrayed in art.  I am pleased to say that our own statue of St. Francis which a good friend found in an antique shop in New York, does have the raised head of a nail carved into his extended hands. 
Although I have not studied all of the hagiography of the stigmata, it seems to me that from what I have heard, most stigmatists receive this grace (or this trial, if you prefer) as a mission to suffer in union with the Passion of Christ.  This of course is also true of St. Francis, but in his case, it came as a culmination and a seal upon his suffering life which had already been perfectly conformed to Christ Crucified.  It is as if the Passion that he had borne so faithfully in his heart suddenly broke out and became visible.

All of us are wounded by sin, that of others and especially that which we have committed ourselves.  But can we allow these wounds to become the wounds of Christ?  If we unite our pain with His through loving obedience to the Father, it can happen.  It hardly matters if our wounds should ever become visible in a stigmata on hands, feet and side.  But the wounds of the Passion will become visible in our open hearts and open hands ready to share Christ’s own compassion for all who suffer.

Today's altar bouquet
Pampas grass makes great angel wings!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Name of Mary

Our Lady's Outdoor Shrine
Pampas grass bloomed for the Assumption
and is still blooming!

One of our Sisters, a self-made Scripture scholar who has also taught herself Hebrew, shares her insights on the name of Mary whose feastday we celebrate tomorrow:

September, in a very special way, opens up to us Mary’s pivotal role in salvation history through the liturgical cycle.  Why would Joachim and Ann choose the name of Mary for their cherished daughter?  Since Mary was to give birth to the new Moses, could her parents have been inspired to name her after Moses’ sister, Miryam?

Moses’ name is of an Egyptian origin, since Pharaoh’s daughter “pulled him from the water and called him Moses” (Ex. 2:10)  No other woman in the Old Testament was called Miryam except Moses’ sister.  So Mary’s name might come from an Egyptian background which would be formed from the verb mer or mar, meaning to love and the divine name Yah.  How appropriate: the one beloved by Yahweh!

From the Hebrew perspective, mir or marror, are words that denote bitterness.  So we see throughout the Gospel she is the one all generations call blessed, the one “beloved by Yahweh” beyond all other women (Lk.1:42), who also shared in the “bitterness” of the Passion beyond all others.

In Aramaic, the native tongue of the Holy Family, mar means “lord” and is used as the title for bishops and saints.  The church in India, founded by St. Thomas, is called “Mar Thoma Church”.  Looking at this from an Aramaic root, Mar if used for a woman, would mean “lady”.  So when Catholics in the roman Rite call her “Our Lady” they are on the right path.  Maryam would mean “mistress over the seas.”  To the Semitic mind, the sea was a symbol of primeval chaos.  Mary as co-redemptrix triumphed over the powers of chaos with her son during His passion; she is the one who crushed the serpent’s head.  May we thank her by following in her footsteps, loving Yahweh, and drinking the cup of bitterness with her for the redemption of the world.

Monday, September 2, 2013

End of Summer Gardening

Swiss Chard making a come back in the foreground,
Asparagus in the middle
Bethlehem Monastery in the back

It is really hard for me to believe that the month of September is upon us, for I feel as if the summer is just beginning and the calendar tells me it is almost over!  Not that we have been unoccupied with summer activities, especially this year as we have reinstituted the ancient Poor Clare tradition of the vegetable garden.  I guess time flies when you are having fun.  Among the various crops we attempted, that which gave the most amusement was the potato.  It is just so different.  You start out with pieces of potato, not seeds.  And then when the plants come up, they are not thin seedlings, but fully formed stems and leaves that fairly erupt out of the soil.  Unfortunately, the dark green potato plants attracted not only our admiration but the grotesque Colorado potato bug.  We hand picked hundreds of them, but it was worth it.  Searching for the potatoes was like digging for buried treasure and the Sisters declared they tasted the best of all the potatoes we have ever had. 

 We also grew summer and winter squash, including a number of mystery volunteers, cucumbers for Sister Pia Marie’s pickling,

Swiss Chard that keeps coming back after you cut it, beets at the beginning  the season, some tomatoes and eggplants (these last only moderately successful).  Part of the fun of gardening is trying to figure out what you did right and what you did wrong.  I suspect the soil was too acid for the tomatoes. Better luck next year!  Now we are working at an experimental fall garden.  Locals tell me it can be done in Virginia, though I have never tried it before.  But with my great novitiate crew there is hope.  

So, we have broccoli and collards planted plus green beans with plans for some oriental greens for our Asian Sisters and zucchini for Sister Francis Maria’s freezing operation.  She just could not get enough of the zucchini we planted in the summer.  I am worried about the squash bugs, but we will see.  Will keep you posted!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Cleaning Lady

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us today that “…whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; He scourges every son he receives.”  How hard it is to remember this when the Heavenly Father chastens us through the circumstances of life!  Often our first reaction to trouble and trial is to complain, to become resentful and to plot our revenge on those whom we deem to be the cause.  The Letter to the Hebrews continues:  “At the time it is administered, all discipline seems a cause for grief and not for joy, but later it brings forth the fruit of peace and justice to those who are trained in its school.”  Every trial is meant to bring us into a closer relationship with the Lord of love.  It is all worth it!  But sometimes it takes awhile for us to get there.

One Sister ponders this truth using the image of a cleaning lady struggling to accept her position of marginalization and finally coming to understand that Another sees and loves her most tenderly despite what her employers think of her.

The Cleaning Lady

Peering through the curtained western sky,
My swiftly setting sun
summons me, so I
Must run, for now I see my work is done.

Neglected, filthy rags I used to clean
The spills and messes some have left behind,
The dying sun reveals a moldy green.
Look not at me, my ladies, lest you find
What best is kept unseen.

While my work is over and my day is done,
You live in your morning just begun.
And so it is good you are unaware
That scouring despair
Is cleansing me fair
For the One who comes by night.

See how my graying clouds are blushing
In the disappearing light.
And now the hidden glory rushing
Becomes a golden orange bright.

Soon will descend the singing dark
That will veil in velvet my sighing heart
That starts or stills by love’s delight
In Him who just assured me this-
That starlight is enough for bliss.

Thus I gather my cleaning rags and me
Releasing that labor we soon forget,
Pleased that Another remembers yet.

And so with a given serenity,
Lifted up, I will smile and say:
“I pray you have a blessed day”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Burning One

On the contrary, the peace which Jesus gives comes with the fire he has cast on the earth.  It was kindled on Calvary and burns in the hearts of everyone who bears their own cross as Jesus bore His.  Peace arises in the midst of pain borne in loving obedience to the Father’s will.  It is awesome to see it.  We all know people who by the grace of God are unconquered by immense suffering.  They are like the bush Moses saw on Sinai that burns but is not consumed.  They challenge us to confront our own fear of suffering and lack of trust in the sovereignty of a God who orders all things to the good for those who love Him.  A Sister expresses this thought in her poetry:

The Burning One

Burning upon a Sinai height
As in the bush that Moses saw,
I, unconsuming Flame, ignite
Your animosity and awe.

Remove the sandals from your feet!
The ground you tread though hard is holy.
You are before a judgement seat.
My ruddy light reveals you wholly.

I gleam like the glowing chestnut trees
Glinting against a fall blue sky,
In the soul tormented, a man on his knees
Who strikes a spark from his flinty "Why?"

I blaze like the sun reflecting wave
Roughened by the rolling springtime wind
In the eyes of a woman abused yet brave
Whose tears outshine the heinous sin.

Deny the mystery, if you dare,
Or accept the unconsuming fire.
This flame that leaps from life's despair
Will cauterize your core desire.