Sunday, July 28, 2013

July Garden Update

Here is our Bethlehem Monastery garden update:
Squash and Zucchini are slowing down but still producing. Volunteer tomatoes (replacing the store-bought ones that died) are beginning to produce, offering a surprising variety of shapes! But the highlight is the potato crop! We are enjoying digging them as for buried treasure. Plenty more to come!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Of Work and Prayer

A woman named Martha invites Jesus to her home for dinner.  As she busily prepares the meal, her sister Mary sits at the feet of the Master and listens to His words.  Martha complains and Jesus tells her that she is busy and anxious over many things but that only one thing is necessary.  “Mary has chosen the best portion and it shall not be taken from her”.  Traditionally, this Gospel passage has been used to proclaim the primacy of the contemplative over the active life, and so perhaps I, as a contemplative nun, should be expected to take advantage of this opportunity to extol my chosen form of life.  I plan, however, to take a different tack.  Poor Clare nuns spend about eight hours a day in prayer, both liturgical and personal.  Subtract the hours needed for sleeping, eating and other personal activities, and we have around four hours left for all the work required to keep a monastery going.  Consequently, those work times are rather intensely busy times.  Our Constitutions state that our main penance is the performance of our daily duties.  In other words, while we no longer perform the ancient monastic penances of scourging and the wearing of hair shirts, we are expected to generously expend our energies in humble labor for the maintenance and happiness of our Sisters, just like most other human beings have had to do since our race was expelled from paradise.  So, yes it is true that during our times of prayer we are “Mary”, but during our work periods, we are also “Martha”.

A perpetual challenge for the Poor Clare is how to balance her prayer and her work.  Since we are human beings of the feminine variety, our homey works are rather important to us and sometimes they can become too important, despite our best intentions.  But we have some built in safety devises to offset this danger.  One of these is frequent changes in assignments.  A few years ago, a Sister was happily engaged with all aspects of her work when she unexpectantly received a new assignment.  Suddenly, all of her pet projects were completely wiped off her plate and she felt severely disoriented.  The intensity of her emotions surprised and dismayed her.  Had she not done everything for the love of God and made every effort to be detached?  Evidently…not!  Taking the matter to our Lord, she came to understand how absolutely secondary to Him were her works.  He could get another Sister to do them and so He did.  But what He really wanted from her was the “one thing necessary”: herself.  If she did not give that, then everything else she gave was nothing and even worse than nothing—actually a hindrance between them.  By His rebuke she felt both chastened and cherished.  “The Lord is a jealous God.”  She was reminded of another Gospel:  the story of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple.  Being then a temple newly cleansed, she wrote the following poem:

Cleansing of the Temple
The din of fearful lowing fades and dies,
As do the startled cry and anxious bleat.
The useless coins are quiet at my feet.
Though flagellating cord in stillness lies,
The uncooled fire in His jealous eyes
Dries the heated childish tears in mine.
I seek no other verifying sign.

By all my gifts ejected suddenly
I see the needful one He wants of me.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Questions of Closeness

In today’s Gospel, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Now, if someone asked me that question out of the blue, I would have countered with another question, “Who lives next door to you?”  Or if some one asked me, “Who is your neighbor?”, I would answer, “The African-American family who lives across the road from our monastery.”  Or, when I was living at home, I would have given the name of the lady who lived in the next apartment.  In other words, for me, a neighbor is someone who lives close to me. I know the exegetes tell us that the term “neighbor” in first century Palestine had a much wider connotation, yet I think my homespun definition still has value as I interpret the Mass readings for today. Jesus answered the lawyer’s question by recounting the now familiar parable of the Good Samaritan who was able to transcend social and political prejudices to draw near and become neighbor to the robbers’ victim.  And so at the end, the real question is, “How can I come close to those who suffer and who need my touch, my compassionate love?”

But now for me, there is another question:  I am a cloistered nun, and so by definition I am physically separated from 99% of humanity. Even in the monastic church and parlor, the places where I do have contact with my fellow men, an iron-wrought enclosure grille divides us.  I am, quite literally, out of reach, but by that very fact I am not out of touch.
It is one of the many paradoxes of the enclosed contemplative life that the cloister which limits our physical availability,actually allows us spiritual access to every human soul.  By our union with Christ, we actually have the ability to touch, to love everyone He loves. 
The Sisters’ own families are usually the ones to experience this mystery most poignantly.  At first,the physical separation from their loved one is most painful, but gradually the grille becomes the occasion of a deeper dialogue, a more profound relationship,a spiritual closeness that no spatial distance can break.  We all know the sad truth that two people can sit next to each other shoulder to shoulder and yet be miles apart in mind and heart.  It works the other way as well.  By her prayer, a cloistered nun is closer to you than your nearest friend.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Chase

Summer is here!  On the Fourth of July we celebrated the holiday in our traditional Poor Clare way by working out in the garden to “Make America Beautiful”—at least our own little corner of America within our cloister grounds.  Many rabbits have been seen playing in the garden, especially as the sun is setting and the shadows lengthen.  So far, none have found their way into our vegetable garden!  One of our Sisters wrote a poem about her encounter with a baby bunny that she had inadvertently flushed from its nest as she ran some garden machinery.  Abandoning the machine, she went after the bunny.  Here is her account:

The Chase

and Zagging, the baby bunny
my clumsy capturing run,

Until in a leaf heap he buries his head,
Naively neglecting his other end.

So at leisure I guess
Where is the rest
And nimbly pinch
His safety nest.

It is a choir master’s dream,
That open mouth in a perfect “O”!
The melody though,
Is a soprano scream!
Pity this desperate straightened grief!

So I bear the chastened thief
Away to the garden gate.
There I grant reprieve
And there he gains release.

Returning then to the garden’s peace,
The garden’s Lord I face.

I smile when he dryly states,
give me a finer chase”.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

St. Thomas' Mass

On the Feast of St. Thomas, I would like to share a poem by one of our Sisters who reflects on the Doubting Apostle's ongoing act of faith.

St. Thomas’ Mass

This is my Body—
That Body pierced for me,
Passing through doors of wood that day
And harder doors of my soul’s stubbornness.

His eyes were proof enough for me
That day he came
Drawing me from my hiding place of shame
Among the other ten.

I thought only of repairing then,
Fearing that His risen Heart
Could still bleed for me,
I said that which none had dared to say:
“My Lord, my God!”

This is my Blood—
That Blood outpoured for me
Now caught and held in this
Blessed cup, its opening
One round wound upon His Heart.

“Thomas, take you hand,”
Yes, daily I hold you and
Constantly probe those wounds.
My being and Yours united in
This mystery, yet I unperceiving,
So my faith too, You bless.

Take then, my people
My children of India,
Take and eat.
Blessed are you
Who have not seen
And have believed.