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!