28 October 2009

Vows: Oppressive or Liberating

When I was in grade school (primary school) and the talk of monastic life came up in class there was always a focus on the vows that a monk or a nun takes: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Now that I am in monastic formation I realize that those are not even the vows at all! Or at least a monk or nun in a monastery that follows the Rule of St. Benedict. Those vows are Obedience, Stability, and "Conversio Mores" (or a Changing of Ways).

I wrote a little bit about the Vow of Obedience before, and some people indicated that they would like to hear more. If I do not address what you are interested in, please feel free to post a comment or send me an email (address is on the Left side of the blog).

I want to address the vows as a whole. I wish to do that because I see a good life as an integrated whole.

A lot of people view the vows in the same light as the Ten Commandments. Not that they carry the same weight as God's laws for his people, but they are viewed as a list of "Thou Shall Nots."
Thou shall not Own Anything
Thou shall not Marry
Thou shall not Not Do Anything without my Permission.

While I have to admit that there is an element of Thou-shall-not-ishness to the vows, I think that we have to add the "Becauses" to the our understanding of the vows. There is also a two-fold dynamic to all of the vows: communal and personal. Whilst the not owning personal property (which would fall under "Conversio Mores") may have the practical application of redcing squabbling and in-fighting in the monastery (communal), not owning property helps us with the spirit of detachment -in deed all of the vows are geared towards detachment. The Vow of Stability attaches you to a particular monastery. In some institutes of religious life (orders [like Carmelites], congregations [like Redemptorits], Societies [like the Jesuits] etc.) you enter a province and can be moved to any house in that province. In monastic life you enter a single monastery. Whilst it is possible to move to another monastery in the order, it is not the norm. The communal aspect of this vow is that you help to form a "stable" community. The personal aspect is that you seek mental stability. You are not looking for greener pastures: you grow where you are planted. The Vow of Obedience one aims to foster a sense of unity among the brothers, and a sense of humility individually.

Detatchment, as I touched on earlier, is the goal of all of the vows. Not some imposition of destitution from above, but rather a personal offering up of all things that are not God. This is not a one time act; it is a life-long process. And the further one travels down the path of detachment, the more there is to be detached from. St. Rafael Arnaiz Baron ( a very recently canonized saint) wanted desperately to become a Trappist-Cistercian monk. He longed to take his vows and observantly live the Rule of St. Benedict. Whilst in the novitiate, he became quite ill and had to go back home. Among his illnesses was severe Type II Diabetes. At home he got treatment: corrected his diet and got medication. Because of his medical needs he could re-enter the novitiate. He had to give up his dream of being a monk, he wold not even be able to observe the Rule of St. Benedict strictly.

Instead of getting depressed about this situation, St. Rafael became detached from his desires. In doing this, he saw a way forward. He re-entered the Trappist Abbey as an oblate. St. Rafael was detached from his family with whom he was very close. He was detached from his will: as an oblate he did not take the vows of a monk, and he did not have a place in choir to sing the Divine Office. Though his family was quite wealthy, he was detatched from possessions, status, influence,and authority.

The more detached we are the freer we are. The more we get rid of the "stuff" from our lives (possessions, willfulness, selfish desires) the more room there is for God in our lives. And having the God in our life is the goal of all Christians, not just monks and nuns. St. Rafael himelf summed it up in the expression "Solo Dios Basta" or "God alone is enough!"

15 October 2009

Harvest-time at Mount St. Bernard

Having grown up in a city like Chicago, there is often a disconnect between the source of our food and the food that appears on the table. This, I think, is especially true during periods of plenty. It is almost as if the crops are raised in the storeroom, right next to where the cows are milked.

On 13th October we had our Harvest Vespers and a Harvest Mass this morning. After the Office of None (9th Hour) the other postulant, the novice and I were asked to make a special arrangement for vespers. Basically we were given a little less than 2 hours to come up with a concept, collect the materials, and arrange something "harvesty." A few members of the community offered helpful suggestions like, "use fruit," or "use some ivy." At first the suggestions did not seems so helpful, but we were able to utilize them. We sat down to plan a few things, and went off to get our supplies. Then God's inspiration kicked in to high gear. Not only did I pick up what I was supposed to, I picked things for the one arranging flowers. The one getting fruit picked up other things for decoration such as a field worker's hat and gloves, a scythe, and hay (to the calves dismay, I later heard). I picked some strands of red ivy, and some fine branches with red and golden leaves. Another picked strands of grape leaves. Within forty-five minutes everything was arranged, and it looked like every single thing had been planned to the nth degree. While we did use some things that were not grown here: pineapples, coconut, and oranges for example. The overwhelming majority of that which we displayed came from our land. We had milk, honey and eggs from our animals. We had jars of gooseberry and black currant, and red currant jam. We had not only some ears of corn, but the (top 3 ft.of the) stalks as well. The flowers picked from our own garden (Thanks Fr. Hilary) made for quite the impressive display. And with my American background, when I saw a pumpkins, we had to add it.

In my opinion, sometimes when we attempt to be grateful to God for every single thing in our lives, we miss the mark. There is just way too much. Sometimes when we focus on one single thing (or concept) for which to be grateful, we can really direct our energy, thoughts, prayers, and voices. And this produce, literally from our own back yard, sustain our bodies. So we pause at this time to thank God for the bounty of the earth and our sustenance.

Psalm 89: 13-14
The Lord will make us prosper
and our earth shall yield its fruit.
Justice shall march before Him
and peace shall follow his footsteps.
©The Grail, England 1963

God's Blessings and Peace to you all.
Please continue to pray for me.

09 October 2009

A Vigil for St. Therese

I was priviledged to attended the Vigil of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux that was at The Cathedral of St. Barnabas in Nottingham, England. There were ten of us from Mount St. Bernard Abbey. It was a requirement of the Nuns of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of Lisieux that members of contemplative Orders must be present overnight when ever the relic stayed some place overnight. We Cistercians and some Poor Clare Nuns stepped up in order to have the relics in Nottingham.

I say I was privileged to be there because around 6,000 (maybe more!) came to the Cathedral. These people prayed at the relics; they attended Masses, Vigils (at 3:30 AM), and Lauds; they received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some came out of curiosity. Some non-Catholics attended reverently. Some non-Christians attended reverently. This was all made possible because the cathedral staff and volunteers worked their tails off - all night long. The event lasted from 4PM on Monday until 12PM on Tuesday. The relics were in a beautifully carved "casket", and that casket was under a glass (or plexi-glass) cover. That being said people very tenderly venerated these relics.

The veneration of relics, especially bodily relics, is a hard thing to grasp. Many are afraid of idolatry: worship of the creature not the creator. Some are afraid of a belief in magic or charms. Even the supporters of the veneration of relics from the early church down to our own time warn us of this. St. Therese is probably the best saint to allay these fears. The life of St. Therese, the writings of St. Therese, the prayers of St. Therese are focused on Jesus: ON HIM ALONE. Relics, at there best, inspire love for and imitation of that saint.

Personally I believe the relics imparted a special grace from God to me. The Mass on the first evening was lovely. 3,000 (at least) were in attendance, and it was edifying to see all these people in prayer. The Mass at 6:30 in the moring was also very well attended, but I was focused on love for Christ. At a number of times, I was almost in tears. Not tears of remorse, but tears of joy: My God, My Saviour, My beloved friend was coming to me.... Of all people, me.

I began to see what St. Therese saw, and feel what she felt in respects to our Lord. I came away not reeling from some "fan" worship of a saint, but with a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.

Blessed be God: in His angels and in His saints.

Peace and Blessings to you.

05 October 2009

Week 1 at the Abbey

I have finished my first week at the Abbey. It is beautiful and peaceful. The manual labour has been quite varied. I have even been helping with the cows! To be honest even some of the cows have been helping me with the more stubborn cows. But there is a special spiritual treat today. There are ten of us going off to Nottingham to the Cathedral Church of St. Barnabas. The cathedral will be open all night for a vigil with the relics of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.

Both I and one other brother here had been novices with the Discalced Carmelites, which of course, St. Therese was. It seems for both of us it is easier to live a Carmelite vocation with the Cistercians than with the Carmelites themselves. Granted it is a bit unfair of me to say that because there are many authentic ways to live out Carmel.

The Carmelite nuns of Lisieux required that wherever the relics stayed over night, there needed to be contemplatives at the vigil. We Cistercians will not be alone. Some Poor Clares will be joining us, too! I even heard that members of the Catholic Chaplancy at the University of Nottingham will be joining us over night.

As part of my vigil, I will be praying for the readers of my blog. I hope you keep me in your prayers too.
God Bless You All!