Monday, March 31, 2008

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord


She did not cry, “I cannot, I am unworthy,”
Nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
An excerpt from “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov

Today's solemnity, this great feast, marks the seventh year since I received the habit, the fifth anniversary of my first profession AND the second anniversary of my Solemn Profession. It is an anniversary day I share with two others in our community of contemplative nuns. The nature of the feast, its celebration of a movement of heart so faithful, so humble, so receptive provides so much for meditation that it almost takes the breath away.

And Denise Levertov's mystical poem touches the mystery and the personal challenge; "...courage unparalleled, opened her utterly."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ukrainian Pysanky


Cross and Wheat

Regular readers of this blog know that I like to dabble in the arts. Quilting is an old passion (more about this in the next few days). Icon writing is a new enthusiasm. In between I tried my hand at creating decorated Easter eggs in the manner of traditional Ukrainian Pysanky. I fell in love with them when I saw a Ukrainian woman creating these designs on eggs at a craft show. I shyly asked,"I do very fine needlework. Do you think that I could translate those skills into this kind of work?" Her answer was, "Sure." After ordering dyes and wax pens (kiskas) and trying my hand, I was hooked. It takes a steady hand, lots of patience and some prayers that the fragile eggs do not crack. The eggs in the slide show above were created over the years and stored between Easter seasons even more carefully than glass Christmas tree ornaments.

Pysanky (pronounced PEsH-san-keh) refers to the ancient art of decorating eggs by means of a wax resist, or batik method that produces elaborate, colorful, symbolic designs. Lines of liquid wax are drawn on the eggs and then the egg is plunged into a dye bath. The process gets repeated moving from light colors to the darkest a producing in the end a multi-colored egg with a very fine design. Although now mainly used to decorate Ukrainian Easter eggs, pysanky are much older than the Christian holiday, dating back to a time of sun worship. Adopted from the pagan tradition by Christians, pysanky were imbued with symbolism and superstition, and tradition has upheld the customs and rituals of this ancient art.

The Decorated Easter Egg

The egg is nature's perfect package. It has, during the span of history, represented mystery, magic, medicine, food and omen. It is the universal symbol of Easter celebrations throughout the world and has been dyed, painted, adorned and embellished in the celebration of its special symbolism.

Before the egg became closely entwined with the Christian Easter, it was honored during many rite-of-Spring festivals. The Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians all cherished the egg as a symbol of the universe. From ancient times eggs were dyed, exchanged and shown reverence.

In Pagan times the egg represented the rebirth of the earth. The long, hard winter was over; the earth burst forth and was reborn just as the egg miraculously burst forth with life. The egg, therefore, was believed to have special powers. It was buried under the foundations of buildings to ward off evil; pregnant young Roman women carried an egg on their persons to foretell the sex of their unborn children; French brides stepped upon an egg before crossing the threshold of their new homes.

With the advent of Christianity the symbolism of the egg changed to represent, not nature's rebirth, but the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose.

Old Polish legends blended folklore and Christian beliefs and firmly attached the egg to the Easter celebration. One legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel and she wept. The tears of Mary fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.

Another Polish legend tells of when Mary Magdalen went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, lo, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.
Decorating and coloring eggs for Easter was the custom in England during the middle ages. The household accounts of Edward I, for the year 1290, recorded an expenditure of eighteen pence for four hundred and fifty eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.

The most famous decorated Easter eggs were those made by the well-known goldsmith, Peter Carl Faberge. In 1883 the Russian Czar, Alexander, commissioned Faberge to make a special Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie. The first Faberge egg was an egg within an egg. It had an outside shell of platinum and enameled white which opened to reveal a smaller gold egg. The smaller egg, in turn, opened to display a golden chicken and a jeweled replica of the Imperial crown.This special Faberge egg so delighted the Czarina that the Czar promptly ordered the Faberge firm to design further eggs to be delivered every Easter. In later years Nicholas II, Alexander's son, continued the custom. Fifty-seven eggs were made in all.

Ornamental egg designers believe in the symbolism of the egg and celebrate the egg by decorating it with superb artistry. Some use flowers and leaves from greeting cards, tiny cherubs, jewels and elegant fabrics, braids and trims, to adorn the eggs. They are separated, delicately hinged and glued with epoxy and transparent cement, then when completed, they are covered with a glossy resin finish. Although the omens and the mystery of the egg have disappeared today, the symbolism remains, and artists continue in the old world tradition of adorning eggs.

Tradition relates, that in Italy Mary Magdalene visited the Emperor Tiberias (14-37 AD) and proclaimed to him about Christ's Resurrection. According to tradition, she took him an egg as a symbol of the Resurrection, a symbol of new life with the words: "Christ is Risen!" Then she told Tiberias that, in his Province of Judea, Jesus the Nazarene, a holy man, a maker of miracles, powerful before God and all mankind, was executed on the instigation of the Jewish High-Priests and the sentence affirmed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Tiberias responded that no one could rise from the dead, anymore than the egg she held could turn red. Miraculously, the egg immediately began to turn red as testimony to her words. Then, and by her urging, Tiberias had Pilate removed from Jerusalem to Gaul, where he later suffered a horrible sickness and an agonizing death.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Preacher to Contemplative Nuns

Father Tom is a great friend to our community - frequently
our celebrant for Eucharist, our regular confessor, and,
like so many Redemptorists, and excellent homilist. Fortunately he publishes a blog at: Father Tom apent most of his life as a missionary in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and served as Provincial of the Vice Province of Puerto Rico for nine years. He generously share his skills, his writing and his deep faith.


A Homily by Father Thomas Travers, CSsR

Spy Wednesday

I read or heard some place that prejudice is not innate. Rather, it is something that we have to learn, and that most people do learn it at a very early age and may become quite proficient in it. This same thought is reflected in the words of the song from “South Pacific”: You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught.

Certainly I was. I grew up in an Irish-Catholic ghetto in Boston during the war years… (There was only one real war for us and that was the Second Word War). And, as part of the war effort which was always so extensive and so all-prevailing during those years, we were trained to hate the Germans and the Japanese. We were taught anti-Hitler songs in our good old Catholic grammar school and were encouraged to throw out of our homes anything that was made in Germany or Japan. (Now we would be throwing out our best stereos, cameras, watches!!) We were brainwashed, pure and simple. We were taught prejudice and not only in our community but later in our family, it became a big, big deal when my eldest cousin announced that she was going to marry an Italian.

Strangely enough, we never felt anything, one way or another, for the Afro-Americans because we did not know them. They were far away in their own ghetto and “never the twain should meet.” I met my first Afro-American at my first real job, washing dishes and serving meals in a Hospital cafeteria and he was a nice kid.

Not only were we all prejudiced towards others. All of us have been the recipients of prejudice due to our race or gender or religion or place or origin. Historically we have all been victims of it.

What does prejudice have to do with our celebration today? Today is Wednesday of Holy Week but before, for centuries, it was called by the “hoi polloi”, “Spy Wednesday” and traditionally it was a day given over to the expression of hatred and prejudice. In many countries of Europe Judas was hung in effigy and then the hatred towards him spread over into the Jewish community and all things Jewish because, the reasoning was, that not only was Judas guilty of Decide, but so were all of them. Their ancestors killed God. What greater crime could there be? What greater reason to hate all of them?

Yesterday, Barack Obama addressed this issue of prejudice in American when his pastor, Mr. White came into the news for his wild hateful and prejudicial statements. Obama called on all to continue the dialogue. I believe he is right. This dialogue must go on and it must address the need to move toward reconciliation in all the areas of our prejudices: race, gender, religion, place of origin, etc.

And I believe that one step forward is to address the underlying issues that cause prejudice and to try to solve them with justice and charity. And then, at some point, forgiveness has to kick in. If it does not we are going to keep going round and round in this vicious circle.

What I mean concretely is this: At some point we have to forgive Judas. At some point we have to forgive the Pharisees. At some point we have to forgive the High Priests. We have to forgive Pilate and the Roman Soldiers. We have to forgive the Jewish crowds who called for the release of Barabas, and the crucifixion of Jesus. We have to forgive them all. After all, that is what Jesus did when he said: FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.

So, today and all during the days that come, when we relive the Passion and Death of Jesus, may this be our prayer, too. And may we not only pardon all these people who were active in the death of Jesus, but also all the other people who have caused us harm personally or as a group, and perhaps even caused us to die on our cross. May we ask their forgiveness for our prejudice and forgive all of them for theirs. Unless we do this, the cycle of prejudice in this world is just going to go on and on. So during the next couple of days, and beyond, let one of our mantras be: FATHER FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO. AMEN.

"Stay With Us, Lord"


Mane nobiscum, Domine! Stay with us, Lord! (Luke24:29) With these words, the disciples on the road to Emmaus invited the mysterious Wayfarer to stay with them, as the sun was setting on that first day of the week when the incredible had occurred. According to his promise, Christ has risen; but they did not yet know this. Nevertheless, the words spoken by the Wayfarer along the road made their hearts burn within them. So they said to him: "Stay with us." Seated around the supper table, they recognized him in the "breaking of bread - and suddenly he vanished. There remained in front of them the broken bread. There echoed in their hearts the gentle sound of his words.

from the Urbi et Orbi Message

of His Holiness Pope John Paul II,

Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Matthew Erich Pleva '06

The Lord is Risen, Alleluia

Did Mary Magdalen feel as if she had just woken from a very bad dream? I know that feeling of utter relief when waking from a deep sleep in which I was being hounded by difficult people or was unable to find something or get to some place very important. We have all had those anxiety dreams which made reality pale in comparison.

Mary Magdalen was probably numb, performing a ritual action with other friends of Jesus as on automatic pilot. What must have it been like to be huddled together in that upper room from Friday, through the Sabbath, waiting for the day to fulfill their duty? It must have been still unbelievable to them that they must perform this last act of devotion for their master, rabbi, teacher, friend, and healer; the one whom they believed to be the Son of God.

Our Church connects and has always connected with Mary's plight, her deep sorrow and the courage with which the women set out on their mission. At the Easter Vigil Mass and again at the Mass of Easter Morning we hear accounts of her experience from two of the evangelists. The story appears in each of the four Gospels. This is a moment for Mary, and a moment for us, that is not to be missed. She hears and we hear words that should wake us from a tormented sleep into the light of endless day and endless possibility. "Do not be afraid...Go and tell...There you will see me..."


At Mother of Perpetual Help Monastery, this community of contemplative nuns, was blessed by the presence of eighteen Redemptorist seminarians, students preparing for the Novitiate along with their formators, for the entire Easter Triduum. Our small chapel was filled by their big-ness in size, their big-ness of voice and their big-ness of heart and devotion to Jesus our Redeemer. They not only joined us for the major liturgies in which they were readers or cantors or singers in their Schola, but they also came to participate in the various offices of the Liturgy of the Hours.

On Holy Thursday Father Phil Dabney was the celebrant and homilist at our evening liturgy. Father Phil served until recently as Redemptorist Vocation Director for the Baltimore Province for fifteen years. His reverence and attention as he washed the feet of eight students and four sisters of our community was inspiring. In his homily he noted the absence of an institution narrative in John's account of the last supper and the outstanding emphasis on loving service. It is as if, Jesus, the inspired teacher, knowing he was about to die, decided that he had to dramatically underscore all that he had taught by doing something totally radical, so unexpected and out of the ordinary that no one present would ever forget the moment. His action was the ultimate 'visual aide'. He put on a apron, got down on his knees and washed the dirty, calloused, worn feet of his own followers. It was an act so outrageous that Peter refused the magnanimous gesture. What is the message? We are, he begs us on his knees, to do the same.

On Good Friday Father Paul Borowski, one of the directors of this group of students, presided at our Liturgy. His homily was a first person narrative of that last day in the voice of Peter. He shared his story his repeated denials, his lack of courage, his frightful fear of being himself arrested and crucified. His dismay was palpable, his uncertainty too. And his guilt tremendous. He wondered aloud, "What are we to do now?

Father Paul was also the principle celebrant at our Easter Vigil, assisted by Father Patrick Keyes who also directs the students, and Father Thomas Picton, Provincial of the Denver Province of Redemptorists. Father Picton was the homilist. He spoke of the various current theories concerning the Resurrection "story". However, he said, "We know better because without the Resurrection the rest is meaningless." He offered a number of rebuttal arguments directed at doubters but then said, " We know that Jesus our Redeemer is risen from the dead when we see a ninety year old Redemptorist living with the 'garbage people' on the outskirts of a city in Brazil because he is the only one willing to do so. We see Jesus our Redeemer risen from the dead when two Redemptorists serving the Caldean Catholic community in Bagdad refuse to leave even though they know they are in grave danger. WE see the risen Lord in long faithful marriages and faithful perseverance in vowed religious life." His heart moved at the devotion of these and others he described, tears streamed down his face as Father gave his accounts of the risen Jesus among us.

On Sunday morning Father Patrick Keyes was celebrant. Faher Keyes told us about his favorite Easter homily, one that recycles well everywhere and in every language. He told us how he calls all the little children out of the congregation to come and join him in front of the altar. He then tells them his tale of woe, how he could not figure out what to put in his homily and how he went to the park and sat on a bench. Then a little bunny came out of the grass and talked to him and told him what to say. Father Patrick said he then whispers the bunny's message to the children to willing pass it to their neighbors. Then Father said he commissions them to go out among the congregation and whisper in the ears of all the people the message that the bunny in the park gave him. This is always a 'show stopper.' Of course Father embellished this for us so that we were well prepared for the message being whispered by the children and also heard by us today. "Jesus is LOVE."

Monday, March 17, 2008


"Praise to you,
Lord Jesus Christ,
King of endless glory."

From the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen
"Show Me the Way: Readings for Each Day of Lent,"
pages 33-34

Our lives are destined to become like the life of Jesus. The whole purpose of Jesus' ministry is to bring us to the house of his Father. Not only did Jesus come to free us from the bonds of sin and death, he also came to lead us in the intimacy of his divine life. It is difficult for us to imagine what this means. We tend to emphasize the distance between Jesus and ourselves. We see Jesus as the all-knowing and all-powerful Son of God who is unreachable for us sinful, broken human beings. But in thinking this way, we forget that Jesus came to give us his own life. He came to lift us up into loving community with the Father. Only when we recognize the radical purpose of Jesus' ministry will we be able to understand the meaning of he spiritual life. Everything that belongs to Jesus is given for us to receive. All that Jesus does we may also do.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Meet the Sisters Series #2

Sister Moira Quinn, OSsR

Sr. Moira is a multi-talented woman of faith and courage, a tremendous gift to our community. Imaginative cook and kitchen manager, artist, liturgical dancer, author, hair dresser and party planner extraordinaire, Sr. Moira brings so much to our Redemptoristine life. Most outstanding of all is her model of patient love and service, her daily pursuit of the way of Christ so as to become his "living memory", a viva memoria of Christ the Redeemer.

Since the second grade I wanted to be a nun – though, in truth, I did not know what that meant – just that my heart had a longing for something other. In the fifth grade I read a biography of Therese of Lisieux and was drawn to her ‘Little Way.’ In high school when all the kids were preparing for college and careers I had another dream yet I wasn’t ready to enter religious life, so I went to school for cosmetology and became a hairdresser.

At the time when my friends were getting married and having children I thought about religious life again, but I didn’t have the chutzpah to take the big step. I had lived on Long Island all my life and I longed for more space. So at 25 I bought a summer cottage up on a hill in the deep woods in upstate New York. That same year, during Advent, I had become fascinated with John the Baptist, so much so that I began to write a novel about his life. A few years later, at a New Year’s Eve party - the same year as my thirtieth birthday - I had a revelation that it was time to move on from hairdressing and follow Jesus’ call for me to be a nun.

I entered the Redemptoristine Nuns 1988 and made my Profession on January 12, 1991. I have served the community in many roles including being on the Council and helping facilitate our Associate meetings. My everyday charge presently revolves around either cooking or coordinating the kitchen. I even find time to give the Sisters haircuts! In Community I have been encouraged to pursue my creative endeavors which include art and liturgical dance. In 2006 I was blessed to have my dream of having my novel on John the Baptist, ‘HERE I AM,’ printed. My life in the monastery has brought me beyond my dreams to the reality of living my life for God in a community of contemplative women who radiate the joy of the Redeemer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Last of Lenten Contemplative Studies Series

The last of the series was an overview of the history and state of religious life in general and contemplative monastic life in particular announcing that both are alive and well. For us, as a community of contemplative nuns offering such a series for the first time the response to was gratifying - people clearly on the spiritual way seeking community and encouragement.

"To Pray Always" - Monasticism into the
21st Century

After the London Times published his obituary, Mark Twain quipped to a lecture audience, “The report of my death was greatly exaggerated.”

Tonight I would like to assure you that reports of the death of monasticism, indeed the death of religious life, have been greatly exaggerated. Both are alive and well, though diminished in number. Indeed, if the record of history and culture is predictive and if, as a result, artistic imagination keeps bringing monastic images to our cultural radar screen, they will never die.

Before proceeding, I want to say that this talk contains a lot more personal opinion than the others. Therefore please feel free to take what you want and leave the rest. I will also say that my opinions are not necessarily those of the management.

Across the wide spectrum of religious experience, throughout the ages and in our time there is evidence of a universal call to withdrawal – some sort of remove to silence and solitude. Native Americans on the ‘vision quest’, Muslim Sufi mystics we call whirling dervishes, Buddhist monks, Jewish Kabbalists, Hindu sannyasis, Orthodox Jews observing the Sabbath, as well as Christian nuns and monks all express this impulse by going apart. In the terms of Jungian psychology this human propensity is referred to as the monk-archetype, a contemplative dimension that is inborn, in every human being. In response to this innate dimension some seem to instinctively recognize the value of silence and solitude not only for personal well-being but for the well-being of their society. I did not see the recent public television documentary on “The Brain, but my father did. He mentioned that researchers have found that a period of silence has a scientifically demonstrable beneficial effect on the brain. Perhaps this is the measurable physiological effect that some among us merely intuit.

Expressions of the tendency to withdraw in an effort to be more aware of, or commune with, the transcendent or the mysterious other pre-date Christianity by at least 600 years; first in Hinduism and then Buddhism. In Jewish and Christian tradition, Elijah and Elisha are examples of hermits who inspired the Essenes in 1st and 2nd century BC Israel. There has been much speculation concerning the possible influence of this monastic sect on the lives of both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.

Christian monasticism was born in the deserts of Egypt in the 3rd century AD. Hermits began to attract others gradually forming groups which gradually developed into cenobitic or communal monastic life. By the 4th century there were Celtic hermits who were soon followed in the 5th and 6th centuries by full-fledged monasteries in what we call the British Isles and Ireland. This was also the case in Gaul, which is present-day France.

Although other seminal rules for monastic life preceded it, the Rule of St. Benedict written in the 6th century, was and continues to be most influential in terms of monastic spirituality and practice.

Any one who has studied European History or the History of Western Civilization or read Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization, knows how monasteries are credited with preserving classical knowledge while the Roman Empire collapsed and ravaging hordes invaded Europe during what is called the Dark Ages. Later, the 11th and 12th centuries were the monastic golden age in which an upswing in population and comparative peace allowed for monastic reform movements to thrive. By the 13th century which saw the rise of mendicant orders like the Franciscans, there were already hundreds of Benedictine and Carthusian monasteries in present day France and Germany.

However, if we hop, skip and jump a few hundred years to early modern Europe we come to a time when monasticism in western Europe was dealt an almost lethal blow. The Protestant Reformation of the late 15th and early 16th centuries had made things difficult enough. But during the French Revolution which began in 1789 and in the years that followed ALL but a handful of monasteries in France were closed, occupied or destroyed. At the time, with surviving monks and nuns seeking asylum in foreign countries or simply going home there seemed little hope for the future. Later political upheaval in most of the European countries often made monastic life difficult, if not impossible.

By the turn of the 20th century the pendulum began to swing the other way. And in our country it followed a particularly high arc. The great immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had brought millions of Catholics into the United States. Many elements combined to energize the swing. The local church was a natural focus for ethnic Catholic people. Religious and priest from their home countries were imported to minister to them. By the 1930s and 40s these groups, after surviving the Great Depression were treading the path of upward social mobility. Ethnic and religious prejudices still made the path arduous in the general culture but the Church provided a sure and respected avenue in which to move up the social ladder. It was a rare Catholic mother or father who would not support a religious vocation cropping up in their family.

Scholars of the history of women have also touched upon a factor in this mix which may have been, if not a stated motivation, than perhaps at least an unconscious one for many young women entering religious life. Although women had been granted the vote in 1921, generally speaking, their vocational choice remained exceedingly narrow. That narrowness prevailed well into the 1960s, the period of my own college education. The view of what was acceptable was that if a woman had to work or if she exhibited some intellectual ability meriting education beyond high school her choices were limited to teaching, nursing, social work, maybe pharmacy or advanced training in a secretarial school. For the middle class, it was understood that this work would end with marriage and children. Furthermore, it was understood that leadership in these fields would remain in the hands of men.

Considering those societal norms, it is almost startling to see how vowed Catholic religious women, as early as the 19th century, in the name of charity and service to the poor and needy, functioned in positions generally forbidden to lay women in the same time period. Beginning with the sisters whose service as nurses during the civil war was highly coveted by doctors; to those who engineered networks of missions in large congregations across the country; to those to headed hospitals, colleges, and boards of directors; to those who were able to sit down with bankers and negotiate huge loans for building funds in the midst of the Depression; these women found outlet for their natural abilities as leaders and organizers which could not have be exercised outside of Catholic religious life.

With such leadership and example combined with the influence of the burgeoning Catholic school system and the general feeling that to be a priest or sister was a move up both in this world and in your hope for the next, it is no wonder that the numbers of those entering seminaries and novitiates swelled to an unprecedented high.

Some of us look back to that time with a nostalgic longing, a longing for a time of such affirmation and certainty. However, my friends, we have to remember that this was, in reality, just a blip on the radar screen, a brief moment in the history of religious life.

In 1960, our sisters moved into their newly built monastery here at Mt. St. Alphonsus. In its size alone 45,000 square feet, was reflected the expectation of large numbers seeking entrance into the community. It could hold up to forty-three nuns, included a handsome chapel and insured both the enclosure and accommodations for women flocking to the monastery. However, that very period was the cusp of great change in society and the Church. The Second Vatican Council “opened windows” and declared “the universal call to holiness.” The Feminist Movement began to open up for women previously unheard of opportunities. At the same time, the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements raised consciences in matters concerning justice and peace. Many factors contributed to a shrinking of the ranks in all religious communities. Women left religious life because they had to re-examine what they had considered a call in the light of a new societal, cultural and spiritual reality. This community itself remained small, never filling a huge building which could not meet the needs of an aging community and was costly to maintain. Through the generosity of the Redemptorists, the community moved into this new home in 2001.

And where is contemplative monastic life today? What is the status of this life and religious life in general? We are alive and well. The invitation of the Second Vatican Council, (1962 to 1965) to revisit or, in some cases such as ours, to discover for the first time the original inspiration of the founder, was life-giving. The invitation to apply modern educational and psychological principles to the rule of life and the invitation to become more educated in the faith, to become ever more steeped in the Paschal Mystery of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and his Word, have brought religious to places they had never gone before to serve the poor and most abandoned. They have brought men and women into the silence and solitude of the monastery where the focus is clear, where the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience can be lived faithfully in an atmosphere which honors the dignity, maturity and gifts of the individual. Apostolic active religious are doing wonders everywhere in a manner and with a quality of such generous and sacrificial faithfulness that gives glory to God and honors the inspiration of their founders.

Unfortunately, and perhaps it is the fault of that Catholic nostalgia I referred to earlier, the general culture seems a bit schizophrenic in its attitude toward religious. On one hand, there is the play Nunsense (at which I laugh as raucously as anyone), the movie Sister Act which is and unbeatable mix of nuns and rock and roll tunes, and all manner of nun kitsch – boxing nuns, nuns having fun calendars, nun dolls, nun candles, and knick-knacks of all kinds. Out of genuine regard we want sisters our nuns to be there, to be on duty because of their generosity, their faith, their intelligence and their expertise but, at the same time, we think we have the right to tell them what they should be wearing, where they should live, and who we think they should be serving.

On the other hand, and in a very hopeful development, we admired the block-buster, Academy Award winning, Dead Man Walking. Although she dared to minister to a condemned murderer, although she wore a lay woman’s clothing, we loved how Susan Sarandon portrayed Sr. Helen Prejean. In spite of the distastefulness of it all Sarandon reminded us of the single minded dedication to the teachings of Jesus long admired in American religious women.

Last year a German documentary was shown at the Forum, an art movie theater in Manhattan. Titled Into Great Silence, the 240 minute film was a virtually silent record of day to day life in the Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartruese in the French Alps. The director, Philip Groning had first asked permission to make the film in 1984. But the Carthusians, the most austere Catholic order, responded that they were not ready. Sixteen years later they contacted Groning with the simple message, “Now we are ready.” The film took a jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won best documentary at the European Film Awards. When it came to the Forum last year the lines went around the block and it was held over repeatedly. A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times wrote, “…You surrender to Into Great Silence as you would to a piece of music…but your sense of the world is nonetheless perceptibly altered…I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call “Into Great Silence” on of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others.”

So even in the popular culture we find hope. We also find hope in the slowly increasing numbers of applications to communities and in the establishment of new communities of monastic life not only in the Catholic tradition but even among Protestant evangelicals. And in the third world religious life is blooming. While the same factors may be at play there that contributed to the serge here during the 40s and 50s, great work is being done and large congregations have become truly international. The current superior general of the Sisters of Notre Dame, a congregation well known in the United States, is a native of Kerala, India. She is responsible for 2,400 sisters ministering throughout the world.

Recently, in this country, there was a period recently when older women of a certain age predominated among candidates. One sister remarked that these women were about the age that all those who left in the 70s would have reached by this time. Perhaps the Spirit was filling in a vital gap. Unlike the active congregations contemplative orders never stopped accepting older women, an ancient precedent in the life.

To conclude this status report I would like to share some thoughts from the Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister. Her essay, "Old Vision for a New Age", was published in one of the books listed in the bibliography, A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century – Where Do We God from Here? In considering Sr. Joan’s recommendations, we have to bear in mind that Sr. Joan is a monastic but not a contemplative. The difference may not be clear. The Benedictine congregation to which she belongs follows a monastic structure and is very dedicated to the monastic life of prayer. However, they are active religious, many with apostolates outside the monastery. The sisters behind Benedictine hospital are of this type. Yet Sr. Joan’s vision has validity even within the contemplative monastic setting. This is the job description she outlines:

1. Monastic communities must become centers of reflection on the faith, centers of conscience and centers of spiritual development.
2. The monastic community must be a center of public service and a model of interfaith interaction.
3. Monasticism must be a model of equality.

In the same book of essays, Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, offers a more poetic description. In his view, monastic men and woman are to be models of maturity and holiness as they respond to the call to community, service and generosity.

Just as each part of the human body serves a unique purpose geared to its specific function; just as only skin cells can encapsulate our organs, just as only lung cells can absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide; just as only heart cells can form the muscles necessary to pump blood throughout the body; contemplative monastics fulfill a vital and distinct work in the Body of Christ. All religious, but particularly contemplative monastics, reside at the outskirts. We live at the margin, on the edge. As contemplative monastics we live far away from the center of action, form the center of power. We are like those whose restricted pocketbooks put them in the last row of Yankee Stadium or the Metropolitan Opera. We may not be at the center but we sure do have a great view. That gives us a perspective on things, a view of the total reality that is not distorted by the corruption of influence and power. And we are told this freedom is the source of our prophetic wisdom. It is also said that to the extent that we can persevere in living alone together with charity and with mutual compassion for our wounded-ness, our humanity and our diversity we offer a model for peace in our world.

Trappist Abbot Francis Kline concluded his essay To What Holiness? Monasticism and the Church Today with these words:

“The Church makes no spiritual sense without this hidden gift of total surrender to Christ and constant conversion to him. It is the Church’s wedding garment which it only partially wears when it forgets the monastic way. The Church is not its complete spiritual self without this total abandon to the love of God, this total joy of freedom of the children of God, this total sacrifice which is held us as a single ray of light, made up of all the other rays of light, which is the mystery of the Church.

Thankless, rootless, without a home here, unknown or derided, thought foolish and meaningless, the monks and nuns look out on the eastern horizon for Christ the Bridegroom of the Church, in a world still too busy with itself, still too taken up with its own seriousness. The monks and the nuns keep the Church on its toes in vigilant waiting for the Savior. The monk and nuns hold aloft the light of the mystery of the Church, still in this world, but well on its way to full communion with the mysterious God. The light shines on, but in a fog where only the intently gazing can see it.”

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Our Series Continues


Redemptoristine Nuns
The Art of Contemplative Prayer

Church documents concerning monastic communities have invited them to become schools of prayer. Our current Lenten Series is an effort on the part of our community of contemplative nuns to offer that service to the community which surrounds us, to people who hunger for a deeper spirituality and prayer life. The following is an excerpt from the second presentation in the series.

How can justice be done to this topic in the single hour we share here? We have over 5,500 volumes in our monastery library, most of them concerned with the practice of contemplative life and prayer. As I began to prepare, I said to myself, “What can you be thinking? How can you pretend to even approach this topic when the spiritual giants St. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross wrote whole books?”

All that can be offered here is what the Italians call a “ferverino”, a little fervent input, a spiritual pep talk, a heartfelt invitation, a word of encouragement, a shot in the arm. While in no way comprehensive, it comes from the experience, however limited, of a fellow traveler, who remains surveying the moat that must be traversed to reach Teresa of Avila’s interior castle.

The word “art” in the title of this presentation was chosen very purposefully.

Painting is an art. You can only teach so much about perspective, anatomy, paint mediums, and brushes versus palette knives. The rest relies on the eye, the hand, the imagination of the painter at work and the artist’s illusive inspiration. In the same way, the practice of medicine is an art. The physician applies on the principles and findings of hard science according to his own knowledge, experience and diagnostic instincts. Therefore, just as you would not say that painting and the practice of medicine are methods, the practice of contemplative prayer is not a method either. It is an art, an art learned over time, an art form unique to the individual, an art in which the Holy Spirit has the upper hand...

Contemplative prayer is not a method. IT IS AN ART. It is a turning toward, an orientation to, a predisposition for being present to the transcendent and all loving OTHER, the Lord our God. It has also been described as a long, loving look at the real in which we make ourselves present and available, assuming interiorly an open, listening and receptive posture. This is not at all a passive posture although it can seem to be wasting time with God.

This place of total presence and availability can been seen as the ‘inner room’ which Jesus directed us to enter when we pray. BUT, how can we find this inner room, what will lead us there, what is the path we should take, the directions to follow? This is another aspect of the art form. What activity, what practice will facilitate my entrance into this room? What will provide the doorway for me to slip through so that I can get to the place of my tryst with God?

This is the only consideration where a question of method may play a part.

You may think that in a monastery it is so easy to make the transition, to calm body mind and emotions so as to enter the inner room, the monastic cell of ones heart. Certainly it is easier here than in your world. Thousands of years of fine tuning monastic practice have yielded a way of life centered on making the room readily accessible. However, we too reside in the world of 2008. We must fulfill obligations, clean house, earn an income, pay bills, be devoted in loving charity to community members, family and friends. But the obstacles we experience, the hurdles we must jump or go around are not as high as those you encounter.

When I get into bed at night it feels so good. But I know that I cannot just turn over and expect to fall asleep. My body doesn’t work that way. I am still too ‘rev’d’ up by the events of the day. Experience has taught me that even fifteen minutes of reading, fifteen minutes in which my muscles can relax, and respiration slow down will mean that when I do turn over sleep will not be far behind. Similarly, in my former life, it took a quiet ride home from work to depressurize. If I came to the monastery to sit in the chapel, or if I went home to pray alone in my room, I couldn’t just jump in. Usually what helped me to approach that inner room was to read an office from the Liturgy of the Hours. In the process of reading the psalms I would come near the threshold and by the time I was done I could put my foot through the door. I was physically, mentally and emotionally ready to just BE in the presence of God, to hold the fixed gaze. When my mind wandered, I caught myself and said the name of Jesus, renewing my intention to move from brain to heart and to be present to him alone.

What might your method be, your transitional path from busy every day demanding life into that inner room to which Jesus invites? It might be the Rosary recited thoughtfully. It might be a time of Lectio Divina, holy reading, of scripture or a spiritual classic. This is a prayerful and meditative way of reading. Many great books on this, especially one by the Trappist monk, Michael Casey. Perhaps it could be CENTERING PRAYER as taught by the Trappists Thomas Keating and the late Basil Pennington. Or the ancient tradition of repeating the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Another path that works for me is writing in my journal. I can vent, talk about what I need or the needs of others in the world or list all those things for which I am grateful. Often an entry will end in a prayer. Someone else may find a slow contemplative walk just the ticket. By this I do not mean race walking or meeting the exercise requirement of your latest diet. This is a very deliberate slow paced stroll – a walk in which you do smell the roses and listen to the birds...

What is it like to spend time in the inner room? First of all what happens there is completely out of your hands except to the degree that you are committed to staying. To get technical, this is the place in which we can enter into infused or mystical contemplation. But don’t wait for it to happen. The late medieval classic on contemplative prayer is aptly titled The Cloud of Unknowing. The movement of the soul required here is such a total surrender, such a turning over of the self to God that it is most often experienced as a great darkness, especially for the ego. The ego is like the spoiled child stamping its feet at having been put aside in favor of another. In this case the other is God. Over time this negation of the ego allows a strengthening of the true self, the self that God created, the deepest self where we are most intimately united with God. The false self, the persona of the ego, was created for our protection in a harsh world. But that persona is hard to leave behind even when we clearly see that it is no longer needed. By our contemplative prayer we can over time, without even becoming aware, begin to shed that false self and find ourselves behaving in new ways, ways more true to our inmost, god-created selves. But don’t kid yourself, the ego will not go down without a fight. Yet from the very energy of our resistance new life can be born.

So, if it is a dark and empty place, if the flash of darkness is very rare, if there is a chance that I may never see it at all, why bother? Only love and desire, only your pure intention will keep bringing you back. But slowly, surely, maybe in barely perceptible ways things will change. Merton spoke of finding oneself by losing oneself even as we survey the heart of darkness. After a while friends may say things like, “I see something different in you. You’ve changed. What’s your secret?” Another paradoxical development may be that by spending time at the solitary center in union with God, you become, in turn, through God united with all that is. This is the gradual apprehension of the essential oneness of all creation.

A while back I was stuck in a long line of traffic. The wait gave me time to read each of an odd assortment of bumper stickers plastered to the rear of the car in front of me. One so struck me that I grabbed a pad to write down. It was quote from the writer and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness."

Monday, March 03, 2008

Encouraging Celebration

Cardinal Eagen celebrated the Bicentennial of the Archdiocese of New York with twelve hundred religious at St. Patrick's Cathedral yesterday afternoon. Along with two other sisters from our monastery we shared the honor of walking in the entrance profession down the long center aisle of the Cathedral with representatives of over 100 other orders and congregations living and serving in the Archdiocese of New York. It was glorious.

We walk up sunlit Fifth Avenue from Grand Central Station enjoying the sights and atmosphere that only New York City can generate. Window shopping was fun too.

From the Cathedral we hopped on a chartered bus filled with sisters. Out destination was a reception in honor of all the religious at Cathedral High School. This was a blessed opportunity to visit with many old friends. Spotting our red habit, many sisters came to us saying they remembered time spent in retreat at our monastery.

This was a long but most enjoyable, blessed and heart-warming day. Before the final blessing the Cardinal appealed to us to storm heaven with prayers for similarly good weather during Pope Benedict's visit to New York in the middle of April, especially on the 20th, the day set for his Mass at Yankee Stadium. I hope to be there.