Friday, March 25, 2011

The Prodigal Son by Edward John Poynter.

Be Perfect
as Your Heavenly Father
is Perfect: Eucharistic Anamnesis
Informing the Redemptoristine Charism

Reading for Saturday, March 26, 2011
Micah 7:14-15, 18-20
Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

It has been said that Jesus is the revelation of the Father. So we ask, “And what does he reveal?” Today’s readings give ample evidence of a particular divine skill set. The Father does not persist in anger. The Father delights in clemency. The Father is compassionate, kind and faithful. But the penultimate skill highlighted by the prophet Micah, spoken of in Psalm 103 and illustrated in the Gospel of Luke by Jesus the storyteller – in all of these the overarching skill is that of forgivness. I am not good at this. Anger and resentment cling to me like a wet sheet. I can’t seem to extricate myself from the tangle and all the while I get chilled to the bone, and frozen in my heart. So I am particularly chastened by the last words of Jesus’ affecting parable, “My son, you are with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.” If this is how I am to become, if this is what it means to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, I tend to think that I don’t stand a chance.

St. Alphonsus would remind us that we can best conform ourselves to this model of divine forgiveness by means of meditative prayer, participation in the Eucharist and the effort to persevere. Today I would like to focus on the Eucharist which ‘cultivates’ us, loosening the soil of our ingrained habits and thinking, making it possible for grace to flow in and, like a great tsunami, dislodge our default responses of anger and resentment.

How does this happen? The Eucharistic Prayer itself informs and sheds light on the mystical nature of what it is to be a “living memory” of Jesus as expressed by Maria Celeste. And at the same time  it transforms us into that very person whom we remember during the Consecration of the Mass. It is in considering what the memorial of the Mass is – what Eucharistic anamnesis is – that we can shed light on the Eucharist reality.

At the consecration of the Mass not only is the Body and Blood of Jesus made present under the appearance of bread and wine but Jesus and all of the Paschal Mystery are also made present and active among us in this very moment. We are not merely remembering Jesus’ life and sacrifice on the cross. Those events are rendered as living and actively working their redemptive power for the world at this time.

So often during her post-communion meditations Jesus revealed himself to Maria Celeste She wrote:

“One morning after Holy Communion I heard in the very center of my Soul these words of the Credo pronounced: ‘One in being with the Father, through whom all things were made’ -so that filled to overflowing with Divine Gifts, it seemed to me that the Divine Essence was in Lord Jesus Christ…gave me His Divine Heart…in place of my own…I seemed to enter into a new life of love, a life in God.

This passage speaks of a transformation that is not merely an imitative overlay but a participation in the substance, the very essence of Jesus. And it is not static participation just for one moment. It propels her “into a new life of love, a life in God”. In this human participation Jesus, his Paschal Mystery, his work of redemption is made present and active in our time. Gradually these mystical experiences revealed to Maria Celeste the necessity of remembering always, of living a life of remembering, a life of one-ness with Jesus Christ so as to become Christ.

Just as the anamnetic character of the Eucharistic meal was buried over time by layers of theological argumentation concerning the consecratory elements of the Mass, Celeste’s concept of “living memory” suffered from obscurity for over two hundred years. In the 20th century each became the object of a kind of archaeological dig, treasures to be unearthed in the tectonic shifts powered by the Second Vatican Council. We can now appreciate hoe the anamnetic character of the Eucharistic banquet is deeply rooted in ancient Hebrew liturgical tradition. To say that the last supper was merely a commemoration of the Passover event would have been meaningless to the Jewish mind. Jewish scholars tell us that to commemorate and remember is in the Jewish tradition never a mere remembering but always implies a look toward the future and a making present again in real time.

In our Eucharist we call to mind the person and events of our salvation in such a way that we render them living and active in our time. The “we” plural pronoun is operative here. In the various Eucharistic Prayers appear these words:

"We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you."

"We offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice."

"Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy so that they may become the body and blood of your son, our Lord Jesus Christ."

By this collective effort and offering Jesus becomes uniquely present in the consecrated bread and wine but also actively, powerfully present in our time with and among us. In each Eucharistic Prayer the epiclesis invokes the power of the Holy Spirit, the agent of consecration. “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts and make them holy.” We ask that the elements be transformed. But if we place our own selves on the table of the altar we can ask that we too may be may become holy and be transformed into the mystery that we celebrate, the mystery of the sacrament of remembrance. It is in this offering, in this remembering that we become what is being remembered. In this is our one hope for transformation. This is the way of our transformation into the “living memory” of Jesus who reveals the Father and issues the invitation to “be perfect as your heaven Father is perfect. This is the transformative union that makes it possible for us to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Call to All Ships at Sea

The Morse Code letters "SOS" became an international distress call early in the 20th century. It was used in many a desparate situation. I have another desparate situation to describe. At the end will come a request for your help.

Contemplative nuns receive requests for prayers by every means possible these days. This one came through a recently established network with over 80% of the members of my high school class, Fontbonne Hall '63. Largely responsible for the effort was our class president Eileen who wants us to be totally prepared for our 50th reunion. Of course e-mail and Facebook are the main means of our connection.

We rejoiced with Eileen when her first grandchild was born late in 2009. Sadie Abigail is a beauty, like mother Elisa and grandmother too. But quickly into this year the news was not to be rejoiced over. Late in January, Elisa's husband Nathan was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. Nathan is 38 years old. Elisa blogged about the diagnosis, their quandries over treatment decisions and eventual choice of Sloan Kettering's protocall. Nine days later, following a mammography for a small lump, Elisa was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few days later Elisa, age 36, learned that the cancer was stage 4! As she wrote in her blog, "At these words the air went out of the room."

Now, as you are absorbing the shock and thinking about the ramifications of this, I want to ask you to consider two things. I am motivated by my limited ability to do anything for this beautiful couple now so taxed and so challenged. All I can do is pray for them, for those who treat them and those who love them. In the last category I pray particularly for my friend Eileen. But I also thought that I could reach out and enlist others in this prayer chain of support for Elisa and Nathan. So I am asking you to pray.

Should you wish to know more of their story and to attach faces to this request go to the following site.

Elisa's cousin and friends have established a trust fund which will help them with the non-covered costs of maintaining themselves thorough this crisis. Should you wish to make a donation I know that it will be greatly appreciated. Should you be unable to do so go to the site any way because it is beautifully and lovingly done and will make this couple real in your mind.

Elisa's blog can be found at:

The last two heart wrenching entries were posted by Nathan trying his hand at it for the first time because since receiving a port and beginning daily chemotherapy Elisa has been unable to post herself. 

Thanks for listening to this "SOS" call. Thanks for your prayers, too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Of Gods and Men"

Cinema as Lenten

Rarely have big screen film images so persistantly returned to mind, not to mention heart, as those seen in the film "Of Gods and Men", directed by Xavier Beauvois. For months we have been reading uniformly fine reviews of in publications like the New York Times, America Magazine and The New Yorker.

The film tells the true story of eight Trappist monks caught in the middle of a brutal and protracted civil war between government forces and an Islamist insurgency in Algeria during the 1990s. The French monks who had come to enjoy an integral and highly respected relationship with the Moslems surrounding them, were ultimately drawn into the violence. In 1996 they were kidnapped and beheaded. The insurgency claimed responsibility at the time but more recent revelations in previously secret documents indicate some governmental involvement.

This film is appropriate material for Lenten meditation.  Witnessing the rising level of brutal violence around them and feeling pressure from both Islamist extremists who suspect all foreigners and local military presence resentful of care given to members of the insurgency in the monastery clinic, the monks must decide whether to heed official warnings and leave the country or to remain and continue to give witness to the Christian message of God's love. Particularly affecting is depiction of the interior process of each man reconsidering the meaning of his call and that of the web of relationship and commitment which creates and sustains the monatsic community. Each monk has to come to grips with the decision to remain in place, living in the charity taught by Jesus Christ or leaving in order to escape almost certain death. The passage through faith of each man is imaged on the screen as he moves even deeper into the Passion of Jesus.

Beneath the surface features of a life played out among 'the other' (Algerian Muslim culture) and later in the presence of unpredictable and horrible violence, there excisted the unchageable, the essential, the law of love embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. This was love for the self, their small monastic community and the people among whom they lived. The monks are seen discussing matters of faith and ethics with local Muslim teachers; healing children and treating the elderly in their clinic; and celebrating cultural rites of passage with their Moslem neighbors. Neither hardship nor harsh reality could sway them because they are able in prayer and in discussion with each other to move once again to the deeper place within; the place where ultimate truth, ultimate love reside.

One last observation from one who lives in monastic community. The film is particularly effective in communicating subtle interactions between community members, those non-verbal looks, gestures and actions which express fraternal love and respect, the quality of inter-relationship that should typify the monastic community. Watch for these expressions of love among men who have lived together for a long time in the day to day of contemplative life.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Lenten Prayer

A Daily Prayer

Our Byzantine rite brothers and sisters will use this prayer every day during Lent. It is attributed to an early Church Father, Saint Ephrem of Syria.

O Lord of my life, take away from me the  spirit of laziness, faintheartedness, ambition and idle talk. But grant me rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Yes, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own sins and faults and not to judge my neighbor, for you are truly blessed forever. Amen.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Seasons Turn

The Holy Face Not Made by Human Hands
egg tempera and gold leaf on gesso

The Liturgical Year brings us into the season for dwelling upon the infinite mercy of God. Yes, that's the infinite mercy of God. And yes, we commonly think of the Lenten season as a penitential time; a time for reparation and sorrow for sin. But as was heard in the reading from the book of Joel at Mass today, what God calls us to is not a rending of garments but rather a rending of hearts - a tearing open of the heart so that it can be moved to pity, to prayer, to alms giving, and to defending the cause of justice. But Jesus warns, "When you give alms do not let your right hand know what you left hand is doing...and when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and prayer to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."

Ash Wednesday is a celebration of the mercy of God who never ceases to draw us closer and while seing into the secret recesses of our hearts and is moved to forgive. The rending of hearts, withdrawing to the inner room and being seen in secret speak of the very interior nature of the spiritual process in which we try to engage during Lent. It is a process most likely to be carried out in silence and solitude, a more contemplative way of being. Why not try to carve out some for yourself and bring Jesus into that secret space with you and see what happens in these forty days or so?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What? Catholic Science Fiction?

A Classic of the Sci-Fi Genre

Just in case you haven't noticed, this blogger and contemplative nun has been a heavy duty reader since fourth grade. That's the year Miss Laventhal walked our class to the local storefront public library. I fell in love; began with the YA biography section; and worked my way thorough shelf by shelf.

In 1961 - OMG - 50 years ago - my parents took my sister and I on a three month long driving tour of  Europe - probably the most educational experience of my life. The trip was noteable on so many counts but is also memorable for the number of times I was sick. TV in my language could not be my distraction so Dad would do one of his favorite things. He would prowl the book stalls for books to amuse me. One of his purchases was A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer Walter M. Miller, Jr., first published in 1960. Based on three short stories Miller contributed to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; it is the only novel published by the author during his lifetime. Considered one of the classics of science fiction, it has never been out of print and has seen over 25 reprints and editions. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel. Recently I re-read this unlikely sci-fi choice for my diversionary reading. I recommend it highly.

Set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it. Sounds like our own historical Dark Ages in which monasteries preserved ancient learning while the barbarian hordes were being fought all around them.

Inspired by the author's participation in the Allied bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, the novel is considered a masterpiece by literary critics. It has been compared favorably with the works of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy, and its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state have generated a significant body of scholarly research.

At first reading when I was sixteen years old I was fascinated by the idea of my own civilization being deciphered by another less sophisticated defining itself hundreds of years after a nuclear war. Like the archaeologist  Howard Carter discovering Tutankamen's tomb, they could only guess at the meaning of their finds. The novel reveals what happens when the technology of the nuclear age is reappropriated; when the science is figured out; when once again atomic tests are being carried out in the desert. There are lessons here about the risks of not being students of history. The novel is also an astounding commentary on what is currently happening in our Church because of its way of doing business, a way light years removed from what Jesus would do. In this aspect, A Canticle Leibowitz, is very much a Catholic science fiction novel. Who would have thought?

BTW, I got my copy from the local public library on inter-library loan. I am still in love with the public library.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Listen to a Broadcast Interview of This Blogger

A Nun's Life Ministry
Catholic Sisters
and Nuns
in Today’s World

That's the title of the interactive website supported by the great congregation of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan. My friends at A Nun's Life, Sisters Julie and Maxine describe their site in this way:

"A Nun’s Life Ministry is founded on the belief that each person is called by God to a vocation that enriches the individual and benefits the world. A Nun’s Life helps people discover and grow in their vocation, that is, their life’s calling, by engaging questions about God, faith, and religious life."

As a contemplative nun and as the vocation director for our communnuty I have been a staunch fan and constant admirer of the site from its infancy. I have watched in amazement as the technical sophistication and offerings for vocation discerners have been expanded.

On February 4th of this year I fielded questions along with Sisters Julie and Maxine during their weekly Friday evening hour long interactive podcast. I sat at my computer watching the typed conversation with participants appear on my screen and was able to type in my comments AND, at the same time, I was on the phone with my voice going out to all who were tuned into the podcast. It just blows your mind!

Should you have some time to listen to  three sisters responding to the questions of young women regarding religious life you can hear the archived program by using the following link. Comments would be appreciated.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Monastic Way of Bereavement

Little Peggy Banville
 as drawn by her older sister Diana (Dida)

How Does a Monastic
Community Mourn?

One of the reasons for creating this blog over three years ago was to offer a view into contemporary contemplative monastic life. What does it mean to be a contemplative nun at the beginning of the 21st century? Some older readers have a memory of dark, silent and foreboding monasteries; places where one might catch only a glimpse of a sister swathed in an elaborate habit behind the grille in the chapel or the parlor or hear only a disembodied voice behind the 'turn' in the foyer. Younger readers often have no memory or knowledge of the life at all and wonder what it is really all about. I hope that the posts here have filled in some of the gaps.

Our most recent community experience has been the death of a beloved sister, one of the foundresses of this monastery. She wrote her own story which appears on our website. Her obituary information can be read in previous posts.

My purpose here is to speak of the monastic way of death; to communicate in some fashion how living in the light of faith plays itself out in every part of life, including the end days.

Sr. Peg was a survivor. She had prevailed in spite of cancer, a heart attack, various cardiac procedures including open-heart surgery and two hip replacements. But in the last year cardiac issues became increasingly debilitating. After two episodes of hospitalization followed by some time in a nursing home and then return home, it became obvious that the end of life was approaching. Sister wanted to live the rest of her days, however many, in the arms of the community. In a monastery one of the regular assignments is that of infirmarian, the person who assists the sick as a nurse but without the RN after her name. Sr. Peg and the infirmarian worked out a plan to engage the assistance of Hospice. This was a wonderful choice. We were still caring for her in the day to day and later during the night but Hospice provided the care of an aide twice a week, a hospital bed, oxygen, home delivery of medicine, regular visits by a chaplain and a nurse. And whenever there was a crisis the nurse was only a phone call away. The move to Hospice care indicates an acceptance of the natural process of death. This acceptance is often a big hurdle. But the life of faith engenders trust in the Divine Will and Sr. Peg had come to that point of trust.

Sr. Peg was not totally bedridden until the last few days of her life. Prior to that, she came to community activities as she could. She said, "It's a sad house that cannot support one lady of leisure." When she came to Office or Mass she was often clad in her red (Redemptoristine red) robe and blue slippers. She attended a community meeting just eleven days before her death. After a particularly low time she requested the Anointing of the Sick and asked that we all be present. Afterward she declared, "I have been launched!"

Death came two days after the onset of a coma. We would pray around her bed in the morning and sisters took turns sitting with her day and night. With her permission preparations were made for her wake vigil service, the funeral Mass and her memorial card considering her desires for music, quotations, etc. So, in some ways, everything could be set in motion immediately. Her last breath came early in the afternoon. We all said our personal good-byes. The Hospice nurse was present to support us in these last moments. The process of completing the obituary, sending a death notice to all our monasteries around the world and notifying family and friends via phone and e-mail began.

Redemptoristine Nuns take solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In keeping with the desire for simplicity in all things, we ordered a plain pine casket from the Trappists in Iowa. Its simple blond wood spoke volumes of our values and our faith. It is also our custom that two sisters go to the mortuary to assist in dressing the body of the deceased sister in her habit. This is an expression of our continuing loving care, respect for the dignity of the bodily remains, and the sacredness of being clothed in the habit and other symbols of profession. The cross which she received at her profession of vows was placed in the casket.

We received Sr. Peg's body back at the monastery with a ritual service just before Midday prayer. Her casket was placed in front of the altar. All of our communal prayer came from the Office of the Dead in the Liturgy of the Hours and was offered in the presence of her body until Mass the next day. Friends visited from 2 to 4pm and again in the evening from 7 to 9pm. At 7:30 the community and a large number of guests offered Night Prayer (Compline). Within that Office Sr. Paula our prioress spoke most touchingly of her experience of Sr. Peg as sister and friend and co-foundress of this monastery in 1957. She invited others to speak. Among them were one of our lay associates, a former spiritual director to Sr. Peg, a sister from the nearby monastery of Poor Clares and another member of this community.

The funeral Mass was also celebrated in our monastery chapel. It was very crowded but we wanted all of these rites to take place in the intimacy of our home. Eleven Redemptorists priests were present as well as many associates and friends. Presiding at the Mass was the Vice-provincial of the Baltimore Province. The homilist was a priest of whom Sr. Peg was very fond. Many learned of her passing from the obituary published in our local newspaper. Incorporated into the Mass booklet were things written by Peg and art created by herself or her sister. Lots of photographs were taken and later shown as a slide show on a digital picture frame. A large display board had been prepared with an array of photos documenting her life as member of the Canadian military; as Redemptoristine nun for over 60 years; and as a much-loved member of a large extended Canadian family.

At the conclusion of Mass we processed on foot to the cemetery here at Mount St. Alphonsus where Sr. Peg joined three other sisters of our community. Dozens of roses had been sent to the monastery with condolences. They were strewn on the casket at the cemetery, their red buds standing out in bold relief. The formal blessing was given and then many took turns to punctuate that blessing with holy water. It was hard to leave the gravesite but we all slowly walked back to the Mount where the Redemptorists so generously provided a warm lunch for all.

All of the rites and the Mass underscored a life of faith in the Redeeming Christ. They spoke in words, music, atmosphere and joyful manner of our sister now united with her "Dear Heart". Of course, we are now quite exhausted and are living with a very much felt hole in our community. Such occasions do make one think of the future and what it holds for each of us. But we are also, by virtue of our memory of Sr. Peg, her faithfulness, her struggles, and her joys, even more motivated to do the same, to follow in her path. May we, through her intercession, be given the same strength, wisdom, love and gift of perseverance.

Our infirmarian, Sr. Peg's faithful and loving care-giver will take a week of much needed rest. The community will gather together this weekend to talk about memories and how we are handling this whole experience. We will try to live in the moment, to understand our sadness, our reactions and concerns. We also want to speak of the meaning for each of us in contemplating the transition into new life on high with Jesus Christ.