Sunday, October 20, 2013

Receiving Eucharist at the Carmel of the Incarnation

Approaching the Table of the Lord

We recently received a reminder from our prioress to plan for our annual personal long retreat by the end of this calendar year. We have been much distracted for most of this year and such plans put aside. As I considered possibilities for a retreat of ten days outside the monastery I realized how much daily Eucharist meant to me and how I would be missing that privilege at all the locations which I considered.

These considerations brought me to meditation about my experience of Eucharist and how it has been affected by our experience in this monastery. I feel the warm Divine Embrace most keenly at the table of God’s love. And I have been feeling it even more keenly here at Carmel where both the architecture of the chapel and the choreography of liturgy seem designed to concentrate attention at the heart of the Eucharistic celebration.
The chapel, formerly very dark and hard at the edges, was recently reconfigured within the existing wall and roof structure to assume it the shape of an eye on the horizontal axis of the space. The current design places the entrance to the space at the middle of the curving bottom. The Eucharist is reserved in a silver cube-like tabernacle atop a wooden pillar opposite the entrance as if on the curve of the eye’s upper lid.
The shape is echoed most dramatically by an eye-shaped flying dropped ceiling. This pure white eye above contains a dome illuminated by indirect lighting and most dramatically by an ocular skylight at its apex. This opening to the sky brings a variety of lighting effects into the space as the sun travels across the sky through each day and each season. This ocular mandala illuminates the altar below, the entire eye-shape being mirrored in the tile pattern of the lustrous chapel floor.

The altar of Eucharist directly beneath the dome is perfectly round; a thick beige marble slab resting upon a matching platform of hardwood supported by four stout rectangular legs cross braced near the floor. Simple pewter candle stands seem anchored to holy ground in guard at the altar. Regardless of the location the viewer in any seat in the chapel seems to be directly facing the altar. The presider’s chair is the first seat of the first row of an in-the-round arrangement. He proclaims the Word from an ambo placed between the entrance and the altar.

When one makes a visit to the chapel during the day lighting is minimal. The beautiful setting behind the tabernacle immediately draws the eye and attention to the reserved Sacrament.  But when we gather for Mass the lighting is magnified, promoting a natural shift of eye and body toward the center of attention, the altar of the sacred banquet. In my own case, I am blessed to be assigned to a seat only twelve feet away from the altar at an angle which allows for a clear view of the vessels, the hands of the priest, the elements he consecrates and the expression on his face as he does so.
This arrangement alone fosters a unique intimacy in the experience of Eucharist. The priest so easily becomes Jesus himself beckoning, sharing, gifting; his movements imploring us to enter his life. The moment of remembering, the anamnesis of the Mass seems in this setting to be a progressive flowing into the Paschal Mystery. The flow of this shared moment of intimacy is extended by the manner in which all who celebrate here may partake of the Body and Blood of Christ made present on the altar by the very act of our remembering.

It has become the practice of this community to receive the Bread of Eucharist from the hands of the priest by approaching in two lines beginning from the rear of the chapel. Afterward each communicant is free to return to
their place for post-communion meditation or to proceed around the altar and face the chalices of the Wine of Eucharist waiting there. The altar is approached with evident but simple reverence, each person picking up a chalice and slowly savoring the Precious Blood of Jesus, cleansing the rim with a purificator and returning it to the corporal for the next communicant.

Some remark that this way of receiving Communion at Mass takes too much time. Some exacting liturgist may say it does not conform to the prescribed norms. Certainly it would not be practical in the parish setting. But here, where there are rarely more than 40 people present, it serves to provide time for a few contemplative moments at the heart of the Mass.

This manner of approaching the altar has provided for me a very sacred moment of intimacy; a very physical way of participating in Jesus’ last supper which we call into memory and into the present moment at every Eucharist. I come to the altar as if it is the table on which Jesus himself prepared this last gift, blessed it and invited all to partake of it; the bread and wine transformed by his power and by the community gathered together to listen to His Word. The altar table has been so carefully prepared; linens laundered white and crisply pressed, bearing a glowing chalice of precious metal containing rich wine. How many tables have I prepared with all the best in my own home? I remember the loving care I poured into banquet occasions so that they would be gift to the guest. In knowing that desire within myself I feel that same desire in the gift of Jesus’ table. My thirsty heart is watered by the sight of the lavish banquet prepared for me at this altar bathed in the light of God’s loving gaze. A heart thus watered blossoms into gratitude as I step to the altar and see all that awaits me there, all of it seeming to glow in the light that bathes what is received and those who receive it. I stand in the place where He stood; where He issued the invitation; where He made a place for me at His table. I raise the cup and drink at the banquet table of God’s love eager again to be transformed into what has been received. I am drawn into the anamnesis of the Mass, the act of remembering, in such a way that what is being remembered becomes present in our space, in our time. 



Saturday, October 05, 2013

Old Voice for New Times

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock
hermitage at the Cisterican Monastery
of Gethsemane, Kentucky
The Trappist monk Father Louis, or Thomas Merton as he is commonly known, died 45 years ago. One would think that now in these fast paced times, in  a period considered by some as 'post-institutional religion', he would be 'done and over'. He could just be a little remembered phenom; the writing hermit whose literary voice helped to usher eager Catholics into the long awaited reforms of the Second Vatican Council and invited them to plumb the spiritual depths of the God relationship so that the renewal could take root. Then he died too young, only age 53, victim of accidental electrocution in Thailand during his exceptional Asian journey.
But Thomas Merton is still speaking to us and it is the very technological blessings of these fast-paced times that is making him available to us in surprisingly intimate ways. He has spoken to me these days with the force of a therapeutic jolting, a seismic jolt out of dysfunctional malaise.
Seeking spiritual guidance and intellectual enrichment I let my eyes wander through our community collection of recorded courses and lectures now in CD format. Through the years I had listened to poor quality audio tapes of Merton's lectures to his Novices. He was Novice Master for 15 years. Before cassette tapes became available, reel to reel tapes of his talks were informally circulated among contemplatives and laity eager to share his wisdom. As I looked at our current collection I sought titles of things I had not previously heard.
All of Merton's literary output and his recorded lectures are held by the Merton Legacy Trust and the Merton Center of Bellarmine University. (A lesson to us all - he died so young but had the wisdom to prepare his Literary Will some years before.) Now the gifts of technology are serving to make every recorded word Merton uttered available to anyone who wants to hear them today. CDs are available from NowYouKnowMedia.
These days I have been listening to a series of lectures Merton recorded alone in the natural surroundings of his own hermitage. These rather spontaneous talks were intended for the Sisters of Loretto whose motherhouse was nearby. They requested that Merton record his responses to written questions submitted by them. His tapes (reel to reel) would then be shared among the members of the Loretto community as part of their preparation for a General Chapter in 1967, a Chapter which would deal with the call to renewal of religious life.
He speaks in such a relaxed manner, in a tone suggesting that he considers the sisters to be an audience of his peers with whom he can be frank and to whom he has no need to condescend. Indeed, it was very touching to hear at the end of one lecture, " I will pray for you. I love you."
Merton's words in these lectures were so relevant to his times but it is striking to me that they have so much relevance for the situation in which we find ourselves today. His words have been gift to me and so appropriate for our current time as the Church, under the significant leadership of Pope Francis, seems to be emerging from a long period of self-absorption; denial of its own grievous faults; and its failure to preserve the value and significance of its spiritual voice for all people.
And Merton is so real. There is no Pollyanna here. He calls a spade a spade; warns of the pitfalls; acknowledges his own weakness; and acknowledges the price to be paid in taking the higher road. But he urges always that we must remain rooted in Jesus Christ and seeking the freedom of the children of God.
Why not revisit Merton? Why not visit him for the first time?