1st Reading Ez 37:12-14: Open your graves/put my spirit in you
Psalm 130: With the Lord there is mercy & fullness of redemption
2nd Reading Rom 8:8-11: The Spirit of God will give life to mortal bodies
Gospel Jn 11:1-45: Raising of Lazarus. Thomas said “let us also go to die with him…untie him…let him go free.”
The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a turning point in the unfolding of Jesus’ travel to Jerusalem and ultimately his death. This “SIGN” (the seventh sign in the gospel of John) cements the fear among both religious and government leaders that brings them to the conclusion that Jesus must be exterminated. It is quite clear that none of us can restore another person to life. Yet Jesus has done so in this passage. And it is not jealousy of that power or ability, but rather the fear flowing from the assumption that their own power would be compromised, by allowing Jesus to live, that initiates the circumstances we now know as Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
One might ask who is more in need of untying (or unbinding)? Who is in the worse grave? – – Lazarus or those who are so consumed with doing away with Jesus? And one might ask which death do we fear more – that to which Lazarus had succumbed or that which we recognize as being suffered by Jesus’ enemies?
On this last Sunday before Holy Week our scriptures summon us into a deeper reflection on the life to which God is inviting us and the reality of not only physical death, but the spiritual deadness that afflicts far too many who either have not received the good news or have not had an adequate religious education to appreciate what the Lord is really offering them. So the church endeavors in Lent to truly initiate those with the desire for living in Christ, into a richer appreciation of our faith. And we monks give ourselves with renewed effort to what some might think of as the same old Lenten story – but which we know is actually a path leading into the newness of life made available to us only in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
Cistercian architecture is complimented for many reasons but one is because it embodies the liminal dimension of faith. We are always being invited to cross over the threshold from simply being curious about God and what a life of faith might be, to actually giving ourselves fully to God. We acknowledge that Jesus crossed a line when he summoned Lazarus back to life. He freely chose to embrace the path to Calvary. In coming up from his tomb, Lazarus had to cross over the threshold of his confining burial chamber and embrace the life Jesus offered him. What will I say is the threshold I must cross to fully live the life to which the Lord is calling me?
For a moment, let’s allow ourselves to give our attention to the words of Thomas in today’s gospel? Thomas, the twin, who is better known as ‘doubting Thomas’ because he was not present when the Lord appeared to the apostles’ in the locked upper room after Jesus had risen, is the one who on that occasion said: “I will not believe unless I put my finger in the hole in his hand and my hand in his side.” This is the Thomas who speaks for all of us when he remarks in our gospel reading today: “Let us also go to die with him.” It is no small thing to go to die with Jesus. Yet for each disciple or follower of Christ it is essential.
We cannot but be mindful that the event of restoring Lazarus to life is a real turning point (a liminal moment) and Jesus did not turn away. He entered the arena of a confrontation with those forces in the world that would leave people tied up in living a life that doesn’t hold more than passing value and doesn’t lead to God. This whole scenario presented in today’s gospel begs the question we must ask ourselves. What is binding me from living the freedom Jesus gave back to Lazarus in restoring him to life? From what must I be unbound / untied so as to really embrace living in and for God?Read More »
Lamentations 3:17-33; Philippians 4:4-9; Matt 11:25-30
Jesus tells us in several places in the Gospels that unless we become like little children we will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. And in today’s Gospel Jesus models for us what it means to be child-like. It does not mean to be childish. Nor to be superficial or without depth. It means to speak what you feel and to feel what you see with unveiled eyes, with faces turned outward and not focussed within. And so Jesus can cry out in awe and wonder: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
It seems to me these words are a perfect snapshot of the man who lies in state before us. Michelangelo Colussi was one of God’s little ones, wise as a serpent, but guileless as a dove. He kept his eyes focussed on the one thing necessary: the search for God, as we heard in the Gospel last night at Vespers. He sought God from his youth, he sought a lifestyle which would allow him to live in God’s presence always, with like-minded brothers. And he found the latter at Mepkin. He could not contain his joy. It overflowed in his face, in his sparkling eyes, in his tone of voice. When Bishop Victor, seeing him with a suitcase in hand, kidded with him just a few short hours before he would lapse into the coma from which he would never awaken: “Michelangelo, you are not leaving us already?”, he responded: “O no, Father! I have never felt so welcomed! I want to stay here the rest of my life.” That same enthusiasm bursts forth in his answer on December 15, 2014, to the question Father Kevin posed to him: Do you wish to apply for entrance, and, if so, when would you be free to enter? “Sure!! Immediately! As soon as I get there on Saturday, February 7, 2015. Seven weeks to go. I do not have to come back to Argentina. I’m free and ready to devote the rest of my life serving God and my brothers”. And he added as a conclusion: “I am very grateful to Mepkin Abbey, the abbot and you, Father Kevin, for giving me the chance to visit the Abbey and for considering my vocation. THANK YOU!!!!!!!”
Rejoice in the Lord always, exhorts St Paul, again I will say: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all. As I pondered how I might honor Michelangelo in this homily, I heard him saying to me: “Father Stan, when you came to sit with me last Thursday, Jesus impressed upon you that you could not pray as you prayed with Brother Robert on his deathbed, as you have prayed with so many others on their deathbeds. My mind, my spirit, was muted because of the coma. I could not hear you, I could not respond in any way whatsoever. But Jesus told you to be my voice, to be my prayer, to be me for the two days which remained to me on this earth. And you did so and for that I am so grateful. So now let me be your voice, let me speak directly to my Mepkin brothers. Before I am placed in the sacred earth of Mepkin, let me try to catch them up on the brother they hardly knew.” That is what I heard and so I will try to allow Michelangelo to say what he wants to say through me — using almost exclusively words he either said to one of us or the words written in his preliminary questionnaire and other correspondence.
My brothers, the first thing I want to say is that the great attraction I felt for monastic life is nothing new. It all started 37 years ago in Spain when I entered the novitiate of the Christian Brothers. I went from convent to convent with this great desire to find a secluded place where I could stay just serving God and praying for the rest of my life. I searched for that place for more than three decades unsuccessfully. I went from Brazil to India to California, always living my full Catholic faith within these non-catholic and/or non-Christian monasteries. I was always seeking a life of deeper prayer. I didn’t know the Trappist Order existed. I always went to the wrong Order. I only discovered the Trappists about three years ago on the internet and from that moment on I fell in love with the Order. Since the Trappists in Argentina have an age limit, I studied one by one all twelve Trappist monasteries in the U.S. Mepkin is the one I love the most.
You must know one of the reasons I looked for monastic life outside the Catholic Church is because I am a strict vegetarian since I was a kid. I had a few problems with the Christian Brothers on that issue. I thought the best would be to be with people like me, so I went with Yogis. Only now I found out Trappists are vegetarian.
I do not read extensively. I read the same few books over and over. After the Bible, my main one is ‘The Imitation of Christ’ which I read almost every day. Others: ‘Practicing the Presence of God’ by Brother Lawrence, ‘The Way of the Pilgrim’, ‘Divine Mercy in My Soul’ of St Maria Faustina Kowalska. In Spain I read St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, who are my favorite saints along with St Benedict. I also love to read biographies of saints.
You know, when I was driving those 18 wheelers all over the U.S. eight years ago, I once came near NYC. I asked a cab driver: How do I get to Carnegie Hall? The cab driver replied: ‘Practice, practice, practice’. That has been my mantra all my life. I want to practice my Catholic faith, to practice what the Bible says, to practice what I read in holy books. Besides daily Mass, I have meditated three to five hours almost every day of my adult life. I love to work and have done boiler work on ships, electrical work everywhere, tended a produce garden in the monastery in California as well as creating a huge cactus and succulent garden. I was just getting to know mushrooms and loved working with my brother postulants and juniors.
Father Kevin knows how much I wanted to get a blue shirt. But what I really wanted was the white shirt of the postulant. He said that was a long process, but that if I would be patient it would come. Well, it has come much sooner than he expected. Thank you so much for receiving me as a postulant and allowing me to die and be buried in this place and with the community I have sought for all these 37 years. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! That is what my heart is full of: gratitude. Thank you, my brothers!
It is a tragedy that Michelangelo’s life was cut short one month shy of his 58th birthday. But the insight I was given when we found out he would never awaken remains with me and I share it with you once again. Yes, his death is a terrible tragedy. But his long search had ended. This was all the Lord asked of him: to seek until he found. He had found. His life was fulfilled. He could now hear those tender words of our Savior: Come to me…and I will give you rest.
When he lay dying in the palliative care wing of the hospital, I did speak to him. I asked him that when he arrived in God’s presence to intercede for his Mepkin brothers. To ask Jesus to send new workers into his garden that we might keep the faith, the joy, and the enthusiasm Michelangelo so wonderfully exemplified shining brightly in the Lowcountry and beyond. My brothers, let us do our part that it may be so.
Amen.Read More »
Sirach 11: 20-28; Colossians 3:12-17; Mark 10:17-30
In answer to Peter’s question in today’s Gospel, Jesus enumerates what is prepared for us, ending with the promise of eternal life. Eye has not seen nor ear heard, but we can imagine the scene which took place at 3 AM last Saturday, earth time. There was Robert running with open arms and there was Jesus, himself with open arms running to greet his child, his son, his beloved. “Come, enter into the joy of your master”. “Come, share the paradise of the Father — where the verdant pastures never end, where all the beauty you have seen on earth is magnified a hundredfold and where you can roam in field and forest, river and mountain, and never grow tired.
Joy, joy, joy. Such is the gift which Robert tastes now and forever. And such is the gift, I believe, which he gives to each one of us. Joy was his trademark. He always had a smile on his face. His greeting never left you wondering if you were welcomed. The smile was infectious.
But Robert has other gifts for us and our Readings at Mass and in the Hours, highlight them and help us to understand whence they have come. Because of our limited time, I will speak of just four of them. Joy itself, responsibility/availability, intellectual curiosity, and love.
Joy. Jesus speaks about the joy which no one can take from us. He certainly gave it to Robert in marvelous ways. Did we ever see him without a smile? Even a hint of a smile? Not to my knowledge. And his joy was not a surface thing. For he always had that smile. He always could make lemonade out of the most horrendous things which might happen. His smile said to us very powerfully: All will be well, all manner of things will be well. All is in God’s hands. Fear not. Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world. He had the unshakeable conviction that would not allow him to make mountains out of molehills, to take life too seriously, to see the things which happened in the wider perspective of God’s plan for him and for our world. This joy is Robert’s gift to us. Let us make it our own: the joy which comes when we give up all for Christ, when we believe that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, no temptation, no trial, nothing.
Responsibility/Availability. Robert lived the words of Sirach every day. “Hold fast to your duty… grow old while doing your task.” He never desired to be other than a laybrother, someone who found God in the simple things of life, a life of labor and a life of service. He could always be counted upon. As cellarer, I never had to worry that the chickens were being cared for, that the grass would be cut, that the gate would be locked and the thousand and one other things which Robert would do. When things broke (as they always do) they were fixed without muss or fuss. And Robert lived that phrase of St Benedict and St Paul to the full: “Anticipate the needs of one another”. How many times things were done and we had no idea who did them. And yet, behind them, we recognized the work of Brother Robert. His love for quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is legendary; his enthusiasm for solitary times for prayer and lectio out in the woods has left behind tree houses and lean-tos and myriads of paths through our forests; but whenever anyone needed anything, when a work was to be done, there he was, available at the drop of a hat or a word of request. Not reluctantly or under compulsion, as St Paul would say, but cheerfully, with that characteristic smile.
Intellectual Curiosity. I mean curiosity in the most positive sense possible. I have known monks who chose the laybrotherhood with greater intellectual capacities, but none who have read as much as our Brother Robert. From Bernard Lonergan to John Henry Newman, from Father Faber to Jean Guitton, from spiritual articles in every religious publication we receive to the latest book on his beloved Detroit Tigers, Robert’s mind was kept busy and filled with the longing and desire for God. For that was what his reading was all about: it nourished, strengthened and gave depth and meaning to his search for God. He never gave a sermon, never gave a class, and yet how many of us received little post-it stickies attached to an article or a book which he would recommend. My own friendship in this way began when I returned from my studies at Gethsemani in December, 1965, and he saw me taking out a volume of Newman’s sermons from the library. The next thing I knew he was suggesting what to read, the order in which to read, so that my understanding of Newman would be well-rounded. He was a great guide because he had already read almost everything Newman had written. Since that encompasses more than twenty volumes, that is no mean task. But that was our Brother Robert. This lasted right up to the end, when periodically I would find in my box an article on some topic we were discussing in community or which I was teaching in Chapter. And I have to say: they were always spot on. Robert’s prayer and monastic journey were founded on the best of our centuries old tradition of good books and spiritual mentors.
Love. As God’s chosen ones, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience…. Above all, clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. How many times did Robert remind us that love was the ultimate measuring stick. Whatever we were discussing, whether it be silence or solitude or work or reading or hospitality, love always came first, love was always what we were to use to judge whether something was to be done or to be left undone. He had entered the school of charity when he became a Cistercian and he never backed down on this reality, no matter how unpopular it might be in certain circumstances.
There is another aspect of love which bears mentioning. In the Gospel passage from Mark we have just heard, perhaps the most potent words are words left out in Luke’s account of the same incident. Mark highlights that before Jesus asked the young man to give up all to follow him, he looked upon him and loved him. Robert knew himself as loved by God from an early age. He accepted it. He received this from his parents, especially his dearly loved mother Wanda and it drove his whole life. He never doubted it. It was at the core of why he could give so freely of his time and talent for whatever needed to be done. And it allowed him to say at the end of his life over and over: Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. It allowed him, in his words, to know how to wait. God loved him and would come to take him to himself at the time God desired. Robert would wait. Robert would sigh. Robert would say, Come, Lord Jesus, even as his body wasted away before us. He would not become bitter. He would not judge God harshly. He would keep that smile to the end. He would rejoice each day as I brought Holy Communion to him. He would nod his head when I asked if he wanted to pray. Jesus loved him and defying all medical expertise to the contrary, he remained responsive and conscious to the end. Call no one happy before their death, for by how they end, a person is known, we heard from Sirach. May our end be like that of our brother.
Robert, last Saturday Jesus came and took you to himself and left us bereft. From your place in the verdant pastures of God, keep smiling down upon us. Teach us Joy and Responsibility and Curiosity and above all Love. Then we, your brothers, family and friends, will join you in that most loving koinonia and community before the face of God, the God who is all mercy and love. Amen.
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Blessed Christmas, my brothers and sisters. Blessed Christmas from the monks of Mepkin to each one of you and to all your families. There are hardly any sweeter words we can say to one another than these: Blessed Christmas! Merry Christmas. And so, let us turn to each other and say it!Read More »
Genesis 28:11-18; I Peter 2:4-9; John 15:9-17
Today is our feast, my brother monks. Today we celebrate something that is very, very personal to each one of us. Today we celebrate 65 years of monastic life in this place in the LowCountry of South Carolina called Mepkin. Sixty-five years! Today we celebrate 21 years in this house, this holy building, consecrated for the Church of Mepkin. Today is our feast, my brothers. Today we celebrate ourselves, we celebrate what God has done in our midst through our own hands. And to each one of you who are here celebrating with our monastic community I say: Today is your feast also, all of you who find, in some way or other, your spiritual home in Mepkin. All of you, whether you have been coming to Mepkin for over twenty years or whether — like Miss Shirley and some of our young cub scouts — this is your first visit.Read More »
1st rdg Ez 18:25-28; psalm 25; 2nd rdg Phil 2:1-11; gospel Mt 21:28-32
Jesus powerfully teaches on the theme of conversion in offering the story of the two sons and the vineyard in this passage from Matthew’s gospel. Who among us has not said yes to God and reneged or said no and revisited and changed our decision. Ongoing conversion – at the heart of our vow of conversatio morum – means that we are dealing with a process. This is not like shutting on or off a switch. The conversion of one’s heart as well as the conversion of one’s mind precede the behavioral changes that manifest the consistent turning to God a life of conversion entails.
When the prophet Ezekiel speaks the words: ‘turn from your transgressions’ – we realize that first there must be some comprehension of having transgressed which means there is an awareness that there is a way and an appreciation that that way has not been followed. We hear Ezekiel enter a dialogue acknowledging the disposition many – even today – have to say that God is unfair – when in truth, that accusation is a means of trying to excuse oneself from the good behavior that is the mark of a Godly person. So rightly Ezekiel asks – is it God’s way that is unfair or rather the reverse?Read More »