31 January 2006

St. John Bosco

Very often, when people hear us speaking of "Salesian Spirituality" they think immediately of St. John Bosco. Indeed, the Salesians of Don Bosco are very much a part of our Salesian family. In 1869 when John Bosco formally established his Oratory, he took St. Francis de Sales as his patron. The gentleness which is so prevalent in St. Francis de Sales' writings and exhortations would serve him well in his work with the boys to whom he ministered.

Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities of St. John Bosco was his great love and enthusiasm for young people -- the boys who attached themselves to him, whom he befriended, who eventually became the first members of his Oratory. His attitude, in the face of youth, was one of great hope. He saw enormous potential in the young men he welcomed into the oratory; he trusted that a little kindness, a little structure, little tough love and his mother's good cooking would nourish their bodies and their souls. And he was right. Among the boys he welcomed into his company was young Dominic Savio. Dominic died of tuberculosis at age 15 and was canonized in 1954. A feather in St. John Bosco's halo!

It is sometimes too easy to see only the externals of a young person: how he acts, talks, walks, etc., -- things that were learned or not learned at home. St. John Bosco was able to see beyond the sometimes-mannerless attitude of the boys who joined his number. He looked at these boys and saw the potential for great holiness. Let us ask his intercession for all those who strive to bring the Gospel message to our young people today.

To read more about St. John Bosco, click here.

29 January 2006

Unclean Spirits

We don't like to talk about unclean spirits -- and with good reason. It is striking -- and even jarring -- how the unclean spirits in today's Gospel know who Jesus is. The evil one knows a good thing when he sees it. And the evil one knows well who Jesus is.

It should come as no surprise to us that the most modest of Lenten resolutions have a way of seeming to be Herculean tasks by the second or third week of Lent -- if not before. At first a new endeavor seems manageable and easy but as time passes, the resolution becomes harder and, very often, our motivation seems to wane. Whenever we set our hearts to follow the Lord more closely and take deliberate steps to do so, it attracts the attention of the evil one. When we make a resolution to be kind to someone whom we find troublesome or when we arrange our day to make a little more time for prayer or spiritual reading we open ourselves to the grace of God -- and, we attract the attention of the evil one. Very often, the discouragement we feel, the lack of motivation to persevere, etc., are all manifestations of the evil one trying to keep us from growing in holiness. In the same way that the "unclean spirit" in today's Gospel recognized Jesus, it recognizes our desire for Jesus when we set our hearts and our minds to grow closer to Him.

We cannot, of ourselves, overcome temptations of any kind. Only the Lord can steel our hearts against evil, "unclean" spirits. We can only remain as calm and unaffected as possible, trusting in the Lord's care for us. (Much easier said than done!) St. Francis de Sales, in a letter to St. Jane de Chantal had the following to say about such temptations:

"And are we to get anxious about it and change our attitude? Oh, no, never! It is the devil who is roaming around our soul, spreading confusion and prying to see whether he cannot find some door open somewhere. . . . Let him kick his heels outside, and keep all the doors and windows tightly shut; he will get tired of it in the end, and if he does not, God will make him raise the siege."

27 January 2006

St. Angela Merici

Today's feast of St. Angela Merici is technically an optional memorial for most people. It is, however, no mere commemoration for those who teach -- and teach girls, at that. One homilist, a number of years ago, gave us a lengthy description of St. Angela's life and ministry and at the end, he leaned into the microphone and said, "...and truly, she is the patron of all who teach little girls."

St. Angela was a woman ahead of her time. She had a vision which was unprecedented and untested. In 1535, when she founded the "Company of St. Ursula" (the patron saint of learning in Europe at the time), she sent these women back into the world, into their families, into society, to change the world from the inside out. The "company" which she founded on 25 November 1535 became formally incorporated as a religious order known today as the Ursulines. Click here to read more about the Ursulines

Today, in addition to the Ursuline sisters who live out her legacy in the world today, we have many men and women who live lives similar to what St. Angela originally envisioned, changing the world from the inside out. Some of these men and women live as members of secular institutes. In her day there was no such canonical distinction. She was a visionary well ahead of her time.

Her message to those of us to teach -- and all who work with the young -- is as applicable today as when she wrote it, over 400 years ago. Speaking of the young charges entrusted to her early sisters she writes, " . . . it will be impossible for you not to have each and every one engraved upon your memory and in your mind. I beg you, strive to draw them by love, modesty, charity and not by pride and harshness." A timeless message for all messengers of God's word to the young!

26 January 2006

Ask for Nothing Refuse Nothing

St. Francis de Sales gave an entire conference to our early Mothers and Sisters on this very topic. Among the more commonly quoted selections is the following:

"I say that we must neither ask anything nor refuse anything, but leave ourselves absolutely in the arms of divine Providence, without busying ourselves with any desires, except to will what God wills for us."

Nearly two months ago, when we began this blog, we were hoping to be able to share some spiritual reflections, some of our Holy Founders' writings and a provide a little window into our community life for people who know us or who are interested in learning more about Salesian Spirituality. Although we had some reservations about entering the prodigiously growing blogging-world, we thought that St. Francis de Sales would approve of using the means available to share the Gospel message with those whom we might not be able to reach by ordinary means. It has proven, thus far, to be an interesting adventure and one which we are grateful to have begun.

The last few days we received an unusual number of visits and it was our "Big Sisters" in the blogging world, the Dominicans of Summit, NJ, who solved the mystery for us -- pointing out Mr. Scheske's article in the National Catholic Register.

Mr. Scheske highlights blogs by sisters and nuns (and a Dominican brother) and providers readers with a web address to locate his recommendations. Other blogs mentioned in his article are the following. Click to visit them: Dominicans of Summit, NJ, NunBlog, Living Christ, Communicating Christ, and Fra Lawrence.

And so, it is in the spirit of asking for nothing and refusing nothing that we gratefully acknowledge this well-written "guide" to convents and monasteries in Mr. Scheske's column.

24 January 2006

Happy Solemnity!

Every year on the Solemnity of St. Francis de Sales we sing "Happy Feast Day" to our very own Sister Mary de Sales (pictured left, with an icon of St. Francis de Sales behind her.) This is no ordinary rendition of "Happy Feast Day," however, because Sister Mary de Sales adds a little extra twist: in the momentary pause after each line of "Happy Feast Day to you..." she pipes in and sings, "and you and you and you and you and you..." as she points to each of us standing around her.

Today, we thought it might be nice to share a thought from both Sister Mary de Sales and Saint Francis de Sales. If she had to have a favorite quotation from her namesake, Sister is fond of repeating, "A sad saint is a sorry saint!" And, indeed, she is even more fond of living it. Those of us who live with her know that there are few situations which can bring down Sister's spirits. Among the many "hats" that she has worn, she has been our faithful "Sister Mary Maintenance" for many years. Be it a middle-of-the-night fire alarm, a leaky pipe, a falling ceiling, a broken water main, or a flooded basement, Sister Mary de Sales greets every disaster as an opportunity. And when it is over, she smiles and says, "Good show!" Would that we all were so gracious and joyful at life's little -- and not so little -- surprises.

It seems fitting, on this patronal feast, to quote a selection from St. Francis de Sales' treatise from which the name of this blog is derived: Treatise on the Love of God Book XII, chapter XIII.

"Live, Jesus, live, your death upon the tree
Shows all your boundless love for me!
Mount Calvary is the mount of lovers. All love that does not take its origin from the Savior's passion is foolish and perilous. Unhappy is death without the Savior's love; unhappy is love without the Savior's death. . . . all is either eternal death or eternal love. All Christian wisdom consists in choosing rightly. . . . . That we may live in your eternal love, O Savior of our Souls, we eternally sing, 'Live Jesus! Jesus, I love! Live, Jesus whom I love! Jesus I love, Jesus who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.'"

Our Sister Mary Berchmans likes to remark that the teaching of St. Francis de Sales, as embodied in Salesian Spirituality today is "inspired common sense." We celebrate today a man whose gentleness and kindness won the hearts of many and whose down-to-earth common-sense approach to growing in holiness won heaven many souls. Dieu soit beni.!

23 January 2006

The Fate of a Nation

One of the founding fathers of our country quipped that the fate of a nation depends upon the education of its youth. Indeed, this is true. And it is even more true today than when it was so declared.

In 2004 at one of the town-hall style presidential debates, president George Bush was asked, very directly, for his views on abortion. His answer spoke of the inviolable dignity of life and seemed to hint at an undeclared desire to change the supreme court's 1973 ruling, while admitting that it was beyond his immediate power to do so. He seemed to suggest, however, that it would be a great day for our nation if abortion were to be declared illegal.

It would be a great feat to see the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. It would, however, be a greater victory to see an even more powerful conversion of mind and heart. Would it not be a great day if abortion clinics closed their doors not on account of a supreme court ruling but, rather, on account of a nation of young adults who refuse to patronize abortion clinics? To educate today's young people about the dignity of human life in such a profound way that it impacts the decisions they make is an extraordinarily important part of evangelizing and proclaiming the Gospel of Life.

What a beautiful day it would be if abortion clinics were put out of business because a nation's youth were so well educated. Since abortion was legalized in 1973 there have been over 46 million abortions performed in this country. In this case, the fate of the nation depends -- quite literally--upon the education of its youth. Oremus!

22 January 2006

Good Works and God's Will

For many of us, the thought of leaving a work unfinished is intolerable or, at least uncomfortable. Today's readings cast light on the (albeit admirable) attitude of "I need to finish what I started." In the first reading, Jonah prophesies destruction for the city of Ninevah if the people do not repent. They listen; they repent; God spares them destruction. What we do not hear in the first reading is how Jonah reacts to God's mercy. Jonah is bitter and angry that God did not carry out the destruction he planned. In Jonah's mind, this was a work left "unfinished." St. Francis de Sales suggests that "Jonah did God's will in proclaiming the destruction of Ninevah, but he mingled his own interests and will with those of God."

The disciples in today's Gospel serve as a contrast to Jonah. They do not mix their will and their interests with the Lord's will. When Jesus asks them to follow him they abandon their nets without hesitation. The four fisherman left their "day jobs" --so to speak-- to become Jesus' disciples. This willingness to respond to the Lord's will is a great mark of faithful disciple. St. Francis de Sales has much to say about situations where we must leave off one good work for another: "How blessed are such souls, bold and strong in undertakings that God proposes to them and yet ready and humble to give them up when God so disposes!" He also describes the mark of a perfect disciple, one who is ready "to leave of doing some good work when to do so pleases God, and to return after going halfway when it is so ordained by God's will, which is our guide."

Situations where we are challenged to leave one "good work" for another one can be complicated by the question, "is this really God's will?" In addition to the discomfort of leaving one project or job, etc., unfinished, we are often uncertain about whether it is really God's will. This is where we are asked to trust that the Lord does not abandon us -- just as he did not abandon his faithful disciples, to whom he sent the Holy Spirit. Let us pray, in these moments of discernment, for the light of the Holy Spirit so that we may know and carry out his holy will.

20 January 2006

Patron Saint of Athletes

We know very little about the legendary St. Sebastian, martyred in the late third century. St. Sebastian is often depicted as a young man tied to a tree and pierced with arrows. Legend has it that he survived the painful encounter and was later ordered to be beaten to death. Among the many other occupations, trades, and causes placed under his care is that of the athlete.

For many, sports and athletics are a source of refreshment and a healthy outlet for energy. St. Francis de Sales believed if a person attended a tennis match -- even if he had no vested interest in either competitor -- he would, quite naturally, begin to favor one player more than the other. So natural, indeed, is the inclination for sports. As with all things, St. Francis de Sales believed that, in moderation, such a recreation of playing or watching sports was most healthful for a person.

One of our sisters who was a long-distance runner is fond of saying that running is like praying, "it makes my heart bigger" she quips. We haven't seen any conclusive evidence yet, but we'll take her word for it!

"Air and exercise, cheerful games, music, field sports and the like are such innocent amusements that they only require to be used with ordinary discretion. . . . Those games which exercise mental or bodily activity or skill, such as bowling, chess, etc., are praiseworthy amusements."
St. Francis de Sales

18 January 2006

The Battle is the Lord's

As far as bloody biblical battles go, the David and Goliath account is a charming one. David says something very profound during their encounter. Young people today would call the verbal exchange between the two "trash talk," as each party described how he will annihilate the other. After this exchange, David tells Goliath that "the battle is the Lord's." This was hardly "trash talk," it was a profound spiritual truth from which we can all learn. David went into battle without armor, with only a slingshot and five stones; today, that might be the equivalent of going into a rapid open-fire battle with a bee-bee gun. By all human accounts, we should be reading about David's demise. The battle, however, was the Lord's and David put his trust in the Lord.

Although most of us do not have to encounter nine foot titans in our daily lives, we may sometimes feel as ill-equipped as David must have appeared. Let us follow David's example and trust that our daily "battles" also belong to the Lord. Let us trust in His loving providence for us.

"Oh, how good it is to see the servants of God gain their livelihood as the Apostles did by the work of their hands, and to have no other tomorrow than that of His Providence!"
St. Jane de Chantal

16 January 2006

The Holy Alarm Clock

In today's first reading, Samuel berates Saul for his disobedience to the Lord; he declares that obedience is more pleasing to Yahweh than sacrifices. For some reason, it seems that the notion of "obedience" is odious to our contemporary American culture. A canon lawyer/professor who is a dear friend of our community has a wonderful explanation of this underappreciated virtue. She tells her students that all Christians are called to be obedient -- even if they have not taken a vow of obedience. She continues to challenge their thinking by explaining that all of us are obedient whether we acknowledge it or not; for most of us, she observes, obedience begins with the alarm clock, first thing in the morning.

Obedience comes to us from the Latin verb "to hear/to listen." Whether it be the strident sound of an alarm clock, the request of a neighbor, the instructions of our employer or co-worker, an assignment from our superior, etc., obedience is a matter of listening which transcends the pejorative connotation of "being commanded." Being obedient is a choice -- a choice we make in freedom. We choose to bend our ears and listen to what is asked (or suggested) and then we bend our hearts to respond. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to bend our ears and our hearts to the needs of those around us.

"Here is the general rule of obedience, and I write it in capital letters:
St. Francis de Sales

14 January 2006

The Response of Levi

So often we hear today's Gospel referred to as "The Call of Levi" (or "Matthew"). Indeed, the Gospel is about a very counter-cultural move on Jesus' part: the invitation for a public sinner to join his band of followers. What is equally striking, however, is Levi's response. The author of Mark's Gospel does have a flair for brevity, but the description is stunning nonetheless: Levi got up and followed Jesus. Some of us, perhaps, might have been tempted to have a conversation about the matter before we got up to follow Jesus: "Sure, I'd be happy to follow you, but where are we going? . . . how long is this going to take? Should I take some money with me?" How often do we, in our own lives, play out some of these conversations when we are invited to something new? Perhaps it is a new project, a new job, a new assignment; perhaps it is not something physical but something "spiritually new" to which the Lord is inviting us -- a new way of praying, a new way of looking at someone or something, etc. Let us follow the example of Levi and follow the Lord's invitation unhesitatingly, trusting that he will provide all that we need to be His faithful followers.

12 January 2006

Ordinary Time

For some, the return to ordinary time is a welcome return to a routine where things are predictable and comfortable. For others it is a challenge to return to the "ordinary" liturgical season. The grace of perseverance is a worthy gift for which to ask during this time between Christmas and Lent. Making the "ordinary" holy by our attention and care is no small work. Let us pray for the grace to persevere in all that we do: in our work, in our prayer, in whatever our our family obligations may be, in the resolutions we have made, etc.

A pearl of wisdom from St. Francis about this great grace:

"The enemy often tries to make us attempt and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing. . . Sometimes he even suggests the wish to undertake some excellent work . . . He does not care how many beginnings we make so long as nothing is finished. Among Christians, it is not so much the beginning as the end that counts."

10 January 2006

Poet in Residence

Among the many charming traditions of our Epiphany celebration, the toasts, poems and spontaneous jingles are a favorite. We are fortunate to have several on-the-spot poets who can crank out a rhyme or two between salad and dessert. We are also blessed, however, to have our very own poet/artist, Sr. Mary Agnes. No jubilee or feastday passes without a poem from Sister's pen and a bird-on-canvas from her pallate. Here is a recent gem:

God's love is a treasure of finest gold
Which flows in waves upon my soul
It is my crown, my joy to hold
It changes me and makes me whole.
Yet there are days when I feel cold
My prayers and sighs remain untold
No crown is there no joy to hold
"Where is my Love," not far, I'm told
"My child," he says be not upset,
Let naught on earth cause you to fret
My love is gift to all, but yet
Not all respond, and soon forget
So many souls out there adrift,
Deprived, bereaved and so bereft
Be humble, holy and uplift
These souls, by prayer and my great Gift.

08 January 2006

Three Kings and a Queen

Most people correctly associate the Solemnity of the Epiphany with the three magi -- or kings -- who came from the east. In our Order, however, we have one more "person" who figures prominently at the Epiphany: the queen. In a time-tried French custom, we bury a bean (usually a jelly bean) in fruit cake on Epiphany night and, much like the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations, we draw pieces of the cake and wait for everyone to take a piece before we peek under our cake. The sister who draws the bean (the "Queen of the Bean") is our queen for the year. The queen has a few special privileges and responsibilities and she is usually inundated with requests from her "subjects." Once this year's queen has been selected (and has adjusted to her royal responsibilities) we shall feature her in a future blog post!

On a more serious note, the Epiphany is an invitation for all of us to extend the Christmas season, in our hearts, as we venture into Ordinary Time. It is a reminder for us to seek always the newborn king -- in all that we do. As daily life becomes "ordinary" again and work, school, home, etc., provide comfortable routines, let us remember that the journey to Bethlehem is an everyday affair for the pilgrim Church on earth. Several years ago, a company put out a button that said "Bethlehem or Bust!" What a wonderful motto for our everyday life.

06 January 2006

Cousin Andre

Alfred Bessette was born to Isaac Bessette and Clothilde (Foisy) Bessette on 10 August 1845. This fragile young baby, baptized just moments after his birth was to become Blessed Andre Bessette, known today as the "miracle man of Montreal."

We have a special place in our hearts for Blessed Andre because two of his cousins were members of our community. Sister Mary Ambrose Foisy and Sister Mary Augustine Foisy were blood sisters who were members of our community in the early-mid 20th Century. We have little data in our archives about this relationship, but as we can best figure, their father and Blessed Andre's mother were siblings. The Foisy sisters spoke of having lived with their cousin, Alfred, who was orphaned at age 12. And so, in our hearts, we claim Blessed Andre as our holy cousin.

Among his endearing qualities, perhaps his extraordinary perseverance and his sense of humor (and humility!) and are most notable. When Andre was about to be professed, there were some concerns about the delicacy of his health. He begged the bishop to intervene for him and allow him to make his profession. The community admitted him to profession and assigned him to be porter at Notre Dame College -- a job he kept for forty years. Years later, he would remark, "At the end of my novitiate, my superiors showed me the door and I stayed there for forty years -- without leaving."

We are proud to count "cousin Andre" among our extended family. He is a model of humility and perseverance who showed great trust in the Lord's care for him.

To read more about Blessed Andre Bessette click here.

05 January 2006

Old Faithful

On Tuesday, 4 January, our faithful guard dog "emeritus" went home to the eternal hunting ground. Tipton arrived at the monastery in 1993, shortly after a fire devastated our school. When he arrived, he was about 2 or 3 years old and we learned that he was badly abused as a young dog.

For nearly a decade, Tipton was a stellar watchdog whose fierce bark scared away many an unsuspecting visitor and kept the monastery garden free of squirrels and possums. Despite his bark, Tip was a gentle dog who showed neither aggression nor anger -- even in the face of the overly-playful puppy Nicholas, who arrived in 2002 to learn the art of being a monastery guard dog.

Many people agree that animals can teach us a few things about being human. Tipton taught us quite a few lessons during his time with us. Among them, perhaps the most poignant was his disposition. As a dog who suffered abuse, Tipton never manifested aggression. He was a fine hunter and had keen senses, but he was gentle and deliberate in action. Very late one Saturday night, when an inebriated local college student climbed the cloister wall into the monastery garden, Tipton's barking scared the boy so much that he climbed up to the third floor of the monastery porch in an attempt to escape from our faithful guardian. Tip knew his job was to alert the sisters to danger -- never more and never less. He was a faithful and noble creature whose last years of "retirement" were happy and comfortable, thanks to his faithful caretaker, Sr. Immaculata (pictured with him above.)

Would that we could learn from his example: having suffered violence and injustice, he did not perpetuate what he suffered; instead, it made him a gentle creature.

03 January 2006

The Shepherd and The Lamb

In today's Gospel we hear, once again, the familiar voice of St. John the Baptist pointing us toward Christ. This time, he calls Jesus by that title which we hear every time Mass is celebrated, the Lamb of God. While this is a very familiar image for us today, it was, most likely, a confusing -- if not shocking -- appellation for the people of Jesus' day. It was not at all uncommon for the kings or rulers of the middle east to style themselves as shepherds, implying that their subjects were the sheep and lambs. This title hints at the fact that Jesus himself would be a sacrificial offering, as lambs often were. In addition, however, by calling himself a "Lamb" Jesus allied himself with the people, the subjects, those who were victims of the often-tyrannical local leaders of his day.

We are also familiar with another great title from St. John's Gospel, the Good Shepherd. In addition to being the Lamb -- one with the people whom he came to save, Jesus was also the gentle and loving shepherd who looks out for those who stray and leads all to be refreshed by the psalmist's restful waters.

As we hear today's Gospel, let us be "shocked" by this radical title for Jesus. Let us, with St. John the Baptist, give witness to him by our words and our deeds and, in doing so, may we lead others to join his flock.

"To prepare well for our Savior's coming, we must go to the school of the glorious St. John the Baptist. . . . if he receives us, among his disciples, he will surely place us in the hands of our Savior."
St. Francis de Sales

01 January 2006

Mater Dei

As we honor Mary as the Mother of God, today, we also begin a new calendar year. In one way it seems odd to have a new year in the dead of winter. For the celebration of "new year" in most cultures was a time to mark new growth and vegetation in nature. The ancient Romans were on to something when they celebrated the new year in March. For us who live in the northern hemisphere, it would seem more fitting to celebrate "new life" in March or April, when spring is beginning.

Mary, the Mother of God, can, perhaps, help "redeem" this lost celebration for us. When Mary said, "yes" to the angel she set right a long history of "wrongs" -- so to speak. For millennia, since creation and the fall, it seems that the Lord has been in search of one who would say "yes" to Him in so perfect a manner. We have a rich tradition of men and women in the Old Testament, prophets and preachers, priests and kings, who faithfully carried out the Lord's will. But Mary was different. She was conceived without sin and so disposed to respond so fully, so unhesitatingly, so generously, when asked to be the Mother of God. Mary's "yes" gave new life: physically, in the person of Jesus Christ and spiritually, in the example that she leaves for us, her children. So as we mark the beginning of a new year -- though there be no blossoms outside our windows -- let us follow Mary's example of saying "yes" to all that the Lord asks of us and let us nurture new life, in the garden of our hearts, by imitating her "yes."

"The greatest title that can be given to the Holy Virgin is to name her Mother of God."
St. Francis de Sales