31 May 2006

Solemnity of the Visitation

This is the place of our delight. Truly.

We are a monastery of the Visitation but we are also a house full of visitations. The biblical image of Mary and Elizabeth is alive in our walls and halls and Chapel and refectory and school.

We have some sisters who are younger and newer to religious life. They are Mary: their "yes" to God is newer and more recent. Their journey with the Lord, growing inside of them, is only just beginning. They are trusting, faithful -- at times afraid -- but courageous in all their "yeses." They set off (often in haste) to help others, as Mary set off to be with her cousin, Elizabeth.

We have other sisters who represent Mary's cousin, Elizabeth. They are not new brides. They have long been married to Him whom Mary carries. They have lived fully their "Mary years" and, like Elizabeth, they too are fruitful in their golden years for they, too, trust that nothing is impossible with God.

Elizabeth, for Mary, is living proof that God's promises will be fulfilled. And so it is true in our Visitation. The Elizabeths bear witness for our younger and newer members that the Lord is trustworthy. Their joy, their fulfillment, their enthusiasm for their vocations -- lo, these many years after that first "yes" -- speak volumes to the "Marys" among us.

Countless times each day, in our home, a Mary "sets off in haste" to help an Elizabeth. And Elizabeth receives Mary graciously and with joy. This mystery is lived in our daily encounters with our sisters. And truly, this is the place of our delight.

29 May 2006

Memorial Day

"You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world." John 16:33

Jesus' reminder found in today's Gospel speaks a word of encouragement to those who have lost life, limb or loved one in the name of liberty. Those men and women who have laid down their lives on the altar of our freedom have walked a noble path behind the Lord's example. We honor those whose sacrifices have purchased our nation's freedom and defended the safety of countless other countries and peoples.

Few hymnals print all six verses of the Julia Howe's (pictured below) Battle Hymn of the Republic. The fifth verse bears repeating. Current arrangers and publishers have changed Howe's original words. It is here reprinted in its original.
  • In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea.
  • With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
  • As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;
  • While God is marching on. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
  • Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! While God is marching on.

As we commemorate Memorial Day, we remember all those who have purchased our freedom and defended our safety. May we be mindful and grateful for their service.

"In all things holy liberty and freedom must reign, that we may have no other law or constraint than that of love . . . "

St. Francis de Sales

27 May 2006

The Ascension(s) of the Lord!

Somehow, here in the United States we have managed to extend the limitless powers of Jesus well beyond his "normal" divine powers. Due to each diocese's prerogative to choose whether or not to keep "Ascension Thursday" on a Thursday (traditionally Thursday of the sixth week of Easter) we have Jesus ascending to the Father twice in one week -- sometimes even in the same state (New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut). If that isn't grounds for some theological clarification -- perhaps even a little Vatican Counsel -- it would be hard to say what is!

All kidding aside, here in the metropolitan Archdiocese of Washington, DC we celebrate Ascension Thursday in place of the Seventh Sunday of Easter. And as we wait in hope for the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are reminded of part of Jesus' farewell discourse in the Gospel of John. In both yesterday's and today's Gospel, Jesus speaks of joy. A joy that "no one can take away." This is, perhaps, the hallmark of a healthy Christian life. Despite circumstances which may be difficult, the great mystery of our salvation, begun with the Incarnation and crowned with the Ascension, is the source of our hope and joy.

Whatever day you celebrate(d) the Ascension of the Lord, may it bring a profound sense of joy and an abiding peace in the Lord's good providence.

25 May 2006

St. Bede the Venerable

Shown here on his deathbed, dictating the last of his scholarly work to a young monk, St. Bede the Venerable is one of the lesser known doctors of the Church.

St. Bede is often mistaken for a Benedictine. A careful reading of his work "The History of the Monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow," however, reveals that St. Benedict Biscop, although trained by the Benedictines in Lerins, when he founded the Monasteries, constructed a rule for monastic life based upon several monastic rules which were in existence at the time.

Although many details about his life remain shrouded by the veil of history, in St. Bede, we find a timeless recipe for sanctity: doing ordinary things with extraordinary fidelity and love. St. Bede spent his entire adult life (and much of his childhood, as a student -- an oblate) in his beloved monastery. Although he was an eminent scholar and was charged with teaching Latin to the newer monks, he never held an office in the monastery. He worked; he prayed; he preached; he taught. St. Bede's holiness is found in the extraordinary diligence -- love -- with which he carried out his daily tasks.

"Great deeds may not always come our way, but at all times we can do little deeds with perfection, that is, with great love."
St. Francis de Sales

23 May 2006

Squirrel Farmers

This is a true story. Last August we noticed a vine growing several yards from the vegetable garden. It appeared to be something in the melon, cucumber or squash family and it covered a small area of shallow dirt comprised mostly of cedar mulch. Each of the sisters who work outside in the garden thought that another sister had planted the vine and carefully avoided uprooting it. Eventually, the truth came out: none of us planted the mysterious vine. The only logical conclusion: the squirrels.

The compost heap is just a short walk from the location of the "mystery vine" and squirrels can often be seen rummaging through the compost pile for a snack. It seems likely that, upon finding some delectable seeds, one clever squirrel buried them in the shallow patch of dirt and mulch. At the end of the summer we enjoyed two sweet, juicy musk melons -- all thanks to the squirrels.

Just last week, this sprout was spotted in the same location. It is too soon to determine what type of fruit or vegetable it is, but it looks as thought the squirrels might have just planted us another tasty treat!

21 May 2006

Who Has Chosen Whom?

"It is not you who have chosen me, but I who have chosen you..."
John 15:16

It is very easy to believe that our faith is to be credited to us -- as though we could choose to believe in the Incarnation, in the Eucharist, etc. Most of us become aware -- or remind ourselves often -- that faith itself is a gift from God. The desires to know God, to learn about God, to pray to God are all initiated by him. Even when we feel drawn to pray at a particular moment, we must remember that it is only a response to something that God has done first in our hearts. He is always one step ahead of us.

And today we are reminded that even the fundamental "yes" to follow the Lord -- to choose him as the center of our lives -- is also a mere response on our part. For it is he who has first called us, drawn us, led us to himself. This is a welcome reminder when we begin to feel inadequate or underqualified for some work that comes our way. We remember, in these moments, that the Lord does not call us because we are eminently qualified for some work he has in mind for us; rather, he provides the graces necessary, for those whom he calls, to carry out his work.

Today's Gospel is indeed good news: we are chosen. He has chosen us and called us and he will provide the graces necessary for us to be fruitful. Let us rejoice and be glad: we have been called and chosen. Let us resist the temptation to feel unprepared or discouraged when the Lord asks something of us.

"We must look at what God wants and when we know it, we must try to do it joyfully or, at least, courageously."
St. Francis de Sales

19 May 2006

New Neighbors

Mr. and Mrs. Duck have moved onto our lawn. They are pictured here crossing the path between Lalor House and the School (as they flee from the Sr. Mary Snapshot).

Life in the Monastery is never boring part III: We usually have a pair of ducks (or, as some of our sisters prefer to say, "a pair of duck") who arrive on campus every spring. This year they have decided to take up residence on the front lawn of Lalor house, which functions as "home base" during our exile.

They seem happy to share their space with the black squirrel family who live in the willow oak and the various other birds who like to bathe in the puddle near where the ducks have begun to settle. Mr. & Mrs. Duck are rather private about their family life but Mother Philomena, biology teacher emerita, suspects that Mrs. Duck may be "heavy with young!" Stay tuned for duck family updates. We may have a whole fleet of new neighbors before long!

St. Francis de Sales didn't have much to say about ducks (bees, yes; ducks, no). He did, however, have a great deal to say about our neighbors and how we treat them. A few thoughts in that vein:

"We should not be like the Paphlagonian partridge which has two hearts, towards ourselves, gentle and loving but toward our neighbor one that is hard and severe. . . . Put yourself in your neighbor's place and him in yours, and then you will judge fairly."

17 May 2006

Welcome Bishop Wuerl!

The archdiocese of Washington welcomes Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh as its sixth archbishop. Yesterday morning, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI announced his acceptance of the retirement of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick. There have been numerous articles and links on different news services. Cardinal McCarrick had some very gracious words about his successor during a press conference early yesterday. Kudos to Mr. Palmo for the first whisperings of this on 27 April. As usual, his coverage was thorough and articulate.

After a full day of press coverage, there is little left to be said about this exciting moment in our archdiocese that has not already been said. One quotation of Bishop Wuerl, however, bears highlighting. The New York Times reported that, when asked how he would handle the controversial and high-profile issue of pro-abortion politicians, his reply was, "I think the first job of a bishop is to teach." Right on. Welcome to Washington, your Excellency, we're ready to learn!

15 May 2006

'Tis the Season

Tis the season...to plant and to sow, to weed and to reap. Today's commemoration of St. Isidore is a little-known and seldom celebrated outside of rural communities. St. Isidore, patron saint of farmers, was an eleventh century farmer known for his piety and devotion. His wife, Mary de la Cabeza is also revered as a saint.

Having spent his whole life working as a hired hand on a farm outside of Madrid, St. Isidore teaches us the timeless lesson that St. Francis de Sales would articulate and reiterate four centuries later: in all occupations holiness can be found, achieved and shared. Fidelity to the Lord, his wife and his daily work proved to be the path to holiness for this humble farmer.

"It is not merely an error, but a heresy to suppose that a devout life is necessarily banished from the soldier's camp, merchant's shop, the prince's court or the domestic hearth."
St. Francis de Sales

13 May 2006

Nursery School Graduation

No caps. No gowns. No Pomp and Circumstance. This "nursery school graduation" is for 21 tomato plants that will be transplanted to the garden this morning. Sister Anne E poses with the graduating class at left. All the transplants were born in the 4th Floor Fennessy "refugee camp." (If you are wondering why nuns are living in a refugee camp, click here to read a previous post about our renovation.)

All reports from the 4th Floor "refugee camp" confirm that this is a welcome day since the "grow light" which has been in the hall since mid-March is so bright sisters are able to read a book in the "dark" after turning in for the night.

All kidding aside, a garden provides ample opportunity to reflect upon the mystery of creation. Perhaps one of the highlights of something like a "nursery school graduation" is the thrill of looking at a plant and remembering when it was only a seed: dry, lifeless and tiny. It is a small window into the mystery of God himself to be able to look at a healthy plant and say, "I knew you when you were only a seed." Surely God must look at us and say the same thing.

"Be still and bloom where you are planted."

St. Francis de Sales

11 May 2006

On Friendship and Charity

With all the press about the alleged "Gospel of Judas" being uncovered and translated, it is hard not to turn our thoughts to this infamous traitor and wonder what Jesus was thinking when he invited Judas to be among his chosen band of disciples. Today's Gospel seems to add even more mystique to this puzzling dynamic. For Jesus says plainly, "I know the kind of men I chose."

Jesus knew Judas well. He knew his weaknesses and his strengths. Despite his shortcomings the Lord loved him and the Lord chose him. This sets the bar pretty high for those of us who strive to live the Gospel message in our daily lives.

It is easy to observe the behavior of another person and to draw conclusions. We can tell a great deal about a person by the way he presents himself, dresses, speaks, etc. Sometimes we may begin to judge a person's character -- for better or for worse -- based upon some of these observable indicators. When we observe something negative or when we experience something hurtful, sometimes it is very difficult not to draw uncharitable conclusions. And this is precisely where Jesus' friendship with Judas poses a challenge for all of us. Jesus loved Judas despite his weaknesses. We must try to look beyond the weaknesses of our neighbors and see the person who is very worthy of our love and attention.

Easier said than done. This virtuous attitude sounds appealing until the shortcomings of our neighbor try our patience, irritate us, lean on our nerves, etc. We cannot simply decide to "feel love" toward someone whose presence disturbs our peace. We can, however, decide to ask God for such a desire. The grace of God will allow us to love a person despite what our private judgment might conclude. And that, truly, is a gift -- to our neighbor and to us!

"I beg you never to speak ill of your neighbor . . . blame the vice and spare, as much as possible, the person to whom the vice belongs. When we look upon the actions of our neighbor, let us look upon them in the light that is gentlest."
St. Francis de Sales

09 May 2006

Demolition Details

As promised, we will not abuse the patience of our readers with innumerable photos of every stage of our rebuilding -- just a small number of pictures for a peek into the work-in-progress.

Prior to the beginning of demolition, our project manager labeled all parts of the structure to be "demo" or "save." The orange graffiti added an interesting highlight to the muted colors of our walls. Some of the walls, as they come down, reveal extraordinary hand-crafted workmanship including some hand-fashioned nails.

As walls come down and the familiar space begins to look different, we are reminded of some truths which apply to our own interior lives as well as the interior of our building. In order to rebuild or refashion something, sometimes we have to remove old structures. Sometimes these old structures are beautiful, inherently good and, at times, still very useful. Still, they must come down if rebuilding is in order. The same can be true in our relationships -- with the Lord and with other people. Sometimes "useful" and "good" ways of interacting, relating and communicating need to give way to something new. It can be hard to let go of a comfortable way of praying or a familiar way of interacting with someone. At times, however, the Lord calls us to something new. He wants to expand our hearts, our minds, and our knowledge of him. When this happens, we must try to remember that the Lord is the architect (and the project manager!)

Up-coming construction updates will include reports (and photos) from the "refugee camps" where the "nuns-in-exile" are living. Stay tuned!

"What a delightful and profitable law this is to do nothing except for God and to leave to Him the whole care of ourselves! I do not say only as regards temporal things ... but I refer to spiritual things and the advancement of our souls."
St. Francis de Sales

07 May 2006

World Day of Prayer for Vocations

There is a great deal of talk about a "vocation" crisis in the Church. While the observation may be accurate, the statement reveals a great error in semantics. A "vocation" crisis would imply that God has stopped calling men and women to serve him in religious life and the priesthood. Somehow that seems inconceivable. It seems more accurate to say that we are having a "responding" crisis.

Many gifted thinkers, theologians, and sociologists have speculated as to why this might be the case. Convincing arguments abound. One observation -- especially among those of us who work with young people -- is that popular culture presents a subtle message to today's youth: "Keep your options open. Don't commit to anything too soon. If you keep your options open, you will have a life without suffering or sacrifice." This is a lie. A deadly lie.

There is no "life choice," that does not involve a sacrifice. Getting married means choosing to spend the rest of one's life with a particular person, precluding the freedom to date other people. Making a choice means, de facto, that other options are removed. Going to graduate school in one field, means closing the door to studying other disciplines. Responding to the call to be a religious or a priest means foregoing the possibility of marriage, the gift of children and the choice of one's professional career. All life choices involve sacrifice. Life choices in accord with God's will also involve great joy. Any parent will agree that while raising children demands great sacrifice and includes a share of suffering it is also (and foremost) a great joy. Religious who have spent many years in a given community can share stories of great sacrifice but they so often they have a glow about them which reveals a deep joy.

Our freedom as human beings does not come because we do not "commit" to anything and by so doing, "keep our options open." Our freedom is exercised in the very act of making a commitment. And so, on this day when we pray for vocations, let us pray for a great response to the call of the Lord. Let us pray that men and women who have heard the Lord's call will have the grace to respond generously and courageously.

05 May 2006

Into the Lion's Den

In today's first reading, when the Lord asked Ananias to approach the newly-converted Saul, Ananias had good reason to be hesitant. Saul had come to Damascus for the express purpose of persecuting Christians. Crossing paths with the soon-to-be St. Paul might have earned Ananias a one-way ticket to Jerusalem, in chains. When Ananias expressed his hesitation, the Lord pressed him to approach Saul: "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles. . . "

St. Paul's journey as a disciple began, and hinged upon, Ananias' trust in the Lord. Ananias trusted that the Lord would use this chosen instrument of his for good things. And He did! Ananias had no quantitative evidence that the Lord had touched Saul's heart; he had only the Lord's word that Saul would do great things for the dissemination of the Good News.

Sometimes we are asked to display a similar trust in the Lord's presence to those around us. We will never know, on this side of eternity, how many people's journeys to Christ began with a kind word which we said, a simple gesture of courtesy or a good example which we gave. When we sense, in ourselves, a hesitation to approach someone with whom we have been encouraged or instructed to interact, let us remember the Lord's words to Ananias, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen." Sometimes we do not have a good reason, as did Ananias, to avoid someone. Sometimes it is only an instinct inside us which causes us to feel a hesitation or an aversion to certain people. We cannot let this affect our fidelity to the Lord's will if he desires us to interact with certain people whom he has placed in our life. They are instruments whom he intends to use; sometimes, however, he counts on us to help them begin their journey. May we, by our obedience to the circumstances around us, be his courageous instruments.

"In order to obey well, we must not apply the obedience to us, but we must apply ourselves to the obedience."
St. Jane de Chantal

03 May 2006

The Circus is Coming to Town!

This post could be subtitled "Life in the monastery is never dull, installment II."

The circus is not only "in town" but they are parked, for a few days, in our parking lot! Not the whole circus but a very significant part of the circus: the circus nuns. (We're not kidding!). Three members of The Little Sisters of Jesus (one of whom is an alumna of ours) travel with the Carson and Barnes Circus. While they travel with the circus they minister to the members of the circus in a host of different ways -- both physical and spiritual. They catechize the children, counsel adults, mend costumes, collect tickets and help care for the animals. To read more about their beautiful ministry, click here.

We have been been blest by the presence of the Little Sisters of Jesus who have joined us for Mass and Office these past few days. Their apostolate is certainly a beautiful testimony to the Gospel call to leave everything and follow the Lord. As they prepare to move along, we share St. Francis de Sales' sentiments which often punctuated a farewell when sisters said good-bye to begin a new foundation: "Those who go, stay; those who stay, go." We have enjoyed having our "circus sisters" with us and we send our love and prayers with them on their way.

To read more about Bl. Charles de Foucauld, the founder of the Little Sisters of Jesus, click here. To read more about Carson and Barnes Circus, visit their webpage or their blog.

01 May 2006

Month of Mary

As we begin the month of May, we pause for a moment to recognize the presence of the Blessed Mother in our lives, our liturgy and the Church today. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI shared a beautiful comment in his Regina Coeli blessing on the third Sunday of Easter: (Translation provided by Rocco Palmo – gratefully borrowed here.)

“The Madonna was for [the early disciples] mother and teacher, a role she continues to develop for the Christians of every age. Each year in Eastertide, we relive most intensely this experience and maybe for this reason the popular tradition has consecrated to Mary the month of May, which normally falls between Easter and Pentecost. This month, which we begin [today], is useful for us to rediscover the maternal function which she develops in our lives, that we may always be docile disciples and courageous witnesses of the risen Lord.”

As we strive to do the Lord’s will in our daily lives – the little day to day decisions as well as the more significant ones – let us fix our eyes on Mary who was so faithful a disciple; from the moment she said, “Yes” to the Angel’s message, her life was never the same. Mary allowed her love for God and His incarnate Son to be the defining boundary for all her actions. Mary’s love for the Lord showed itself in her profound union with the Lord’s will for her throughout her life – in the few details we learn in the Gospels and the many details that remain obscured on this side of eternity. May she intercede for us and teach us to unite our hearts as lovingly as she did to the will of her Son.

“The fruit of love is obedience . . . Oh, my God! How happy we would be, if we were recognized by the exact practice of the solid virtues of our vocation, as the Son of God, in this world, made Himself known by the works of His mission!” St. Jane de Chantal