December 24, 2014


Christmas Eve Talk
M. Rebecca

            This is my 3rd chapter talk for Christmas and each time I have used visual art to try to bring out a deeper expression and impression of this mystery of Jesus’ birth.  Guerric of Igny said in one of his Christmas sermons: “Our senses are incapable of seeing the invisible, inapt to comprehend the celestial…and although faith comes from hearing, it comes more prompt and ready from seeing…We not only hear the Word of God preached {today} but we see the Word of God given to us this day.”  Art can communicate in places words cannot go.  So I repeat today Guerric’s own invitation to his monks over 900 years ago, “Come let us make our way to Bethlehem and see this happening which God has made known to us”!!
            This year I would like to use a painting that I saw at the National Gallery in London.  It is called “The Nativity at Night” and was painted around 1490 by a Flemish painter, Geertgen. He was inspired by the mystical vision of St Bridget of Sweden (also from the 15th century).  In one of her visions, St Bridget wrote, “The light of the new-born child was so bright that the sun was not comparable to it”.   This is what Geertgen said he tried to capture - which is interesting for such a dark painting! 
            Yet what first grabbed my attention was his use of light.  The divine light from Jesus is the center or focal point – it is not a reflected light but comes from within.  When I saw this painting, our Lauds antiphon came to my mind:  “He is the source of light and in His Light we see light”.  Those who catch this light are in joy, awe, or adoration…even the animals.  The donkey is a bit shy and kind of nudges his way behind Mary.   But the ox pushed his way right into the middle of the painting with eyes wide open in amazement at seeing the Child Jesus.  All the little angels have their hands clasped in prayer except one who is so overcome with joy she is beside herself!  She reminds us that one cannot be ‘in the Light w/o delight’! 
            But in the background we have another scene going on.   There are shepherds in the field surrounded by a puny little campfire, while an angel shining in the darkness of a starless night illuminates the minds and hearts of the onlookers.  The angel is directly above Jesus in the crib and I wonder if that was on purpose to show Jesus was the source also of the angel’s light.  The human campfire is almost unnoticeable in comparison with the divine rays.   All the light we can generate in this world is puny compared to Christ…or as St Bridget said, not even the sun is comparable to it!
            A basic scientific understanding of light tells us that light is invisible until it hits something.  Light is wavelengths and so only after it touches an object can it reflect light, color, and beauty.  Otherwise, it remains an invisible, unnoticed reality.   This can teach us something about Geertgen’s painting but also about Christmas:  We must sit with the Light and allow it to touch us.  We must absorb and reflect the Light…in order for Christmas to become a visible reality. 
            It is thought that originally this painting was done as an altarpiece.  Imagine the symbolism of the priest raising the consecrated Host at the altar and having the Infant Jesus juxtaposed lying in a manger.  How fitting for this baby, humble and naked, to be situated at the altar.  Jesus at the end of his life will again be humbled and naked, not in a hidden manager but high on a cross for the entire world to see.  But these are not just past events.  Jesus continues to be humble and vulnerable as He gives Himself to us daily in the Eucharist.   The Eucharist is the greatest expression of the love of God incarnate!  The tie b/w Christmas and the Eucharist is inseparable…the Eucharist keeps Christmas happening every day!  So how fitting that we have in our own sanctuary the cross hanging over the crèche with the altar in between!  The cross and crèche join together at the altar, in the Eucharist.   
            Guerric of Igny hinted at this connection when he told his brothers “you too will find the Infant today wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger of the altar.”   He continued, “The more completely His majesty humbled and emptied Himself, the more easily and fully did charity divest itself of self-love and the love of God possessed them”.   Just as our Lord was disguised by being wrapped in swaddling clothes, so today we have this same sacred Body wrapped in the humble white host on our altar. 
            Yet again, we must have Light to see Light.  We must be near Christ to reflect His Light and be illuminated by this mystery.  So let us take Guerric’s instructions to his own monks:  Let us become more completely humble and empty so that charity may more easily divest us of self-love and let the love of God possess us.   This is Christmas.  This is how we give birth to Christ.  This is divine Light absorbed and reflected.  And this is what I think Geertgen’s painting is calling us to:  to be like that angel with open hands unable to contain herself or her joy…to be like the awe-struck ox caught in amazement…to be like the shy, reverent donkey in adoration.   So we must sit often in the silence of the Divine Child born on the altar in the Blessed Sacrament.  For when we receive the Eucharist, and when we become Eucharist for others, we make “Christ born to us” anew!  It is there we learn to receive and reflect His Light and then Christmas becomes a noticeable, visible reality every day. 
            So I will end with one final word from Guerric, “If we do not turn away our faces from considering Him who lies in the manager, we can be fed most happily by seeing and gazing on Him…and considering Him who lies on the altar, we can be fed most happily by tasting and savoring Him.”  So let us cast our sight on the Light…and let us savor our Savior!
When we do this it will truly be Christmas!  For Christ is born to us TODAY!
                        Christmas 2014      

December 7, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent

Mother Rebecca's Chapter Talk for the Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-5;9-11 and Mk 1:1-8  
 In the first reading John the Baptist is being described by the prophet Isaiah 600 years before he is born!  This prophecy shows John’s importance, however, it is not very detailed.  He is only described as “a voice” – “a voice crying out in the desert”.   This reminds me of when I was growing up, my sister nicknamed me ‘the mouth’.  Perhaps she was not prophesying that I would have something important to say in my latter years, but more so that as a child I talked loudly and a lot! (Note that I said ‘as a child”!)  However, we can’t underestimate John’s importance.  In Mark’s gospel the very first verses are describing John again.  He is “a voice crying out in the desert:  prepare the way of the Lord”.  The voice was important because of the word he spoke:  Jesus Christ…the Word made flesh.  He was a voice that didn’t speak just any words (like “the mouth”!), but he spoke The Word of God.
            Last week we saw how Mary was the prefect model for how we are to wait.  Today John the Baptist can be a model of how we are to prepare.   His message is a good place to start:  “make straight…a path for our God.”  Isaiah explains that to make a path straight we need to fill in the valleys and make low the mountains, so that the rugged land can become a plain.  It is then that even the humblest of vehicles can make it along the road to God.   
            Many of our Early Fathers used the analogy of “laying low mountains” as removing pride and “filling in valleys” as removing false humility or an unhealthy self-depreciation.  To be on the mountain top we feel we see greater and farther than others or we think we have greater power when we look down from above.  Ironically this arrogance shows our ignorance.  We are not striving to become number one but to become one – one with all people in the Mystical Body of Christ.   But to be in the valley of self-rejection or a poor self-image will also leave us blind.  We cannot see much from a sinkhole!
            It was a healthy humility that made John open to receive God’s Word and Spirit.  John did not care about appearances - his only desire and passion was to preach to others the need to prepare for the Lord’s coming.   Repent and straighten out your lives.  He was detached from “being a name”.  He could have described himself as son of Zechariah of the priestly order of Abijah and his mother as from the descendants of Aaron.  He laid that mountain low, not letting his ego get in the way. 
            John in humility tells people that he is not worthy to even untie the sandal of the One who is to come.  Yet he filled in that valley of low self-worth because he knew that God loved him tremendously and tenderly.  God was with him.   People were flocking out to the desert to hear John and be baptized.  Yet he remained transparent…always pointing to Christ and away from himself.  When John saw Jesus he told his own disciples “there is the Lamb of God”…and John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus.  John laid low the mountain of popularity, or needing to be needed, and was detached from outcomes.  When John said “I must decrease and Christ increase” he was filling in another valley.  It was not self-rejection; rather he was emptying himself of himself (!) so that he could be totally filled with God.  We see that this growth in humility was a process – and the process itself keeps us humble!  Little by little we decrease, but that is of no great virtue unless we increase in Christ…opening ourselves to the Spirit that guides us on the highway to God…here we learn that we are not the center of even our own lives. 
            These valleys and mountains have been described many ways:  pride verses false humility; an ambitious ego verses a lazy follower; the ups and downs of the spiritual life verses staying steady and even keel. What is important is that we come to understand what the valleys and mountains are in our own life.  This is John’s message to us:  Prepare.  Make the road to God level. 
            St Bernard captures this concept in a series of sermons from the Song of Songs (35-38).  He says we must have knowledge of self and knowledge of God, or more precisely, knowledge of our own goodness yet knowing it comes from someone greater than our self, from God.  He says, “Humility springs up within you from knowledge of self and love{springs up within you} from the knowledge of God, so on the contrary, pride comes from a lack of self-knowledge and despair from a lack of knowledge of God.” (Sermon 37:6)   St Bernard continues, “You cannot love what you do not know, nor possess what you do not love”.  (Sermon 37:1)   What are we doing in our own life to gain this knowledge of self?   Are we truly growing in humility?  And, what are we doing in our own life to gain this knowledge of God?…that knowledge that brings us to Love tremendously and tenderly!   For without the knowledge of self we are ignorant…and our talents will not be used.   And without the knowledge of God we are arrogant…and are talents will be abused.
            What John is teaching us today is that when waiting we need to be facing the right direction or what we are waiting for can slip right behind our backs…unaware of The Presence…even when so close!  Mary teaches us how to wait; John how to look in the right direction.
            So today on Retreat Sunday we can take some time to ask:  Do my actions bring me closer to God?  Do I bring people around me closer to God?    We believe that through our monastic life we can bring others to God who we will never even see…by prayer and fidelity to our way of life.  We bring God closer to us by identifying the obstacles in our path to God…to have the humility to lower the mountains of arrogance, as well as the knowledge that leads to love, to fill in the valleys of ignorance.  This is the message we receive from John:  Prepare a highway for God.

November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent

                                 Mother Rebecca's Chapter Talk for the First Sunday of Advent

Is 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7 and Mk 13:33-37
  The theme on the First Sunday of Advent is always about waiting.  Today’s readings show how essential knowing our self and knowing God is, if we are going to wait properly.  The images in the first reading, as well as what is nuanced in the gospel, show some unpleasant concepts of how we can see our self and God:   “Behold you are angry”, we are “sinful like polluted rags”, we are like “withered leaves”, God hides his face from us leaving us in our guilt, and we need to be on guard because we do not know when the master will return.

            If we see God as an angry or demanding master, we won’t be waiting for him in hope but in fear.  There are two ways to wait – in a hope that saves or in a fear that destroys.   To wait in fear is anxiety; to wait in hope is anticipation.   So who we wait for will decide how we wait. The same could be said regarding our self.   If I see myself as worthless and unclean than I won’t be expecting a lot of good things to come my way. 

            So let’s look at a few people in Scripture who can show us how to wait properly.  Obviously we can begin with Mary.  Pope Benedict said that Advent is like a prolonged, stretched out Annunciation.  We sit with Mary and ponder, prepare, and pray.  She is a pure model of patience through her love which opened her to receive the Holy Spirit.  We know almost nothing of Simeon and Anna other than that they were waiting in the temple for the Lord to come.  They are a model of patience through their hope which was fed by worship and prayer.  Then there was the paralytic at the pool who waited 38 years before being healed.  He is a model of patience through his faith which was accompanied by great humility.  So, we wait in patience through faith, hope and love.  This can only be accomplished through being open to the Holy Spirit, through worship and prayer, and with great humility.

            But there were also great people in Scripture who were not very good at waiting.  Abraham got impatient waiting for the Lord to act and so he hurried and took Hagar as a second wife.  Moses got impatient and hit the rock twice losing his admittance into the Holy Land.  I remember in college we had to read the Book of Genesis (Mythology class) and I did what I always did when having to read a book for school…I searched for the cliff notes!  Panic hit when there were none to be found and so I had to actually read the book!  In my impatience I wanted a shortcut.   

            It is hard to be patient.  I think one of the reasons is because we walk more often by sight rather than by faith.  God assures us that he is busy on our behalf but we still want to see something happen.  Yet God’s delays are not denials.  They are usually the means which God uses to prepare us for something better.  God is always at work for the good in us and in all things.  The only way God can teach us patience is to test and try us, and the only way we can learn patience is to surrender to God who is in all things.  “God can grow a mushroom overnight yet He takes His time to grow an oak tree.”   Some things in life just need waiting.  It took Joseph 13 years to be ready to handle Pharaoh’s estate.  It took God’s chosen people 40 years to cross the desert. David was anointed king when still a youth but he had to suffer much before taking the throne. 

            Perhaps the hardest place to be patient is in the furnace of suffering.  God does not always explain what He is doing or why He is doing it.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us when we suffer it is the time to “imitate those who through faith and patience (have) inherit(ed) the promises.” (6:12)   Knowing that the Father is near us and that He is working out His wonderful purposes ought to encourage us, but we often get impatient just the same. 

            A person once complained to her pastor, “Why has God made me this way”?   He replied “God has not made you – he is making you”!   It reminds me of the image in today’s first reading:  “we are the clay, you are the potter”.  Earlier in the Book of Isaiah the prophet uses an image of a disgruntled pot who argues with the potter who created him. (Ch 29:16)  We can see the irony and humor of a lump of clay, impatient with the potter’s work, and so disowns him.  To cut off from the potter’s hands is to remain a lump of clay – without beauty or usefulness.  If we can be peaceful in His Hands, we have become a patient disciple, open to accept and do His will. 

            The problem with this school of patience is that we never graduate.  We are always learning, always maturing.  Sometimes we fail the examination even before we know what the lesson is.  No matter; our loving Father is guiding us and making us more like His beloved Son, and that is all that does matter!

            I would like to read a poem by Ann Lewin that I think captures this virtue of patience. 

Prayer is like watching for the Kingfisher.

All you can do is be there where he is likely to appear,

And wait.

Often nothing much happens;

There is space, silence and Expectancy.

No visible sign, only the

Knowledge that he’s been there

And may come again.

Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,

You have been prepared

But when you’ve almost stopped

Expecting it, a flash of brightness

Gives encouragement.

            This can be another great model of what our Advent waiting can be.  All you can do is be there where he is likely to appear and wait.  Often nothing much happens then suddenly a flash of brightness gives encouragement. 

            So this Advent Season is a time for waiting in faith, hope, and love.  There are no shortcuts or cliff notes to a spiritual life.  All in God’s time and to His purposes.  So let us be encouraged by Mary, Simeon, Anna, and the paralytic this Season and wait for the Holy Spirit, in worship and prayer, and great humility.

November 30, 2014: 1st Sunday Advent

**(Some ideas from Warren Weirsbe: God is not in a Hurry

November 20, 2014

Commentary on the Rule of Benedict

 Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Mother Rebecca

Vs 33-34:Prologue  That is why the Lord says in the Gospel:  whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon rock;  the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall: it was founded on rock.”

                There are many different ways in which we use the word foundation.  There is a foundation for buildings which is necessary for stability and long-term support.  There is a foundation on which organizations or institutes are created and these are necessary for its direction and meaning.  Then we also talk about a foundation of knowledge which is necessary for greater learning and growth.  Different kinds of foundations give different things:  stability and support; direction and meaning; or teaching and the capacity for expansion.  Without a foundation a house cannot stand, an organization cannot meet its goals, and an intellect cannot grow.  Yet when we speak of Christ as our foundation we encompass all these aspects.  Through Christ we have stability, support, direction, meaning, teaching, and growth. 

            Christ is our foundation and Rock – that is, Christ gives us steady and unchanging support.  We often hear about poorly constructed houses or bridges which result in unnecessary high death tolls in natural disasters.  When Charlene was in China there was a relatively small earthquake yet thousands died because the apartments were built cheaply.   Yet in San Francisco a substantial earthquake can cause only slight damage.   This is because they build in stress factors so buildings and bridges can sway w/o breaking.   So laying a foundation is no time for shortcuts or loopholes.   We can also say how essential our initial formation is to create a good, solid foundation and practices that will help us stay constant in times of stress, upheaval, or crisis. 

            Christ is our foundation and Rock - that is Christ gives us direction and purpose.  Michael Casey said there are two things that are needed for a steady life.  Steadiness needs purpose (or meaning) and it needs direction.   In other words, the why and how of monastic life should be continually asked.  Why have I come?...asks meaning and purpose.  But we also need to ask ‘How do I get there?’  We need to stay steady to our prayer, manual work, charity, our vows, and our personal relationship with Christ.  If we build on this rock of stability and fidelity, then we will stand firm, otherwise we will collapse in the smallest of storms.   The only foundation that will work in this life is a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ - and that grows thru the years…a relationship that must be steady, never static.  Willpower will not change us, but following our Rule’s observances - prayer, work, and study…obedience, stability, and conversion…lectio, liturgy, and love – these will open us to transformation.   It is a call to single-mindedness or single-heartedness.  Like a camera that has a macro lens:  When it zooms in and focuses on one thing, everything else becomes blurred.  The focal point becomes intensified…all other things are no longer distractions.  {Whether we are at candy, St Ben’s, infirmary, or kitchen our purpose is the same:  to magnify the Lord.  We magnify Christ by being a joyful, gently, loving, and peaceful presence wherever we are or whatever we are doing.}

            Christ is our foundation and Rock – that is Christ is our teacher and helps us to grow.  So besides initial formation as an extremely important foundation for our monastic life, there is also a need for on-going formation – we must continue to be docile and open to the Spirit so we can learn and expand our minds and our hearts in knowledge and love.

            I would like to take this opportunity to talk a little about what St Bernard says about study He says we study not so we can teach or produce something but in order to bring us closer to God.  Everything we do in monastic life is to this purpose.  Monastic study, one of our 3 components, is not academic it is personal growth in knowing Christ and what He desires.  This is the reason why what we chose to read is important.  Bernard speaks about 5 different motives for why we seek knowledge and why we study:

1  To seek knowledge for its own sake he calls shameful curiosity,

2  To seek knowledge for one's reputation he calls vanity,

3  To seek knowledge for honor or ambition he calls profiteering,

4  To seek knowledge for one's spiritual benefit he calls prudence, and

5  To seek knowledge in order to serve he calls love.

So our gaining of knowledge, and our studies, can be evaluated by asking “how has this helped me to love God more deeply?”  Notice that we are speaking about a knowledge that leads to love.  Bernard says “to learn in order to build is charity; to learn in order to be built is humility”.  He adds, study “aims at loving God and molding one's life in wisdom.”

So let us be like that wise person who built on rock.  In doing so we may want to ask if there is anything in my life that makes my foundation shaky…are there any areas I need to let grow or to let go?   When the stress or storms come do I stay steady in my prayer and monastic routine?  If so, we can truly say we are building our house on that solid rock, which is Christ.