November 2, 2014 MOTHER REBECCA
Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of All Saints and today we celebrate the Feast of All Souls. What does this distinction mean? Are we celebrating today all those who didn’t quite make the mark? The ones who are a little less virtuous than the ones we celebrated yesterday? My parents raised 5 teenage boys in the 60’s and 3 teenage girls in the 70’s…some would say that alone makes for a saint! Maybe today’s feast is more important because it contains more saints…silent, unnamed followers of Christ!
I read an article on our website about one of the first novice directors who wrote down lives of these unnamed saints. His teachings were not academic exhortations on monastic values to novices but a collection of saintly souls who lived Cistercian life with great devotion to Christ in prayer, charity, and manual work. He is from the early 1200’s – Ceasar of Heisterbach. His work is “one of the oldest examples within the Cistercian Order of the teaching given to novices”. His belief was that charity is not formed by intellectual studies but by example. The article said “Our Cistercian vocation is primarily a way of life which one learns by doing. In the school of charity, you don’t learn charity out of a book first; rather you learn charity by living charity and by experiencing charity among your fellow “students”.
I think our present menology is a continuation of the exempla of Ceasar, Conrad of Eberbach, and Herbert of Mores – all from the 1200’s. They are a collection of short biographies of special monks and nuns. We need stories…throughout our entire human history folklore and story-telling has been central to teaching, edifying, and encouraging. As Cistercians we need to hear stories especially of those who have gone before us on the Cistercian path. As in the 1200’s, they are meant to teach, form, and energize us in our own monastic vocation. Menologies don’t have anything to do with a canonization process – it is just a collection of stories meant to give formative example. There is a Dutch proverb: “Words wake you up; examples get you going”!
In our own community we have some saintly souls that have gone before us. The first is our sister Augustine. One example she instilled for me was her devotion to Jesus and Mary. I remember her whispering (often quite loudly) her prayers in the back of church every day. Faithfully she was there praying the rosary – like Anna in the temple. An exempla I remember was at her deathbed. Fr Brendan, anointing her with the last rites, told her she must wait to die until Gail, the abbess at the time, returned from her trip. She was on her way. In true form to obedience, Augustine did wait, dying within hours of her return! As we just heard in her menology a few days ago, we were all around her bedside singing Compline and at the words “Now Lord you may let your servant go in peace” she breathed her last breath. We continued Compline, ending with the Salva Regina – offering her soul over to the Blessed Mother. How fitting. To add one more exempla to our little saint: I remember how she used to gather the breadcrumbs to feed the birds every morning. Maybe I should not have been surprised that at her funeral mass about 20 or so birds came and sat on the tree in front of our church window. Then they all took off together – a tribute from her feathered friends. Had they come to thank her and pay their respects?
Second is our sister Colum. So many from within the community and outside friends repeated how they knew deeply that Colum loved them as they were. The gift of charity and the ability to share God’s unconditional love through her maternal presence was tangible. One exempla I recall in her last days was rising from a 3 day semi- or unconscious state to give everyone a kiss goodbye. What a perfect way to die in love - with a loving kiss to each of her sisters.
Third is our sister Regina. She was a lay sister until the end and worked hard and long hours in the early years. Her devotion and faith was simple but clear. What struck me about her last years was her smile and gratitude for the small things done for her when she was no longer able to do them for herself. She accepted her limitations as God’s plan and love. An exempla that will always stay with me (us) is her final days when she opened her eyes, smiled, and said “I am so happy”! She knew she was in her last hours before going home to God and was happy - Grateful for her life, her community, and her faith!
If we were to hear these stories in a menology - birds coming to pay respects to Sr Augustine, under obedience waiting for her abbess to return before dying, Sr Columba waking up from an unconscious state to give a loving kiss to each of her sisters, Sr Regina saying how happy she was at her deathbed – we would think they were embellished stories to make a point. However we know they are real – they have touched us, helped form us, and energized us in our Cistercian life.
These are the things we remember from these poor souls and yet great saints. They now pray for us still in devotion, love, and hard work. We have been, and continue to be, blessed by their lives. Not that they didn’t have their rubs in community but these virtues are what we remember, what we cherish, and what lives on. Even Therese, one of the greatest saints of our time, had her sisters wondering what could be said of that poor, little soul when she died. But her prayers, love, and hard work live on through the generations inspiring and edifying millions still today.
At the General Chapter we heard of another saint who was in the process of canonization but it has been dropped due to political and external circumstances. His name is Fr Emmanuel Robial He was a monk of La Trappe and later went to our monastery in China, Our Lady of Consolation. From there he was sent on the new foundation of Our Lady of Joy. When the Japanese army was advancing toward the monastery Robial was asked to take the ill and elderly monks to safety at a mission house in town. What caught my attention was that it had some reminiscing of the Atlas brothers. The day Robial got to the Mission, the Japanese came into the refectory that same evening and took the 9 European brothers. Robial was one of them taken. It reminded me of Br Paul who had just arrived that day at Atlas when he was kidnapped with the community. Robial and the other Europeans were murdered outside the village. He was known as a monk of silence and prayer and ready for any sacrifices. In the future his name will be added to the menology with a one sentence or two. Another silent soul but a great saint.
Each of our sisters, Fr Robial, and my parents are in peace. They shall be called blessed because God has tried them in fire – as gold. They were confident in Jesus’ words “I will not reject anyone who comes to me…and I will raise them up on the last day.” And Christ “has taken them to himself”. They lived in hope and “hope does not disappoint.”
These are the people we celebrate today – the great and the small; the named and unnamed lovers of Christ. Those who have died but also those who surround us even today. This is a day we can look around our own community and see those still striving until…one day…we too are celebrated as followers of Christ to the end. We don’t have to wait until someone is dead to celebrate them!! Those dead and those alive in our community encourage us on our journey to God and heaven. There are so many souls we celebrate this day – we just need to look around and see.