November 30, 2015

First Sunday of Advent

              Mother Rebecca Stramoski                       
                                                                                                                    November 29, 2015

Jer 33:14-16; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28, 34-36
The biblical texts we have for this first Sunday of Advent, though they are indeed about signs and the expectation of things to come, they do not mention any of the wonderful signs that Christmas is on its way.  Instead, we hear Jesus saying, “On earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken”.  This is not a very cheery way to celebrate the beginning of the new Church Year, the beginning of Advent, or the movement towards the Christmas season of peace, love, and joy. These are verses which have been interpreted by many to be signs of the end of all things…NOT the beginning of a new liturgical year! 
But Jesus adds “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  So the new year opens with the call to be alert, awake, and vigilant…not in fear but in hope and eagerness.  What we are waiting for, really, is the end of time.  We are waiting for Christ to come – not as a baby in a manger, but as a king in the clouds.  Advent does not commemorate what was, but anticipates what will be!  This isn’t a time for sentiment, but for searching—searching our hearts and making choices. 
As we open the Advent Season today, the readings tell us that it is a season of Readiness, Reflection, and Renewal.  First, it is a time of Readiness:  Jesus says “do not let your hearts be drowsy”.  “Be vigilant at all times”.  I think Ronald Knox describe this readiness so well in one of his Advent sermons.  He said:  “Everyone knows, even those whose life has not been that adventurous, what it is to plod for miles eagerly straining your eyes towards the light that, somehow, means home.  When doing so it is difficult to judge distances.”  In pitch darkness, it may be 500 miles or 500 feet – it’s hard to judge.  Knox said this is what it must have been like for the Hebrews as they looked forward to the redemption of their people.  They could not have told you when deliverance was to come:  it could be 500 years or that afternoon!  “They only knew that, some time, the stock of David would blossom anew; some time, a key would be found to fit the door of their prison; some time, the light that only shone on the dawning horizon would broaden out, at last, into the perfect {and eternal} day.”  We must be ready so that day “will not surprise us like a trap”.
Second, it is a time of Reflection.  Jesus tells us in the gospel, “pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations…and to stand before the Son of Man.”  Advent is a time of prayer…to meditate on the unsuspecting signs of contradiction that reveal Christ’s nearness to us.  We are called to extra times of reflection on the Word of God in the rich liturgy of Advent.  Like Mary, we spend this time in lectio - pondering the words of Jesus in our hearts…In quiet prayer - as we ‘stand before’ Jesus in silent adoration…and at every Eucharist - where Christ continues to come into our lives, into our outstretched hands, and into our longing hearts.  As we pray every day at Mass: “We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Third, it is a time of Renewal.  St Paul says in the second reading, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all”…and ”Conduct yourselves to please God.”  Advent is the time to repair what is broken, to heal what is hurt, to forgive those who have trespassed against us.  It is a time to allow the stock to blossom, to use the key that opens prison doors, and to allow the light to shine in the darkest of places.  Is there any resentment I hold on to from things that happened years ago, or yesterday, that separate me from loving my sisters.  How appropriate that Pope Francis will be calling us to open the doors of Mercy this Advent and new year.  Advent is a time to let go and to start anew and renewed.  It is the time to remember the work that we need to do – searching our hearts and making choices.   A question we can ask our self this Season is not only what obstacles need to be broken down so we can love more fully but what behavior can I add to love my sisters more deeply?  If we can change one thing in order to better love, it will be a fruitful Advent!
And so we make ourselves ready.  We prepare.  We clear the way.  It is a time for valleys to be exalted and crooked ways made straight.  So what will you do during this special season of Advent?  Is it…to Ready yourself more fully for the Lord’s coming?  To Reflect more…using this time for extra prayer or additional spiritual reading?...Or to Renew your hearts through some form of conversion or discipline?  All three of these are tightly interwoven.  But whether we focus on readiness, reflection, or renewal, a fitting mantra this Advent for all three movements can be:  “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” 

And so…..Are we ready?....November 29, 2015

November 2, 2015

Where Heaven IS

Mother Rebecca
November 1, 2015
Feast of All Saints
During the year the Church celebrates the memories of the saints one by one, allowing us to get to know them better. But today we lump them all together into one great feast.  Not only those who the Church has canonized but the great multitudes in heaven enjoying the beatific vision - known only to God. Included in this feast would be our own family members and friends who have passed into heaven, for they too, now live the fullness of joy in God’s presence.
I remember in the novitiate hearing someone quote a saint as saying “I have found my heaven here on earth”.  My first thought was ‘That’s Nuts’!  I’d be pretty disappointed to get to heaven and find it is just like earth!   But even Elizabeth Barrett Browning chimes in to say, “Earth is crammed with heaven.” And the singer, Bon Jovi, to throw in a contemporary, said “Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey!”  (Needless to say he was born in NJ!)  So why are they saying this?  My vision of heaven is not New Jersey!...nor as the actor in The Fields of Dreams, who mistook Iowa for heaven!  But a further quote from St Catherine of Siena perhaps explains it.  “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, "I am the way.” And so “Every step of the way to heaven is heaven.”   So there we have it – heaven is wherever we find Jesus.  Maybe that vision is not complete here…but it certainly begins here. As someone said “the best way to get to heaven is to take it with you.”
The Vatican Council greatly emphasized a "universal call to holiness". Holiness is the ability to find God in our lives here and now…and to create a space for God’s presence and grace.  So what is a saint?  And what must we to do in order to join the company of the saints in heaven?   Most people would probably say saints are the holy and extraordinary people who have gone before us — most likely leaving behind them a trail of miracles and amazing acts of self-sacrifice, suffering, and heroism. But this is a narrow definition of sainthood and would perhaps leave heaven quite empty!  During the early centuries the saints venerated by the Church were all martyrs.  This makes sense because there was a continuous persecution of Christians for the first 300 years. They wanted to remember and celebrate those Christians who, in real danger, remained faithful witnesses to Christ. I suspect that most of these believers/saints were ordinary people scared to death, but hung in there because of their faith.  In that sense, being a saint has nothing to do with being heroic, holy, or different. It was (and is) about being faithful — no matter what.  So here is the first trait of what a saint is:  a faithful follower of Christ.
But now let us look at some of the saints in Scripture to see how they became ‘blessed’.  Let’s start first in an unlikely place…with the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Lk 18:9+) The tax collector prayed in the temple, standing far off, beating his breast, saying “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  Because he received God’s mercy, he went home a blessed man.  It is interesting that Luke says, he “would not even look up to heaven”.  Maybe he didn’t need to look up to find heaven, for he understood that “earth is crammed with heaven”!
Or we can take St Peter who told Jesus “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. (Lk 5:1+)  Jesus instead gave him a purpose and mission to accomplish.   Receiving God’s mercy, Peter “left everything and followed Christ”.   Then there is Bartimaeus from our gospel last week.  He was a blind beggar and experienced deeply his helplessness, and so when Jesus passed by, he begged and shouted “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”.   After receiving God’s mercy we are told he followed Christ “on the way”.  Both Peter and Bartimaeus understood that “All the way to heaven is heaven”, because Jesus said, "I am the way.” 
Then we have Zacchaeus, but he was not seeking mercy at all or even aware of the need. (Lk 19:1+)  Rather his desire was solely to see Jesus.   Christ tells the crowds, who stood around that sycamore tree, that he had come “to seek out and to save the lost”.  In His mercy, he calls Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus receives God’s mercy and “welcomes Jesus into his home”.   So what made these people saints was simply that they received God’s merciful love…they received Jesus and welcomed Him into their homes and hearts.  So our first step to sainthood is just to be open to God loving us!  Jesus doesn’t tell us to be saints by achieving great things, doing miraculous deeds, but by letting Him ‘abide’ and ‘remain’ in us.
But now let us shift to today’s gospel:  the Beatitudes.  Here we find the second step toward becoming holy.  The blessed are those who are poor in spirit, pure of heart, merciful, thirsty, faithful in the face of persecution and insult.  This indwelling Spirit moves us to action…We are called to live the Beatitudes.  Pope Benedict said “The saints manifest in many ways the powerful and transforming presence of the Risen One; they let Christ possess their lives completely”.  They let God make His home in them…as we too abide in Him.  As St Paul said, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”’   
This second criteria comes only after the first which is an inner space for God.   The Beatitudes bring us to blessedness, but also show the road that we must follow.  It is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we become saints. It is an invitation to share His joy, to live and offer every moment of our lives with joy, and at the same time, making it a gift of love for the people around us. (paraphrased Pope Francis)  If we understand this, everything changes and takes on a new and beautiful meaning, in the little, ordinary things of life.  So far…how am I doing in God's call to holiness?   
So it is through the Beatitudes that we find heaven.  In this way, yes Iowa and even New Jersey (!), can be heaven…for it is wherever God is.  When we receive God’s mercy, allow Him to make His home is us, live the Beatitudes, and faithfully follow Christ, we create heaven on earth until that day, along with all the saints, we shall see Christ face to face.

October 21, 2015

We Are In This Together

Mother Rebecca

Oct 21:  Vs 11-12:  Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Some call this chapter a shortened version of Ch 4.  Ch 72 is nine times shorter but has been referred to as a 2nd list of good works.  Ch 4 is in singular; Ch 72 is plural.  Rightly so, we begin with ourselves in Ch 4 but Ch 72 reminds us we go together.  Ch 4 is not complete without Ch 72.  So let us recap these 8 manners of love, or eight maxims.  They are:

vs 4 - anticipate one another in honor
vs5 - patiently endure one another’s infirmities whether of body or of character
vs6 – competing in obedience to one another
vs7 - following not what is considered useful for oneself, but rather what benefits another
vs8 – loving with purity our sisters
vs 9- fearing God in love
vs 10 - loving their abbess with a sincere and humble charity
vs 11 – and preferring nothing whatever to Christ

Fr John Eudes Bamberger wrote:  For St Benedict a monk is a cenobite, in this he differs somewhat from Cassian.  In St Benedict’s mind the community is not just temporary and relative.  It is a reality, good in itself, of absolute and lasting value.  Our fraternal relationships remain in the beatific vision.  John Eudes states, “One is not alone with God.  One can perhaps be so close to God that one feels alone with Him, but this very fact puts us in communion with all who are united to Him.  The tensions between solitude and communion are thus resolved in God.  Tensions remain in this world, but it is resolved in God in a way of transcending the limitations of too individualistic an intimacy and too superficial a communion.”  In the beatific vision we shall enjoy communion, but at a very intimate level which does not destroy differences.  Yet how often in community we subconsciously try to destroy differences by wanting others to conform to our own measures.  But the end result is actually perfect unity and perfect plurality.   With these thoughts of John Eudes, we could say that we can know how close we are to God in reality by how close we feel to our community.
                Marion Larmann studying the Latin word ‘pariter’ (meaning “together”) says this is an extremely important word.  She said older translations completely trivialize it by rendering it “likewise” (“bring us all likewise to everlasting life”).   Benedict envisions eternal life itself as communal.  We do not just use each other as the means to our own salvation as though the communal life is a means to our individualistic goal.  A cenobite is so thoroughly committed to the welfare of the other community members that entering heaven without them would be unimaginable. 
                When I was a novice I remember Dom Bernardo Olivera visited us.  Commenting on this verse, he used the image of all of us sitting on a bench outside of heaven waiting for our Cistercian brothers and sisters to arrive so that we could enter together.  He thought that was beautiful BUT THIS DID NOT APPEAL to me!  I think it is beautiful to greet our future and past Cistercians in heaven but I do not want to wait on a bench outside until they all get there!   This brought me to the question:  Is there anywhere or anyone in Scripture who reflects this mentality…and what does it look like?  What came to mind was Moses pleading with God not to punish his people for having made a molten calf to worship.  Moses boldly tells God “forgive their sins and if not, then strike me out of the book that you have written”!  Wow…What loyalty!  If all his people can’t join him, then Moses won’t go either.  Moses loved his community so much that he could not imagine heaven without them!  What would you say?  If God said only you would be saved in the community – would you intervene and dare to be like Moses saying “Lord, we all come into eternal life or blot me out of the book you have written.”  It is a bold and scary thing to be like Moses!
                There is a story of a monk who felt that it was easier to pray and be in communion with God in solitude and nature - more so than in community and the common life.  Then one winter day the abbot invited the monk to sit with him before the fireplace in silence.  The abbot then took the tongs from the rack and pulled out a single coal from the fire.  He placed the glowing ember on the hearth.  The two watched the coal quickly cease burning and turn to an ashen gray while the other coals in the fire continued to burn brightly.  The monk then understood his error and returned to full community life.
                I think this is what Benedict is driving at – we go together to Christ, not with “an individualistic intimacy” or “a superficial communion”…but united…together.   “All these tension are resolved in God”…and to accomplish this we must, each of us, “prefer nothing whatever to Christ”.

October 12, 2015

Mutual Obedience

 Mother Rebecca

Sept 23:  Vs 5-6:   supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.”

Last week we spoke about our responsibility for maintaining good zeal through showing respect to others and today we have two more maxims for fostering this fervent love:  “supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another”.   Chapter 26 expounds on how we are to support the sick.  We are to see Christ in those who struggle with illnesses and bodily limitations.  Benedict states that there are responsibilities on both sides.  “The sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ” but adds “Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their sisters who serve them.” 
            However, the ways in which we are to support each other in behavioral weaknesses is not listed in one specific chapter but is sprinkled throughout the Rule.  And this is a more difficult precept to practice.  Seeing Christ in the sick is easier than seeing Christ in those who are angry, controlling, lazy, or abrupt.  Yet we are called and challenged to find Christ in these exchanges as well.  Both bodily and behavioral weaknesses entail a need for patience, which means we must cultivate a peaceful, selfless, and generous heart.  None of us are without faults or a certain lack of charity, so we must see our self on both sides of this picture.  When I am rough on the edges I look to my sisters to patiently bear my weaknesses.  In turn, knowing this, I can more patiently carry other peoples’ weaknesses.  Do I recognize my own faults which others must carry?  And how do I bear others weakness of character?
If that isn't hard enough, we are given a second precept of “obedience to one another”.  We are to work at being obedient not only to the abbess and way of life but to each other.  However, how many of us actually “compete” with each other in obedience!  As novices, Mary and I decided one day to compete in charity.  We use to have the practice of washing the abbess’ dishes after supper.  (This is when we ate supper in common after Vespers.)  We waited until we could be in front of the abbess in the dish-washing line and started aggressively fighting over who was going to clean the abbess’ dish – trying to yank the dishes out of each other’s hands.  It was done in humor.  However, there was something to this competition towards charity.  What would community be like if we competed not only in opportunities for charity but also in obedience?   What does “competing in obedience” even look like?  To compete in obedience implies two things:  one is that there are different degrees of obedience and secondly that we should to be vigilant and attentive to these opportunities to let go of our self-will for another.  In these differing degrees I suppose the worst case would be the failure to even recognize a call to obedience…this reflects a blindness. Then there is obedience with reluctance - shown by facial expressions of being put out or done with hesitation or half-hearted…this reflects a blandness.  But there is a perfect obedience in letting go of our self-will and to do so cheerfully and w/o delay…this reflects a blessedness.  If we lived this one precept well, just think of the perfect harmony we would have in community.   So what does your call to obedience look like?  Blind, Bland, or blessed?
            One obstacle to this ‘obedience to service’ is a preoccupation or worry over our own jobs and duties.  We can become so responsible for our charges, that we lose sight of the charity demanded of us by circumstances and other people’s needs.  Responsibility is an important quality but never above that of charity.  What would please God more, another item crossed off our work list or helping each other in charity in the larger scheme of things?  Most of us have more jobs than we can accomplish during candy season and so we have to discern priorities.  Some jobs will have to be done less well during this season. 
But another tendency can be to see work responsibilities as more important than our other monastic duties of prayer and study and holy reading.  So there is a balance that needs to be discerned…a giving of self in patiently bearing with our own and other people’s weaknesses. And as we can see there is a direct tie between this and the call to compete in obedience…not blind or bland but blessed obedience to one another. 

We must pray for each other and be gentle with each other in this delicate balance of love.