Retreat Postscript

arch

Yesterday was a travel day as we returned from Gesthemani, KY.  It’s always a transition to come back from retreat life to “real” life.  First of all there’s the time difference.  Gesthemani is in the Eastern time zone, Saint Louis is in the Central time zone.  It will take a while for my body clock to reset.  Second, there’s the “normal” events of life that don’t seem so hectic normally, but after a few days of life at the monastery,  it all seems kind of overwhelming.

I always come back from retreat determined to spend more time in prayer and contemplation.  I did that today, at least so far, but I don’t know what tomorrow will bring with morning mass, a breakfast at Saint John’s to introduce the new deacon, a 7:00 pm meeting, and a party afterwards.  That sounds like a hard day to find time for contemplation and reading.  We’ll see.  At least in my reading this week I learned some short prayers that can be said on the fly, keeping God at the front of my mind all day.

As usual, I came back with an arm-load of books.  All I have to do is find time to read them.  I’m looking forward to my retirement in December.  Maybe then I’ll have more time.

I was asked “what did you learn on retreat?”  Well, as I posted the other day, I learned to be willing to accept other people’s help, allowing them to be Jesus.  I think that’s big.  I also learned some things about contemplation and meditation.  That’s something the Monks are known for and something we should all cultivate.  With so much junk coming at us from all directions, it’s not easy to empty your mind and be open to God.  But it’s something we all have to learn to do.  There’s tremendous freedom in pushing all the stuff away and making room for God.

I believe that our souls have a finite amount of space in them.  The bad stuff can’t get in if we fill ourselves with the Holy Spirit.  But it takes work.  It doesn’t just happen.  Frequent repetition of the simple prayer “God come to my assistance.  Lord make haste to help me.” is one way to push out the negative thoughts.  For those who practice the Liturgy of the Hours, each hour begins with this prayer.  There’s no reason why we can’t repeat this request of God all throughout the day.  Try it.

I have more retreat news, so stay tuned.

I’m going to leave you with an audio clip of the Monks chanting Compline, or Night Prayer.  It’s fairly short and doesn’t vary much from day to day.  You might want to listen to this tonight (and every night) before you go to bed.  It’s very peaceful.

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More on Seeing Jesus

monks

I posted yesterday about seeing Jesus not just in the helpless, but also in the helper.  Today God taught me that lesson in a big way.  My blood sugar was very low this morning and I was having some trouble getting around.  The cafeteria lady saw me struggling with my tray and asked me if I needed help.  My first inclination was to say “No thanks.  I can manage.”

Then I remembered Father’s words.  I said that would be great and she carried my tray over to “our” table (Once you claim a table in the dining room it’s yours for the week.)  I thanked her profusely for helping me and the look on her face was priceless.  Among  all the priests, monks, deacons, and even a Bishop in this place this week, I found Jesus working in the cafeteria.  It was a lesson I hope I never forget.

merton

The most famous resident of Gesthemani was Father Thomas Merton, possibly the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century.  He was famous all over the world and people come here every day just to see where he lived.  A “famous monk” seems like an oxymoron, but that’s what he was.  He died in 1948 and the  Abby is still collecting royalties from his books.  But in the end, a monk is a monk.  Father’s grave is marked with this simple metal cross just like all the other monks.  His reward is in a much better place.

This is the last day of our retreat.  Tomorrow we go back to reality.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading this week and I’ve discovered a lot about God and about myself.  I plan to share some of that in future posts.  Stay tuned.

Come…..Go

abby cemetery

abby cemetery

According to Bishop Fulton Sheen, Jesus’ first word of his public ministry was “come”.  His final word to his disciples was “go”.  “Come follow me.  Go out into the world”.  I wonder how many of us really follow these simple instructions.

Even the Monks here at Gesthemani have mastered the first part, but they haven’t really mastered the second part.  They’ve come alright.  But once they come they pretty much stay.  There’s no question that they welcome visitors, each year by the thousands.  And they do their best to share the good news through their actions.  But as far as going out into the world, that’s more up to you and me.

abby keep out

 

Last night in one of only two sessions the monks hold with visitors Father gave us something to really reflect on.  We all know that we’re supposed to see Jesus in the poor, the sick, the elderly, in anyone who needs help.  When we look into the face of that person, we’re seeing Jesus.  We may not always act on it, but we do know it.

But what about the helper.  Isn’t he/she Jesus too?  In his book Rediscover Jesus, Matthew Kelly tells the story of a group of men hurrying to catch a New York City Taxi.  In their haste they run into a blind lady’s vegetable cart, knocking all the produce to the ground.  Only one of them stops to help.  His friends urge him to hurry up or he’ll miss his plane but he stays behind to pick up the spilled fruit and vegetables.  Dozens of other pedestrians hurried by but no one else stopped to help.  When he had everything picked up and neatly arranged, he handed the blind lady some money to pay for the damaged goods.

The lady is very grateful and asks the man, “Are you Jesus?  When I heard the fruit hit the ground I prayed to Jesus for help.  Then I heard you picking it up.   Are you Jesus?”

“Oh, no ma’am”, he said.  He ends up missing his plane and has to spend another night in New York which gives him plenty of time to think and pray about what happened.

The story begs the question, “When was the last time someone wondered if you were Jesus?”

My recent health problems have forced me to rely on others much more than I like to.  I’ve always been very independent.  At first, I fought this dependence with all my might.  I don’t want to have to depend on others.  That’s a sign of weakness.  But as Father told us last night, when we refuse the help of others we take away their chance to be Jesus.  We’re actually being selfish.

People like to help.  It makes them feel good inside.  When we let our egos take charge and refuse to let others help us, we’re taking that good feeling away from them.  As I’ve hobbled around Gesthemani Abby this week, I’ve had any number of people offer me help.  Before Father’s talk last night I was my usual egotistical self.  But now I see that by letting them help me, I’m actually helping them.  And I get to see Jesus.

Now the cynic might say, “You’re on a retreat.  You’re surrounded by holy people.  Most people are like those New Yorkers who just kept on going, not stopping to help.”  I don’t agree.  I think most people want to help, wherever they are.

I have to say something here about my wife.  For the last year, she’s literally done all the heavy lifting.  She carries things.  She picks things up when I drop them (which is constantly).  She drives most of the time (except at night when she can’t see.)  She fills out forms and signs things.  She has been the perfect caregiver.  Occasionally she gets impatient with me (who wouldn’t).  But if you want to see Jesus, take a look at my wife.  Or at anyone who takes care of someone else.

 

4 Nights Alone in a Single Bed

retreat bedroom

This week I’m on retreat at Gesthemane Abby in Kentucky.  The Abby is where Thomas Merton lived and you can feel his presence wherever you go here.  The guests live in pretty simple accommodations and eat simple food.  In fact  at dinner (12:30 pm, more on that in a minute) they ran out of meat before I got there.  Sidebar, when I first started coming here 14 years ago they didn’t serve meat so my meal of stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes and salad wasn ‘t all that bad.

So, what’s the deal?  Why drive 322 miles to sit in the woods and read?  The daily schedule goes like this:

3:15 am (yes, am) Vigils, the first prayer of the day.  To be perfectly honest, I used to get up for this, but as the years have gone by, not so much.  This morning I didn’t even try.

5:45 am Lauds.  This is morning prayer.  Most retreatants get up for this.  I’m ashamed to report that today my alarm went off at 5:00, I thought about getting up, and when I looked at the clock again it was 7:00.

Sixish is mass following 5:30 am vespers.  Note that I missed those too.  Breakfast is served after mass at 7:00.  I didn’t miss breakfast.

There are more hours of prayer throughout the day ending with Compline, or night prayer at 7:30 pm.  The prayer routine is broken up by supper at 6:00, following Vespers. Notice that they don’t have lunch here.  They have dinner at 12:30, which is the main meal of the day, and supper at 6:00.  There’s no room for lunch.

Face it, you don’t come here for the gourmet chow.  It’s a place of prayer and reflection and food is served out of necessity.  The rest of the time is spent either in the chapel or someplace engaged in private prayer, reading.  God is definitely present here and you can choose how you want to encounter Him.

retreat library

One thing that’s new this year is wifi in the library.  I will be able to post what’s happening all week.  I expect something significant.  It always happens when I come here.  I have a lot to pray about what with family and friends, parishioners at two churches and an upcoming job change.  I’ll keep my readers in my prayers as well.

I hope to be able to post some pictures this week but at the moment I’m having some technical difficulties so for now, I’m borrowing some pics from the monk’s website.

retreat abby

 

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” That’s according to the prophet Isaiah. And how true it is.

 

We humans always want to be in control. We know what’s best for us, don’t we? Who knows us better than we know ourselves? It’s in our nature to think that way. But Isaiah was so right. God’s thoughts are above our thoughts. In fact they’re so much higher than our thoughts that we can’t even begin to comprehend the difference.

 

Over the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time talking to God, trying to discern what He wants me to do with my future. It’s a lot like when I was trying to discern my vocation. Should I become a deacon or not? Should I retire or not? These are big questions; much too big for my tiny human brain to figure out. I started to consider retirement over a year ago when I was in the hospital. Then last November, when I had my back surgery, I really started to think about it seriously. Over and over I asked God what He wanted me to do.

I thought about it and prayed about it for months before I finally made up my mind and went to see the Director of the Diaconate and asked him to start looking for someone to take my place.

 

I’m still not sure I made the right decision, but I put it in God’s hands. His thoughts are above my thoughts. It says so right here in the first reading. When ever we have a problem to solve or a decision to make the answer is to put it in God’s hands. We may not always agree with Him, but His way is always the best way. If you’re struggling with something, put it in His hands. You can always trust Him.

 

You’ll notice I’m focusing on the first reading much more than I usually do. That’s because I really don’t like the second reading or the Gospel all that much. Paul tells us he longs to depart from this life and be with Christ. Considering all his suffering, it’s not hard to understand his feelings. I’m sure we’ve all had similar thoughts at one time or another. But it’s not up to us to decide whether we live or die. Only God can make that call.

There’s an old Irish joke that goes like this:

Father Murphy walks into a pub in Donegal, and says to the first man he meets, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

The man said, “I do Father.”

The priest said, “Then stand over there against the wall.”

Then the priest asked the second man, “Do you want to got to heaven?”

“Certainly, Father,” was the man’s reply.

“Then stand over there against the wall,” said the priest.

Then Father Murphy walked up to O’Toole and said, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

O’Toole said, “No, I don’t Father.”

The priest said, “I don’t believe this. You mean to tell me that when you die you don’t want to go to heaven?”

O’Toole said, “Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now.”

 

At some point, ready or not, God’s going to call our names. Then it will be our time. And God knows us better than we know ourselves. Like Isaiah said, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways.”

 

And, as Thomas Merton said,

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

 

 

 

 

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

I have recently been advised of a change in my assignment.  I wasn’t really prepared to announce it so soon, but the information has leaked out so I felt like it was prudent to talk about it today.  Have a happy and safe holiday weekend and please pray for the people of Texas and Louisiana….also the folks in the Pacific Northwest who could use some of that water to put out the wildfires.

In spite of what you may have heard from Three Dog Night, Jeremiah was not a bullfrog.  Jeremiah was a prophet who lived around 650 BC and this isn’t one of his best days.  He’s ticked off at the Lord and he tells Him so.  “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”  Strong words, especially when they’re directed at the Almighty.  But things aren’t going well for him.

 

He’s accepted the position of prophet, but when he speaks, people make fun of him.  Believe me, that’s no fun. Jeremiah is fed up and says he’ll never speak of the Lord again.  But “it becomes like a fire burning in (his) heart….(He) grows weary holding it in.  (He) cannot endure it. So he continues to speak and he’s persecuted, sent into exile in Egypt, and eventually killed by his own countrymen.

 

700 years later, we find Paul writing a letter to the Romans.  He’s giving them a warning.  “Do not conform yourselves to this age.”  He tells them that if they do conform to the age they won’t be able to discern the will of God.  Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  The world of the Romans in the years after Jesus death and resurrection isn’t really Christian-friendly.  Paul’s telling them that they must be in the world, but not of the world. The situation that you and I face today as Catholic Christians isn’t all that different from Paul’s world over 2,000 years ago.

 

We Christians have always been kind of a counter-cultural bunch.  Living the words of Christ has never been easy, which is exactly as He told us it would be.

 

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  There’s really nothing ambiguous about that.  It’s all right there.  There are no loopholes, no exceptions.  So why doesn’t everyone do what He says.  Remember, in John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that we’re His friends if we do what He tells us.

 

Here’s what we know:

  1. Jesus is the Son of God.
  2. He gave us some very simple rules to live by; basically love one another, keep the 10 Commandments, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, take up our cross and follow Him.
  3. If we do what He says, we’ll go to heaven and, inversely, if we don’t do what He says, we’ll go to hell.
  4. He created a Church and gave the Apostles and their successors the power to speak for Him.  Remember, “whoever hears you hears me”.  He put Peter and his successors in charge of His Church and promised that “the gates of hell” wouldn’t prevail against it.

 

That’s it!  That’s all we really need to know.  Frankly I don’t understand why so many people don’t get it.  Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah.  Preaching the Gospel isn’t always popular.  Some people just don’t want to face facts.  But I can’t not do this!  Like the man said, “I grow weary holding it in.”  I hope you feel the same way.  As we leave here today, let’s remember what Jeremiah, Saint Paul, and Jesus are saying to us.

 

Don’t hold in the fire.  Let it out. Share the good news in spite of the personal consequences.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to hear about Jesus, and they sure don’t want to hear that they might be going to hell. They want to maintain this fantasy that they can do whatever they want and there won’t be any consequences.  But are we doing them a favor by not correcting them?  If you saw someone about to step off the edge of a cliff, wouldn’t you yell “stop”?

 

Don’t conform yourself to this age.  There are powerful forces surrounding us every day that want to push us down the wrong path.  Don’t let them win.  Like they used to say in the ‘60s, “keep the faith, baby”.  Truth doesn’t change.  What was true 2,000 years ago is true today.

 

And, finally, think as God thinks, not as humans think.  Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him.  He will come back.  There will be a judgment.  He will repay each of us according to our conduct.  That’s a promise from the Son of God Himself.

[pause]

 

Twenty years ago, in 1997, God called me to become a deacon in His Church. I didn’t understand it (still don’t) and I fought it for a while. But God put me in a position where I was able to spend a couple of hours with a deacon who I knew and trusted. He told me to go for it. So, I enrolled in deaconate formation.

 

After five years of study I was ordained in 2002, fifteen years ago, still not completely sure I was doing the right thing. But like Jeramaih, I couldn’t not do this. The path was very clear, I was assigned to Saint Bernadette parish, my home parish since 1975. It was a very natural progression but the Gospel is very true when it says “the prophet is not without honor except in his own town.”

 

 

Fortunately I was blessed to have a great pastor who helped me make the transition from lay parishioner to ordained minister. I was very blessed. During that time I was also a pastoral care volunteer at first Saint Joseph Hospital then at Saint Clare. I was also working a full-time secular job until I retired in 2009

 

Then in 2010 things got a little more complicated. The Archbishop called me to a new assignment, Director of Saint John Nepomuk Chapel. I would be the first deacon in Saint Louis to take over a church without a pastor. My retirement didn’t last long.

 

I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t a boost to my ego. Something new. I’d be a pioneer. No one had ever had this job before. I said I’d give it a try for three years. That was seven years ago.

 

I kept my ties with Saint Bernadette doing weekly communion services and assisting with funerals.

 

Now the pastor at Bernadette is having some serious health issues. He’s very limited in what he can do. It’s especially hard for him to say mass. He needs help. So, I’ve decided to give up this assignment and go back to Saint Bernadette. My health isn’t that great either and frankly I’m ready to go back to just being a regular deacon with no administrative responsibilities.

 

Fortunately there’s another deacon in the Archdiocese who is looking for more to do. Deacon Joe Iovanna will be joining us here at Saint John’s on September 18. He will serve as Assistant Director, learning the job. When his training is complete he will take over as Director, some time before the end of the year.

 

I will gradually transition back to Saint Bernadette during that time. I hope you will welcome Deacon Joe into the community and be patient with both of us as we make this change. I’ve known Joe for a long time and I’m sure you will like him.