Tuesday, September 20, 2016

the blessing of fragility and the transfiguring power of beauty

There is formal intellectual formation, but the accompaniment of having a deep and stable experience of a life of communion with God and the brothers and sisters, which is essential in the charism of Saint Benedict, is often missing. There is instruction, but little wisdom; there is communal habitation, but little fraternal communion, little sharing on that which is truly profound in our life and experience.[1]
                    Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, Abbot General of the Order of Cistercians

18 September, 2016, Whangerei, New Zealand

Oh, my gosh: such a long couple of days getting here. And such-wide ranging experiences the last few days. My soul has got worse jet lag than my body!

Thursday morning I had the unexpected opportunity of celebrating Mass with the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity who, as I mentioned, share San Gregorio with us, though have very much their own space. George usually has this Mass with them, in English, but asked me to take it, which I did with pleasure. There were about 30 of them gathered, in a very simple chapel, most of them sitting on the floor. There seemed to be a handful of young women in formation and one not in any habit at all. It was a bit of a relief for me to pray and preach in English, which is the common language there. The contrast from our High Masses each and every day at the Congress couldn’t have been greater. They used simple songs, mostly from America, sung out of a photocopied book of lyrics, and everything was traditional in a devotional kind of way. I had a wave of nostalgia for mornings with the Poor Clares in Corralitos, especially looking out at their beaming receptive faces. I felt humbled by them: they have a very disciplined ascetical life both in life style and in prayer time, and yet they spend most of the rest of the day in very hard hands-on work with the poor.

It was the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, the day after the Exaltation of the Cross. There was a quote from Adrienne von Spreyr in Give Us This Day which I used as grist for my own reflections, of the nature that real sacrifice is when we do not know what form God will give to that which we offer. I went back again to the notion of real discernment not being between good and evil but between two goods, always trying to look for the summum bonum, giving up one good for a greater or the greatest good. But there is something even beyond that, like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: giving up a good without any idea what lies on the other side of it, really walking on water, steping out into the dark. Somehow that’s real hope, too, as Vaclev Havel said, “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.... Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless how it turns out.” What good could possibly come out of your son dying on a cross; and yet that becomes the seed that falls into the ground and dies and so yields a rich harvest.

I didn’t get to visit with the sisters afterwards (I was half expecting that there would be three eggs and toast waiting for me in the priest’s parlor as the Poor Ladies used to do), but headed back to Sant’Anselmo for one last session of the Congress. That morning we were to hear from the ecumenical participants. There were four from the Eastern Christian tradition––Bishop Epiphanius, of the Abbey of St. Macarius of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, Hieromonk Melchisedec Toronen of the Ecumenical Patriachate of Constantinople, Hegumen Joseph Kryukov of the Patriachate of Moscow, and Archimandrite Atanasie Rusnak from Romania––and an Anglican Benedictine, Abbot Stuart Burns, who had been with us the whole time. Of course I had noticed the Eastern Christian participants by there headgear, but I didn’t even know that the Anglican one was Anglican, he, obviously, blended in so easily with the group.

The intervention from the young Hegumen Joseph of Moscow was my favorite. He told us about a small choir from Germany called “Harpa Dei,” that came to visit there monastery, that specializes in singing rare sacred music from the medieval Catholic liturgy as well as from the liturgical practice of Byzantium, India, Ethiopia, Armenia and other countries. And he said that through their music they were able to accomplish something, which could have been accomplished otherwise. Despite their appearance, which was more than unusual for an Orthodox setting, which would tend to be very conservative and not very open to inter-confessional conversation, and despite their confessional affiliation, they made the monks listen. Then he recalled something that Pope Benedict XVI had said after a concert of Russian sacred music that was performed at the Vatican in 2010: that somehow “music already anticipates and resolves the impact between East and West through dialogue and synergy, and likewise that between tradition and modernity.” Then he went on to say that

Of course, one performance is just that––one of many steps that we need to make walking the road towards mutual acceptance. And the appearance of a Catholic monastic choir in the heart of the Orthodox monastic traditionalism should not be a reason for drawing too far-reaching conclusions. Yet, this shows once again that it is possible to have meaningful inter-confessional dialogue above the logical arguments. In some ways the beauty of art brings people into unity; in others––it prepares the way for a total transfiguration of a person. On the other hand, the absence of beauty in human life breeds hostility. As Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow and all Russia says, beauty forms the inner state of a person, while ugliness releases the instincts, which turn a person from a creator into a destroyer.

Of course there are about five things in there that I could go on and on about––especially about the transfiguring power of beauty, but I’ll leave that stand on its own merits, except to add this: How much could this also be said about inter-religious music, that it “already anticipates and resolves the impact between various traditions through dialogue and synergy”?

We had kind of a raucous pranzo at San Gregorio as the priors and assistants gathered from all parts for our afternoon meeting with Fr. Paciolla, and then we all headed over to the Casa Generalizia of the Cistercians, also on the Avventine hill, just up from Sant’Antonio and down from Sant’Anselmo, for our afternoon meeting with him, discussing some fine points of our Constitutions and institutional make up in preparation for General Chapter next year. While there I caught a glimpse of their Abbot General there who had given us a plenary session two days before at the Congress (quoted above). I thought his was the best of everything we heard during the course of those two weeks, so real, so down to earth about our situation and what to do with it. I had this in mind as we were discussing fine points of our Constitutions and institutional make up in preparation for General Chapter next year.

This sharing however requires a humility, the humility of recognizing that we need each other. Communion, before a sharing of our richness, is born and is nourished in the sharing of our fragility. In this the precariousness of our day certainly helps us. We all reached [in their order] in one way or another the blessing of fragility, of the need to recognize that no one is truly strong, and therefore it becomes ridiculous to want to be stronger than the others.[2]

It is obvious that our congregation of monks as much as ay congregation is very fragile, dealing with aging and lack of vocations. I think hope we can keep humility and the blessing of our fragility in mind and the very center of our prayer as we prepare for our Chapter next year, and have the humility too not just to chart our course, but to truly listen to the voice of the Spirit in the signs of the times and the needs of the world.

Then there were hearty goodbyes all around, and Alessandro whisked me off to Fiumicino. I was good and early for my flight; I spent my last Euros on snacks, then embarked the almost six-hour long flight through the night to Dubai. (I actually had it in my mind that I was going to Abu Dhabi, for some reason. Glad I double-checked…) Of course it got increasingly fascinating watching the changing demographic from Rome to Dubai, which is the hub for United Emirates Airline, and the mélange of folks traveling to and from points all around the world. And then of course the 16-hour flight to Auckland. The older I get, and now having been away from this kind of travel for a time, the more I think that it is simply just not normal (kata physin) for the body to do that.

My host here, Michael Doherty, met me at the airport, but even before reaching him I had my first taste of indigenous New Zealand culture, which I will write about in the next post.

(I'm at an internet cafe in the library in town, but I forgot my cell phone so I can't post any new pictures, alas. Will make up for that when I can.)

[1] “La formazione intellettuale, formale, c'è, ma manca sovente l'accompagnamento nel fare un'esperienza profonda e stabile della vita di comunione con Dio e i fratelli e sorelle che è essenziale nel carisma di san Benedetto. C'è istruzione, ma poca sapienza; c'è un'abitazione comune, ma poca comunione fraterna, poca condivisione su ciò che è veramente profondo nella nostra vita e esperienza.”
[2] “Questa condivisione però richiede un'umiltà, l'umiltà di riconoscere che abbiamo bisogno gli uni degli altri. La comunione, prima che dalla condivisione delle nostre ricchezze, nasce e si alimenta nella condivisione delle nostre fragilità. In questo ci aiuta certamente la situazione di precarietà di oggi. … Poi è giunta per tutti, in un modo o nell'altro, la ...benedizione della fragilità, del dover riconoscere che nessuno è veramente forte, e quindi diventa ridicolo voler essere più forte degli altri.”