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This morning I leave for Holy Spirit Abbey in Conyers Georgia where I am responsible for coordinating a two week long intensive formation program for Junior monks and nuns. We do this every year. Monks and nuns from our different houses in the U.S. meet at a monastery and take classes on Scripture, the Rule of St. Benedict, the History of Monasticism, or the Vows. Juniors are monks and nuns in "temporary vows" who are preparing for "solemn vows", their final lifetime commitment to a monastic community.
He is risen! I relished the quiet splendor of Spring this morning—this morning unlike any other. We had an unusually large crowd for the Easter Vigil last night—actually ran out of candles, something I don't recall ever happening before. There might have been one hundred and fifty people there. It was chilly outside as midnight arrived,; everyone standing in the dark around a little pile of wood. After a greeting to our guests from the abbot, Brother Sebastian began the ceremony of the "New Fire".
It is Good Friday at New Melleray Abbey—an unnervingly quiet day. Mid-day meal today is bread and water. The community always has a book read to us at mid-day meal. Presently, we are reading: "The Future Church" by John Allen. But for the High Holy Days, we substitute special reading, and today's' reading affected me deeply. The author offered a meditation on the death of Christ, inviting us to look at the shadowy face on the Shroud of Turin. It doesn't actually look like the face of a dead man, but the face of a man profoundly at rest in prayer or meditation.
We're seeing a very active sky today. The warmth of sunshine broke through for periods of time, but it's cooling now, in the late afternoon. The monks are quietly busy preparing for the Mass of the Lord's Supper tonight. It felt strange not to have Mass this morning. Morning mass is just how a monk begins his day. On Holy Thursday, we have Mass in the evening. It gives a curious quality to the whole day. The awareness that we're going to have company tonight—a lot of people arriving at just the time of day when our guests are usually heading home for the night.
I noticed it when I was a novice twenty three years ago, and I notice it today: Novices (those who are brand new to monastic life) are susceptible to attacks of the giggles—and at the most inopportune moments. One day, a few months after I had entered the cloister, I suffered a "giggle-attack" in the middle of Vespers. Fr. Eutropius, the assistant cantor, who used to dearly love listening to his own voice, and worked pretty hard at singing like Mario Lanza, could make you giggle even when he got the words right.
"That's the day I learn everything!" He's scared—I can tell. The loud voice and blustering manner are the best "cover" this strong and determined man has left whose mask is slipping more every day. Donny was diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis about six years ago. His lungs are hardening, gradually turning to wood, and it's becoming more and more difficult for him to breathe. The "Queen" is his doctor, a brilliant young woman who, about two years ago, came to Dubuque to practice medicine after being trained at John Hopkins.
It was really too bad . . . the interview had been so encouraging! The young man was sincere, intelligent and thoughtful, clearly someone who had "turned a corner" in his relationship with the Lord and had recently gone through some kind of conversion experience. He looked so promising—at least as well as I could judge. I did need to make a judgment because I was Vocation Director at the time and entrusted with the responsibility of evaluating as best I could this candidate's readiness to live in the cloister. He looked like "a keeper" as fishermen say . . . .
Last Sunday, the monks watched the movie "Of Gods and Men", the story of our brothers in Algeria. These good monks gave their lives in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors also terrorized by the violence that erupted in Algeria in the mid nineties. It is not often one sees a movie made about Trappist monks. Rarer still that such a film would win the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's not a particularly pleasant movie to watch. One participates in the agonizing circumstances which cost the monks their lives.
Sitting at mass this morning, the first blush of Spring appearing in the fields, the sound of birds in the air again, I hear Fr. Stephen, the gospel reader for the week, proclaim the words: "The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God" . . . and I'm thinking about that. The dead can hear God's voice. It's true. Somehow, I know those words are true. A month ago, the wind was so biting, the snow and ice so packed and steely hard, the fertile earth so "encased" in a tomb of ice, one might have despaired of ever seeing a green thing growing again.
On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, I return from Vespers to find a slip of paper with the corner turned up waiting for me in my mailbox. I flip it over and read: "I have reflected on my experience of the last few years living at New Melleray and prayed for the guidance of God. I believe that God is calling me to spend the rest of my life seeking him in this community. I therefore petition that I may be permitted to make Solemn Vows as a monk of New Melleray Abbey." The note was signed "Brother Stanislaus". Stanislaus is twenty eight years old on the day I am reading this note.