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Cincinnati Oblates of Saint Meinrad Archabbey

A Monastery Reflection

One of my duties in the monastery in 1944 was refectorian of the monks’ dining room.  This came about as the result of volunteering my assistance when Brother Stephen Shidler was in charge.  He always could use help but no one came forward.  When I did, Brother Stephen went on to other duties.

Daily the monks finished the Office of None before noon, and then prayed the Angelus at twelve o’clock.  On this particular day, I was busy preparing the dining room for the noon meal.  Our bakery was in a building apart from the monastery.  There were several dining rooms.  Next to the monks’ dining room was one for the little oblates.  There was a guest dining room; Father John Thuis was in charge.  The major and minor seminarians also had their dining room.

The closer it got to the noon hour, the more agitated I became.  In checking with the other dining rooms, I found that none had received their share of bread.  Close to twelve o’clock noon, I hurried to the door from which the Abbot, priests and brothers exited the Church.  Father Abbot Ignatius Esser was always the first to exit.  I was waiting.  Seeing my distress, he gently took my arm, asking what was my concern.  I explained that the bread for all the dining rooms had not arrived.  I then attempted to run back to the dining room to help place the bread if it had arrived in my absence.  Father Abbot firmly held my arm and calmly said, “Walk with me.”

 At that time at Saint Meinrad a long corridor led from the Church to the dining room.  The monks chanted a Psalm and responses as they walked along.  In a few moments we arrived at the dining room.  Bread was in place as if it had just come out of the oven—as it also was in the other dining rooms, when I later checked.

I later learned that the reason there had been no bread was because some equipment in the bakery had failed.

By John Campbell

Heavy Traffic on Salvation’s Narrow Road: The Importance of Community in Fidelity to the Monastic Way of Life

So, once we’ve turned toward God in response to His call, we never quite know through what He may lead us or whom we’ll bump into along the way.

But the destination beyond the horizon, which is Christ, comes to meet us and illumines our path. The important thing is to stay on the road to salvation, and at the same time, to keep moving forward. Along the way, the scenery is bound to change, and the road will at times narrow or broaden, become rough or smooth, be congested or clear, wet or dry, low or high, winding or straight, arduous or delightful, frightening or breath-taking.

But we keep moving. We keep moving—those with us, alongside us, and even those who seem to be moving against us.

This is an important lesson for the novice entering the monastery, but just as much so for newly married couples or any Christian committed to living out his or her faith. Whatever the state of life, fidelity to the gospel requires living in community—and imperfect communities at that. “Let them grow together until harvest,” Jesus says in the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

It is a time of grace for all, and if the weeds seem particularly prickly at times, they serve the purpose of challenging the wheat to bend with the wind and look to the light above for energy, strength, and the dew of charity that nourishes its growth. For the truth of the matter is that we’re all a bit prickly at times, and it is God’s abundant grace to grow with one another side by side as we learn to die to ourselves, live for Him and serve one another.

“Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brothers live in unity,” Psalm 133 says. The depth of meaning in that passage is much richer for me today than it was when I entered the monastery. And each day, I am challenged to plumb its depths even more—as are the brothers who live with me.

Our Fr. Vincent, in a recent homily on fidelity to the monastic way of life, had this to say about the experience:

A novice not infrequently enters the cloister bubbling with romantic ideas—restful Gregorian chant wafting through gothic cloisters, blissful brethren absorbed in ancient manuscripts, the garden in bloom—only to discover before long that heaven has not yet descended to earth. Cloister shock is inevitable as the neophyte comes to grips with the primary and indispensable source of monastic ascetism: living at close quarters with fellow monks. One by one, illusions peel away in fidelity to the daily round of prayer and work as the search for God gradually climbs down from theory to practice. Human weakness is acknowledged and confessed, and the Lord’s prayer each day asks for and grants forgiveness on a regular basis.

This is true for the layperson as well. Any commitment to Christ requires us to grow in virtue in relationship to one another— in “heavy traffic” as it were. Once newlyweds settle down to the reality of everyday living, they discover new things about themselves in relation to one another. Some of this may be wonderful, some of it seemingly not so wonderful. But the fact is that they are committed to one another in the unity of life they have vowed to one another. Hopefully, as painful as it may be at times, their love for one another deepens as they learn and grow, for better or for worse. 

The fact is that difficulty and trials will surface, but no more than the grace God provides to endure them in faith. We can’t grow in virtue unless we’re tested to display it, and that is done through those around us on the same highway to salvation. When traffic is light, we can fall into the trap of complacency, but our fellow travelers provide us with genuine opportunities to recognize and express the love of Christ within one another.

The truth is that I never quite recognized my capacity for things like anger, pride, greed, envy, jealousy, and being judgmental until I came to the monastery. Certainly, those things were there already in one way or another, but I was only able to become more aware of them by living in community according to the monastic way of life. As I reflect on it, that is God’s indescribable mercy. Being shown these things provides me with the opportunity to seek forgiveness, grow in faith, and to hopefully improve in ways I may never have known had I not heard God’s call. “Where sin increases, grace abounds all the more,” as St. Paul says.

Naturally, this realization changes how we think of conversion—in the monastic way of life or in any other. It is a process, a journey joined with that of others. As one saint put it: “Conversion is the matter of a moment. Sanctification is the work of a lifetime.” We sanctify one another through God’s grace. Along the way, a wonderful thing happens for those whose hearts are open to it. We change, and others change, through an honest recognition of our human fallibility and an increasing trust in the power and mercy of God.

In comprising his Rule, St. Benedict realized this. It is no accident that Chapter 7 on humility holds such a prominent position in the Rule. Humility, or living in truth, is the foundation for our capacity to change, because it is the ability to face the honest reality about oneself and others.

“A man is humble when he stands in the truth with a knowledge and appreciation for himself as he really is,” says the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. When we know who we really are, and accept ourselves and our progress on the road to salvation, we then become more accepting of others and their progress on that same road. Humility, as St. Benedict notes in Chapter 7, leads to that “perfect love of God which casts out fear.” This perfect love that transforms us allows us to let others change as God wills and not as we do—without necessarily being permissive.

The beauty of the Rule is that it is only through living in community that we discover who we are as individuals so that we may give of ourselves. Fraternal life enables us to know ourselves in the encounters of daily life, discover our need for ongoing conversion, and share that mercy with others. Humility, then, joins us together. Its opposing vice—pride—is what divides us.

“My way to holiness and to personal wholeness lies through and with my fellow travelers,” says Charles Cummings in his book Monastic Practices. “I will be faithful to my vocation and will experience the living God because of them, not in spite of them.”

The monk, then, or the oblate, who practices fidelity to the monastic way of life must strive always to be attentive, open, willing to adapt and modify opinions and attitudes (or let them go altogether), respond to unexpected demands, make allowances, surrender what is perceived as “my time,” forgive, be able to offer and receive correction in true charity and not from selfishness, and live with peace of heart through the inevitable contradictions and tensions inherent to common life. This applies to the monastery, the parish, the workplace, or the family household.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and is this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians. This “law” Paul speaks of is simple: By bearing our weaknesses, Christ healed us. When we truly follow Christ, we do the same and become a living expression of his love.

But it’s so hard!!!

Impossible, in fact, without God, who makes all things possible. Remember that God has often used rather frail instruments to carry out his will. Take a good look at the apostles. Grace builds on nature. Nourishing us through the Eucharist and all the sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, personal prayer, and the blessings of community life, God builds us up to become what we receive through Him—the Body of Christ. His words echo in our hearts through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.”

The road to which he beckons us is nothing more and nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. St. Benedict speaks often of this in his Prologue to the Rule, repeatedly using terms like road, way, path and journey. Like Jesus, he doesn’t promise that it will be easy, only that it will be eternally rewarding.

“Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset,” he tells us. (Notice the use of the word ‘we’ in the next few sentences, rather than the word ‘you’, and also the emphasis on the process of conversion): “But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching [in the monastery] until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.”

Clearly then, fidelity to the monastic way of life is the work of a lifetime, not something to be achieved cheaply, overnight, or all by one’s self.

I recall that after my conversion but before coming to the monastery, I would make the 15-minute drive to work at The Blade every afternoon fighting the traffic along a three-lane highway. Everyone was in a hurry and in one another’s way, it seemed. It was very stressful speeding up, slowing down, stopping at all the lights, passing slower drivers, and being passed by quicker drivers. I would usually arrive at work with frayed nerves and an ill temper before the pressures of editing on deadline in a noisy newsroom even began.

One day I tried something different. I decided to stay in the right lane as much as possible, drive consistently at the speed limit without rushing to beat lights or get around other drivers. And I prayed the rosary—looking at the faces of all the other drivers and asking God to bless each one of them and their families. I discovered four things: 1) I arrived at work more relaxed and in a much better state of mind; 2) I became more aware of the people in all those other cars. I even got a smile or two; 3) It took me the same amount of time to get to work; and 4) with the return trip I was able to thoughtfully pray all five decades of the rosary daily when I thought there had been no more time in my day.

Encouraged, I applied the same principle in relating to my co-workers. Tensions are often high in a packed newsroom filled with people doing five things at once and always keeping one eye on the clock. Raised voices are commonplace. Whenever I was addressed by one of these, rather than responding in my typical fashion, I intentionally offered a moment of thought, and then spoke slowly and politely, and several octaves below the person who had addressed me. It was amazing to see what a calming effect that had on us both. We began to really listen and speak to one another, even when we disagreed.

Later, God apparently thought I was ready for another challenge, because I came to the monastery. Suddenly, that literal three-lane highway I drove to The Blade every day became, in figurative terms, a congested two-lane road often reduced to one lane for construction. There are more drivers and there is less room to maneuver. Most importantly, when the day is finished, there is no drive home. Prayer, work, meals, and the common life in the monastery bring the same people together, along with all their strengths and weaknesses, day after day.

Naturally, this requires quite a bit of adjustment, and the reality of community life at times contradicts the ideal. However, that is also its beauty. Shortly after arriving at the monastery, Br. Martin told me community life can be compared to a big revolving mixer filled with many stones—some big, some small, all different shapes and colors, and some more jagged than others. A wonderful thing happens as the mixer is turned, and all those stones begin scraping and scuffing one another. Over time, they become smooth and round and polished—maybe even sparkling.

What threatens this process is expecting immediate perfection from oneself and from others. Success means accepting—but not excusing—imperfection in oneself and in others, while allowing room for polishing. It is God’s mercy incarnate, the love of Christ making us one. “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so,” St. Benedict tells us in Chapter 4 of the Rule: The Tools for Good Works.

This is why during the Rite of Solemn Profession, the monk sings three times a passage from Psalm 119, repeated by the rest of the community: “Uphold me O Lord, according to your promise, and do not confound me in my expectation.”

Certainly, expectations often get the best of us. That is all too human. However, when those expectations start mapping out our entire direction of thinking, we can easily start drifting off that narrow road and onto the exit ramp of pride—finding ourselves in unfamiliar terrain before we even know we’ve made a wrong turn. Sometimes we turn around and get back on track. Other times, we look for someone to blame and become even more lost.

Getting sidetracked like this is particularly dangerous for those who consider themselves to be on the right path. Pride lurks around every corner, waiting to lure the virtuous astray. Pride invites the virtuous to project their hidden faults onto others and focus on other people’s deficiencies without considering their goodness. “O, God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity,” prays the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel, while the tax collector simply acknowledges his imperfection. Anyone observing these two from a distance in the temple might presume that the Pharisee was the virtuous one. Christ tells us otherwise.
***C.S. Lewis/Screwtape Letters excerpts***
Falling victim to our expectations and then pride has the disastrous effect of cutting us off from community simply because it tempts us to think we’re better off without anyone else. “Everyone but me is to blame for what I suffer, so I may as well be rid of them.” And so I remove myself—in body, mind or spirit—from among my brethren whom God has given me to work out my salvation with. Mercifully, God is always ready to lead us back; but we have to be listening.

***Desert Fathers story on anger***
Fortunately for him, this monk realized the necessity and blessing of living in community, and rejoined the flow of heavy traffic on the narrow road to salvation. He had left his community thinking that others were the ones in need of conversion, not him. He returned with the realization that he must love his brothers in their faults, as God loved him in his, and as He lived in all of them.

Mysteriously, he discovered this truth: It often happens that in another’s fault lies your own conversion. As I progress on this narrow road, I often discover (sometimes too late) that when I am most judgmental, most intolerant, most disproportionately angry, and most impatient with others, that it’s really because I don’t feel too good about myself at the moment. I’m failing to live in the truth of who I am and who those around me are. So my interior disposition is driving my exterior direction in relating to others.

Fr. Jeremy, in a recent homily, had this observation to offer:
So often, something bothers us not because of what is being done but because of who is doing it. Often our ability to weigh an offense as serious or trivial depends on who is engaged in the activity. Our judgments are often clouded by personality clashes. This is true whether we live in a monastery or in a house with our spouse, children or brothers and sisters.

Realizing this, however, offers genuine opportunity for growth in fidelity to the monastic way of life, and to receive, bear with, and serve one another as Christ. Recall that Jesus told his disciples: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This is great mercy and responsibility combined. As believers, we make Christ present to one another. He’s entrusted his mercy to us to share with one another.

Cardinal Basil Hume, addressing his community while abbot of Ampleforth, states it well: “It’s so simple to talk about community; so simple to think of community as a kind of temporary ‘togetherness.’ However, when you have to live the life in terms of harsh reality, it poses problems. But you will have discovered your own shortcomings, as far as living in community is concerned. You will also have discovered that it is rewarding, that we derive support from one another. … You are beginning to appreciate each other for what you are and not what you would like others to be.”

In the monastery, nowhere is this grace more evident than in the celebration of the Divine Office. It is the clearest expression and witness of the common life of prayer and work to which we are called. Coming together each day, several times a day, to seek forgiveness, praise God and implore His aid for all, we bring with us our strengths and weaknesses, our joys and sorrows, our charity and rancor, our pleasing gifts and annoying quirks, our bitter woundedness and our sweet goodness.

It is the same for all those who merge into heavy traffic along the narrow road to salvation—who wish to live in fidelity and truly seek God, accept oneself, and know the love of Christ in our fellow travelers.

Regardless of what’s going on in our lives, we stop, gather, and present our humanity to God through His Word, so we may delight in His transforming divinity. Christ is not only the destination, but also a recurring rest stop on the road to salvation, where we refuel and regain our bearings, and then begin again—so that His love, which impels us to take the narrow road, may “bring us all together to everlasting life.”

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner
Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 2008

Miracle on Hill Drive

 I spent December 24th, 25th, and 26th at the St. Meinrad Archabbey.  Driving home I realized a miracle had occurred; a small miracle, but highly singular.

For three days I did not make one joke or pun, did not tell a funny story, and did not put down any person, place, or thing with a biting remark.  For three whole days! That is what St. Meinrad and St. Benedict (The Rule: Chapter 7; tenth degree of humility) do to you.
I was the only guest staying for a full three days.  A few other pilgrims came and went, the seminary students were on holiday, and the monks and brothers were in their secret havens.  Decorations were limited to a few Christmas trees and wreaths.  Not a jingle bell or ho-ho-ho or grandma got run over by a reindeer was to be heard.  I ate in Newman Hall, sometimes sharing the room with only one or two other diners.  When you go, hope that the beef barley soup, salmon, and apple-caramel pie are on the menu.
However, I did receive one gift—a wide smile as warm as a Christmas hearth—from Fr. Meinrad.
I owned St. Meinrad.  St. Meinrad owned me.
Christmas afternoon I walked hatless and gloveless beneath a bright Episcopal-blue sky down the hill, through the village, and up the wooded hillside to Monte Cassino.  I walked through the red doors (never locked), lit a candle, sat down, and said the rosary with Anglican beads, wondering if it would “take.”  It did.

At the rear of the chapel I took down the chain with the sign reading, “Please Do Not Enter,” and walked the narrow steps to the dark belfry and rang the bell a Trinitarian three times.  I got a kick out of ringing the sweet bell over an empty countryside.
When I sit in the Archabbey Church I try not to look up—way up—like a dumb, hick tourist at the bold, rich, magnificent stained glass windows.  I try to appear as an old, sagacious oblate from Harrison, Ohio, who is quite used to such things thank you.  (I wait until everyone leaves.)
 Stepping outside the rear entrance of the Guest house at night, hearing the bells scaring the birds and welcoming the angels, seeing on the neighboring knoll the Church, fully lit and fully bright is a blessed and everlasting, ambitious memory.
Last February Rev. Dave Halt (St. James Episcopal, Cincinnati) and I drove to St. Meinrad for my Rite of Final Oblation.  I remember walking to the Church along the hillside through a cool and cloudless night, that for one brief shining moment all this—Benedict, the Archabbey, Fr. Meinrad, the monks, and my priest—were there just for me.
Rev. Dave once told me that he believed a place is made more holy by the weight and number of prayers said in it.  Before the altar I made my Oblation and a prayer, promising before God stability of heart, fidelity to the spirit of the monastic life, and obedience to the will of God.  The Archabbey Church was made a little holier that night.  A prayer said.  A prayer granted.  Another miracle on Hill Drive.

by Oblate Andrew (Ron Beathard)