“Why am I…?” an Ecumenical Exchange Panel Presentation

I presented the following at the student-led ecumenical exchange dinner between the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), McCormick Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago.  The event was held at LSTC on April 19th, 2013.

Why am I Roman Catholic?  In my own faith journey I am quite literally Roman Catholic because the Church put Jesus in a box and that taught me the transformative power of grace.  Let me explain.   In my early childhood I was raised a Unitarian Universalist.  At the age of eight I informed my parents, and before I had a real ecumenical awareness, that I “wanted to go to a real church.” Open minded as they were, we explored various traditions.  When touring the Roman Catholic Church I was shown the tabernacle, the place where Catholics reserve the remaining blessed sacrament after the celebration of the mass.  We do so because we believe it to be the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.    I am sure the catechist was eloquent in her explanation, but all I remembered was “Jesus lives in the little gold box.”  From then on, I was hooked.   What is better than a place where Jesus lives?

More fundamentally what captured my imagination and my soul was what I would later come to know (after pursuing my theologies studies) as the sacramental principle, the notion that all creation is imbued with the grace of God.  Through distinct places, times, modes of celebration, ritual practice and community activity this grace can break through to our consciousness and experience in profoundly tangible ways.  This brought a significance of meaning to life.  For me, I can say that “I am Roman Catholic” because of my answer to the question “Why am I.”

Maybe some of you here have stood at a crossroad of human identity coming to recognize the finitude and passing nature of life, yearning for a connection to transcendence while standing in the awe inspiring grandeur of all creation and recognizing your own personal smallness in the vastness of what is.  Maybe you have found yourself standing before the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the holy mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating) as Rudolph Otto writes.  Maybe you have grappled with that deep and existential realization of Miguel de Unamuno (one of my favorite philosophers).  That is to say I do not know myself apart from the physical world and my corporality, how can I be “me” apart from creation?  In the broader context of religious experience both of these anthropological realities—transcendence and imminence, universal and particular, seen and unseen, known and know—are represented through the vast experience of the sacred, the mysterium manifesting in the corporeal, or what Micrea Eliade would call hierophanies.  My particularity of these near universal experiences is the foundation of my religious experience, my love of Catholic sacramentality, and through sacramental practice, my faith in the living God.

The sacramental principle is rooted in the primary sacrament, that is the person of Jesus Christ, the visible manifestation of the God we cannot see (Col 1:15).  Jesus Christ who is at one time both the tangible demonstration of St. Anselm’s superlative being—that which is greater than can be thought—and the most intimate of human encounters—the  touching of his wounds by Thomas, the ecstasies of St. Theresa of Avila.

For me to know that God took on the flesh and bones of this world opens my eyes to see the power of grace in all creation. I experience God in the small “s” sacrament, la cotidianidad, the “everydayness” of the sacred sands of the Santuario de Chimayo that draw tens of thousands of pilgrims every year to my home state of New Mexico to encounter God in journey and in the substance of earth.  I experience it daily in community when my Norbertine brothers and I chant the psalms in liturgy of the hours throughout the day thus collectively marking the sacred passing of time and movement of the cosmos.

First and foremost I am enraptured, inspired, bewildered, confronted, and mystified by the real, tangible and inexplicable encounter with the sacred I find in the Eucharist, a sacrament with a capital “S”.  Each day I am able to bring my own life—my joys and sorrows, triumphs and struggles, gifts, and frailties and offer a little bit more of myself to God as I stand before the altar. Through this I learn to live life gratuitously seeking to model the kenosis of Christ.  With my Catholic community I am able to unite myself to the one salvific sacrifice of Christ and to hope in the power of transformation: the possibility of the unimaginable—isolation into unity, death into life, bread into body, wine into blood—and thus tangibly encounter the soul and divinity, body and blood of Jesus Christ, God made human.  This gives life to a hope that war can become peace, hatred—love,   sin—filled with grace.  This eschatological vision of the community of believers, both those around the altar and those present in the communion of saints who have gone before us in the heavenly banquet, all standing before the God of the universe in awe-filled and yet deeply personal union builds forth my experience of the Body of Christ.  That is to say the Church as the Mystical Body is the principle sacrament of the vision of Jesus. A community of covenantal relationship ontologically manifest through sacramental life.  During moments of doubt, disagreement and frustration with the broader community of my tradition, I recognize this covenantal relationship and the sacramental intent of the Body of Christ to be principally a movement toward unity, continuity over division.

The Eucharistic encounter also inspires social change.   As Blessed John Paul II wrote:  “It is the impulse which the Eucharist gives to the community for a practical commitment to building a more just and fraternal society. In the Eucharist our God has shown love in the extreme, overturning all those criteria of power which too often govern human relations and radically affirming the criterion of service.”[1]

So I encounter Christ through the Eucharist, a vision into the one heavenly liturgy, the one paschal sacrifice, that moment transcendent of time and place, and it is through this that I learn to see the face of Christ in the world around me.  In the broken, tarnished and blighted experiences that surround us, in the faces and the lives of those individuals experiencing homelessness with whom I minister, I can seek to find the deeper underlying presence and love of God.  When I find the God I experience in the Eucharist in the world around me, it opens my eyes to new ways of seeking Christ in the Eucharist.   This teaches me that grace builds on nature and that we are called to be co-creators with God seeking to inspire hope here and now of the world that is yet to come.   Gaudium et Spes the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council states:

“[A]fter we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.”(24) On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower.”[2]

The simplicity of the old Baltimore Catechism answered the question “Why am I”  by stating:  “God made me to know him, love him and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him in the next.”  This mutual and teleological exchange of love is what I experience through the sacramental imagination—and real belief—of my faith, and the ontologically significant sacraments of our apostolic tradition.  If you ask me “Why are you Roman Catholic?”, my answer is: at least for me, Roman Catholic sacramental life is an expression of what it means to fully experience human existence.

[1] John Paul II (2005). Mane Nobiscum Domine 28.

[2] Vatican II (1965) Gaudium et Spes. 39.

Published in: on April 23, 2013 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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To be of One Heart and One Mind: an encounter with the Fifth Gospel of Jesus Christ…. a Conclusion…

  This post is a continuation of the last series of reflections. (Click here to read it!)

A Conclusion for Now

We have an advantage as Norbertines. Living a life of stability in place gives us the opportunity to journey throughout a lifetime with the same men watching and experiencing the same developments of Our Savior within each of them day in and day out, year after year. It allows for deeper and deeper levels of vulnerability and trust to develop. It is in this way that our community truly is the central focus of our lives and by doing this, Christ becomes the heart of who we are and what we do.

This journey so far has been far from easy, and even farther from perfect. It has been, however, after one year very much worth it. I can also say that it is, at least for me, a sure path to holiness and an ability to enter into and mimic the kenotic love of Christ. Unity is possible in and through Christ. Unity does not mean uniformity. Our hearts and minds can be in the same place or at the very least headed to the same destination even if they are not thinking or feeling the same things.

The intellectual debates may rage, as they due, in community. They are, by my estimation, healthy. They, in and of themselves, do not bring us unity. Life in the spirit does as it did on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit brought great unity from the multiplicity and plurality of the crowds through the singular message of the Apostles.

If we can come to love each other well, a little more every day (especially the ones who chew with their mouthes open, or who tend to curse a little much for my taste, or don’t wipe the counter after they spill crumbs everywhere), then we will love God in that unity and we will be on the path to living our Christian and Norbertine vocations. From this our ministries will thrive as they do, and people will continue to be drawn to our way of life as they have been for nine centuries.

So now you are wondering, “where is that fifth Gospel?” It is the life of the community. It is our ability to encounter, relate to, grow from and see the love of Christ in the lives of those with whom we live and to whom we serve. It is the text of our lives together as a living, breathing Christian community. It is in that way we can come to more deeply love God and our neighbor as we grow in unity as one heart and one mind on our way into God.

In future reflections I hope to touch on other aspects that build our unity in community and love for God and neighbor in the lived experience of the Norbertine Tradition.

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 2:31 pm  Comments (3)  

To be of One Heart and One Mind: an encounter with the Fifth Gospel of Jesus Christ….continued yet again…


This is a continuation of the last series of post:  (Click here to read it!)

To See the Face of Christ in Another

Christ is secured as the center of our daily lived community through our striving toward empathy to understand and live the experiences of one another and see how God has moved in each other’s lives. We also struggle to help our brothers to empathize with us. When we come to see that we are all on that journey to God, each at a very different place, we come to be more gentle with one another. When we recognize that we too are only able to see so far up the road, or so far behind us, we become more gentle with ourselves.

It is when we as brothers share hurts and struggles, our humanness, our vulnerabilities and our fears that we can see the face of Christ in the lives of one another. Not just their experience of Christ, but the Christ peering through them at us. This is a reciprocal road. We can only openly and honestly receive the vulnerability that we ourselves display. We can only see the wounded and crucified Christ in our brother if we are willing to recognize that same side of ourselves and allow that to be shown at times in community with certain people.

I struggle greatly with this, as I think all people do especially intellectually driven and introverted men. Who was more trusting and vulnerable than Christ who so openly shared himself with humanity that it led him to the cross? We grow in trust of each other and of God and begin to live a life of hope, not of fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18) I can say that such sharing, trust and openness has been greatly modeled for me.

I see the struggles my classmates endure and grow from their perspectives on and experiences of God and life. I see the challenges we face as very different people and each day recognize a little bit more that we are all on the same journey just in very different ways. I have been challenged to understand and seek to experience objectivity, truth, providence and grace in whole new ways based on how my brothers relate to and encounter God. I have come to appreciate our human struggles and even my own more deeply

We do not only see Christ present in the other through their sadness, weakness or injury. We can also encounter Christ in their heroic virtues which may arise when we least expect it. We can experience it when they are kind and compassionate toward us when we have done something terribly wrong. ( Now you are wondering what I did.. if I have or when I do such things, such tales, if ever published, will be reserved for my memoirs!) I see it in great depth of wisdom, in fortitude to conquer the insurmountable in personal challenges and pains. I see it in the selfless giving that may continue even when you didn’t think they had anything left to give.

The times I have spent helping to assist and care for our eldest confrère, going to doctors appointments, on weekly errand runs, organizing his room (or to be more specific as I was once corrected by him, our room which he occupies), I have come to see how we can utterly turn our lives over to those in our community. I see Christ in my confrère’s elderly vulnerability, but I also see Christ in his wisdom. I am inspired by that even at his age he still continues to reflect on how he can strive to grow closer to God and how he can be more open with his brothers. Even at his age he comes to sing the divine office each morning and evening and participate in daily Eucharist. He still lives for Christ.

A key quote from scripture I often fall back on when keeping an eye out for the mysterious workings of God in and through my brothers is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, “Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory…” (3:20-21) or, a easier to recite translation, a favorite of a wise Norbertine, goes, “Glory be to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

To See Christ in Myself

This is the most dangerous of the three points of reflection I present here. It is not an attempt to build false egos, to make us think we are acting as Christ or anything of that sort. Rather, it is the call to be cognizant of how Christ is working in us, how the spirit is moving through us, in our day to day interactions in community. It is the day to day lived“WWJD” (what would Jesus do?)

It is through our common focus of Christ as the center of our hearts, through our desire to love God more deeply that we come to understand, appreciate and love one another. Through that love in community we can go forth, build unity and love those whom we encounter in ministry. Of course, that is not to assume there is not opportunity for ministry with and to our brothers each and every day within the cloister as well.

The lives of the 15 men with whom I live enlighten and enliven my own. This is true even when we argue, even when (on rare occasion) voices are raised. At the end of the day, however, we come to prayer and dine together. Hopefully both sides of conflict can then open themselves more fully to the other person. It is because we see Christ at the center of our lives that we are quick to forgive, quick to apologize and quick to come back together on our communal journey to the heart of the poor and risen Christ.

Thus we strive to suspend judgment when possible yet still call each other to task out of love for them when we notice we wondered a little too far. I certainly don’t always want to hear what is said if a brother is challenging me as Jesus challenged the rich young man. It is only natural to respond with sorrow or anger. But still we persevere. Over time truth sinks in if we are well intentioned and prayerful. Things that were not of God die away. If we continue to find a place for trust, for empathy, for forgiveness, and for prayer we continue to find a little more room in our hearts for love.

We are called to learn to look upon our brothers as Christ would look upon them. We are called to respond in compassion. We must be more aware of our motivations and discern if our responses are those from God or that God would want of us, or if they are from our own narrowness.

We should never grow weary of hope in Christ that through grace we can ever grow to more strongly emulate him. A quote given to me by a close friend years ago has remained near to my heart ever since. It is from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:

“but he [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ’ for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2:9-10).

This reflection is continued in the next post.  (Click here to read it!)

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 3:48 am  Leave a Comment  

To be of One Heart and One Mind: an encounter with the Fifth Gospel of Jesus Christ….continued yet again…

 This reflection is a continuation of the last post (click here to read it!)

An Invitation to Encounter Christ in the Lives of our Brothers

Imagine how those earliest Christians would have told their story of their encounter with Christ? In the Gospel of John, Andrew and his companion set out to follow Jesus after John the Baptist said of the Christ, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:36). Philip was probably personally summoned by Christ. Nathaniel was invited by Philip, but was a scholar and a skeptic. How would these earliest disciples retell their relationship with Jesus Christ? How differently would they have recounted their first experiences of the same man? The disciples did not know they were to enter into the lived reality of the paschal mystery. I, for one, certainly did not know what that meant when I entered religious life and I assume that could be said for most of my confrères (again, another topic for future reflection).

What if the rich young man in Luke were to sorrowfully return to Christ after selling all that he had and giving to the poor realizing that the affirmation he desired from Christ was not the challenge he received and needed? What if he never returned and continued to walk away? The Gospels do not tell us. How would he tell his experience of Christ in his life compared to that of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who literally jumped at the chance to part with his worldly possessions and to host the Messiah in his home? Many of us came to community willingly and full of zeal at a young age. Others arrived after the twists and turns of life. I think most of us find ourselves confront by the call to Jesus and wish to respond as Zacchaeus did but feel more inclined to walk away in sorrow as the rich young man. Like the earliest ones to follow Jesus, we too are conflicted, broken and skeptical. Like the first to answer the call of Christ to “come and see,” none of us could have known what a life in Christ lived in common would hold in store. We do come to Christ because “he himself understood [human nature] well” (John 2:24) and the members of our communities, as fellow humans, do too.

All we can do is to daily call upon each other to “come and see” what Christ has done in me and then to mission one another, as John the Baptist had done, by saying “go and follow Him.” We grow in unity not only through fraternal correction but through fraternal invitation. It is not just the correction and inviting that must take place, but it is through our acceptance and critical reflection upon the corrections given to us by others and through our humble acceptance of the invitations of our brothers that we grow to love God and our neighbor.

I can stand in one place all my life wondering why the world is not conforming to me. Why is it that no one else is experience Christ and his Church the way I am? Why is it that his or her image of Jesus is so different than mine? Or I could set out to discover and encounter the Christ who has beckoned to each of my brothers. I can look at their lives, hear it in their voices, and experience it in their joys and sorrows. I can see how Christ has touched them, healed them, challenged them. I myself can challenge them too through my own encounter with God as long as I am willing to accept their challenge in return. It is in this way that I can come to know and encounter Christ in a new and deeper ways each day. I can respond to that invitation to “come and see” and witness that sliver of Christ that has managed to speak to and through my brothers. From there I can say “Behold, the lamb of God” in my own life in light of what I have heard and seen while recognizing that what I have heard and seen is but a fragment of of Christ with whom we grow in ever deeper relationship.

This does not just happen in the context of “God talk” but through a shared life. Often it is not I who see the movement in God in my life, but my brother. It is by the constant prodding of “where is God in that?” that we can give to one another. That may not even need to be said, but to live together in community, and to live that well, will bring such thoughts to the surface. We could say we perform a “lectio divina” of our own life as individuals and our life in common.

Does this mean I accept or believe all that I see and hear? Of course not. My own life in Christ is a vision unto itself. Does this mean I am claiming relativism? No. Does it mean I follow paths far beyond the guide posts of the Church? No. I am also, however, not filled with such hubris as to discern the legitimacy of the encounter my brother has had with Christ. I am called to love and respect those with whom I live. A wise Norbertine once recounted to me a famous saying, “be kind to your brothers for we are all facing great battles.”  It does mean I continue to be open and listen to the grace of Christ Jesus present in those around me as it manifests in their lives. 

Continued in the next post (click here to read it!)

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

To be of One Heart and One Mind: an Encounter with the Fifth Gospel of Jesus Christ (continued again….)

  This post is a continuation of the previous posting (click here to view the last blog post!)

Who is on this journey to God?

We are men from a myriad of backgrounds. We come form different ends of the country and the world. We represent a vast array of generations currently spanning from 93 years of age to 24. Some of us are only children, many come from large families. Our theological understandings, political affiliations and world views are quite varied as well. What binds us together is that common call to “love God above all things…then our neighbor.” In response to that common call, despite our differences, or maybe because of them, we strive day in and day out to grow in unity as we journey together to God.

That singular unity which holds us together and which defines our Christian journey into God is our desire to respond to the Love of God and hold Christ as the alpha and omega of our life. Our one life centers around our one God and one Lord.

Our desire is to love God. Christ Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 14: 6-7). For this reason, we as Norbertines striving to live a Christian life growing in perfection, we seek after Christ.

As I have come to see and experience it, we come to love God in community in several ways. At least from my life as a Norbertine thus far, there is no particular ordering to what is to follow. I identify seven aspects through which we grow in unity. Three of them in particular are what directly point to our experience of the Risen Lord. They are what I shall attempt to unpack in the following reflections. These categories feed into and grow from one another. The boundaries between them are blurry. At the center of all of these experiences is a life directed toward and growing from the heart of Jesus and the love of and for God. What I will touch on in this reflection are the following:

A.) We encounter Christ in the lives of our brothers through sharing in their own faith journey.
B.) We discover Christ in our brothers themselves in their own weaknesses, struggles and vulnerabilities.
C.) We find the love of God within ourselves as we gaze upon our brothers.

But first….

An Offering of Self

I cannot speak to any great extent about our self donation or vows as I am still a year away from actually taking my first vows. However, I do believe that it is an essential starting point for the rest of our relationships and encounters within community and provide a good foundation for the three points of encountering Christ listed above. I can say what I have learned thus far after one year as a novice. The greatest and only real possession we have is ourself and our life. The greatest gift from God and symbol of his love is our life and our self. It is our Christian call to return that gift to our Creator. That is the greatest act of love toward God, the giving of our life to and for Him. Some have done so with blood dying for their faith others by “giving their life for a friend.” As Norbertines we do so day by day through our vows of poverty, obedience and chastity., Our vow formula beings “ I offer and give myself to the Church”, that is to our local community which then represents a microcosm of that larger Church as the Mystical Body of Christ (an “ecclesiola” in the “ecclesia”). We are called to die to self so that we might live in Christ.

This requires a constant evaluation and critique of our own motives, opinions and drives. It requires that we relinquish our self to the community and hope and pray each day that we are guided by the Holy Spirit that we may, as part of our mission statement says, “witness the power and reality of Christian community.” It is the giving of our own resources, be it our material belongings, our intellects, our talents, our creativity, our time, our energy, our compassion, and even our needs, wants, struggles and challenges to the disposal of the community for the greater good of that community, the wider community we serve and the glory of God. We do this out of love for God and to support our brothers and our neighbors beyond the cloister walls on their path of salvation. It is our daily hope that those who come among us can see how we love Christ by how we love one another.

So to whom do we entrust ourselves? We did not choose our brothers in community. Each of us was chosen by Christ, for he said “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (John 14:16). Our being together may seem coincidental but we have all answered the same call and have all been chosen by Christ to be in the same place so there must be something we have to offer one another. Maybe Christ has chosen us for each other. It is from here that we grow as friends in Christ and friends together. For Chris said, “This is my commandment: love one another as I loved you…I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (John 14: 12-15). It is through a constant attempt at openness, trust and vulnerability with one another and with God that we grow together in unity. When we feel compelled to judge one another, to respond uncharitably or a confrère is beginning to become unbearable for us to be aorund day in and day out it is a call to ask, “what part of myself have I not yet given to Christ through community?” “What is it in me that finds frustration in him and is this telling me more about what I need to release than what he needs to change?”

Our vowed life in community is akin to the vine and branches of which Jesus spoke. For he says, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15: 4-5). We are called to ask ourselves, “am I a healthy branch? Am I still attached to the vine? What fruit am I bearing? How can I grow to bear more fruit?” It is only fitting that the patron of our community is Santa Maria de la Vid, or Our Lady of the Vine. We come to Christ in community. Without our community we bear no fruit. By giving ourselves to our Norbertine community ultimately we entrust ourselves to Christ.

This reflection continues in the next post (click here to read it!)

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 4:11 am  Comments (2)  

To be of One Heart and One Mind: an encounter with the Fifth Gospel of Jesus Christ…Continued..

  This post is a continuation of the previous reflection (click here to read it!).

Now back to the task at hand: living in unity as one heart and one mind on the way into God so that we may fully love God and our neighbor.

This is no small feat. It is a challenge indeed to grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor through our love of and unity with one another. Does that mean good Norbertines following this path come to think and feel alike? Is that our unity of heart and mind? I wish it were that easy. Just because it is a challenge that surpases simply holding the same opinions or preferences does not mean it is not very effective. In fact the steep climb to the realization of such a longing may speak to the importance and vitality of such a practice once one embarks on this journey. It is the desire to fulfill the greatest commandment that has brought us to this challenge of unity. For as St. John the Evangelist tell us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20). We come together to strive toward unity because we all desire to hold Christ as the apex of our lives and recognize we cannot do so alone.

Are we there yet?”

Again our call to unity comes from the statement by St. Augustine that, “The first purpose for which we have come together is to live in unity and to be of one mind and one heart on the way into God.” What I have come to believe is the center of this desire for unity, the key as it were, is the last part of the phrase, In Deum or into God/toward God (depending on the translation). This phrase both provides a great challenge and offers some comfort and perspective. We are not yet in God (or at least full conscious of it), we have not yet arrived at God. We are on the journey of faith and ever deepening discovery. Given that we have not yet arrived at our salvation, we have not yet come to love God as profoundly as we can, we are challenged day by day, moment by moment to continue on that journey through all its highs and lows, joys and sorrows. Given that we are not yet there we can take comfort in realizing that we, and our brothers, do and will have faults and failings, do and will have struggles and can still grow toward perfection in God. A stumbling now only means there is the possibility of hope tomorrow.

Still I often asked, “where is the unity in all the mess of the human journey of faith?” The unity, as I currently understand it, is in that same phrase. It is in the destination. Even if the car filled with children on the family vacation has yet to come to Disney Land, surely the minds and hearts of the children are already set upon it. It doesn’t mean they still wont bicker and fight in the back seat, but they hold a hope in their future destination. This metaphor breaks down when we recognize that our journey of faith requires much effort and work on our part unlike the children going to Disneyland who can passively sit in the car. It does provide a good foundation to remember the active work of grace and the bountiful goodness of God present in our lives even as we do what we can through our will to strive toward that destination. As St. Augustine said, “pray as though everything depended on God, work as though everything depended on you.”

Our unity is derived from the fact that all of us who come together to live this life of community, contemplation and compassionate service in the nearly 900 year long tradition of the Order of Premontre recognize that we are journeying together with the hopes of the same destination.   We may perceive our paths differently, we may understand our emphasis in the manifestation of our charism differently, but with our hearts and minds jointly set on God and on the mysteries of Christ desiring to love and serve God through our neighbor we grow in unity of mind and heart. We must never loose track of the fact that our first neighbors are those with whom we live in community, and our first teachers are often our neighbors.

This reflection is continued in the next post (click here to read it!)

To be of One Heart and One Mind: an Encounter with a Fifth Gospel of Jesus Christ


What is to follow is the beginning of a rather lengthy reflection on my growing understandign of Norbertine life, charism and spirituality.  Due to its length I am posting a new segment each day in seperate posts.  If it doesn’t come together or make sense yet, just check back and read the next installment! 

A Fifth Gospel? Yes I know, it may sound a little far out. I am not about to embark on composing a cheap knockoff of a Dan Brown novel. It goes without saying that I am prone to self aggrandizement, but I assure you I am not attempting to compose something of the scale or magnitude, or that is as divinely inspired as an actual Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather I am wanting to speak to the movements and narratives of Christ that are already written. Where? Not some newly discovered tome, not in text, but in the lives of our communities.

So now I sound like a new-age-mystic-wanna-be. Maybe subconsciously, but as far as I know that isn’t the case. Rather, this is an attempt to put into words my lived experience thus far of our central Norbertine Charism of Communio. I recognize my experiences are short lived and limited. What I hope to share in the reflections that follow are sparkles of wisdom and understanding I have gained through the first year of formation as a Norbertine through my fellow novices, professed norbertines, instructors and through my own prayer and reflection.

To say our charism is “community” sounds at best abstract, at worse cliché. Doesn’t every religious order and congregation claim they live in “community”? It is true, most do. However, for us, and from my own experience, it is not only our path to the beatific vision but it is literally that gift of the spirit (charism) that we have been given to share with the wider Church and human family.

The Rule of St. Augustine, the foundational document for our way of life, opens by stating: “Let us love God above all things, dearest brothers, then our neighbor, for these are the chief commandments given to us.” How is that achieved? How do we follow these divine mandates? The next statement of the rule gives the kernel of insight that the rest of the document slowly unpacks. St. Augustine instructs that, “the first purpose for which we have come together is to live in unity and to be of one heart and one mind on the way to God.”

A Mild Digression….
The earliest Norbertines broke with a monastic model of soli dei or “for God alone” emphasizing only a personal relationship with and journey toward God. Our order, and other canons regular of the Gregorian Reforms, began to more strongly stress how it is that through intentionally living in and with community we can come to more fully encounter Christ. They began to seek not only the vertical dimension of a Christian life reaching directly toward God, but also the horizontal bar of the cross embracing our brethren as well not only as our duty to respond to those around us but as a part of our path to holiness. A motto of these early canon regulars was docere verbo et exemplo, or “to teach by word and example” both within and outside of the cloister. They attempted to model their lives after those of the earliest Christians as the Acts of the Apostles record,

 “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread…They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God…”(Acts 2:42-47)

“The community of believers was of one heart and mind…they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 4:32- 34)

Again, this may seem abstract, vague or cliché. That is because, in my estimation, our world and even many aspects of our own Church have lost track of that fundamental vocation to be fully Christian. In essence, our Norbertine vocation, our life in common, our communio, all points to that simple desire to love God and neighbor by living a fully and authentically Christian life. Its not a flashy vocation or charism. Our FUNDAMETAL purpose is not to run major educational institutions, it is not to have prominent and vibrant parishes, it is not to be authors, scholars, artists, musicians, scientists or psychologists, nor to serve the poor and marginalized. We do, however, do all of these things and have for many, many centuries. We do these things not because they are necessarily what Norbertines do, but because they are what Christians inspired by the spirit do and who Christians are. To be a Norbertine is to strive to be a fully Catholic Christian. Our FUNDAMENTAL purpose is to Love God and our neighbor and to do so through our unity in our community that should then spill forth to the world in which we live.  If we are are living out our charism well, if we are loving God and neighbor and doing so through our communal context, then we will encounter the larger world and bring Christ to others and bring others to Christ. Simply put, our order for nearly 900 years has been striving to lead its members to heaven by the plain yet profound task of supporting one another in community to live their Catholic Christianity and to bring as many people of good will along with us as will travel on the journey.

Continued in the next post (click here to read it!)

Published in: on August 18, 2010 at 5:10 am  Comments (1)  

Our Monastery is the World’s: A Radical Sharing of God’s Grace Among Us

Many of the great saints and founders of prominent apostolic religious congregations in the Church (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola etc.) have been quoted as saying “the world is my cloister” or “the world is my monastery.”  Truly this represented for them in their own times a cosmic shift from the concept of consecrated religious life as being lived behind a wall, or at the very least in a singular place.  The strength and vibrancy of their communities and their spiritualities spreading throughout the Church and the Globe testify to the continual need of their visions within the Church. 

 In the twenty first century the Canons Regular of Premontre continue our 900 year tradition of responding to the same gospel call to spread the love of Christ in a subtly different way.  Although many of us may be accused, and rightly so, of being workaholics engaged in a myriad of ever changing, ever growing ministries to the people of good will who surround our communities, for us spreading the gospel is not singularly driven out into the world but it draws the world into us. 

 Yes, we are apostolic as many younger congregations are.  We perform and live valuable gospel-driven ministries responding to the call of Jesus and the mission of the Apostles.  However, we also live the ancient vita apostolica in a mode of geographic stability.  That is to say we hold all things in common as the early apostles did.  It can be said that we not only hold all things in common, but we posses nothing at all for we have been gifted with many blessings from our Loving Creator by whom we have been called to be stewards of these gifts on behalf of God and His people. 

 Beyond the confines of our monasteries we return these gifts to God.  Our talents, our time, our ability to allow God to work through us, our wills, and our capacity for and our  desire to love those we serve is a corporate statement of this radical sharing.   Within that, however, there is the lesser-known sharing that is increasingly prophetic given the context of our fast-paced, ever changing, distracting and sometimes shallow contemporary society. That is we share and give the beauty of place and stability that our life represents to those who come among us in our monastic homes. 

 Canons have a long history of opening the doors of their abbeys to the world functioning as parishes, as places for prayer and devotion, as retreats and sources of silence, solitude and renewal.   That we continue to this day in a profound way that I believe we may even take for granted. 

 Of what exactly do I speak?  We live in a tension struggling for balance between the two fundamental gospels calls to encounter, minister to and enlighten the world, and to abandon the world for the sake of the inner journey.  For us there is no dichotomous mutual exclusivity between these two poles, but rather we live them as a holistic expression of our Christian spirituality.    Simply put, we do not only seek to touch lives and further the Gospel by encountering others in the world.  We also seek these ends by welcoming the world in to encounter us, our rhythm of life and the sacred holy places in which we live. 

 This struck me in a powerful way several weeks ago.  Before my parents moved out of state they came to spend their last few nights in New Mexico with us at the Priory of Santa Maria de la Vid.  Although the stress and hassles of moving, purchasing a new house, saying goodbye to friends and a city that had been home for over thirty years etc. was hanging low and heavy upon them, the environment and energy of this place soothed their souls and stirred their spirits in unexpected ways that inspired them to have their final goodbyes with their friends in our humble retreat center rather than back in the city.

 I was a little leery to lead tours of this sacred place with friends of the family who I know felt hurt or abandoned by the Church or who had become disillusioned and frustrated with experiences and perceptions of organized religion.  I did not want an afternoon or evening in a monastery, within the confines of an institution, to open old wounds or confirm past suspicions. 

 Needless to say I humbly availed our guests to our structures new and old, our magnificent natural desert landscape and our sacred art.  I should have trusted in the benevolent grace that flows through this place.  In the groups, small though they were, I could sense initial hesitation and tentative responses.  However, as the visitors from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life began to take in that which is present here there could be sensed in the glimmer of their eyes, the inquisitive conversation, the spring in their step and the excitement in their voice that something about this place was touching them.

 It became apparent how powerful a sacred place can be in silently and subtly convey the tenants of our faith and tradition.  It can move the heart, it can evangelize, it can energize, it can inspire.  Ultimately it can heal and it can call women and men back to God in a way they had forgotten or maybe never knew.  It is a sacramental that speaks to the grace of God, a medium through with the heart can be touched, touched if one only takes the initiative to reach for God by coming to a sacred place.  Many may be unaware for what it is their heart is yearning, or that it even is.  It is in a sacred place that grace can stir the heart to desire, to know and to receive. 

 It struck me how much I have begun to take for granted, how I find it normative to see the mighty southwestern sun rising over the silhouette of the Sandia Mountains every morning as I stroll to sing God’s praises; how much I have come to expect to be embraced by layers of sacred geometry in the spaces in which I pray; how I think nothing of having at my reach the largest theological library in the State of New Mexico.  Now I can see myself not as a resident of this place, but as one of the many individuals called to live here in a special way so that others may come to know both the expanse and the embrace of God in inexplicable ways. 

 As our priory continues to evolve older and increasingly inadequate structures see their end and new buildings rise from the desert sands.  Contemporary forms, traditional southwestern motifs, asian influences and vibrant colors coalesce to form a campus rooted in the ancient traditions of our Order and our Church while looking forward to what it may mean to live in our sacred place for others.

 The beauty of this place, the vast skies, the distant vistas, the barren desert, all speak to and draw out the apophatic encounter with God (to speak of God in negation) while the meticulously designed structures, the myriad of artistic expressions, the wildlife, and the people who live here all witness to that cataphatic reality (to speak of what God is) of our Divine Creator.

 After having spent time now in our beautiful mother house of St. Norbert Abbey, my own deeply moving priory of Santa Maria de la Vid and Daylesford Abbey nestled in the forests and hills of the Philadelphia suburbs, I understand more than ever the real necessity of sacred space set apart.  Our homes are not simply dwelling places for our bodies.  They are sacramental sources of nourishment for our souls.  What sets them apart is that they exist to nourish the souls of all yearning to know God and to know Divine Live.      

 More importantly, they nourish the world.  While others were rushing out of the confines of monasteries to provide the much needed ministries constantly growing in the Church and the world and still others remained secluded in their sacred places in necessary prayer and contemplation for humanity the Canons Regular of Premontre consistently and humbly have lived that tension of a contemplative life of monastic stability while responding to the needs around them through compassionate service.  We never abandoned our sacred places.  Rather, recognizing the immense importance of them we opened them to the world.  We not only strive to allow God to touch the world through us, but we hope to allow the world to encounter God through our life and place we share.

 We recognized the need to encounter the world like our more action-driven brethren that followed us.  We remembered the need for a sacred place set apart like our monastic brethren that came before us.

An adventure deep into the roots of our tradition…

Our formation community attended the Yom Kippur service at our neighborhood synagogue (KAM Isaiah Israel) last week. The structure itself is an imposing and impressive brick byzantine style temple distinguished in scale and appearance including an impressive, heavy, souring central dome, massive chandeliers, stained glass windows and ornate plasterwork.

The celebration was characterized by a mixture of English and Hebrew in fully gender-inclusive language and presided over by a female rabbi and female cantor. One confrère remarked to me that it was more like being at an opera than a prayer service. They had an amazing eight member choir, organist, cellist and of course the resident cantor. The service was almost entirely sung and consisted of complicated 19th and early 20th century compositions based on traditional Jewish themes and definitively representative of the Jewish diaspora.

The service emphasized something that I feel is often overlooked in our own Christian liturgical practices. That is the reverence showed to Holy Scripture. At several points throughout the service the ark would be opened and the multitude of beautiful, and generations-old scrolls would be removed and reverenced. This brought to light for me the need to more fully see God’s presence in his own revelation to us through the Word not only in the Eucharist.

Furthermore, the real purpose for the celebration, that being the day of atonement, was beautifully manifest. The sung and recited evaluation of conscience and the emphasis put on not only asking for forgiveness but correcting past wrongs was very moving. It was a fascinating experience to be able to sit and pray with members of a faith tradition from which my own has grown. Despite the variety of foundational theological disagreements, difficult history and complex cultural and political relationships we could all express a mutual love for a merciful and life-giving God. The liturgical framework and context of our own tradition, the singing of psalms (i.e. during vespers in our own Holy Spirit House of Studies), was also evident in the service. Despite a rainy journey back to our home, and extra security as President Obama’s Chicago residence is across from the synagogue, all in all it was a thought-provoking, prayerful and moving event.

Walking in the footsteps of history…

abbot pennings lambert broens servatius heesakkersIn 1893 Fr. Bernard H. Pennings and two confrères from Berne Abbey came to the United States. After traveling by sea and train, plunging into a cultural, technological and societal reality far beyond their familiar European surroundings they found themselves in the midst of the newly settled, diverse, unruly and rural areas of North Eastern Wisconsin.

Stephen, Graham and Matt at the Birthplace of the Norbertine Fathers in the USLast weekend our novice director, Fr. David, and the three novices (myself, Matt and Stephen) went up to visit these first Norbertine foundations, the first parishes given to these early Norbertine missionaries. The Norbertines came not as missionaries to convert the unbaptized to Christianity but rather to minister to existing populations of Christians; calling them to continued conversion within their own lives as settlers in a foreign land.

First Long-Standing Norbertine Foundation in the USTo walk in the footsteps of these first brave men, men who left all they knew for a life unknown, a foreign continent, a foreign people, a foreign tongue and an often challenging way of life was profoundly moving. They challenged difficulties unimagined to provide sacramental and ministerial services, manifesting the love of God for humanity to a severely under-served population and to plant their ancient way of life in a new and growing nation. We witnessed small churches dotting the rolling hills of Door County and the petite rooms in which these men lived out their first winter.

Early Norbertine Parish in Door County We, of course, have the priveledge of driving the long distances from parish to parish. That was not the case for these early settling Norbertines. The landscape, farmland and forests, glimpses of Lake Michigan and Green Bay appearing around bends, simple wood and brick farm houses—all remain much the same as these men had come to see it over a century ago.

St. Norbert AbbeyWhile in Wisconsin we spent several nights at St. Norbert Abbey, a structure standing as a monumental testament to the fruits of the labors of these earliest white canons. A property distinguished by its immense scale, opulent chapel, and lush grounds stands in testimony not only to the glory of God, as a sign and symbol to manifest the invisible to our humble frail human forms, but also as a temple to the power of hope, faith and love. Its walls, and the men that inhabit the and the ministries that it has fostered (many high schools, the only Norbertine institution of higher education—St. Norbert College, parishes, one independent daughter house, two dependent daughter houses, foreign missions, and the list goes on…) all express the vision of Abbot Pennings, and that of St. Norbert in centuries past. Who could have imagined that this way of life, this prophetic vision of Christian community, would have come to root itself in the United States? Let alone the success and blessings that have fallen upon it and the people it serves in such an unassuming location…

For me, though technology and culture has changed, the ability to walk in the footsteps of this journey of faith has deep meaning. My own community in New Mexico is one that was missioned with little more than a dream, faith and hope for the future building on a heritage of the past. As I read the letters of the earliest north American Norbertines I cant help but notice how, despite being centuries and cultures apart, similar challenges exist in setting up any new foundation. But, it also gives me great hope to see the work of the Spirit in this context, and to believe that the same Spirit is at work in our own humble community striving to witness the reality of a simple Christian community in a new place.

For me, New Mexico is not a new place. It is the land of my birth. However, from this small but vibrant community I can be a missionary in my own context serving those whom I love and who have given me so much and demonstrating the potential for the dream of Premontré to become a reality—that a simple Christian life striving to find unity amidst trials and diversity and hope in a broken world is indeed possible.

DSCN2851On our way back to Chicago we stopped at Holy Hill.  A magificent shrine atop one of the highest points in the state of wisconsin.  This moving structure, drawing flocks of pilgrims from around the world, stands as a testament to the feats humaniy will undertake in order to honor an ideal–and in reality something greater than an ideal, the foundations of truth and faith.