“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…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!)

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.

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. 


The first liturgical adventure…

This past Sunday, as most Sundays, we went on what I have come to lovingly call our weekly “liturgical adventure.” As part of our formation program we try to gain the greatest exposure possible to the richness that the Catholic population in Chicago has to offer. We go to various Roman Catholic Churches, some very traditional, some very ethnically tied (Polish, Latino, African American) parishes, those that champion the Tridentine rite liturgy, others that see themselves as competing with the evangelical mega-church movement. We also attend a variety of eastern rite liturgies, be it Byzantine, Ukranian, or this past Sunday, Syro-Malabar rite liturgies.

This was my second visit the Syro-Malabar cathedral outside of Chicago. Fr. John gave us a presentation on the Syro-Malabar traditions prior to our liturgical adventure. It is the cathedral for all of North America. Though in communion with the Roman Church, like many eastern church the Syro-Malabar Church has its own hierarchical and governing structure. This is a rite with particular importance to our community because our own Fr. John is a priest from this rich tradition. As are Fr. Bijoy, Binu and George who live and work in my community in Albuquerque.

This particular rite draws its history all the way to the Apostle Thomas. For this reason those Christians who participate in the Syro-Malabar expression of Christianity are sometimes called “Thomas Christians.” This is a Church that has experienced a fair bit of persecution even at the hands of other Catholics. However, despite centuries of marginalization in the Christian world they remain strong in faith and in many of their ancient traditions from the coastal state of Kerala in south western India.

Today the population of Syro-Malabar Christians is great enough in North America for the Church to have recognized the need for a Cathedral. That is where we attended a beautiful liturgical celebration. We went to the liturgy said in Malayalam so of course we did not understand a single word. However, the general flow and ordering of the celebration is much like that of the Roman Mass. Their liturgy is known as the Holy Qurbana. It is taken from the anaphora of Mari and Adai, two figures understood to be disciples of St. Thomas.

The music was akin to that of a Bollyood movie. The sanctuary space is hidden for the beginning part of the liturgy by a large red curtain or “vail.” as the liturgy progresses the curtain is pulled open revealing the high altar and central tabernacle. It is a beautiful dramatic and spiritual moving event as the heavy vail opens to heightened musical excitement and the most sacred space of this ancient liturgical tradition becomes visible for all to see. The liturgical drama then progresses up several steps to enter the large raised sanctuary space.

All in all it was a lovely liturgy and inspiring to see a way in which one of the fastest growing and most vibrant norbertine communities in the world manifests our sacramental life (that is the community of Mananthavady from where all our Indian confrères mentioned in this entry come).

A penitential pilgrimage to the urban jungle…

Fr. John and Matt Downtown Chicago On Friday morning Matt, Fr. John and I went downtown to St. Peter’s in the Loop. It is a Franciscan parish run by the Sacred Heart Province. It is a bustling and lively place, and what a beautiful chapel! It is the spiritual epicenter for those living and working in the loop of downtown Chicago. Masses throughout the day and all-day confession serve the sacramental needs of the very vibrant, multi-faceted and complex populations that make up this part of the city. In fact we went to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation; we went to confession.

Facade of St. Peter's in the Loop, Crucifix After traveling for a while on the number six bus and walking several blocks we arrived at what would be in any other context a rather large edifice. However, amidst the souring towers of downtown Chicago it was but a shaded granite facade unassumingly facing the street. A large crucifix was carved into the front of the structure. Being nestled between two much larger office complexes the chapel has no windows so beautifully craved reliefs of the life of St. Francis are light in niches along the walls.

St. Peter's in the Loop Interior The church was busy with women and men of all walks of life coming and going, all seeking out a moment of solitude amidst the hustle and bustle of a late Friday morning in one of the nation’s largest cities. Needless to say, this structure of gleaming polished stone, inspirational artwork and solemn sensibilities filled with young and old, rich and poor, those devout and distraught, gave a new and reinvigorated sense to the term “sanctuary”. Indeed, this busy yet profoundly peaceful shelter is most certainly a sanctuary amidst the crowds, congestion and impositional architectural statements of the urban jungle.

I had my first experience in a real “traditional” confessional, completely dark inside. It was theatrical to say the least! While I am fond of face to face confession there was something mysterious about the romanticized dark box. At any rate, we had a wonderful confessor and an enjoyable time together in such a beautiful space and on the bus as we made our penitential pilgramage to this little spiritual oasis in the urban jungle.

Published in: on September 23, 2009 at 12:40 am  Comments (2)  
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The bread we break at table…

Part of the rhythm of life in the Holy Spirit House of Studies centers around our common table where we literally “break bread” together at meal times. Though most of us tend to be around during breakfast and lunch we each make our own meals at these times of day. For most of us breakfast follows morning prayer and mass while lunch follows noon prayer. However, for dinner we all intentionally sit down and share a meal together. Regardless of what may have happened in the day with life outside the house or what disagreements may have been brought up within the house we all come together and mutually partake of a family-style meal. This is central to our way of life. We share the table in the chapel (altar) and the table in the dining room. Our life in common centers around the lords supper to nourish our souls and our dining table to nourish our bodies. Both “feasts” nourish the human relationships that so deeply express Christ present among us in one another. As a Eucharistic people we strive to live that every day.

Each day, as there are eight of us in the house, one member of the community agrees to cook dinner with another member functioning as the assistant, alternating throughout the week. Several days ago I signed up to cook with the help of Fr. John, our confrere from India. We made a Mexican feast! The meal consisted of a large vegetable salad, refried pinto beans, calabacitas (a warm squash dish made with yellow and green squash, green chile, tomato, corn, garlic, onion, cheese etc.), taco style beef, salsa, guacamole (all homemade) and store-bought corn tortillas.

Chandelier in The Holy Spirit House of Studies Dining Room  As we all have different cooking talents, abilities and preferences our cuisine is largely varied and rarely predictable. One thing is for certain, it assuredly brings us together! We are able to share not only a meal together around a common table (below a lovely chandelier with a porcelain Bacchus in it no less!–if only we had the wild parties worthy of such a sculpture…), cooking for ourselves also contributes to the community experience by allowing us to work together as teams and encouraging us to share our creativity with the community at large.

Bacchus Sculpture in Chandelier Before meals those not charged with the preparation for the day sit down, enjoy some snacks and chat in the main sitting room. After meals we come together in the kitchen to clean the dishes. Dishes in our house is a team effort and functions like a well oiled machine. It may sound odd, but I actually enjoy our dish-doing time together. Even if there is not much conversation it provides for much needed camaraderie where everything from the day can be set aside and we work together at a common task.

When dishes are done we may choose to play a rousing game of pinochle (St. Norbert Abbey has their own version), watch a film (in the novitiate we are restricted to classics or those with a religious content), or often times I will take an evening stroll through the lovely neighborhoods of Kenwood and Hyde Park. The next morning it begins anew with our common prayer and Eucharistic celebration.  I cook again tomorrow, I am thinking something Italian!

Matt grilling burgers while in the Norbertine habit! Matt is fond of grilling, so I have included here a picture from the cooking of his wonderful meal tonight. He made burgers, salad, corn, peas, and fruit salad.


Published in: on September 23, 2009 at 12:19 am  Comments (1)  
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A cloister with a view to the world…

Last Tuesday the other two novices, Matt and Stephen, along with Fr. David and I went to the Techny Towers. This is the North American headquarters for the Society of the Divine Word Missionaries. We went to partake in the inter-community novitiate program offered in the Chicagoland area. The “towers” primarily function as a retreat center. Every Tuesday we venture through rush hour traffic from the south east side of town the north west suburbs for this joint conference. This program allows us to see and experience the rich diversity that makes us the universal Church. It enables us to learn from, listen to and grow in friendship with those from around the globe and from various expressions of Catholic spiritual and religious traditions. 

The inter-community novitiate is comprised of sixteen religious congregations. This includes both men and woman religious, missionary orders as young as Maryknoll and orders as ancient as our own premonstratensian tradition (we were the oldest community represented in this cluster!) There are men and woman from around the world participating in initial formation programs in and around Chicago. They have come from India, China, Vietnam, many African nations, Columbia, other Latin American nations, and throughout the US to be a part of their various communities and congregations. Some communities come from as far as Iowa, others are quite close. The Society for the Divine Word has their novitiate in Techny just behind the retreat center. All walks of life, men and woman who have been married, young men and woman out of college, late vocations are all represented in the cross section of this group.

It is my hope that through this weekly experience we can come to celebrate our many differences; our understandings and approaches to how we live out the Gospel in our contemporary world. I also pray that we might grow in friendship over the bond that we all share and that we may travel mutually and alone through the experiences—trials and joys—of our novitiate year. I sense that many strong and lasting bonds shall be formed through this program, not to mention the amazing speakers that have been lined up to help guide us on this journey.

Published in: on September 22, 2009 at 11:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Me in my habit, my habit in the world…

DSCN2744Those who know me have surely become accustomed to my traditional nondescript business casual sense of fashion. That, as of August 27, has been altered slightly. As of late I have been sporting a more eye catching wardrobe, one that is a little more twelfth-century chic! And the designer you might ask? Well, the Virgin Mary. Now you are all thinking I have certainly lost my mind, which may be the case…but at least according to legend, St. Norbert was given the norbertine habit by the BVM. She certainly has a eye for style, proportion and the flow of fabric but she is definitely lacking in the area of functional design. Full length white tunics are not conducive to the out of doors.

The Norbertine habit (should any of you not caught on yet) is what I have been wearing. I do not like to draw attention to myself, so it is only fitting that I go about my day in flowing layers of cream colored linen, a cape and large hood (cough, cough!). So you may be thinking, why have I taken on this task of wearing such an odd garment, me of all people, at home and out into the world?

For me, I have come to love the idea of the habit, but the practice (the habitual wearing of a habit as it were) has been quite a different experience. As it is something that makes me remarkably self conscious (not to mention, to feel more anachronistic than those who reenact medieval battlefields in neighborhood parks) it has difficult for me to wear. However, realizing that it is a part of my religious tradition and heritage I have set out to make myself more comfortable, to feel more natural through extended habit wearing, both in our house and in public.

I write these reflections in an attempt to further come to and clarify my own understandings of what the habit is, how it functions as sign and symbol and what it means to me as one who now wears one and by virtue of that right, has by proxy found himself in the midst of a fashion war much deeper than if one can wear white after labor day…. (for those of you who may be wondering, as our habit is white, we have no choice BUT to wear white after labor day!)

At this point in the history of the Church and society the habit has become an increasingly controversial lightning rod of opinions, strong polarized opinions. My own community and indeed my own house of formation are not immune to such conflicts surrounding fashion of religious. Why is it that a simple article of clothing has managed to become such a hot-button issue in our current age?


And the debate begins…

We find on one extreme those who see the habit (all religious habits) as outdated, demonstrative of an era of hierarchical clericalism, of a symbol of oppression, of pompous religious who sought to not only set themselves apart but above those around them. These sentiments I have heard expressed in the classroom, by professors, by friends, family, and some members of my religious community. Those who wear the habit outside of ceremonial contexts (and to some those who would wear a habit at all) are embodying these ideals, ideals that many had hoped the church had overcome. Young seminarians who find a fascination with their religious garb of old are often viewed with suspicion, with the assumption that they are closed-minded, yearning for an era in the past that never existed, a distilled glorified vestige of a Catholic Christian culture represented by sacramentals and inwardly directed toward ritual and devotions more than living an outwardly prophetic life of gospel values (such a distinction I find to be false in my own life, though it is certainly made by some in the Church and in society).

Yes, it is true, many of my peers (young members of religious communities) do find a fascination with their religious garb. But I find it an unfair bias to assume that the habit, and their use of it, is indicative of a litany of positions (theological and political) or worldviews. However, there exists a reciprocal prejudice. Many young religious demonstrate a suspicion of their older habit-weary counterparts who are often perceived as having lost a sense of the mystery and the sacred within the Church, who have aligned themselves too whole-heartedly with the secular world and who are thoroughly profane people living a life that is “religious” in name only. Again we find false dichotomies that exist in stereotype but not in practice.

Like in any situation there are the various perspectives and somewhere within all of them lies some truth. Many accusations are made over the use or lack-there-of of habits, strong opinions. One thing is for sure, we are witnessing a decisive surge in habit wearing young religious, and have seen for decades religious who have distanced themselves from such garments. Communities who wear habits are experiencing growth and those who don’t are shrinking with age. That, however, does not demonstrate a causality and there are a myriad of other factors that would play into such scenarios, all other aspects of community life, worldview, understandaing of the church etc. Again, we find ourselves back to the very issues that the habit has come to represent.

But why is it that an over-tailored pile of fabric can become such a point of contention? Obviously any clear thinking person should be able to come to the conclusion that the habit itself does not posses any ontological power beyond its function as a garment. The habit does not itself oppress anyone. The habit does not free us from sin or bring grace upon us. It is not a sacrament, though it is most distinctly a sacramental. It is not the habit itself but what it is seen to represent, how it functions as a sign and symbol that brings such tension into our midst.

In the generational divide that is a reality of religious life (and my community is no exception) there is a disconnected between the systems of symbolic communications being used to send and receive perceptions and expressions. It is no different than generational shifts in society at large, but in a small isolated group these appear to become remarkably pronounced. In the end, I feel that the signals being sent by the young habit-obsessed religious by their dawning of such a garment are being strongly misunderstood by those pseudo anti-habit older religious and visa versa. Both sides of the camp (and I stress that there are many other positions between the two extremes) are interpreting the others actions in light of their own bias towards the habit and what it represents, not through the context of the other.

One aspect that seems rarely to be taken into consideration in such debates is what the habit actually signifies or facilitates for the person wearing it, not just to the person viewing it. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that infrequently does anyone seem interested in how such articles are actually perceived by the general public, and not simply those within religious communities who share a strong, emotional relationship with this article of clothing. It is, after all, a sacramental and as such we should try to more closely understand and empathize, from all sides of the debate, with the “other” to realize that any appreciation or skepticism of the habit is fundamentally centered on the experience of it and how it has helped or hindered our relationships with ourselves, others, the community, and God.

So, that brings me now to what was the point of this whole exercise. What are my views and understandings of my new twelfth century item of clothing? Or, should I say more importantly, not how I understand it but how do I experience it and thus how does it functions in my life as the sacramental it was intended to be?


The great habit wearing experiment…

Norbertine Habit in the Park For me personally, through extensive wearing of my habit, I have come to a greater appreciation of this multi-part cream-colored linen gown. It reminds me of who I am, it helps to keep my mind clear and focused on my spiritual growth in these early stages of formation. It functions much the same way a cross necklace does for some. By enveloping myself, literally, in something that, while not being holy, speaks of the holy to me, centering my actions, thoughts and decisions around the ultimate goal of living an authentic, intentional, contemplative life in the witness of God to myself and God’s love to others. It is a reflection and a reminder of what is a part of my identity as a norbertine. Although as I grow in my own self-understanding, spiritual journey and understanding of who I am as a norbertine I may wear it less, at this point in time I have come to find it quite conducive to my formation in this spiritual tradition.

Within my community the wearing of the habit has come to represent a unity that we find as brethren. It is a symbol of our connectedness, how we share in one greater goal of growing as in one heart and mind on the way to God, not in spite of but because of our many unique differences. It demonstrates to me visually, aesthetically and sentimentally this fundamental unity I share not only with the seven other men with whom I live, the many men and women in my community back in Albuquerque, but with Norbertines world-wide. It connects me in some unspeakable way to those generations of norbertine men and women who have walked before me for nearly nine centuries. We have all worn this garment while being very different people and doing very different things in different epochs and places but sharing one goal to live out communio as a witness to the prophetic vision of a communal apostolic life in a world wrought by turmoil.

Norbertine Habit on the Streets of Hyde ParkNow, in public I did not initially feel the same level of comfort. One day I walked to CTU for spiritual direction and liturgy. I did so in my habit. I certainly received many funny stares. I must admit, walking around all in white in a heavily African American neighborhood certainly heightened my level of self consciousness. However, to my surprise, more often than not (and this was the case by far) I was greeted with smiles and hellos by passers by. I always try to greet people on the street, but in Chicago this is rather difficult as few people acknowledge one another as they pass. However, while in habit I had the opportunity to smile at and greet almost all those whom I saw. Several times I was stopped for short conversations. Everything from a “what are you?” to small talk to a fascinating extended discussion about religious life. Some even thanked me for wearing it.

When arriving at CTU this general aura of “friendliness” dampened. Not that people were unwelcoming (many knew me as I started graduate school there last semester), but I could certainly sense that suspicion of who I was, how I thought etc. by how people looked at me. Not to mention what several people said to me, trying to feel out why it was I was in such a silly outfit. Now, habits aren’t unknown to CTU, many students wear theirs to class, but it was odd to see me in one and a norbertine in one for that matter.

Matt and Graham at the University of Chicago I also took a walk out one day with Matt, a fellow novice. Together we experienced the same general warmth and interest by those around us on the streets. We were carrying a camera and a professor at the University of Chicago stopped us and asked us if we wanted our picture taken. We spoke with a man in front of a grocery store about different parishes and orders within the diocese and his research in Europe regarding cistercian baroque aesthetics. We were stopped by a middle school aged boy who asked who we were.

Now, this seems to say that the habit succeeds in one thing, and that is getting attention. This could certainly play into all the concerns of self indulgent hierarchically minded tendencies that can be dangerous for religious to embody in the Church. It can be seen as a spectacle for sure. However, it can also connect people, bring people together. I take a walk every day. I have run into several of the same people I had passed while wearing my habit. They recognize me despite being habit free, and we stop and chat for a bit. This has happened on several occasions. That has been my experience. When I asked these individuals what they thought of seeing someone in a habit they simply reply “we just thought it meant you were a monk or something. It just reminded us of religion and what you do. Its like seeing a police man in his uniform or a doctor in a lab coat.” This reply, having received several times, I find compelling. It seems (and this is no official poll or sociological study) that the habit, to the general public, signifies “religious” and not the baggage that so many express towards the garment itself (of course I understand that to be a lrage generalization and each individual has their own response, but by in large that has been what I have heard from those who have seen me in it).

Another experience I have had with habits in public was while living at St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wisconsin in the fall of 2008. Fr. Marek of Strahov Abbey in Prague and I were walking along the Fox River. He, living a life of radical simplicity, only wears his habit. A woman passing by on her bicycle came to a screeching halt. I was worried that she was going to be upset by seeing a man dressed as a canon. On the contrary, she said “Father, I have to tell you that I haven’t been inside a Church for thirty years but I am so glad to see that the Church is alive and that God is not dead.” For me, a young affiliate (postulant) at that time, this was a moving event. His garment spoke to her, not necessarily as a tool of evangelization, but simply as a witness to the holy. That being a broader more generic holy. It did not mean that Marek was expressing himself to be a holy person (that would be far out of his very humble character, though I do believe he is a deeply spiritual man) . Rather, as a sacramental it simply symbolized “holy” to that woman on the bike. It reminded her of God. Will she remember Marek? Probably not. Will that moment of recognizing that there is something greater to life and a meaning more profound impact her in a small way, I certainly hope so.

Does this mean I believe that all religious should wear their habit? No. Does this mean I will wear it to go to the drug store? Probably not. These conclusions do mean, however, that maybe all of us involved in the wars of the habits should step outside ourselves and realize that whether someone is in a habit or not is not indicative of anything in particular. Rather, the experience of wearing a habit is deeply personal and the reasons we share for doing so or not doing so vary hugely from person to person. We should support and edify one another in our choices in this regard in understanding how something as outward appearance can so greatly impact and reflect ones spiritual life. Also keeping in mind that how we see others, be it a fellow religious or a person on the street, in many ways reflects more upon our own personal biases than it does the actual nature of that individual whom we may feel compelled to judge.

Medieval Habit in Medieval American... For me, the habit is a sign and a symbol. It represents my identity as a norbertine, (though obviously not the most significant sign of identity) it reminds me of my striving to live an integrated, authentic and spirit lead life, and to those around me it can have the potential to remind them of the same. It signifies the unity I share both temporally, geographically and historically with others in my own tradition within the Roman Catholic Church, and even with all those whose faith inspires unique and distinguishing garments be it Thai Buddhist monks in orange robes, hasidic Jews in their characteristic black garb or Mormon missionaries with their white shirts and ties. It is not my desire to express a deep seated clericalism, it is not because I feel I am better than those with whom I share the sidewalk. It is not because I somehow believe I am a holier person in the garment than out of it. It is something I do a as a spiritual practice for myself, and as a way to hopefully witness, not to my own holiness, but to the Holy in our midst.

Two weeks in review….

It has been just about two weeks since I have arrived in Chicago. Boy have they been busy! The life of a novice is far from mellow. Though, it is quite a bit of fun. That is not to say that we have no down time, we have lots of time to indulge in self reflection, prayer, meditation, reading, and edifying hobbies (for myself those would be playing music and painting — more on those in future posts). 

At the beginning of the week we had several outings as well as time spent at home together. Fr. David took all the novices out to see a beautiful contemporary byzantine church, Annunciation of the Mother of God, completely covered in byzantine iconography on the walls and ceiling of the interior. After that brief stop we had the opportunity to take a stroll along side a lake in a forest. We each then too turns having our monthly “check-in” sessions with Fr. David on a nearby picnic table.

For our first official “culture day” we went up to Loyola Chicago to see the art deco chapel of Madonna Della Strada on their campus. It is quite a beautiful space, recently remodeled and restored. I particularly enjoyed their hand painted art deco stations of the cross. After that we took a quick tour of Northwestern University on our way to the real site of the day, the North American Baha’i Temple. It is a truly unique and inspiring structure. The intricate symbolism,the continuity between the structure and the gardens that surround it, the elegant simplicity fused with an ornate geometric complexity all coalesce into a space that is somehow remarkably whole and complete and lifts the spirit. Their museum also helped me in understanding more fully what the Baha’i faith is all about. Previously understood as a purely synchrotistic religion I came to see it as a belief system with very specific teachers and goals building off an individual prophet and a strong and distinct worldview.

For the first Sunday that we were together as a community we attended mass at Catholic Theological Union, the school of theology used by our various Norbertine communities. That was a beautiful, solemn and simple liturgy. It was also good to see some of my friends from last semester. It was the first liturgy of the school year, though not the official opening liturgy. That would come later in the week.

Monday, Labor Day, we took a community outing to the Brookfeild Zoo. There we spent several enjoyable hours viewing the animals, strolling through the beautiful grounds, and riding the slow moving tram. The exhibit I found most interesting was the butterfly house. What stunning creatures! They certainly are nature’s jewelry as one guide described. While at the zoo I spent one seventh of my monthly novice allowance on an overpriced but edible burrito and bottle of tea. In that regard I think the patrons had about as much freedom as the caged animals, at least as far as our options for dining and price shopping! We were a captive audience after all. Fr. John, a confrère from a Norbertine Community in India living with us while getting his doctorate, informed me of the most efficient ways to kill a monkey and the traditional process of eating or burning them in his region of India. I am certainly never lacking an opportunity to learn from my brethren! Though, sometimes I learn things for which I was not prepared. (I hope to speak at greater length in future blogs about the fascinating men with whom I live).

Monday afternoon, after returning to the house, we shared a wonderful outdoor barbecue together. Abbot Dewayne was visiting us for a day on his way back to St. Moses the Black Priory in Mississippi. It was good to be able to spend some time with him, albeit brief.

Tuesday was the official Mass of the Holy Spirit for CTU so as a community we attended that function. It was a much more lively, colorful and festive liturgy than the previous Sunday. The chapel was full. We actually celebrated the Nativity of Mary as it fell on September 8th. September 8th also happens to be the founding date of my community of Santa Maria de la Vid in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Friday we took a trip to Milwaukee. We ate a fascinating dinner at a restaurant disguised as a “safehouse” for espionage. To enter we were required to do a series of silly dance moves as we did not know the correct password. A bookshelf in the wall moved and we were allowed into the chambers of the restaurant. Each room had an interesting theme relating to spies and secrecy. Following dinner we attended a concert at St. Josaphat Basilica in Milwaukee.

The concert, a performance of The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace by Karl Jenkins, was amazing. The Menomonee Falls Symphony Orchestra and a mixed choir from groups around Milwaukee put together an excellent rendition of this crucial work. Most touching, I felt, was the incorporation of a brilliantly executed and inspiring muslim call to prayer. The combination of tense and moving poetry from around the world and throughout history speaking of the terrors of war and resolution into restful settings of the ordinary of the mass seemed to emphasize the role that faith and religious teaching brings to our goal of world peace. The setting was also stunning in the beautifully restored basilica.

For this most recent Sunday mass we went to Marmion Benedictine Abbey. It was a simple but reverent liturgy in their stark but inspiring light-filled modern chapel. The wooden ceiling and large laminated beams sweep upwards, a large stone alter anchors the center of the room and a small organ, crucifix and series of icons adorn the space. The marian chapel with its blue windows and the cut glass tabernacle are particularly well executed. Many monks were in attendance as well as students and families from their school. The monks have a christmas tree farm as well! After mass we went to Geneva, IL and had a wonderful lunch along the banks of the fox river together before we went to take a walk in a park along the river. Matt, Stephen (the other two novices) and myself went off to explore a historic windmill in the park that was also a museum. It was a day more reminiscent of postcards from northern Europe than of western Chicagoland that can smack so heavily of “anywhere USA”.

In future posts I will more explicitly detail the nature of our novitiate classes, work detail and the rhythm of life which we live in the Holy Spirit House of Studies, our lovely Kenwood home I lovingly call the Premonstratensian Woodlawn Manor.