Sunday, February 11, 2007

Saints and Sacramentals


Sr. Clarissa is in California this week at the Benedictine Abbot’s and Prioresses conference in Burlingame. She has sent news that she is enjoying the conference very much and will have lots to report when she comes home. We always look forward to Clarissa’s reports which are very comprehensive and informative.
Yesterday quite a few members of the community watched the Super Bowl in what used to be the Renewal Center on 4th floor. Fortunately we had just had the satellite dish reconnected just a couple of days before. Perhaps the biggest hit of the afternoon (at least for some of us!) was the incredible spread of munchies provided by the formation folks. A good time was had by all with the possible exception of the Chicago fans in our midst.
Perhaps the biggest, although somewhat anti-climactic news is that we are done with the renovation. It seems to have ended with a whimper since there is still moving around to be done between offices, but the construction people are finished. The hallways are slowly emptying out. Development is moving into and getting used to their new offices. The kitchen is enjoying not having to commute to the freezer and pantry. Everyone has been enjoying the new elevator for a while. The decorating committee is having a field day with curtains, chairs and making all the new rooms look special.
This is also seems to be the season for saint’s days and other feasts. Friday, February 2nd was the Feast of the Presentation. This feast is 40 days after Christmas and commemorates Joseph and Mary presenting Jesus in the Temple as recounted in Luke’s Gospel. The traditional name of the feast was "Candlemas" because of the tradition of blessing candles on this day. This comes from the song sung by Simeon when he calls Jesus "a light of revelation to the Gentiles." The Church celebrates this first revealing of the light of Christ through the blessing of candles to be used in worship. We continue this tradition at the monastery by having a table in the middle of chapel at which we place a sampling of the candles we will use in worship throughout the year and where people can place their personal candles. In the morning prayer we then bless the candles with holy water and say a blessing over them.
The next day, February 3, is the Feast of St. Blaise. He was martyred in the early 4th century in what is now Armenia. According to legend he once saved a child from choking. As a result of this story he became a patron saint to protect people from problems of the throat. It is part of our history at the monastery to bless peoples throats on his feast day. The prioress and the sister in charge of the infirmary use two candles bound together in an X shape with a red ribbon, they place these on each sisters throat and pray a prayer asking for St. Blase to intercede for us against all problems of the throat.
As if all this wasn’t enough, today (February 5th) is the Feast of St. Agatha. She was a martyr of the early 4th century in Sicily. The people of Sicily have long sought her intercession to save them from the volcano Mt. Aetna in Sicily. People in other places began to ask her intercession against fire, lightning and other natural disasters. In the monastery we commemorate her feast by blessing a large number of small bread roles specially prepared for the feast. These rolls are blessed with water and prayer by the prioress and then small amounts are placed in containers and put in a variety of places around the monastery. (OK, it sounds a little odd, but you have to admit, we have never had a major fire or other natural disaster!).
All of these customs are part of our heritage, not only as Catholics but also within the monastery. We remember the sisters who have baked the Agatha bread in the past, the sisters whose throats we’ve blessed. Among the candles we recall the candles we had for profession, jubilees and other occasions. These rituals connect us with our history and with the presence of God who is light and who is present with us at all times, in sickness and disaster as well as times of joy.
One final Catholic concept for the day. These objects, candles and bread that are blessed, are known as "sacramentals." In the Catholic tradition sacramentals are tangible things which serve to remind us of God’s grace. We use holy water to bless ourselves and objects because that water reminds us of our baptism. Candles remind us of the light of God which shines in our lives and hearts. Bread is a reminder of the sustenance God gives us in the Eucharist and in physical bread.
Unlike sacraments which are considered to be actual, tangible manifestations of God’s grace (e.g. Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist), sacramentals do not convey grace in and of themselves, they simply remind us of God’s grace which is always present in our lives and world.
S. Teresa

Monday, January 1, 2007

Reflections on Christmas

Merry Christmas! I am waiting for Midnight Mass to begin here, so I thought I’d share with you some of what Christmas is like here at the Monastery.

The big news was from the wind storm about a week ago. One of the big fir trees in front of the monastery blew down. Fortunately it blew down into the park and didn’t do major damage. Sr. Catherine remembers it being planted in the early ‘30’s and was probably one of the tallest trees of it’s kind in Idaho. We have a tree removal person working on cutting it up. It’s branches are already gracing the walkway up to the monastery along with red bows and lights, thanks to Srs. Jean Ihli and Wilma.

Tonight's Christmas celebration with caroling at 11:30. The schola has been practicing for quite some time and they always do a beautiful job under the direction of Srs. Judith and Cecile. It is a challenge to sing in English, Latin and German, but they always sound perfect. Our's is the only midnight Mass in the area so we always have quite a few people from the local area. After Mass we will have refreshments in the dining room.

It is profound to celebrate in the darkness, before the dawn has a chance to become known. The midnight Mass echoes the celebration of the Easter Vigil at night. They are both about the coming of light in our darkness, how the light of candles and new fire remind us of the light of God that comes in the darkest corners of our world and our lives. Or maybe it's just that all the "morning people" became Protestants and all the people that would rather stay up late to celebrate remained Catholic, I don't know.

Earlier today we celebrated both the 4th Sunday of Advent and the Christmas Eve Vigil at Evening Prayer. Prayer was quite beautiful, with the whole Office being sung and several members singing the "lessons" the Scripture readings from Isaiah. Thanks to Judith, Cecile, Jean L., Kim Marie, Meg and Sue Ellen the singing was beautiful.

In other tree news we brought in the Christmas trees a couple of days ago. We cut all our trees on our property on Cottonwood Butte. It is always a rite of Advent to have folks go up there and try to get just the right trees. Once again they’ve done an amazing job.

We don’t get trees until just before Christmas to try and maintain the integrity of the separation between Advent and Christmas. In a society where "Christmas" starts sometime around Halloween, we try to make clear that Advent is a time of waiting, expectation, hope and longing and that this coming of God in world happens in divine time, not human time. Living as we do in a culture in which "instant gratification takes too long" this celebration of the long, dark nights and patient waiting of Advent is a witness to the reality that we are not in charge.

The trees are all now up and decorated thanks to the help of some dedicated and artistically inclined volunteers. Tonight (Christmas Eve) we all gathered in the community room for Sr. Clarissa to bless both the Christmas tree and the assembled community and guests.

Perhaps the use of evergreen trees are meant to remind us of the paradox of Christmas. In the midst of the barrenness of winter, when there doesn’t appear to be any life and white is the predominant color, evergreens tend to stand in sharp contrast. In the seeming deadness and whiteness of the season they remind us of the green of new life at times and places we least expect. They echo the paradoxical and unexpected nature of the new life that will be born in a manger. The trees also echo the story of salvation history, the tree in the Garden of Eden that heralded humanity’s fall from paradise, the tree of redemption which is the cross and the trees of hope mentioned in Revelation, the 12 trees in the New Jerusalem whose "leaves are for the healing of nations." The trees remind us of the full circle of the story of redemption.

This morning after Morning Prayer people put the figures in the manger. Our manger scene is set up on a large table in front of the side altar with Mary, Benedict and Scholastica. The Christmas trees are in back of the manger scene. The manger scene looks like a log cabin and is decorated with evergreen boughs from our forest. I think that the power of this manger scene lies in the fact that it is not geographically or historically "correct." Jesus wasn’t born in a log cabin with evergreen boughs, but he is truly born in the most humble circumstances in the times and places where we live. By placing the manger in a typical, poor, Northwest context we are reminded that the birth of Christ is more than a historical event, he continues to be born here and now, where we are, in poverty and humility in the unexpected corners of our world and our hearts.

The chapel has been decorated beautifully by more of our aesthetically gifted sisters (some of us serve by staying out of the way when it comes to decorating!). There are beautiful red candles in gold candle holders everywhere. There are long gold vertical banners hanging from either side of the altar. There special gold filigree clothes hanging from the old main altar. Poinsettias are all over the sanctuary. There are also seven branched candelabras on either side of the tabernacle on the main altar.

The symbolism of the decoration is also profound. In the gold we are reminded that this child whose birth we celebrate is to be King of all the earth, that all worldly rulers and power will ultimately bow before his throne. Gold is a color befitting worship and majesty. But in the red we are also reminded of blood, a foreshadowing that his kingship will end in death and suffering, that we celebrate the paradox of the birth of a king who will die on a cross. Plus, red and gold look so good together.

Finally, we have the Holy Spirit picture above the altar, the painting based on a picture from outer space with the space dust in the form of a dove. Perhaps it is right that as we celebrate the new, vulnerable, incarnation of God in our midst it is the Holy Spirit looking down on us all.
On that note I’ll leave you with a quote from Gerald Manley Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet (not everyone can be Benedictine).

"The Holy Spirit over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."
Have a wonderful and very blessed Christmas, from all of us at the Monastery,
Sr. Teresa