[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
With immense gratitude to Almighty God and to the Mother of God, Mary Most Holy, I offer some reflections on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of our founding.
It is perhaps anachronistic to speak of a “typical” manner for founding monasteries in our contemporary world. The modern world has given rise to new religious communities in profusion, and this trend only accelerated in the second half of the twentieth century. Most new communities were active in orientation, but here and there, new monastic foundation were springing up. What is atypical about this situation is that, for most of the Church’s history, monasteries were founded by a group of well-formed monks sent from a motherhouse, by a major gift of property and revenue, or, in most cases, both.
The new twentieth-century monasteries tended to be de novo, or with only minimal support from a motherhouse. In most cases, there was some felt need to go back to the desert sources of Christian monasticism, to poverty and sober liturgical expression, away from the role of education which, in many cases, had been forced on Benedictine monasteries by Enlightenment rulers.
Many of these new foundations, our own monastery included, ended up in the Subiaco-Cassinese Congregation, which had grown out of a nineteenth-century “Primitive Observance” reform. But all of this was far in the future when our three founders received permission to live the monastic life in the diocese of Crookston on September 14, 1988.
Looking back, it is hard not to notice how improbable the survival of our monastery has been. More and more in recent years I return to this theme. As one of our founders has taken to saying, “God has been incredibly faithful to us.” We have noted on many occasions special graces bestowed on the community in conjunction with feasts of Our Lady. The acknowledgement of her maternal care led us to commission the icon above the deisis at the altar: Our Lady of the Protective Veil. She truly has protected us in many perilous situations.
From the beginning, the founders discerned a call to live in the modern city. God’s purposes in this calling have always been cloaked to a certain extent. This is fine—in some ways, the very fact of grappling with the challenges of contemplative life in the noisy and often violent city has been an ongoing spur to our own self-examination and a very purposeful seeking of God’s will. Every so often, one gets a little glimpse at what God is working through our efforts to return His fidelity. After our last celebration of Solemn Vespers, a man stopped me to say that these public times of prayer, and the beauty and peace that they convey, is exactly what is needed in Chicago at this moment, as we continue to be wracked by gun violence and other breakdowns of civility.
When I arrived in 1997, our parking lot was still surrounded by barbed wire and asphalt. New trees were being planted on 31st Street, but many were dying as a result of insufficient rain and general neglect. In planting our roots here, we’ve tried to make a point of bringing out the beauty of the earth, susceptible to city folks’ tendency to “pave paradise.” In addition to many trees and a lot of grass, we’ve planted flower, vegetable and berry gardens (producing sometimes 30 gallons of fruit a year—we eat a lot of raspberry pie in the winter!). The church building has been revived after being left more or less for dead in 1990.
The process might appear slow, but it mirrors the interior work of conversion to which every monk is pledged. I like to point out to newcomers that Saint Antony the Great (pictured in the medallion on the upper left of the deisis) needed thirty-two years between his departure from the city and his emergence as a great teacher of souls. Saint Paul himself spent over a decade in seclusion after his conversion, and still had to learn, after his return to the apostles that “We enter the kingdom of God by many trials.”
This leads to the last part of this reflection, the centrality of the Holy Cross. “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast [Sirach 2: 1-2a].” The frankness of Ben Sirach caught my attention even before I entered monastic life. “Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things [1 Corinthians 9: 25].” The willingness to give up everything, to start over entirely in a new way of life, demonstrated, in the life of our founders, a remarkable faith and a willingness to let this faith be put to the proof in a particularly raw manner. In addition to the protection of the holy Mother of God, we have been well served by our dedication to the Holy Cross. It is our willingness to be weak, earthen vessels that allows the power and glory of Jesus Christ to shine out for those with eyes to see. For in weakness power finds it perfection! Today, let us offer ourselves with special gratitude to our humble Lord, Who emptied Himself to become our brother, and our friend. Who, though rich, impoverished Himself to enrich us with all spiritual gifts, and to bear us on the Way of the Cross to our heavenly homeland!