Stuck with Me

One usually reflects with gratitude on the labor of one’s mother on one’s birthday. But I have to thank her on my ordination anniversary, too.

NewMellerayAbbeyAbout fifteen years ago, after my second year in the seminary, I had it in my mind to join the Trappists and spend the rest of my days making caskets in the monastery in Peosta, Iowa.

But my mom knew me better than I knew myself. She talked me out of it. To paraphrase: ‘You may be an obtuse goofball, but you nonetheless have the makings of a halfway decent shepherd of souls. You owe it to the good Lord who made you to use those talents.’

…So that’s how you got stuck with me, my dearly beloved church.

Back around the same time, in the 1990’s, I heard a middle-aged priest give a talk about his vocation. He began, “I’m not going to tell you why I joined. I am going to tell you why I stay.”

Why do I stay? ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am too proud to beg.’

Just kidding. Kind of.

At today’s Mass, we hear the Lord declare that the bond of marriage cannot be severed, except by the death of the body. The bond of a priest with Holy Church cannot be dissolved at all, even by the death of the body.

We priests have no right, on our own, to stand in Christ’s place. But He puts us there anyway. He gives us His Bride to be our bride, too. I never knew a heart could hold the kind of love that I get and give on any given Sunday morning. Ten years of Sunday mornings, and I still think I have the most beautiful bride in the world. I am the luckiest man alive.

pantocratorI wanted to be a monk so that I could make friends with death. But being a parish priest makes you friends with death, too. Why do we wear black? Because life on earth is short, friends.

Christian people get buried with the feet facing east. When the Last Day comes, and all the bodies rise and stand, the faithful will see the Lord. He will come from the east, with the dawn.

But we priests have the un-merited privilege of being buried in the other direction. Because—in spite of how unworthy we are—He has chosen us to stand in His place. Forever.

So—I’m sorry. I am sorry to have to tell you that you will be looking at this ridiculous mug for all eternity–God willing we make it to heaven.

But, by the eternal light, maybe my looks will improve. And we will all see Jesus, too, anyway.

Happy anniversary to you, my love.

Monticello Monastery

Sometimes, the world-famous internet maddens you with its lacunae. One cannot read St. Augustine’s second sermon on the Apostles’ Creed in its entirety on-line. That said, it is well worth reading the parts of the sermon that Google Books offers, to prepare spiritually for Trinity Sunday…

…Upon entering the reception hall in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, the visitor espies a familiar map on the wall. Perhaps, gentle reader, you will recall the joy with which we considered the Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia a few months ago.

What made Thomas Jefferson? Can we say that, above all, he was the son of the man who had made Virginia colony’s most excellent map?

…My peregrinations have taken me to Monticello, to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and to the Cistercian Abbey of New Melleray in Peosta, Iowa, among other places.

Monticello reminds me more of New Melleray than it does of Mount Vernon. Jefferson conceived and built a hilltop cloister to house his quiet life of study and meditation.

Everything about the clever, simple, orderly way in which the necessaries of Monticello are arranged recalls the refreshing straightforwardness of the architecture of a monastery.

And, of course, the quadrangle of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson designed, feels like a brick neoclassical cloister.

Perhaps Sally Hemmings could report that Jefferson did not live his 43 widower years as a perfect monk. But there is no question that he built an edifice designed for reading, working the land, hospitality, and contemplation. This is precisely what St. Benedict directed.

It is ironic, since Jefferson despised monks. Like repels like.

Someday, perhaps, the Lord will afford me the leisure to write the book I have always wanted to write: The Untold History of the Contemplative Life in the United States.

Chapter 1 will consider Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Architecture Day

twin towersI was always against the Twin Towers, architecturally speaking.

I thought they looked like the effluvia of an intergalactic spaceship the size of Iowa that had stopped over lower Manhattan to deposit its waste in two briquettes, pinched out squarely from its enormous wrought-iron rectum.

I didn’t like the idea of the Death Star going to the bathroom in the middle of one of our grandest cities of Earth.

That said, when I visited my brother in New York in 2002, and I laid eyes on the lower Manhattan skyline, I was mad as hell. The ugly towers–fixtures of life, my old friends–were gone. The enemy had attacked our home, knocked down our buildings, and killed our people.

new mell naveI still miss the hideous buildings. Isn’t it strange that, after eight years, justice has yet to be done? The perpetrators of the attack went to judgment in the course of their murderous rage, of course. But what about the mastermind? I do not wish him damned; I do not want revenge. But he must face justice.

…I have had the opportunity to kneel and pray a few times in the abbey church of New Melleray, outside Dubuque, Iowa. It is the most peaceful place I have ever been. When I get to heaven, please God, I hope the Lord will let me spend it in this church.

It is simply the most perfect church on earth. But I knew from the first moment I spent there that there was something about the location of its windows that was in fact too perfect to be the result of human design.

new mell sanctuaryIt turns out that the walls of this perfect church were originally built to house a dormitory. It used to be a two-story residence for the monks. Then, when they built other buildings, and completed their cloister, they removed the floor separating the first and the second storeys of this part, and turned it into their church. Amazing.

(N.B. The tabernacle is within the wooden structure behind the altar. This aspect of the church is odd, I grant. I also wish the altar were wider. And of course if the Lord let me spend eternity there, he would also let me say Mass facing east. But the walls and windows are perfect as is.)

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