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Babylon & Boogie Street

Since Leonard Cohen’s death in 2016, a great many things have been written about the “poet laureate of despair,” as the journalist Simon Worrall called him. His every song, every drink, and every affair has been inspected. But while there is a growing literature on Cohen’s religious imagery, relatively little has been written about the distinctive way Jesus figures in his work or, more generally, about how that work addresses our relationship with God and with each other. From the beginning of his career to its end, covenant and its breaches were among Cohen’s major themes.

A passage from Augustine’s On Christian Belief could serve as an introduction to Cohen’s work: “If you love only what cannot be snatched out of its lover’s hand, you undoubtedly remain unbeaten.” If one directs one’s love to what cannot be “snatched” away—that is, to God—one will suffer neither unfulfilled longing nor loss. Cohen’s images of inner disunity and loss—of desires not only unsatisfied but also unsatisfiable—illuminate the challenges of human intimacy with God and our fellow creatures, our fears of vulnerability and dependence. Contrary to Augustine’s wisdom, Cohen was unable to stay constant to God and so find peace with himself. Nor could he stay constant to the women he loved. This double restlessness was his persistent wound, investigated in more than sixty years of song and poetry that provide an inventory of his soul.

Cohen grew up in what he called the “Catholic city” of Montreal. His Catholic nanny took him with her to church. The power of the Gospel’s imagery and its weight in our cultural-emotional repertoire was, in Cohen’s view, unavoidable, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. “Any guy,” Cohen told writer Alan Hustak,

who says blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness. A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. He was a man of inhuman generosity, a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced.

Jesus captured Cohen’s imagination because he lived out the Hebrew Bible covenant as Cohen himself could not. Cohen also studied Buddhism and other wisdom traditions, yet, as he told Stina Lundberg Dabrowski in 1997, his religious views were Judaic: “I was never looking for a new religion. I have a very good religion, which is called Judaism.” But Cohen’s inquiries into Judaism took him also to Jesus. “As a Jew,” philosopher Babette Babich notes, “Cohen reminds us to feel for Christ, not to be a Christian necessarily but to get the point about Christ.” Cohen got “the point about Christ”—his lesson of loving and giving for the sake of others—but found it hard to sustain. Cohen ran through commitments like water. “Rinse and repeat, again and again,” as Babich put it.

 

What is this covenant that Cohen was trying to uphold, as he believed Jesus did? If God is the source of all that is, humanity must partake of that source in order to exist. In Genesis, God breathes the breath of life into Adam. “In all things,” Aquinas wrote, “God works intimately.” But while we are in “intimate” relation with God, we are also radically different from God. We are material; God is immaterial. We are finite; God is infinite. So all creatures are in intimate relation with a God from whom they are radically different.

We become who we are through networks of relation with all those, near and far, who have had an impact on our lives.

This is how Cohen wrote about it in “Love Itself” (2001, with Sharon Robinson): “In streams of light I clearly saw / The dust you seldom see / Out of which the nameless makes / A name for one like me.” In the Kabbalist tradition of Isaac Luria (1534–1572), sacred vessels that originally contained God’s light shattered under God’s brilliant power. In the stream of divine luminescence, the song’s narrator sees the dust we seldom see, the dust from which God makes us in an act more intimate than any other: creation. Cohen then plays with “name” and “nameless.” In Jewish tradition, God is often referred to as The Name, because the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, is unpronounceable. In this lyric, the infinite, incorporeal, unnameable God creates from dust a finite, material, nameable person. This is how we come to be.

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Because the cosmos is created as a network of relations among different beings, not only are we in intimate relation with God (despite the radical differences between God and us) but we are also in necessary relation with one another. We are not separate and complete persons who may choose to enter into relationships. Rather, we become who we are through networks of relation with all those, near and far, who have had an impact on our lives. Thus, our flourishing requires that we see, and see to, these relations. Thriving means attending to the well-being of the persons and networks that form us. As Cohen puts it in “Please Don’t Pass Me By” (1973):

I brushed up against the man in front of me.
I felt a cardboard placard on his back....
It said “Please don’t pass me by—
I am blind, but you can see—
I’ve been blinded totally—
Please don’t pass me by.”

Passing others by means failing to see them and failing to see to them. And that failure precludes flourishing, theirs and our own.

One name for this seeing and seeing to others is “covenant.” Because of our relational nature, attending to others in reciprocal commitment is the way we flourish. Princeton theologian Max Stackhouse explains covenant among persons as “an ethical outworking of the divine-human relationship.” In a kind of a spiritual Möbius strip, covenantal concern for others builds our covenant with God, even as covenant with God sustains us in giving covenantally to others. Cohen explains it thus: “The Heart beneath is teaching / To the broken Heart above... / Come healing of the Altar / Come healing of the Name” (“Come Healing,” Old Ideas, 2012, with Patrick Leonard). Covenant is bottom-up as well as top-down. Cohen notes both the healing at the human altar as it reaches “up” to God and the healing that comes from the Name, God, as it reaches “down” to the world.

 

And yet, we break covenants almost every day. We bolt from the bonds we need, from the covenantal commitments that make us who we are, that allow for peace and thriving. What gets in the way? Everything human. We follow the call of Babylon and Boogie Street, two themes in Cohen’s work: the hustle for lucre, self-interest, another (sexual) adventure, and the comfort of intactness, of not being dependent on another—not even on God. Biographer Sylvie Simmons describes two of Cohen’s “favorite things” as “no strings” and “an escape clause” from commitment.

But who made human nature to be this way? God. And there is the nub of Cohen’s theodicy, his argument with God about the suffering in his creation. We are created for covenantal commitment, yet we are also made to be able to breach it. But Jesus, who was also fully human, subject to the same temptations as Cohen and the rest of us, did not breach his covenant. Cohen returned to Jesus often in his work to make this point: despite our fears and covenantal breaches, we may yet choose covenantal commitment to God and to other persons.

This, despite the fact that Cohen knew himself to be a habitual breaker of covenants, a man always disappointing himself and others. With women, he was the kind of guy who finds even serial monogamy constraining. He feared being entrapped, by women or by God. In “Lover Lover Lover” (1974) Cohen wrote: “I [God] locked you in this body / I meant it as a kind of trial.” The same God who made us for committed love also locks us in bodies whose urgent desires betray them. What kind of rigged “trial” is that? What kind of God?

Cohen understood his frustration to be his own failing, and he kept returning to this God throughout his life.

Still, Cohen understood his frustration to be his own failing, and he kept returning to this God throughout his life. Rage and reconciliation, rinse and repeat. In his last song collection he wrote, “I’ve seen you change the water into wine / I’ve seen you change it back to water too / I sit at your table every night / I try but I just don’t get high with you.” Yet in the same collection, Cohen ends the title song, “You Want It Darker,” with a declaration to God: “Hineni,” the Hebrew vow of commitment, “Here, I am; I am here for you.”

Cohen’s despair at human inconstancy was directed not only at himself but at all of us—covenant breachers every one. Among his most potent jeremiads is “Israel,” where he writes,

Israel, and you who call yourself Israel, the Church that calls itself Israel.... To every people the land is given on condition. Perceived or not, there is a Covenant, beyond the constitution, beyond sovereign guarantee, beyond the nation’s sweetest dreams of itself. The Covenant is broken, the condition is dishonored, have you not noticed that the world has been taken away? You have no place, you will wander through yourselves from generation to generation without a thread.

The covenant is for “every people,” and every people has broken it. So we wander “through” ourselves, in a world filled with other wanderers, all of us disconnected from one another. We no longer struggle to live with God; we think we’ve won a modern, “sovereign” independence from the transcendent and no longer tolerate the marks of bondedness.

What is God’s response? Grief, but not foreclosure. God holds the door open. This, like covenantal giving, is also the point about Jesus. In “Avalanche” (1971), Cohen writes that God, in the body of Jesus, steps into the avalanche of human life. He is rejected, abandoned, yet hopes for humanity’s return. “You say you’ve gone away from me / But I can feel you when you breathe... / It is your turn, beloved / It is your flesh that I wear.” Having assumed human flesh to be with humanity, to love and secure us, God still hopes for our return to covenant.

Cohen was especially moved by Jesus’ love for humanity even in the midst of betrayal. This brings together Cohen’s two “points” about Jesus: his lesson of covenantal love and his lesson of what befalls us when we betray such love. Among other horrors, we crucify God. Jesus, Cohen wrote, “was nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality”—a hospitality that extended to his persecutors. Jesus forgave. We can learn from that, but we often don’t. As Doron Cohen (no relation) quoted Leonard as saying in 2001:

Into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort.

These divisions are our slavery in Egypt, our exile in Babylon, our Boogie Street, and our cross. By breaching commitment, we sadden the God of Israel and Jesus, who nevertheless shows us grace. In “The Window” (1979), Cohen writes, “Why do you stand by the window / Abandoned to beauty and pride / The thorn of the night in your bosom / The spear of the age in your side?” Why, Jesus, do you bother to stand at the window, exposed to all, while humanity in every age abandons you to beauty and pride? How, why, do you love us, we who betray you? Cohen asked that question throughout his six decades of writing.

He knew there could be no real flourishing until we commit ourselves to others in a way that echoes, however imperfectly, Jesus’ love. Cohen caught moments of it in his life, lost it, missed it, and sought it again. At the age of seventy-eight, he wrote of Jesus’ love-amid-crucifixion as what restores humanity: “The splinters that you carry / The cross you left behind / Come healing of the body / Come healing of the mind” (“Come Healing,” 2012, with Patrick Leonard). It is from the splinters of the cross “left behind” for us that our self-inflicted wounds of body and mind are healed.

In the refrain of “The Window,” Cohen seeks his “chosen” love, he who was once human (“matter”) and now is grace (holy “ghost”). Cohen asks that this love “gentle this soul” from the suffering we cause ourselves.

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul.

On the fifth anniversary of his death, we may hope that this prayer was answered. 

 

Issue: 

Saint Martin of Tours’ Stunning Encounter

Today, on the feast of St. Martin of Tours, Father Steve Grunow offers a reflection on the legendary encounter that converted Martin from a celebrated soldier to a priest, bishop, and saint.

We Are Still Standing

 

Editors’ Note:  We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.

In the early twentieth century, many lay Catholics formed fraternal organizations—associations of mutual aid, service, and community—for support in the face of religious and ethnic discrimination. The Knights of Columbus is one such group. But Black Catholics, seeking support amid the injustices of the Jim Crow South, were denied membership in these organizations. And so they formed their own.

The Knights of Peter Claver (KPC) was founded on November 7, 1909, in Mobile, Alabama, by four priests of St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart and three laymen of the Diocese of Mobile. Modeled after the Knights of Columbus, KPC gave Black Catholic men the opportunity to serve God and the Church, to render aid and assistance to the sick and disabled, and to promote community. Over time, the group expanded to include women and children as well.

As a missionary, St. Peter Claver had witnessed the adverse treatment of African slaves in the port of Cartagena, Colombia. Reflecting on the suffering of Christ, Claver and his fellow Jesuits acknowledged the slaves’ human dignity by caring for the sick and dying among them. He also baptized many of them into the Catholic faith. He would become known as the Apostle of the Slaves.

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Today, the Knights of Peter Claver are active in parishes around the country. In local chapters referred to as councils, courts, or subordinate units, KPC continues the legacy of its patron by serving the marginalized and vulnerable in society. The supreme legislative body is vested in the National Council Board of Directors. Subordinate units are grouped into districts and states throughout the country, with representation on the National Council. KPC is a fairly democratic organization, governed by its charter, constitution, and bylaws in keeping with its objectives.

Through prayer and the bonds of community, we have continued the work of our patron, caring for those who need care the most, witnessing to the love of Christ.

My own upbringing as a Catholic has been informed by my family’s involvement with the Knights of Peter Claver and the Ladies Auxiliary. My father, Gregory Warner Sr., was initiated into the Order in 1981, and has held various positions at local, district, and national levels. As deputy of the Western states, he worked to expand the organization by recruiting new members and creating new units around the district. Later, as the grand knight of Council 220 at Transfiguration Church in Los Angeles, he raised money for scholarships, cooked meals for those who need food on Thanksgiving, and provided funds and services to the parish.

[Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, or reading group? Click here for a free discussion guide.]

My father’s dedication to KPC inspired my mother, my siblings, and me to follow in his footsteps. One of the things that sets the Knights of Peter Claver apart from many other Catholic fraternal organizations is their focus on participation by the whole family, which the Catechism describes as “the original cell of social life.” I have been a member of KPC since I was able to join, right after I received First Communion. I was initiated into the Junior Daughters of Transfiguration Court No. 220 in Los Angeles, California. My brother and I held positions in the Junior Division as junior grand knight and junior grand lady of our parish unit. My sister served as the junior counselor at her parish, and is now the junior directress for the Western States District, responsible for the junior divisions of all units in the district. As a child, I loved being part of a community my parents loved so much. I was excited to be able to “turn out” with the group: everyone comes together to celebrate an event during a Sunday Mass wearing the community’s characteristic white outfits, as well as regalia indicating what degree of the order they belong to.

I have also enjoyed the work that I have been able to do within the order. As a junior daughter, I participated in service events like fundraisers to benefit those in need and clothing drives for one of the local women’s housing groups. Every year there is a convention that brings together members from around the country for annual meetings and fellowship. As an adult member, I have enjoyed participating in the service projects that the young adults have hosted. One year, we served at an after-school program by helping to clean out the school’s basement, paint fences, and organize activities for the kids who attended. Another year, we volunteered to organize the warehouse at Habitat for Humanity in Dallas. I have also served as the cantor and bassist at the convention liturgies, some of which have been televised on EWTN. One of my greatest joys is making music, and it’s wonderful to be able to join voices with other musicians in KPC to praise and celebrate our Black Catholic heritage.

In Austin, Texas, where I now live, the Knights provide for the needs of the community with volunteer service and donations to Holy Cross Parish, Meals on Wheels, sickle-cell research, food drives, fan drives, community-service projects, scholarship initiatives, school-supply drives, seminaries, homeless shelters, and blood drives. That’s just one city; the Knights of Peter Claver are doing similar work throughout the United States.

The Order has proved to be resilient for over a century now. In the face of racism and hatred in our country, and in the wake of natural disasters—Hurricane Katrina seriously damaged the National Headquarters in New Orleans—we are still standing. Through prayer and the bonds of community, we have continued the work of our patron, caring for those who need care the most, witnessing to the love of Christ.

Related:

Issue: 

The Proper Telling of History

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have someone write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. —Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. —George Orwell, 1984 Does history matter?  It would seem so. Just consider . . .  The beaming, boyish face of the diminutive NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov was unforgettable. Photographed standing pleasantly by the Moscow canal and next to his master Joseph Stalin, you couldn’t tell that they were living in the darkest days of the Soviet Union’s Great Purge. Entrusted…

‘The Church Must Be Political’

Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., was ordained as the third bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, in May 2015. The following interview was conducted by email.

John Gehring: What would you like to see come out of the upcoming meeting of the U.S. bishops?

Bishop John Stowe: My hopes for the USCCB meeting are probably unrealistic, but I would love to see us as a conference modeling the synodal path that the Church has embarked upon. I would like to see real discernment, serious discussion, and prayerful listening before publishing a letter as important as a teaching document on the Eucharist. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, which has diminished and even temporarily halted the public celebration of the Eucharist. Now that we have some experience of what many parts of the world experience regularly, a hunger for the Eucharist, and as we have seen the eagerness for gathering in community after a time of absence, the direction of a letter on the Eucharist should be primarily about the Body of Christ gathered in celebration of the Body of Christ, the meaning of the paschal sacrifice of Jesus, and the necessity of his life-giving sacrificial love, which the Church is called to incarnate in the world today.

JG: Some bishops think that President Biden and other Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to abortion should be denied the Eucharist. How do you see this issue?

Bishop Stowe: As some other U.S. bishops have correctly pointed out, there is no disagreement among the bishops about the immorality of abortion or the desire that the extinction of life in the womb not be protected as a constitutional right. But it is a complex issue for a responsible Catholic officeholder who recognizes the law of the land and must survive within the dynamics of a political party, believing what the Church teaches, but unclear as to how that should relate to the law. That would be true for someone who supports access to legal abortion, or supports capital punishment, or supports the cruel exclusion of refugees and desperate migrants.

I am not alone in the view that the Eucharist should not be weaponized in a political battle, nor should it be received carelessly or as though it has no connection to one’s public stances. The Church calls bishops to be in ongoing dialogue with our members who are politicians and to listen to them before presuming their reasons for supporting policies that are objectively immoral.

JG: Environmental justice is a major priority for your ministry. But a recent study by Creighton University scholars that examined 12,000 written pastoral communications from bishops from mid-2014 to mid-2019 found less than 1 percent even referenced climate issues. Given the pope’s emphasis on the environment, especially in Laudato si’, why do we see such silence from U.S. Church leaders?

Bishop Stowe: I am not sure that a survey of written newspaper columns or pastoral letters is the best way to determine how much the bishops are saying about the importance of climate change and the care of creation. Our own diocesan publication comes out ten times a year, but I hope I am speaking and teaching about the climate far more frequently than that—even if every one of my columns is not on that theme. There are opportunities for preaching, prayer services for the care of creation, promotion of solar panels, and efforts to use green energy and conservation efforts going on as well. But at the same time, I do believe that climate issues are not getting enough attention among the Church’s leadership. Specifically, I think we bishops need to help people connect their personal and communal faith to the importance of reverence for creation and the necessary conversion away from personal comfort to the sacrifices that will need to be made for the survival of the planet and for the common good. The pope has effectively led the way, but I still do not see the urgency of climate matters being discussed at the USCCB gatherings or in enough dioceses.

I have always believed that the Church must be political.

JG: There is an organized, well-funded movement of Catholics in the United States opposed to Pope Francis and his pastoral priorities. The pope has even acknowledged this. What can Catholics, and specifically bishops, do about it?

Bishop Stowe: It seems to me that the bishops of the United States need to collectively accept and integrate the magisterium of Pope Francis and defend his role as the universal shepherd from those who publicly work against him. Some of his opponents act out of a failure to understand the gospel as his motivation or because of a preference for their political agenda above the teachings of Christ. Others want the Church to have the kind of authority and obedience of a previous era with unquestioning allegiance. The pope has often said that he learns from his critics and he welcomes other viewpoints in the proper environment, but not in social media where comments are often without context and socially inappropriate. If the pope is commissioned to promote the unity of the Church, those who resist his teachings and insult his person are sowing division.

The first responsibility for Catholics, including the bishops, is to read what the Holy Father actually says rather than someone’s characterization of it. Secondly, we should trust that the pope is right-intentioned and not involved in some sinister plot to undermine the Church, but takes his mandate to preach the Gospel in its fullness very seriously. Bishops should correct the distortions about papal teaching and his pastoral priorities and try to explain how the universal perspective of the pope will not always be in sync with the priorities of the United States.

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JG: You were one of only a few bishops who specifically challenged Donald Trump during the election, even saying that “for this president to call himself pro-life, and for anybody to back him because of claims of being pro-life, is almost willful ignorance.” Why did you speak out?

Bishop Stowe: I have always believed that the Church must be political; Pope Francis talks about the politics of love and the noble profession of politics and public service. We do a disservice to our membership if we call for an apolitical Church, because that would be a Church that is aloof to the concerns of the human family and just the opposite of how the Church is described in Gaudium et spes. At the same time, I also believe that the Church should be nonpartisan. Catholic theology and even Catholic social teaching does not align neatly with any political party. The Church is conservative insofar as it is steeped in tradition and believes in handing on its ancient teachings to new generations in new circumstances. Catholicism is also liberal in the sense that Christ frees us from constraints and empowers human beings to flourish and advance. But the Church cannot be captive to a particular party and its quest for power or an ideology. Because of that distaste for partisanship, it was very hard to speak out clearly about the former President of the United States. Yet to speak only in generalities would have been a failure to communicate at a critical time. When as a candidate or in office he was brashly demonstrating his disregard for the truth; spoke of immigrants in dehumanizing language; treated women as objects for sexual pleasure and disregarded their equal dignity; suggested that white supremacists marching in hate included very good people; had no difficulty bragging about never needing forgiveness; expanded the use of capital punishment; undid decades of progress for care of the environment; dismissed the concerns of labor and behaved in so many ways that are antithetical to what the Church teaches about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life, I felt compelled to point out that these words and actions were completely opposed to being “pro-life” as the Church understands it. Catholicism has thrived in the United States, and with its form of democracy; when the exercise of that democracy is under attack and violence is promoted, it is well outside the limits of normalcy and the Church has a responsibility to speak out for the common good.

JG: Kentucky voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Is it sometimes challenging to be a bishop of a red state given your focus on Catholic social justice issues more conservative Catholics reject?

Bishop Stowe: I’m unapologetic about promoting social justice because that was and is the mission of Jesus. Kentucky certainly is a red state, but it is a state where there is great poverty, where there is insufficient access to healthcare, where educational funding is always reduced and threatened, where drug abuse is rampant—it is where the radical message of Jesus is truly needed. When Jesus paid attention to the poor and demonstrated mercy to sinners, the powerful rejected him and plotted to destroy him. There will always be a tension between those who are concerned about the voices not being heard, the rights not being respected, the dignity not being upheld and those who are satisfied when they are making a profit, living comfortably and becoming indifferent to the needs of the majority of people. I don’t see it as a question of red or blue, but a question of whether or not we take Jesus seriously.

Of course I would advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons and promote their dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God.

I don’t know that I will ever understand those who think that they can follow the teachings of Jesus and idolize Donald Trump; it is a fundamental contradiction. There was a time when “conservative” Catholics complained of “liberal” Catholics being selective about the teachings that they followed. Now it seems that the reverse is more likely. How can you follow Jesus and be unrepentant about systemic racism, unwelcoming to the alien and stranger, unmoved by the needs of the poor or uninterested in the common good? I simply fail to understand that. Even to argue that Trump opposed abortion overlooks his attitude and treatment of sexuality and women reveal a worldview that results too often in abortions.

JG: You’ve been a strong advocate for the dignity of LGBTQ people. Over the summer, you even offered a public apology to a former religious education director at a Catholic school who was fired in 2015 because of her marriage to a woman. Do you see a path for the Church to bless or in some way formally recognize the union of same-sex couples?

Bishop Stowe: Faith-filled LGBTQ persons whose Catholicism is just as much a part of their identity as their sexual orientation have made a profound impression on me. I have spoken to too many individuals who have questioned their self-worth, questioned whether or not they are loved by God, questioned why they are alive at all, or questioned why they are uncomfortable in their own flesh to believe that sexual orientation is a choice or that God has somehow excluded them from his love. Of course I would advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons and promote their dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God. I struggle to understand why treating such persons with respect and taking their stories and struggles, along with their joys and accomplishments, seriously is such a threat to straight Christians.

I also struggle to understand why when we call for respect for LGBTQ persons, there are judgmental Christians who automatically accuse me of promoting a lifestyle. Sometimes it sounds like these critiques believe that all heterosexual persons in the Church are living perfectly chaste lives! I don’t advocate for a change in the sacrament of marriage nor deny the place of the complementarity of the sexes in the divine plan, but I do believe that we can support LGBTQ persons who need the same legal protection and rights for their committed relationships as marriage provides.

JG: You gave a speech in August entitled “Why Black Lives Matter: A Catholic Perspective on Racism.” How do we convince more white Catholics to recognize the persistence of racism in both the Church and our nation, and then to take some action to address it?

Bishop Stowe: I sure wish I knew how to convince more white Catholics to be interested in dismantling racism and recognizing its presence in the Church and world. I was encouraged by the multi-racial participation in the Black Lives Matter protests after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other African Americans by law enforcement. I don’t know how engaged Catholics were overall, nor do I think the Church seized the moment sufficiently to address the need for change. The test will be now, to see if we can take a real inventory of our benefit as an institution from slavery, its legacy and the systematic racism that continues to exclude people of color. Understanding terminology is very important. I used to worry that even using the word “racism” creates tension and puts white people on the defensive; then I was challenged by none other than Fr. Bryan Massingale as to why the comfort of white people should be more important than justice for people of color.

I do have to say, I have been encouraged by the participation of many whites in sessions about the Church and racism where they have been willing to listen to uncomfortable truths and have moved beyond feeling personally attacked and insulted. I have been deeply moved by the stories of Black Catholics who are willing to tell us one more time how they have been treated by a Church that doesn’t seem to want them, but who are faithful.

JG: Only a handful of Franciscans are U.S. bishops. How does being a Franciscan influence how you think about your episcopal leadership?

Bishop Stowe: Being Franciscan is just part of my identity. Francis of Assisi’s love for Christ crucified and his ability to see Christ in the leper is a great inspiration for me. His freedom from the life of upward mobility that he inherited from his family and his embrace of voluntary poverty in imitation of Jesus who became our brother is very attractive to me. A desire to be in fraternity with all creation and discover God in the interconnectedness of all life is quite timely at this moment in history. Life in community, with communal participation in decision-making, the very holistic and broad experience of Church that we friars receive in religious formation, as well as being members of a global fraternity, have all expanded my understanding of Church, which I believe is beneficial to my role as a bishop. I hope that the ability to lead as a brother, a lesser brother as Francis would put it, helps me exercise leadership in a meaningful way. I like having the example of a Jesuit pope named Francis to connect to our founder and make his message evident today.

JG: What do you think St. Francis would tell bishops if he could show up as a speaker at your national meeting?

Bishop Stowe: I would love to see St. Francis show up at a USCCB meeting today, but after venerating his stigmata, I am not sure that those bishops who fail to understand Pope Francis would be able to capture what St. Francis was really saying. He would tell us to love each other as brothers. He would tell us to share the Gospel joyfully. He would encourage us to get out in the streets and live among the poor. He would tell us to celebrate the marvels of creation and teach everyone to appreciate it. He would sound an awful lot like his namesake on the Chair of Peter.

Silence in the City

 

Editors’ Note:  We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.

I. Vigils

The genius of the monastic life is its balance. The balance of prayer and work, ora et labora, is perhaps monasticism’s best-known export into secular society aside from booze-sodden fruitcake, but the more significant balance is between the life of the community and the monk’s ability to find solitude. Monks live, pray, and work together, but they also spend much of their time alone, spinning the radio dial of their souls in search of a voice. That voice is God’s, and they also hear it communally in the Liturgy of the Hours, and particularly in the Psalms. 

The idea of a monastic community has changed over centuries, and that change has only accelerated in recent decades. Today, oblates—lay people who make formal promises, which they call vows, but who live outside of the monastic communities they’re vowed to—vastly outnumber monks. As religious communities age and vocations dwindle, as the pandemic still crawls along, and as many people continue to discover the transformative practice of silence and contemplation, the simplicity of monastic practice feels right for the chaos of our time. 

Over the past four decades, a tiny community of Camaldolese monks at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley has attracted hundreds of such oblates from all over the world. To reach the monastery, you drive or walk up, up, up from the flat streets of south Berkeley until you arrive at the top of a hill. There the monastery overlooks the sweep of the Bay Area and its millions of residents. There is no sign outside, no indication that this is a religious community. What looks like any other house in the area offers a place where people can heed Jesus’ advice about prayer—to enter our rooms and close the door, where we can meet God in secret. The monastery and its oblate community have been and remain a refuge for people seeking the balance between solitude and community that monks manage so well. 

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Camaldolese monks belong to a reformed Benedictine order founded by St. Romuald in the eleventh century, and they have always had both urban and rural monasteries and hermitages. Jaqueline Chew, a Camaldolese oblate, pointed out that the Camaldolese monastery in Rome is near the Colosseum, so monks in formation there live side by side with ordinary Romans and amid the ebb and flow of tourists. But their rural monasteries, closer to the quiet of the natural world, allow the Camaldolese to balance community and solitude in yet another way. 

For some people, the pandemic exposed spiritual longings and an awareness of the need for solitude that is woven into the history of Catholicism, but rarely acknowledged in the average parish.

In California, this is epitomized by Incarnation’s location, perched in the hills near acres of regional parks, but still very much in a city. The monastery consists of two conjoined houses, one where the monks live, and another with a spectacular view of Oakland, San Francisco, and the bay. This is where the small community chapel is located and where guests can stay—hospitality to the stranger is part of the Camaldolese charism. Their mother monastery, New Camaldoli, is more isolated; it’s a few hours south of Berkeley on the rugged coastal landscape of Big Sur. Many oblates discover the Camaldolese community on retreats at Big Sur and later visit Incarnation, or, due to the increasing number of wildfires and crumbling roads around Big Sur that can make it inaccessible by car, some oblates choose to be part of a community that’s easier to reach.

The Camaldolese rule of life, followed by both monks and oblates, was passed down from St. Romuald. It is exquisitely simple and, in its entirety, a mere hundred words long. 

Sede in cella quasi in paradiso;
proice post tergum de memoria totum mundum,
cautus ad cogitationes, quasi bonus piscator ad pisces.

“Sit in your cell,” Romuald said, “as if in paradise. Cast all memory of the world behind you, cautiously watching your thoughts, as a good fisher watches the fish.” And because, for monks, the Psalms are the key to everything, Romuald added a kind of warning: “In the Psalms there is one way. Do not abandon it.” The Psalms, among the most ancient prayers of the Church, form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Hours followed by Camaldolese monks and oblates. They chant, recite, and practice lectio divina—slow, careful reading—living every day with the Psalms until these prayers are engraved on their hearts. 

This kind of kenotic, self-emptying prayer is, of course, easier said than done. For many people, the pandemic has exposed our raw human need for companionship to the point that loneliness, depression, and anxiety became a kind of parallel pandemic. But for some people, the pandemic also exposed spiritual and religious longings and an awareness of the need for solitude that is woven into the history of Catholicism, but rarely acknowledged in the average parish. 

Like the Catholic Church itself, a monastery’s foundation is the life of Christ, which balanced the growth of the Christian community and its notion of agape with Jesus’ own frequent calls to solitary prayer and retreat. Today, when the U.S. Church in particular can feel anything but stable or steadying, it makes sense that people would seek out places of spiritual refuge.

Fr. Andrew Colnaghi, the chaplain to the Incarnation oblate community, has lived in the United States for nearly half a century, though he still carries a prominent Italian accent. Soft-spoken and dressed in a tracksuit, at first sight he could be any man of a certain age who lives in Berkeley, where Boomers outnumber almost everyone other than UC Berkeley students. But in the chapel, wearing the Camaldolese habit of sweeping white robes, he and the other monks transform into figures out of time. 

Colnaghi grew up near Milan, where he worked in a factory with nine thousand employees. There, where workers were called by number and not by name, he became involved in peace and justice work, which led him to conversations with the superior of a nearby Camaldolese community. That superior advised him not to leave his past as an organizer behind, but to bring it with him into the monastic vocation. After “hours and hours talking,” Colnaghi entered the order in 1979. 

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When Colnaghi first arrived at Big Sur, he discovered just how isolating it could truly be. “There’s nothing there,” he told me. Whenever a storm or fire shuts down the road and the phone lines, the monastery is completely cut off from the world. Young people who sought out the Camaldolese vocation at Big Sur were “very enthusiastic to change, to form” themselves, but very few of them wound up taking vows, many of them finding the extreme isolation too difficult to cope with. But at the same time, more and more lay people were seeking out the monastery for retreats and beginning to form bonds with the monks. The general chapter of the Camaldolese suggested forming a more accessible, less remote sister community somewhere else in California. They decided on the Bay Area and purchased the buildings that now house Incarnation Monastery from the Holy Cross fathers in 1980. The idea of a life of prayer in an urban context for Camaldolese means, according to Colnaghi, “you don’t have to go to the desert; you can go anywhere.”

The Hermitage compound at Big Sur (Photographer unknown/Courtesy of Bede Healey, OSB Cam)

The original vision for Incarnation was that it would be a place where monks in formation could live while studying at the Graduate Theological Union and also serve as a guesthouse for visiting scholars. When I interviewed Colnaghi, the guesthouse had just recently re-opened, and a young Jesuit was making a retreat and busily typing on a laptop on the deck. But Camaldolese vocations in the United States are not what they were in the era of Thomas Merton, when monasteries were practically overflowing. (During a visit to Merton’s home monastery of Gethsemani a few years ago, I saw only a couple of men under sixty among the monks.) As vocations slowed, however, lay people who frequented the Big Sur monastery had begun to discern their own idea of a vocation. Among them was a woman who had begun to think of the monks as being like her brothers, an extended family. She knew she couldn’t be a monk—she was married, and a woman—but she and the monks began to consider some other ideas. 

 

II. Lauds

The idea of an oblate is very old. Oblates—in Latin, oblatus, meaning someone whose life has been offered—were originally servants, workers, or children vowed by their parents to monasteries. As monastic orders reformed, the role of an oblate became closer to what it is today. Secular oblates are vowed to a specific monastery and promise to follow that order’s rule and keep the hours, but they are not required to live in the monastic community.

Oblates are not necessarily Catholic. The Episcopalian writer Kathleen Norris is an oblate of the Benedictine community in Collegeville, Minnesota, and brought monastic life to a wider audience in her book The Cloister Walk. A growing number of mainline Protestants, along with some Evangelicals who have discovered contemplative prayer and mysticism, have begun to explore life as an oblate. Colnaghi says oblate candidates should “of course be Christian” due to the Camaldolese emphasis on the Psalms and on following the life of Christ, but the monks have also engaged in dialogue with Buddhist monasteries, which outnumber Catholic ones in the Bay Area. 

Pamela Ovalle was the first oblate of Incarnation Monastery. In the 1970s, she began making retreats at the Big Sur monastery when they first opened to women, and she noticed “how difficult it was to go to the Hermitage for two weeks and have this wonderful sort of life of prayer and what have you, and then you’d come back to Berkeley and your whole life turns in another direction.” It’s understandable that Ovalle felt such whiplash. She spent her career in the corporate world where she was a risk manager for a bank—a career, she says, that made the contemplative prayer she was drawn to challenging. 

Ovalle’s bonds with the monks at Big Sur and later in Berkeley meant that when conversations began about forming an oblature, she was the first person the monks considered. The process, she observes, was “considerably less formal than now,” when oblate candidates must discern for at least a year whether or not to make formal vows to the community. For Ovalle, having a community in Berkeley meant she could have a local community “with whom I could touch base and share the challenges of trying to be in the corporate world and a contemplative at the same time.” Looking back, she says she was naïve when she entered the corporate world and later realized the way corporations treated people was “opposed to any sort of Christian values whatsoever.” 

Finding the balance between her career and her vows as an oblate could be especially difficult. Sometimes, she’d read the Psalms and feel “a major disconnect” between their words and her work. At other times, she’d find herself reading the Liturgy of the Hours on her train commute into San Francisco. One of the Camaldolese monks suggested that she take up the practice of meditating with Buddhists, which he thought might help her with centering herself as she prayed—so, for a time, she’d attend the San Francisco Zen Center after work. But it was the Camaldolese monastic community that gave her “a rootedness you don’t find anywhere else.”

For oblates, the monks write, “it is especially important to seek for silence and solitude of the heart.”

To this day, Ovalle says, being an oblate and part of the community means she has a refuge when she gathers with them—and when she is alone. “When you gather and you chant, you pray and you have your Eucharist,” she says, “you share and you become a family.” But from decades of the Camaldolese oblate life she also learned that St. Romuald’s advice to “sit in your cell as if in paradise” does not apply only within the monastery. “Sitting in that cell,” she says, “is wherever you are. Wherever I am, I have the ability to sit in the cell and be with God.”

 

III. Vespers

For people drawn to solitude, the average Catholic parish can be the antithesis of what they seek, with coffee and doughnuts being wheeled into the sanctuary right after Communion and constant admonitions to volunteer, participate, donate, mix and mingle. In the early 2000s, Jacqueline Chew, a concert pianist and member of the music faculty at UC Berkeley, found herself “searching for more quiet.” Chew had long felt drawn to the contemplative life, but she’d been reading Thérèse of Lisieux and figured the only way to achieve it was by becoming a cloistered nun, which would mean giving up playing concerts. Even at retreats, she says, “if there’s a piano there, I’m not able to play it because you have to be quiet.” Like many musicians, Chew says “music is the way that God speaks to me and I speak to God,” so giving it up seemed out of the question. 

She heard about Incarnation Monastery and the Big Sur community at a retreat center where one of the Camaldolese monks came to speak. As she began attending Incarnation “little by little,” she also decided to make a retreat at Big Sur, where she met her first oblate. “I didn’t know what that was,” Chew says. “So she explained it to me. As soon as I knew that this was an avenue that I could explore, I said, I want to do it. I knew right away.” After a year’s discernment, Chew took her oblate vows in 2005. When I asked her what about the Camaldolese charism appealed to her, balance came up again. “The balance of solitude and quiet and community,” she says, “which is important, is the balance that I’m looking for.” On the oblate page of the monastery’s website, the importance of silence and solitude is reinforced. For oblates, the monks write, “it is especially important to seek for silence and solitude of the heart, which can be found everywhere if one has learned how to remain in vital contact with the depths.”

Even while the Incarnation community had to shut down for in-person services during the pandemic like every other religious community, the oblates and monks were, in some ways, better prepared for the pandemic’s long stretches of isolation and solitude. But they still wanted and needed to meet in community. Chew has helped to keep the oblates connected throughout the pandemic. She handles the monastery’s email newsletter, which goes out to two hundred and fifty people. Before the pandemic, Incarnation would have “quiet days” four times a year when they would have talks and meals together; “it was really special,” Chew says. She would email her friends “don’t miss this” invitations, and when the monks found out, they invited her to begin writing the monastery newsletters. 

Those newsletters went from monthly to weekly during the pandemic. The current prior, Fr. Bede Healey, was adept with technology according to Chew, and he quickly suggested Zoom check-ins. The community also founded a Zoom book club and moved the practice of collatio, a group reflection on the week’s Scripture readings, to Zoom. This not only kept the local oblates connected but also enabled oblates from all over the world to get to know the community better. Because people travel from international locations to do retreats at Big Sur, they sometimes also end up visiting the Incarnation community while they’re in the Bay Area, where most flights land. For the community in Berkeley, according to Chew, the pandemic-forced shift to meeting online has “really strengthened the relationships” with oblates around the world, “for us to get to know them better and for them to get to know us. The ones who live far away often don’t have any oblates near them.” 

The community has even celebrated new oblates making their vows on Zoom, and people just keep coming, Chew says. The weekly email now includes a recording of the Sunday homily, which adds another layer to keeping people connected to one another. And the Camaldolese balance of solitude and community helped many oblates survive the horror and tragedy of the pandemic. As Chew notes, an oblate understands that “you’re alone, you’re at home, and you’re not going anywhere.” For many oblates, as for the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the centuries of monks and oblates who have followed in their wake and lived through plagues, wars, and political chaos, the solitude of the pandemic only strengthened their practice. For oblates, says Chew, being a part of Incarnation means “you’re on a journey and you can be as active or as quiet as you want. And it’s all accepted.”

As I prepared to leave my meeting with Fr. Colnaghi, he handed me a letterpress broadside. Smoke from wildfires around the state hovered in the air, somewhat obscuring the spectacular view, but that smoke also tinted the air a golden color, much like the light you see in Italy, where many centuries ago St. Benedict and St. Romuald first envisioned a life balancing prayer and work, solitude and community. The broadside was etched with St. Romuald’s brief rule, which begins with the instructions to sit in the cell and ends with the advice to “empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” That advice is more challenging than many people realize. But it also has infinite rewards. 

Those rewards were clear for my friend Paula, who found Incarnation Monastery near the end of her life. After a recurrence of cancer, she wanted a chance to pray in community, but a change of diocesan leadership and pastors at the big and bustling parish we used to attend together had fractured that community and scattered it across the Bay Area. Paula was solitary by nature and sometimes prickly about socializing; the fact that she could pray at Incarnation without feeling pressured to participate in group activities meant she found the balance she needed there. Paula attended Eucharist there until her body broke down and she could no longer go. Her funeral Mass was held at Incarnation almost four years ago, and the simplicity of the monastic service drew each of us in: just prayer and chant, breath in and breath out. 

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Issue: 

‘Don’t Worry, This Is a Catholic House’

 

Editors’ Note:  We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.

Our work at Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Texas, changed abruptly during the first months of the pandemic. Because of the lockdowns and emergency restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border, fewer refugees arrived from Latin America. We were busier than ever, however, providing food to several times the usual number of people and continuing to help undocumented immigrants who were paralyzed or very sick.

Now that has all changed again. Immigrants and refugees are once more flowing into Houston and showing up at Casa Juan Diego.

At the request of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), we recently received a young Nicaraguan man. ICE employees brought him in handcuffs and chains after he was released from detention. When Felipe (not his real name) came into our Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, he was a little shaken. We told him he was welcome, that he did not have to worry, and that this was a Catholic house. “Thank God,” he replied. He told us that he had been with the Franciscans in Central America for four years before he had to leave the order to help support his family because his father was ill. He came to the United States when life became impossible in Nicaragua. As we talked with him in our library, Felipe saw a picture of Padre Pio and spoke of his devotion to him. We gave him the picture. Felipe quickly used our WiFi to call his mother on WhatsApp so she would know he was alive. His friend and sponsor in Houston picked him up that day.

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Samuel was sleeping outside our front door one morning. We thought he might be a homeless man looking for a safe place to sleep. We discovered, however, that he had horrifying blisters on his feet from walking to Houston from Honduras. He had found his way alone to Casa Juan Diego and asked for help getting to his family in New Jersey.

Six new pregnant women came to take refuge during a single month. None of them had received prenatal care during their difficult journeys, and some of their husbands were still detained by ICE. A few of the women were Haitian but spoke Spanish because they had first tried to make a life for themselves in Chile.

Whole families from various countries in Africa arrived, the husbands often bearing the marks of torture on their bodies. Those seeking asylum were sent to Casa Juan Diego by ICE or by centers on the border. People from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the Ivory Coast, from Angola, Mali, and Burkina Faso found each other in joyful reunions. Some people had gotten to know each other on the difficult trip from Brazil or Ecuador, where so many begin their long trek. They had been stuck together in a camp in Panama for months because of closed borders. Venezuelan families also began to arrive.

Our medical clinics have reopened again, providing in-person service to the undocumented. Our houses are full. The Catholic Workers drive people to appointments. Today we have two women with mental-health issues. They and the six pregnant women have many appointments, and the men and women have to check in at Immigration or go to the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) office to have their ankle monitors recharged or replaced if they do not work.

When people arrive, we take them to local pharmacies to be vaccinated against COVID-19. We are sending as many people as possible to stay with any family or friends they may have. We hope not to be overwhelmed, but also to promote family and community reunification.

People who visit Casa Juan Diego often ask how many people we have living in our houses. Sometimes the answer is about a hundred, sometimes less. But it is not just a question of how many live here: to respond as personalists, we cannot just warehouse people. Our guests are more than numbers, our task more than the provision of beds and meals (no mean feat when there are guests from all parts of the world). Each one of them has a personal story that needs to be addressed so that we can help them continue their journey.

 

Dr. John Butler speaks with a patient at the Casa Juan Diego clinic (Rebecca Drexel)

Our life was quite different in the spring and summer of 2020. As people in the Houston community began to fall ill with Covid and as restaurants closed, many were unable to work. We were overwhelmed with people coming to Casa Juan Diego to ask for food. The undocumented community knew Casa Juan Diego and felt safe coming here for help. Instead of having people file through the main building to receive food, as we usually do, we had people line up in their cars so that we could load the groceries directly into them. Realizing that our usual Tuesday morning distribution was not enough, we made food available every day except Sunday. On other days people in need of food came to the door, where we had set up socially distanced tables between the Catholic Workers and the lines of people seeking assistance.

Even with these precautions, however, several of the Catholic Workers became ill. When the first one began to show symptoms of Covid, testing was not yet widely available. It seemed like just a cold. Later, when it was possible to get tested, the staff members who became ill quarantined in one of our small houses until they were better, and then returned to work.

We didn’t have enough space for all the food coming from the Houston Food Bank. My son, Joachim, and two other Catholic Workers, Will and Leonel, made a new plan for the entrance of our main building. They tore down a wall and had a contractor make new front doors where the pallets of food could enter more easily. We stopped receiving clothing donations and concentrated on preparing and distributing food.

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We could not discontinue our service to the sick and injured who cannot receive help from the government. For many years we have been caring for undocumented people with disabilities, at the request of Houston-area hospitals. But our medical-clinic services did undergo a big change: our clinics closed to the public. We could not have people crowded into our waiting rooms; consultations were done by phone, patients were given lab referrals, and refills were provided. People still came in to pick up their medications, which Casa Juan Diego pays for if they cannot. As soon as vaccines became available for health-care workers, Dr. John Butler, our medical director, made them available to us as a community clinic. Our medical and support staff quickly took advantage of this opportunity.

 

The big freeze that hit Texas this past Valentine’s Day took us by surprise. The state’s independent electrical grid failed. Our main houses did not lose power, but the smaller houses did. Several staff members had to move from one place to another. We took in men who had been living on the streets and passed out sleeping bags and blankets.

Fortunately, we had planned ahead for the emergencies that often happen in Houston during tropical storms or hurricanes. We had a backup water supply, so when the water pressure in the city became too low, we could carry water to drink or flush toilets. As our women guests helped carry buckets of water up the stairs, one remarked, “This is just the way we did it in Africa.” We lost plants in our garden, which usually provides good vegetables and fruit from our trees.

Anyone can start a Catholic Worker House. All you need to do is have a building, hang out your shingle, and begin.

When Hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated Honduras and Guatemala in November 2020, causing the loss of homes and livelihoods, Central Americans living in Houston came and asked us to help send assistance to their families. We began to give each family something to send their relatives, but soon had to stop: hundreds of people were forming lines at Casa Juan Diego begging for help. With our small staff and the already long lines of people coming here for food, we could not continue distributing remittances. But the Houston families who came here for their relatives, poor themselves, discovered our food distribution, which continued as before.

Many of the families trying to cross into the United States today had their lives destroyed by recent hurricanes in Central America. They represent a growing percentage of people around the world uprooted by natural disasters related to climate change. We agree with Pope Francis when he asks us to respond to this crisis: “This is the work the Lord asks now of us, and there is great joy in it.”

 

My late husband, Mark Zwick, used to say that anyone can start a Catholic Worker House. All you need to do is have a building, hang out your shingle, and begin. The challenge then is to live the Gospel, specifically the Works of Mercy described in Matthew 25. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin have shown us a way to live as personalists according to the radicalism of the Gospel. This way of life is an alternative to the prosperity gospel and all-consuming consumer culture of American capitalism; to militarism and xenophobia; and to the cruel scapegoating of immigrants and refugees.

Casa Juan Diego began in 1980, when refugees from the war in El Salvador began flowing across the border. Mark and I had lived in El Salvador in a poor area with our children a couple of years earlier. Mark rented what he called the ugliest building in Houston, opened a bank account, and got a post office box. We began to receive refugees and started the Houston Catholic Worker, a bilingual newspaper. Many of those who first arrived at the house were teenagers and had nowhere to go. Soon the house was filled. With the help of full-time Catholic Workers and volunteers from the Houston community, Casa Juan Diego has received countless people in the forty-one years since it opened.

From the beginning, we have prayed the Divine Office in the mornings and have celebrated weekly Mass. This sustains us as we confront the daily challenges of love in action, which can sometimes be a “harsh and dreadful thing,” as Dorothy Day said, quoting Dostoevsky.

There is a tendency among those unacquainted with immigrants or the poor to fear them—to see them as a threat—even as they suffer hunger and uprootedness from everything they know. To hear them disparaged or to know that people have harmed them makes us want to cry out with Léon Bloy:

Christ is at the center of all things, He takes all things upon Himself, He hears all things, He suffers all things. It is impossible to strike a human being without striking Him, to humiliate someone without humiliating Him, curse or kill anyone without cursing Him or killing Him, Himself.... I am in communion of impatience with all the mutinous, all the disillusioned, all those who have cried and not been heard, all the damned of the world.... I know all the reasonable things that virtuous people can say to each other to console themselves for the temporal damnation of three quarters of humanity (The Pilgrim of the Absolute).

At Casa Juan Diego, we always need more people to help us welcome the poor and the stranger. It helps if you speak Spanish or French. It is humble work and it can be hard, but a week, a month, or a year of volunteering can have an impact on many people. 

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Issue: 

Living Out Charism

 

Editors’ Note:  We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.

Pope Francis’s call for all of the baptized to be part of the upcoming synodal process has been inspiring to many Catholics, if frustrating for those who feel their bishops could be doing more to get things going. But in bringing forward the voices of the lay faithful, the Holy Spirit hasn’t waited for the hierarchy. The Church believes in this inspired renewal so deeply that it has extended specific recognition to the International Associations of the Faithful: “Even a cursory glance at the history of the Church reveals the magnitude of the work performed by these associations at crucial moments in its existence, and the wealth of charisms generated in all ages by lay movements created for the renewal of the Christian life.” The International Organization of Marianist Lay Communities is one such organization. 

I have never been a parish Catholic as an adult, although the local parish was where I seemed to spend most of my time until the age of eighteen. Living in Corpus Christi, Texas, we often attended daily Mass and first Friday Adoration, as well as Marian rosaries and special events. By the 1980s, I was well versed in the post–Vatican II Church and was even part of our diocesan Tercer Encuentro team (and at age ten, the only kid). In El Paso, where I spent summers before moving there when I was thirteen, I was influenced by a young and brilliant pastor at St. Pius X Catholic community named Arturo Bañuelas. When I spent time at my grandmother’s home and we couldn’t get to church, we’d watch a televised Mass from the cathedral in San Antonio, celebrated by Fr. Virgilio Elizondo. I would be greatly influenced by these founders of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS)—yet it wasn’t a Catholic Hispanic parish where the Holy Spirit led me.

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Instead, I found the Marianists. It began in my senior year of high school with a visit to the campus of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Within minutes, I knew that this place was calling me. A sophomore named Nancy took me under her wing, bought me lunch, and told me about the residence hall she lived in—a Christian Life Community (CLC) hall. When I returned that fall to begin my freshman year, I joined a CLC, and through weekly meetings grew to know Br. Roger Bau, our Marianist mentor. The following summer, I was asked to participate in a program called “Explore Marianist Life” with the Marianist Sisters. Their limitless energy was inspiring, but I did not have that vocation. Still, I had made friends with the sisters (some of whom are still part of my daily life), and between them, the CLC, and a group of lay Marianists, my Marianist world kept expanding. 

The original group of twelve members included a “maker of playing cards, teachers, students, shoemakers, hatters, and salesmen.”

Upon graduation, some of us started our own Marianist group, which we thought quite renegade. Little did we know that we were actually doing what lay people living the Marianist charism had been doing for some two hundred years. We were now part of the same tradition that had been gifted by the Holy Spirit in 1800 in Bordeaux, France. Known as the Bordeaux Sodality, this original group of twelve members included a “maker of playing cards, teachers, students, shoemakers, hatters, and salesmen.” Today, groups like these, living out that tradition, are gathered loosely within the International Organization of Marianist Lay Communities, whose “members strive to be strong in the faith and persevering in hope; to accept Mary as their Mother, model and teacher.” (In the United States, these groups are considered part of the Marianist Lay Communities of North America.) 

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The Marianist family has been a profound gift for me. I am a Catholic theologian with a contentious relationship to the hierarchy, but even on the days I question my spiritual ties to the Church, the Marianist charism has helped me find a place in Catholicism. The charism includes a concept known as “mixed composition,” which dates to the French Revolution, when the persecution and expulsion of priests required lay people to take the lead in Catholic communal life. Fundamental to the idea of mixed composition is that everyone has a place, and that everyone has gifts to bring. Thus, leadership is shared, and no individual member will always be in leadership or maintain complete power. This has allowed many different kinds of communities to form, with baptized and unbaptized coming together to speak with one another. Some might disagree, but I believe this flexibility allows people who have yet to meet all the stringent rules of Catholicism to explore being Church. 

The fluidity, smaller size, and highly relational aspects of Marianist lay communities can also help respond to needs more quickly than is possible under the slower moving diocesan model. The Marianist Social Justice Collaborative, which began in 1998 as a way to promote education and action for social justice within the Marianist Family, is one example; another is the Mission of Mary Cooperative, which advocates for and partners in sustainable urban development in Dayton, Ohio. Though these are more organized efforts, they nonetheless highlight the call of every Marianist lay community to be in permanent mission with both gathered and sent. While I will probably continue to question my relationship with the institutional Church, I know that with Mary as a model, the Marianist family will continue to listen to the needs of the world and its people.

Related:

Issue: 

The Pope, the President, and Paige

I confess I was relieved to see “Satchel Paige” and not “Eucharist” trending on Twitter following President Biden’s visit with Pope Francis. On a video feed released by the Vatican, Biden regales Francis with a story about the great pitcher, for whom Biden seems to have a special fondness (Paige’s 1953 Topps baseball card is among the framed photos on the table behind the “Resolute desk” in the Oval Office). In April, Tom Shieber, senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a leading researcher with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) tweeted, “Biden likes to tell a story about baseball pitching great Satchel Paige’s attitude towards age, ending with the quote, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’” This was the same story he shared with the 2020 World Series–winning Los Angeles Dodgers during their July 2021 visit to the White House, and three months later with his friend the pope. Biden’s affinity for Paige was also noted by Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Interviewed on Black News Channel after Biden’s Vatican visit, Kendrick was overjoyed that Biden had recognized Paige in this global venue and imparted this particular “Satchelism,” but he was even more impressed that “the pope got it!”

Lost in threads of contested interpretations on social media was the fact that Biden was speaking to Pope Francis in one of their common languages: sport. This was no jumbled word salad, as some Biden-baiters charged. Rather, the story the president told tapped into many of Francis’s favorite themes, from the importance of the dreams of elders to the role of sport as a catalyst for social change.

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Watch Francis as he leans in and listens intently to Biden’s recounting. His posture reflects his counsel in the 2019 post-synodal exhortation, Christus vivit, that “these stories take time to tell, and we should be prepared to listen patiently and let them sink in, even though they are much longer than what we are used to in social media.” For Francis, the dreams and stories of elders are necessary for building a better future. He grounds this belief in his oft-cited mantra from the prophet Joel (2:28), an affirmation that with the outpouring of the spirit our elders shall dream dreams and our young shall see visions. So he calls elders, himself included, to be “memory keepers” because “dreams are intertwined with memory.” Even painful memories serve envisioning because they “show that it is possible to emerge renewed from an experience of hardship.” In his preface to the book Sharing the Wisdom of Time, Francis affirms the value of intergenerational interdependence: “Without the witness of their elders’ lives, the plans of young people will have neither roots nor wisdom.”

To tell a story about Paige is to tell of all those made old before their time because of acts of exclusion.

Satchel Paige was old in baseball years, and as a pitcher his arm should really have been past its prime. In his 1962 autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, he noted that when he signed with the Cleveland Indians, after an accomplished career in the Negro Leagues, some said he was “forty-two going on forty-nine.” In 1948, he became the first African American to pitch a Major League Baseball game, the oldest “rookie” and a key contributor to Cleveland winning their last World Series.

The toll of racism and exclusion from pursuing his dreams as a gifted athlete undoubtedly aged Paige beyond his years. The poignancy behind the story that Biden passed on comes through in the autobiography. Paige writes,

For a guy who’d been around as long as me, making the majors was a big thing. It meant I’d done what death had kept Josh Gibson from doing and what age’d kept a bunch of others from doing…. The guy who couldn’t get into the major leagues for twenty-two years of Jim Crow was in the majors.

In part it was age that prevented established Negro Leagues stars like the catcher Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige from being the first players signed to Major League contracts, a distinction that went to the younger Jackie Robinson. (Gibson died at the age of thirty-five, four months before Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947.) But Major League Baseball’s gradualist policy of limiting the simultaneous signings of African American and Afro-Latino pioneers just to assuage white sensibilities also played a role.

To tell a story about Paige is to tell of all those made old before their time because of acts of exclusion. It is an indictment, in this case, of the structural and systemic racism that denied Paige and too many others their dreams. To raise up the witness of Satchel Paige is to invoke memories of resistance, resilience, and wisdom born of struggle, an act of memory-keeping necessary to fuel visions for building a better day.

While the pope’s dialect reveals a fluency in soccer/fútbol, there’s no mistaking his understanding of sports as a vernacular to create spaces of encounter, narrate the struggles for inclusion, foster solidarity, and inspire practices for dialogue and living together justly. A story passed between elders that transcended regional dialects and ignited, on social media, a further sharing of the legacy of Satchel Paige, transmitted a memory of an elder who continues to motivate the ongoing work of racial justice. Following the encounter between pope and president, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum tweeted, “You know who’s trending today? @Pontifex, @nlbmprez, and @POTUS. All about one guy named Satchel Paige. Pope Francis, you have a standing invitation to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. What a day for America’s pastime.” What a day indeed! As the World Series played out between Houston and Atlanta, Pope Francis was invited back to the United States to visit Kansas City, Missouri, and engage in yet another conversation in his beloved language of sport.

Issue: 

Embracing Uncertainty

 

Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.

“To tell you the truth, the parish was nearly moribund when we first arrived,” admitted Abbot Joel Garner, OPraem, head of the Norbertine community of Santa Maria de la Vid in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We had left the abbey grounds to visit Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, a working-class parish in the city’s predominately Hispanic West Mesa neighborhood. The drive wasn’t exactly scenic. Cruising north along busy Coors Boulevard, we passed a seemingly endless strip of trailer parks, tire shops, and big-box stores.

We crossed historic Route 66, then pulled into the church parking lot. Abbot Joel’s energy belies his eighty-some years. Back in 1985, he was one of five Norbertines sent from St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin, near Green Bay, to begin a new foundation in New Mexico. The goal was to serve the growing number of Hispanic Catholics in the United States and, eventually, to attract New Mexican vocations. Albuquerque, a mid-sized city with a large Catholic population and natural beauty, seemed like an ideal fit for their vita mixta of active ministry and contemplative retreat.  

“Things were pretty rough at first,” Abbot Joel recalled. “We lost two guys to illness early on. Then two others left.” We were walking across a small plaza in front of the church, centered around a stone fountain hewn from a fossilized tree. “But the people embraced us, that’s what kept us going.” As we entered the church, with its bright adobe baptismal font, soaring wooden ceiling, and tiers of semicircular pews surrounded by hand-carved statues, each the work of a local santero, I found it hard to believe the place had ever struggled. I asked how such renewal had come about. Abbot Joel said that Small Church Communities, a program inspired by the Latin American comunidades de base formed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, had been crucial. Members meet weekly to pray over the readings for the following Sunday; their small size fosters a level of intimacy and accompaniment that simply isn’t possible in the context of the wider Sunday assembly. “But most important,” Abbot Joel insisted, “were the changes we made to the liturgy: music at all seven Masses, with the full and active participation of lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, and ushers, all from the community.”   

As we made our way back to Santa Maria de la Vid, Abbot Joel explained how Holy Rosary’s transformation also included the growth of the RCIA and adult-education programs: “People got used to seeing and being around each other; they also began experiencing their faith differently, learning about it and taking ownership of it. They trusted us, and each other; it gave them the confidence to take the lead.”

It also gave the Norbertines the assurance that they could step back. Last summer, they made the decision to cease serving as pastors at Holy Rosary; the abbey’s numbers are too small to sustain such a demanding ministry. Abbot Joel is unperturbed, though: “The parish is a healthy community. They’ll be fine without us!”

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Back at the abbey grounds—seventy acres of natural high desert, with dramatic views of downtown Albuquerque and the jagged peaks of the Sandia Mountains beyond—we pulled up next to Santa Maria de la Vid’s next project. Right now, it’s just a deep hole in the sand, filled with plastic pipes and electrical wiring. But come 2022, it will be home to a new spirituality center, complete with private hermitages, additional retreat rooms, and conference space. It will also be, after several recent closures, the only retreat center in the entire Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The Norbertines view it as a sign of hope, and a vote of confidence in their future.

 

For Norbertines the spiritual fruits of communio are more important: being of “one heart and one mind.”

There are currently just four Norbertine abbeys in the United States, home to almost two hundred “canons regular.” Spend time at any one of them, and you’re likely to hear the word communio, something Abbot Joel regards as Santa Maria de la Vid’s primary ministry. The term, which translates to “community,” “communion,” or even “fellowship,” denotes a form of religious life inspired by the early Church, in particular the Jerusalem community as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Santa Maria de la Vid’s Book of Customs specifies that members are to cultivate “simplicity of life,” limiting themselves, for example, to buying only used cars and not owning individual televisions. But for Norbertines the spiritual fruits of communio are more important: being of “one heart and one mind,” as their Rule of St. Augustine puts it.

Abbot Joel has a simple threefold recipe for achieving such unity at Santa Maria de la Vid: “Common prayer, common Eucharist, and common table.” In practice, that means the community gathers twice per day: once in the morning, to chant morning prayer and celebrate Mass (on Mondays it’s in Spanish), and once in the evening, to sing vespers and eat dinner. In between, community members attend to their various ministries, selected to be within easy commuting distance to prioritize and preserve communio.

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It’s arguably been that way since 1121, when St. Norbert of Xanten, following a dramatic conversion and a stint as a Wanderprediger preaching poverty and repentance across his native Germany, selected Prémontré, in the dense forests of northern France, as the site for a new religious foundation. The secluded setting was conducive to prayer and fostered an austere common life. (Norbert’s first followers, a group that included both men and women, likely lived in primitive wooden huts.) But it was also located near a major travel artery—a trade route connecting Paris to Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands—which in turn facilitated quick access to lay audiences for preaching, and a path for rapid expansion.

Founded for no particular ministry by a saint whose only consistency was constant change, the Norbertines are unique in the history of medieval religious orders. Scholars liken them to a bridge between preceding monastic movements, such as the Camaldolese, Cistercians, and Carthusians, and the mendicant orders that followed, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. Their nine-hundred-year-old tradition has accordingly featured considerable variety. Medieval Prémontré may well have been spartan, but later Norbertines built some of the grandest abbeys in Europe: Strahov, with its frescoed Baroque library, still towers over Prague, while Berne, on the banks of the River Maas, remains the oldest extant religious community in the Netherlands.

Santa Maria de la Vid is far more modest. Even so, its architecture communicates the Norbertine values of learning, stewardship, and prayer that have kept the order intact even after centuries of suppression, contraction, and dispersal. The Norbertine Library, dedicated in 2008, contains more than twenty thousand volumes, making it the largest theology collection in New Mexico, and a major resource for retreatants, the scholarly community, and students enrolled in the Master of Theological Studies program, held in conjunction with St. Norbert College in De Pere (the only Norbertine institution of higher education in the world). Public events and other large gatherings take place in Our Lady of Guadalupe Commons, adjacent to the recently completed Pope Francis Solar Field, an array of panels—erected in response to Laudato si’s call to care for creation—that generates some of the community’s electricity, as well as some extra income.

Norbertine community chanting Vespers (Joseph Sandoval).

The Abbey Church, designed in the mid-1990s by Robert Habiger with input from Abbot Joel and the Santa Maria de la Vid community, is a small masterpiece. There’s no nave, but rather a circular worship space enclosed by polished wooden arches draped with curving pastel fabrics. Natural light pours in through grids of small yellow, blue, and rose-colored glass squares set within concrete exterior walls. Habiger told me it’s supposed to feel like a “church within a church,” intentionally connecting the community and visitors to the indigenous and Catholic communities that have worshiped on the abbey grounds for centuries. The circle recalls the traditional indigenous kiva, marking the threshold between the material and spiritual worlds, while the arches celebrate the evolution of Catholic architecture over the centuries. “The building materials are significant, too,” Habiger said. “They’re ordinary, and inexpensive; but together they create something extraordinary.”

Something similar could be said for the Norbertines of Santa Maria de la Vid themselves. Not only is Santa Maria de la Vid the smallest Norbertine abbey in the United States, it’s also the youngest, elevated to abbatial status—meaning it’s no longer a “priory,” which depends on a motherhouse, but a self-sufficient community with financial independence and institutional autonomy—by the worldwide Order of Premonstratensians in 2012. (The whole order is celebrating its nine hundredth anniversary this year.) There are just eleven members in the community: seven solemnly professed, four at various stages of formation. They come from a variety of backgrounds. The “old guard,” including Abbot Joel, is from Wisconsin (pillows and blankets stamped with the Green Bay Packers logo fill the community TV room). The others, middle-aged, come from Kerala, India, as well as Michigan, Massachusetts, California, and New York. The four in formation, all in their twenties, are from New Mexico, Kansas, and Nigeria.

For a group of its size, Santa Maria de la Vid has a remarkable impact on the community beyond its walls. In fact, the Norbertines will soon be one of only two male religious orders still serving in the Santa Fe archdiocese. (The Dominicans and the Jesuits, who had been there for nearly two hundred years, recently left; only the Franciscans remain.) Parish ministry, especially in communities of color, remains important: the Norbertines serve as pastors at two nearby churches. The first, St. Augustine, stands on the indigenous reservation of Isleta Pueblo, which was founded by Spanish missionaries in the early 1600s; it’s one of the oldest parishes still operating in the United States, and its parish council is largely run by women. The second, St. Edwin, is situated on eleven acres in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood in Albuquerque; it’s undergoing extensive renovations and now boasts an outdoor amphitheater, a sports field, and a working farm complete with beehives and a herd of goats.

Other members of Santa Maria de la Vid are engaged in different forms of social work. Br. James Owens, a deacon and a lawyer, is involved in homeless advocacy and fundraising. He also works with Catholic Charities, regularly taking on immigration cases pro bono. But he prefers working in family law, especially divorces: “That’s where you get to do the most spiritual accompaniment.”

Fr. Robert Campbell, the abbey’s prior and director of formation, is chaplain at Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital. He’s spent much of the past year and a half administering last rites to patients dying of COVID-19. I wondered how he maintains spiritual and emotional equilibrium in the face of so much suffering. “I exercise, I have hobbies—like cooking, or model rocketry,” he said with a wry smile. But then he grew serious: “My job, in the hospital and at the abbey, isn’t to render judgment. It’s to help people have an authentic experience of God. And not just ‘good’ Catholics—we welcome everyone.”

 

Fr. Graham’s most important legacy was his work to transform Santa Maria de la Vid from a Norbertine abbey in New Mexico to one of New Mexico.

Continuing to welcome others, of course, depends on a steady stream of vocations, something the abbey has admittedly struggled with in recent years. And apart from the general decline in candidates for religious life, Santa Maria de la Vid was dealt an unexpected blow in late May, when Fr. Graham Golden, the community’s director of vocations, was killed in an automobile accident just outside the abbey grounds.

Ordained in 2015 and just thirty-five at the time of his death, Fr. Graham was described in an obituary written by Abbot Joel as “an extraordinarily dedicated, talented, and intelligent young priest.” That may be an understatement: in addition to serving as director of formation and vocations at Santa Maria de la Vid, Fr. Graham was also a pastor at St. Augustine, regional council coordinator for the Catholic Foundation in northern New Mexico, organizer of the annual archdiocesan pilgrimage for vocations, and founder of the annual Art at the Abbey exhibition. His death was a loss not just for his confreres at Santa Maria de la Vid, but also for the entire Catholic community of greater Albuquerque.

“We’re grieving, for sure,” Br. James Owens told me. “But it’s kind of a joyful mourning; we’ve had to come together to take up the work Graham left behind.” Indeed, memories of Fr. Graham surfaced regularly in my interviews and conversations with Norbertines and lay people alike. (I’d met him briefly at a pilgrimage to the border in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, and was struck at the time by his charisma and spiritual depth.) All seemed to agree that Fr. Graham’s most important legacy was his work to transform Santa Maria de la Vid from a Norbertine abbey in New Mexico to one of New Mexico—in other words, a community that more closely resembles the largely Hispanic population of Albuquerque.

The young men whose vocations Fr. Graham helped nurture bring a markedly different consciousness and sensibility to the abbey, especially concerning culture and race. One of the most outspoken is Br. Alexis Longoria, a second-year novice currently pursuing master’s degrees in social work and theology. His studies and life experience have given him a skepticism of fixed social, racial, and geographic categories. “I grew up as a child preacher in the borderlands,” he told me. “My parents are from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, but I was born in El Paso, Texas. So am I Mexican, or American?” Alexis began discerning religious life in high school after he converted to Catholicism. Fr. Graham and Santa Maria de la Vid seemed welcoming and down to earth; Albuquerque, close to the border and home to sizable Hispanic and indigenous communities, was also attractive. “But there’s racism here in New Mexico, too. Like the myth that Hispanics here are descended from Golden Age Spain—that’s just another way of assimilating whiteness.”

When I asked Br. Alexis about the state of race relations at the abbey today, he was blunt. “Our community has work to do; in a lot of ways, we need to be challenged.” I asked him what that looks like for him. “Systems of racism, white supremacy, privilege, they’ve all been built up over hundreds of years,” he said. “You can’t just tear them down or demolish them overnight. You can only chip away, a moment at a time.”

The Norbertine community has been open to hearing critiques like those made by Br. Alexis, and takes the call to dismantle exclusionary structures seriously. One of the most innovative initiatives at Santa Maria de la Vid is its oblates program, which enables lay men and women to “enter into a covenant of mutual communion” with the abbey through formal promises that mirror religious vows, permitting them to live the Norbertine charism of communio according to their situations in life. There are currently three oblates, two women and one man, all of whom have undergone a rigorous process of formation, wear a modified Norbertine habit on abbey grounds, and share in the community’s common life, especially prayer. Louise Nielsen—married, a mother, and pastoral associate at Holy Rosary—was the first oblate at Santa Maria de la Vid. She told me that despite the sexism and diffidence she sometimes encounters in the Church, being an oblate gives her the opportunity to push for change and help ensure that women’s voices are heard. Christina Spahn, a former nun and now a celibate Norbertine oblate, agreed. “For many, it can be jarring to see women in a habit chanting right alongside the men during prayer. But this community has always backed us up.”

 

Abbey Church of Santa Maria de la Vid (Jennifer Mucher)

In an address to the Latin American Confederation of Religious (CLAR) this past August, Pope Francis warned religious communities to avoid the “temptation to survival.” Fretting over “numbers” and “efficiency,” or harboring “soul-killing nostalgia” for prior forms of piety and devotion, the pope went on, spells the “siren song of religious life.”

It’s not hard to see what Francis is talking about. There exists, especially in some conservative quarters of the United States (and in the Norbertine Order itself), the conviction that the vocation crisis can only be solved by a rigid, unapologetic return to the traditional trappings of religious life—habits, elevated liturgy, and the like. Afflicted by the economic anxieties and cultural fluidity of modernity, so the argument goes, young people are longing for structure, order, and certainty, and the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council have fatally weakened the once-great tradition of religious life in the Church. Francis believes this is exactly the wrong posture. The way forward for religious communities, especially ones with increasingly smaller numbers, is to adopt a flexible style of living and working that is at once “intercultural, inter-congregational, and itinerant.” In other words, in keeping with the council’s call to ressourcement, it means returning to the primitive origins of religious life itself. “To be with Jesus is to be joyful,” Francis added. “It has the capacity to give holiness a sense of humor.”

Abbot Joel, who’s seen his share of change in the Church, seems to embody exactly what Francis is talking about. He became a Norbertine in 1957, at a time when many abbeys were “total institutions”—elaborate, self-enclosed campuses that had relatively little contact with the world around them. Prayer and Mass were, of course, in Latin, and there was little room for flexibility or innovation in ministry. “But the council brought us new energy and creativity, and gave us room to experiment.” That didn’t mean that new initiatives were always successful. For example, in an effort to serve African-American Catholics, the Norbertines opened St. Moses the Black Priory near Jackson, Mississippi, intending—as at Santa Maria de la Vid—for it to become an abbey. It failed to attract enough vocations, and has since closed. “But what the changes did mean,” Abbot Joel said, “was that we Norbertines could be more free to embrace uncertainty, and to rely more closely on God.”

At its heart, that’s what the Norbertine tradition—and, for that matter, the entire Catholic mystical tradition—has always been about. Few Norbertines at Santa Maria de la Vid knew this as well as Fr. Francis Dorff, OPraem, who died in 2017, yet remains an important spiritual presence at the abbey. Originally from South Philadelphia, Fr. Dorff entered Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pennsylvania, then studied in Rome and Paris. (In his autobiography, The Spiritual Journey of a Misfit, he recounts his displeasure at having to ask the local bishop for permission to walk around the city without his habit.) He transferred to Santa Maria de la Vid in the 1990s, and lived the rest of his life in a small hermitage on the abbey grounds, spending his time writing, leading retreats, and working with abusive priests in recovery.  

One of Fr. Dorff’s passions was meditative journaling, in which the writer “lets go” of ego and listens for the unconscious mind. During one of his sessions, he “heard” and wrote down a story that would come to be known as “The Rabbi’s Gift.” It’s since been widely anthologized in collections of Catholic spiritual writing, and appears in Santa Maria de la Vid’s Book of Customs as the “Community Story.” There are now many versions—including a series of paintings on permanent display in the Norbertine Library.

It goes something like this: a group of aging monks in a once-flourishing monastery on the verge of closing are afflicted by sadness; their only source of hope is a solitary rabbi who lives in the woods nearby. One day, the abbot goes out to meet the rabbi, who receives the abbot with an embrace. Together, they converse, then weep over an open Bible in the rabbi’s hut. Before the abbot leaves, the rabbi tells him that “the Messiah is among you.” Back at the monastery, the monks misinterpret the message: they think it means that one of them is in fact Christ. They begin to act as if that’s true, treating each other as Christ, and before long, a spirit of levity and joy returns to the monastery, which begins to attract new vocations. 

As it happened, my lodging during my week at Santa Maria de la Vid was in Fr. Dorff’s old hermitage. On one of my last nights at the abbey, I made my way over to the church about ten minutes early. I was intending to sit for a while and meditate in silence before evening prayer began. As I arrived near the entrance, I saw Fr. Geno Gries standing next to a large bell nearby. There was a slight breeze, and his white habit, flapping a little, looked almost gold in the setting sun. He had a wide grin on his face, and a large sledgehammer in his hand.

My first thought was that it had something to do with construction on the new spiritual center, and I wondered why he wasn’t wearing a vest or hard hat. But that didn’t make sense—Fr. Geno, who, like Abbot Joel, is in his eighties, had told me earlier during the week that his life was in the process of “winding down,” and that his primary ministry was spiritual direction. I asked him what he was doing. “Oh! I ring the bell for evening prayer when it’s my turn to lead it,” he said, booming with laughter. “I guess we still do some things the traditional way!”

Fr. Geno lifted the sledgehammer and began striking the bell rhythmically, pausing a few seconds between each blow. The sound didn’t travel far—in fact it was the first time I’d noticed the bell all week. Certainly it died before reaching Coors Boulevard, with its rushing traffic. But I’d heard it, and the community had as well. It kept ringing as I took my seat in church, opened my psalter, and watched the other Norbertines arrive for evening prayer.

 

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