Almost everyday for much of my life I’ve had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my lunch. It’s a taste I acquired in elementary school at St. Pius X in Delevan, New York. Back then the bread was white and the jelly was almost always grape. Later in life while working at Franklinville Central School my coworkers marvelled at the lack of diversity in my lunch choices. While they enjoyed ham and cheese, egg salad and other choices I had PB&J. The choice of bread varied and the brand varied from time to time but my favorite brand since childhood has remained Monks Bread. Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York is about an hour’s drive from where i live and when we are no longer social distancing it will be one of my first visits. The Abbey was established in 1951 and one of the early Trappist brothers was a former US Navy baker. He began making bread for the community and in time they decided to marked the bread to stores in the area. As a boy I remember they had three flavors. White, wheat and cinnamon raisin.
My first visit to the monastery was in January 1979 and I’ve been returning ever since. My last visit was March 9 of this year. Today I ordered three loaves of Monks bread for my lunch meals. My favorite is sunflower but I also like multigrain and wheat. The monks make a number of other flavors and in recent years have begun to make biscotti in a number of different flavors. My favorite biscotti is dark chocolate. Though I cannot go there whenever I open the package of bread for lunch the aroma reminds me of the monastery and its prayerful presence. If you’ve never been there I encourage you to visit when its okay to visit people again. You won’t be disappointed.
Yesterday as I approached Abbey of the Genesee on River Road three deer sprang from the meadow to my right and and crossed the road heading west. I slowed to nearly a stop and I thought of the passage from Psalm 42.
As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God
Indeed my soul does long for God and I know that is why I visit this abbey so often. As I arrived in the Abbey parking lot and was getting parked I noted three robins. Robins are usually harbingers of spring. It was only Groundhogs day, could spring be that close behind. I don’t know about when spring will come, but I do know I was delighted to see them. I noticed that two deer were grazing right in front of the Abbey Chapel. They were beautiful and I know they have no fear of men and women here because they know they are safe. I walked slowly to the chapel hoping not to frighten them and to enjoy their presence. I told them I loved them and I do. I continued on into the Abbey and made my way to the chapel where Vespers had just begun. Three deer and then three robins, gentle reminders of the Trinity and of the Incarnation itself.
I”ve been very busy in the last couple of weeks and haven’t really felt inspired to write here. I’m learning a lot more about Drupal, an open source content management system that I began using almost two years ago. The learning curve is fairly steep with Drupal, but now I’m beginning to get it as I’ve built a half dozen or so Drupal powered sites. I’ve enjoyed this time of learning and I’m looking forward to a new business venture with my son. It was his idea and perhaps I’ll write more about it in the days and weeks to come.
A good friend died in the last week. He had been sick for a long time. Frank Geaben was one helluva man. He touched my life in so many ways and had keen insight that he often shared with me. It troubled me that I was not able to see Frank in his final days as he really didn’t want any visitors. I will never forget the impact he had on my life.
I’m troubled too by the situation in Gaza. It’s yet one more example of the utter failure of the war on terror. War only begets war and whatever Israel hopes to gain by attacking Hamas in Gaza will result in no gain. More terrorists will be created. If only Israel would follow the wisdom of its great prophets, much of this could have been averted. Their zeal has blinded them to the truth. My sister visited that area a couple of years ago with a group of American nuns. She returned with stories of how the Palestinians that she saw were treated like dogs. My sister is not a politician nor an activist. She was with the nuns on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
I’m also happy that our children have been home for the holidays recently. It’s nice to hear their voices around the home. Tomorrow they’ll be heading for their respective homes and getting ready for the work week. Our daughter, Dara, will be off to student teaching and her last semester as an undergraduate at SUNY Fredonia. I’m very proud of her efforts. She finished last semester with a 4.0 GPA and completed 21 credit hours. She’ll graduate in May with a 3.97 GPA. I told her I was going to paint that on the roof of our home.
Our son, Devin will be returning to the Rochester, New York area and his work. He’s survived in a very tough economic climate as a salesman for a radio station. I’m praying that our business venture can help him this year. Tomorrow will be bittersweet as we bid them goodbye. They’ve both grown to be fine young adults.
I hope to get to Mass at Mt. Irenaeus in the morning and then a trip to Abbey of the Genesee later. I’m running out of Monks Brownies. Thank God for the Friars and the Monks.
Yesterday I had to run a couple of errands. I left home around 11AM and drove to my mother’s in Arcade, New York. Mom’s computer needed to be rebuilt last week. Mom’s rebuilt computer is running Ubuntu 8.10. Mom’s been using Ubuntu Linux for a couple of years now and its been a good fit for her. The simple interface, one-click access to electronic mail and no time wasted scanning for viruses and spyware. Along with Mom’s computer I had the computer of another customer, whose Windows XP system had to be rebuilt because spyware had done it in. After reinstalling all the applications and installing the computer in the customers home they elected to pay me more than I had billed them for. What a nice surprise.
I climbed into my car and drove to the local McDonalds for a cheeseburger. I love cheeseburgers and french fries. I don’t get them as often as I did thirty years ago, but I stilll enjoy them. It was only 3PM and how was I going to spend the rest of my day. I turned my car east on Route 39 and drove to my Abbey of the Genesee. It had been nearly a month since my last visit. When I got to the Abbey I was tired and elected to take a nap in my car before venturing inside. The lot was full of cars. I’d never seen so many cars there. I awoke from my nap just as Mass was ending, but I did stay for Vespers and a time of quiet on my own in the chapel. I spent some time in the bread store and picked up a couple of Monks Brownies along with a small book.
As I emerged from the abbey I looked through the mist toward the State University of New York at Geneseo. I stood silently looking at the distant campus and at the statue of the Our Lady of the Genesee just a few yards from me. It was good to be home again. I’ve come here often in the past thirty years. Where have those years gone? When I look at the monks I think, what did they look like in 1978? Were they here? Some of them must have been. We’ve grown old together.
About 5:15 pm I decided I’d drive the 52 miles north from my home to Abbey of the Genesee for Compline and a chance for some goodies from the bake shop. I climbed in the car and sped along the roadways until I arrived about ten minutes early for the final prayer of the Monk’s day. Compline is my favorite prayer time and it always features Psalms 4, 91 and 134.
You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, Nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon.Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, near you it shall not come.You need simply watch; the punishment of the wicked you will see. You have the Lord for your refuge; you have made the Most High your stronghold.
Thursday morning I was driving north on Route 63 towards the hamlet of Piffard, New York on my way to visit Abbey of the Genesee. As I scanned the sky ahead of me I noted a familiar silhouette. Perhaps a mile in the distance and just north of the roadway a large aircraft was entering the traffic pattern for Geneseo Airport. The silhouette looked like a Boeing B-17. I immediately pulled off on the shoulder of the highway and followed her as she sailed along just above the treetops. As she turned base I knew this was a Flying Fortress. I turned my car around and began to drive south of Route 63 toward the aerodrome. I looked left and there she was on final moving from my left to the right. I stopped and watched as this big bird thundered through the air and crossed the roadway.
For a brief moment I thought of England and 1943 when sights like this were common in the countryside. I drove quickly up the road to the airfield. My car kicked up a plume of dust as a I sped toward the field. Ahead of me I could see that the war bird had just landed and was taxiing toward the ramp. I pulled into the parking lot and got out of my car. I walked quickly toward her as she taxied closer. My flesh was covered in goose bumps and emotion overcame me as I saw her. I thought of the thousands of airmen who had flown in these Flying Fortresses in World War II. I remembered seeing a plane like this one up close. I remember touring one with my son at this museum.
Yesterday was even more special because as I got closer and her pilots got her parked and stopped the roar of the huge engines, I learned that I was looking at the Memphis Belle. Yes, this is the same plane featured in the movie and it had just arrived from an airfield at Farmington on Long Island. I asked her crew how much fuel she burned and they told me 300 gallons in the first hour and 200 gallons thereafter. I learned that their flight to Geneseo from Long Island had taken 90 minutes. At $6.65 per gallon for AvGas on Long Island that’s expensive.
I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude…Everything that touches you shall burn you, and you will draw your hand in pain, until you have withdrawn yourself from all things…Do not ask when it will be or where it will be or how it will be: On a mountain or in a prison, in a desert or in a concentration camp, or in a hospital or at Gethsemani. It does not matter. So do not ask me, because I am not going to tell you. You will not know until you are in it. But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My Mercy which has created you for this end…That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.–Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain
These words mean more to me today than they did when I first read them twenty-nine years ago. In a few days on the Feast of the Epiphany I will mark an anniversary of another sort. It was the time of my first visit to Piffard, New York and the Abbey of the Genesee. Often I have pondered these words and over the years their meaning has changed, but they continue to animate my life and I’m grateful to Thomas Merton, the Trappist monks of Genesee Abbey and the breath that leads me forward.