So begins the vigil service on Holy Saturday in most Roman Catholic churches. For most of the last twenty years I have joined dozens of others at Mount Irenaeus for the Easter Vigil service. It is one of my favorite liturgies in the church year. It is full of readings that remind of the creation story. One of those reading is from Genesis.
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss,
while a mighty wind swept over the waters.Then God said,
“Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw how good the light was.
God then separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
Thus evening came, and morning followed—the first day.
This year will be different and I’ll miss the liturgy and the fellowship afterward over hot cocoa and lots of other goodies at the House of Peace. There are memories and I am grateful to be in good health in the midst of this pandemic.
Tonight as I finished my walk I turned to take a picture of the setting sun and was rewarded with a beautiful image.
The last couple of years I have been privileged to spend the Triduum at Mt. Irenaeus living in community with the Friars and other guests as we celebrated the liturgy together. This year that will not be possible and that’s weighed on me. I will miss that very much. This morning I got an email message from Fr. Dan Riley, OFM who is the founder of the Franciscan Mountain Retreat and a good friend. Like everyone else Dan’s concern is for those who are working on the front lines, for those suffering, dying, losing loved ones and everything else that goes with this. This week is celebration of the passion like none in recent memory. I have spent more time praying this month than any month in recent memory. Sometimes I despair and wonder if my prayers benefit anyone or anything. Then I hear of advances and answers to prayers for others and I think maybe they are. I hope you enjoy Fr. Dan’s reflection.
I’ve been reading John Pavlovitz’ book, “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community.” It’s a breath of fresh air and reminds me of my own experience at Mt. Irenaeus twenty years ago. In late 1999 and early 2000 I was looking for an authentic community of believers. I’d recently been involved with youth ministry on our school campus. I liked the folks but it was an inauthentic experience for me. All of my life I’ve been deeply religious but profane too. I was trying hard to fit in with the church folks who wouldn’t say shit if they had a mouthful of it. I had spent most of my life around people for whom profanity was second nature. Most of them were deeply spiritual folks but there was always this tension to remain pious in the presence of the people at church.
In February of 2000 I followed the advice of a friend and went to Mass at Mt. Irenaeus is nearby West Clarksville. My wife and I showed up dressed for church. Wingtips for me and low heels for her. When we got there we found folks dressed in blue jeans and walking barefoot in the chapel. I returned the following week and stayed for brunch and kept returning Sunday after Sunday. One day I volunteered to help one of the friars work on the property. While we were working he accidentally hit his hand with a hammer and said, “Son of bitch.” I thought to myself, “these are my people.” Indeed over the years since then the Friars were real and they showed me that holiness comes from being wholly myself.
Tonight while reading John Pavlovitz’ book I came across this passage and it resonated. I’ve thought for many years now that Jesus of Nazareth was at home with folks like me. He was shunned by the religious people who were scandalized that he dined with prostitutes and tax collectors.
“At North Raleigh Community Church, where I’ve made my home and ministered for the past three years, we cuss a lot: in small groups, in casual conversation, even from the pulpit (well, it’s actually a podium, but you get the idea). When I initially arrived, this was all a little disorienting to me, not because the words weren’t part of my daily vernacular or because they offended my tender sensibilities, but because I knew better than to admit that I ever said such words or to utter them in mixed religious company. During our first Sunday visit, the pastor dropped an expletive during his message, and I nearly soiled myself. People laughed heartily, but no one seemed particularly surprised and no one walked out. I figured it was an accidental oversight—that is, until the next week. More expletives. I remember thinking, “This is brilliant. He’s set the table for us all. He’s letting us know that we all can be real here, that we are all in this together, and so we can let our guard down and be exactly who we are without pretense. We can be completely effing honest—and it’s OK.””
It’s Sunday night and we’ve just finished dinner. The sun is beginning to set in the west. It was a beautiful day despite the pandemic and fear that grips the world around us. I’m listening to Taize. If you’re not familiar Taize is a Christian ecumenical community founded in France in 1940 during the second world war. I never experienced it until I began to attend liturgies at Mount Irenaeus twenty years ago. I came to the Mountain as we call it searching for a deeper experience of God. I found it there and along with it the understanding that I’m a contemplative. From the time I was quite young I was attracted to this quiet experience of the almighty. Traditional church services always left me cold. But at the Mountain I found a community of believers who were drawn to a deeper mystical experience of creation.
One of my favorite Taize prayers is Laudate Dominum which is drawn from the Psalm 117. “Laudate omnes gentes, laudate Dominum.” Translated that is, “Sing praises, all you peoples, sing praises to the Lord.” The Franciscans of Mount Irenaeus found it unnecessary to define what the Lord is for me or for anyone else. They are Roman Catholic friars but realize that each of us senses the spark of the divine differently. That’s very Franciscan.
By God’s power, presence, and essence, God is the One whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. God exists uncircumscribed in everything. God is, therefore, all inclusive. God is the essence of everything. God is most perfect and immense: within all things, but not enclosed; outside all things, but not excluded; above all things, but not aloof; below all things, but not debased. Finally, therefore, this God is all in all…. Consequently, from him, through him and in him, all things exist.”
— St. Bonaventure
As the evening descends on this day may you enjoy the peace that surpasses all understanding while listening to this selection from Taize.
It is no mistake that Easter occurs in the spring and some years like this one it is later than others. This afternoon after lunch I took a walk in the woods here at Mount Irenaeus. All along the trail as I walked slowly through the wood were signs of the earth coming to life after months of slumber during the winter. I marveled at the incredible forces that we lovingly call nature and how this delicate dance plays out each year as the suns warms the earth to just the right temperature. Suddenly flowers appear where only days before were leaves pressed to the forest floor from months of snow and rain. Easter is a time when we celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It has been over 2000 years since the historical Jesus was arrested, crucified, buried and resurrected. No matter whether you are a follower of Christ or not there is no doubt that each year the earth enters a period of arrest in late fall, is entombed through the winter and rises again in the spring. This new life which comes from the death of the old demonstrates that death is a part of life. Each spring the earth rises from the dead as it were. The flowers along the trail, the chipmunks and robins scurrying and flying about are cause for rejoicing. Hallelujah! The earth is risen!
Today is the Feast of All Saints and it was a beautiful feast at that. The sun shone brightly and the temperature was a modest fifty degrees Fahrenheit which is a gift even in the first week of November in Western New York State. My wife said she wanted to accompany me to Mass at Mt. Irenaeus today. Diane doesn’t always go so it was a gift to have her in the car on our way to the Mountain as we call it. We rode along stopping briefly in the village of Cuba, New York and then on through Friendship and Nile and up the road to our destination. We stopped at the House of Peace to drop off the goodies Diane had prepared and then up the trail to Holy Peace Chapel we strode. As we walked we met others who were joining us for today’s liturgy. Those who come to the Mass each week are part of the Mount Irenaeus community and what a diverse community it is with college students from nearby Houghton College along with students from St. Bonaventure University. Then there are the resident friar community and people like Diane and I who journeyed here today. Today all of us gathered in the chapel were saints and that is what Fr. Dan Riley, OFM invited us to be in his homily. Diane and I have been coming here for over fifteen years now. We know most of the regulars and many of the students. Mount Irenaeus is less like church and more like community and that is what I dare say most of us come regardless or our age. Lyrics that we often begin our celebration with continue to resonate and describe this place.
Let us build a house where love is found
In water, wine and wheat:
A banquet hall on holy ground,
Where peace and justice meet.
Here the love of God, through Jesus,
Is revealed in time and space;
As we share in Christ the feast that frees us:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
All are welcome in this place. – Marty Haugen – All Are Welcome
Today I attended Mass at Mt. Irenaeus as I do most Sundays. And just like most Sundays I was a bit late getting there. Nonetheless introductions were just being made as I entered the chapel. Fr. Lou McCormick, OFM was the celebrant. Fr. Lou’s homily focused on today’s readings and on the difference between uniformity and unity. There is great pressure for uniformity all around us but we are really called to unity. Lou shared about a recent study that examined why people left the church in general. The short answer is that people are really seeking community. There is a tremendous call to community everywhere. It’s not just in churches, but in schools too. Unity and community are really about love and the need of the human heart for precisely that. I drive 30 miles from my home each Sunday because Mt. Irenaeus provides the sense of community I crave. When I’m at the mountain I have a distinct sense that I’m home.
The picture above is one I took earlier today in the chapel at Mt. Irenaeus. After brunch today I took a long walk all the way up to La Posada and spent sometime sitting on a bench listening for that still small voice of the Holy Spirit that I crave. I ended my time at the mountain today sitting in meditation in front of the tabernacle. It was my own very personal adoration of the Eucharist. Adoramus te Dominum, omnes gentes alleluia!
Still water is attractive to me. There is quiet there. This small pond at Mt. Irenaeus is so inviting that I spent nearly an hour there last Sunday. Today I’m hiking further up the Mountain Road. The stillness of Mt. Irenaeus restores my soul each week. I love people and I love solitude. I am reminded again of Thomas Merton.
“Out here in the woods I can think of nothing except God. It is not so much that I think of Him as I am as aware of Him as I am of the sun and the clouds and the blue sky and the thin cedar trees…Engulfed in the simple and lucid actuality of the afternoon — I mean God’s afternoon — this sacramental moment of time when the shadows will get longer and longer, and one small bird sings quietly in the cedars, one car goes by in the remote distance, and the oak leaves move in the wind.
High up in the summer sky I watch the silent flight of a vulture, and the day goes by in prayer. This solitude confirms my call to solitude. The more I am in it, the more I love it. One day it will possess me entirely and no man will ever see me again.
~Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude
In reflecting on my earlier post and coming upon this photo taken today with my new Motorola Droid I see a connection. I love walking along the Mountain Road at Mt. Irenaeus and although it was a bit damp today from the rain it was enjoyable nonetheless. In fact when it’s raining I often think of how grace filled my life is, but only when it rains do I sense a connection between the enveloping mist and droplets and God’s ever abundant grace in my life and in all our lives.
Walking along this road is always very peaceful and today I thought of my many trips here and splitting wood with Br. Paul whom I often split wood with in the summer of 2000. I don’t know where Paul is these days but every time I walk along this road I think of him. I love these woods and the peace of this place.
Please pray for my father-in-law who will have a serious operation on Tuesday and for my wife who will have a serious operation on June 30th.
This morning when I first arrived at Mt. Irenaeus I did not see any of my feathered friends and thought that perhaps since I was running a bit late that they had already made their way further up the trail toward the chapel. However, after stopping at the House of Peace to leave off my gift of eggs, orange juice and fresh cheese curd, I emerged from the house to see these little fellows in the bushes near the trail. I greeted them and held out my hand and soon one then another began to land in my hand spend a few seconds and then off to the bushes and trees again. They repeated this cycle for many minutes and had I not begun to walk towards the chapel I’m sure they would have blessed me with their presence even longer.
The chapel was full this morning. Ten students from nearby Houghton College were guests as were a small group of Secular Franciscans, the resident Friar community and some other visitors from the surrounding countryside. Today was one of those lovely sunny days that remind us that spring is coming. I’m grateful for the birds as they remind me that we are all one. We are all made by the same creator and he loves each of us and we are surrounded by his love and we need to share that love with each other.