Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bright Darkness

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;       
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
 Gerard Manley Hopkins

It's winter now in North Minneapolis, in the New Highlands neighborhood where I am living with the Visitation Sisters. It started snowing night before last and we had 16 inches before morning. The snow was fine and powdery - very dry compared to the soggy wet snow we sometimes have out in the Olympic Rain Forest where I have lived for nearly 40 years. The snow is here to stay for a while. It's deep and beautiful and, on the roadways, lies over several inches of ice. Traffic is at a near standstill, I'm told, out on the main roads. It takes 2 hours to go what usually takes a half hour.

I took this picture of Sunny last
summer when the grass was green
and growing fast. He tries to time
work so as to not interfere with our
prayer times in the Monastery. But
this week, he had the walks and drive-
ways cleared before we left Girard for
Fremont at 6:30 in the morning. I
was told that he arrived to do that
about 5 AM.
We have a neighbor here - Sonny, they call him. He shows up with his shovel and snow-blower early in the morning every time it snows. The rest of the year, he mows the lawn and helps with the gardening. He's been doing it for several years. A long time ago, he was having some real difficulties in his life. He did some hard work to get his life in order, and when he had done that, he came to the Sisters and told them that, because they had "been there" for his family in the years when he couldn't be, he'd be the one to take care of lawn mowing, yard work, and snow removal from that time on - or, in his words, until he was no longer able to crawl to get there. So he does this labor of love year in and year out.

Sister Mary Frances took a look out the front door, saw our walkway from the house to the sidewalk, the sidewalk, and the driveway all cleared, yesterday morning, and exclaimed, "Words made flesh!"

It is Advent. We are all preparing for the coming of the Lord--on so many levels.

The Visitation Sisters of the Federation - a group of Visitation Monasteries in the U.S. which have a "familial relationship" with one another - in a mission statement issued recently spoke of moving ahead into the future in "bright darkness." 

Advent is the beginning of the Church's liturgical year and liturgy is mportant at Visitation Monastery! The Advent materials come out of storage. It's been traditional here to use blue - the color of Mary - for Advent. In the new mass Source Book, published this year, we read, "Blue is forbidden for Advent in the United States. The only approved color is violet."
I noticed at the Sunday mass at the 
Basilica last weekend, 
the Rector of the Basilica was robed 
in gorgeous blue, with matching 
banners and ante-pendium on the altar. 
Ascension used a combination of purples 
and blues. We used the materials that were 
on hand. Forbidding blue seems a strange 
priority to me, living in this place.
Somethinglike straining at gnats 
and swallowing camels.

Our "main chapel" is at Fremont House, but we use the one at Girard House where I am living frequently for Night Prayers (Compline). Today because of the very heavy snow, we had Morning Prayer and a communion service separately in the two houses because it would have been so difficult to dig out cars and driveways in time for the 7 AM service. So four of us in each house, in the two chapels, greeted the day with the familiar chant, "Open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise."

I have come to love the rhythm of monastic prayer. The cadences of the familiar words of the psalms - the whole "package" repeated every four weeks - takes on new meaning every time I hear and sing them. Psalms were meant for singing, but I've never experienced them in that way before. Every time we chant them, I hear something new I'd missed before.

That expression, "bright darkness" has stayed with me the past couple of weeks as we prepared for and begun our observance of Advent, and it has been mentioned many times in our shared reflections during the Divine Office.

The quilted antependium reminds me of
the ocean, with breakers rolling in.
 The candle screen functions as a veil for
the tabernacle and the evergreen and ivy
flank it are symbols of eternal life.
I was attempting to create that sense of
"bright darkness." The statue of Mary at the
is one of the "treasures" of this monastery.
It is very old, they say, and was left to
the Sisters as a legacy by one of their
long-time friends here.

I had it in mind when I decorated the chapel here in Girard House where I am living (one of my "charges" is caring for this chapel).

Marian devotion is an important part of the spirituality of the Sisters, since their very name draws from the story of the Annunciation. After the Angel Gabriel had made his announcement - and Mary had given her YES, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was then 6 months pregnant with her son, John, known to us as "the Baptizer." The love and mutuality between Elizabeth and Mary has always been a central to Visitation spirituality. The hospitality underlying it is the life source of the Sisters presence here at Visitation Monastery.

The people who come to our door for help - the people who come to share with us in helping them - the life of the Sisters poured out generously in this place - all speak to me of bright darkness. 

The bus stop is across the street 
from our house, visible from the 
side window of our chapel. If it 
looks cold in daylight here, 
imagine it at 10 PM. 

Last night, on the way home from praying office here at Girard, we saw a family - a woman pushing a baby stroller - holding the hand of a toddler - and a man following at some distance behind them. It was nearly 10 PM and it was very cold. The woman was having trouble getting the stroller on and off the sidewalk while crossing the street. The Sisters asked if she was OK, if she needed help. She said they were on their way to a homeless shelter and were almost to the bus stop. As the Sisters pulled in the driveway, the bus pulled up and the family got on.

I look out the window in our Fremont chapel through the translucent stained-glass window and see snow piled high on shrubs and tree branches and rooftops - see the buses and vehicles passing by - sometimes the flashing lights of a police car - and it's all bright darkness.

On the first Sunday of Advent, in Father Michael shared a story from the publication Give Us This Day, which our community and many others use as a reference for the daily mass and office readings (I recommend it, by the way, as better than other similar resources I've used in the past - see www.giveusthisday.org for information on obtaining it.)

So the story was not original to Father Michael - nor to me here in this blog.
"For Jack's 10th birthday, the family went out to eat at his favorite restaurant. It was a Chinese place where Jack always ordered extra - so that he could enjoy the leftovers for days. After dinner, Mom, Dad, Jack, and a friend that Jack had brought along were walking out to the car. A homeless man stopped them and asked for a couple of bucks. Unprompted, Jack offered the man the Styrofoam container he was carrying, full of his precious leftovers.   
Jack's mom was, of course, touched by this act of generosity. As she followed the boys into the parking lot, she overheard the friend say to Jack, "Wow, man. That was cool. I bet that sure made God proud." Jack said to his friend, "Maybe that was God."
Don't know whether Jack and his family had been directly touched by the teachings of St. Frances de Sales, but Jack's question exemplifies Salesian spirituality. And it exemplifies what the Visitation charism means: to LIVE JESUS - to be Jesus to others, to see Jesus in the other.

I have come to that awareness in doing "door ministry" here. When the doorbell rings, I love going to answer the door. And I do see Jesus every day. I have a new respect for people who live in continuous poverty - who, when they are lucky enough to find work, they then have to figure out how to get there and back every day - and how to stretch the little they make to cover the basic necessities. They come with simple requests -

Sister, I get paid on Friday, but I need a couple of bus tokens to get to work and back tomorrow.  If we have the tokens, we are able to give them (no more than two in a month). How do people working for minimum wage afford to get to their jobs at $3.50 a day? Owning a car is not an option for most people who come to us for help. For those who do, the request might be for help filling up the tank - or, yesterday, a request for a ride to the DMV to get new tags. 

And yet, when I ask, How are you today?  I almost always hear, "I'm blessed, Sister!" or, "I'm sucking air, Sister, and I'm grateful to be alive," in one case recently. And when they leave, sometimes carrying a sandwich with them, their thank-you's almost always also include, "Have a blessed day, Sister!"

There is great dignity in homeless people. They sleep in a shelter at night, but must leave during the day. They go about the business of survival, finding the resources they need to make it to the next day: a meal at a soup kitchen, a place to get indoors and stay warm (this is one of the hardest things to find), a thrift store where they can buy a pair of boots or shoes, mittens, a sweatshirt to layer under a thin jacket, a token to get on the bus . . . 

Often after the practical, material need is met with a token or a grocery store $10 gift card, I'll sense a further need. Is there anything else I can do for you? 

Could you say a prayer with me, Sister? 

So I find myself, standing on the freezing front porch - or in the entry hall - joining hands with a stranger whose needs I cannot begin to comprehend.

This is the sort of prayer I'm likely to pray:
God, it's cold out there today and it's hard to be needing so many things that are out of reach. Help us to get through this day, knowing that even when it's hard, You walk with us. Give this brother/sister what they need to get through today. But also give them the gift of Hope, the gift of Courage to keep going and to believe that even when You don't solve all our problems, you continue to love and support us. Save us all from discouragement and despair. Help us remember, Jesus, that you, too, were homeless - you said that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. Help these dear people to have a good life in spite of all their troubles. Help us to help each other through these hard times.
At the end of his homily last Sunday, Father Michael spoke eloquently of our being God's beloved children, of how we need to learn to cast away the shame of our imperfection, and celebrate the goodness for which we were made. He spoke softly, persuasively, gently - and he began singing to us, singing like a father sings a lullaby to a baby - no accompaniment - just his voice floating out to the people there . . .
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
    Come home, come home,
    You who are weary, come home;
    Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
    Calling, O sinner, come home!
Tonight the Sisters and I went to the Basilica to a Taize Service of Reconciliation - beautiful music - a repetitive sort of chant - as background. Lighted candles which we placed in sand buckets at the foot of a large icon of the crucified Christ. And one at a time we were able to get up and go to one of 8 priests located at the periphery of the room to make confession, to make ourselves ready for the birth of the Savior.

Basilica Taize Prayer Service - Click on image to
hear a recording of the song.

Laudate omnes gentes, laudate Dominum.
Sing praises, all you people, sing praises to the Lord.

We live in a terrible mystery of goodness and awfulness  - 
and it's the most beautiful sort of life I've ever known. 
Truly, there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

Bright Darkness!