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“A Matter of Mercy”, Reflection by Rev. Brian Mullady, O.P.

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    There is a dramatization put out a few years ago by the BBC of an actual correspondence between George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Cockerell and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, the abbess of Stanbook Abbey in England. In this correspondence, George Bernard Shaw, an avowed atheist, writes that he relies on the prayers of the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. The reason is that his friend, Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion of the world was on a vacation with his wife at a remote island in the Mediterranean. She contracted a dreaded disease for which there was no known cure and would have died within 24 hours. Shaw remarks that Tunney dropped to his knees and returning to his childhood faith, prayed for her delivery. Unexpectedly, a doctor who was the world’s only expert in this particular disease arrived on the island the next day and cured her. Shaw, the avowed atheist, was so impressed by this that he recognized the value of the mercy of God, which was, to his mind, God’s response to prayer. For him, the cloistered Benedictine nuns were the perfect intercessors.
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    If an avowed atheist could be so moved in this secular age, the prayers of cloistered and monastic religious must be powerful. This is because they participate in the spousal union of the world with God in a direct way under the special title of their consecration. In the Gospel passage today, Christ explains the origin of this relationship. Asked to resolve a theological dilemma about marriage proposed by the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead Christ replies: “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage […] for they are like angels” (Lk 20:35-36).
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    The emphasis of Christ’s answer to the Sadducees places in special relief the complete transformation of the soul in God offered to the human race in the resurrection. He does not say they will become angels for grace does not destroy nature. However, Our Lord says they will be like angels because they will experience a new relationship of their bodies to their souls. On earth, the soul comes to exist after the manner of the body. This is why, for instance, intellectual knowledge begins in and depends on the senses for its origin and authenticity. But in Heaven, the body comes to exist after the manner of the soul. Since the soul is a spirit and has its origin in a direct creation on the part of God for each person, this means that the final perfection of each man and woman can only be found in the direct knowledge of God that occurs in the Beatific Vision. In the general resurrection the body comes to life and experiences either happiness or pain according to the experience of the soul of this vision.
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    This knowledge is complete and the degree to which the subject experiences it is determined by how much the subject has loved God on earth. The transformation in love involves a sharing of life between God and the soul through grace. Although all men must experience it to go to Heaven, this transformation is especially the lot of the cloistered religious who are a sign of the mystical “alone with the Alone” which will characterize Heaven.
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    This experience demands through love that the religious adopt the same attitude towards the world as the Trinity that is witnessed in Christ and His mercy. The prayers and sacrifices of cloistered religious offered for everyone see not what is ideal but what others are and what they could be if they would accept transformation in Christ. Though no man can merit the salvation of another, by the proportion of love and because friends love what their friends love, God can use the prayers of someone to bring about the salvation of another. “For if we do God’s will in a state of grace, it is a fittingly friendly thing that God should do man’s will in return and save the other person; though sometimes of course that other person impedes his own reconciliation.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 114, 6)
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   Pope Francis has proclaimed a Year of Mercy. This is a most important virtue for him. The Holy Father says: “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 2)
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    Antiochus Epiphanes died because too late though he did not show mercy, he wanted and needed the mercy of God. Gene Tunney prayed and his prayer was used by God to affect the cure of his wife. The power of mercy shown by contemplative religious is needed for both because of the friendship with God which spousal, virginal love inspires. As the Church celebrates Pro Orantibus Day, a day of spiritual and material solidarity with cloistered and monastic religious, let us always remember that “prayers rely on mercy” (Aquinas, ST, I-II, 114, 6).
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Rev. Brian Mullady, O.P., is the theological consultant for the Institute on Religious Life. Father has a doctorate in moral theology from the Angelicum in Rome and currently teaches at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, CT, and as adjunct professor for the Vita Consecrata Institute at the Graduate School of Christendom College. Father Mullady also conducts retreats and parish missions, as well as working on Catholic radio and television. His latest book is Christian Social Order (New Hope Publications).

Monks in California Breathe Life Into a Monastery From Spain

The rebirth of a medieval Cistercian monastery building here on a patch of rural Northern California land was, of course, improbable. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, brought the dismantled Santa Maria de Óvila monastery from Spain but failed to restore it. The City of San Francisco, after some fitful starts at bringing the monastery back to life, left its stones languishing for decades in Golden Gate Park. The Great Depression,World War II and lethargy got in the way. A medieval chapter house was rebuilt using stones from a 12th-century Spanish monastery. The monks spent years pursuing the project, even teaming up with Sierra Nevada Brewery, in nearby Chico, to produce Trappist-style premium beers. The house’s stones were bought in Spain by William Randolph Hearst in the 1930s, then abandoned in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for decades. But an aging and shrinking order of Cistercian monks in Vina, California, have accomplished what great men and cities could not: the reconstruction of Santa Maria de Óvila’s most architecturally significant building, a 12th-century Gothic chapter house. The monks ascribed the successful restoration to their faith, though years of tenacious fund-raising, as well as a recent alliance with a local beer brewer, also helped. “The meaning that this holds for us, and the link to hope, is that it may take generations,” the Rev. Paul Mark Schwan, the abbot of the New Clairvaux monastery, said of the restoration. “What appears dead, or almost dead, rises again.” With the major work complete, the chapter house was opened to the public last year. “We got into possession of the stones, and they’ve come home — a long ways from Spain, but back on Cistercian land with Cistercian monks returning it to sacred space,” Father Schwan said on a recent chilly afternoon, standing just inside one of the arched entrances, his voice resonating off the limestone walls and vaulted ceilings. “I look at this, and it’s remarkable we’ve come this far, that this is actually all put back together.” With two-thirds of the original stones and modern earthquake-resistant reinforcements, Óvila’s chapter house now sits, perhaps incongruously, in an open field near the abbey’s modest church and vineyards, a couple of hours north of Sacramento. It was in 1167 that King Alfonso VIII of Castile founded Santa Maria de Óvila in the province of Guadalajara, an area that he had reconquered from the Moors and that he hoped to populate with Christian settlers. For centuries, the monastery thrived as a home to Cistercian monks, a Roman Catholic order that hewed to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict and its emphasis on self-sufficiency, manual labor and prayer. The monastery declined, however, and by the time it was shuttered by the Spanish government in 1835, there were only four monks left. The monastery fell into disrepair — the chapter house was being used as a manure pit — and was forgotten until it caught the eye of Hearst’s art dealer, Arthur Byne, in 1930. Hearst, the larger-than-life newspaper publisher, wanted to build an eight-story medieval castle facing the McCloud River, and parts of the Spanish monastery would fit right in. According to American Heritage magazine, Spanish farmers and laborers from surrounding villages were hired to dismantle and haul the monastery’s most important buildings. A rail track was laid, and roads and a bridge were built to transport the massive stones. Eventually, 11 ships containing much of the monastery arrived in San Francisco. But Hearst, whose fortune was dented during the Depression, ultimately abandoned the project and gave the monastery to San Francisco. The city’s plans to use it as part of a museum of medieval art in Golden Gate Park went nowhere. They could not raise the money for the project. Over the decades, the monks here had watched the situation with growing despair. A chapter house serves as the heart of an abbey, the place where monks gather daily for readings and meetings. What’s more, Cistercian architecture, in its simplicity and austerity, was a reflection of the order’s faith. “Our architecture was considered part of our prayer, and it still is,” Father Schwan said. “It’s not just the matter of a building. It expresses that vision of what we desire to strive for in our relationship with God.” After years of lobbying, the monks in 1994 persuaded San Francisco to give them the stones on the condition that they begin the restoration work within a decade. It was not easy. Like other Cistercian abbeys in developed nations, this one was losing members. When Father Schwan, now 56, entered the monastery here in 1980, there were 35 to 37 monks. Now there are 22, with half of them 80 or older. “When I entered, there were two people buried in the cemetery,” he said. “We’ve got 16 or 17 in the cemetery today. I’ve actually helped bury every one of those monks, except one.” Workers broke ground on the reconstruction in 2004, and the monks eventually raised $7 million for the project. A couple of years ago, the monks also teamed up with Sierra Nevada Brewing, in nearby Chico, to produce a series of premium Trappist-style beerscalled Ovila. To cut down on costs, the monks chose to buy limestone from Texas instead of Europe to supplement the original stones. Though the monks are working to raise an additional $2 million to put the finishing touches on the restoration, they are already able to use the chapter house the way their Spanish predecessors did. For more infomration on the Abbey of New Clairvaux visit here.

Fr. Robert Barron on the 100th Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Birthday

articlermertonI write these words on the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century and a man who had a decisive influence on me and my vocation to the priesthood.  I first encountered Merton’s writing in a peculiar way. My brother and I were both working at a bookstore in the Chicago suburbs.  One afternoon, he tossed to me a tattered paperback with a torn cover that the manager had decided to discard. My brother said, “You might like this; it’s written by a Trappist monk.” I replied, with the blithe confidence of a sixteen year old, “I don’t want to read a book by some Buddhist.” With exquisite sensitivity, he responded, “Trappists are Catholics, you idiot.” 7storey_ The book in question was The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s passionate, articulate, smart, and deeply moving account of his journey from worldling to Trappist monk. Though much of the philosophy and theology was, at that time, over my head, I became completely caught up in the drama and romance of Merton’s story, which is essentially the tale of how a man fell in love with God. The book is extraordinarily well written, funny, adventurous, and spiritually wise.  In one of the blurbs written for the first edition, Fulton Sheen referred to it as a contemporary version of St. Augustine’s Confessions, and it was fulsomely praised by both Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.  Moreover, it contributed massively to the startling influx of young men into monasteries and religious communities across the United States in the postwar era. I was so thrilled by my first encounter with Merton that I dove headlong into his body of writing. The Sign of Jonas, a journal that Merton kept in the years leading up to his priestly ordination, became a particular favorite. That work concludes with an essay called “Firewatch:  July 4, 1952,” which Jacques Maritain referred to as the greatest piece of spiritual writing in the twentieth century. In this powerful meditation, Merton uses the mundane monastic task of walking through the monastery checking for fires as a metaphor for a Dantesque examination of the soul. The Sign of Jonas is marked by Merton’s playful and ironic sense of humor, but it also gives evidence of the enormous range of his reading and intellectual interests. To devour that book as a nineteen year old, as I did, was to receive an unparalleled cultural education. For many people of my generation, Merton opened the door to the wealth of the Catholic spiritual tradition: I first learned about John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, Odo of Cluny, the Victorines, Origen, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hans Urs von Balthasar from him. Perhaps the central theme of all of Merton’s writings is contemplation.  What he stressed over and again in regard to this crucial practice is that it is not the exclusive preserve of spiritual athletes, but rather something that belongs to all the baptized and that stands at the heart of Christian life. For contemplation is, in his language, “to find the place in you where you are here and now being created by God.” It is consciously to discover a new center in God and hence at the same time to discover the point of connection to everyone and everything else in the cosmos.  Following the French spiritual masters, Merton called this le point vierge, the virginal point, or to put it in the language of the fourth Gospel, “water bubbling up in you to eternal life.”  In his famous epiphanic experience at the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Merton felt, through le point vierge, a connection to the ordinary passersby so powerful it compelled him to exclaim, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” Read more here.

New Poor Clare Monastery in Omaha Open House

OpenHouse2-1024x341 The Poor Clares Sisters of Omaha, Nebraska, have completed construction on their new monastery  and will be hosting an open house on Sunday, February 8, 2015 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. This unique open house will be the only time the cloistered area where the nuns reside will be open to the public. The tour will begin in the new chapel where the superor, Sr. Theresina Santiago, will share about the the Poor Clare way of life, which will provide a better understanding of the ways other religious orders live in comparison to the Poor Clares. The community discerned the need to build since their former monastery did not have a chapel large enough for groups who want to join the sisters to pray. The building itself also did not have room for more Poor Clare sisters. “I’ve had at least seven women come here to visit,” said Sister Theresina. “If all of them were found to be called to be Poor Clares, I would have a big problem.” To fund the new monastery over $5.3 million was raised from generous supporters will ensure that over 130 years of Poor Clare tradition and prayer within the Archdiocese of Omaha will continue. Sister Theresina stresses the new monastery will not just be for the Poor Clare sisters, but for all of Omaha and beyond. “Look out to our world today and you will see that we need God’s help,” said Sister Theresina. “We need to be able to bring God’s presence to many more.” Groups will be given the opportunity to tour the entire new building, and will get a chance to meet the Poor Clare nuns. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so don’t miss out on this exciting day! For more information click here.  
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Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere on Woman's Contemplative Life
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Special Event
World Day of Cloistered Life - Pro Orantibus Day
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A Right to Be Merry By Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
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Glossary of Cloistered Life terms
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