Both Darkness and Light
Vernon Robertson, deceased, was an Anglican priest who was very Catholic and who much wanted to be officially and wholly Catholic, but who had some misgivings about what he found to be excessive in Catholic piety in relation to Our Lady: the style too southern, too Latin, for someone of English background. This grieved him, for he did not wish to become Catholic with that, as it were, stuck in his throat. He used to travel a lot and was at one time in Chartres Cathedral wandering around looking at things, walked into an empty chapel where there was but a statue of the Virgin Mary, la vierge enceinte, Our Lady with Child. He stood before it, considering it, dwelling on it. "So here is Mary. She has a Child within. The Child is the Christ, Son of God. And She is His Mother, the Mother of God. So what is all the fuss about?" In that moment all his anxiety vanished and he was at peace. He went on to study theology at the Beda, was ordained with his class by Paul VI in the Sistine Chapel, went on home to the diocese of Louisville and became pastor of St. Martin of Tours, an old German parish fallen on hard times. He revived the place and did so with great success. Later, on another trip to Europe, he decided that he owed Our Lady thanks and went to Chartres, found the little chapel. But the statue was gone. He asked the tour guide where they had moved it. "There was never any statue there and I've been here all my life." Fr. Robertson was much moved by that. Now his piety toward Our Lady was not only belief, but experience as well.
Fr. Arnold was a monk here some years ago. He was a cab driver in Milwaukee, was very short, very stout and very German! He was accepted by a Benedictine abbey down south and on his way there to enter, stopped over here. The monks went to work on him and convinced him to stay here and join us. Which he did. "Biggest mistake of my life," he used to say later. But you have to understand that Fr. Arnold had a character like Jackie Gleason, if you know who he was: quite given to ironic complaints and spouting of no particular significance. And little to do with reality.
He was ahead of me in the line one morning, waiting to speak to Dom James in the grand parlor (the boot room) after Prime. That was where you could see the abbot for permissions or other brief matters. Fr. Arnold asked Dom James if he could get a couple of packets of morning-glory seeds. Spring was bursting out all over and Fr. Arnold loved flowers, these for some shrine. Dom James said "no." Fr. Arnold got hot and said, "The Brothers just bought a six-thousand dollar tractor and I can't spend ten cents on a packet of morning-glory seed!" Dom James said, "They've gone up. They're twenty-five cents now." Fr. Arnold walked away fuming.
He used to work with Mass intentions and through the correspondence had lots of friends he'd stay in touch with. So when he'd write them he'd tell them how hard it was to be a monk: "...couldn't even get a packet of morning-glory seeds." They would take the hint and send him all kinds of seeds. More than he could plant which, of course, is what all involved knew would happen.
So, piety is getting exceptional favors and visions? Monastic life is just a series of petty behaviors and unreasonable demands? Neither.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571, the last great naval battle under oars. The Turks threatened the West and Europe was in a panic over being overcome like Africa. Pius V was able to rally a fleet under Don Juan of Austria with Spain, Venice, and the Pope supporting him. 206 galleys were involved from the West, 90, 000 men. The Turks had 220 galleys, 50 smaller vessels, 120,000 soldiers and rowers, the latter Christian captives. The Christians' rowers were captive Moslems, prisoners, hired recruits. 12,000 Christians were released by the victory, 9,000 killed; 30,000 Turks lost. Though the battle was a victory, Cyprus was lost anyway — the point at issue. But Moslem control of the Mediterranean was over. Pius V had called the Roman populace to the Rosary and in thanks instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory. The next pope changed it to Our Lady of the Rosary, as we still have it.
So the Faith is a matter of war and bloodshed blessed by Our Lady? Not quite. Victory it was, and the Church being involved in it is the human scene. So was Father Robertson's experience. Fr. Arnold's account is not monastic life. There is darkness and light in every aspect of the human. Our Lady is indeed a tender Mother. Monastic life is a beautiful service and a glory of the Church. And the Church is the Church of God and a Church of saints and sinners, high and low, facing life as they can.
You need vision if you'd truly live. And a vision that sees God in the human scene, in the Church and out of it, in darkness and light, good and evil. And they are always mixed in the world we know.
The 12 that Jesus picked were human. Of the 12, all but one deserted Him in His final hour. One denied Him —the head of the group. One betrayed Him and later hung himself. That motley group is the Foundation of the Church. And Our Lady is their Queen and ours. Today we consecrate anew this house and everyone in it, part of it, to Her: Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey. Amen.
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