Sunday, September 27, 2015

Poverty Behind a Race Track...Is There Something We Can Learn ( and soon ) from the Poor ?

By Robert R. Schwarz

POOR: Having few or no material possessions; wanting
means to procure the comforts,   or the necessities of life;
so destitute as to be dependent upon gifts or allowances
for subsistence. ( The Oxford English Dictionary )

There's a sense in our culture that  those  who
have [ more possessions and education ] are in
someway superior to those who don't.
( James Bannon, deacon )

            I'm turning 81 soon and will have eliminated a top  bucket list item that has dogged me for decades as a retired  journalist: It's a deeper understanding of those who live  in poverty. Had I been graced with  less journalistic detachment , I would have assigned my staff more stories about poor people. I regret that I did not .
 In writing this report about the subculture of race track "residents"  less than two miles from my upper middleclass suburban home in Arlington Heights, Illinois ,  I am   grateful,  however, for  certain memories of poor people with whom I have interacted during past  decades. I can  vividly recall  "hard times" of people in a high  crime neighborhood  while  a young police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau  and also the poorest of the poor in Calcutta when with Mother Teresa during my global trek, as leadership development manager for Lions Clubs International. Other insights come from  a tour of  the hellish Soweto slum in then  apartheid-afflicted  South Africa; sharing soup with a widow in her South  Korea  hut; a  rag-dressed  child  in the middle of a downtown Manila intersection holding out her hand to me as my taxi paused at a traffic light;  and a dirt-poor family in western Arkansas whom I knew for several months when they  helped my retired father renovate our family's falling-down barn and house which never had had plumbing indoors.

"Maria" , as all Back Stretch residents, is required to
cook outside her dwelling. 
  These memories stirred me relentlessly soon after my  neighborhood block party . At the time I knew very little about  the race track  "Back Stretch . "  But during this merriment of 50 or more  neighbors, and despite the abundance of catered food, the resplendence of dress, perfectly pruned parkway Elms and Lindens, and the infectious cheerfulness coming from those who laid claim to a perfect night's sleep,  I became discomforted . It wasn't any  patrician guilt  about being in the midst of worldly happiness undeserving of any  hard times . Rather, it was a pall I sensed of lukewarm-ness  covering our street . It made me think of two neighborhood  suicides during the last decade , those  marriages  which I suspected were wretchedly  painful,   and  the presence of our  nearby hospital, which always seemed to have a neighbor friend in Intensive Care whom rarely had a neighbor visitor.  And then there were those brazen five daylight burglaries in a six-month span  in which a band of  ethnic "gypsies"—so  labeled  by   police —who,  with lightning-fast precision ,  had violently broke into security-guarded ,  million dollar homes. Our innocent,  felony-free neighborhood reacted as if its social virginity had been violated. I was among my neighbors at  a meeting called by our police to calm  future fears, and  the most vociferous complaint was from a neighbor who chastised our local newspaper for reporting the true  value of his  stolen wristwatch.
Something began to hound me the next day; it was   engendered by  the simple yet  ominous  question I had heard , on television,  posed to a huge  outdoor  audience by Pope Francis as he stood in drenching rain during  one of his recent world visits.
                        "How can the poor help you?"  the pope asked a  crowd composed largely of middleclass  people. Presumably among them were critics, as there had been in several Western countries—the United States included—who thought the pope's  stand on giving a higher priority to helping  the world's poor, bordered on Socialism . Apparently  Pope Francis that day did not offer an answer  to  his curious question .
It was Pope Benedict's address in 2005 to the Roman Curia (which a friend handed me ) that started me  interviewing the  people you'll read about here .   In his rather grim  " state of the union" address, Benedict stated: "The very future of the world is at stake "  and , following his comments about world's current  vulnerability to social, economic, and spiritual collapse, came his  prophetic utterance : "The sun is setting  on the West. "  He really meant it.
            My ageless hound had caught up with me. I now wanted very much an answer to that  elusive question , one which would likely take me into waters over my head, for I was no sociologist. But I sought to know—then hopefully report—what we  can and must learn from the poor if we Americans  are to cope  with our country's future.  It was the thought of an apocalyptic sun dipping behind the horizon of Western  civilization which now  impelled me to visit the  Back Stretch  .          
Making Life a 'Little Less  Miserable'
For Maria , a Back Stretch Resident
            "Your chaplain is expecting me," I told the security guard at  the end  of a private road leading into a rear area seldom seen by patrons of Arlington race track,   known  nationwide for its classy architecture, dining and  cocktail facilities,   and annual  million dollar purse.  The guard waved me in, and I drove to a short distance to the track's   Internet Café,  a fast-food  oasis for the track's 1,800  itinerant,  mostly Mexican  residents  whose homes change with the racing seasons.
            Walking through  the café towards the chaplain's "office", I entered an active  environment of  excited shouts in Spanish from  four men playing pool  and several others watching  a live-streaming Arlington race on each of  three elevated  televisions  sets . A few feet away were some telephone  booths for placing bets. I  wondered how much of  their weekly minimum  wage they  were betting.   
            Luis Trevino, a  73-year-old  Catholic deacon,  met me and escorted me into a  colorless, all-purpose  room that reminded me of a large closet . There were a  few mismatched chairs and cafeteria-style tables  crammed together to make room for whatever was currently scheduled.  I was naturally  anxious to hear what  Luis had to say about what can be learned from poor people. He  pulled out a couple of chairs and a table and we  sat down.  Luis  was cheerful and appeared  eager to  talk about  the Back Stretch  residents . All of them , he said,  had a working  role here : dads groomed  and  fed the horses ,  their sons  walked them  between  3 and  4 a.m.  and moms did  what most moms do—with  one-star rated appliances, of course—they cleaned, cooked, and washed clothes . "My mission, " Luis said, "is to make life a little less miserable for them."
     Luis has been a deacon here  23 years—without compensation, he said—officiating at weddings and funerals  and assisting a priest, when one is available,  the 7 p.m. Sunday Mass held in this room. " The faith of the Hispanic people is really strong, " he said.  "We'll soon have 65 children confirmed ."  A month ago he and his wife attended a world  conference for race track  chaplains in Rome  , where Pope Francis blessed him on his 50th wedding anniversary.   The Trevino's have  three children and three grandchildren.
       I perceived Luis to be a  work-weary man , especially when he said,  " My biggest challenge here is that I'm getting old.  I would like to start lining up a few candidates to take over for me. " He once was sponsored by a nearby church  but now, he said, " I'm like Noah , just floating. "  Luis was born in Monterrey, Mexico , immigrated  to Chicago to join his father and two older brothers help  run a small printing  shop.   " I was just a puppy of 18 then , " he said.
     Joven , como está ? " (youngster, how are you ? ) .  Outside, he pointed at a nearby tree.  " Years  ago we did our  church services under that tree " , and smiling, added, "with  the smell of horse droppings from that pile over  there ." 
Deacon Luis  making rounds as he has for 23 years .
    Luis rose from the  table . " Come on , I'll give you’re a tour  of the place."  . As we exited through the Internet Café,  he  greeted everyone regardless of age: "
            I told Luis I had a silly question about the crime rate here.  " Zero, " he said. " But when I came  here there was a killing or two every year. Now, since they have allowed me to   give them some spiritual help , everything is okay. " 
            We walked down  a long dirt corridor , past a single, two-level row of small , barrack-style dwellings. Outside,  children were playing with a variety of inflated toys and a soccer ball  or   two. At a long table sat several  families eating and making merry like  those families on  television commercials  for Italian food. " Most families have three or four kids, but everybody has some kind of a job here, " Luis said.  "They move out when the horses do ," he said, referring to the track's May to September season .  
 Rent is included in whatever small salary they make , he said . When asked for a dollar amount, he  replied, " I don't want to get into that , but they are very poor. " People drop off  clothing for them, which Luis hands out.  
            I hesitated to ask but did:  " Luis, tell me, how are these people different from you and me. " He obviously welcome the question, especially when I told him his comments would  be read  on my Exodus Trekkers blog in several European and two African countries.
            " For starters, " he began, "we don't pray the same way. You and I might pray for a lighter load in life; these guys will also pray to Jesus but ask for a stronger back. They don't want God to  give them anything except to place  them somewhere where they can work for it. They don't need to go on  any ego trip. But one thing they do have  is family unity . For them, family comes first, then  their  job, and then church.  The biggest thing to give these people is education. Most can not read write even Spanish. "         
         We continued to walk and talk about poverty. " To me,"  Luis said, "a rich person is someone who doesn’t need much to survive. These people here are on a survival mission, not only for themselves but for their families back home [ in Mexico ]. There is a unity here; no one is more important than the other one. " 
            We paused at a door and Luis knocked . " I'll show you poverty, " he said.  A woman named  Señora Maria , perhaps 50 years of age , opened and immediately  welcomed  her  amigo Luis.  She spoke no English . My Spanish was  rusty but usable.  Luis asked if we could come in , that I would like to ask her a few questions take some photographs for an article. " Claro, que si, "  Maria, replied quickly.
The younger set of  the Back Stretch  1,800 "residents "
We  entered a cement floor dwelling  with a single room  no larger than twelve by twelve feet. Alongside a simple  bed at  the far wall was a  small table with an unlit candle next to a sacramental of  the Virgin Mary. On the opposite wall a  small sink and equally  small  refrigerator had been squeezed in . Near the door was the home's only widow, on which  hung a clean but tattered  curtain, and next to that was Maria's closet: a  pole of some sort  on which hung two or three clothing  garments. I saw neither toilet nor stove.   
            " Where do you cook?" I asked Maria , glancing quizzically at Luis.
            "You saw the grill outside the  door, " he said. "They are not allowed to cook inside. "
            "No one ? "  I asked.
            Maria nodded. We talked for several minutes  . In spite of some leading questions ,  Maria had nothing negative to say about anything in her life, though I'm sure she too had a bucket list.  Maria apologetically said she had an appointment with an ill neighbor and  invited us to return later.  
Outside, I took a photograph of three small, well cultivated  vegetable gardens growing beans and tomatoes . Their organic beauty seemed to be  defying what  encircled them :the  nearby tall weeds , a battered metal fence , and a tidy pile of various  junked items,  none of which,  I imagined ,  would ever become absolutely useless.   Beyond the horizon of the  racetrack compound and less than a quarter mile away  cars streaming by on  Illinois 53, and a  few hundred yards southeast of  this  toll way was the towering Randhurst  shopping center. Again I thought:  What can we learn  from    these people?   
" What can we learn, Luis?
"I  learn more from them than what I can give them,  " he said. "ow t  How to be humble. How to appreciate what God has given me. "  Luis expression remained serious.  " Why don't you come  and see more at next Sundays' Mass ?  We'll have a priest "
When Wall Street stocks later began  plummeting historical lows,  I made an effort to focus on  Maria's  humility and apparent fortitude  and on  Luis'  belief that a well-functioning  family  should be one's  highest life priority  . I also reflected on the  Back Stretch men praying   for a stronger back , not a lighter load.  Would my own  future prayers ask for more humility and a willingness and  fortitude  to live with less ?  Honestly, maybe not .  Would I now be just a  bit more prepared to cope with that "setting sun"?   I think so.
Mass in Spanish by the Irish Priest
I  met Fr. Matt Foley at 6:30 p.m. outside his parish office, and he  drove us to the Back
Fr. Matt at the 7 p.m. Sunday Mass 
Stretch. Fr. Matt is 53—he looks several years younger, owing no   doubt to his  frequent gym workouts—and is no stranger to poverty  . Each year he uses his two-week vacation as a volunteer  chaplain for  a dental mission to indigenous farmers in a mountainous region in Mexico . He's also pastored a church in  Chicago's West Side, where he comforted families at funerals said for murdered Hispanic gang members . And prior to coming to St. James as its pastor, he made four deployments to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army chaplain  with a captain's rank.
We parked in front of the Internet Café and took a walk before meeting Luis in  his"office" , which had become a chapel. As we strolled down the long row of dwellings, Fr. Matt, dressed in priestly black,  greeted people continuously—he speaks fluent Spanish.   Many of the kids appeared shy of a priest,  but Fr. Matt's smile invited them to interact with him. When  they did, he  beamed. Fr Matt was obviously in love with his ministry  and wanted everyone around him to know that  here was an outsider, a priest who really cared for them.  I once had asked Fr. Matt what stirred his heart: "I get moved by the Holy Spirit when I see beautiful things, like when children  pray for family and friends. That moves me to the core of my being. "
            When  we at last entered the  chapel,  paper hymnals were being handed out . The room was packed with people of all ages; I counted 35 adults and 15 youths.   Fr. Matt and Deacon Luis were, of course ,  disheartened to once more see this usual  number of Mass attendees . Still,  every  chair was taken,  and one family had to stand and another to sit on  the floor. Families wore a variety of  clothing , clean and ironed .
            The altar was a small white table covered with a white cotton cloth. On it would soon  be the communion sacraments of a  chalice of wine and  a container of wheat hosts. Propped up against the altar  table on the floor was a large print of  Our Lady of Guadalupe (the title of the Virgin Mary associated with a celebrated  pictorial image housed in a basilica in Mexico City ). The print was flanked by  two vases with long stem roses and pink and white flowers.
       First Communion sacrament and blessing from Fr. Matt.  The Mass ended when, after  dollar bills were tossed one after another into  a wicker basket passed by a teenage girl everyone sang Vienen con Alegri  ( " They Come with Joy " ) .
Confirmation day for these three at their bare-bones chapel
     The theme of Fr. Matt's Spanish-spoken homily was the "bread of life",  soon followed by communion  in which all family members  walked one by one  to the altar to receive from the priest and  deacon Luis the " body and blood " of Christ.  I looked at the bunker-like, unpainted walls that seem to entomb us and at the only  light source  coming from four florescent light bulbs and at the water leaking down from a ceiling  air-conditioner  making muddy shoe streaks on  the floor. None of this , I felt, diminished  the solemnity of this hour. Faces expressed this solemnity , especially the children's faces when a dozen of them encircled the small altar for their
And in Tanzania…'Giving Joy and Peace Is All about Friendship'
      Gazing at a setting  sun one evening from my backyard lounge chair, I  began to worry—as was expected—about the unrelenting Wall Street tsunami currently  hitting stock prices. My worries eventually incited me to answer  Pope Francis'   question about what can be learned from the poor. It was one of those insights I get when  my analytical thinking isn't concealing  a simple  truth like: The poor can  teach us how live with less.
            But I needed someone who could expand on this ; and who better than the African-born priest residing in the St. James rectory, Fr. Gilbert Mashurano  from Tanzania .   
            We met in his parish office. Fr. Gilbert is 34   and hails from the Haya tribe and was  raised in a  village (  near Lake Victoria  ) of an estimated 30,000   people .   His priestly studies at  the Salvatorian Institute in Tanzania included Aristotle, Plato, and saints  Augustine  and Aquinas. His priestly formation , he told me, actually began with his grandmother teaching him the virtues of honest labor in the home and on farm land.
            " In my village of Bwajai,"  he said,  " poor people tend to do more things together. They walk together, work together. They live good lives because they depend on one another .  The spirit of the poor is : I need you and you need me . "  He added, though, that  the beauty of this spirit often  diminishes as poor people gain affluence. 
              " We are mostly farmers and don't get to see our neighbors very often, " Fr. Gilbert continued.  "So, on Sundays  our church becomes a community center. But we also acknowledge God during the week while doing ordinary things. We see blessings happening all the time. "  He pointed out that his village has no homeless people and that its residents don't lock their doors or have any need for police.
            He returned to the topic of people needing people to be happy.  " I think personal friendships in Tanzania are stronger than here.  We share things with our neighbors, like giving them a melon or piece of clothing we have just purchased at the store. If our neighbor is ill, we  knock on his door and inquire about  him. And if he has died,  one or more of us will spend a week living with the family in support ."
            The bond between parents and their children is stronger in his native country, Fr. Gilbert believes.   " And the kids obey and respect their parents more.  We don't  push our children to be independent . "      
            Our talk ended with Fr. Gilbert making a philosophical observation. "Poverty is not what you possess in your hand but what you have in your heart or mind. "  Changing people and giving joy and peace to their lives  is   all about friendship, "  he said. 
I didn't know at the time that a few weeks ago Fr. Gilbert  practiced what he preaches about friendship when he brought a group of St. James students to the Back Stretch for a face-to-face visit with its children there.
' Greater than Any Treasure the Emperor Could Possess '
            Well, I've learned how the poor can help me . For one thing , if the stock market crashes as it did during that Great Depression of 1929-39,  I won't leap off  city skyscrapers—which several despairing  people actually did . Nor will  I moan  if I can't buy a certain software app for my computer or be unable to take my wife to our favorite restaurant on a holidays.  And  if my particular life trek gets very bumpy , I'll l try hard not to complain about the absence of all those can't-live-without amenities . I might think, however, of those murmuring ancient Hebrews being  so ungrateful and forgetful about being miraculously  rescued at the Red Sea  and then  promised a future land of milk and honey.  
            Along with the Back Stretch people, Luis and Frs. Matt and Gilbert and I will probably stumble more than once during our own Exodus toward  our  final freedom. But, hopefully. we'll keep in mind words from  Pope Francis like:  "Poverty is precisely at the heart of the Gospel…[and ] the mystery of Christ who lowered himself, was humiliated and made himself poor in order to enrich us."
In 258 A.D. , the Roman emperor Valerian demanded that a deacon named Lawrence  bring all the treasures of the Christian church to him.  Lawrence, who was later martyred and made a saint —he was roasted alive on a gridiron— responded by bringing to the emperor all the widowed, the maimed, and lepers, proclaiming  that  these  people " were greater than any treasure the emperor could possess. "
Deacon Luis  and wife ( on left ) receive a blessing from Pope Francis
on their 50th wedding anniversary in Rome.. They had been invited to a world
conference of race track chaplains. 
All comments are welcome.

© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Meet a Change Agent ( He Makes It 'Happen ')

Will you love  the 'you' you hide if  I but call your name ?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same ?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me
( from a Scottish traditional hymn; text by John L. Bell, tune by Kelvin Grove )

By  Robert R. Schwarz

     He says he's retired but chances are it'll  never happen . And he appears to have a love affair  with making good things happen .
     It's all about change. "I like to be where there is change, " he says in  a calm voice that belies the daily buzzing of his work  agenda. "If something needs to happen," he says, "I make it happen ,  then get out. "  ( Like a baseball pinch hitter ? )
 Jim Bannon refers to his mission as being a "change agent " , a sort of consultant  who often  implements what he advises people to do. For several years and while at his at the  St. James church  in Arlington Heights, Illinois ,  he used his skills being a  senior vice president of the largest publicly held investment  trust  in the U.S. , and later as director of a real estate investment and service company, then as director of operations for a large church parish in Inverness ,  Illinois.
     Today , at 58, he's still on a fast track,  but this time to bring about spiritual changes as  deacon at  his  St. James parish.   "I've made a career out of being good at analyzing situations and making connections and  plans  to get things done."
       Our conversation took place at a  kitchen table in Bannon's  modest and tidy  suburban home with a backyard populated with trees  he himself planted years ago.  Though  a  mild-mannered man who speaks softly and    weighs words  with the  same precision  as with  the occasional homily  he delivers at St. James,  you sense  a man  committed to a plan whose  goal he will  pursue aggressively  if necessary ; there is no disconnect between his  spirit of change agent  and the deacon's pin—the " fire of the Holy Spirit "— he wore on his  shirt when we talked.
        He daily looks forward to  "encountering Christ through  the people of God,"  he said. He explained: " A  good way to see God is through  the people of God   in my work . It can be a rational or emotional experience. " As an example, he recalled a Sunday Mass when,  during the communion , a girl approached  him at the altar. "I looked at her face and it was like a miraculous experience. "  At other times, he added, he  may be looking at how hard people work, like the  volunteers helping overnight  with the homeless in the church basement.
Jim in second grade
While  performing his deacon duties, Bannon  said he feels  the Spirit of Christ when  he        "opens " his heart . "A lot of times it’s being vulnerable…and putting down your guard and opening yourself  to humility. I think this is where you see the Spirit at work. "  Did he mean not being fearful of  "showing one's warts" ?    Yes, he said.   In a quiet moment  of the day , he often asks "where was God in my work today ?"   
     His favorite Bible verse is from James 2:18: Indeed someone may say  ' you have faith and I have works. ' Demonstrate your faith to me without works , and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.   As for what he'd like as his  tombstone's epitaph, Bannon paused  before replying with  another verse  from Holy Scripture (Matthew 25:21 ) :  Well done , my  good and faithful servant…Come , share your Master's joy.
A Major Decision Sparked by a " Shadow "
What moved him to leave the secularized business world and undergo a year of discernment followed by careful screening —shared with his  wife  Laura—and three years of training by the archdiocese?  " I say it was a progression of moving deeper into the faith. "   Perhaps the defining moment of his decision ( and that of his wife and church  ) was after he mother had died and Bannon , along with a  former St. James priest and a current deacon ,  went on a pilgrimage to Ireland seven years ago.  During  his pilgrimage ,  he learned  much about the diaconate  from  these two men . Then at an old Irish graveyard, Bannon gazed upon  a Celtic High Cross ,  which was casting a long shadow across the ground.  " The shadow looked a lot like a human being , "  he recalled , and that his own shadow now  appeared next to  this other  shadow.     " And I said to myself, so what are you  going to do with the rest of your life ? " 
       He was officially ordained a deacon in May, 2013, when the late Cardinal Francis George laid hands upon him .
With wife Laura at Disney World circa 2005
His life, he said , has had no "aha !" moments , yet  has been shaped much by  marriage , friends and family, and life at St. James.  He could not recall any major challenges  beyond "the ordinary of suburban life of raising  children and trying to hold down a job. "  He and Laura  were college sweethearts and married in 1980. They have four children ,  all of whom attended the St. James school , and two grandchildren.  Bannon performed one of the marriages of his three children.  
     Bannon's goals are to grown in his spirituality and the  depth of his relationship  with God;  to become a better minister for the people, to be a better parent and grandparent; and "to help people experience more of the divine in their life through the sacraments and my preaching."
Stumbling Blocks He Sees  for Christians
        We talked about  the stumbling blocks which sincere Christians experience.  " Well,  everyone is looking for meaning and worth in life , but we often spend  lot of  time looking in the wrong places. " He listed some of those places as  sex, power, drugs, gambling , and possession of material things.  Bannon said he also has observed a "restlessness in everyone for God  "  and then quoted St. Augustine's reflection about our hearts remaining  restless until they rest in God. 
     Many of the young people who come to him in preparation for marriage   are fairly un-churched, he said.   " But I am always impressed  on how they see God through each other. I always learn something from them. I see their hunger for reaching beyond the banal and  the ordinary and the secular  , even if their families   were not particularly religious or church-going."  Asked for his opinion of  the new pope,  Bannon said: " He has set a very good tone for people  , and I think his message about mercy and forgiveness has been   welcomed. "
      As for recreation, Bannon will watch sports events on television, " Duck Dynasty " and  "Pawn Stars " . He doesn't see many movies. His favorite food is his wife's lasagna .   For sheer fund and relaxation,  this deacon fishes for bass  on a small southern  Wisconsin lake , where the Bannons have a lake house they visit weekly—time permitting.  He's also made happy by being with people of "all types" , solving problems for them, and helping churches with financial problems  "so they can better work on spiritual problems. "  Sadness comes to Bannon at  funeral Masses  but,  he says, they  can also be  joyful occasions to know that the deceased will " join Christ in heaven. "  He  is also saddened by " God being made irrelevant today  in our two-dimensional  society , which has moved far way from acknowledging or appreciating the spiritual or the divine."
Those shadows in the Irish graveyard
Nowadays Bannon is applying his change agent skills  to the 11-session ,  church-sponsored " Alpha Program."   He calls it " Christianity 101 "  for adults, young or old;  it  focuses on the meaning of life and explores common questions like who's God ?  or why did Jesus die for us ?  "It's not apologetics.  It  tries to open the heart. "
            "Lay people can do a lot in the church, " Bannon concluded. Part of his role as deacon, he                explained ,  is " to live in  that world between the laity and the clerical."


All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Body of Christ ? Definitions Vary Yet Agree It's Vital and Awesome

By Robert R. Schwarz

Call it a doctrine,  a religious entity  or metaphysical  concept,  the  term Body of Christ has been infused into Christendom  for centuries without  unanimity  about its meaning and how it functions.  This is expected , considering  the  two billion Christians  in the  world  ( according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public  Life  )  make up an estimated 41,000 denominations world-wide ( according  to  the Center for the Study of Global Christianity ) .  Nevertheless, there appears to be common agreement among church leadership that   every Christian should be aware  that he or she is a  member of this Body and of the role he has in it.
What  will follow  are comments  of several active Christians who take their given role in  this Body seriously.  First, we should perhaps cite from Webster's  New World College Dictionary  two of its definitions of a Christian:  1 )  a person professing belief in Jesus at the Christ, or in the religion based on the teachings of Jesus;  2) having the qualities demonstrated and taught by Jesus , as love, kindness, humility, etc. 
And second, we  cite  these  few Biblical verses so you  know  the sources from which these inspired  comments come.  ( As  for an analogy these individuals  might use to explain the benefits of "membership" in this Body  of Christ where each members knows his role and carries it out for the common good,   think  of a champion athletic team—say, this year's  Chicago Blackhawks. )

For as in one  body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so      we, though many, are one body in Christ. (Romans 12: 4, 5 )

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,let us exercise them. (Romans 12: 6)

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, as we were all given to drink of one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12: 13 )

The eye cannot say to the hand," I do not need you, " nor again the head to the feet, " I do not need you. "  Indeed, the parts of the body that seem  to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. (I Corinthians 12: 21-24 )

Living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into Him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love. ( Ephesians 4: 15, 16 )
          Last,  a few words  from theologians to help not only to visualize the  Body but also to explain,  again by analogy, how God can respond  simultaneously to the prayers of millions of Christians who live and breathe in this Body.  In his book, " My Meditations of Saint Paul ," The Rev. James E. Sullivan, writes: " When one of their [ Paul and Barnabas ] fingers was infected , their whole body went into a fever to help the injured finger fight the infection.  That's how a living, healthy body reacted…Distance meant nothing. "  Another Christian  made the case of    God's ability to  instantly orchestrate the unified functioning of millions of cells in one human body .  He gave the example of how a loving  touch of a mother upon her baby's body can, with the speed of light, communicate joy, love , and comfort  to the entire body and mind.  As for  how God can and  does reply simultaneously to an infinite number of prayers,  this Christian gave the example of an employee at an electrical power plant who ,  with one tug on a master switch, lights up an infinite  number of light bulbs. 

            Here, in alphabetical order ,  are the thoughts  of individuals who were asked to  contribute—in brief or in length—to this article: 

Diane Adam, long-time, very  active member,  St. James Catholic Church, Arlington Heights,  IL … God has told us we are all one with Him. He is the vine and we are His branches.  We are one with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ living and dead. Thinking about and then believing these words is comforting. We are never alone and with Christ in us we become stronger. The Eucharist is our and my identity. It centers me and joins me with Catholics all over the world and even in heaven with my parents and other loved ones.

Dr. Mike Atella,  Christian psychotherapist,  Schaumburg , IL… The concept of the Body of Christ hasn't nearly achieved its potential. It has an amazing potential, more  than any other organization in the world. There is plenty of room for the  church to  flex its muscles constructively to help our world become a better place for  us all. 

Julia DesRochers, PhD , food scientist , Downers Grove, IL… I think of the body of Christ ….[as]  the body that extends to all Christians who proclaim Jesus as Lord and follow Him.  I believe it also helps us have tolerance for  people who do this  in  many different ways.  Paul's description as the body parts all having different but equally important roles is a very good way to grasp that.  When you understand what your role is in the body of Christ, it allows you  to lose  envy of others because we each have separate gifts to bring, and they are all important, no matter how small or big, subtle or well- recognized. This understanding helps us be humble and also more loving and tolerant. The hard part is discerning what your "body part" is! If you're an arm, but convinced you're the eyes, well ...many things can lead you off course if  you think eyes are more important than an arm. While you may compensate and learn to be a decent eye, you'll never fulfill the full potential that God created for you.  
Another thing that makes it hard [to  discern our particular part ] is that God places us in situations to use our gifts, and perhaps those roles change over time and with different circumstances. Praying  to discern this is critical.  Be open to how He wants to use you as a part of the Body of Christ to further His kingdom!  My role continues to grow and unfold, which is pretty cool.

Fr. Matt Foley, pastor , St. James, Arlington Heights…
Q. How do you visualize the Mystical Body of Christ in human terms ?
A. We are all connected  through Christ and the Sacraments.  When I look out into the congregation during Mass , I see the face of God collectively as all the individuals at Mass.
Q. Who's in it,  who's not ?
A. For me,  I include everyone  . I believe in Matthew 25;  Jesus is the ultimate judge of who will be in  the eternal Body of Christ.  My role is to make sure all are welcome to be with Christ and in Christ.
Q. Is it important for all   " bona fide" Christians to  know that they exist in  this body and also to know what their role or function is in it ?
A. The mystical lends me to believe that not all is answered during our life on earth.  I prefer to live in the mystery.
Q. Can you describe any experience in your life—pastoral or not—where you were an active member in this body and how it might  have achieved its goals—secular or spiritual—more effectively ?
A. Every time I have the honor to celebrate Mass I feel connected on various levels with the community of believers.  When I invite the worshippers to go in peace, I feel we are sending each other out to be the body of Christ in our world today.  Being nourished and fed by the Word and Eucharist compels us to go out and create a new world.  

Sr. Joanne Grib, Sisters of the  Living Word … 

Q. How  do you visualize the body of Christ in human terms?

A.  You're talking about 3 different  bodies: When He was His physical body;  then as  us Christians—every last one of us— the communion of saints ;  and also the Eucharist ,  the real Presence of Him.

Q. So, all Christians of all denominations  belong to this body of Christ ?

A. That's right. 

Q. Then, this body  is a universal body , and baptism is sort of a credential to enter it?     

A.  That's right. 

Q. Does it really matter whether  a Christian is aware of  being a member of the Body of Christ?

A. It's important to remember because we are carrying Christ into the world . And whatever we do, people [ if they know we are Christian ] see the act as being done by Christ.  It's one of the most essential beliefs of the church. 

Q. Is  it also  important to know what your role is in this body,   so you can work  for the common good ?   For an analogous example, think of the  Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup: Surely, it was vital for everybody on that team to know his precise role and how  to  coordinate it with all the other team member roles.

 A. Well, the Body of Christ does have so very  many members. But I believe that if we are following the Ten Commandments, we are functioning in Christ's name. Though not all of us may not be aware of being  in His Body, nevertheless  this is    the   truth , which takes hold of us whether we believe it or not.

Q. Can you describe  any personal experience where you behaved as a member of the Body of Christ?

A.  At Mass every morning. We  are a community there. I feel that I'm a part of the life of everyone of those people. There's no doubt about it !

Matthew Hahn , deacon at St. James , Arlington Heights, scout leader,  and former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant…A former commandant of the Marine Corps was fond of saying "Marines do the right thing, especially when they know nobody is watching. We teach the same principle  in scouting: "On my honor, I will do my best , to do my duty to God and my country…to help other people.  " Working together in this way,  both the Marine Corps and    scouting produce fine examples of people who make up the Body of Christ. And, when this happens, wonderful,  marvelous things happen .

Don Knorr, Certified Public Accountant , Christian mentor and member of Opus Dei… The unity of the mystical body , which derives from a  single  life-principle, the Holy Spirit, and tends towards a common same goal, that is, the building up of the Church, means that all its members, whatever their position, have the same basic dignity and the same importance.

St. Paul uses a literary device by personifying the members of the human   body and imagines the nobler members with the lesser ones. This serves to reaffirm the truth,  that members are to  have the same care for one another.

Jesus Christ is the head of the  body, the Church. This image shows the relationship of Christ with the Church, to which he sends his grace in abundance, bearing life to all its members. "The head," St. Augustine says, "is  our very Savior, who suffered under Pontius Pilate and now, after rising from the dead, is seated at the right hand of the Father. And His Body   ( the Body of Jesus Christ ) is the Church. ..For the whole Church, made up of the assembly of the faithful—for all the faithful are Christ's members—has Christ as its head, who rules  His Body from on high. " (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 56, 1 ).

Brian Reynolds, musician and secretary of Foundation for Children  in Need (FCN), an expansive outreach program   serving the needs of  the rural poor in India…
Q. How do you visualize the Mystical Body of Christ, in human terms?

A. The visual I see when witnessing the Mystical Body of Christ is when “love in action” is exercised. Love exercised through prayer, compassion, kindness, patience, tenderness, mercy and in loving service to others. We all have been blessed with many gifts and power from God, Our Father,  and as I understand it, someday these special gifts we have today will come to an end, but “love” goes on forever.

Q. Is it important for all Christians to know that they exist in this body and also to know what their role or function is in it?

A. I believe that that knowing we are all one in His Body brings all believers closer together. (It also strengthens our desire to evangelize to those who may not be part of His Body… and, as St. Francis said,  if necessary , use words.) Our awareness of being one in His Body helps each of us recognize the love of Christ in ourselves and within others. As I attempt to live my life out in the Body of Christ, I believe my role or function is continuously being shaped and directed through every interaction God Blesses me to experience. Our Father in Heaven is constantly pouring His love into our hearts,  and it is up to each one of us to decide how to share our abundance.

Q. How does FCN function as the Body of Christ?

A. Well … we are using our God given gifts to help support the poorest of the poor in Southern India. Each volunteer, board member, sponsor and employee is working to help improve a child’s life through the gift of an education and needed healthcare. As each staff member fulfills their mission role, God’s love is realized through our collective efforts to reach out and help these poor people. For any person that has ever felt alone, afraid or challenged by life circumstances, the living Body of Christ brings believers together in prayer and unity for that person in need. This sincere response from others confirms that God is present in our world and He is realized through our love for one another.

The Rev. Eldor "Rick" Richter, celebrated author of the book "Comparing the Qur'an  and the Bible " and executive pastor emeritus of St. Peter  Lutheran  (Missouri Synod ) church, Arlington Heights…
[ excerpts from a   previous sermon of his  ]
            The church is not an human institution . It is a living    reality. It is alive, because the living Christ is its head and lives in and through its members...
            As an institution or human organization,  the church can be efficient, successful, well organized ; but unless Christ is its Savior and Head, unless Christ, by faith is living in its members, it is not the church, the Body of Christ…
            You were   born—reborn, once and for all—when you were  united with Christ's death and resurrection in Holy Baptism. There is   one Baptism, one faith, one Lord, one God and Father. That is what the Scriptures say. This is our   unity in the  Body…
            We should say to ourselves,  [ our church  ] is  the Body I belong to. The Body needs me. I may be only a little finger, but  I am important to the Body. We are not to consider ourselves inferior or inadequate. We are not to   despise our gift and be discontent with our contribution. The Lord has place you in the Body and He wants you to exercise your gift for the good of all. We are interdependent ! …
            This calls for appreciation of gifts which we have among  yourselves.  Some of us are  good at exhortation…acts of mercy and compassion…service…leadership…financial support…evangelism…teaching…craftsmanship…interpretation of the Scripture…hospitality. These are  all gifts mentioned  in the Scriptures. All of us have the gift of love, which is the most important gift of all.
Fr. Paul Wachdorf…pastor, St. Gregory the Great , Chicago…
Q. How do you visualize the Mystical Body of Christ in human terms ? Who's in it,  who's not ? Does it have any real form ?

A. The Church , which is the Mystical Body of Christ , can be found in three different forms. It exists on this earth and is called the "Church Militant" because its members struggle against sin, evil and injustice in the world. The Church suffering refers to the souls in Purgatory who await the fullness of redemption. The "Church Triumphant "is the Church in heaven. The real form of the Mystical Body of Christ is the people who make up the Church and who seek to build up the Mystical Body of Christ in our world.

Q. Is it important for all " bona fide" Christians to know that they exist in this body and also to know what their role or function is in it ?

A. I believe that it is important for all Christians to claim membership in the Mystical Body of Christ and to claim ownership for seeking to build up the Mystical Body of Christ by their words and their actions. Every Christian needs to discern how he or she is a part of the Mystical Body of Christ and what he or she can contribute to building it up. The image of the Mystical Body of Christ reminds us that we are all in this together. We are not lone wolves. We journey towards the Kingdom of God together, and we have an obligation to partner with our Christian sisters and brothers on this journey. I think it is very important for all “bona fide” Christians to internalize this and live it out. 

Q. Can you describe any experience in your life—pastoral or not—where you were an active member in this body and how it could  have achieved its goal—secular or spiritual—more effectively ?

A. As a Catholic priest for the past 40 years and as the pastor of a parish, I have dedicated my life to being an active member of the Mystical Body of Christ; and through my preaching and teaching, through my witness and example, I have sought to encourage my parishioners to do the same. Over the past 40 years, I have had countless experiences where this has been the case. And I am always looking for new and creative ways in which I can be a member of the Mystical Body of Christ myself and in which I can encourage my people to do the same. Right now I think that Pope Francis has the right idea … that as good Christians, we need to look out for one another and to pay special care to the least of our sisters and brothers.

Rick Warren, celebrated author of the "Purpose Driven Life"and  founding  pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA…
One reason you need to be connected to a church family is to fulfill your calling to serve other believers in practical ways. The Bible says, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27 ).
Your service is essential to the Body of Christ—just ask any local church. Each of us has a role to play, and every role is important. There is no small service to God; it all matters.
There are no insignificant ministries in the church. Some are visible and some are hidden behind the scenes, but all are valuable. Small or hidden ministries often make the biggest difference. In my home, the most important light is not the large chandelier in our dining room but the little night light that keeps me from stubbing my toe when I get up at night.
There is no correlation between size and significance. Every ministry matters because we are all dependent on each other to function.
What happens when one part of your body fails to function? You get sick. The rest of your body suffers. Imagine if your liver decided to start living for itself: “I’m tired! I don’t want to serve the body anymore! I want a year off just to be fed. I’ve got to do what’s best for me! Let some other part take over.”
What would happen? Your body would die. Today thousands of local churches are dying because of Christians who are unwilling to serve. They sit on the sidelines as spectators, and the Body suffers.
God calls you to a service far beyond anything you could ever imagine. He created YOU for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for you to do (see Ephesians 2:10). Whenever you serve others, you are actually serving God. 

All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz


Sunday, June 28, 2015


By Robert R. Schwarz

                                    It is love that impels them to pursue everlasting life;
                                    therefore they are eager to take the narrow road.
                                    A  Rule of St. Benedict

            For many of us, monasteries and the lives of monks and cloistered nuns appear other-worldly and  a convenient way to avoid the realities of everyday life;  monastic lifestyles, due mostly to Hollywood movies and the scant number of in-depth media  reports, have  left us  with the distorted  impression that these  lifestyles , though laudable in many respects, are severely strict and  unnecessary  for a Christian life.  As a former newspaper reporter and editor, this once was my perception, too .  But it gradually changed, not due  to any particular religious leaning but rather to  interviewing and writing about  monastic people around the world, including Mother Theresa and her Sisters of Charity  at their Calcutta headquarters.  A few months ago and now retired,  I  decided to update my observations of monastic life and,  with my wife, Mary Alice , drove to the Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa. This is a  report of that visit ( with a  bit of editorializing added, I admit ) .  
         As  a journalist ,  I  naturally loved to probe for the truth of the matter.  After my confinement for ten days in  a Czech  prison during the Cold War and later, as president of a mental health agency,  I valued human   freedom to search for truth  more than ever. I also loathed  the loss of one's free will to realize the truth  about one's self.  Nowadays, though much of  my search for truth is still in a cloud of unknowing, I feel unshackled in pursuing it, thanks to these words from  my  favorite Mentor and Life Teacher:  " You shall know the truth, and the  truth shall make you free."

     As you drive southeast from  Dubuque , you see  rolling land shaped beautifully by the  Mississippi river bluffs . Once you turn off the highway, it' easy to pass the small  Abbey Lane  sign . A  little further down the narrow, winding road is the " Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey"  sign.  It , too,  is obviously not meant to attract  visitors, yet several hundred come here annually;  some (never more than ten)   stay a night or  two in one of the   five , unadorned   guest houses  among the woodlands now in view. Soon  on your right  appears another   narrow road leading  to the abbey's  "candy factory," where the nuns make and process the caramel candy and mints ( 33 tons of it in 2013 ) they ship all over the world t o support themselves.  A few hundred yards later is a road that dips down to a   two-story, stone guest house which, like the others,  has a kitchen with a container  on a countertop for  a free-will donation for your stay.  Near this house is a large barn with a corral , a  vegetable  garden and  an old wooden gate that opens to a dirt road  that transverses 600 acres  of  farm land, more than half  of it  in harvestable  forest .
            Abbey Lane ends at the chapel  and a circle of flowers and gurgling rivulets of fountain water with a statue of  Mary holding the Christ child . The abbey is named after  this statue.  I am reminded of my first visit here more than 20 years ago when I came to produce a documentary  slide program  for retirement  homes in Chicago land suburbs.  The abbey,  I had learned , was founded in 1964 by 13 Trappistine  ( known today as Cistercians ) nuns whose goal was   to continue and extend a tradition of monastic life that had its origins in the early Middle Ages.  The sisters here now  number 17. Their daughter house is in Norway.
Two of the abbey's laborers , Sisters Myra and Rebecca
            After parking my car, I began walking back down the road , enjoying the May day with its loud chirping of  birds and its morning sun dappling upon leaves of trees .  Approaching  me  was an elderly sister  walking a  small dog. She held a cane in one hand and an uprooted flower in the other. We paused  and immediately  struck up a conversation.  She told me she was Sr. Joan and her dog was Pangie, a  seven-year-old rescue dog , part collie and part Shetland Sheep—she thought—and that one of Panjie's eyes was brown, the other blue .  Sr. Joan was 75 and  celebrating her 50  th year of  monastic profession , of  living in an unshared room ( as her other abbey  sisters  did  ) under the  Rule of St. Benedict (  480-543 A.D. ): solitude, silence, prayer, work, and a disciplined life of communal living.  She was amiable and  cheerful and her face radiated contentment. Anyone  would  get the impression she enjoyed speaking to  stranger—church-goer or not-—as much as  she  did to her best friend.
            I asked her about the cane and the flower she was holding . The cane was made by a fellow sister  from a tree branch . " This rose I'm transplanting to the flower garden here , " she said , and again asked Pangie to stop barking  and jumping around so much so I could take a photo of both of them. " He's a nice  dog but he barks," she said.
" Yes," I replied,  that's what dogs  do."  She laughed.
            I told Sr. Joan that before I had left home, I  had asked two nuns from different orders for a  question to ask the abbey sisters , something with an answer  that would  benefit ordinary people.  I asked , " How does one draw closer to Jesus ? " 
            Still holding onto  the rose plant, she leaned heavily on her cane, and looked at  me  as if  I had simply asked her for the time ."Talk to Him in your heart, " she said. "You can draw close to Jesus anytime of the day, any place, while washing, cleaning, or grocery shopping. . The more you do this, the closer you come to Him . "
            I thanked her and suggested she get  some water for the rose. 
" Come on, Panjie," she said, and  headed to the garden…and I headed for my interview  appointment with Sr. Gail Fitzpatrick , the former abbess here .
Wisdom from the Cloister
" Reading the Bible brings us closer to Jesus "
            We sat in a small room adjoining an equally small gift office. At 77, Sr. Gail  was the oldest  sister ( the youngest was  30 ). She was obviously pleased to be interviewed , quick  to listen and empathetic to my needs as an interviewer.  She weighed her  words and spoke  clearly without any pretense . Her nun habit consisted of a black veil  and black scapula and a  blouse with white sleeves. 
She wore glasses , and a  tuft of white hair protruded from her veil . 
     We talked  close to an hour before I asked her what I had asked  Sr. Joan.  I prefaced it with a few remarks  about how ,  as a  roving reporter ,  I had never been be satisfied with what     " having  a relationship with Jesus " really meant . It’s   a common phrase  heard  throughout Christendom ,  and  though I had known individuals  who surely had this relationship—a closer one  than mine, I  surmised—I told Sr. Gail that I still could  not recall any doctrine or individual  defining this phrase   with   street-wise vernacular or with the diction  and semantics that resonated with me. Perhaps it's because  this "relationship" is different for everyone ?  I asked myself .  Maybe inexpressible ?  
      Sr. Gail   replied immediately in a soft voice: " We get closer t o Jesus by prayer,  but a prayer  that is really seeking to know Him. I know this is easy to say but not to people who have had no experience  in praying . And we need to read   scripture about Jesus, to hear  His Word. "
Then she stressed how important—even urgent—it is today  for those who evangelize or give sermons or homilies to " pin point "  the exact Biblical verse or chapter  that applies to the situation at hand .  In her book " Seasons of Grace: Wisdom from the Cloister "  ( can be ordered through one of  the abbey's  website, " " ) ,  Sr.  Gail writes: " I believe that it is this daily fidelity to listening to and reflecting on the Bible that  gives monasticism it vitality and makes it appealing to such a wide variety of contemporary seekers—from parish priests to Protestant pastors,  from faithful Christians to those who are deeply distrustful of the Bible and the  religion it represents."
A distant view of the abbey chapel on a spring day 
   I asked Sr. Gail to describe a typical day for the  sisters.  " We have a buzzer at 3:30 a.m. that will knock you out of bed, " she began with a smile. "Then there's vigils  that sets the tone for the day. This is the reading of the Psalms and  the Bible  and singing of  hymns. Then after  30 to 90 minutes of quiet prayer and meditation in our  own rooms or the chapel,  we have breakfast .   We go  to the kitchen and help ourselves to cereal or toast, nothing cooked. At 7:15 we have morning prayer , followed by mass . "
     From 8:30  t o 11:30,  the women work at cooking, cleaning, secretarial duties, making candy, and garden work . This is followed by  30 minutes of doing whatever a sister  needs to do, such taking a walk or washing their clothes. Just before lunch , which they call "dinner" because it's their  main meal—all vegetables—they have a five-minute prayer, their  "little hour ".  Siesta time is 1 to l:35 p.m. , then another "little hour" , followed by abbey tasks time until 3:45. 
     "Until 5 p..m ., we do things that are enjoyable, " Sr. Gail said , " such as studying, writing, or going for a walk."
      I couldn't suppress the question  "do you ever go into town to see a movie? "
   " No, " she replied, muffling a chuckle. We go into town only to see a doctor or   shop for things  we can't have delivered or buy online ."
            They gather in the chapel at 5 for vespers, then head to the kitchen for their "pick up"  meal , a sandwich or whatever  an individual sister can find there.  From this hour until  7:15  is their  "grand silence," meaning no talking,  no business. A night prayer sung in the chapel ends the sisters' day.  " A lot of visitors come to hear this prayer, "  Sr. Gail said. " It's short and melodious . Everyone is in bed by 8 p.m.  But we don't have a bell that says you have to have lights out. "
            "  And you keep this schedule Monday through Friday ? ! I asked. 
            " No. Seven days a week," she said,  rather casually, I thought. 
            "You wrote in your book [ " Seasons of Grace " ] about the great value your abbey places on communal living . " Do you ever have spats, conflicts, disagreements ?"
            " We do. Our communal living is just as  difficult to maintain and grow as marriage or any other environment where you have more than one person. The difference is we have a vocation  to love. We here are all trying to live like Christ, a life of love. "
            " Would you mind telling me what kind of conflicts you have and how you resolve them?"    I asked  politely, for  I was beginning to like Sr. Gail as a woman with  CEO-like responsibilities.  .
            " Sometimes it's talking too much, coming in late always to meetings, making too much noise at  night. Or our liturgy committee might not agree on how  the " Gloria  should be sung on a    feast day.  The key [ to resolving our conflicts ] is  to respect one another's opinions, to listen to the other person.  "
            " And what is your  advice to Mr. and Mrs. Jones on Main Street regarding  conflict resolution  ? " I asked .
            "We have to bring a deep respect to our communications with each other. I need to respect you as a person , who you are at this moment, not who you were or what you've done. I'm not the one to judge or call the shots. I need to have inner humility .  "
            We agreed that having true humility requires a  realistic honest   view of  who your are and who your are not. 
Beauty and Gratitude
            I told her I was  anxious to revisit the abbey land I hadn't seen in many  years.  " We used to do all the farming ourselves but it became a little bit  too much for us," she commented.  "Now we rent the fields .  A couple of times we had livestock but it became too much  to handle . But in our garden, we still grow tomatoes , lettuce, carrots, greenbeans, squash, raspberries and  pumpkins for salads , you know. Oh, and  this year we had a marvelous crop of asparagus. "  
Panorama of the abbey's bountiful square mile
            We rose from the table. Sr. Gail had several tasks awaiting her . We exchanged a few spontaneous words about "gratitude"  and then parted  company.  Our words about gratitude and her words about coming close to Jesus  lingered with me as I walked to the field gate below and opened it to a  mile-wide panorama of wheat, calf-high  corn, alfalfa ,  haystacks here and there and, beyond all that the abbey's woodlands.
            I began walking slowly  down a  wide dirt  path shaped by years of tractor wheels running over it. The sky was puffed with white clouds,  and  birds—most often  orioles— kept flushing  up from  patches of  wild  flowers.  Gazing upon this land and the life it was nourishing  as I breathed in part of it,  made me think of those life-lesson parables  Jesus told his disciples about humankind interacting with nature.
            I continued walking until , on my left and about a hundred yards down a gentle slope  of corn ,  I saw a pond with  a cabin on its far bank . A few tree branches , tall weeds, and bulrushes obscured most of this setting  as if nature itself had requested it so. I walked to the pond  down a furrow of corn and stood on a bank opposite the cabin , a stone's throw away.  It was a simple log  structure with windows without  any covering and an interior  empty of furnishings. I recalled being told that it was built without nails by pioneers  and that the sisters sometimes came here to  meditate and pray—as I did now,  sitting on earth and listening to frogs and crickets.
            Those thoughts about gratitude which Sr. Gail and I had shared  came to mind.  "Another thing about knowing God better, " she had said,  " is gratitude, and  gratitude for me is constantly around me when I look at  nature .When I walk around here there is so much beauty and so much life and so much gift that my heart is filled with gratitude. And that comes back to me in prayer.  I have so much to be grateful for: life, love, opportunities to know God in other people. " 
            Her words had  stirred me to say, "This may sound simplistic, Sister Gail,  but I am often grateful   just to have been created   as a human , to be given life instead of no life. "
            Sr. Gail smiled  and nodded her head.  " You know," she said, "the closer we get to God, the simpler  our thoughts about Him and Jesus will be."
            I  kept listening to frogs and crickets.
The founding sisters ( with a visiting priest  ) on Oct. 18, 1964. Holding the
new monastery cross is the abbey superior, Sr. M. Columba.  

The End…and

The Abbey's Prayer for Discernment

Loving God,
You have a plan for each of us, you hold out
to us a future full of hope.

Give us the wisdom of your Spirit so that we
may discover your plan in the gifts you have
 given us, and in the circumstances of our daily

Give us the freedom of your Spirit, to seek you
with all our hearts, and to choose your will
above all else.

We make this prayer through Christ  our Lord.


17 Cistercian sisters gather for a meeting in the abbey's refectory 
The sisters fill in the grave after burial of a departed sister.


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© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz