Category Archives: monks

A gift horse

Reading this morning about Saint Aidan, Celtic monk and bishop of Lindisfarne, I recalled the proverb

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

We shouldn’t look at the value of a gift (even if it’s an old horse) but rather accept all gifts gratefully.

But the story of Aidan and the gift horse is quite different, as told in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

King Oswin gave Bishop Aidan a horse with fine trappings so that the bishop could ride to the far-flung parts of his diocese instead of walking as had been his custom.

One day Aidan met a beggar who sought alms. Aidan dismounted and gave the horse and all the trappings to the man. As Bede notes, Aidan “was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as it were, the father of the wretched.”

The king was a little upset and told Aidan that he had other less valuable horses that the bishop could give to the poor.

Aidan’s response is classic:

“What are you saying, your majesty? Is the child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?”

No thing, no animal is more valuable than a human being, a child of God.

I also recall a conversation Charlie Clements writes about in Witness to War: An American Doctor in El Salvador. He spoke to some campesinos who worked on a cattle ranch near Suchitoto. They told him how the owner would send them to town to buy medicines for the animals – but they had no medicine for their sick children.

How often are the poor treated worse than animals, than things.

The witness of Saint Aidan is as important today as it was in the seventh century.

A Lebanese hermit in Mexico

In January 2012 I went to San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico, for the wedding of a friend.

One day I went walking around town and visited a few churches. In one I saw the image of a saint with ribbons on his arms.

Iglesia Guadalupe, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México

Iglesia Guadalupe, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México

The image seemed very non-Mexican but it was there, right next to an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It was the image of St. Sharbel Makhlof, a Lebanese Maronite monk who lived in the nineteenth century. Today his feast in celebrated in the Catholic Church.*

St. Sharbel never left Lebanon and spent most of his time in a monastery, living most of the later years of his life as a hermit. He was revered as a wonder-worker after his death.

Lebanese Maronites who immigrated to Mexico (and other parts of the Americas) brought their devotion to the holy monk Sharbel with them. (He was canonized in 1977.) Though many of them became Roman Catholics, they kept their devotion to him. Now many people write their petitions on colored ribbons and place them on the arms of St. Sharbel.

The holiness of a monk is spread to another continent, reminding us of the catholicity of the Church, the People of God.

We are one.

That oneness, that solidarity is reflected in the saints who are revered far from their homes.

That solidarity can also be practiced as we remember the Middle East, torn apart by so much conflict these days.

Saint Sharbel, pray for us, asking the Lord to grant us peace – in Honduras, in Latin America, in Lebanon and Syria.


The Maronites are Catholics, with a strong connection to the Patriarchal See of Antioch, who celebrated the Eucharist with a different rite but are in union with the Catholic Church and the pope.

Washing dishes

Today, in a Facebook note, Jim Forest wrote about an encounter he had with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Jim was left to wash the dishes and was a bit annoyed that he was missing a great conversation.

As Jim wrote:

 Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling. But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

When I first read about this in the 1970s, I was deeply moved, partly because I liked to wash dishes. When I was living in New York City, this was one of the ways to get warm in a cold apartment.

But I remember the joy I had at Thanksgiving when my family went to dinner with the family of Uncle Ed and Aunt Bernie. After a big meal, I would take over washing dishes in the kitchen.

Nhat Hanh’s advice to Jim is, in one way, a call to attentiveness, to “mindfulness,” to being present to the moment. It is not far removed from Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God in a Paris Carmelite kitchen in the seventeenth century.

But it is also a reminder of the value of manual labor.

Today is the feast of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism.

After a time in Subiaco, outside Rome, first as a hermit then as the leader of several groups of monk-hermits, Benedict moved to Monte Cassino, where he wrote his rule for monks. “Ora et labora” – Pray and Work – is at the center of his rule for monks, which is really quite practical.

In chapter 35, he writes specifically about kitchen duties:

 The brethren should serve one another. Consequently, none will be excused from kitchen service unless they are sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love. . . . Let all the rest serve one another in love.

Serving one another in love – with our hands and our hearts – is central, not only to Benedictine monks and nuns, but to all who seek to follow God.

And so today, when I wash dishes – in cold water with very little water pressure – I will try to be attentive to what I do and remember that I should wash each dish “as if it were the baby Jesus.”


Twentieth century martyrs

prepare yourself for trials.
Sirach 2:1

The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death
the Son of Man will rise.
Mark 9: 31

The memory of the martyrs reminds us that witnessing to the Truth of God has consequences. The way of following Christ passes through the Cross.

The twentieth century is full of martyrs who died for their faith. The circumstances of their deaths and the reasons why they were killed are many. And some may have died more for reasons of politics than of faith.

Today’s martyrs illustrate the range of martyrs.

Today the Catholic church celebrates Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army. He was beheaded by the Nazis on August 9, 1943. Today is the anniversary of his baptism in 1907. His witness of refusal to support Nazism has inspired me and many to oppose war and totalitarian regimes. An article by the Catholic Peace Fellowship can be found here. I wrote about him here and here.

Today is also the feast of St. Cristobal Magallenes and other Mexican Catholics killed in the wake of the Cristero rebellion. Father Cristobal preached against the rebellion but he was arrested and killed, forgiving his enemies.

Today is also the anniversary of the deaths of Trappist Father Christian de Chergé and seven other Trappists in Algeria. Offering a contemplative witness in Algeria which included dialogue with Islam, they were kidnapped and killed by rebels. In a letter written a few years before their death, Père Christian wrote a letter that ended with these moving words to his murderer:

May we be granted to meet each other again, happy thieves, in paradise, should it please God, the Father of both of us. Amen! In sh’Allah!

I wrote about them here.  A short reflection on the film Of Gods and Men is found here.

Today is also the anniversary of the killing in Peru of Australian Sister Irene McCormick by the Sendero Luminoso, a rebel group.

The list can go on of the anniversary of martyrs – including

  • Fr. Pedro Aguilar Santos, killed in El Quiché, Guatemala, in 1981.
  • Norma Coronoa Sapiens, president and founding member of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, killed — death squad style — in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1991.
  • Fr. Carlos Domiak, killed in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, 1975.

It must be noted that most Latin American martyrs of the late twentieth century were not killed by rebels but by government forces or right wing death squads who opposed the church’s defense of the poor. Many of these governments were supported by the US government.

These women and men knew that their Lord did not turn back in the face of persecution. The knew that serving Him and the poor, being witnesses to Love, can lead to one’s death.

The martyrs challenge us but they also offer us a paradoxical confirmation of the closing lines of today’s first reading (Sirach 2: 11)

Compassionate and merciful is the Lord;
he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble
and he is a protector to all who seek him in truth.

The martyrs die – but they believe that God is with them. God’s protection doesn’t necessarily mean protection from death and suffering. It means a deep peace in the face of the Cross.


A step every day

According to The Celtic Year, today is the feast of St. Comgall, an Irish monk, founder of the Bangor monastery which formed and sent monks out to the world, including Columbanus who founded monasteries in France, Switzerland, and Italy.

His way of monastic life was severe – one meal a day, and he himself would at times pray standing in freezing waters.

His rule has been preserved and has these beautiful lines, quoted by Esther de Waal, cited in The Celtic Year:

Preserve the rule of the Lord;
in this you will run no risk;
Try not to transgress it
as long as your life lasts.

This is the most important part of the rule;
love Christ; hate wealth;
Devotion to the King of the sun
and kindness to people.

If anybody enters the path of repentance
it is sufficient
to advance a step every day.
Do not wish to be like the charioteer.

How often do I want to advance like a charioteer – or like a racecar driver, we’d say today. But the wisdom of the saints is “advance a step a day.”

Even one step a day can be a great advance in terms of the Kingdom of God.

Though we set our sights high – on God, we advance only if we tread carefully, everyday, one step at a time, watching where we are going, not racing by the opportunities God offers us every day to walk in His footsteps.

The power of stories

Today the Catholic Church celebrates St. Anthony – not the Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua, but the Egyptian desert father, often identified as the founder of monasticism, who lived from 250 to 356.

There are many fascinating aspects of St. Anthony’ life – including giving up his wealth in response to hearing the Gospel of the rich young man and his struggles with demons which is depicted graphically in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altar tableaux meant for a chapel of the Antonine monks who cared for those suffering with ergotism. Christ is covered with the same type of sores that the patients suffered. Paul Hindemith also responded to the inspiration of Grüenwald and St. Anthony with his Mathis der Maler.

But what struck me this morning, as I read Robert Ellsberg’s account of St. Anthony in All Saints, was the power of the account of his life written by St. Athanasius. This was a work that contributed to St. Augustine’s conversion. It was also a work that deeply influenced western monasticism.

What stories are we listening to? What stories are we telling? Whose lives do we recall?

Attending the funeral of my Aunt Mary Barrar last month I heard a great number of stories of her life, especially her last months in an assisted living setting. Her ability to connect with the staff, to show her interest in their lives, and even to influence at least one of them were marvelous signs of love and faith.

Similarly the wake of my father in 1999 was a time when I heard stories of his generosity even as a young man.

Let us then share stories and seek out the stories of others so that we can see the signs of God’s grace active in our world.

Martin of Tours — lover of peace and the poor

Today the Church celebrates St. Martin of Tours, one of the earliest persons recognized as a saint who was not a martyr.

Born to a pagan father, he became a catechumen, preparing to join the Church. But, since his father was in the military, Martin had to join the Roman army.  There are stories that he had to be dragged away to the army in chains.

Still a catechumen he distinguished himself by his care for the poor. One cold day, near Amiens he encountered a beggar. According to his biographer Sulpicius Severus, he had only his armor and his cloak, since he had given away everything else to the poor.

Martin cut his cloak in half and gave it to the poor man.

That night, in a dream, Martin saw Christ clothed in the cloak who said, “Look. Martin, still a catechumen, has clothed Me with his garment.”

At that point in his life, Martin took seriously the works of mercy in Matthew 25, something that he lived out later when he was bishop of Tours.

Soon after this event, when the army was about to engage in battle, Martin asked to be released from the military. “I am a soldier of Christ, and I cannot fight,” he told his commander. Martin offered to go into battle the next day at the front of the troops, unarmed.

There are two stories of what happened next.

In one, the opposing army sued for peace that very night.

In the other, Martin was imprisoned for his “cowardice.”

He was released, was baptized, founded the first monastery in France, and was ricked into becoming the bishop of Tours.

Martin was a saint who loved the poor and gave his all for them – as the widow gave all she had in today’s Gospel, Mark 12: 41-44. But even more, he refused to kill, believing that following Christ meant walking the way of nonviolence and love of enemies.

He would not make many people happy these days with his concern for the poor and his refusal to kill.

He also did not believe that heretics should be executed, though he was forced to give in to one case, which he regretted all his life.

Martin of Tours is a saint whom we should remember – not just with our prayers but with our lives.


Will we become a people who live the poor, seek the way of nonviolence, and refuse to kill our enemies?


That’s quite a challenge.

Work and the school of the Lord’s service

Today the Church celebrates St. Benedict, the patriarch of Western Monasticism.

Benedict was not the first western monk; there are numerous examples of monks and hermits in the west (particularly in Ireland).

But Benedict founded a style of monasticism with a rule of life that modified the extreme ascetic practices of many monks and hermits and offered “a school of the Lord’s service” that has endured to this day.

Prayer and work were the ways the monks sought to serve God.

Benedict’s rule, chapter 35, is clear on the dignity of work and the need that all work.

 Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because greater merit and more charity is thereby acquired.

In the course of history, a distinction arose in many monasteries between the choir monks who prayed (and were mostly ordained priests) and the lay brothers who did the manual labor.

Gratefully, this has changed and the value of all work and of non-clerical monks has been revived.

The Benedictine monastery of Mount Saviour, near Elmira, NY, played an important role in my life. During graduate school I drifted away from the practice of my faith. A friend, who had spent some time at Mount Saviour, helped me return – first of all going to Mass at the apartment of the Little Brothers of the Gospel on New York City’s Lower East Side and then a retreat at Mount Saviour.

At Mount Saviour I saw the equality that Benedict proposed. My friend told me about his first visit there. He saw a monk working in the garden and asked to speak with Fr. Martin, the prior. “I am the prior,” the monk answered.

No work, that is honest, is below the dignity of any person – even the prior. Manual work has a dignity for many reasons and should not be despised.

In a world where many of us flee manual labor, the example of Benedict – and of monks like Fr. Martin – should inspire us to “pray and work” as our way of advancing on the “school of the Lord’s service,” preferring nothing to Christ.