The Cereal Box and the Sign
I left after the 10:30 AM Mass last April 15, heading for a week of silence, solitude, prayer and hiking at the Monastery of Bethlehem in the Catskills of Sullivan County, NY. I needed time alone with God. Heading down Old Dominion, I stopped by the Safeway in the Chesterbrook Shopping Center for food and wine to supplement the monastic meals. Among other things, I wanted a box of hearty breakfast cereal, something sustaining. Eager to get on the road, I hastily snatched a box of “Nature’s Path Organic Heritage Flakes,” made with the “ancient grains” of Kamut Khorasan wheat, oats, spelt, barley, millet and quinoa. Never had it before. But it sounded like a new lease on life. Maybe it would do for me what 93 octane supposedly does for an internal combustion engine.
The next morning, waking peacefully in my mountaintop hermitage to webs of snow drifting by my window, I was ready for some coffee and Heritage Flakes. Settling in my cabin’s cozy dining corner, pouring milk over The Flakes, I was charmed by the feminine touch of a little leaf-adorned card with handwritten calligraphy quoting St. Paul: “If you have been raised with ++ Christ, seek the things are above, where Christ is + seated at the right hand of God + Set your minds on things that + are above, not on things that + are on earth + For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God ++ + Colossians 3:1-3 +”
Well, that lodged into my soul, like unction on a wound. Limpid peace, pure and free, without anxiety and worry, made way for God’s Word. The silence was broken only by my sharp, accented crunching of the “ancient grains.” Content as Adam before the fall, I read the back of the cereal box to see if it had any pearls of wisdom. Here’s what it said:
“We’re so happy our paths have crossed. Was it the medley of ancient heirloom grains like KAMUT® Khorasan wheat, spelt, barley, millet & quinoa that led you here? Maybe you were just looking for a nutritious start to your day when you came upon this whole grain goodness. Or, were you simply looking for a breakfast that honored tradition?”
Hmmm. Those are excellent questions. What was I thinking? I wasn’t sure whether to ponder that or St. Paul. Like a dog off a leash, my mind wanders hither and thither on a retreat’s first days. For example, my mind then wandered back to age three, to an earliest memory, of me amusing mom and dad by dancing to “Feelin’ Groovy.” “Slow down / You move too fast / You gotta make / The morning last, / Just kickin' down / The cobble stones / Looking for fun / And feeling groovy / Ba d-d-da da da da / Feelin' groovy.”
At monasteries, random thoughts and memories surface like friendly ghosts. They puff in and out of the head. Subliminal questions about my priesthood arose, like this one: Why do people come to me for advice? What do they think I’m going to tell them? My priesthood must possess an unction – the healing oil of Aaron (Leviticus 8:12). Then a thought hit me: I actually get far more advice than I give. Then it occurred to me: I’m all advised-out. Maybe that’s my problem. Perhaps my brain was advice-paralyzed, like a gut clogged with goat cheese. It was an “ah-ha” moment. It answered the question – the one on the cereal box – about “what led you here.” I felt happy that “our paths have crossed.” It was indeed “the medley of ancient heirloom grains” that brought me here. I needed a new lease on life. My mental gut needed cleansing. Forget all that indigestible advice.
When I arrived at the Monastery, I was tired of religion. I felt like pulling a Jack Kerouac and hitting the open road. To be sure, “felt like” is not the same thing as “seriously considered.” Call it a petty crisis of faith. I was spent. And God had nothing to say about it. He was like dad giving you a hundred dollar bill and saying, “Goodbye.” I could only trust in a hidden grace – a mystery – working in an undetectable way. That evening, I opened a worn, dusty, poetry volume of Harvard Classics, copyrighted 1938, inherited from my late grandmother. “The poplars are fell’d, farewell to the shade / And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade; / The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves, / Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.” That’s the first stanza of William Cowper’s The Poplar Field. I wept without tears. Life’s winds played no longer. “My fugitive years are all hasting away, / And I must ere long lie as lowly as they, / With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head, / Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.” Read on: “Tis a sight to engage me, if anything can, / To muse on the perishing pleasures of man; / Short-lived as we are, our enjoyments, I see, / Have a still shorter date; and die sooner than we.” Ah… maybe that’s the vanity I thought I’d never confront but am confronting now. Is it? Like my grandfather’s words when I turned sixteen, spoken from the other side of my birthday cake: “When I was your age, I said I have my whole life to live!” Short-lived we are. But our enjoyments die sooner than we, like the wine my grandfather drank the week he died, which only burned his stomach and he thus turned away. So my thoughts went on and on….
“Man born of woman is short-lived and full of trouble, / Like a flower that springs up and fades, / swift as a shadow that does not abide” (Job 14:1-2).
“As a father has compassion on his children, / so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. / For he knows how we are formed, / remembers that we are dust. / As for man, his days are like the grass; / he blossoms like a flower in the field. / A wind sweeps over and it is gone; / its place knows no more” (Psalm 103:13-16).
These thoughts would surround me for only so long. After all, it was Easter Season at a monastery. One morning, before my usual concelebration of Mass, a radiant Quebecois nun came into the sacristy and joyously confronted me and the tall, bearded Franciscan celebrant. All sunshine, she locked eyes with me and asked, “How come you’ve not been helping him set the Altar at offertory?” I then did what every Catholic schoolboy does when confronted by a nun: I blamed the other guy. “He didn’t ask me to.” She then said to the Franciscan, “Please sing the double Alleluia after the Final Blessing,” as she handed him a little note card neatly printed with the text, “Go in peace, Alleluia, Alleluia,” and the correct notes over each syllable. The bearded friar replied, “Well, uh, well, I guess…I can.” She vanished from the sacristy like an Archangel. He turned to me and asked, “That’s not in the book, is it?” “Nope,” said I, “No double Alleluias in the Third Week of Easter. But here’s a deal. I’ll set the Altar for you and sing the double Alleluia…just call me Deacon.” There’s some joy you just can’t say “no” to. I suppose that’s what God prepares us for.
After Vespers, I headed to the kitchen-cabin, known as Bethany House, to pick up my dinner in a Sam’s Club insulated picnic basket (the nuns don’t miss a dogfight). I wandered by a large stack of firewood, which the nuns adorned with a large, wooden sign and a hand-painted, calligraphed quote. It said this:
He manifested himself alive + Whether we believe or not + we belong to God + whether we feel it or not + He exists + He is MY self + He is my Lord + and in the moments that all seem dark to us + even in the heart of times where God does not exist for us + God does exist + as He was for the Prophets + the Apostles and the Saints + so is He for us + as small, sinful and humble as we can be + + When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a burning furnace and a flaming torch passed between the parts + +
Providence sent me on that retreat to read that sign. When I arrived at the Monastery, I was in a tailspin. Did I really believe all this – you know, the whole business about the Trinity, Jesus, the Church, the Sacraments and the priesthood? Was it real? But I suddenly believed again. It was an involuntary but much welcomed return of conviction. Don’t get me wrong, I can believe in not believing, know in not knowing, and see in not seeing. I suppose that’s the death that brings life. After all, a comfortable or presumptuous faith has little impact. Faith must die in order to live. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Moreover, I’m inclined to question everything, to wallow in uncertainty – for a while. If there is such a thing as grace – I tell myself in moments of doubt – it’ll supply the needed conviction. And it does. “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). When I arrived at the Monastery, I was torn – torn between the parish’s temporal needs and its sacred mission. In that conflict, I’ve occasionally wet my pillow with tears. Sometimes I just do what I do only because I don’t have to. It helps to know that you’re free. That said, I felt stung by St. John Paul II’s words: “Woe to the Church if she were to be so involved in temporal issues that she had no time to devote herself to subjects which concern the Eternal!” On that snowy retreat, the sign by the woodpile cleared it up for me: God exists. But not always for me. That’s how God purifies. God’s “no” prepares us to say “yes.” His “absence” prepares us for his “presence.”
+ + When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a burning furnace and a flaming torch passed between the parts + +