Solemnity of the Dedication of New Melleray

[Scripture Readings: Ezek. 43: 1-7a; 1Cor. 3: 9b-13, 16-17; Jn. 4: 19-24 ]

It is a consistent teaching in the Judeo-Christian tradition that the glory of the Lord fills the earth and God is not absent from anywhere. The Hebrews learned the lesson that God is not limited to an exclusive location through the painful experience of the exile. They lost both their temple and their land, but God went with them into exile. The first Christians had no churches and they were soon excluded from the temple and the synagogues. They met in houses where they remembered the teachings of Jesus and celebrated the Eucharist. A repeated saying of the early Church Fathers is that every place is an appropriate place for prayer. Yet soon after their return from exile, the Hebrews began to rebuild their temple; and soon after the persecutions ended Christians began to build shrines and churches. The desire for a particular place to worship God is not limited to Christians and Jews. The various religions of the world have their temples, shrines and holy places.

This does not contradict our belief that God is everywhere and absent from nowhere. In times of persecution both Christians and Jews have demonstrated that our obligation to worship God transcends the limitations of a particular place. Yet, when conditions allow there seems to be a deep seated desire in the human psyche to have a special place in which to encounter the Holy. We are called to worship God in spirit and truth and neither the Holy Spirit nor our spirits are confined to this or that particular locality. Nevertheless, we are not disembodied spirits and our bodies are always located in a particular place. In addition, God calls us to worship in a community. If we are to worship God as a community, we need a place where we can come together and worship him.

This morning we are gathered in this particular church, but we are not separated from the universal Church spread throughout the world. Nor are we separated from the monks and their neighbors who have gone before us, and who have made it possible for us to have a place to worship God. In bringing the Cistercian tradition to Iowa our founders built on the foundation of Christ that St. Paul and the other apostles laid down. Their work survived the test of the journey to come to Iowa. Six of them died on the way. It survived the tests of severe weather, economic setbacks, diminished numbers and the other challenges that face a Christian community’s existence. We are continuing their work. In gratitude for what they have passed on to us, we would do well to look at how we are building on the foundation they have passed on to us. Are we living in such a way that our work will survive the challenges that face us today? Trusting in God’s Spirit to support and guide us, conscious of the debt of gratitude we owe to our founders and the responsibility we have to those who will come after us, let us continue our celebration in this particular house of God, worshipping God in spirit and truth.

Solemnity of the Dedication of New Melleray

[Scripture Readings: Ez 43:1-7a; 1 Cor 3:9b-13, 16-17; Jn 4:19-24 ]

Today we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Dedication of our Abbey Church in 1976, and the 157th anniversary of the founding of our community in 1849. We have two separate realities here: a church building and a living community of monks. People and things. The two are evidently very different yet, St. Paul unites them when he says, “you are God’s building1 Cor. 3:9. He then extends the metaphor by saying that each of us can build in different materials yet all have the same cornerstone, Jesus Christ.

Paul is giving us some concrete images to help us understand that we are in a kind of partnership, a kononia, with God in building our life. As we go through life from birth to death we are growing and developing and building, with a goal in mind. We have a blue print and part of that print is that we are not doing this alone. There is a hidden partner. We are in a relationship with someone we cannot see yet who brought us into being with a purpose.

Relationships tell us who we are. Since Paul has used buildings to explain something of our relationship to God, let us look at how we relate to various building. Buildings really do have an influence on us. Each building demands a certain type of behavior from us. Think of them. There are schools, hospitals, homes, banks, court houses, theaters, stadiums, churches, temples, offices, stores, and on and on. Each building has a purpose related to some aspect of our life—often times a very important aspect. Home is were we live and love, schools are where we learn, hospitals are where we are healed, banks are where we save, and stores are where we spend what we saved. A building sort of cradles us and informs us and shapes our response to life.

There is an architectural saying made popular in the 1950’s, I think, that form follows function. What we do in a building determines the form or shape of the building. Then the building in turn forms us. This is especially true of church buildings. Today we are celebrating the anniversary of the dedication of this church. As you can see the twelve lit candles along the walls are the places where Archbishop Byrne anointed the walls with chrism. They represent the twelve apostles whose teachings hold up the walls of our faith.

To understand what this dedication means we have to know what a church building stands for. This is easy in one sense, the church is where we worship. In another sense it is not so easy. If we look at the life of Christ, at least the period of his public ministry, we see buildings did not play such an important part in his life. In fact he said, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” He never mentions having a home. He visited others in their homes, Matthew for instance and Zachaeus, and the newly weds at Cana, but he only visited he never stayed. He did not have a home. I am sure the Fathers of the Church would look for a hidden meaning here. It says to me do not be attached to this earth. Do not over identify with a home or a place or a number where you can be reached at all times. Jesus was not identified with any building not even the temple.Lk. 9:58.

The temple now, after Christ, is the human person. Paul says we are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what a church building is meant to teach us. When we enter a church we are addressed in the spirit. How many times during the liturgy have you heard the words, “the Lord be with your“? Now we will answer, “and with your spirit“. There is a certain type of behavior expected of us in Church. We respond naturally to the atmosphere in a church. But, this goes deeper. We are being called to, addressed, awakened, to a word of salvation. Going into a church is described in Psalm 141 in the words, “deep is calling on deep“. We are being addressed at the depths of our being where we are temples of the Holy Spirit. The depths of God speak to us through the beauty of this stone building. The very stones cry out to us. They are anointed to remind us that we, the people of God, are anointed and sealed with the Holy Spirit.

The Church is where the Eucharist is celebrated. This is the source of our community. When we worship as a community we are being formed into the body of Christ on earth. We are drinking from the source. So, today we thank God for our community and for this church building. Both are dedicated to God, set aside for one purpose, to live for the praise of his glory.

Solemnity of the Dedication of New Melleray

[Scripture Readings: Ez 43:1-7a; 1 Cor 3:9b-13, 16-17; Jn 4:19-24]

Fr. BrendanIn February of 1850, Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick, abbot of Mt. Melleray Abbey in Ireland, sent a second contingent of monks to New Melleray. Among the twenty-four monks was Br. Francis, the oldest at 63. He was an architect and helped build the original Mt. Melleray in 1833. Br. Francis never made it to his new home in America. He never got to use his skills in designing and building a monastery for New Melleray. The ocean voyage, at least the first half of it, was very rough. Br. Francis died and was buried at sea. There is a moving account of his burial:

The corpse was sprinkled with holy water
and then as the musical groaning of the gentle moving ship
and the winds and the wash of the sea blended into a Requiem…
the procession of the brethren escorted the weighted body
to the rail where sailors allowed Br. Francis’ remains
to slide silently into the waters of the mid Atlantic,

Arms and the Monk, by M. M. Hoffman, Wm. C. Brown Co., 1952, 78.

The Chapel before renovationThis is a very rare way for a monk to die—on the open sea between his old home and his new home. We never benefited from his architectural skills but I imagine he was guiding John Mullany’s hand as he drew up the plans for the building we are in right now.

What I find unique about this building is not so much its simplicity but the fact that it was originally designed as a Neo Gothic imitation of medieval European Churches. The essential structure was hidden under tons of plaster, arches were just for looks, they supported nothing, and windows were encased in wood molding. Stripped of all this, the building was miraculously transformed into a church of true Cistercian characteristics.

There is more to it than this, however. St. Bernard reminds us that today’s feast is about us not a building. So what can this building tell us about ourselves? If you look around you see asymmetrical windows, stones that were never meant to be seen, hidden under plaster, (they have a pattern of regular irregularity), the overall length of the building is too long for its width. And yet taken as a whole it is a masterpiece of pleasure to the eye. There is a beautiful harmony in its irregularity, a unity in diversity. If we compare our own lives are we not a bundle of contradictions? A series of paradoxes? A mass of inconsistencies? I think we carry around in our head a proto—typical monk and when we compare our life to it we find much that is lacking. This church building can teach us to look deeper beyond the superficial to the essence underneath the excess.

The renovated ChurchIn 1974 we deconstructed this building. We were not sure how it was going to turn out. Basically it was a movement of elimination rather than addition. Something like the liturgical renewal getting rid of the accretions of history that obscured rather than illuminated the rites. If you look at the way Jesus approached much of the religiosity of his time you might say he was a deconstructionist. Not one stroke of the Law would change but the way the leaders were interpreting the Law was all wrong. He exposed the true motives of the Scribes and Pharisees. In today’s Gospel he exposes the truth about the woman at the well but he then leads her to the truth about herself and about true worship.

Each time we enter this church we are reminded to be honest and authentic. We put aside the superficial and enter into our deepest self who is disclosed to us in the words, “Do you not realize that you are a temple of God with the Spirit of God living in you?1Cor3:16.

Our whole life is about deconstruction. About peeling the layers of artificiality away and letting the truth shine forth. In a sense Br. Francis is a sign to us. He had nothing to fall back on. Away from the consolation of the monastery, adrift at sea, he had only the Lord to help him. He was stripped of all that was familiar and supporting. On this anniversary of the founding of our community and the Dedication of this Church let us not forget all the monks who have gone before us and who have made our life here in Iowa possible. Some, like Br. Francis, died on the way here. Maybe they are the ones who are our special guides leading us to our final destination.