The “Dark Night of the Soul” in the Light of the Easter Season

imagesEaster arrived early this year. As I write this, forecasts of lower temperatures in the next few days remind us that spring may be delayed a little, even though we are counting the days of April. During this festive season in the Church, we still celebrate Easter for 50 days.

Students and teachers have returned from, what I hope has been, a relaxing and enjoyable Easter vacation. Some of our students traveled to Spain over the break, and we are hosting students and their teachers from France who arrived on April 2.

My wife and I traveled to Ireland as part of a musical pilgrimage in our parish of Saint Joseph on the Brandywine, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year (1841-2016). The parish was founded principally by the Irish Powdermen and their families who worked and lived along the Brandywine River in Wilmington, working for the DuPont Company, which, at that time, was producing gunpowder and explosives at Hagley Mills, just a short distance from the Church. The families of the parish used to pay “pew rents” each month and funds were deducted from the pay of the DuPont employees to underwrite the construction and maintenance of the Church.

The trip to Ireland was very special, in that we learned much about Irish heritage and history in this centennial year of the Easter Rising of 1916 that resulted in 1921 with the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. The resiliency of the Irish people is remarkable, similar to many other cultures that been under foreign rule and, with great faith, have maintained their traditions and beliefs that were often in opposition to the ruling powers.

It was this story of Ireland and of the determination and faith of Irish people juxtaposed against the Resurrection story of the Easter season that offered me reflection. In the midst of celebration, we recall those times that were not so celebratory, that make the celebratory moments even more special. I often wonder if the children of our current generation know of the depth of hardship of former generations. I would suggest that they do not know the same hardships, but I would argue that they are dealing with different, and perhaps, equally difficult challenges.

Packing for a trip can be an anxious chore. My wife and I were determined to be “efficient” and only pack what we thought we would truly need. When it came to reading material for the plane and “down time”, one of the books I pulled off my shelf was The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A. Kempis. It is one of those books for me that I like to reference or re-read every so often, because I can always take away a different message each time I read it.

I focused on one passage in which he wrote, “I have never come upon anyone, however religious and devout, who has not sometimes experienced a withdraw of grace, felt a cooling-off of his fervor.” Saint John of the Cross references this noche escura, or “dark night” of the soul experience as necessary for us to move forward on our life’s journey to knowing God fully revealed. In other words, suffering, separation, disappointment, and failure are all a part of life’s journey that helps us become stronger in our faith.

Nothing could be more exemplary of this journey than many of the lives of the Irish families who lived in the Emerald Isle over the centuries. They persevered invasions, famines, and other challenges to their faith. Many arrived in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries to find a better life. Those who left Ireland did so with strong determination and conviction, and those who remained did so with the same fortitude.

Over the Easter holiday break, many of our seniors received college decisions on April 1. Teachers were calculating third quarter grades for our students. Spring sports practices and game schedules were rolling along, as well. So while we were vacationing, tensions about academic decisions were, perhaps, mounting, and there may have been disappointments and surprises for our students. And while, thankfully, they may not have to deal with famine or religious freedom as did the Irish families of years past, our students do have to manage the mental pressures of academic performance. All of our students are concerned about their grades and GPA’s, along with other athletic, social, and emotional pressures they have to manage in this fast-paced, highly technology-connected society. When disappointments arise, the best we can offer our students is to put the disappointment in context, relative to the tremendous blessings our students have been given. This mental exercise, I believe, is the only way that the saints of the past and all others who faced hardships and overcame them managed through the “dark night.”

When the dark night comes to each of us, we need to have enough reserve in us to keep the faith. And if we do not have that reserve, I pray that each of us has someone who can carry us through the rough moments. I hope that Archmere can always be considered a place where people can come to be supported through these moments in their lives. It is precisely at these moments that our mission is truly lived, and we as a community become a brighter “light in the darkness.” We fulfill the Easter promise, imaged in the new fire and the lighted Paschal Candle of the Easter Vigil, as the final verses of The Exsultet, The Proclamation of Easter, is sung:

Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.

Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Amen.

 

Happy Easter!

Stewards of the Gifts We Have Been Given

On Tuesday, February 4, 2014, Fr. Domenic Rossi, O.Praem., spoke to the students, faculty, and staff at an assembly. Father is the Founder and Executive Director of Bethesda Project, one of Philadelphia’s largest interfaith homeless housing and support organizations. In a very charismatic and passionate presentation, Father explained how he was called to this work, which began by leading a prayer group in 1977 at Daylesford Abbey.

While they were praying together, asking for understanding from God as to what He wanted of them, they all opened their Bibles to a random page. Several of them opened to the same exact Scripture passage from Isaiah:

You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Houses in Ruins. (Isaiah 58:4-12)

This prayer time was followed by a dream, in which Father saw his grandmother abandoned. He mentioned that he had a close relationship with her and was so disturbed by the dream that he woke up immediately and asked himself, “What does this mean?”

He said that in his mind’s ear he heard a voice say, “You should be upset at anyone being abandoned as much as you are upset at the thought of your grandmother being abandoned.” Father said that he stilled prayed for guidance because he did not know exactly what all of these things meant. After another dream in which he cared for a stranger by offering him something to eat, he received an unsolicited offer to take over and manage a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. He agreed, and with a group of volunteers began what would become the Bethesda Project.

As Father described to the assembly, the mission of the Project is to be “family” to those who have none, to be interveners of the homeless who are in need of healing, to not make them feel like a meaningless number lost in a social services agency. Bethesda Project provides shelter, housing, and programs that reach out to chronically homeless men and women. Those who work in Bethesda Project want to assure that each person’s uniqueness is recognized. Father said that the staff and volunteers of Bethesda Project follow a creed of compassion. It is about knowing another person and building a relationship not based on money, but on a desire to know someone and his or her unique story.

The assembly left a lasting impression on me, and I would guess, on many other students, faculty, and staff who listened to Father so intently.

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Earlier this week, I happened to read a piece of research completed by Bill Meehan, III on the library of John J. Raskob. Bill spent some time in The Patio library, reviewing portions of Mr. Raskob’s collection that was returned to Archmere over the years by family members. Combined with research completed at Hagley Museum and Library along with other sources, Meehan presented an overview of the contents of Raskob’s library that he kept at Archmere, his New York apartment, and at Pioneer Point Farm.

One particular collection that caught my interest was entitled, Pocket University. In 1925, Raskob ordered a set of these books, which provided a curriculum of “essential” liberal arts reading for the year as determined by the books’ publisher Nelson Doubleday. Meehan quotes Raskob in a letter dated February 18, 1925:

The course of reading prescribed is one which can easily be followed as it is not arduous and with a little persistent attention in the beginning, the following of the course soon becomes a habit, and habits once established are, of course, easy to follow.

Meehan comments that Raskob was assembling his library during the “golden age” of book collecting, which ended with the Great Depression.

As I considered these two ideas this week in preparing this monthly letter, I tried to reconcile in my mind the two quite disparate images — homelessness and antiquarian book collecting for private home libraries. How are they at all connected?

In fact, it would seem that one would be embarrassed to admit that he or she were spending energy on collecting books while people were in need of a home. And yet, that is precisely what had occurred and still occurs. Many question what could be done with the resources spent on “luxuries” to alleviate the serious social concerns that forever remain with us, particularly homelessness. As Fr. Rossi suggested, many of the homeless are transparent to us; we choose not to see them, or we consider them to be someone else’s concern.

To reconcile these thoughts requires perspective. For example, while Raskob was acquiring his books, reading voraciously and giving creative thought to what he read, he was also very philanthropic to Catholic and civic causes. Not only did he contribute financial resources to a variety of projects, he often provided the idea or the innovation for the creation and sustainability of processes intended to improve the quality of life for the larger community. He conceived of the idea of endowments for non-profit causes, suggesting wisely that proceeds from annual returns on investments would add greater stability to organizations, which had to raise funds annually to operate.

Mrs. Raskob writes in the Raskob-Green Record Book that the library was “to cultivate the mind.” She elaborates further:

…a place where…books to suit all moods and supply knowledge might be found… He who loveth a book will never want a faithful friend, a wholesome counselor, a cheerful companion, or an efficient comforter. (p. 142)

She and her husband believed that education and knowledge acquired through inquisitiveness and persistent good habits of learning were crucial in shaping their children’s development. While the children were afforded much opportunity, it went hand-in-hand with much responsibility.

I believe that recognizing that we are stewards of gifts we have been given is key to understanding the great disparities between rich and poor, those who have and those who have not. For us to know our true vocation in life, we need to listen to the call to share our resources with others in proportion to what we have. The call may come in a dream, in a book, in an actual phone call, or even in another’s voice.

The Dedication of The Immaculate Conception Oratory in Saint Norbert Hall

In the Spring of 2010, the Headmaster’s Council decided that several administrative offices, including the Headmaster’s office, would be relocated to The Patio. Rearranging other office spaces in Saint Norbert Hall left empty the administrative suit of offices created in the space of the original library of Saint Norbert Hall. Plans were made to relocated the chapel to this more prominent and much larger space of the original library.

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Construction underway in 2011.

Over the last four years, construction was completed for the Technology Center, located in the area of the former chapel and sacristy, and the Oratory and Spirituality Center space. All of the work was supervised by Mr. James Tosi, Director Facilities. Much of the work was completed by the Archmere facilities staff: Mr. Larry Osborn, Mr. John Grace, Mr. Robert Graham, and Mr. Dan Lutz. Mr. Denis O’Flynn O’Brien ’74 provided a conceptual design and floor plan for the Oratory space, in collaboration with Fr. Andrew Ciferni, O.Praem., Fr. Joseph McLaughlin, O.Praem., and myself. Mr. Tosi engaged contractors for the installation of the hardwood floors and woodwork, the installation of an emergency exit door and stairs, and the new glass entrance door.

I suggested the Arts and Crafts design of the furnishings and finishes for two reasons: 1) the simplicity of design combined with the warmth of the natural materials and jeweled-toned colors create a restful and uncomplicated place for prayer, and 2) the period aligns with the construction of the original historic buildings on campus – The Patio and The Manor – though adopting different, yet related styles. The altar, ambo, credence table, Holy Water font pedestal, and podium for the Book of Remembrance were uniquely designed for this space and executed by Mr. Bob Taylor with Mr. George Campion. The congregational chairs were made by Amish craftspeople, and the benches were resized and refinished from the pews in the original chapel.

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Dedication Mass Opening Prayer.

A main feature of the space are the stained glass windows, especially commissioned for Archmere by Willet Stained Glass Studio, under the guidance of Susan Bockius and designed by artist Jane Collins. The windows, moving from left to right as they are viewed from inside the Oratory, depict significant milestones or aspects of the life of Saint Norbert. The warm color palate in the center moves to cool colors at each window, highlighting the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Individual prayers for each of the windows were developed by Frs. Ciferni and McLaughlin, and are based on key words of focus for each window: scientia, peacemaker, wisdom, pietas, apostolic community, reverence, zeal, respect, faith, hope, and charity.

Another feature that has been commissioned but not yet installed for the space is a three-panel icon featuring images of Saint Norbert, the Immaculate Conception, and Saint Augustine, designed by Peter F. Pearson.

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Fr. McLaughlin consecrates the Eucharist.

On Sunday, we dedicated the Oratory to the Immaculate Conception. In 1932, the Priory of Archmere Academy – The Patio – was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

Appropriately, Sunday was the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Also called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and Candlemas, this feast, which is also the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, is celebrated every February 2 in the Catholic Church.