Friday, October 4, 2013

St. Francis of Assisi, Retreat at St. Joseph Abbey, Spencer

I pronounced final vows in the Society on Tuesday 1 October.  More info when the photos are ready, about two weeks from now.   A professional photographer (and nice guy) did the work.  I await the results. After the homily are photos taken while I was on retreat at St. Joseph Abbey, a Trappist monastery about 65 or so miles from here, just west of Worcester.

Today is the memorial of one of the most familiar of all saints:  Francis of Assisi.   Francis lived from around 1181 to 1226  Like Ignatius he had what one could call an “interesting” youth.  He was described as “gallant, high-spirited, and generous.”  He lived the usual life for one of his station. It was a very high station.

I like the way the author describes Francis in a book titled Voices of the Saints.  “The popular image of St. Francis of Assisi is warped with romantic notions.  Many see him as a sweet simpleton who picked  flowers and talked to animals.”  The writer goes on to note that while he was gentle he fought in a few wars, endured illnesses and was imprisoned before he lost his taste for his previous life.  He was hardly the simpering idiot plaster of Paris saint with birds sitting on his shoulder while Bambi and Thumper gaze up at him adoringly that he is generally depicted to be.  Yuck and double yuck.  (Jesuits are fortunate that Ignatius has not been romanticized  in such a nauseatingly saccharine manner).  As he lost his taste for the high life, Francis embraced asceticism.  Eventually followers gathered around him and he wrote his rule.  The rest is history. 

Francis was something of a role model for Ignatius.  One of the ideas that recurred to Ignatius as he was recuperating at the castle of Loyola was to do great things for God in the manner of Francis and Dominic.  Would the Society have the same fundamental character without the example of Francis? Would the Society have even come into being without that example?   I’ve no answers but find the questions intriguing.

Francis of Assisi, like all of us who dare to call ourselves Christian, was called to share in the destiny of Christ by carrying the cross and drinking from the same cup.  He did not die the spectacular death of a martyr.  He suffered through the daily martyrdom that came with his embrace of poverty and his role as founder of a religious community.
There are many maxims and sayings attributed to Francis.  One of the most famous, which I quote often is:

“Preach the Gospel at all times. 
Use words only when necessary.” 

Only when the Gospel is made manifest in our lives on a daily basis are we truly evangelizing, be it the new evangelization or the old evangelization. 

It is up to each of us as individuals.
The Society's Constitutions madates an eight-day retreat prior to final vows.  I was able to arrange to make the retreat at St. Joseph Abbey.  However, rather than staying in the guest/retreat house I stayed in "The Cottage," a small stone house generally reserved for men testing their vocations to the monastery.  As it is within the enclosure I had access to almost all of the 2000 acres of meadows, woods, and ponds.  The rolling hills were reminiscent of Sevenhill during the long retreat minus the grape arbors.  

The monks at Spencer begin the day with vigils at 3:30 AM.  Vigils lasts between 40 and 55 minutes.  Praying at that hour of the morning is one of the most consoling of experiences.  Afterwards the monks engage in lectio divina.  I generally stayed in the church a while and then went to make coffee in the guest house where I took my meals with the rest of the retreatants, and then returned to the cottage to read.  Lauds and Mass follow at 6:00 AM.  As I had a considerable amount of reading and writing to do I generally did not attend the shorter mid-day hours but returned to the church for Vespers at 5:40 PM and Compline, the last hour of the monastic day (and the Church's prayer) at 7:40 PM.  

During the retreat I remained with The Spiritual Exercises, The Constitutions and prepared to write the vow formula, simple vows three times on special acid-free paper with specific margins and then writing the renunciations twice on the same paper.  

The days were full and passed very quickly.  There was no time to nap.  The weather was spectacular.  Autumn was arriving by the minute.  I spent part of each day meditating with camera in hand.  Some of the photos are below.  

The cottage, like the rest of the monastery, is stone.  My room was the one jutting out in front.  It was self-contained and allowed me to be alone without bothering the men who were there to test their vocations. 

The view from the window above the bed was beautiful. 

The door had thick beveled glass.  Could not resist trying to capture the effect of the glass on the outdoor scene.  It is more kaleidoscopic when viewed with both eyes but the monocular effects were not bad. 

This was the view looking into the room. 

The autumn leaves were already predicting a spectacular autumn.  This is the edge of the forest along the North Road just inside the enclosure.

I encountered this tree with vines growing up the trunk much further down the North Road.  

This is the back of the Monastic Church but it where the entrances to the guest chapels are.  This was just as the sun broke over the horizon.  Note the moon above the bell tower. 

This is a set of stairs leading from some of the dormitories and work areas to the cloister garth.  These were the stairs I took from the cottage to get to the church.

This is one of the cloister walks.  They all look pretty much alike at 4:15 AM after Vigils.  

This is one of the scriptoria where the monks read.  
This is another. 

These stained glass circles make up the window near the room where the public can view a film about the monastery.  The public has no access anywhere beyond the room where the film is shown. I almost jumped up and down when I saw these as this is the sort of thing I most enjoy taking. 

This is the tabernacle and celebrants' chairs in the Abbey Church.  I took this from one of the guest galleries that flank the altar.  This was a 30 second exposure.  

And finally, the reason for being there.  Writing the vow documents took hours.  I am a left-handed physician.  Use your imagination about my penmanship.  As I had to read the vows from this paper it was critical that I be able to do so.  The paper just to the left of the pen is one of the final documents.  There are practice runs all over the place along with a copy of the Constitutions.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD


  1. Just finished reading your entire archives. Congratulations on pronouncing your final vows this week! I was blessed to be able to attend the Final Vow Mass of my Jesuit spiritual director in Oxford a couple years ago. Quite a profound experience.

  2. Thank you. It is a profound experience and, at the moment, still a bit surreal. I will scan the vow program into the computer and post it when the photos are ready.

  3. Congratulations on pronouncing your final vows Fr. Jack. Wonderful photographs as always.