By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published March 5, 2009
Early in the morning on Ash Wednesday we approached the altar and bowed before our Abbot Francis Michael as he gently made the Sign of the Cross with ashes on our heads. “Repent and believe the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” he told each person who received the ashes. Just a few moments before, in his homily, he spoke of the need this world has for love and how we were made by God to be givers of love in whatever way we can.
The good news is that our ultimate fulfillment will be love, and love alone. The more problematic news is how aware we are that we do not love each other very well. And so, we are called to repent—to once again have hope in the power of love that is within each of us and to express it if we are to know and live the very meaning of life.
There is a little girl who has graced our retreat house and church this week. Her name is Elena. She arrived with her mom, Penny, just a few days ago. Elena is a baby, only a few months old, and she is beautiful.
She smiles at the lights, and we can hear her coo and laugh during Mass—a welcome change in sound from the usual sneezing, hacking and nose-blowing that wafts from us geezer monks in this wintry time of the year.
Elena has Down syndrome. She is too young to be delighted with much of anything beyond the beautiful pleasures of light and food, being held tenderly in the arms of her mother, and being lavished with the warmth and affection of everyone in the retreat house. I think she will always be as young, young to be satisfied with the best gifts of life. As little as she is, she is a huge hit here.
On the first night she arrived, she was carried by her mom up the aisle at the end of our last office of the day, Compline. Father Francis Michael stood and blessed everyone with holy water who approached him in a line. I stood off to the side after he blessed me, wanting to tell Penny that if she needed anything to let us know.
Brother Augustine approached, as he does every night, to be of help to our guests, and I introduced him to Penny and Elena. I shared with him a few things Penny had told me—one of which being that Elena is the youngest of nine children. Augustine smiled. Penny then told him that her baby was special, that she has Down syndrome. It was dark in the church, and Augustine would not have noticed anything other than a beautiful baby girl.
I sensed in him an immediate tenderness and sadness but also a kind of joy, and he leaned over, touched the little girl gently on her forehead, then drew closer and kissed her. It was so beautiful and spontaneous, and it has replayed in my heart for days.
Two days later, we received our ashes—all of us—including Penny and little Elena. And we were gently urged by Father Francis Michael to repent—to love.
Elena is a little baby who will never reach the more refined levels of human expression. Words will be a struggle for her. Figuring things out won’t come easy. As she is held now in the warm arms of her mom, she will go through life being held as warmly in the hearts and arms of others. She will be kissed, and encouraged, hoped for and treated tenderly all of her life. She will, in a very real sense, be a living magnet of repentance, a place that will draw what is best from all who will be fortunate enough to hold her, kiss her, take her by the hand and guide her through life. She will be a living beacon, guiding others to love.
The God who is in her is telling us something. I had the sense that if Augustine had the power, he would have kissed all the goodness and kindness of this world and the world to come into her. But we are limited in our power. Yet a gentle kiss carries a hope for all that is good, for all that is of God. And that hope must come from us, in our weakness.
The evening of life draws nearer. Be it the life of a day, or of time itself—we move toward a time when there will come silence and darkness. It is our hope that we will find that we are then being held close in the arms of a God who loves us and knows us by name. A repentant heart is a heart that feels those arms in this life. And we may ask how he was, and where he was in this life. He will say that he was the light in the dark places in our lives, when we struggled in our weakness, and he bowed down, as if from heaven itself, and said how beautiful, with a kiss.
Whatever heaven may be, I do not think we will get there because of our strengths. Something of the meaning and even presence of Paradise shines through what is weak and in need of God.
Repentance is not a matter of doing great deeds of reparation for damages done. It is more like learning to live with our weaknesses and fragile beauty—and discovering the joy in knowing that these exist within us and without us, needing to be loved, held, given a kiss.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com.