Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Understanding Their Spiritual Message

by Steven A. Fisdel

Book Review by Sister Cecelia

I took this book, published in 1998, to my room at least five years ago, but this August I was determined to read it. I was very interested in what the scrolls contained, and this book looked like one that would explain what had been translated by the experts.

For several reasons I found it interesting in the extreme. The author, a rabbi, used the first few chapters to put the writings into the context of the theological views of the Hebrews at the time the scrolls came into being. Because Jesus came into a people with these religious views, many of his sayings in our scriptures are a reflection of these same views. He also contradicted some other views and tried to point out a better way of understanding what God the Father and Creator was pleased with. The leaders of the people were generally appalled, as what he said went against their understanding of what the Torah indicated was the will of God. Their texts also contained warnings that people should not be deceived by using their own reason and heart, but rather that they should trust only the teachings of the high priests, kings, and prophets.

Early in life I had heard that Christianity came through the Jews. I had not realized how many attitudes are direct lines to what had been accepted for centuries, like the strong emphasis on men, in the persons of the priests, as the only safe interpreters of the Law, the only ones who could know God’s will for any of us. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year. The temples were constructed to show the “worthiness” of the worshipers. First was the high priest, then the other priests, then the men. Then last, without their own section, the women were put with the foreigners—the aliens.

Human beings were expected to honor their fundamental relationship to the Creator through the exercise of moral behavior and the continual pursuit of justice. Moral development and spiritual evolution, rather than physical survival and material attachments, were the central focus of existence for the Hebrews of the time. The law, the interpretation of the law, was of the highest importance. The laws were so difficult to keep that a yearly atonement must always be made.

It is understandable that St. Paul was so adamant that Jesus’ teaching would bring salvation, rather than obedience to the law. For instance, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth.

The last chapters are thought-provoking in their explanation of the struggle we humans have with good and evil.  Since Eden and the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge we each have within ourselves good and evil, and we have this struggle. It is up to us with help from God’s Spirit to choose the good and ultimately be saved (enjoy God’s presence) or to chose evil and be damned (nonexistence, no God). When the End of Days comes, it will not be the termination of humankind but the end of evil winning over good. Evil will no longer be. The Kingdom of God will be what is.         

The fervor of both the author and of the peoples the author describes, as well as the perseverance in pursuing God’s will, I found truly inspiring and certainly worth reading. 

The Magyar Response

By Brother Stavros

Few on our technologically linked planet are unaware of the plight of the masses of refugees from Africa and Asia, but most poignantly from the Middle East. And very few people I know were not appalled by the treatment these refugees received at the Hungarian border.  The German and Austrian reaction was perhaps softened by visions from World War II of stuffed cattle cars and endless miles of refugees. Even Serbia, also mindful of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, expressed dismay at the Hungarian impasse.

I found it a sad and disturbing irony that the political rationale expressed by the Budapest government cited their fear of diluting their Christian identity.

What kind of identity ignores one of the most vivid teachings of Christ, portrayed in Matthew’s account of the Last Judgement? (Matthew 25:31-46) Hungarian Ministers of State as well as ordinary Christian folk must hear this question regularly from every pulpit: “Uram, mikor láttuk, hogy éheztél, vagy szomjas vagy hogy jövevény, vagy Igénylő ruhát, vagy beteg, vagy fogoly voltál, és nem segít?” “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

Might this reflect the conundrum of Christianity today? The term “Christian” is like a mantle, easily thrown on and off as the occasion suits.

I have no pretense at knowing a solution. The European Union cannot arrive at a common policy. I look forward to the wisdom and Gospel fidelity in Pope Francis’ words that will probably make us all uncomfortable.

I do not want to appear to disparage Hungarians. Home-grown examples loom in the massive deportation of Mexicans in 1908, estimated at 500,000 to 2 million, a good number of whom were United States citizens. They were loaded onto trains by state and local officials, without federal authorization, and exiled below the border. The State of California issued a formal apology for this outrage only ten years ago.

The inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”) used to be in our schoolbooks. Many satirists are now offering a rewording of this inscription to reflect current political currents.

Pachomius of Egypt, who served as an occupying Roman soldier in the third century, was so impressed by the hospitality of Christians who had every right to detest him that he sought out baptism and became a leading monastic light of his era.

The popular Hungarian Saint Elizabeth, a 13-century Magyar queen and early Third Order Franciscan, in her zeal to follow Saint Francis’ evangelical path gave away most of her wealth to feed the poor and assist travelers and the homeless.

Let us not use the term “Christian” lightly or appear to manipulate it when it serves our political or social purposes. If we want to safeguard our Christian heritage, let these saints and countless others set an example. We cannot be comfortable Christians in the face of a major humanitarian upheaval. The wars that visit our homes today on TV or iPad, from Syria and Afghanistan and Central Africa, and tomorrow as climate change accelerates new waves of refugees, may be triggered by drought and famine or flooding. It’s time we get it right and make the lesson of the Good Samaritan a reality.


Reflections by Brother Luke

            Our sisters, the Nuns of New Skete, have a long tradition of working on picture puzzles during their recreation time. The most recent one was 5,000 pieces, and it was so large they had to find creative ways to expand their table to accommodate the puzzle as they put it together. They thought they could finish it in a month or so. Surprise! It took almost 6 months. As it turned out, a few of the brothers helped out at the end of the process and put in some of the last pieces. It was a spectacular painting of a museum scene of paintings. The box didn’t reveal the artist or identify the scene (this was a used puzzle, after all), but we guessed it might have been the Louvre or the Vatican.

            Back in the early 2000s, one of the tasks I inherited was to do the shopping for the monks’ monastery. It was a large task, and right from the beginning I needed to learn how to do it efficiently all in one day each week. I always worked with a shopping list. To get everything on the list I had to make stops at a wide variety of stores. If I had personal errands to run or a doctor’s appointment, for example, I would combine the two activities to save time. I had to plot my trip to avoid backtracking, since the shopping involved trips to Saratoga or Albany.

In those days we had a Chevrolet Suburban, which was my usual vehicle for the task. We also had Ford Aerostar vans. So either way I had a good amount of space to carry home all of the items on the list. As I gained experience I began to take note of prices and to compare stores on the basis of their prices. I took lists of our usual items and noted the prices of the same items at the different stores. With this information I was able to manage costs and to cut down on the number of stops during each trip. Well, sometimes, anyway. Organizing the job was like putting together a puzzle.

However, as we had to replace vehicles, the new ones were not as large as the old ones. Vehicles came and went, but the task was still there. Now the puzzle had a new wrinkle. Could I fit everything into the car? In many cases it was possible without much trouble. But when we had a large number of guests or a special event, such as the new dog seminars, then the challenge to fit in everything grew. Sometimes the amount of items purchased forced me to put some of them in the front seat. On some occasions I had help in the shopping expedition, but that would rule out using the front seat for groceries; I didn’t want to make a guest walk home! Recently one guest who kindly agreed to accompany me on the shopping trip took photos of the task of loading the car at the end of the shopping trip. His before-and-after views were an amusing documentation of the three-dimensional puzzle I had to put together that week. He took the pictures because he was convinced that I would not be able to get everything in the car. Actually, I wasn’t so sure myself that I would fit everything in. But we made it. The outcome was not as esthetically beautiful as the puzzles at the nuns, but the situation presented a challenge, perseverance yielded a result, and a level of satisfaction was achieved.

Many monastic tasks, or should I say life tasks, can be approached in a similar way. No matter what the task is, we can see in it an opportunity to give it our best effort and to trust that the outcome will be what it should be. What more would God expect of us?

Brother Luke mastering the groceries into the van puzzle.

Embracing Your Inner Weird

By Brother David

I’m weird. 

I get told that by people I know. It used to bother me. I used to think, “How can I unweird myself?” 

I like science fiction. I also like horror stories and films—the bloodier the better. The “Hell Raiser” series is awesome. I cry at chick flicks and tear up at some commercials. There is no such thing as “reality TV” (and that includes the news). 

Serial killers fascinate me. I have a collection of stuffed animals and toys. 

I rescue slugs and worms from the middle of our road.

I believe that Sun Moon Star, by Kurt Vonnegut and Ivan Chermayeff, is one of the best Christmas books ever written. I love “Paradise Lost” and have read it—voluntarily—several times. Goodnight Moon is brilliant. I love history (13th century and earlier) and intensely dislike historical fiction. Pride and Prejudice is a terrific novel; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is even more terrificker. I love studying grammar and syntax and am something of a stickler for correct grammar and syntax.

I can’t stand lamb or duck or goose or pork. I like cold cuts and pâté. Turkey actually makes me sick. Game meat, such as venison, is awful. Chicken? Breast meat only; slightly dry, thank you very much. Beef? I can deal with ground beef and actually like meatloaf. Steak is out. Roast beef only if it is very thinly sliced and very well done—any pink and I’m outta there. If we were meant to eat red (or pink) bloody meat, God wouldn’t have made fire. I look at “properly cooked” prime rib and think, “All that sucker needs is a bunch of band-aids and a defibrillator and it could walk out of here.” 

Yet, as one person I know and love, regularly points out, I love sushi. And while I love sushi, I cannot abide undercooked fish. I really like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks.

I disapprove of the existence of raisins in particular and dried fruit in general. 

Kozy Shack chocolate pudding proves the existence of God. So do dill pickles.

I dislike watermelon. While I like apples in tarts and pies, I don’t like baked apples, and raw apples are even worse. I have been known to pick watermelon and apples out of fruit salad.

All-natural peanut butter, strawberry jam, American or cheddar cheese, and iceberg lettuce on whole wheat bread is a great sandwich. So is Hershey’s chocolate syrup and Jif peanut butter on Wonder Bread smashed flat. Mayonnaise on anything is dreadful at worst and barely tolerable at best, although I like egg salad made with Hellman’s™ Real mayonnaise. But the eggs have to be very coarsely chopped.

Except for up and down, and backwards and forwards, I have absolutely no sense of direction, which often includes right and left, and my fear of getting lost borders on the phobic. One of my (ironic) nicknames is GPS. I love to drive roads that I don’t know, especially at night.

I like Fox News and regularly vote Democrat.

     Do I contradict myself?
     Very well, then, I contradict myself;
    (I am large—I contain multitudes.) (Walt Whitman: “Song of Myself” 51) 

Jesus was weird, too. 

Jesus was an observant Jew who ate with tax collectors and sinners. He consorted with women. He healed a servant for a Roman officer. He touched lepers. He cursed a fig tree because it didn’t have fruit—out of season. People just didn’t do things like that. That’s not what normal people did. 

Even in his teaching he was weird. In the story of the publican and the Pharisee, it’s the company man, the Pharisee, the man who did everything according to the rules, the conformist whom Jesus condemns. Jesus keeps coloring outside the lines.

He angered and annoyed the authorities. He broke the rules—all the rules that said how a prophet and man of God were supposed to be. He healed people on the Sabbath. He called God his father. He kept stepping over the line. He kept being himself. Unapologetically. The Japanese have a saying: “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” And that’s what happened to Jesus. He stuck up too much and so he was hammered down by being nailed to a cross. 

Isn’t that what we do? We preach diversity and tolerance and urge individuality. Don’t we say, with Mao Tse Dong, “[Let] a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend”? And then, like him, don’t we execute many of those who put forth ideas and behaviors different from our own? Because, after all, we know what constitutes normal, acceptable behavior and thought: us. (Actually: me.) And we know who has to be hammered down: them. (And frequently: you.)

But sometimes it happens, in the cold light of aloneness when certain awarenesses hover about on the edge of consciousness like a hangover just waiting to happen, that we recognize that all of our claims to normalcy, to unweirdness, are all just a little, well—weird? We see the inconsistencies in our lives. We note how our values and behaviors don’t synch up. And suddenly it can rush in that it’s not that everyone is out of step with me but that I’m out of step with everyone else. And we find ourselves disconcerted, abashed. We may even have to admit that, somehow, we are weird.

It’s worth looking at 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (ESV version) here. Paul says:

     I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Ok, weird. Before you get all weird on me about calling this weird, consider this: if you had never read this before or didn’t know that it was from Saint Paul, and your co-worker or the person behind the checkout counter started in on this, what would you think? Yeah.

Paul knows that what he is saying is outlandish. He knows that people are going to look at him as either extraordinary (weird) or simply whacked out (also weird). So he talks about that infamous thorn: something in him that keeps him grounded. Was it physical? Psychological? Moral? We’ll probably never find out—at least on this side of the grave. But it was something that was significant to him, something that was, in its own way, disconcerting. “Therefore I will boast more gladly of my weaknesses” is an embracing of all of it: all of the neat, cool stuff as well as the gnarly, uncomfortable stuff, along with the stuff that just doesn’t make a lot of sense as well as the stuff that we really don’t want even God to see. He embraces it all and says, “This is me! No matter what you say or what you do or how you praise or insult—this is me!” 

So, taking Paul as an example, we don’t unweird ourselves. We can’t. Rather, we stand before God and say, “This is me. This is the sum total of everything that has conspired to bring me to where I am today. I offer me to you.” And all of that awesomeness, inconsistency, strangeness, and, yes, even sin is received by God, who is so weird as to create quarks, leptons, and Higgs bosons, who receives us and divinizes the whole shebang. We have no clue what that means—which makes us all the weirder for wanting it.

Walt Whitman wrote:

     I believe in you, my Soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you;
     And you must not be abased to the other. (“Song of Myself” 5)

We look upon each other with profound respect and regard when we understand this, not because we say to ourselves, “Well, I’m (possibly) just as messed up, too, and people in glass houses…,” but rather because we realize that each and every person can say:

     It was you who created my inmost being, who fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
     I praise you for all these mysteries, for the wonder of myself and all your works. 
    You know me through and through, from having watched me take shape, as I was being formed in secret, being knit together in the        depths of the earth.
     Your eyes have followed all the stages of my life; they are all recorded in your book.
     All my days were listed and determined before one of them came to be.
     How weighty your thoughts seem to me, O God, how deep their meaning! (Psalm 139:13-17)


Anniversary and Reunions

Brother Stavros celebrated fifty years in monastic life, Holy Wisdom Church.


The summer after graduation from high school in 1961, Harry Winner (the future Br. Stavros) and one of his best friends, Tim Nau, traveled to the upper reaches of the Saint Lawrence River to Quebec City to attend a special immersion course in French for foreigners at Laval University. The walled and fortified city, the oldest on the continent north of Mexico, and the university, the oldest after Harvard, earned a place in his heart and imagination. This summer, he met up with his friend at his home in Toronto, and they took the train up to Québec to revisit their old haunts. The city has not lost its European flavor; in fact, they observed that it is even more beautiful. Back then as students they ate on the cheap. This visit provided an opportunity to appreciate the superb cuisine of the region. A particular joy, Br. Stavros recalled, was “approaching the basilica at the time of Sunday Mass and hearing, as well as feeling, the massive bell peal repeating the thrill it brought me half a century ago.”

Just before this northern excursion, Br. Stavros enjoyed another reunion, at Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary just off campus. They had also been together at St. Basil’s Seminary in Stamford, Conneticut. Br. Marc (then Dennis Labish) had been at St. Basil’s a year ahead of them, and our late Br. Elias (Jim Ippolito) preceded them by two years at both St. Basil’s and Catholic University. Josephat’s Niagara Falls, Ontario, this time with four priests who were in his graduating class in 1965 at Catholic University in Washington, DC. Although they earned their degrees from Catholic University, they belonged to St.

On September 13, the Sunday of the Vigil of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Br. Stavros celebrated fifty years in monastic life with a brief rite that concluded the Divine Liturgy, during which he was presented with a candle and a hand cross. A reception was held afterward, generously provided by the many friends and parish members who attended. His niece Susan, her husband, Jack, and their second son, Aidan, traveled from northeastern Pennsylvania to mark the occasion. All joined in the salute: God grant you many years!

Smoking at New Skete is OK (under certain circumstances!)

By Brother Luke

     In today’s marketplace, one of the most ubiquitous signs is the one that says: NO SMOKING. What a dramatic change from 50 years ago, when smoking was chic and basically part of the landscape of society. Here at New Skete, no smoking applies, too, except for one building where smoking is definitely OK. That building is our new smoke house, where we continue to smoke cheese for several clients.

     Our new Dog Training facility has replaced the oldest building in our monastic complex, a building that served as home for a variety of activities over the years. Originally it was a barn for our farm animals and workshops for our liturgical arts and crafts; then dog training, our guest house, and gift shop plus our New Skete Farms, which included processing our various food products and running our mail order business. Now the monks’ gift shop has been relocated to our residence, the guesthouse is down in Emmaus House, and dog training, of course, is in its shining new facility. New Skete Farms as such has disappeared, but one element remains: smoking cheese. We have several small clients for whom we smoke cheese, but by far the most significant client is Shelburne Farms in upstate Vermont. We have smoked their cheddar cheese for some 30 years, and we are honored that they continue to value our work. Over the years they have entered their smoked cheese in competitions and won prizes. They did this again a couple of months ago. Rory Stamp of Shelburne Farms describes the competition and the outcome.

Hi Brother Luke,

My name is Rory Stamp and I took over for Ellen Fox as the Cheese Sales Manager here at Shelburne Farms. I wanted to thank you for doing such a fantastic job with our cheese and to provide you with some additional information on the competition and award.

This year the annual American Cheese Society Annual Conference and Championship was held in Providence, Rhode Island, from July 29th to August 1st. In addition to participating in seminars and forums with fellow cheese makers, retailers, and other cheese professionals, we entered several of our cheddars in competition. This year, there were over 1,779 cheeses entered from 267 producers from North and South America, spanning over one hundred categories. Our Farmhouse Smoked Cheddar was entered in the "Smoked Cheddar - All Milks" category, which contains not only traditionally smoked cheddars but also cheeses flavored with smoke extracts. This year, we selected a particularly delicious batch of our 6 month cheddar to send to you, which had a supple, elastic texture and a finish redolent of caramelized onions and browned butter. This base provided an excellent vehicle for your expert smoking and earned us a third place ribbon for the category.

Thank you for all of your help and we are excited to start smoking again with you in the fall. I'm not certain how long we have been working together, but Shelburne Farms has been making cheddar since 1980. I look forward to working with you and hope that I can schedule a visit sometime in the fall.


Rory Stamp

If you are interested in learning more about Shelburne Farms or trying some of their cheeses, visit their web site at: shelburnefarms.org