Dear Friends of Saint Albert’s,
One of my Dominican brothers recently told me these reflections are familiarly known as “The Squirrel Report,” and the name certainly fits. I cannot recall when I began watching squirrels, but I remember when I was pastor at our Newman Center parish in Eugene, Oregon, I once remarked I could imagine nothing more fun than to be reincarnated as a squirrel. The young man with whom I was chatting, one of the state’s largest mint growers, nearly fainted. When his eyes re-focused, my friend told me how much trouble my furry friends cause farmers, and how much damage they inflict upon crops. He then described the steps farmers take to eliminate the problem of squirrel pests. Not for the first time I uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving that Catholicism does not embrace a doctrine of reincarnation.
I mention this because I have determined I was set upon my path of skiourophilia fairly early in life, and by forces altogether external to me. As evidence I submit my pawing through some of my mother’s things the other day and coming upon a vermeil squirrel from Tiffany. I do not recall buying it for her, but I cannot imagine her buying it for herself. However, it is a charming artifact, slightly more than an inch tall. The tiny animal perches erect upon a three-pronged branch, and clutches something in his front paws.
I placed the figure in the window in front of my desk so my furry friends might glance at it as they bounce from limb to limb of the oak trees that frame the Birch Court entrance to the Priory. I wondered, for a moment, whether its gilded splendor might prove as ill a distraction for them as the Golden Calf did our Old Testament ancestors in the desert, but although our furry companions have been peering curiously at their more elegantly-attired relation, they’ve left no votive offerings, so perhaps they’re not the pagans I have frequently imagined.
I’ve mentioned the black squirrels who inhabit Menlo Park; a friend who prays with us at St. Albert’s has recently shared some information about a rare breed of white squirrels from South Carolina. The lineage of the initial pair is unknown, but they were captured after the circus truck holding them overturned in Florida, in 1949. Their rescuer gave them to his niece, who brought them to Brevard, South Carolina. The squirrels refused to breed in captivity, but did so once they were released, and have now become such a feature of Brevard that the town holds an annual festival in their honor!
Many of you, I know, have remarked the (occasionally) reduced number of students at the Priory’s Sunday Mass. The missing brothers are providing an interesting liturgical service. Some of you have accompanied our brothers on their mission, but if you have not, let me explain their whereabouts lest you imagine they are simply sleeping late.
About two years ago, a group of cloistered Carmelite nuns established themselves in a wilderness area called Canyon. A map shows Canyon to be not far from Moraga, but this displays nothing more than the immense optimism of cartographers. Canyon is, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. A step in any direction will take one a step closer to “somewhere,” but Canyon – truly – occupies the middle of nowhere. The road to Canyon is the uphill stuff of medieval morality plays. I have visited all seven continents, and made my way along some very challenging terrain, but I have seldom encountered anything as primitive as this. When Ophelia advised her brother to choose “the steep and thorny path to heaven,” she was describing the road to Canyon!
The nuns at Canyon are a traditional group, so they are very grateful when Fr. Augustine, Fr. Bryan, and Fr. Mariusz celebrate Mass for them according to the Dominican Rite. Some of our students have learned to serve the old rite, so they accompany the celebrant. I was invited to preach last Sunday, so I was part of the company as well. Fr. LaSalle also joined us.
You might do so, too, but you can enjoy the liturgy without enduring the perils of a journey to Canyon. If you are not familiar with the Dominican Rite, I encourage you to attend one of our special First Saturday Masses here at St. Albert’s. You will be quite taken by this reminder of the liturgy before Vatican II, the Mass I served almost every morning when I was a student at St. John Vianney, the Dominican high school in Los Angeles.
The Carmelite community gave us a very warm welcome, and an exceptional breakfast. Best of all, we were able to visit the sisters for about an hour after Mass. However, had they asked us to wash windows, scrub floors, or replace shingles, I think I would have jumped at the chance to do anything to delay what I knew awaited us as soon as we drove through the gate and began our journey back to St. Albert’s. If possible, this was even more trying than the trip to the monastery! In the Aeneid, when Vergil sends his hero on a journey to the underworld, he observes, facilis descensus…sed revocare gradum…hoc opus, hic labor est. The poet tells us, in short, that getting down is easy; getting back the hard part. The opposite is true of the pilgrimage to Canyon; the drive up may be challenging, but coming home makes Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride pale in comparison.
And just when the driver reaches asphalt and imagines he can heave a sigh of relief, he is greeted with a sign that warns, “This is a Bicycle Friendly Community.” This does not mean one should expect to meet friendly bicycles, but that drivers should be prepared to relinquish the right-of-way to phalanxes of cyclists, determined to exact every scruple of friendliness from the neighborhood.
When your Dominican brothers set out on a car trip from St. Albert’s the driver customarily says, “Our help is in the Name of the Lord,” and the passengers reply, “Who made heaven and earth.” I have never been so happy to return home from anywhere, and I do not believe I have ever been more convinced of God’s watchful care. As for that inane sign advertising the neighborhood’s friendliness to bicycles, I abandoned my wonted calm at one point to snort, “Friendly? Friendly ain’t in it!” I have, nevertheless, volunteered to accompany Fr. Augustine to Mass this coming Friday (March 7), when I’ll preach once again. This time I may lie down on the back seat so I don’t have to watch where we’re going.
As I write this we are preparing for Ash Wednesday and Lent. My Lenten austerities are always a source of interest to the nurse who administers my weekly allergy shot. Together we have agreed to resist adding salt to food. In addition I shall not read fiction on Lenten weekdays. This little penance came about (albeit a couple of decades after the fact) when I was first assigned to our community in Seattle. I watch no television these days, but at that time I’d found myself watching two hours a week, which I found far too much, so I determined to give up the pastime for Lent. I’d done this once, in high school, and, as then, discovered after a day or two, it was no penance at all. We had a community meeting and I remarked, “Since Lent began, two and a half weeks ago, I’ve read five novels in the time I would’ve spent watching television.” My former student master was part of the community at the time and he observed, only half in jest, “Perhaps you should have given up reading novels for Lent!”
This month also brings the annual meeting of the superiors of the Western Province. As in the past, we will gather at a retreat house in Santa Cruz to report on life in our communities. Whenever I have had the good fortune to be superior of a Dominican community, the members of the community have become for me the most important individuals on the planet. Once again I look forward to relating all that our brothers, and especially our students, are doing. The list of ministries is quite impressive. It includes work with the homeless, adult education, involvement with RCIA and other adult-education programs, as well as service to the elderly.
If you have a Facebook account, I encourage you to introduce yourself to Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, who occasionally posts photos of himself and other brothers on Market Street in San Francisco, or up in Berkeley, engaging passers-by in spiritual conversation and distributing rosaries. The rosaries, I’m proud to say, are supplied by the Rosary Center, a Western Province apostolate directed by your humble scrivener. As usual, I’ll make my shameless pitch for the Rosary Confraternity, and encourage you to join. Membership costs nothing, except the promise to pray fifteen decades of the rosary each week. Confraternity members share the prayers of every other Confraternity member, and receive the "Light & Life" newsletter, which we publish six times a year. Each issue contains a theological reflection (we’re presently exploring the Ten Commandments). Give us an on-line look, at www.rosary-center.org.
This past week I’ve been blessed to visit three communities of Dominican sisters. I paid my usual Tuesday call on the Oakford Dominicans, who were so important a part of our lives at St. Albert’s for more than forty years, and celebrated Mass at their home in San Leandro. On Friday I drove to San Rafael and celebrated Mass for the sisters in their infirmary. When I bade them farewell, I made my way to Menlo Park, as I was the community’s scheduled confessor. This proved a very informative visit, as I learned householders can discourage squirrels from predatory activity in fruit trees by putting moth balls in the toes of socks and hanging the socks in the trees.
If you join us for Mass, you often hear Fr. Mark O’Leary utter his succinct, two-word prayer, “for rain.” As I drove through San Francisco on Friday, to get from one freeway to the next, I encountered spots of hammering rain along Van Ness Avenue. Pedestrians with umbrellas were undoubtedly thanking the prudent virgins in the gospel, who had inspired them that morning to dress for the occasion; those without protection scampered across the street looking anything but happy.
Some time ago I believe I mentioned the October retreat I helped give for members of the Order of Malta. Another of the leaders was John Quinn, former Archbishop of San Francisco. Archbishop Quinn is one of the most insightful speakers I have ever encountered, and this past fall one of his conferences encouraged me to devote some additional moments early in the morning to spiritual reading. (I can hear my dear, departed Novice Master saying, “It’s about time!”) The works I’ve made my way through have been quite varied, but I’ve been especially touched by Confidence in God, recommended by my dad’s wife. This is a series of brief reflections by a Jesuit, Daniel Considine, and they seldom fail to hit the mark: "There is no such thing as 'the world' to God. Each one of us is a world to Him. It is a mistake not to think half enough of ourselves…We cost the Eternal Son of God His Blood. We are so important to God we carry out His Will. In spite of all my sins and imperfections, God follows all my history with incessant care and interest…One great privilege of the spiritual life is, there is no time in it. The intensity of an act needs no time, and one moment can hold more than ten years."
When I was a student, several brothers in the class behind me were quite taken with the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux. I remarked to one of the older fathers in the community that I did not quite share their enthusiasm. He said the work had been considerably edited – not, apparently, for the better – by one of Therese’s sisters, and he recommended I investigate the writings of another Carmelite, Elizabeth of the Trinity.
In one of his poems, Longfellow observed, “Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small…” I live by this dictum, so I sometimes takes considerable time to accomplish something, but I generally complete the task. In this case, I took only forty-two (or so) years, but at last I visited the Priory library and secured a volume of Elizabeth’s letters. That I took longer to find them than their writer lived is of no consequence.
Elizabeth of the Trinity was born in 1880. She entered the convent in 1901, and professed vows in 1903. She died in 1906, which means she wrote the following while she was a novice!
"We must not stop before
the Cross and regard it in itself, but, recollecting ourselves in the light of
faith, we must rise
higher and recognize that it is the instrument that is obeying Divine Love."
As we make our pilgrimage through these days of Lent, we must embrace the Cross Jesus embraced for love of us. And when the path toward the Garden of the Resurrection is steep and painful, let me assure you how very grateful we are to have you to offer your assistance along the way. Your prayers and support are immense signs of God’s love whenever that love is hard to discern. Thank you for believing in us and in what we strive to do here at St. Albert’s.
During Lent we pray the Stations of the Cross in the Priory cloister on Friday afternoons at four o’clock. Join us if you can. And if you cannot, know that we remember you each day in the prayers we offer for our friends and benefactors.
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.