Dear Friends of Saint Albert’s,
My elegantly-clad squirrel friends are united in revolt. They have felt underfed ever since Fr. John Flannery died and they lost their advocate for Triscuits, but throughout the month of February they have felt even more abandoned because preaching assignments have demanded so much of my attention and called me away from home.
The first of these engagements took me to St. Dominic’s, in San Francisco, where I preached the novena to honor Our Lady of Lourdes, proceeds of which support the Western Province’s Shrine of St. Jude, which contributes nearly half the education budget for the Dominican students whose prayers you join when you take part in our liturgies. I directed the St. Jude Shrine for a number of years (when one reaches my age, one has directed, managed, or “done” nearly everything in the Western Province) and at one of our novenas Fr. Antoninus Wall remarked, “If the St. Jude Shrine were to close its doors, the Western Province’s formation program would close its doors the following day!”
From my years at the Shrine, I have a real affection for its ministry, and a particular affection for the novena to honor Our Lady of Lourdes. Part of this is due to my serving as chaplain to the Order of Malta and accompanying members of the Order, and a number of invalids, on the Order’s annual pilgrimages to Lourdes. But even before I was accepted as a chaplain to the Order of Malta, I liked this novena best of all the Shrine’s novenas because it embraces the most saints’ feast days.
In June I will have been ordained forty-one years, and throughout these four decades, I think I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have passed up an opportunity to celebrate a saint’s day. We have all heard the phrase “The Imitation of Christ.” This is a remarkable summation of what we believe about us, and Jesus, and what holds us together with Him. One of the early Church writers said that Christ saved us by taking on our flesh and going through every moment of our lives. Not so that we wouldn’t have to, but to teach us. To teach us how to get it right, when we’d managed to get it so wrong.
I can’t expect my squirrel companions to grasp this of course, but as we make our way through these days of Lent, this is an extremely important lesson to consider. When we forgot what it meant to be God’s children, God’s Son came among us and showed us how to recapture what we’d thrown away. And now it’s our turn. Christ imitated us, now he calls us to imitate him.
What this means, finally, is that if we follow Christ long enough, we can be sure he will find a way to ask us to make for him the same sacrifice he made for us. On the cross. And that’s why I like to celebrate saints’ days. The saints show us how to imitate the death of Christ. Their example doesn’t make our suffering any less painful, but the saints teach us that we’re not alone when we’re in trouble – and they remind us that while it may be hard to see the point of suffering while we’re in pain, the trials of our life have the capacity to make us stronger and more compassionate.
The novena to Our Lady of Lourdes begins with the feast of St. Blaise, on February 3rd. It continues with the Dominican saint, Catherine de Ricci, progresses with St. Agatha, St. Paul Miki, and St. Scholastica. A Sunday interrupts things, and one day actually has no saint to illustrate it. The whole thing draws to a close on February 11th, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
I came home the following day, the feast of my Dominican patron, Blessed Reginald of Orleans, and – silly I! – I expected my furry friends to be assembled to greet me. Dear Heaven, was I disappointed! Thus, you may imagine my gratitude to realize how far more attentive were my Dominican brothers; Fr. Augustine Thompson preached a pointed – and witty – homily at the evening’s Mass, drawing attention to my well-known Capitalist beliefs, and remarking that while we Christians must necessarily settle for whatever God is willing to bestow upon us (He knows what we most need, after all), this should not discourage us from asking God for whatever we think will most benefit us.
The following day was my turn to pay a visit to the Dominican nuns at Corpus Christi Monastery in Menlo Park, where they play host to the (in)famous black squirrels that escaped from the science laboratory at Stanford University after the 1906 earthquake and have been gnawing on everything edible in the sisters’ garden ever since. The sisters, like so many of my friends, cannot understand my affection for squirrels, animals that seem to be rapacious predators – except on Birch Court, and in the photographs on the calendar our friends, Lori and Ron Cheatham gave me for Christmas.
The next thing we knew, Lent was upon us, and the squirrels’ cries for Triscuits fell on deaf ears. I forego bacon on Lenten weekdays, so if I have to suffer, everyone can suffer. The day after Ash Wednesday I ate a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast – while everyone else was enjoying bacon! – and I asked myself what possible charm anyone could find in this gruel, or why Oliver Twist could possibly want “more” of it. I’d topped it with canned peaches, prunes, and fresh raspberries, but it still had all the charm of wet socks. I was sorely tempted to run up the street to buy some Triscuits to share with the squirrels – at least I’d have some company in my dietary desert!
Just when I was beginning to see signs of a thaw in relations with my animal companions, I realized I ought to start preparations on a Day of Recollection for the Dominican Sisters in the Infirmary at San Rafael. I had to lower the blinds on the Prior’s Window so I could enjoy enough shade to write my reflections for the day – much to the annoyance of my friends, to whom I was unable to explain the reason for my apparent coolness.
To add insult to (the squirrels’) injury, the shades remained drawn while I was called to spend this past Tuesday afternoon with the Oakford Dominican sisters, who live in San Leandro. These women were here to greet me and my classmates – as they had a number of classes before and after us – and they presented us a remarkable example of how to embrace the vowed life. They also taught me a great deal about cooking, food presentation, and, not least, how to fold sheets. I feel myself quite privileged to join them on Tuesday mornings three days a month for Mass; on the last Tuesday of the month they invite me to hear confessions, celebrate Mass, and join them for dinner.
I didn’t bother to raise the window shades on Wednesday, as that was the day chosen to welcome participants in this semester’s School of Applied Theology, and I had a number of preparations to make for the event. You, who regularly join us for prayers, may notice a number of faces in the back of the chapel, faces that change every so often. These are our honored guests – many from exotic foreign homelands – who have chosen to join us for a semester or two of relaxation and sabbatical renewal. I am not altogether certain how long we have hosted the SAT program, but it has become a part of our life here, and we look forward to the “Welcome Dinner” each semester.
The San Rafael Day of Recollection, the day before yesterday, seems to have gone quite well. I have explained before my great affection for the San Rafael sisters, who were my introduction to the Dominican life when my folks and I lived, for a short time, in Reno, and I attended Our Lady of the Snows Grammar School. The last of the sisters I knew there died not long ago, but I was delighted to encounter a new infirmary resident, Sr. Barbara Sullivan, a friend from the days I served as Prior at our community in San Francisco.
I cannot imagine the squirrels will be pleased to learn that I will be lowering the shades once again tomorrow, as I must depart for Santa Cruz and the annual meeting of the Western Province’s superiors. I haven’t the heart to tell them that I shall no more return than I must lower the shades again to pay a visit to Southern California, to visit my folks. I have learned that my father is very ill. When I spoke to my step-mother yesterday, on her birthday, she said his medical advisors told her he might live “from three weeks to three years.”
When you join us for Mass this morning you will notice a number of new faces. These are men who are sharing a “Come and See” weekend with us, a time to help them discern whether God might be calling them to life as Dominicans. We always ask you to join us in praying for vocations, and these men are potentially the answer to our prayers. Please, don’t give up your good work! Pray that God will extend His call, and that many of them will embrace the opportunity to join the Western Dominican Province.
And please continue to pray for the students who have already committed themselves to the Dominican life. Your prayers and support are essential if these young Dominicans are to be the voice of Jesus in this century.
As we continue our journey through these days of Lent, I beg you to pray for us, and I assure you of our prayers for you and your intentions.
Sincerely in Christ,
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.