A different communion

I was at St. Meinrad Archabbey monastery on Sunday, September 11th, 2016.

I knew that I was not officially allowed to take communion there, because I’m not Catholic.  Jesus made no such rules or limitations, but that does not seem to bother them. Perhaps the monks understand the hurtful nature of this made-up rule.  Or perhaps they think that those of us who are not Catholic are in the dark, and not deserving of this sacrament.

I’d already checked out of my room and was wandering around the grounds by this point.  I wasn’t sure when Mass would end, but I wanted to be in there afterwards to smell the incense.  I walked up to the side door and saw that it was still going on.

There is no way to sneak into that place.  The doors are very creaky and loud.  I couldn’t slip in and stand at the back and just listen.  They were at the main point, where the priest was facing the altar and saying the words that (they think) blesses the bread and wine.

God blesses it, and blesses us.  People don’t do that.  They can’t.

I sat outside, near the Mercy door.  There are windows there.  Perhaps one of the many priests there saw me, outside, sitting, listening to their ritual.

These rules of who is in and who is out are man-made.  They are not from God.

So I left, and found my own communion.  I went to the kitchen and made tea and toast.  The tea was herbal – and to my surprise, red.


The toast was from bread the monks had made there, with their own hands.  I added peanut butter, and honey, and raisins, and cinnamon.


I chose to say the blessings in Hebrew, and enjoy my quiet moment with God.


Silence and stillness and stuff

When I read this verse “He said to them, ‘Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic…'” (Luke 9:3) I think I’m doing retreats entirely wrong. I take a lot of “stuff” so I won’t get bored. Perhaps it isn’t the silence that is the issue – but the fear of really being alone with God. Making art, writing, reading books – all of that can be noise. Maybe “silence” for me is more about “stillness”.

rock 5

The rock garden at St. Meinrad used to be my favorite place. Now it is full of “stuff”

I feel that the garden needs some editing. Like the “stuff” needs to be rotated out, like an art display. How much is “whimsy” and how much is “crazy”?

Yes – you need to slow down and really look here. That is part of the point. To get you to see things that are small or hidden.

You will never see this rock unless you crouch down.  It is at most five inches high.

rock 2

How are you to hear God’s voice amidst a lot of noise?  Noise isn’t just sound – it can also be visual clutter, or too many things to do.

rock 1

God didn’t start speaking to Moses from the bush until Moses stopped – turned around – and came back to look at it. He almost walked by. He almost didn’t get the order to lead Israel out of slavery.  What are we missing being freed from – and leading others out of their slavery (to false gods, to addiction, to worry) by failing to take the time to really notice God’s messages to us?

This was in another courtyard, but I have seen the same thing in the rock garden.

This is a daylily –

rock 6

While this is a seed pod – brown and decaying.

rock 7

There is a lot of this decay in the garden.  And yet – this is beautiful.  I’d never see this shape if it had been taken away in a need to keep everything tidy.  Sometimes “clutter” is helpful.

A hidden place

This courtyard was off limits the last time I went to St. Meinrad’s. The monastery itself was being renovated – they are upgrading to geothermal energy.  It is quite expensive, but will pay for itself in just a few years.  The necessary plumbing changes that go with it meant that all the monks had to be relocated to rooms that were usually used for guests or seminary students.  This meant that a courtyard that had been open in the past was closed off for their private use.  I was especially sad about this because I’d looked at maps before coming here and especially wanted to prowl around in this one.  Just two days before we came here on retreat, the monks were allowed back “home”.

Here is the covered walkway to it.


I was a little overwhelmed – take it all in, or start taking pictures?  It is hard to “be in the moment” with a camera in front of your eyes.  But I also wanted to share this space with you, and to be able to process this experience later.



I wonder what kind of tree this is?  I wonder who planted it, who chose it.  When was it planted?  Has this one always been here, or is it a replacement?  Does it have special meaning?  Was it dedicated to someone?


Notice the solid architecture.  This place is designed to last.  Nothing temporary about it.


But, as always, I think – is that what Jesus wanted – for the Church to build for itself?  Aren’t we called to take care of others?  How many poor people could have benefited from this?  If all the poor are fed, clothed, housed – then the Church can build such things for itself.


There must have been a campaign to donate the paving tiles.  I wonder if these people knew how shallow the inscriptions are?  They won’t last more than a few years.  Just like gravestones, they’ll fade away.


It seems like it would have been better for the Church to get these people to donate towards a place to help the needy instead – a halfway house, a drug treatment center, a shelter for battered women…


This is the most symbolic part – but I’m sure nobody else sees it.  A dead tree.  Why is it still here?  Why keep it?  Sentimentality?  Much of the rites and rituals of the Church are like this tree – kept out of habit.  They no longer are connected to the Vine, the Living God.  Yet they are kept, enshrined, memorialized.  Idolized.


I am with you

During spiritual direction at the retreat at St. Meinrad’s in Indiana, I was asked to visualize being on a road with Jesus.  Where was he, in relation to me?  Then I was to imagine I found something on the road that was interesting.  Do I show it to Jesus?  Do I have to run to him to show it, or does he have to catch up?  Or do I just point to it and hope he figures it out?

I don’t normally like to spend a lot of time with these visualizations.  I usually feel very self-conscious doing play-pretend as an adult.  I’m also a little afraid that I’m going to be smacked down – that this is a trap.  It wouldn’t be the first time that a religious leader has purposely tried to make me look silly – and thus shame me into silence.

But I decided to a) be brave and trust and b) not go with my usual habit of trying to get to the good part too fast.  I’m not very good with waiting in the stillness of time that it takes for things to gel. Jesus and I are working on that.

I imagined I was walking on a dusty, rocky road, like the Camino de Santiago.  I was walking ahead, and Jesus was  behind me.  He was far enough away that conversation would have to be in gestures and shouts, but we could still see each other.

I saw a rock that was interesting and decided to wait for him to catch up to show it to him.  There were a lot of rocks on the road and I wanted to make sure he saw this specific one, because it was so different.

When he caught up with me and I showed him the rock, he smiled and said “Yes, I put that there for you to find.”

And my mind was blown.  How?  He was behind me.  But this is Jesus.  Jesus transcends time and space.  Jesus is everywhere.  He is before, behind, above, below, and within me.

Where I’d been wondering about him being behind me – aren’t I supposed to follow him, and not the other way around – he answered it.  He was behind me to watch me, to make sure I stayed on the path.  He was behind me to make sure I didn’t turn to the left or the right.  He was behind me to support me, to help me.

Years back, he had to be in front, but I watched his walk and matched my pace to his.  Now I can walk ahead and see new things.  My view is unobstructed.  I can go to new places, because he has shown me how.

The Walk isn’t about doing the same old things again.  It is a pattern, not a map.  You aren’t supposed to recreate his life, like a diorama, like a museum.  It has to be a living path.

The retreat theme was about rocks – about us being the living stones of the Church, about how even the stones would cry out if Jesus made his disciples be silent, about how we are like geodes – that being cracked open reveals our beauty.  I’d decided to take pictures of different examples of stones to meditate on, and took this one before the silent direction time.


It was only later when I was looking at my pictures again that I noticed the one almost in the center that has a cross shape, revealed inside the rock itself.


I went back to that area several times to try to find this rock, to take it home.  In a way, I’m glad I didn’t find it.  It is important to not iconize things, to not be weighed down by them.  It is the One who left me the stone in the visualization and in real life that is to be noticed.  The stone is just a symbol.  Symbols have to point to the thing – they aren’t the thing.  The trouble comes when we focus on the symbol.  That becomes idolatry.

Mary in the Woods

On Friday morning while on retreat at St. Meinrad, I found one of the two grottoes with Mary that are on this campus. Both of these special places are hidden away in the woods, away from the church, not on the map.  They are nearly impossible to find unless you ask for directions from someone who has been there.


I’ve read that statues of Mary have been discovered in caves and in fields – and when they are removed and placed in churches, within a few days they have miraculously returned to where they were found.  It is as if Mary does not want to be in church, in a cold, lifeless building.  Mary is all about being among us, the commoners, where we are, as we are.

I find it significant that this image of Mary depicts her as if she is a non-Catholic at Mass.  This arm position says to the priest to give a blessing only – that this person cannot take Communion.  Following their rules – she could not take Communion because she was not Catholic.  She was Jewish.  But if it weren’t for her saying “Yes” to God – to letting the Holy Spirit of God work through her, Jesus would never have come into this world.  The Catholic Church could learn a lot from Mary.


The other grotto is quite far away.  You have to walk away from the seminary, the guest house, the church.  You have to walk by two small lakes and into the woods. I found it on Saturday.  This is the view looking back at the place where we stayed on retreat.  It is the closest building to this grotto, and also the furthest building from the church.  This is significant.

The actual grotto is another five minute’s walk from here.


There are no signs or path.  You’d never know that this was here until you are almost upon it.


Mary greets you with open arms.



Notice the detail – she is barefoot, and she is stepping on a snake with fruit in it’s mouth. This is the snake from the Garden of Eden, and that is the apple that Eve and Adam ate.  Mary is the antidote to that poison.  It is said that they brought original sin into the world with this act of rebellion against God.  Mary brought grace into the world by acting in accordance with the desires of God.


Someone had been here before me and left an offering of wildflowers for her.  They had faded and were musty.  We must daily refresh our faith and reconnect to the true Vine in order to remain alive in spirit.


Holy Door

There is a “Holy Door” at St Meinrad Archabbey, in St. Meinrad, Indiana.  These special doors are usually opened only once every 25 years and for a limited time. Pope Francis asked for these special doors (located in certain churches all over the world) to be open earlier than the normal interval to focus on the quality of mercy. You get a plenary indulgence for walking through and reciting a prayer in the church (along with a few other obligations). Each church that has a Holy Door should have information on what is required.

From reading the letter Pope Francis wrote about it, he wants this sacrament available to everyone.  He did not indicate that this is just for Catholics.

Here is the sign at the door in St. Meinrad.



Here is the door from the outside.


Here is the doorknob.


Here is the door from the inside.


Normally these doors are locked or in some cases even bricked up.  They are never doors that you would just happen to walk through – they are never the main doors.  Not all Catholic churches have these special doors set aside for this sacrament.

What is a sacrament?  It is “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual gift.”  These doors are reminders of the grace and mercy that God grants us – has granted us, will grant us.  We, being forgetful beings by the very nature of our being human, forget that God loves us unconditionally, and constantly welcomes us back when we stray.  We forget that God is the father that runs to greet us when we have wandered away, just like in the story of the Prodigal Son.

Going through a Holy Door doesn’t save you – you are already redeemed by Jesus.  That bill has already been paid.  But going through reminds you of that gift, reminds you that you are eternally loved.

A Plenary Indulgence is not a “get out of hell free card”, or a “get into heaven free card”.  You’ll have to look it up to know what the Catholic Church means by that term.  As for me, I don’t hold with the idea of indulgences or of penance, because they go against the message of Jesus.  Indulgences say that the Church, in the person of the ordained ministers of the Catholic Church, is able to forgive you for your sins, which is not something any human can do.  That is something God, and God alone, does. The idea of penance indicates that you have to pay for your sins yourself, which would mean that you are ignoring the price that Jesus paid for you on the cross.  Yes, we are to constantly be on guard for our sin, our times of “missing the mark”, and turn away from it and turn towards the Light that is God.  We are to make amends for our actions, certainly, but we can never buy our way into God’s love – that is something we already have.


In a gloomy little corner at St. Meinrad’s, there is a painting of the Annunciation.  It is very hard to see – there is little natural light and I couldn’t find a light switch for artificial light.  It is the the only painting in that corner.  It is more of a passage way to get to another room.  It is an afterthought.

annun 1

Yet notice that they have a holy candle mounted on the wall next to it.  A white candle, especially in a red sconce, indicates that the presence of Jesus is there.  Yet someone has let the candle go out.  These candles are normally placed next to the tabernacle or aumbry that has consecrated hosts (Communion wafers).  I’ve never seen one next to a painting – but this painting indicates the moment that Jesus became a physical part of the world by entering into Mary’s womb.



Because the only light was right in front of it, I had to stand at an angle to take the picture otherwise my shadow would have gotten in the way.


Notice the dove, a sign of the Holy Spirit.  There are lilies too – symbols of the purity of Mary.


This is the archangel Gabriel, come to ask Mary if she is willing to be the bearer of Christ.


Everything is immaculate in this painting – so why is there a breach in this wall?  Does it refer to when Jesus died on the cross and the division between the Holy of Holies was rendered in two?  That signified that God and humans are reconciled – there is no longer a division between us.  We no longer need an intermediary of a priest to speak with God – we can do it directly.

annun 2

Scenes inside the Abbey

In the Abbey at St. Meinrad’s, Indiana.

A stained glass window depicting the Tree and Adam and Eve becoming the wood that was the cross that Jesus was crucified on.


I was fascinated by the bells – they rang every 15 minutes.  At the hour they went on for a long time and I made a point of going to find them.  I’d hoped to see monks pulling the cords.  Alas, that is all done by a machine.


Here are pictures of the hanging cross.  It is suspended over the altar.


Here is the black Madonna. They’ve dressed her like a queen and put a necklace on her.  The monks process as part of the service and stand and chant facing her. From their website, this is the “Shrine of Our Lady of Einsiedeln. The Black Madonna statue was a gift from Saint Meinrad’s mother abbey, Maria Einsiedeln in Switzerland, in 1954.”

The wall sconces.

The anointing oil container, which is near the reliquary.  Three different oils?   Perhaps for baptism, for healing, and for consecrating a person being ordained.


Here are further pictures of the outside of the Abbey.

Scenes at the seminary

St. Meinrad’s Archabbey has a seminary – that is part of what makes it an Archabbey, instead of just a regular abbey. Here are pictures from around and inside it.

The huge Celtic cross.


The building itself.


Some cool arches.


Around the back, not on a part of the building normally seen (there is no sidewalk here)


The chapel for the seminary students (because the one at the Archabbey isn’t big enough…)

I was amused that there is a satellite dish.  Modern technology to connect with the heavens attached to a building that is all about ancient technology to do the same.



Everything else.



Saint Joseph’s chapel

This is a small chapel at St. Meinrad’s.  While it looks very simple and humble, they’ve stored the altarpiece from the original Abbey here.  It is overwhelmingly ostentatious.  Fortunately it is at the back of the room so you don’t get distracted by it when there is a service here.

This is in the hallway on the way to the chapel. 19

This is in the chapel itself. You enter from a raised area. Interestingly to me, there was a small hand drum to the right of the chapel.  Even though it was a silent retreat, I enjoyed playing it at one point during my time there.  There was nobody else around, and I played softly, so I didn’t disturb anyone else.  This chapel is attached to the building that has the seminary, not the guest house.



Here is the over-the-top altarpiece.  It was removed when they renovated the Abbey to make the altar no longer attached to the back wall, but in the center of the room, among the people.  That was part of a movement after Vatican 2 that tried to make the symbols of the church match the message of the church – that Jesus is among us, not hidden away, far removed.




Here are some details.


Imagine how much money and effort was required to make this.  Imagine how many hungry people could have been fed with that money and effort.  While this is outwardly beautiful, it is a direct affront to the very call of Jesus.  We are specifically not to build up treasures for ourselves here – we are to take care of people.


This is to the side of the chapel. A bit of glass has broken and is now on the music and nobody else has noticed.


I wish that Protestant churches had guest houses for silent retreats so I could go there instead and I wouldn’t get so wound up about the hypocrisy of it all.  This place is beautiful, don’t get me wrong.  But only until all people are taken care of (no more homelessness, no more sickness, no more wars or poverty) can we even think about building places that are this opulent.  They are extras.  Money and effort has to go to following the instructions of Jesus first.  If more Christians followed Christ instead of Christianity, the world would be a better place.