+Our dear Friends,
For a world that has grown accustomed to “Google Earth” and satellite photos, an aerial view of the place called home might not be considered particularly spectacular. But for Poor Clares who generally stay in one place and see it every day from a definitely ground-level viewpoint, an aerial photograph elicits intense fascination. A few years ago, we excitedly gathered around such a photo taken by a friend, and after some initial difficulties in recognizing our familiar monastic home, bewilderment soon gave way to wonder, and wonder led to delight in seeing for the first time how 809 East Nineteenth Street looks to a bird flying overhead. Most of all, we marveled together at “How green it is!” Our little Poor Clare monastery looked marvelously like an oasis of green in the midst of an otherwise brown and dry expanse. The green, however, was not due to vast stretches of irrigated farmland, which we do not have and which our Holy Rule would not allow. The green in the photograph was simply… trees, trees, and more trees! And trees can tell the story of this past year’s goings-on at the farmhouse-turned-monastery in Roswell, New Mexico.
Ever since our pioneers first arrived in 1948 and sighted the old white farmhouse standing in a “ring of tall elm trees like an enclosure wall of God’s own construction,” our community has been fond of trees, nursing them from their sapling days, marveling at their beauty, delighting in their shade, and giving thanks for their protection when the sun reigns supreme in cloudless summer skies. Their steady growth, their constant cycle of new life to death to new life again, their usefulness, steadfastness, and sturdiness are all calls to the contemplative to look beyond them to their Creator, who expects us to learn and to grow from the gifts of His creation. Throughout history, trees have been seen as symbols of higher realities, and St. Paul himself once referred to the Church as God’s own olive tree (Rom. 11:24). The noble olive tree was a most fitting image to have in mind on AUGUST 11, when we met our new bishop, Most Reverend Peter Baldacchino, for the first time. Our newly-appointed shepherd originally hails from Malta, where olive trees abound. Bishop Baldacchino’s obvious desire to help his new flock grow into the fullness of Christ made us ready and eager to cultivate our little monastic branch of God’s spiritual olive tree with renewed purpose and zeal. As our bishop presented each sister with a small crucifix to remind us to pray for him daily, we felt truly grateful for the protecting and sheltering boughs of Holy Church.
SEPTEMBER marks the beginning of a months-long golden shower of tiny leaves from our multitude of tall honey locust trees, and these tiny sparks of gold were fluttering all around us as we walked in procession through the garden with our Eucharistic Lord and His faithful Friars Minor, our brothers of Our Lady of Guadalupe province, during our annual Eucharistic gathering. “Christ, hear us! Christ, graciously hear us!” rang out the combined chorus of baritone and soprano voices as we prayed litany after litany, walking along in the company of the Blessed Sacrament in the shade of the magnificent trees He created. It was a prayerful prelude to the flurry of activity which followed after our last friar had departed, for we had another visitor who would arrive later that very same afternoon. Soon our tower bells were ringing out their welcome for His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze, who was able to spend several quiet and restful days with us before embarking on the next leg of his journey. His time with us also gave us an opportunity to partake of the wisdom gained from his many years of experience as the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, as His Eminence graciously consented to our request for several conferences on topics of interest. During the Cardinal’s free time, he could be seen taking a walk down our long tree-lined drive, or relaxing in a chair outside our small Bethany guesthouse, under the large, shady trees which have provided similar refreshment for other eminent visitors over the years.
“I love Thee who enamels / The trees new-green with rain / And this alone to suit my pleasure / Here, in our retreat.” Our dear Mother Mary Francis was an ardent lover of trees, and the poems penned during her annual retreat before her profession anniversary often featured trees, birds, and even turtles, as she marveled at the many manifestations of God’s love, which then blossomed into poetry. There was certainly a soul-enriching poetry emanating from the insightful conferences of Father Richard McNally, SS.CC., who led our community retreat in OCTOBER, traveling from the palm and coconut trees of his parish in Hawaii to spend a week under our humbler varieties here in the Southwest. While the northern states are enjoying all shades of red, yellow and orange as their trees begin their magnificent fall displays, our trees turn to a single shade of gold in October — a fitting reflection of the wisdom shared with us by our retreat master, whose esteem for the contemplative life has always made his words especially radiant with the glory of God.
Pecan-gathering and leaf-raking form an integral part of our outdoor work in autumn, and often Thanksgiving Day festivities include a full-scale “leaf-raking party” in the afternoon. This year, however, we had greater treasures to gather indoors with the presence of Father Daniel Cardó, a new friend from Denver who visited during the last week of NOVEMBER. Our love of the liturgy was greatly enriched during Father’s stay as he presented several classes based on his recent book, The Cross and the Eucharist in Early Christianity: A Theological and Liturgical Investigation. Drawing abundantly from the teachings of the Church Fathers and our mutually loved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Father Daniel reflected with us on the relationship between the Eucharist and the Cross, presenting the Cross as “the new Tree of Life, which offers the true food of life, the Eucharistic sacrifice.” He also encouraged us to take up a venerable but little-known Advent tradition, the Rorate Mass, celebrated in honor of Our Lady, and we found it deeply moving to begin Mass on December 20 in pre-dawn darkness, with the chapel and choir lit only by candles. Their small, brave flames gradually surrendered to the light of the rising sun as the Mass proceeded to the Consecration, when the true Light of the world dawned anew upon our altar and within our yearning hearts.
Although the darker days of DECEMBER find the deciduous trees bare of leaves and starkly beautiful in their winter poverty, indoors the rich fragrance of evergreens fills the house as we decorate every available corner for the coming of our little Lord and King. In the refectory, a tall evergreen-bedecked Advent wreath stands in candle-crowned splendor from the beginning of the Church’s season of joyful anticipation, and as Christmas draws ever closer, local friends, including our loyal Knights of Columbus, faithfully provide us with fresh-cut trees for both chapel and choir. This year’s trees were so fresh that even at the close of the Christmas season, their branches and needles were still green and supple. One enterprising sister asked the sacristan if she could have “just the tops of those two trees, before you take them out of the choir...?” The sawn-off treetops were obligingly placed in big buckets of water and hidden in a secret place. Weeks later, they made a grand re-entry as surprise miniature Christmas trees, artfully placed along our processional route on our Christmas-loving Mother Abbess’ nameday in JANUARY. Imagine our astonishment at discovering that those indomitable little treetops were, nearly two months after having first been cut, putting forth fresh growth! It is a lesson taught by all evergreens, immortalized in the old German carol, O Tannenbaum. This year we had the added joy of being able to sing it (and as many other carols as we could fit into one recreation hour) with our religious assistant, Father Larry Webber, O.F.M.Cap., who visited briefly at the beginning of the New Year. Father Larry shared with us not only his Franciscan joy, but also many valuable insights on the Holy See’s recent documents for contemplative women religious. Echoing Pope Francis’ words, he urged us to “be sentinels of the dawn, heralds of the morning”(Vultum Dei Quaerere, #6).
“Sentinels of the dawn” well describes not only our role as enclosed nuns, but also (on a very different level) that of some of our favorite trees, a long line of Afghan pines which stand as graceful guardians outside our enclosure wall to the north and the east. Many of them are visible from our refectory windows, and during our first repast of the day (a brief affair of coffee and homemade bread) we are often treated to a glorious sunrise, framed on the horizon by the tops of these beautiful evergreens. The Divine Artist fashioned a particularly resplendent dawn on the morning of FEBRUARY 2, a day which also marked the dawn of noviceship for our newest Poor Clare, Sister Maria Karolina of Christ, Eternal High Priest. Long before sunrise, we gathered in the novitiate common room to behold our then-Postulant Sonja festively clothed in the wedding dress of her own grandmother, ready to meet the King and eager to exchange her fineries for the garments of the lowly. Like our Mother St. Clare on Palm Sunday over eight hundred years ago, Sonja carried a palm branch, calling to mind the many branches spread before our Lord as he entered Jerusalem to undergo His Passion. Her life, too, would henceforth be lived within the mysteries of Jesus’ Passion, so she carried her palm branch along with a candle lit from the flame of the Paschal candle, symbol of Christ Himself, as we escorted her to choir. Her family was able to travel from Sister’s native snow-covered Minnesota to be with us for the occasion, and we praised God for His tender love when, during their visit, our view of the Afghan pines outside the window revealed that He had clothed them with the festive (and rare for Roswell) garment of a beautiful new-fallen snow.
It was indeed a cause for gratitude that our Sister’s family and Father John Riley had been able to come to the monastery in February, since the coronavirus lockdown beginning in MARCH curtailed all long-distance travel. Our solicitous bishop and generous friars provided for all our sacramental needs during the lockdown by allowing our chaplain, Father Paul Juniet, O.F.M., to remain in our Bethany guesthouse and celebrate Holy Mass for our community each morning. Twice during the last weeks of Lent we walked in solemn procession through our monastic home with our cherished relic of the Holy Cross and other relics and sacred images, reciting litanies in supplication for the ending of the pandemic that was gripping the world. Although our Holy Week services usually bring a large number of friends to our public chapel, this year’s Sacred Triduum in APRIL found the chapel still empty due to coronavirus regulations. Aware that our voices would have to supply for the many thousands who would be unable to attend services physically this year, we sang with deepened intensity: “Faithful Cross, O Tree all beauteous, Tree all peerless and divine, Not a grove on earth can show us such a flow’r and leaf as thine.” Throughout the weeks of uncertainty, new challenges, and restrictions, the Cross of Good Friday continued to shine forth as the supreme consolation for a world deprived of the Sacraments, and the divine source of healing for all suffering the effects of the pandemic.
No lockdown can weigh very heavily for too long on the hearts of daughters of St. Francis and St. Clare, however, as the life of joyful penitence which they bequeathed to us gives us daily opportunities to be channels of grace and joy to a very needy world. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote, “Not only do we have a right, we also have a duty to rejoice, for the Lord has given us joy and the world is waiting for it.” In the midst of MAY’s exuberantly joyful proliferation of flowers, its new growth on all the late-budding pecan trees, and the unending symphony of birdsong (which sometimes almost drowns out our own attempts to praise the Lord!), we were buoyed up by the certainty that our risen and ascended Lord is truly over all, guiding all to its ultimate end in His divine plan of love. It is a time to rejoice most of all in the gifts of faith, hope and love, which make of any and every crisis an opportunity to bring Christ Himself more fully into a world so in need of His truth.
An aerial photo of monastic grounds bright-green with trees brings a passing moment of delight. An aerial view of life in general brings the lasting happiness of a heart renewed by hope, strengthened by faith, and filled with the joy that comes from looking upon all from God’s perspective, that is, with unending love. Our Mother St. Clare would remind us, as she did the sisters who had to go out of the cloister for any reason, “to praise God for every flowering tree, every blade of grass.” Your Poor Clare sisters praise God for the perennially flowering arbor which is your goodness to us, providing us with all that we need to grow along with you into the Light, after the example of her who was named “light,” our Mother St. Clare. We are certain she will obtain for you a hundredfold reward, both here below and in the world to come, where the Cross of the Lord stands revealed forever and to all as the Tree of Eternal Life.