The Chosen,

a Chapter Talk given by Sr. Martha Juskewycz at Mississippi Abbey

We are moving into the deepest dark of the year and with it comes a silence that we do not necessarily experience at other times of the year because of the darkness. As we begin our Advent season we instinctively move into the darkness and silence as we await the coming of Our Lord as the luminous light in our darkness.

One of the most poignant excerpts in literature for me is in Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen. It is the story of two Jewish boys coming of age, Danny, raised in the Hassidic tradition and brilliant; and Reuven, raised by his father in a more liberal Jewish tradition. They are both very good baseball players and in this way their two worlds meet. Reuven, the liberal shares life with Danny and his family often when his own father is traveling. He notices that something is strange about Danny's relationship with his father, Reb Saunders. Danny reveals to Reuven that his father never speaks to him outside of the time of studying Torah. He has been raised in silence. This has caused Danny much anguish and pain. It has also taught him:

For a long moment, Danny said nothing. His eyes seemed glazed, turned inward. Then his face slowly relaxed. He smiled faintly." You can listen to the silence, Reuven. I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.

The words can out in a soft singsong. He sounded exactly like his father.

"You don't understand that, do you? He asked.


He nodded. I didn't think you would".

"What do you mean it talks to you?"

"You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn't always talk. Sometimes-sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to".

I felt myself go cold again, hearing him talk that way. "I don't understand that at all." He smiled faintly.

I read this book long before I entered monastic life. The truth of these words resounded in me. And they have stayed with me ever since and they helped to form me. Reuven is summand by Danny's father and in this summons understands that Danny's father has been communicating with Danny through him. Reuben answers the summons. The father explains to Reuven why he has treated Danny this way; Danny is there too listening.

Reb Saunders, Danny's father speaks:

Reuven, I want you to listen carefully to what I will tell you now". He said Reuven. His eyes said Danny. He was talking to Danny through me.

"A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark is God, it is the soul. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into a flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Reuven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.

Reuven, the Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. What an anguish it is to have a Daniel, whose mind is like a pearl, a sun. Reuven, when my Daniel was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book. And I was frightened. He did not read the story, he swallowed it, as one swallows food or water. There was no soul in my four year old Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul. It was a story in a Yiddish book about a poor Jew and his struggles to get to Eretz Yisroel before he died. Ah, how that man suffered! And my Daniel enjoyed the story, he enjoyed the last terrible page, because when he finished it he realized for the first time what a memory he had. He looked at me proudly and told me back the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, "What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!

Reb Saunders then explained, "My father himself never talked to me, except when we studied together. He taught me with silence. He taught me to look into myself, to find my own strength, to walk around inside myself in company with my soul. One learns of the pain of other by suffering one's own pain, he would say, by turning inside oneself, by finding one's own soul. And it is important to know of pain, he said. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.

"You do not understand this, Reuven. I see from your eyes that you do not understand this. But my Daniel understands it now. He understands it well. He learned to find answers for himself. He suffered and learned to listen to the suffering of others. In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying".

Later, Danny and I walked through the streets. We walked for hours, saying nothing, and occasionally I saw him rub his eyes and heard him sigh. We walked past our synagogue, past the shops and houses, past the library where we had sat and read, walking in silence and saying more with that silence than with a lifetime of words.

Aren't we too called to be tzaddik, a holy one, a compassionate one like Danny Saunders? St. Bernard says that to go to God we must have self knowledge. We are called to listen to the silence, to walk around inside our souls so that we can know ourselves; to see what is there. When we pray in the dark and in the silence all of our pain and woundedness arises for Jesus to heal and anoint. By His wounds we have been healed. It is hard to face our wounds, our own brokenness but unless we do we will never come to compassion, to hear the pain of the world in the silence. Bernard says this is the 2nd step in coming to God. "We can hear the pain of the whole world in the silence", says Danny's father. So can we: as we sit in prayer and listen. And in that prayer we can bring the luminous light of Christ into the darkness and silence of others pain and woundedness. And then we too go to God. We become a holy one.

So let us not be afraid to enter into the silence, not be afraid to be healed and to bring the light of Jesus into the whole world. Let us be more and more women of prayer; listening in the darkness for the coming of Our Lord, our Master, Jesus Christ and then bring him to others. Amen

More Teachings of Modern Cistercians...

Silence, St. Rafael Arnaz Baron

Sentences on Lectio Divina, Dom Bernardo Olivera, O.C.S.O. (Former Abbot General)

Trust in God, a Homily of Fr. Matthew Kelty

The Chosen, a Chapter Talk given by Sr. Martha Juskewycz at Mississippi Abbey.

Elements of Cistercian Formation, a Chapter Talk given by Abbot Brendan Freeman on September 5, 2004, at New Melleray Abbey at which participants of the Vocation Discernment Weekend Retreat were present.

Wild Geese, "Followship," the End of Time, a Homily of Fr. Matthew Kelty, for the 3rd Sunday of the Year (B) Nov. 17, 1985 (Mk 1:14-20)

The Place of Mary in Cistercian Life, Sr. Agnes Day of Mount Saint Mary's Abbey, Wrentham Massachusetts

Mary as Model of the Monk, Thomas Merton