Sunday, December 26, 2010

the way miracles work

i want to leave this Christmas season with a note that i think serves us well for times such as these. it's a story that involves 1 man, 2 countries, thousands of people, and a meaning deeply profound. it centers around the rescue of 14,000 refugees escaping the Korean War by a single American freighter during Christmas of 1950. the freighter captain, Leonard LaRue, said that the event was a turning point in his life, and led him to later join the Benedictine order and enter a monastery in Sussex County, New York. almost 50 years later, in a tale of karmic comity, a Korean diocese became instrumental in rescuing the monastery from dissolution.

i won't go into the full details of the story, since i want everyone to read the New York Times article i use (it's an old link, so in case it shuts down i pasted the full text of the article at the end of this post):
i think the story tells itself. i first learned of this story when i read the obituary for Captain LaRue (eventually Brother Marinus). i think about it sometimes during the holiday season, when i find myself in moments of reflection wondering about the significance of what i'm doing in life.

to me, this story speaks of the profound meaning that arises in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected ways from the most ordinary people caught in the most extraordinary events, and shows us how our responses manifest the epic scale of the intensely personal and connect us all to one another in ways ineffable and unknown. it points to the strange mystery that is life, and the supreme majesty that is the serenely divine. in so doing, it affirms the beatific power of good...and it reminds us that whatever we do, wherever we go, and whenever we are, we can be so too.

and i think that's something important to remember. i think that's something that helps us to go on.

we can make a difference. in ways that ripple through time and magnify across the sea of creation, until our actions become a reflection of the beauty that lies in the soul of heaven.

because that's the way miracles work.

A Tale of Salvation

By Jennifer Goldblatt
New York Times
January 11, 2004

Only three years ago St. Paul's Abbey was teetering on extinction.

The plain wooden halls of the abbey, set on 500 rolling acres in the pastoral northwest corner of Sussex County, once with the ethereal chanting of nearly 80 monks and their Benedictine rituals of prayer and work, running a high school, a summer camp and a Christmas tree farm. But over the years, as fewer men committed themselves to a cloistered religious life, it seemed as if St. Paul's Abbey might fade away.

Then, two years ago, salvation arrived from South Korea. For those who stood witness, it seemed a providential return of a humanitarian favor performed half a century earlier -- the rescue of thousands of Korean refugees by a ship captain who later became a monk.

''We believe that this is our turn to return something.'' said the Rev. Bosco Kim, one of the leaders of a South Korean abbey who are helping to rescue St. Paul's.

By various accounts, the favor being returned occurred on a freezing December night in 1950, six months into the Korean War. A supply freighter, the Meredith Victory, pulled into Hungnam, a port 135 miles north of the 38th parallel that divided North and South Korea.

Thousands of Chinese troops had poured in to aid Communist North Korea, and villagers fled through mountain roads and minefields. They flooded Hungnam's beaches and waded into the mine-infested Sea of Japan, climbing aboard any boat that seemed to be sailing away. The city was in flames, and the flurry of gunfire was so loud that it shook the deck floors of the Meredith Victory.

In what would be hailed by the Eisenhower administration as ''one of the greatest marine rescues in the history of the world,'' the freighter's captain, Leonard LaRue, vowed to take his ship in and rescue as many people as the vessel would carry.

With 300 tons of jet fuel in the ship's hold and combat raging all around, the crew of the Meredith Victory packed 14,000 Korean refugees into the ship -- lowering them into the hold on wooden pallets and packing them in shoulder to shoulder. The refugees came in bare feet, carrying as many children and as many possessions as their strength would allow, and the ship departed on Dec. 23.

''In the captain's mind it was the right thing to do,'' J. Robert Lunney, 76, staff officer of the Meredith Victory, who today is a lawyer in White Plains, N.Y., said in a telephone interview. ''It was that simple. His mind was unencumbered.''

Despite lack of food, electricity and fresh water, not a life was lost during the three-day journey to safety. By the time the ship arrived at Koje-Do, a Korean island in the Sea of Japan, on Christmas Day, five babies had been born.

After the war, the American and South Korean governments showered the crew of the Meredith Victory with honors, including the Korean Presidential Citation, the Gallant Ship Unit Citation and the Merchant Marines' highest honor, the Meritorious Service Medal.

Captain LaRue -- his lifelong faith confirmed by the rescue and an illness that followed -- entered St. Paul's Abbey to live out his days as a Benedictine monk. He took vows of celibacy, stability and obedience. He committed his days to the tradition of ''ora et labora'' -- prayer and work -- and was christened Brother Marinus.

When Captain LaRue arrived in 1954, he found a flourishing community that had been founded 30 years earlier by priests from the Ottilien Congregation based in Germany. About 60 monks presided over a small boarding school there. Lay Catholics gathered at the retreat house for weekends of study and prayer, and in summer the monks ran Camp St. Benedict on the property, drawing hundreds of boys each year. The monks were also developing a Christmas tree farm that would become one of the largest in the state.

But outside the monastery the postwar years were bringing changes: prosperity, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the peace movement. And in 1962, during Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII announced his intentions to ''open the windows'' of the church, changing how sacraments were practiced and loosening church attitudes toward other cultures.

''It became easier for people to leave religious life,'' said Paul Wilkes, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina who has written widely about Catholicism and monasticism. ''The 60's were happening, the world was coming apart at the seams and monks started to re-evaluate: is this how we want to live the rest of life?''

From 1965 to 2000 -- a time when the Catholic population in the United States swelled by 47 percent -- the community of priests and brothers in this country shrank by 33 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

St. Paul's Abbey was not spared. The camp, a costly venture, ceased operating in the late 1970's. And by 2000, only 10 monks -- three over the age of 85 -- remained; some had left for social service projects, some had chosen to marry, and others had simply decided that they could not commit to a cloistered life shaped by prayer.

For 25 years -- from 1975 to 2000 --not a single man made a permanent commitment to the brotherhood at St. Paul's.

''People moved on,'' recalled Abbot Joel Macul, 57, who came to the monastery as a student at the age of 14. Since many of those who left had held leadership positions at the abbey, ''it caused a great paralysis from which, in hindsight, we see that it was impossible to recover.''

Or so it seemed.

In October 2000 the remaining monks asked for permission from the governing Ottilien Congregation to start phasing out the community, and they started looking for new homes at other abbeys.

Three months later, Archabbot Jeremias Schroeder came from Germany to evaluate the situation. He knew that St. Paul's had become weak and was prepared to grant the monks permission to close. ''I didn't want to torture them anymore with revival attempts,'' Archabbot Schroeder said.

But when he arrived, he was taken by the bucolic setting of the abbey and its austere campus, with its simple, two-story flat-roofed buildings, a far cry from Europe's elaborate cathedrals.

''There was something charming and discreet about St. Paul's Abbey,'' the archabbot said. ''It would seem a burden to lose a place like that.''

Archabbot Schroeder did not conceive of the Korean rescue of St. Paul's as divine compensation for Brother Marinus's good deeds. He had only a vague awareness of the connection. But he had been impressed by the vitality of the ethnic Catholic communities he had seen elsewhere in America and knew that there was a vast Catholic Korean community nearby.

Catholicism had endured in South Korea since it emerged there in the 18th century, and monastic life was still prospering. Waegwan Abbey there, with a membership of 140 monks, had the manpower to share and the technical skills to help restore St. Paul's. And the monks were looking for missionary work outside Korea.

Archabbot Schroeder asked Father Kim, the administrator of Waegwan Abbey, if he would be willing to help.

On Oct. 12, 2001, Father Kim accepted the mission. Two days later, Brother Marinus, the former Captain LaRue, died at the age of 87.

Two months later, the Korean monks arrived and quickly set about restoring the abbey.

They added a Sunday afternoon Mass in the Korean language in the cinderblock sanctuary. They planted an organic garden of radishes, cabbages and tomatoes. In the dining hall, they replaced cheeseburgers and canned soup with kimchi, a traditional spicy vegetable dish.

They took courses in English at Sussex County Community College, repaired the leaky roof and eventually replaced the abbey's sluggish dial-up Internet service with high-speed DSL.

The monks also reached out to the local community. In November 2002, the monks reopened the retreat house, and last September Korean Catholic youth groups came to the abbey for a day of chok ku, a Korean game that blends soccer and volleyball. In July, the brothers say, they plan to resurrect Camp St. Benedict.

''I'm thinking of all of the things to make the community to survive into the future,'' said Father Kim, 62. ''This is our task.''

As word of the rescue effort spread, Catholic Korean immigrants from as far as Queens began descending on Newton to lend a hand. Among them was Maggie Lee, 57, who immigrated from South Korea in 1973.

In the early months of 2002, Ms. Lee started making the hourlong drive from her home in Alpine almost every day. She helped outfit the retreat house with new linens and curtains. She tutored the monks for the New Jersey driver's license test and translated for them on trips to Home Depot.

Ms. Lee also joined in the abbey services. She was heartened to have a place to practice her faith in her native tongue, and she continues to volunteer.

''It feels more like communication,'' Ms. Lee said.

Archabbot Schroeder has been pleased by St. Paul's transformation. Though the Ottilien congregation has a history of supporting other abbeys, ''we've never had a rescue mission like this,'' he said.

The rescue of the Meredith Victory has continued to resonate beyond the abbey walls. It was the subject of a 2000 book by Bill Gilbert, ''Ship of Miracles,'' and R.J. McHatton, a filmmaker in Bend, Ore., has spent the last two years making a documentary about the rescue.

''It is a mirror of the American character,'' Mr. McHatton said in a telephone interview. ''It shows how at a time of war, we go in there with noble ideas, a little bit naïve, but with the idea that we're going to help these people.''

Another abbey volunteer, Benedict Ahn, has devoted much of the last year to commemorating the rescue.

He spent six months translating ''Ship of Miracles,'' which was published in July, into Korean. And last month, he started raising money to build a monument to the Meredith Victory on the abbey's grounds.

Mr. Ahn, 47, whose father was a colonel in the Korean Army, wants to spread the message to Americans and Koreans about the sacrifices that were made for his countrymen.

''We would like to remind the American people of the pride of nation's original and true humanitarian character,'' said Mr. Ahn, a resident of Chatham.

As for Ms. Lee, her faith is fortified by the notion that salvation has come full circle at St. Paul's.

''This is a kind of miracle,'' she said. ''What a coincidence that 50 years ago the Brother Marinus helped them and right now the Korean monks coming back to his abbey. I think God works among us. The abbey had gotten down to the bottom. But it is getting alive. You can feel it.''

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