On May 25, 2023, the Clear Creek community lost a true daughter of the Church. Maria Cristina Bernardelli Borges was born in New York City to Brazilian parents at the close of the 1950s, the last sane decade in recent American history. I would like to say that we were the best of friends, but perhaps we were too alike, having been born on the same day in the same year. We both self-published books about religious life that took us over a decade to finish. We both aspired to religious life, but were hindered in doing so by family obligations. Most importantly, we were both blessed to be Benedictine oblates of Clear Creek Abbey.
I met Cristina when she moved with her mother, Zelia, to Oklahoma in 2015 from Chicago, where she had been working for the Institute of Christ the King. I liked her immediately and hoped we would become good friends. Apparently she had acquired a choice piece of land near the Abbey gate, because my first memory of Cristina is her telling us the story of how after walking the property she planned to build a house on, she ended up totally covered with ticks! She seemed unfazed, as though it were all just part of the penitential life of Clear Creek, an opportunity to offer sacrifice to the Lord for the rare privilege of living so close to the Abbey.
Shortly thereafter, I was surprised to learn that she had translated a scholarly work on Madame Cecile Bruyere, the first Abbess of Solesmes, from the French. Cristina was talented in multifaceted ways, but she wasn't ostentatious about it. One had to get to know her to learn of these gifts, because she never talked about herself (a virtue I have yet to acquire).
Cristina's charming book for children on religious orders, Of Bells and Cells, complemented by the winsome, inspiring illustrations of Michaela Harrison, happily filled the gaping void in Catholic vocational literature for that age group. I highly recommend it for all Catholic homes with young (and not so young) children.
Cristina worked for the Catholic media powerhouse, EWTN, for many years, mostly behind the scenes, assisting with Portuguese translations from broadcasts from Fatima and helping to establish EWTN's European affiliates. So naturally, when Of Bells and Cells came out, she was interviewed by Doug Keck on EWTN's "Bookmark." This is a very happy thing for those of us who sorely miss her presence, because we can still see and hear her with the simple click of a button. (And you can, too.)
Cristina's intelligence was surpassed only by her generosity. When I was seeking reviews for my novel a couple of years ago, I asked Cristina if she would provide one, and she graciously agreed. I ended up getting much more than I had asked for. In the novel, I had included in Spanish dialogue certain words that I knew phonetically, but that I did not know how to spell. Her fluent knowledge of Spanish enabled her to spot several mistakes I had made just using an online translator, and others besides. If it weren't for her diligence and generosity, my novel would have contained numerous embarrassing errors.
In recent years, Cristina devoted herself tirelessly to caring for her frail, elderly mother. When she was diagnosed with cancer last year, she fought it back, but as often happens, the cancer returned. Never once did I hear her complain.
We had hoped and prayed to keep Cristina with us many more years, but it seems that Our Lord had other plans. He wanted this sweet, humble, and generous soul all for Himself.
Dearest Cristina, my Benedictine sister, pray for us.
"Oh Beauty, ever ancient, ever new!" Thus Saint Augustine eloquently wrote, addressing Our Lord upon his conversion from paganism. "Late have I loved thee!" Late, meaning he was in his thirties, and a good twenty-five years of sins were weighing heavily upon his soul when finally, through the unceasing, heroic prayers of his saintly mother, Monica, and the spiritual paternity of Saint Ambrose, he saw the truth for what it was, and more importantly, for Who it was: Jesus Christ.
Most people have an innate appreciation for beauty, particularly when it's discovered unexpectedly, especially when it's both ancient and new, as Saint Augustine proclaimed. The Grand Canyon is undeniably a very old formation, but if you haven't seen it before, it's new to you. Even old-timers who've seen it several times will declare that the Canyon looks different, varying in shades and hues with the time of day, time of year, and the way the sun happens to be shining on that particular day. Ever ancient, ever new.
Since the 1960s Church experts have been debating the value of towering vaulted Gothic cathedrals with capacious stained-glass windows versus homey, carpeted octagonal-shaped buildings with comfortable chairs that look more like Holiday Inns than Catholic churches. Here at Clear Creek Abbey, where the above photo was taken, the monks are taking the classical view that goodness, truth, and beauty lead souls to Christ, the source and perfect personification of goodness, truth, and beauty and the perfect fulfillment of the ultimate desires of man, even though he may not consciously be aware of it.
And let's face it. Most of us are on auto-pilot most of the time and aren't consciously aware of much of anything except maybe our general surroundings and where our cell phones are.
A Surprising Appearance
But then, one day, a surprisingly beautiful thing appears. Even here in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, where nothing but rock and scrub oak has stood for countless generations, one may come upon a striking limestone carving depicting the history of salvation beginning with Adam and Eve and traveling all the way through the Apocalypse, and over it all the Lord of History, the King of the Universe, ruling benignantly from his holy throne. One cannot help but stand and stare. And hopefully, pray.
The Abbey itself is still a work in progress. The construction workers are building another dormitory to house the endless procession of devout, self-sacrificing young men who are drawn here like bees to heavenly honey. While the construction workers toil, the Abbey bell will be ringing at the appointed hours all the blessed day long, calling the monks and the faithful to prayer. And Christ the King atop the Grand Portal will be over it all. Right across from the long construction trailer, just yards from the church entrance, they will see the Abbey Grand Portal that took George Carpenter seven years to carve, laboring in the steamy, dusty heat, not just to create something that looks pretty or dramatic or artistic, but to create real, lasting beauty--beauty that draws the mind and heart of a man, beauty to open his eyes to the God who is "ever ancient, ever new," beauty to touch his weary spirit and, most importantly, to save his immortal soul.
The Essential Things
And I thank God that he did. Because at the end of the day, Facebook memes and YouTube videos and Netflix movies, entertaining though they may be, aren't going to save the world. They will not inspire us to acts of heroic virtue or compel us to change our bad habits. They will not forcefully remind us of the invisible realm of grace from which we came and to which we may one day return if we are fortunate enough to succeed in disentangling ourselves from the powerful snares of the devil, through the forgiveness of sins obtained by Christ on the Cross and dispensed to us poor sinners through the seven sacraments in His holy Catholic Church. All they will do is divert and monopolize our attention and keep us from doing the one thing, the only thing that will achieve all of the truly essential things mentioned above: praying.
That is the role of sacred art and architecture--to remind us of the essential things. To remind us that God is real and that no matter how late the hour may be, He eagerly awaits our love and invites us to pray.
I'd like to think that's what the man in the photo is doing.
The opinions expressed on this website are my own personal views and do not necessarily represent those of the Catholic Church.
If I have erred in any statement, whether directly or by implication, in any matter pertaining to faith or morals, I humbly invite fraternal correction.