Monday, July 19, 2021

Lectio Divina: Think Small!

 Think of St. Benedict in his tower at Monte Cassino.  Think of the library of codices to which he had access. (If you weren’t born knowing this, the codex was a stack of pages bound together at the left side, like modern books, as opposed to the scrolls that preceded it.  And no, I wasn’t born knowing that either!) Most likely, the library shelves held single books of the Bible separately bound and single works of the early Christian writers because a whole Bible or a collection, say, of all the sermons of St. John Chrysostom, would have been physically unmanageable. Think of reading laboriously hand written texts, before the advent of the Carolingian miniscule provided clear spaces between words, lower case letters, and other improvements made for legibility.  Think of reading by daylight coming through very small window openings.  Think of reading by the light of small wicks floating in olive oil.  Look at the books on your shelf or stacked by your chair or on the nightstand by your bed, or available on your phone or e-reader.  Different worlds!  And most of us would not prefer to return to St. Benedict’s!

 We have been well trained by our consumer culture to believe that more is better, large is valuable, and new is preferable to old.  So when we take out our Bibles, Old and New Testaments handily bound together and perhaps supplemented with other useful aids, we may think thoughts like, “I’d like to read the Book of the Prophet Isaiah from beginning to end for my lectio this year.”  If we’re organizers, we might plan to read a set number of chapters a day for and perhaps assign a set amount of time for the task—say, finishing the whole book in a year.  (Don’t laugh: I did that one year, though I didn’t set a twelve-month time limit.  Just as well.  By the end of the second year I had finished Chapter 31 out of the 66.  I wasn’t getting any younger, so I switched to the nice little Gospel according to Mark!)  We might persevere—as I did not—but then we might start looking at the Table of Contents and thinking this book is taking too long and maybe we should try something new, maybe a book we have not read.  (This is not including the times when we might be lured to put aside the Bible altogether and try that latest spiritual bestseller touted by Amazon!)   And we might find ourselves discouraged by all we have not read.

 St. Benedict would have been baffled.  As we read his Rule, we might begin to notice the number of small gems, single phrases or verses, he quotes, apparently from memory as scholars have not always been able to track down what Latin version he used.  Many of them have been lifted from their original context in the Bible, like jewels taken from a bracelet and turned over and over to catch the light reflected from different facets and treasured for what they offered, regardless of their original context.  An example for us might be one of my favorite verses: “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path,” lifted out the extraordinarily long Psalm 119 and treasured for itself alone.  Like many verses, it gathers others to itself from altogether different settings:  “I am the light of the world,” and “the one who follows me will not walk in darkness,” and “the light that cannot be extinguished,” and “you are the light of the world.”  And those never get old. 

 What St. Benedict’s tradition teaches us is that oft-repeated bit of advice:  when you are reading for lectio, word count is unimportant, pages covered irrelevant, books checked off our list in their entirety not the point.  When a single line, or a single word, reaches out from the page and jabs you in the ribs, stop and pay attention!  Turn it over and over in your mind (or, better, your heart) for as long as it yields its juice.  Return to it again later when it calls out to you.  Carry it around in the pocket of your mind to pull out and re-examine later in the day. If that’s a matter of a day, or a week, or a lifetime, think of it as gift and don’t worry about achievement.  In the library of the Reign of God they don’t put stickers on our library card for every book we finish.  And they don’t give out prizes at the end of the summer for those whose cards boast the most stars!

 When you sit down to do lectio, think “slow,” think “small,” think “deep.”  And consider do-overs a rich blessing!

Copyright 2021, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, June 24, 2021

June 24: Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist

 

To see the readings from the Mass lectionary for today, click here.


He must increase and I must decrease. John 3:30

Today we remember the birth of John the Baptist, host of Jesus’ first public appearance as an adult.  The story is rich in a humor we don’t readily associate with the fierce Baptist, as everyone resorts to pantomime to get the baby’s name clear, even though the Gospel reports his father Zechariah as mute, not deaf.  The child’s mother has to step in and settle the question with the sort of common sense matter-of-factness we will not see again in her son’s dramatic life story. The story is even richer in promise, as John’s father sketches the power of God’s extravagant promise of salvation wrought by the Messiah, whose coming John will announce to a world far broader than the shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem. 

 

John the Baptist’s self-description appears in a much later passage of the gospel when the two children, Messiah and Baptist, are adult.  The time has come when John will step back and let Jesus step to the fore.  So the words “He must increase; I must decrease” belong to his own more or less farewell discourse to his disciples, far simpler than Jesus’ would be at the last supper. They are hardly the claim of an over-achiever.  But John, for all his apparently self-sufficient ferocity, silently accomplished a goal far greater than any of us can manage without large infusions of courage and strength from the Holy Spirit.  He accepted his own truth in God’s plan and renounced all attempts to promote himself to stardom. St. Benedict would have approved of it. Here he was simply sketching the life he was called to live, a life of both obedience and humility, however unlikely it looks clad in camelhair and leather.

 John’s statement can be turned into a question to us:  “And you?  Are you willing to live the same life?”  Because we are called to.  Not in a public forum like John’s, but in the privacy of our own interior life.  One of the hidden dangers of immersing ourselves too exclusively in monastic literature, from the Rule of St. Benedict to contemporary authors like Michael Casey, OCSO, is that we can become extremely self-preoccupied, too often measuring our own success or failure in living the principles we aspire to follow.  Am I doing lectio well enough?  Am I humble enough? Am I growing in my commitment to Christ? Am I living well with others.  You probably have your own list of values on which you question yourself.  A good dose of honesty about our own fidelity to Benedictine principles is healthy, but an overdose can become deadly.  This danger has been the subject of concern for centuries, so it is not new. 

 The antidote is found in St. Benedict’s core principle:  Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.  Christ, not the state of our own souls, is what St. Benedict intends for us to make our focus.  We see in the well-known story of St. Peter’s attempt to walk on water the shift of perspective we are constantly called to: when St. Peter got out of the boat at Jesus’ invitation, he did fine till he started looking at his own feet sinking into the stormy waters.  He had to lift his eyes to Jesus’ outstretched hand to get him out of his predicament.  He was never in any real danger.  Jesus was right there, himself entirely secure on the sea.  But Peter lost sight of that essential truth, as we sometimes do.  That’s when he got in trouble. (See Matthew 14:22-31)

 Keeping our eyes on Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves takes a lifetime of prayer and practice.  The Baptist offers us the right advice:  even in our own minds, “he must decrease and I must decrease.”   The words “decrease” and “increase” are the key: it’s not a matter of thinking of this but not that.  It’s a matter of proportion.  What John the Baptist allows us to see is that an important dimension of our growth in Christ is: less me, more him!

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Steadfast Presence

 Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, perhaps better known still as "Corpus Christi," Latin for "the Body of Christ."  In the centuries since it was first established, enough has been written about it to fill libraries.  This reflection offers just one small perspective.

It's a thought that first occurred to me one day when we were praying Psalm 78 about the behavior of God's people during the long desert journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And God's behavior in return. The story offers a contrast so familiar we may not even notice it.  Over and over and over again, the people fuss, complain, and wander off into ways alien to the God who is leading them.  They gripe about food, they scream for water, they worship that golden calf, they close themselves into their tents for what must have been suffocating bouts of complaint.  One of their most ungrateful (and most understandable)  refrains is that they were better off in Egypt, where they had good things to eat in plenty.  As we all know, memory often does cast a golden glow over a past less than pleasant!  This  goes on for forty years, till the old generation of those who remembered Egypt, is dead.  Forty years!

But there is another side to those forty years. Every morning, including the mornings after their latest grousing fest,  they got up to find the desert floor littered with manna.  Whether they complained, disobeyed, or even worshipped a golden calf, they never went a day without that manna, on which their lives depended.  It was there every day, no matter what.  For forty years!

The solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ presents us with the reality of God's presence and the call to offer God our presence.  And the Exodus story, which is not read today but certainly could be, reminds us forcefully that God's presence is steadfast.  No matter how badly our fidelity may fail, God's never does.  No matter how often we wander away chasing mirages in our personal deserts, God never does.  God's presence which is condensed powerfully in the Eucharist but comes to us in all sorts of other ways as well--the Word, the daily inspirations that wake us up and guide us, the love others give us and we give them, the beauty of the world around us,  Faithful to his other name, "Emmanuel," which means God-with-us, Jesus never leaves the scene. As we saw in the Easter stories, even locked doors can't keep him out.

God's steadfast presence is the presence of creative love.  Christ is the mirror in whom we can see every day what it looks like to live more deeply and grow more fully into that same love.  In him we see the fullness of our own commitment to both steadfast stability and every living love. 

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Into the Light

One way of looking at the events of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection is to look for the darkness and the light.  Jesus plunged into the very darkest dimensions of human experience and returned as the true Light of the World, casting the light of life into every dark corner for those who dare to look.  These past months of pandemic have plunged all of us into darkness in various ways and at various times.   It has taken great courage sometimes to believe that the Light has never gone out and to look for it in the midst of fear, confusion, and pain.  And that pull between darkness and light, though it has lessened as hope has broken through more and more powerfully, isn't over yet. And won't be.   Pandemics come and go, just as famine, war and fire come and go, but the one assurance we are given is that Christ our Light is always there, threading a network of light through whatever darkness threatens.  Part of the work of conversion is to seek the light and seek to live by it when we see it.

Powerfully prodded by St . Benedict in Chapter 49 of the Rule, we tend to focus on Lent as the season of conversion.  But St. Benedict proposed that the lives of his followers should always be a Lenten journey through the darkness of sin into the light of life in the risen Christ.  

In fact, we see in the early Church, whose story we read in the Book of Acts in the liturgies of the Easter season, that the conversion begun when those first Christians heard Jesus' call did not end with relief and celebration when he rose from the dead!  In fact, their experience of the time between Easter and Pentecost, which we celebrate tomorrow, was a whole new plunge into a life of conversion.  They had to go back to school, as it were--Jesus did urge them and us to become as little children--whom St. Benedict has since enrolled in his "school of the Lord's service" from which there is no graduation! (See the Prologue for the fuller picture!)  They had above all to learn to see differently by the new light of the risen Christ.  Mary Magdalene had to learn to let go of the Jesus she had known and loved in his pre-resurrection humanity.  The disciples headed for Emmaus had to learn to read the Scriptures differently through the lens Jesus shone on them during their journey with him--whom they thought was a stranger.  And perhaps he was in his new reality. They had to learn to recognize Jesus himself no longer in the familiar rabbi-carpenter but in the bread in which he remains perennially present.  Peter had to learn to get over himself, as one of my seminary students used to admonish himself regularly, leave his misery and guilt behind, and devote himself to feeding Jesus' sheep! And he had lots of learn about that, as we read in the Book of Acts.  We can read all of the Easter stories as classes whose essential curriculum was becoming and living as Christ's own risen Body--and image repeated again and again in the stories and letters of St. Paul.

And learning to see and hear and live differently by the light of the risen Christ now and forever present among us did not end at Pentecost. On the contrary, the disciples upon whom the Spirit was poured with the force of wind and fire were only just starting to translate their commitment to Christ into the realities of every day life in a world not particularly interested in what they had to say. 

Our clothes differ from theirs.  Our langauges have changed.  The world in which we live would be unrecognizable to them.   But the story is the same:  we have spent weeks living the Lenten journey and more weeks learning about the day-today implications of the resurrection of Christ.  Tomorrow we celebrate again the gift of the Holy Spirit who impelled those first Christians out into the lifelong conversion which our relationship with the living Christ requires of us. 

And then comes Monday.  And the Monday after that.  And the Monday after that.  And we continue to grow every Monday, every day, every week into the depths of life illumined by the presence and love of the Light of the World who continues to lead us on through whatever awaits us!

Blessed travels!

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga


 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Ghost (Luke 24:36-37)

 

 

While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost" (Luke 24:36-37, Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2021)

What is a ghost but memory made wispy flesh?

They have good reason to fear this memory, the disciples. It comes to them clad in grief and guilt— their grief, their guilt, not his. They believed in him, or thought they did. They loved him, or thought they did. They left a lot behind to follow him. Then they left him. Terror pierces through the grief and guilt. Will their abandoned families take them back? Will their villages look at them with anything but suspicion, scorn, maybe pity if they’re lucky? Are boats and nets and tax collector’s booth still waiting, or has someone else taken them over? There they are in the upper room, the crumbs of the supper still on the floor, and they locked into an empty limbo, unable to go back, afraid to go forward.

And suddenly there he is, the reason for it all. They hope he is a ghost, mere memory made wispy flesh. He will haunt them all their days in any case, this man— surely no more than that? He died, after all, whatever he may have seemed to claim or promise. But . . . he will haunt them, clad in their grief and guilt, this man they believed in and loved and left before he could leave them. But you can live with ghosts and go about your business. The hardy reality of wives and mothers-in-law and children demanding to be fed, of nets and boats and clinking coins will hold the ghosts at bay until they fade. Except maybe at night when all the others are asleep and you’re not.

And here he is, ghost and nightmare, absolving them with a word: “Peace.” Well, he had always seen right through their blustering and swaggering to their fears and griefs and guilt. Perhaps they begin at this moment to allow a tiny fragile shoot of hope to break through the stone walls of their prison, their tomb.

Then he clinches it. He forces them to face the truth from which they’re hiding. He never has allowed evasion. Always truth with him. He makes them look at his hands and feet, touch them even. He makes them confront the fact of his wounds. They weren’t there to see him get them, you see, except John. Now he makes them face the thing they fled. The world-shattering reality of the cross, and of him hanging on it, beaten, bruised, bloody, dying, dead. It is not his strength he reveals to them there in that upper room. They have already seen and believed in that: the blind wondering at the sunlight, the deaf hearing their children’s voices, a seemingly dead girl hugging her mother and eating a bit of bread. It is not his strength they are forced to own now, but his weakness, which is theirs, his wounds, which are theirs, his mortality, which is theirs. Weakness not denied but accepted as the only source of strength for them. Wounds not refused but held open as the only source of healing for them. Mortality not rejected but embraced as the only source of life for them.

 At last they know him for what he really is.

And they are us.

Reprinted from Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB. Published by The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2018. Reprinted with permission from the Liturgical Press.  Copyright 2018 by the Abbey of St. Walburga.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Long-Fingered Light (Easter)

 The Benedictine Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga wish all of you the light, peace and joy brought from darkness by the Risen Christ--even as many are still overshadowed by the darkness of the pandemic and of the violence erupting in different places.  You are all in our prayers.

See Matthew 28; Mark 16:1-12; Luke 24:1-50; John 20:11-18

 Easter lies too far beyond our experience for us to grasp more than impressions of startling appearances by a Jesus who is but isn’t dead, is but isn’t a ghost, is but isn’t the familiar figure his followers knew so well. What was he like? Well, flesh but not flesh as we know it, wounded but not with wounds as we know them, transformed but not in any way we can really picture. He appeared unannounced in locked rooms, walked incognito with discouraged disciples, ate solid food but passed through solid walls. Conceptual explanations of the resurrection don’t help much more than our flawed images do. They make use of words we know, but they use them to expound a reality we don’t, not really.

   We’re in good company, to judge by the general confusion that seems to have left the first Easter Christians babbling contradictory accounts of who saw what when and who believed whom—or didn’t. A stammer was probably the most honest way for them to describe a reality into and over which they stumbled in happy but fearful discovery. Perhaps our own Easter alleluias are our contemporary way of stammering out a truth for which we have no coherent words.

 The risen Christ, transformed into the Fire hidden at the heart of human flesh, sheds a light so bright it blinds us. Paul discovered that on the Damascus road (Galatians 1:15-24). But he was not the first to learn it. Jesus’ resurrection appearances are stories of that light reaching out to touch one by one the dark places in which his early followers walked: the apostles’ fear, Mary Magdalene’s grief, Thomas’s angry doubt, Peter’s shame. Those stories console because the beloved Christ appears in person to cast light into murky experiences we too have known. Fear, grief, doubt, and shame are shadows through which we have all walked.

 But the story doesn’t end with those personal post-resurrection encounters. Jesus disappears from the scene at the Ascension, or seems to, but the Light does not. In the Acts of the Apostles we see a lame man, condemned to a lifetime of begging, spring up and walk at the sound of Jesus’ name (Acts 3:1-10). We recoil at an angry mob stoning Stephen, but Jesus appears to him in glory (Acts 3:54-60).  We hear of fights between Christians of differing ethnic origins settled by Peter’s creative wisdom (Acts 6:1-7). We see disciples jailed (e.g. Acts 5:1-20), apostles arguing policy (Acts 15:1-21), missionaries thrown out of town (e.g. Acts 14:11-19), communities split (e.g. 1 Cor 1:10-17). We see, in other words, all the dark corners in which Christians sometimes find themselves even now, some two millennia after the resurrection. The darkness of the New Testament Church is far from outdated.

In Acts, we do not see Jesus appearing to solve the problems, at least not as he did in the Gospels. Instead we see what he promised: the power of Spirit and Word working to enlighten flawed human beings to see things in new ways, to discover what it really means to “love your enemies as yourself,” to pick up pieces and put them back together in creative ways so that the image of God can shine more clearly in a world still deeply held in the grip of night.

 The Light still reaches long fingers from God’s hidden depths into our present shadows. I cannot really imagine the risen Christ. All my inner pictures seem unreal. But in the annals of the early Church, in the chronicle of the world, and indeed in the story of my own soul, I can see the Light at work. And that Light is very real indeed.


Reprinted from Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB. Published by The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2018. Reprinted with permission from the Liturgical Press.  Copyright 2018 by the Abbey of St. Walburga.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Judas

 The character of Judas looms large in the story of Jesus' Passion this week. He raises questions for us as we ponder.  The gospel passages at Mass feature him on Tuesday and Wednesday


Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over. (Matthew 26:14-16)

 Judas is a question mark: why did he do it? Matthew tells us what Judas did, but he doesn’t tell us why. Down through the centuries, readers and commentators, librettists and screen writers have filled in the blanks: he did it for the money, he did it because Jesus had failed to live up to his expectations of a political messiah, he did it because the devil made him do it, he did it...well, no one knows why he did it.

 As we read, Judas becomes a mirror the Gospel holds up to us. In it we see the face of our own betrayals looking back at us. Piety may forbid us to see anything but horror in Judas for what he did. After all, he sold Jesus to his torturers and murderers. But honesty requires us to admit that he is not alone in having sold for small change the one thing that mattered. How many of us have sold our prayer for entertainment, our integrity for power or prestige, our life’s work for an easy ride? Is selling God’s gifts for a handful of trifles any less heinous really than selling the Savior?

 Come now, you’re probably saying, there’s no comparison. I’ve made my little compromises, sure, but nobody died for it. Is that really true? Jesus, Son of God, died in a few hours on one particular afternoon whose echoes have reverberated among believers and doubters alike ever since, but we, now made children of God, die no less decisively when we trade away our own God-given truth over a lifetime of little compromises. St. Basil the Great defines sin as the use of God's gifts for purposes other than those for which they were given. Most grievous, he says, is the misuse of love—our love for God, our love for those among whom we were planted in this world, our love for those to whom we can offer some service through the talents and tasks God has given us. A gifted storyteller puts the gift to use writing trash for cash.  A gifted artist devotes a lifetime to producing commercials peddling luxuries rather than painting great masterpieces.  A gifted singer forces a soaring voice into a style that damages it for the sake of a place in the top ten.  A gifted parent sacrifices time for the family in favor of clean and lovely surroundings or a weekend in front of the TV or a fishing trip. Not major crimes, surely? Ah, but the serpent’s tooth poisons by small bites. And the serpent’s whisper is well disguised as “everybody does it” or “you owe it to yourself ” or “come on—be practical.”

 After a while, maybe, we forget we have options. The good news that seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the tragic Judas is laid out before us during Holy Week in all its urgency. We may well have our little stash of silver coins hidden somewhere, rewards for our betrayals of true selves, but it’s never too late to trade them in again for forgiveness, freedom, life. The loss may be painful, the prospect of change frightening, the way back long and hard. But the offer is always there.

 It was there for Judas. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied him, and the other disciples who abandoned him, and even the men with hammer and nails who crucified him. Surely he was just as ready to forgive Judas. Why didn’t Judas accept? Why didn’t he allow the Savior to save him from his own despair? Why did he hang himself after three years in the company of God’s mercy made flesh (Matt 27:5)? I wonder if it was because he had so eroded his soul with a lifetime of betrayals that he could no longer see the outstretched hand. Having walled himself into the very small cell of his own self-interest and shame, perhaps he could no longer recognize that the door stood open. And who knows? Maybe, in the privacy of one of those moments of anguish and mercy that go unreported by the evangelists--who had reason to think ill of Judas anyway--God's finally managed to pry open Judas' fist and fill it with something far better than thirty pieces of silver. I hope so. But what went on for Judas in his darkness remains as much a question as his motives.

If Judas is question, puzzle, thorn in the flesh of the Christian mind, he is also, like all of us, mystery. How many of us can really fathom in ourselves the depths where betrayal and grace meet? I would rather not reduce Judas to a simple explanation. I would rather allow him to remain a mirror. If I can’t see into his soul, perhaps he can let me see into mine. My prayer is for the courage to look. 

Reprinted from Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB. Published by The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2018. Reprinted with permission from the Liturgical Press.  Copyright 2018 by the Abbey of St. Walburga.