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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ghost



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)

 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.



Genevieve Glen, “Ghost,” in Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018). Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Judas: Mirror and Mystery



 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 screenwriters 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 listen to the story, 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, but the echoes have reverberated among believers and doubters alike ever since. We, the 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. 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.

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 finally managed to pry open Judas’s 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.

Genevieve Glen, “Judas: Mirror and Mystery,” in Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018). Used with permission

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Joyful Seekers




“…let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice” (Psalm 105:3).

St. Benedict set the desire to seek God in all things among the criteria for discerning a novice’s call (RB 58).  It has become a hallmark of Benedictine spirituality. 

The fourth week of Lent opened last weekend with what is called “Laetare Sunday,” named after the Latin first words of the entrance chant at Mass.  “Laetare” means, “rejoice,” a command one does not ordinarily expect to hear during Lent, with its call to austerity in pursuit of conversion of heart.  Yet the note of joy pervades all of the week’s lectionary readings.  St. Benedict himself gives us a hint for understanding joy breaking into Lent’s purple solemnity.  In his summary of Lent, he writes, “In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (RB 49:7)

Lent originated and still serves as a season of preparation for Easter, both for those who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil, according to the ancient custom St. Benedict would have known, and for those of us who will renew our baptismal commitment then in order to provide the newcomers with a community renewed in holiness where they can grow.  With Easter in our immediate liturgical future, the light of the risen Christ shines back onto our path as we travel toward it.  And light brings joy to those accustomed to the darkness of sin and death that prevails in so much of our world as it did in St. Benedict’s.

The hope of Easter supplies the reason for our Lenten joy, but the psalmist takes it even deeper for Benedictines: “…let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice” (Psalm 105:3). It seems curious advice on first reading.  Surely it is those who find the Lord who have reason to rejoice?  But those still seeking?  Monastic tradition offers an unexpected reason.  

A little background:  the desert monks of early Christianity were expert diagnosticians of the human heart—that very heart the prophet Jeremiah describes as “more tortuous than anything” (Jer 17:9).  One of their key discoveries, first laid out systematically by Evagrius Ponticus in the fourth century, was the intricate and powerful interactions of eight dark psycho-spiritual forces common not just to monks.  You may know them by their later designation, the “seven deadly sins,” after St. Gregory the Great had combined them in the fifth century. Unlike Gregory, Evagrius identified them not as sins but as temptations used by evil to distract us from our path to God.  They have also been called “the passions,” a reflection of the strength of the energy they generate if we allow them to run unchecked.  One of the trickiest of them was “acedia,” variously translated as boredom, restlessness, despondency and depression.  Evagrius supplies a very entertaining account of the monk beset by acedia, one that is remarkably contemporary: “The demon of despondency, which is also called the noonday demon (Psalms 90:6), is more grievous than all others. ….It begins by making a monk notice dejectedly how slowly the sun moves, or does not move at all, and that the day seems to have become fifty hours long. Then it urges the monk to look frequently out of the window or even to go out of his cell to look at the sun and see how long it is till the [three o’clock], at the same time making him glance hither and thither to see if some of the brethren are about. Then it arouses in him vexation against the place and his mode of life itself and his work...,” and ultimately sends him wandering from place to place, unable to find satisfaction and settle anywhere. Today Evagrius might rephrase the description to read, “checks his text messages every few minutes, surfs the web, goes to the coffee pot or to the fridge to get a soft drink, checks the supply of snacks, calls friends.”

In reading this description and others like it, I have come to see acedia as boredom and restlessness engendered by a lack of purpose.  A life without purpose is a life without meaning.  Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl identified how essential meaning or purpose is to the human enterprise.  He found that in the camp, the physically weak who had a sense of purpose—his was reunion with his wife when the camp nightmare was over—often survived when the physically strong but inwardly purposeless didn’t (Man's Search for Meaning). According to Genesis 1, we were created with an inborn purpose: to provide this newly made universe with a future by cultivating the land and having children.  Creative relationship and creative activity continue to give us purpose, though the scope of both has broadened and deepened over millennia. And both have found their ultimate expression in the vibrant and abiding mystery of Christ.  There, all becomes relationship in the service of the new creation, the reign of God, the universe redeemed and transformed.

In St. Benedict’s shorthand, the nature of the core relationship is expressed more concretely as seeking God in all things in order to discover and love Christ above all else. That includes choosing to love as Christ loves.  To follow this injunction is to live a life of constant purpose   under the driving force of the Holy Spirit, one of whose fruits is joy (Gal 5:22-23).  This purpose frees us from acedia, that is from bored purposelessness that seeks only our own small satisfactions and finds them forever dissatisfying.  In its place, we discover the quiet joy of living our deepest truth toward the fulfillment of our greatest purpose, the one Jesus summarizes as total love of God and neighbor. 

Since the asceticism of Lent gradually frees us from the strident demands of self that is seeking only its own good, it frees us also to seek God ever more deeply and ever more faithfully in prayer and service. That is a life of fine, deep purpose.  So hearts that seek the Lord are filled with joy in the seeking long before we find the One we are looking for—and who is looking for us.

Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga




Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Conversatio Morum: St. Benedict in the Wake of the Disciples


On the Solemnity of St. Benedict (March 21), the Benedictine liturgical calendar asked us to read a portion of Matthew 19.  There, in the discussion following the rich young man’s inability to give up all he owned to follow Jesus, Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Jesus’ response to this “what’s in it for us” is not the rebuke we might expect about taking the high road refused by the rich young man but a generous, “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.”

In fact, though, the disciples who accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him over time, would find themselves giving up a lot more than house, family and lands, as he himself had and would give up a lot more than that himself.  In those days, an individual’s very identity was defined in terms of family, geography, and sometimes work.  Peter, for example, would be identified as the fisherman “son of Jona” from Capernaeum.  That identity would root him firmly in the people of God committed to live the covenant made with Moses.  So it determined his religious beliefs, his moral choices, and his worship obligations.  In other words—remembering that St. Benedict is commemorated very shortly after the liturgical memorial of St. Patrick—it was rather like growing up Irish in a Kerry family in St. Brendan’s Parish in New York in the wake of the Irish immigration made necessary by the potato famine! 

In their journeys with Jesus, the talks they heard him give, the miracles and mercy they saw him extend to all comers (even a Roman centurion!), the commitment they witnessed to God’s uncompromising love for human beings of all sorts, the disciples were gradually forced to question and abandon some of their ingrained ways of seeing the world around them, assessing other people, trusting in the limits of common sense and experience, and, most painful of all, thinking about the one and only God for whom the Jewish people had lived and died for centuries.  It was ok to carry on a lively conversation with a Samaritan—and a Samaritan woman at that?  Tax collectors and prostitutes were often better table companions than wealthy Pharisees?  The storm that was about to drown you could be stilled with a word from this man you knew first as a carpenter from Nazareth and an itinerant rabbi?  A Roman centurion could surprise Jesus by cutting to the heart of faith where their co-religionists failed?   And this was all before their miracle-working Messiah died on the cross and then, against all the rules of history and cosmos, reappeared alive among them, himself but himself transformed in a way they had no words for!  For them and all who would come after them, “conversion” demanded far more than cleaning up your act and flying right, though it meant that too.

On the feast of St. Benedict, not all of you can or should claim to have sold your house and furniture, walked out on your family, and dispersed the contents of your bank account to the homeless down the street.  On entering the monastery, we vowed members of the Abbey, did some of that, but we still see, talk to, and care about our families, and we don’t expect to take off across oceans to preach the gospel.  In fact, we have vowed to stay put on this little patch of earth where the Abbey is built, unless circumstances change as they did when we had to leave Boulder.

But St. Benedict has invited all of us to join him in a life defined by constant renunciation of things, ideas, judgments, behaviors we would have thought we couldn’t do without.  In the Rule, he calls it conversatio morum.  That’s a tricky Latin phrase that seems most likely to mean:  change your ways so that your heart will be changed.  Do things differently so that you will come to see things differently.  Uproot feet, mind and heart from the fixed place where you thought you would be standing  forever—and it may not have been a bad place, mind you—and follow wherever Christ leads you because he is now your chosen polestar and pathway through life.

When St. Benedict tells us in Chapter 49 of the Rule that our lives (not just monks, but all who follow the guidance of the Rule) should be a continual Lent, this is the heart of what he meant:  by your commitment to conversatio, keep dropping what becomes inessential and burdensome—beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and all—as it turns out to hinder you in your search for God in all things (RB 58) and your decision to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

The first disciples wouldn’t have used that language, but they would have understood:  when Christ invites you to drop everything and follow, drop everything and follow, without necessarily leaving home, closing your bank accounts, walking out on your family, or any other such extreme outward activities.  Listen, and follow what your heart hears way down deep where it matters.  Not easy, for sure, but a pearl worth the price!

March 21: Solemnity of the Death of St. Benedict


A Word from the Wisdom of St. Benedict

March 21 is the traditional date for the celebration of St. Benedict’s death.  In the revision of the Catholic Church’s universal liturgical calendar, most saints’ days that occurred during Lent were either reduced to commemorations or moved to a date outside Lent.  The universal observance of St. Benedict’s day was moved to July 11, which was a secondary feast of his.  However, the Benedictine liturgical calendar continues to keep March 21 as the solemnity of his death.  The Abbey follows that calendar.

The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), includes the following description of a vision given to two monks on the day of his death: “On that very day he appeared in a similar vision to two brethren, one of whom was within and the other outside of the monastery.  They saw a path covered with tapestry and brightened by countless lights leading in a straight line from his cell toward the east and up into heaven.  A man of venerable aspect standing beside it, asked for whom that way had been prepared.  They said that they knew not.  Then he said: “This is the way by which Benedict, beloved of the Lord, has gone to heaven.”

The origin of the path leading between two rows of candles is actually an ancient Eastern baptismal rite, in which the newly baptized were escorted from the baptistery to the altar along just such a path, but the significance for St. Benedict and Benedictines lies deeper.  In a book entitled Abide, Sister Macrina Wiederkehr says of God’s commandments, “Like a torch, they light up our path.”  St. Benedict and his followers would have understood that image.  The psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).  St. Benedict certainly walked by the light of that lamp throughout his life and taught those who would follow his Rule to do the same.  Every paragraph of the Rule is peppered with Scriptural quotations or references because St. Benedict saw the Rule as a translation of Scripture into a practical guide for holy living in the monastic tradition. The monks’ vision shows us where that road takes a faithful follower in the end.

One of the three traditional works of Lent is prayer.  This is an appropriate season for renewing our commitment to lectio divina so that the lamp of God’s word may guide us more and more clearly in the footsteps of St. Benedict.

Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Random Thoughts #1


From time to time, I will post odd thoughts as they occur to me.  For those of you who haven't read the general introduction to Lent, you'll find it in the previous post.

The calendar year invites us to treat January 1 as the time for fresh starts.  However, it occurs to me that Lent is really the season of fresh starts.  The men and women of the early Christian desert were noted for the cultivation of “compunction,” which they understood as being “punctured” by a sharp sense of regret for their sins.  St. Benedict summons up that tradition when he invites us during Lent to devote “ourselves to prayer with tears, …[and to]  compunction of heart” (RB 49:4). Compunction is a painful virtue not very popular these days.  The picture of the ancients of our monastic tradition weeping constantly over their sins is not very attractive.

However, it’s all too common for us nowadays to pack all our own faults and failings—to say nothing of the faults and failings of other people—into that bag of miseries we sometimes tote around with us day by day. Remember “decluttering”?  The same ancients who valued compunction saw it not as a virtuous tote bag but as a tool for freedom.  They reminded their disciples that every day is a fresh start.  Leave yesterday’s sins and failings in yesterday, they said.  Forgive and forget your own ill doings, failures, unkindnesses, insensitivies, etc.—as God does when we ask sincerely and do our best, with divine help, to mend our ways.  (For those of you who are Catholic, Lent is a good time for the sacrament of penance.)

The desert elders’ advice reminds me of a favorite passage from the biblical Book of Lamentations: “The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, is compassion is not spent.  They are renewed each morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23).


Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Invitation to Lent 2019


Lent 2019
Suggested Reading:  Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49

The season of Lent was clearly very important to St. Benedict.  And of course it is to us too because, as St. Benedict says, “The monk’s life [and the oblate’s!] ought to  be a continuous Lent” (RB 49:1)  It must be, because as Benedictines, we commit ourselves especially to the life-long work of conversion proper to all Christians.  Conversion is at the heart of Lent, as the season prepares us once again to renew the resurrection life many of us promise every year in the renewal of baptismal vows at Easter.

As usual, St. Benedict’s approach has nothing ethereal about it.  It offers concrete, down-to-earth, practical "to do's". In other words, don’t just stand there wearing purple mourning and wringing your hands with cries of repentance.  Do something!  St. Benedict lists several “somethings” in the way of both inward and outward activity, because Lent has both an inward and an outward face.

This year, I notice especially that the outward recommendations all seem to regard some sort of decluttering.  (If you could see my office, you’d understand why that strikes me.)  Cut down on inessentials, even those that look essential at first glance:  eat less, drink less,  sleep less, cut out the chatter, Since St. Benedict is known for moderation in all things ascetical, he clearly doesn’t mean that we should starve ourselves, cultivate dehydration (those of you who live here in Colorado can understand that one!), practice insomnia, and zip your lips in pious silence even when someone badly needs to talk with you. He's asking us to weigh honestly how much we really need, as opposed to what we have a habit of choosing even if we don't need it all. (Well, he is also asking us to make choices that will cause us to feel the pinch during Lent, even if we resume some of them after Easter, because the pinch draws our attention to what we choose.)

It strikes me that, apart from refraining reasonably in various forms of what can easily become self-indulgence, St. Benedict may be suggesting what Jesus said to his disciples, but on an interior plane:  “Take nothing for the journey," he told them. "No staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no second tunic.” (Luke 9:3).  In other words, look at all that baggage you’re packing and declutter it!  As someone who always packed too much in my suitcase in the days when I traveled a lot, I could appreciate the wisdom of that instruction, though I never managed to practice it.  But it seems to me now, that the Lenten journey and the Lenten life require not just dumping excess baggage by the door but also decluttering the inner world into which Lent takes us.  Look at that heavy interior bag you’re carrying with you into Lent:  depending on your personality, it may include every sin you can ever remember committing and now hope desperately to be forgiven for; or it may include a list of firmly established resentments; or perhaps it’s all those criticisms you have stored to aim at someone who irritates you;  or maybe it’s your collection of worries, your memories of failed Lenten resolutions in the past, or any of the other inner stuff we tend to carry down the road, wondering why we keep getting so tired.  Without fasting from those, it’s hard to pursue the richer life of prayer Lent invites us to and offers. 

Jesus got it.  St. Benedict got it.  We get it.  Now, let’s try to do it!  And remember that Christ travels with us as we go and is more than willing to carry some of our stuff on his strong shoulders.  But my experience is that he can’t be trusted to return it to us intact at Easter because he has usually disposed of bits of it quietly along the way when we weren’t looking!

As you "look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing" (RB 49:7), may your Lent be rich in blessings—including the blessing of lightened load!

Readings for Lent:
When I sent you the list of suggested books for your Lenten reading, I failed to mention a very rich source of reading that I take too much for granted.  The daily second readings in the Office of Readings for Lent taken from classic writers  are often well worth pondering.  If you don’t have access to them in the very expensive four-volume set of the (Roman Catholic) Liturgy of the Hours, don’t worry.  They’re available online at sites like universalis.com and ibreviary.com.  As time allows, I’ll try to provide snippets and/or comments on them here on the blog.

Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga