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Monday, February 24, 2020

The Call of Lent: Purity of Heart

Jesus drew criticism from his opponents because he and his disciples failed to wash their hands and purify themselves and their eating utensils when they came in from the street to eat a meal.  The rebuke was directed at their failure to observe ritual prescriptions, but those prescriptions, like many of the dietary laws inherited from the biblical law codes and their later interpretations by teachers of the law, certainly offered practical protection against disease.  The contemporary lists posted everywhere online about ways to protect ourselves from the corona virus echo that ancient wisdom.  Jesus did not actually tell his listeners not to observe the code for physical protection, but he put them in perspective:  quit worrying about making sure that everything that you take in has been properly purified and pay attention instead to what you put out from the depths of your hearts.  He warned against hearts that produce “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”  His list would make quite an examination of conscience for Lent!

The monastic tradition drew on Jesus’ wisdom in reading human hearts to produce a succinct description of what became the central goal of monastic spirituality:  make your first aim purity of heart.  Unfortunately, more modern spiritualities have sometimes narrowed that down to avoiding impure, that is, sexual thoughts, but as Jesus’ list shows—and he gave several of them, as did St. Paul—the biblical and monastic traditions take a much wider view.  Danish philosopher whittled the various lists down into a simple definition of purity of heart: to will one thing.  St. Benedict, centuries before, identifies that one thing very clearly for his followers: prefer nothing to the love of Christ.  Keep Christ – who is God’s love made flesh—and the love that binds Christ to us and us to Christ right in the forefront, and the rest of the list will take care of itself.  It’s a question of focus and attentiveness, which the monastic tradition calls “mindfulness.”  Easier said than done in our busy world, with attention grabbers bombarding us form every kind of screen and every kind of loudspeaker.  Multitasking, not singleness of focus, will get you to the top, they tell us!  (Behavioral sciences have begun to discredit that bit of wisdom!)

As we enter into the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we may already have drawn up a worthy list of Lenten resolutions to keep us on the right track, the track of conversion of heart, so that we have a deeper sense of what we mean when we renew our baptismal vows at Easter.  (This is the custom of the Catholic Church among others, but if your church doesn’t offer the opportunity to renew your vows publicly in a church ritual, you can certainly recommit yourself to living the life of Christ in your own prayer.)  But it might not hurt to take a moment on Ash Wednesday to review the list to see how it serves our central priority as Benedictines as well as Christians: keep this one focus before you always—preferring nothing to the love of Christ.

Reading Suggestions:
Mark 7:1-23 and parallels in the other Gospels
Galatians 5:6-26
The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49.  The entire chapter is devoted to Lent with a focus toward Easter.

Also, Leo Tolstoy left us a story that illustrates the single focus of the pure heart.  It’s called “The Three Hermits.”  You will find it here: Three Hermits--Tolstoy

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Lectio Divina 1

As you can see, this is the first post to be added after a long interval, for which I apologize.  Circumstances beyond my control have changed, so I hope to post much more regularly from now on. 

This is the first in a series of posts on Lectio Divina, the style of prayerful reading of Scripture characteristic of Benedictine prayer.  

What is lectio divina?
Lectio has also been called by the more modern name “slow reading.”  Stories are told of people in situations where they had no access to reading material beyond the book or two currently in their possession. So they read what they had very, very slowly, pausing to chew over each word or sentence before going on to the next one.  And when they had finished, they started over at the beginning.  That’s a bit hard to imagine in a society where reading material overflows shelves, libraries, and web markets to the point that we finally have to admit we will never, ever finish the list of books we want to or think we should read.  It’s not true for everyone of course, but it’s truer for more people now than has ever before been the case.

Early generations of Christian and monastic readers couldn’t have imagined such a plethora of reading materials.  They couldn’t even have imagined the plethora of Bibles we have readily available.  They had to rely on handwritten texts that were few, expensive and fragile.  Or, more often, they had to rely on their own memories to rerun scriptural passages they had heard read in church.  But what they had available, they read and re-read and pondered and drew out deep nourishment for the hungry heart.  They also left us the legacy of lectio divina that developed over time.

Lectio is “slow reading” focused on Scripture or other spiritual classics.  It follows a pattern practiced for centuries before it was finally recorded by a Carthusian monk named Guigo in the twelfth century.  The pattern is very simple:  after you’ve chosen a text (more about that in a later  post), you simply read it.  Perhaps you read a whole passage to start with, perhaps not.  Then you read it again very, very slowly.   (Gather up everything you’ve ever learned about speed reading and lock in a closet in the back of your mind.)  You read your chosen text over and over again, pausing to chew over each word or phrase or sentence before going on to the next one. Early authors compared it with cows chewing their cud.  At some moment in this very patient process, God (sometimes disguised as an anonymous inner inspiration) will likely interrupt with an insight, a thought, a connection that invites you to stop and think about it.  Out of your reading and pondering, you find yourself turning to God in prayer, which may be simple conversation or quiet awareness.  Sometimes the quiet awareness will take over and keep you still in God’s presence for a while, briefly or longer.

That is the general pattern, but it has a thousand exceptions.  It’s a pattern drawn from long years of Christian practice by lay people, clerics, and monastics.  It’s a pattern—not a rule! Sometimes you may find yourself reading—slowly, though!—without any interruption or inspiration at all until the time you’ve set aside comes to an end.  Sometimes a few words will send you off into a long reflection or conversation with God, so that there is no recognizable boundary between reflection and prayer.  Sometimes, you’ll go back and forth among the pieces of the pattern over and over again.  Or sometimes, you’ll be seized by silence right at the start.  Or you’ll be silent for a time and then be drawn to read….You get the picture!  It’s a personal interaction between you and God, not a controlled set of obligatory steps!

The pieces of the pattern came to be identified and named:  lectio (which means reading), meditatio (which means meditation, but more on that in a minute), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (silent presence).  “Meditatio” requires a little historical footnote.  Originally, it didn’t mean thinking about a text.  It meant reciting it over and over and over in your mind, squeezing the juice out of it simply by reciting it and letting it do its own work.  That could be done during one’s prayer session or while one went about simple manual labor. You might call it getting the text “by heart.”  Meditatio later came to mean reflection, asking the text questions or thinking about the questions the text is asking you.  It can still mean either or both!

There is also a fifth piece of the pattern that is taken for granted but not named.  It’s the takeaway, as we might call it now.  The Word of God doesn’t actually sit still once our prayer time is over.  It tends to come back and tap us on the shoulder from time to time, maybe often, maybe not, as we go about our day.  In other words, the conversation begun in lectio continues.  And the monastic tradition encourages readers to let it, or, better, encourage it!     

Next time: Why lectio?

© 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, April 28, 2019


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