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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Reflection

Christmas Reflection

“Let there be light!”  You would think God would get tired of repeating the same command over and over.  The earth is shapeless, barren, wrapped in the darkness that veils the face of the abyss? “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:2-3)  Night descends over Egypt at noon?  Over the spot allocated to the Hebrew slaves, “Let there be light!” (Exodus 10:21-23. Jerusalem is blind and drunk, sunk deep in the dark pit of wanton idolatry?  “Let there be light!” (Isaiah 9:1) Darkness and the shadow of death hang over the world? “Let there be light!” (Luke 1:76-79)  

The command never changes, but the light does. Its source remains the God who most often wears a robe of cloud and fire in Scriptures, but the quality of light shifts through the filters of changing circumstance. Into the primal darkness breaks the first light, as yet undivided into sun, moon and stars.  Through the night out of season that shrouds stubborn Egypt breaks the sun to warm and illumine the beleaguered Israelites.  Into Jerusalem’s long season of blindness breaks the light of God’s word to waken the slothful and light their way to life.  But when the entire world is shrouded in death’s dark shadow, God breaks through the clouds in person: not in sunlight, not in word, but in the Child who is the “sun of justice,” the Word who was from the beginning,  the law of love embodied as well as spoken, the light of the world. 

December 25: we are in the neighborhood of the longest night of the year.   The ancient Romans tried to break the iron fist of winter darkness with a festival in honor of the birth of the Unconquered Sun on December 25.  It is possible, though not definite, that the Christian community took their cue from the custom to celebrate the newborn light of Christ. 

At Mass during the Night, in the Roman Catholic liturgy, we hear: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9). In the service held at dawn, the proclamation is firmer:  “Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born to us; and he will be called Wondrous God, Prince of Peace, Father of future ages, and his reign is without end” (Entrance Antiphon, cf. Isaiah 9:1, 5; Luke 1:33)  No need to attend Catholic services to have heard this declaration ring out over and over in the “Alleluia Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah!  On Christmas morning, the announcement takes on new majesty:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” And the final, ringing proclamation that we are not talking just about the past: even now, even today,  “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!”  There, we may think, it’s done!  But no, there is a coda, a coda we want almost to whisper in awe:  “And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-14). And this Light of the world is still here, Emmanuel, God with us.

How odd that St. Benedict never mentions Christmas.  The Church in Rome had celebrated the Nativity of Christ on this day as early as the fourth century.  Liturgical history for the regions outside Rome is sketchy for the period, but if Benedict himself had never experienced it, surely some of his monks had.  Yet the Rule says not a word about it.

Ah, but St. Benedict does indeed write of Christmas’s fallout: light. The Rule announces the light of Christ that felled Saul of Tarsus to the ground and raised him to become St. Paul.  It is the light that wakens us to the unremitting work of conversion. In the days after Christmas, when the adrenaline from the holiday rush subsides, the to-do list grows short, and the nights are still long, it might tempting to fall asleep amid comforting visions of a warm little stable dancing in our heads, until something new stirs our sense of purpose and energizes us to wake up and move forward.  St. Benedict cries out to us then:    “Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep [Rom 13:11]” (RB Prologue 8).  Look what awaits us! “ Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God….(RB Prologue 9).

Christmas has reminded us forcefully that the light that comes from God appeared and still lives among us in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, as we have seen.  What does this living, vibrant, unquenchable light enable us to see?  As the gospels unfold, Christ lays a finger on every corner of our experience and shows us in action a new way to live where once shadows veiled our path.  Mind you, it’s not always as comforting as the Christmas crib can be when we see there only a harmless baby, sweetly devoted parents, nice clean attractive shepherds carrying cute little lambs, and some colorful strangers from the east bearing exotic gifts.  This light shakes us out of bed and onto our feet.

But we might already have been warned of that at Christmas, had we looked more carefully.  A harmless baby?  Really?  A Child who transforms human history, indeed human being, into the true image of God is harmless? Sweetly devoted parents?  Nothing sweet about what their devotion demanded.  They were ready to shelter the Child on cold winter’s night, to uproot themselves and flee into enemy territory to protect him from Herod’s ambition, to build and rebuild a home in which they won’t be able to keep him long.  The bland Virgin of the Christmas cards became the tower of strength who would let her son go when he must, who would challenge and support him when it was time, who would stand beneath the cross and watch him die.  Nice clean, attractive shepherds with little lambs?  Hard-working people, disdained by their society, they inspired the story of that good shepherd of whom St. Luke would write, the one who goes out into the wilds and looks everywhere to find one lost sheep, perhaps dirty and bedraggled under a thorn bush, and carry it home.  Colorful strangers bearing gifts?  Strangers certainly, prefiguring the races and cultures who would travel far from their native beliefs to follow the light that leads to Christ.  And those races and cultures prefigure all of us, when the light uproots us from the comforts of familiar thoughts and ways to follow the source of the Light.

At Christmas, we have a powerful preview of all those whose lives are transformed by the Light:  the faithful members of the household who obey when difficult circumstances don’t offer much in the way of understanding;  the workers who go wherever the Word takes them to do whatever love requires of them to bring the lost out of the darkness into the light;  the onetime strangers who see the light and follow it down highways and byways to a new way of life.  In other words, we see gathered in the light of the crib obedience, service, and conversion personified. 

None of these Christmas characters were Benedictines.  None of them had ever heard of St. Benedict and his Rule.  But they have something to teach us, during Christmas and afterwards about the Light who wakes us up daily, in every liturgical season, and transforms our hearts through the practice of those very Benedictine values, obedience, service and conversion. 


St. Benedict never mentions Christmas.  At least, not exactly.  But he offers us a way of life that unfolds from the great gift at the heart of Christmas:  “the light that comes from God.”

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent Mountain Climbing

“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s!” (Isaiah 2:3)  Isaiah’s invitation sets our itinerary for the Advent season. Come along, we have someplace important to go!

Why the mountain of the Lord? Aren’t we supposed to be headed for Bethlehem? In the immediate future, of course: Christmas is less than weeks away. Stables large and small are coming out of attics, closets, basements and garages and getting dusted off. Shepherds and mangers and magi are being unwrapped. Lost sheep, lost camels, lost angels are being hunted out. We won’t even talk about the little town of Bethlehem already floating through the air at the grocery store. In Church, we pray, “Come, Lord, Jesus!” But wrapped deep in the memories of Christmases past, we know he is already here, has been for as long as we can remember and longer. It’s very comforting to say a prayer we know has already been answered. It may be the only prayer that carries with it no anxiety, no uncertainty, no bothersome questions. We speak of Bethlehem as if it lay in the future, but we firmly believe the great events that marked it out for its unforgettable place in world history took place long ago.

The mountain of the Lord, on the other hand, lies in the past and in the future. The mountain Isaiah is using as a visual aid for his prophecy is the mountain on which Jerusalem, and particularly the Jerusalem Temple, were built. That mountain is still there, but it has become both a holy relic of past greatness, the Old City at the heart of a thriving modern one,  the center for conflict among religions that Isaiah never knew, the stubborn foothold of belief with blood on its stones, dust in its streets, and merchants hawking tourist souvenirs in its bazaars. 

However, Isaiah takes off from the clamor of reality into poetic visions of the mountain of the Lord as it will be when all the promises have been fulfilled. He paints a memorable picture of predator and prey gathered together in peace: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-7)
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Lambs inviting wolves to dinner? Leopards and kid goats lying down together, neither one dead? Bears and lions grazing on grass and hay, with cattle as their table companions? Really? What has to happen for that dream to come true? Not surprisingly, what must happen is conversion. Surprisingly, the conversion doesn’t turn wolves into lambs (or lambs into wolves, for that matter), lions into calves, bears into cows. No one has to turn into what she or he is not. What changes is relationships: the animals remain the same animals, but the roles of predator and prey disappear. God, speaking through the prophet, sums it up succinctly: “They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 9:9a).

Wolves, lions, and bears won’t starve on God’s mountain, mind you. No one will. God will provide a new menu: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Isaiah 25:6).

This culinary imagery captures in a few words a radical shift in cosmic food service. The Second Letter of Peter describes evil as the fiercest of predators: “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour” (2 Peter 5:8).  C.S. Lewis expands this image into senior demon Screwtape’s description of the philosophy of hell to his nephew, junior demon Wormwood: “Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger.” In this context, “us” includes Satan and all his demonic minions. We, of course, would never do such a thing. But Screwtape sums up the demonic dietary philosophy in a single sentence that skewers us to the wall as we’re trying to disown the image: “To be is to be in competition.” Carol Flinders, author of several books on medieval women mystics, says she once caught herself trying to bolster up her sense of self by pointing out (to herself) those who didn't play tennis as well as she did, those who were shorter or fatter or otherwise didn’t measure up to her. Her summary is cuts close to home: “a sense of self is something you build and consolidate over time by defeating or disempowering other selves. … [S]omething very like religious faith is involved here—the faith that I will be confident and secure, and, by extension, more fully a subject and ‘human,’ in proportion to the number of individuals I have defeated and disempowered – or could if I wanted to.”

But on God’s holy mountain, this unholy competition of devourer and devoured, predator and prey, will vanish. Death will become an ancient chapter in a closed book: “[God] will destroy death forever” (Isaiah 25:8).  What will bring about this bright new world? “[T]he earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). God complains now that “my people do not know my ways,” (cf Psalm 95:10)  but when we reach the mountaintop, we will. Knowledge of God includes intimate knowledge of God’s ways. Remember that “knowledge” in the bible is not a phenomenon of the mind but a communion of being. We will know God and know God’s ways and recognize that they are our ways too, we who are made in the divine image. So we will no longer be driven by a twisted sense of survival to devour one another, because God doesn’t. On the contrary, God will feed us all on a menu that “rich food” and “fine wine” don’t really quite capture. Part of Jesus’ job is to reveal the Father to us not merely by speaking explanatory words but by doing as God does. And Jesus nourishes us with his own very life. (cf. John 6). Now there is a menu no cordon bleu can ever surpass!

But why is the prophet tickling our imagination with pretty pictures of idylls and feasts? What do lions and lambs and groaning festal tables have to do with your life and mine in the nitty gritty where we live? These passages from Isaiah, and more like them, are set before us during Advent to force noses from grindstones and eyes from the dirty sidewalk with stabs of hope that force us to look up and look ahead. These flashes are the carrot and stick that drive Advent hope: here is what awaits you; what are you doing now to make yourself and your world ready?

Hope is not an escape from today but the energy God gives us clamber up the mountain toward tomorrow. Most of humanity has a desire for peace tucked into pockets somewhere deep in the mind. Most of us yearn for what the prophet promises. We might have other pictures for it, we might be plagued with doubts about whether or not it can ever happen, we might struggle with temptations to sit down on the nearest rock and take a nap, but the prophet goads us: climb!

Wait a minute!  What about Bethlehem? The Christmas story-- an earthquake wrapped in yet other comforting images of a devoted couple beside a manger, angels caroling in winter skies, shepherds trudging in from the fields to see the sight--is base camp for our climb. Soon now, we will stop there for a week or two. We might think we’re taking time out from the arduous work of scaling that ever-inviting, ever-receding mountain, but Christmas is far more than a vacation from school and work, a truce in wars as small as the family and as large as the world. Christmas is where we meet once again the most important person in the whole story, the One who will lead and accompany us every inch of the way: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-(climbing) with-us.


Notes
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperCollins e-books; © 1942, 1996, C . S. Lewis Pte. Ltd) 94.
Carol Lee Flinders, At the Root of This Longing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) 294.


©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, November 7, 2014

Keep Death Daily Before Your Eyes: a November Reflection

In most places in the northern hemisphere, November refuses to allow us to entertain fantasies of summers past or springs yet to come.  The trees may still dress in multi-colored leaves, but the leaves are slowly, inexorably falling, and the branches are growing bare.  Or perhaps the autumn leaves left with October, and bare branches are all that remains.  The air is growing chilly.  In northern Colorado, the snows have begun to fall.  It’s no longer possible to kid ourselves: winter is not just around the corner, it’s beginning to unpack its bags in the guest room.

Not by chance, November is the month when the Catholic Church remembers our dead.  On November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints, we celebrate the story of those now safely ensconced in God’s glory.  On November 2, the Commemoration of All Souls, we turn our eyes toward those who have traveled through death’s door but are still being made ready for the final stage of their journey into everlasting light.  Glory, with its biblical overtones of the fiery Cloud, and everlasting light, with its promise to thumb its nose at the valley of the shadow of death, are welcome images as days grow shorter and colder.  The Benedictine liturgical calendar has its own days of remembrance:  we celebrate the memory of our own departed—including oblates!—on the Solemnity of All Benedictine Saints (November 13) and the Commemoration of All Benedictine Souls (November 14).  (A note:  you may know Benedictine monasteries which do not keep this custom, but the Abbey of St. Walburga obtained permission some years ago to revive it in our monastery.)

St. Benedict believes that death should never take a Benedictine entirely by surprise.  In Chapter 4 of the Rule, “The Tools of Good Works,”  he tells us “Day by day remind mind yourself that you are going to die” (RB 4:47). That verse has grown famous in an older translation:  “Keep death daily before your eyes.”  Pictures of Benedictine refectory tables with a skull before the abbot or abbess, and rumors of coffins in place of beds in Benedictine sleeping spaces have, unfortunately, offered a creepy distraction from what St. Benedict intended.  (You would find neither at the Abbey of St. Walburga if you were to come into the nuns’ enclosure. Sorry to disappoint you!)

Fact is, most of us have already had at least a glimmer of the mortality lurking in our bones.  Many have had much more than a glimmer.  St. Benedict’s point is not to grow a bed of morbid thoughts around the prospect of our death but rather to attend differently to our lives by stripping off the illusion that the fountain of youth is there in the medicine cupboard, the pantry, and the workout room,  if only we would choose to eat right, take supplements, and run, run, run.  Taking care of ourselves physically is certainly a Christian responsibility, but its purpose is to live fully, not to live endlessly.

In RB Chapter 4, only one of the tools of good works is to keep death before our eyes.  The other seventy-three provide directives on how to live richly and deeply against that backdrop.  Several years ago, whenever one of us said to Father Julian Stead, OSB, our summer chaplain, a monk of Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island, and a man already well along in years, “See you later, Father,”  Father Julian would reply, with a twinkle in his eye, “Let’s not be presumptuous.”  He knew, as St. Benedict knew, that later is now.  Those among us, including myself, who belong to the Procrastinators’ Guild, may like to recall the Guild motto, supplied by our patroness, Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day.”  Father Julian, along with St. Benedict, reminds us that tomorrow may very well be another day, but possibly not for us. 

As is often said, all we really have is the present moment.  The present does indeed gather into itself the wisdom garnered through past experience and the liveliness inspired by future hope, but it is, indubitably, NOW.  And how fortunate we are to recognize that our present moment has a name, and that name is Jesus Christ.  Once upon a time, a writer friend asked me to describe in writing  the experience of praying the daily Offices.  Like many writers, I tend to be at my most honest with pen or keyboard at hand, and I found myself writing a short, and very bad, poem about all the distracting  “thens” that crowded in from past and future to the point that sometimes the psalmists could no longer make themselves heard.  I threw the poem away, but I remember that the refrain, in which God was the speaker, went something like, “You are only now, but I am Always.”  Very consoling, isn’t it, to realize that the Always is indeed there in every now, as promised:  “I  will be with you always” (Matthew 28:18)?  The present moment is never obligation or burden or straitjacket.  The present moment is always the relationship with Christ that grounds our lives.

St. Benedict, heir to the monastic tradition of unceasing prayer, wasn’t asking us to be morbid when he told us to keep death daily before our eyes. And not just any death.  Ours.  Rather, he was asking us to be wise:  know your reality, cherish it, live it fruitfully right this minute, growing in your awareness that Christ is with you in this little here and now, making you ready, and through you making your world ready, for that day when “now” will open out into the “forever” we anticipate joyfully in the Solemnity of All the Saints, named and unnamed, and All Benedictine Saints, among whom we are already enrolled, rather like a child enrolled by its parents in the college of their choice as soon as the child is born.  St. Bernard tells us that those who have gone ahead, both those on the next stage of preparation and those already arrived, are beside us as our cheering section because they, too, want us to join them when the time comes.  

Keeping death daily before our eyes is a way of appreciating here, appreciating now, in all their layers and textures because we know that a glorious “then” they will become in Christ, our Always.


©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, September 22, 2014

Oblation: A Reflection

The following talk was given by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB, at the August meeting of the Oblates.  We thank Dawn Hardison for typing up the transcript of the talk!  What follows has been somewhat edited for easier reading.


            I’d like to talk today about Oblation, but not as a ceremony or a group within the program.  I’d like to talk about it in its root meaning as something offered to God.  That is basically what the meaning of Oblation is. 

Now Benedictines, in whatever capacity, are men and women who offer ourselves to God through a life inspired and guided by the Rule of Benedict.  We do that either through vows, for those of us who are in the monastery, or for lifelong Oblation in an association like ours under the auspices of a Benedictine monastery,  or sometimes even more informally than that.  St. Benedict has reached out very far. 

Now, just as a sidebar for newcomers, on our group’s structure, There’s been a little confusion about a few things, so I thought I’d clear this up.  We have a weird situation where we have two Oblate directors.  I’m actually the Oblate director, but I don’t live at the Abbey very much, so Mother Maria Thomas, who is the retired Abbess of the Monastery and the retired Oblate Director, has very graciously taken on the responsibility of conducting the meetings that happen during the year, and it is she who will be coordinating the Oblation in October. 

So we have Oblate Directors appointed by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB, Abbess of the Abbey of St. Walburga.  We also have, thanks to Mother Maria-Thomas’s inspiration, regional groups, five regional groups now that are coordinated by experienced Oblates who convoke the group, welcome inquirers and do whatever else is needed.  Because of geography and climate and distance, some people need to start out with a local group first, and then eventually make their way to the Abbey.  But at some point we would like to invite you to make your way to the Abbey and talk to one of us, so that we have that connection.  The local coordinators are the ones who recommend candidates for enrollment or oblation. 

Now because of distances and Colorado weather, the regional groups are the working heart of the program.  But the Abbey is the center, where all of you are welcome any time for a time of prayer, or for some consultation with the directors, depending on availability.  For those of you who are not familiar with the regional groups, they meet about once a month to study the rule together, using some edition of Mother Maria Thomas’s study guide for Oblates.  There are various editions of this in use in various groups.  The latest one was printed very recently.  The first printing has sold out, but a second printing will soon be available in the Abbey Gift Shop (www.walburga.org).

So the regional groups meet to study the Rule together, and also, and just as importantly, to provide mutual support in living according to its principles, because this is a flesh and blood way of life.  Monasticism is very practical and so we work in the concrete, and the group is there to supply support. 

Benedictine spirituality is always a practical matter of times, places and practices.  So that is what our focus is in reflecting on what the structures and principles given by the Rule provide for us in the way of living and growing our everyday life. 

We think of Oblation itself it as a ceremony, but it’s really a rich and multifaceted set of interactions between God, who is the first giver and ourselves.  We make Oblation, that is, self-offering, but God is the first giver.  We are not.

So what I would like to do today is look at the parable of the talents, as a way of reflecting on this interpersonal exchange.  The parable is found in Matthew 25:14-30, but we will end this reflection with Verse 28.

In Chapter 25, Jesus is talking about the final sorting out of things at the end of time.  But obviously that has enormous repercussions for all of us who are living toward that time, either personally or globally.  He says that time “… will be as when a man who is going on a journey called on his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  To one he gave 5 talents; to another two; to a third, one; to each according to his ability.” Note that the amounts were not arbitrary.  The sum entrusted to each person was determined by that person’s ability, not too much for the man who could handle only one talent, not too little for the man who could handle 5.

The story continues:  “Then he went away.  Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five.  Likewise, the one who received two made another two.  But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.  After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them.  The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five.  He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master’s joy.’ “

Note that sharing the master’s joy includes taking on more responsibilities, not just sitting around in retirement drinking lemonade!

“[Then] the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’  His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?”
  
The first thing to notice, I think, is that in praying with the parable we have to remind ourselves what a parable is.  A parable is always a story, it’s always fiction, although I’m imagining Jesus knew some of the characters in these stories.  And it’s a story with one point and the one point is usually a twist in the tail of the story.  It’s something unexpected that happens. 

Like in this story we are set up by repetition, to say “OK, this one got that much, he went off and invested it.  He brought back double.  And the next one got this much, he went off and invested it and came back and brought double.” And so we would think with the third one, who got only the one – that’s not so much to have to deal with-- that he would have gone off and invested it and come back with two,  and  we would have all gone away satisfied. 

But that’s not what happens, because this is a parable.  So the one behaves in an unexpected way, and gets an even more unexpected result.  He loses what he had. 

Now, the details in a parable are there to make a good story, not necessarily to communicate other meanings.  So we have to be careful when we read a story like this one that we don’t go away thinking that God is a hard-hearted financial investor, as the man with one talent imagined.  And we have all met that God somewhere along the line in our religious formation:  “God’s going to get you for what you didn’t do, and you’d better do this much to please God.” 

Jesus is telling a good story – he is a good storyteller.  He has all the details add up to be part of the story framework, but they are not the point.  So Jesus is not saying “God is a hard-hearted, mean financial investor, who harvests where he did not sow, and wants more back than you even feel like on any given day that you can provide”.  So we’ll look a little further here. 

When we read a story like this we need to step back and think about the bigger context.  What is the picture of God that Jesus gives us in all of the gospels?  It’s the picture of a God of mercy, a God of forgiveness, God who will allow us to experience the consequences of the choices we have made, but who does it terribly reluctantly and often with great grief, if we’ve made destructive choices.  So keep that God in mind.

The second thing is that God is the one who gives the talents for the recipients to work with, but what they do with them in order to make a suitable return is up to them.  There is no user’s manual, there is no instructions book, there is no help menu in the story.  God gives them the talents but does not tell them exactly what to do with them. 

We need to ask more questions here.  What are the talents?  Now in the story, the word is misleading in English, because as you know these are cash coins, they are not talents, like gifts of music or writing or poetry or farming or any of those things. 

So that provokes the question; What does God give us to work with, really?   Not a sack of coins. I’m sure sometimes you’d like to have a sack of coins handed to you, but that’s not the way it works.  In reality, in the bigger picture the person is the package.  Every person is a bundle of possibilities that can’t be counted like coins. 

So in real experience the 3…2…1… talents are for the sake of a good story about this mean-hearted master and these servants.  But life is not like that.  This is not saying that some people have more and are better than other people.  How often have we made that mistake?  Nobody knows what possibilities any other person has in the package that was given them. 

So we can’t look around and say “Oh, she has more talents than I do.  Or he has more talents than I do.”  We don’t know that.  We don’t know what the hidden possibilities of a person are and we often make big mistakes in judging  and quantifying those possibilities, those gifts, because we tend to evaluate them in terms of our societal standards.  This person has more money.  This person is able to do more public things.  This person has the skills to get success in whatever ways society is defining success.  That’s not what it’s about.  Every person is an indefinable package of possibilities.  Quantities and tangible worth are irrelevant.

So the numbers belong to the story image, but not to the human reality. 

Secondly, what do we do with what we receive?  What is this business of investing or trading and making more and coming back and pleasing God? 

What God is really always inviting us to do with this package of the self given us is to grow into the full possibilities of the package, to go from this little nugget of promise that we all are when we start out into a fully mature and well developed human being. We cannot judge the final results for ourselves, ever.  Because we tend to either over-judge it or under-judge it. 
  
So all we are asked to do with this package of possibilities that we are given as we are starting out, is to develop it in every sense and way that life allows us and grace assists us, so that become all God desires us to be.  Not… “I’ve made more of this, I have the gift of singing and I have turned that into a great success as a concert singer”.  That’s not what this is about.  It’s about how I hve grown grown into all of the possibilities of my person, including those I have not yet recognized.

The third thing is, does God really go away and let us get on with it with no help or users’ manual?  That’s what the master in the story does.  He goes away and leaves everybody alone. They have to cope the best way they can.  Presumably they learned something about investing and marketing somewhere along the way.  Maybe the guy who buried his talent said “I don’t know what to do with this.  Let me just put it in there, and give it back to him.’’

We know that’s absolutely untrue of our relationship with God.  God has incorporated us into Jesus Christ, and in Christ we have every help we could possibly need.  St. Paul says that at the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians.  We have every help we could need.  So God doesn’t leave us without help.  In fact, God never leaves, for one thing. At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples and all of us “I will be with you always.” 

So God is always there and always helping us with the Spirit poured out upon us.  And God has given us the Scriptures as a users’ guide.  God never turns us into helpless infants.  Only helpless infants are helpless infants.  God treats everybody else as being capable of taking responsibility.  Maybe we are scared, maybe we think we can’t do it.  Maybe we are afraid we will fail.  But God is always there in our corner, saying “You can do it.  I’m not going to do it for you.  I’ll do it with you.  I’ll always do it with you, but I’m not going to do it for you.”  Because that turns us into infants, it turns us into puppets, it turns us into less than the human beings that we are. 

So in the end, if we read this story in a deeper kind of way, using what’s very helpful from the imagery, we are responsible for our side of the collaboration, and making the most of us.  God is responsible for God’s side in that collaboration.  And there is no way of saying where God’s work stops and ours begins.   It just doesn’t work that way. 

So what we offer back to God as an Oblation, in whatever walk of life we follow is ourselves; all that we are.  Not a sack of coins.  Not a report card. Not newspaper articles about what a success we were.  We offer back to God all that we have become. 

Now I’d like to use as some imagery for that two prayers that are always used in the preparation of the gifts to be offered in the Roman Catholic liturgy, in the Mass.  Although they are Catholic, they have universal implications for everybody. 

The first one says “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you, fruit of the earth and work of human hands…”

And the second prayer is similar;  “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you, the fruit of the vine and work of human hands…”

There’s a really interesting dynamic in those prayers, that we often don’t hear, or ignore, or pass over.  It’s that God gives us the basic material that we have to offer; in the case of the bread, fruit of the earth; in case of the wine, fruit of the vine. But in both cases what God has given us as the basic materials for our offering is transformed by our own work.  Human beings went out into the field, and plowed the field and planted the wheat. They watched the wheat grow.  Human beings cut that wheat down, human beings thresh it and separate the grain from the chaff.  Human being grind the grain into flour and human beings make the bread. Only very rarely might the same human beings do all of those things.  Many people engage in the work, each according to his or her own gifts and circumstances. 

So the bread that we offer started out as God’s gift.  But God’s gift is the possibility : wheat in the field. That’s hard to eat, doesn’t taste very good;  it’s cracks teeth, and it doesn’t nourish us.  It becomes nourishing through our own labors, the labors of many people.  All of the gifts we have been given grow into what God wants us to be through interaction, not only with God, but those around us, with lots of other people, some of whom we know and see every day, some of whom we don’t know at all. 

So this whole business of Oblation, God’s gift to us and our return of self to God, is a very complex set of personal interactions between God and human beings, and among human beings.  It’s a significant dimension of all Christian life, not just Benedictine life.  In the Benedictine process of Oblation, or self-gift, we mark the key moments with ceremonies, the enrollment of novices and the final oblation of those novices after a formation period. 

But these ceremonies are not graduations.  St. Benedict says that Benedictine life is a school in which we are enrolled as lifelong learners.  Our primary textbook is the Scriptures, but our specific text for learning to live the Scriptures in the spirit of St. Benedict is the Rule of St. Benedict.  Through our study and internalization of these texts, and the other guides God supplies us with along the way,  the Spirit of God teaches us how to make maximum use of our gifts in order to become what God wants us to be.



 Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Blessing of Work: Reflection for September

The following reflection was published in the September, 2014, Give Us This Day, a monthly publication of The Liturgical Press and is reprinted with the publisher's permission.

O Lord, look with favor upon your servants, and upon the works of our hands.
“And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be upon us. Direct the work of our hands for us.
O direct the work of our hands” (Ps 90:17).

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.
Amen.

—Daily Prayer for the Blessing of Work
Prayed every workday by the Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga

Why ask God’s blessing on something as mundane as work? When we watch a mushroom cloud rising above the un- bearable ruin of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the smoke billowing from the crematoria of Auschwitz, we might look toward heaven and ask, “Where were you?” But I wonder, if we listened, whether we would hear God reply: “Where were you?” Hard to deny that the mushroom cloud and the chimney smoke were the work of human hands.

Work was woven into the human fabric from the start. We first see God busy about what Genesis calls the work of creation (Gen 1–2:1). The climax of God’s creative work was human beings, created in the image of that very same God. Entrusted with the care of everything just made (Gen 1:28- 29) or set in a garden rich in fruit trees (Gen 2:8), the first human beings were also intended to be creative workers, cultivating the future God had built into all living things.

The first explicit human assignment was to pick fruit for food (Gen 2:15-16), presumably to strengthen earth’s new cultivators for their task. But before the story got too far, the work went badly astray, thanks to that chat with the serpent (Gen 3). Instead of expressing human being’s true identity and purpose in relation to Creator and creation, labor was twisted into the human pursuit of an illusory self in isolation from God and the world. At that moment, mushroom clouds and smoking chimneys became possible.

Fortunately, few of us spend our workdays inventing weapons of mass destruction or new tools for genocide. Our work’s content does matter, of course, but what matters more is what truth it tells about us, what relationships it serves, what fruit it bears. Does it reveal the image of God or a self writ large? Does it weave bonds or tear them asunder? Does it bear the fragrance of fruit trees or the odor of smoke? 

Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga


Friday, July 11, 2014

Pray without Ceasing!


“Pray without Ceasing!” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

This rather daunting command governed life in the monastic deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria during the first generations of holy men and women who laid the groundwork for the monastic world.  No explanations, no tips on how-to, no list of extenuating circumstances, just a those three terse words. 

St. Paul had never heard of monks or nuns, since there were none in Christian circles in his day.  He was actually speaking to all Christians.  And he was speaking primarily of living a relationship rather than going through certain prescribed motions.  Prayer, after all, is not a matter of technique but of the intricate and profound communion between God and humanity.  What comes to mind (mine, anway) is Michelangelo’s haunting portrait of the creation of Adam and Eve painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  You have probably seen reproductions, if not the original.  God, in wind-blown beard and colorful robes, with Eve tucked in the crook of his arm, is stretching out his hand toward Adam, who does the same.  The impression given by the strenuous reach of God’s forefinger toward Adam and Adam’s toward God is that the two have just now been detached from one another in the act of creation.  The few inches of blank sky between God’s forefinger and Adam’s is the birthplace of the urgent prayer that wants to join created to Creator, and Creator to created.  In this portrait, prayer is the poignant longing that draws one unceasingly toward the other.  What later became words and rituals and competing schools of prayer, each armed with its own how-to manuals, is nothing more than translations of that poignant longing into ways of bridging that gap between one finger and the other. 

Monastic spirituality is eminently practical.  St. Benedict recommends that we start with our feet on the ground (see RB 4:62, of which this is a very loose paraphrase).  Like their Jewish progenitors, the first Christian communities wove services of psalmody to sling across the chasm, giving voice both to God and to humanity in mutual conversation.  They too were practical people.  They believed that if you’re going to pray always, you’d better start with committing yourself to prayer at fixed times.  Thus began the long tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office which is spelled out in relatively great detail for Benedictines in the Rule of St. Benedict, especially Chapters  VIII-XX.

But Benedict fills in the spaces between the Hours of the Divine Office with other moments of prayer, lest we forget for long about those few inches across which the human heart and God are always reaching toward each other. 

The Prologue sets the scene with these words:  “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection” (Prologue 4:4).  That seems simple—a quick sign of the cross, a bow of the head, maybe a murmured “God, come to my assistance,” beloved by St. John Cassian, one of Benedict’s inspirations, and then get down to it.  You’ve said your prayer, now do your work.  The fundamental flaw here is that in a life of unceasing prayer, you don’t stop praying when you start working, even though you may have to redirect your attention to the task at hand.  God is still very much there with you.  The early monks kept their awareness of the connection alive by stopping frequently to pray consciously, but they were usually weaving mats or baskets and could afford to take prayer breaks.  Other work doesn’t always allow us that luxury, but quite often it doesn’t totally exclude it either.  If you can take a coffee break or a restroom break, you can take a prayer break by murmuring a verse from your lectio or just giving a thought to God as you travel across the room or down the hall.   If you take the ophalmologists’ advice about moving your eyes of the computer screen from time to time, you can use those breaks for brief prayers as well.  Neither kind of prayer break need be long.  Jesus was not impressed by length of prayers or streams of words, remember (Matthew 6:7).  And you can end your task as you began it, with some sort of  acknowledgment of God’s presence and love at work in and with you as you went about whatever business you’ve just completed.

However St. Benedict’s injunction to pray before you take up any good work also serves a different but related purpose.  First of all, stopping to pray before you begin the work provides you with a “stop, look, and listen” moment, a moment for discernment. This work you’re about to do—is it in fact a good work?  Or a work well timed?  Should you really stop to play Scrabble on your computer right now, or should you get on with whatever responsibility took you to the computer in the first place?  (This is the Voice of Experience of a Scrabble addict, me.)  More seriously, if this work isn’t something you can honestly pray for God to bless—if it’s a spot of tax cheating or meth making or writing an email designed to wound the recipient—should you really be doing it at all?  Trying to baptize any of these tasks with prayer is more dishonest than Benedict would readily countenance.  Better to rethink your options.

St. Benedict also recommends prayer moment at specific moments.  For instance, he recommends that we pray for forgiveness when we realize we’ve sinned (“uh-oh, that was a snide bit of sarcasm”, or “did I just lie about the doorbell to get out of talking to a lonely friend”, or “I might as well have hit the kid as say that to her!”).  St. Benedict advises to admit it rather than dodge the issue—and prayer is a healthy way to do that.  Pray for God’s blessing when you take up a new responsibility, even something as apparently insignificant as taking your turn serving the meal or washing the dishes.  In RB 35:15-18, the Rule describes the formal weekly blessing of incoming and outgoing kitchen servers, but the principle can easily be applied to the less formal trading of all sorts of household tasks.  Prayer helps us to see the job in its true light, as an opportunity we’ve been given to serve another in the simple undramatic ways that weave unseen webs of love in homes, workplaces, and supermarkets, wherever human beings are and God is busy creating bonds between us.  Pray before you eat (see RB references to the blessing before meals in various places).  Prayer reminds us of gratitude and, like the prayer before work, gives us a moment of discernment about how to approach the choices meals require and perhaps the conversation that will be shared at table.  Pray sometimes when you’re resting and alone.  Benedict suggests, for example, that monks might want to do some lectio divina during the afternoon siesta, but he wisely refrains from  making it a rule (RB 48:5) .  It may seem odd to pray during rest time, but after all, Jesus did say, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest”  (Matthew 11:28).

These are only some of the opportunities we have to throw filaments of prayer across that gap between Creator and created, honoring the urgency of the longing Michelangelo captured on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Of course we can only talk about what we do on our side of the gap, but Michelangelo reminds us that as we reach for God, God is reaching for us.  Paul, very well aware of the gap and the mutual pull enlivens it long before Michelangelo, tells us how to live in it:  “Pray without ceasing.)

July 11, 2014
Solemnity of St. Benedict

©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Long-Fingered Light

Easter lies too far beyond our experience for our imaginations to grasp much more than impressions of startling appearances of a beloved Lord and Master who is but isn’t dead, who is but isn’t a ghost, who 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 we can really picture.  He appeared unannounced in locked rooms, walked incognito with puzzled and 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 of accounts of who saw what when and who believed whom—but quite often didn’t.  A stammer was probably the most honest way they could have described a reality into and over which they stumbled in happy but fearful discovery.  I sometimes feel as if all our Easter alleluia’s are our own contemporary way of stammering out a truth for which we have no really coherent words.

The risen Christ, transformed into the Fire hidden at the heart of human flesh which set Peter babbling on Tabor, sheds a light so bright it blinds us.  Paul could tell us something about that from his experience on the Damascus road.  But in fact, all the early believers could.  The gospel stories of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection, and the Acts of the Apostles, which we read in its entirety during the Easter season during the liturgy, is the story of that light reaching out of an unimaginable future to touch one by one the dark places in which Christ’s early followers walked: the apostles’ fear, Mary Magdalene’s grief, Thomas’ angry doubt, Peter’s shame.  Those are consoling stories because the familiar and beloved Master, Teacher and Healer appears in person to cast light into experiences we too have known.  Fear, grief, doubt and shame are all shadows, sometimes consuming shadows, through which we all have walked.

But the story doesn’t stop with those personal encounters.  Jesus disappears from the scene at the Ascension, or seems to, but the Light does not.  We see a lame man condemned to a lifetime of begging at the Temple Gate spring up and walk at the sound of Jesus’ name invoked by Peter.  We hear of fights between Christians of differing ethnic origins settled by Peter’s creative wisdom.  Peter had learned a thing or two about humility by then and saw that no one could do everything that was needed, so he assigned some community members to be deacons who would care for practical needs the apostles couldn’t address.  Time management through delegation is not a new invention, just a new name for an old one.  We recoil at the sight of an angry mob driven by their religious beliefs to stone Stephen to death only to see Stephen himself walk through a horrible death with the courage inspired by the sight of the risen Christ, whom no one else, apparently, could see.  We see disciples jailed and freed, Paul held in suspicion by fellow Christians (for very good reason),  apostles arguing about what to require of Jewish converts, preachers thrown out of synagogues and cities, communities split in their loyalties to different leaders. We see, in other words, all the dark corners in which even Christians and Chrisitan communities sometimes find themselves even now, some two millennia after the resurrection.  We too know of crippling illness and injury, of jealousies that split families and communities, of offended believers casting killing stones—a story that appeared on this morning’s news, in fact—of Christian ministers jailed, of Church leaders held in suspicion, of Church leaders arguing policy and practice, of preachers fired or driven out of town, of communities divided by loyalties to opposing pastors.  The darkness of the New Testament church is far from outdated.

When we read Acts, we do not have the consolation of seeing the Jesus we’ve met in the gospels appear in these stories to solve all the problems.  What we see instead is what he promised:  the power of Spirit and Word at work illuminating flawed human beings like ourselves to see things in a new way, to discover suddenly what it means to “love your enemies as yourself,” to pick up pieces and find creative ways to put them back together so that the image of God can shine more clearly in a world still deeply held in the grip of darkness. 


The Light of the risen Christ still reaches long fingers from the hidden depths of God into our present shadows to pry us out of the dark grip of sin and death.  I cannot myself imagine the risen Christ, not really.  All my inner pictures seem unreal.  And I certainly cannot explain him.  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.

Copyright 2014 Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Judas

A shorter version of this reflection appears in the April, 2014 issue of Give Us This Day, published by The Liturgical Press (www.giveusthisday.org).

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 down river 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—God’s gifts of love, our own love for our the tasks God has given us, our love for those among whom we were planted in this world. A gifted storyteller puts the gift to use writing trash for cash. A gifted singer holds back songs that change the world for fear of criticism. 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—don’t be a prig.”

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? 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 the open door. 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.

Note: The phrase "for a handful of silver" comes from Robert Browning's moving poem about betrayal and forgiveness, The Lost Leader. See http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/282.html

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga


Monday, April 14, 2014

By Pickax or Angel

At the outset of Lent, we considered the season as an important stretch in our spiritual journey. We might have read the encouraging words of St. Benedict: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (Prologue 48-49)

But as we look back, at least some of us will have to admit that we don’t seem to have done much running. Sometimes an aging snail could have beat us to the next turn in the road. At other times, we’ve spent most of our time picking ourselves up after falling over one rock after another. On the First Sunday of Lent, the cautionary tale of that conversation with the serpent in the Garden of Eden may have alerted us to the likelihood of rocks ahead. A more sober theological description would speak of the effects of original sin or the cumulative results of our personal histories of sinful choices, which do indeed hobble our feet or trip us up as we do our best to follow Christ, our Way. Some of these rocks are mere pebbles, easy to pick up and throw aside with a bit of repentance and some healthy asceticism to retrain our travel habits, but others loom large and immovable. At some point in Lent, we may even just sit down in the blocked path, put our heads in our hands, and lament, “How, O Lord, can this rock be uprooted? My pickax is broken, and I’m all out of dynamite!”

The Easter story will come to our rescue with a hint and lesson. When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” arrived at the tomb hewn into the hillside and firmly sealed with a large slab of rock on Good Friday, “there was a great earthquake; for an angel of he Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone and sat upon it” (Matthew 28:2).

Let’s start by considering the purpose of the stone to begin with. It wasn’t intended to keep Jesus in. It was meant to keep others out. No doubt Joseph of Arimathea, who put it there in Matthew’s account, wanted to preserve the dead Master from any indignity on the part of intruders. The chief priests and Pharisees were more worried about the disciples stealing the body and then claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, so they demanded guards as well as the stone itself. And anyway, as we learn from Jesus’ appearances to the disciples in the upper room three days later, he could walk through walls, so a mere gravestone, however heavy, would have been no problem.  

Sometimes, as we’re sitting down before a large lump of stone in the path, it helps to remember the purpose of that stone too. It’s meant to do just what it has done: to stop us in our tracks while Jesus disappears from sight down the road beyond it, or we imagine he does.  The rock is meant to keep us away from joining him. It’s interesting to wonder further who put it there? It may look at first blush as if we did. If it’s a weighty composite of our own history of selfish wrongdoing, yep, we made it. But this is the Lenten road we’re on, no matter what the calendar may say as I write this or you read it. We set out with the intention of breaking through whatever was keeping us from following the Lord. We didn’t run ahead and drop a boulder on the way to make that harder. The psalmist warns of pits and traps laid across our path by an enemy. This rock has trapped us. It’s not unknown for the true Enemy to use our own weaknesses, failings and sins against us, to keep us from reaching what St. Benedict calls the mountain of God (cf. Prologue 23, quoting Psalm 15). So who is more likely to have dropped this rock right in front of us to bring our “run” to a skidding halt and make us sit down in discouragement, thereby guaranteeing that we will go nowhere soon?

This is where the angel comes in. First, the angel presents us with the sobering truth that some rocks are indeed too formidable for our little pickaxes. Secondly, the angel tells us the even more sobering truth that if we have imagined all along that rock-removal, even pebble-removal, was primarily our responsibility, it’s about time we met reality face-to-face. One of Lent’s hidden temptations is the illusion that we are our own saviors. We decide what our Lenten program will be: what sins and failings we will address, what our conversion will look like, and what steps we will take to engineer it. Sorry about that, says the angel. It’s true that you are an indispensable collaborator in the work, you and your little pickax, even when you’re tired of the effort, discouraged by apparently poor results, and ready to punch out on the Lenten time clock. It is not true that you are the primary force in blasting pebbles and mountains out of your way as you seek to run toward that great encounter we call Easter. That would be God, says the angel---who is, of course, God’s messenger.


Lent may be over when you read this, or it will be over soon. But you already know that neither God nor our lives are confined by the liturgical calendar. The season of Lent ends, but the work of Lent never does (cf RB 49!) So the rock on the road and the stone at the tomb, with the angel sitting atop it, are always there to remind us of the reality and power of God’s grace, even when the Rocky Mountains themselves seem to have sprung up between us and the Lord we seek. As the women at the tomb learn from the angel, though not in so many words, it’s really the Lord who is seeking us. And to God, even mountains are pebbles.

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lesson of Harriet Tubman

In a recent issue of Give Us This Day, Robert Ellsberg tells the story of Harriet Tubman.  She was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820.  A woman of deep spiritual experiences, she endured for years until, at the age of 29, she was inspired to act on her enduring inner conviction that God wanted her to be free.  From her home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, she made her way by night to Pennsylvania and ultimately to Philadelphia, traveling at night with no map, no compass, no guide except the North Star, always in peril of her life.  Long after Appomattox,  for the rest of her very long life, she went on working for the liberation of those still bound in one way or another.

Her story inspires the imagination.  We can easily daydream about the heroism of reaching the land of freedom and then going back for those still enslaved in the place we came from.  It’s a pleasant thought, one that allows us to fantasize about dangerous deeds but excuses us from doing them because, of course, we are still on the road to the land of freedom a long way ahead of us—beyond Lent, beyond next year, beyond death.  Time enough to go back for the others when we get there.

The gospel doesn’t much hold with daydreaming instead of doing.  For us, the real lesson of Harriet Tubman is that wherever we are on the road to freedom, we must keep going back for those behind us.  Where would we be, after all, if others hadn’t come back for us?

Note:  Give Us This Day is published by The Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org


©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 2-3, Matthew 4

Once upon a time, our story goes, there was a Being whose essential truth was an extraordinary communion of  three distinct persons so profound that the three, though distinct, formed one reality.  To this Being, human language gives the name God.  (Of course, "a Being" isn't quite right.  God is not one being among many, as theologians wear out their keyboards trying to explain.  God IS in a way that can't be said of anything else that exists. Let that much do for now.)

One day, when there were as yet no "days" because there was no time, God set about creating what we know as the universe we live in.  In the last verses of the creation story as told in Genesis 1, God created humanity: "Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness....God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

From the artistic genius of a Michelangelo to the illustrations for children's Bibles, the habit of the imagination has been to picture "male and female" as we meet them every day:  two distinct people, one looking like a man, one looking like a woman.  That makes sense to us because that is what we know.  However, the brilliant eleventh-century biblical commentator, Rashi, offers a different perspective: ""God created him first with two faces, and separated them." Blessed John Paul II takes a similar position in his reflections on the primal unity of the human in the Genesis account  as gathered in Male and Female He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.

The poet of Genesis 1 sets the creation of the first humanity at the conclusion of a narrative picture of primal harmony, where each component has its name, its purpose, and its place in the vast scheme of things, and each owes its origin to the divine Creator.  This harmony has never lost its appeal.  It remains the dream that underlies the prophet Isaiah's vision of a holy mountain where predators and prey dwell in peace (Isaiah 11:6-8), words translated, for example, into the numerous paintings of "the peaceable kingdom" by Quaker folk artist Edward Hicks (April 4, 1780-August 23, 1849) which sometimes appear on Christmas cards. 

The picture of primal harmony shifts from reality to dream when the first humans shred it.  The tragedy is laid out in Genesis 3.  The serpent, the deceiver who will grow into a dragon in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 12:9), convinces Eve to pluck and taste the forbidden fruit by assuring her she will not die but will become like a God.  The tragic irony is not lost on the reader familiar with Genesis 1, where the first human beings were made in the image and likeness of God.  Eve's story was written before the Genesis creation poem, though, so she is eager to have what she has already been given but doesn’t know it.  So we come to the famous, or infamous, moment when she crunches down on what the western world would come to see as an apple.  No doubt it tastes good--forbidden fruit usually does till it has hit us where we live. So she passes it to her other half, who takes and eats it without a word, sealing the fate of Eve's daughters to a long role in theology, literature and society as the dangerous temptresses who seduce men into sin. At least in Genesis 3, the man seems pretty willing to be seduced if being handed a piece of fruit counts as seduction.  In fact, since Eve says nothing at all to him, we should perhaps shift the blame to the serpent. Adam was listening to his spiel along with Eve and seems also to have fallen for it.

The seeds of forbidden fruit spring up to become a poisoned harvest.  As soon as the woman obeys the serpent rather than God, and on the basis of an inexplicable trust built on very shaky grounds ( or so it appears to anyone who hasn't succumbed to the serpent's way with words), and as soon as the man ratifies her decision by making it his own, the world falls apart.

These two favored children, the first-born of God's creative love suddenly run for the bushes when they hear God's voice as he arrives for a customary evening stroll in the garden.  For the first of times uncounted, God has to go looking for them.  When God starts asking questions,  these two "faces" of one humanity get into their first fight, or at least what would likely become their first fight when they eventually try to pick events apart and understand them as they stand  outside a gate closed, locked and guarded against them.  Adam dumps the blame for that fatal bite on Eve;  she dumps  it on the serpent; the serpent is smart enough to let it happen without saying a thing, like someone who starts a fight between two others and then steps back out of the way.

God is forced to spell out for them the consequences of what they have done.  "That garden you were placed into, Adam, the one that should have provided you with the satisfaction of your own kind of creativity as you cultivated it, coaxed it into bearing fruit for the future, tilled and planted and cut from it the wheat for the first loaf of home-baked bread?  That garden will now rise up and work against you, making you work it by the sweat of your brow at every hand's turn.  Sorry, your choice.  The children you and Adam were charged to bring into the world to take up the task of caring for it, Eve, the ones who should have given you nothing but joy at their arrival?  They will now give you terrible pain at their birth.  (Eve will learn only after her boys are grown that they will bring more pain than she could ever have imagined during delivery once they reach maturity.)  Sorry, your choice too.  And this place, this beautiful garden I planted for you?  You've got to leave it for a much colder, harsher climate in lands that will never be your friends.  Your choice, your choice, and My everlasting grief!  It will cost you more than you dream of now, and it will cost Me my Son."  Or words to that effect!

So Adam and Eve, shivering in their fig leaves, prepare to leave what later generations would call paradise, to face the soul-searing loneliness of a world from which all harmony has fled, even the harmony of spouse with spouse, brother with brother.

We've all been here ever since, trying to make our way home to the garden.  When Jesus joined us on the road, he began his public ministry with a forty-day stint in the desert, as recounted in today's gospel.  At his lowest point, after a very long fast, which was probably not measured in terms of how many small and normal meals he ate per day, the Tempter from the garden reappeared on the scene for another conversation.  It was a key moment. 

With Eve and Adam, he had won the first battle, but not the war. Of course the war was not with poor, silly human beings.  They were just cannon fodder.  The real war was and is between Evil and God.  (C.S. Lewis imagines all this brilliantly in The Screwtape Letters.)  And here was a man who was the image of the Father in  far more profound way than the first couple (Colossians 115-20).  Here was the one who was the beginning of the new humanity made in the image and likeness of God, the one in whom the image would be brought to its planned perfection once he passed through death to eternal life in God.  It isn't clear that the Tempter knew all that.  He did seem to think there was at least a good chance that this one, at last, was "the Son of God" in a different ), even though the Tempter might not have been sure what that meant.  What he was sure of, it seems, was that here was God's Achilles heel.  Bring this one down, and the war would be over and won.  And not by God.

The Tempter, remember, is the one who specializes in falsity beyond any human beings can come up with.  And he is cleverly persuasive with it.  What he addresses to Jesus seems to be Satan's own definition of what the Son of God should look like, what he should do.  He's not as clever as he thinks he is.  He clearly gives away what he would do if he were the Son of God, or even (his obvious hope since that first conversation at the fruit tree).  He would prove his status and his power in such a way that no one could doubt or deny him.  He could and would do the one thing God will not:  he could force the obedience of all lesser beings.  He doesn't have the handicap of a real Son of God in that game.  He does not love.  Quite the contrary.

This cunning Tempter bases his script on a vision of human beings falsified to the core core.  He wants Jesus to betray his own truth as the one defined by what he will teach:  love of God and neighbor so great that it takes precedence over any hint of self-interest.  The whisperer tries to persuade him to do that by acting as one totally isolated from all relationships, the one in whom the disintegration of all bonds begun in Eden is finally brought to completion.  He tries to convince Jesus to act entirely by himself alone and for himself alone, with reference neither to God nor to neighbor.  "You must be hungry.  Feed yourself by your own power . You know you have it in you to turn these stones into bread.  Forget the myriads of starving human beings waiting everywhere for you to provide them with bread, the real Bread of Life.  Force God's hand to take care of you.  Power is all!  You can control even God-- his own words in Psalm 91 prove it.  He may be called "almighty," but love has made him a weakling after all.  Take over the empire that awaits you, take over all the kingdoms of the world--in a moment, without effort, and certainly without that stupid business of the cross that lies in your future if you stay on the path you're traveling now."  The Tempter may not realize that here he has let slip his real plan. He has put on God's mantle, for it is God who says in Psalm 2, "You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask of me and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as your possession". Clever, this Tempter, but sometimes not too smart.

He doesn't win.  Not this battle, and not the war, though he doesn't seem to know that yet.  He will keep trying in Jesus'  lifetime;  he is still trying in ours.  Let us not underestimate him.  Genesis 3 reminds us how easily our hungers can dupe us into choosing quicker, easier satisfactions than the long, hard road Jesus has carved out for us.  The fruit that looked so good to Eve has lost none of its appeal.  And history teaches us that though Evil may never win the war, indeed cannot,  this persistent Whisperer seems willing to make do with success in one small  battle after another—with one of us as the prize. If the Tempter cannot now kill Christ,  it appears he can at least take pleasure in wounding him again in his only vulnerability, his love for us. 

However, Matthew's story of that fateful meeting in the desert reminds us that there is a power that will defeat the whispers every time.  It is the word of God.  The more we absorb it, the greater will be our defense against seductive untruths (see John 8:31-31).  But we needn't worry about our own uncertain ability to wield this weapon with success against subtleties that undermine even the strongest resolutions.  The story that unfolds through Lent into Easter and beyond assures us that Christ, who not only speaks the word with authority but is the very Word made flesh, will never walk away and leave us to our own devices. "I am with you always," he says (Matthew 28:20). However alone and powerless we may feel,  he is assuring us that he will never abandon the arena for a more comfortable spot far away in heaven.  He will continue to rescue and shield us until the last sentence of our story is written, and God lays down the pen. 

So, Christ's message to us on this first Sunday of Lent is what it has always been: "Do not be frightened by the words you have heard" (Isaiah 37:6). And, when we are nevertheless shaking in our shoes--let's be honest, the Tempter seem frighteningly strong as he tries to pull us into the undertow in a chaotic sea—Jesus says again what he said to the disciples in the boat at night:  "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid" (Matthew 14:27).

Notes:
Rashi is the name commonly given to RAbbi SHlomo Itzhak (February 22, 1040 – July 13, 1105).  The sentence found here is quoted from Avivah Gotlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

C.S. Lewis’ imagined account of a conversation between a senior demon and his nephew about the incomprehensible fact that God seems actually to love us human vermin, as the demon calls us, whereas the devil is intent upon devouring us instead is worth reading during Lent.  The title is The Screwtape Letters, and you will find it available in many print and e-book editions.


©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent 2014: Part 1

Here we go!

Lent arrives this year on Ash Wednesday, March 4, and ends on Holy Thursday, April 17.

For Benedictines, however, Lent is with us always, in every season of the year.  St. Benedict says, “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent” (Rule of St. Benedict, 49:1)  If you look at Lent as a season of penance that goes on too long, a season when visions of chocolate or coffee or cigarettes or whatever you have chosen to give up dance in your head, a season you’d just as soon either skip or at least get through as quickly as possible, this is not good news.  No chocolate, ever? Give me a break!  A long break, like from Easter till next Ash Wednesday.

St. Benedict himself admits that “few…have the strength for this” (RB 49:2), so he lists some Lenten practices to “wash away the negligences of other times” (RB 49:3).  He makes it sound like a season for a spiritual tune-up, a soul-diet, a time of intensity geared to prepare us to renew our baptismal vows honestly at Easter, freed of all the little compromises we have made to lighten their observance.  In other words, it is a season of intentional conversatio morum, that change of behavior that is intended to fuel a change of heart.  And in some ways, that’s exactly what Lent is.

The season of Lent has its own particular landscape:  the landscape of desert and mountain.  The forty days of Lent hark back to Israel’s forty years in the desert, Moses’ forty days’ fast on Mount Sinai prior to receiving the Law, Jesus’ forty days’ fast in the desert following his baptism. 

The desert offers a vivid image of Lent.  Its sun and win strip life down to the bone.  Quite literally, actually, as Georgia O’Keeffe reminds us in her stark paintings of cattle reduced to clean, white skeletons scattered on the sands of New Mexico’s deserts.  Lent does the same for the human spirit.  The fire of the Sun rising from a dark world and the darker valley of death until it bursts into glory at Easter burns away all our masks and disguises, all our falsities, all the inessentials with which we sometimes seek to hide our essential truth, even from ourselves.  The light of the rising Sun, Jesus Christ, illumines us through and through, revealing not only our selfishness and sinfulness but also the essential strength and goodness we may have forgotten were there.  It was he who said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  The wind of the Spirit whips away our heavy backsacks and lunch boxes, filled with all the unnecessary stuff, both material, without which we imagine we cannot live.  Turns out that, in the desert, we actually can’t live with  it.  The accumulated weight of all the baggage we carry will weigh us down till we can’t move at all, even as far as the nearest water hole.   The Sun and Wind of our Lenten desert change us.

Do you begin to see why St. Benedict says that our lives should be a perpetual Lent?  These changes aren’t confined to a few weeks only.  The process of transformation is the process to which we commit ourselves in promising conversatio morum, with its intertwining realities of heart and behavior.  Lent is the essential home of the Benedictine spirit, and we stray from it at our peril. 

One approach to Lenten asceticism is to choose to change habits that we would like to leave behind for good, not just for six weeks.  Sometimes the small steps we take during Lent—giving up something not too important or choosing to do something we don’t ordinarily do—are not just steps but stepping stones to larger changes.  We might give up chocolate with the hope (and, more important, the prayer) that we can learn to make our own decisions about what we take in, whether that be unnecessary food or unnecessary entertainment or unnecessary gossip at the grocery store, rather than to leave the decisions in the hands of old habits that have served us badly.  Chocolate may be a small thing but building up our decision-making power is not.  Rather than giving something up, we might choose to spend fifteen minutes a day, three days a week, reading Scripture prayerfully.  That’s not much time, but it’s amazing how hard it can be to set aside even such a small fragment of our day to grow in our relationship with God.  Fifteen minutes three times a week is nowhere near the unceasing prayer that is the Benedictine ideal, but it’s a genuine start. 

The monastic wisdom of past ages understood that small starts along the broad, well-paved road to an undesirable destination or along the steep and narrow road that leads to salvation are a great deal more significant than we might recognize, especially if a well-honed sense of pride requires great leaps toward holiness on Ash Wednesday.  Humility, a distinctly Benedictine value, provides us with a practical realism that will take us a great deal farther than high purposes that ride on nothing but air. 

A perpetual Lent does not require a wardrobe of hair shirts, one to be worn every day of the week even after Easter.  It does not require a life-long fast so severe that we pass out along the road.  It does not require that we shut ourselves into our room every day after work until midnight.  It doesn’t even require that we give up chocolate so firmly forever that we wound the loved one who gives us a box of our favorite kind on our birthday, or that we become bad-tempered ogres whom our entire family begs, please, to eat just one piece for their sake.  A perpetual Lent requires a commitment to the desert road that leads us to change and grow in small, simple ways until our own self, risen from old dust into the full maturity of Christ, comes as a shock to us when we wake up on the day of our own personal Easter.

But most important of all, a perpetual Lent is not a solo act of heroism.  It is a long journey taken in prayerful company with Christ, the only One who really knows the way, and with all the rest of the ordinary folk he has invited to come along.


Ash Wednesday is a day of small beginnings.  We will revisit the desert road on this blog when we are farther along the way.

Blessings on your journey!  And let us all pray for one another as we go.