Monday, November 15, 2021

Company!

 

As Benedictines, we belong to the great company of listeners.  These are they who listen to God “with the ear of the heart” (cf. RB Prologue 1).   They are not only Benedictines, of course.  On November 1, the Church at large celebrates the memory of all saints, all those holy people who are gathered now in God’s presence in heaven.  Some of their names we know, many we don’t.  Some of them we have known personally, many we have not.  But they are a great glad crowd who still keep an eye on us, who are called to join them one day.  On November 13, we at the Abbey celebrate a particular group within the great crowd of saints:  all Benedictine saints.  Of course all holy oblates who have run the course and dwell now on God’s holy mountain (RB Prologue 23) are among them!  Again, some of them we have known, lived with, and love; some we have not.  It is comforting to know that each of us has a place reserved for us among them, with our names spelled out in gold, or so I like to imagine.  For all those who have gone before us, Benedictines or not, saints or saints-still-in-the making, we can be very grateful.  For those still on the way, we can and should pray.

 At the Abbey, after supper every night, we read the names of all of the deceased Sisters of our own monastery and the other monasteries who make up what is called the Federation of Benedictine Monasteries of Nuns, including our motherhouse, the Abbey of St. Walburg in Germany—whose Abbess many of you knew when she was Sister Hildegard of this house and oblate director.  We read their names on the anniversary of their deaths, and we pray for them.  But the nuns of this house and of the Federation are not the only names in the book.  We also read the names of all of our oblates who have died on this day, whom we remember also with joy and gratitude.  If we live as faithful listeners, you and I can hope that our names, too, will be read out on the anniversary of our death, and that future generations will remember and pray for us. 

 This November, let us all remember the listeners who have gone before us and remember the last words they heard as they stood on the threshold of death where we will one day stand:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).

 Let us pray with them; let us pray for them who have not yet  fully completed that crossing; and let us pray for one another as we walk together on the way, that we may all listen faithfully as they did and be gathered into the great company of saints in the world to come.  Amen!

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Humility, Gospel-Style

Today’s Mass gospel (Luke 14: 7-11) is a lesson in etiquette worthy of Miss Manners.  Jesus spells out how to behave when invited to a wedding banquet (or, presumably, any other fancy occasion).  You’ve heard his advice:  in a nutshell, he says don’t seat yourself in the place of honor!  What if the host has invited someone more important than you!  He will ask you to move down.  How embarrassing!  Much better to sit in the lowest place so the host may invite you up to a more important place.  Think how good that will make you look to the other guests!

There’s a good bit of humor hidden in this lesson.  As he often does, Jesus appeals to a concern for one’s social reputation.  (Honor was highly esteemed in his culture). Taking the place of honor will make you look bad; taking a lower place and being invited to a higher place will make you look good.  Hardly a noble motive, is it?  But oh so recognizable! Memories of similar social faux-pas, our own or someone else’s, might make us laugh or blush when we hear the story!  There’s more.  Jesus’ adds another humorous note.  He says, when advising choosing the lowest place, that the host may then invite you to come higher. It makes me chuckle to think of someone (not me, of course) sanctimoniously and perhaps a bit ostentatiously taking the lowest seat in order to enjoy the prestige of being invited to take a higher one—only to discover that no such invitation is forthcoming.! 

 Being able to laugh at oneself is an aspect of humility that St. Benedict does not address in the Rule (RB 7), but he does tell us not to take ourselves too seriously, socially or otherwise.  His instructions regarding community rank may seem irrelevant if you don’t live in a monastery. The hierarchy of rank might have had more social importance for a European monastery of the old style, but it is not of much interest in monastery like ours, where no one cares about the usual claims for prestige:  high social birth, family wealth, education or a prestigious career before entering the community.  One of the great gifts of our community is that the diversity of our work means that we know that there are always Sisters who will be better than we are at the kind of work we’ve been assigned, but we might be better than someone else in some other kinds of tasks.  For us, rank is really just a tidy way of organizing community processions and meals.  

What is really important in St. Benedict’s eyes is not how much we can claim prestige among others but how seriously we take ourselves for whatever reason.  (And sometimes, as we all know, the reason may really be laughable!  I will not give you examples—they would be too embarrassing.  Well, one example, largely fictional, is that Sister So-and-So pins her veil straighter than Sister So-and-So.  There is democracy as well as humility in the fact that where you may have “bad hair” days, all of us have “bad veil” days from time to time!)

There is a very fine line between appropriate self-esteem and inflated self-esteem.  Jesus’ amusing little etiquette lesson suggests that we would do well to look at ourselves in that mirror.  Our response is a clue:  gratitude for our gifts, whatever they may be, and glad respect for the gifts of others.  Another clue is whether or not we can laugh at ourselves when we begin to resemble a peacock flaunting inarguably gorgeous plumage—and totally unaware that the plumage is all gift! There is no place for peacocks in Benedictine life!

 Humility is truth, so they say.  Jesus is the truth, by his own claim (John 14:6).  We sometimes read that as some sort of dogmatic truth, but it is really much more than that.  Jesus is God’s truth revealed in human flesh, but he is also our truth.  He is the only authentic image of what humanity was meant to be and has once more bccome in him.  That’s the only mirror we ought to consult when we want to see how good we look!

 

©2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

 

A Commercial:  the annual Abbey Calendar for 2022 will be available in the Gift Shop by next week, or so we hope.  It features stunning pictures of the tapestries that hang in the Abbey Church.  They were woven for us by Frau Walburga, OSB, at our motherhouse in Germany for our chapel in Boulder in the early 1960’s.  Woven of hand-dyed and handspun wool, they depict the “Mysteries of Mary,” something like but not quite identical to the mysteries of the rosary.  It also gives the days of the Church’s liturgical days and seasons, together with the liturgical calendar of the Order of St. Benedict, as these calendars are observed at the Abbey. 

 This year’s calendar is larger and more substantial than last year’s It is made of glossy cardboard rather than paper, since we got complaints about how easily last year’s paper calendars tore.  I’m afraid the price has consequently gone up to $19.95.  As you know, this is an annual fundraiser for us, a bit more important to the Abbey economy as COVID and all its variants continue to limit the accommodations in our retreat house. 

 You can order a calendar from the Abbey Gift Shop, either by telephoning us at 97-472-0612 or by ordering online at giftshop@walburga.org.

 

Thanks so much!

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Seek Peace!

  

In the Prologue, St. Benedict quotes Psalm 34: let peace be your quest and aim (Psalm 34:15).  I prefer the Grail translation: “Seek after peace, and pursue it.”  One reason is that it is simply more familiar.  It’s the translation we at the Abbey pray in the Divine Office.  But there is another reason.  Hidden within St. Benedict’s injunction to seek peace is his great theme:  “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11).  

The prophet Micah helps us to make the link: “he shall be peace” ( Micah 5:4).  The context clarifies that, for us Christian readers, “he” is none other than Christ himself:  “He shall take his place as shepherd by the strength of the LORD, by the majestic name of the LORD, his God;… for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth:  he shall be peace” (Micah 5:3-4, emphasis added).  St. Paul adds: “he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, (Ephesians 2:14-16).

St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great Christian teachers of the fourth century, enriches this idea: “Since we think of Christ as our peace, we may call ourselves true Christians only if our lives express Christ by our own peace. As the Apostle says: He has put enmity to death. We must never allow it to be rekindled in us in any way but must declare that it is absolutely dead. Gloriously has God slain enmity, in order to save us; may we never risk the life of our souls by being resentful or by bearing grudges. We must not awaken that enmity or call it back to life by our wickedness, for it is better left dead.

No, since we possess Christ who is peace, we must put an end to this enmity and live as we believe he lived. He broke down the separating wall, uniting what was divided, bringing about peace by reconciling in his single person those who disagreed. In the same way, we must be reconciled not only with those who attack us from outside, but also with those who stir up dissension within; flesh then will no longer be opposed to the spirit, nor the spirit to the flesh. Once we subject the wisdom of the flesh to God's law, we shall be re-created as one single man at peace. Then, having become one instead of two, we shall have peace within ourselves.

Now peace is defined as harmony among those who are divided. When, therefore, we end that civil war within our nature and cultivate peace within ourselves, we become peace. By this peace we demonstrate that the name of Christ, which we bear, is authentic and appropriate.” (Treatise on Christian Perfection, Office of Readings, Week 19 of Ordinary Time, Thursday).

We tend most often to think of peace as the reconciliation of all the “us vs. them” conflicts that beset our world and, to be honest, ourselves.  The daily news makes it difficult how sore a need this is, and how difficult to attain.  Since most of us are not called upon to make peace among warring nations or even warring factions in our own nation, we need to look closer to home at all whatever divides us from an “them” in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces and, sadly, even in our churches. 

But St. Gregory reminds us that there are divisions not only among us, but also within us, also crying out for reconciliation.  On both levels, outward and inward, the heart of reconciliation is living fully the life of the risen Christ into whom we have been baptized.  In seeking to live deeply in Christ, both socially and individually, we are indeed seeking Peace and pursuing it with all the means the Rule supplies in terms of prayer and relationships.

 St. Paul, St. Gregory, and St. Benedict were all realists.  They knew that seeking and finding peace is no easy task.  It is, in fact, a lifetime’s work.  But they all offer us tools, especially in prayer and in ways of living relationships ordered toward the ultimate unity that is the reign of God.  And we pray for that unity daily in the Lord’s Prayer for that very reason (RB 13:12-13).

 Peace be with you, and with us all!

©2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, September 10, 2021

Think Slow: Lectio Divina Revisited


Hurry, hurry, hurry!  Sometime it feels as if this is a shared mantra, driving many of us to get too much done in too short a time.  Even contemplative nuns face this pressure at times!  What is unfortunate is that it can creep into our practice of lectio as an unwelcome stranger cracking an invisible whip. 

 A better mantra would be: take your time, take your time, take your time—or rather take God’s time, which is rumored to open a door into eternity!  When it comes to the frequent choice between the tortoise and the hare, even the ancient Greek fabulist knew that wisdom put its money on the tortoise.  (If you don’t happen to have a copy of Aesop’s Fables in your library, you can download one for free at Project Gutenberg.  If this link does not work, just go to www.gutenberg.org.)

In a quirky book on the Liturgy of the Hours entitled Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscapes of Our Lives, English Benedictine monk Mark Barrett introduced me to the practice of slow reading by describing the experience of a World War II POW who had only one book available to him.  He disciplined himself to read very slowly to make the book last, but he discovered in the process that slow reading led him to deep reading, which was its own gift.  And I do mean slow reading, with much rereading and savoring.  With books abounding all around us, and all the books of our very large Bible available to us, we are under no deadline except the ones we give ourselves.  But reading to deadline, any deadline, works for our loss, not our gain.

  Consider taking a single psalm—perhaps one as short as Psalm 1 or Psalm 23—and putting it through a very patient inner juicer that seeks to extract every drop of meaning, every hint of reference to our real daily experience, every glimmer of insight into our relationships with those we love and those we don’t, every tiny invitation to pursue a connection with another phrase in a different psalm -- all with the patient inspiration of the Holy Spirit as our reading companion.  Consider setting a different kind of deadline:  I will NOT finish this psalm till the end of two weeks of daily lectio.  And be prepared to discover with surprise that two weeks aren’t quite long enough!  Suddenly a text  as long as the Beatitudes--with 100 stories of different people we know or have read about behind each one--seems like a six-month’s work!

 Each of has to find our own best pace, but the discipline of  “slow and steady wins the race,” as Aesop put it, is an invaluable tool for genuinely contemplative lectio. 

 Try it!  You might like it!  Or you might hate it, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know!   

 _____

Reference:

Mark Barrett, OSB. Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscapes of Our Lives.  Harrisburg PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2001.

 ©2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

 

 

 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Lectio Divina: Think Small!

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, June 24, 2021

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

 

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Steadfast Presence

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga