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).

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.