Friday, November 27, 2015

Advent Listeners

Advent is the season of the Word.  We sometimes muse on its contemplative character as a season of quiet expectation.  But look around:  Christmas tinsel and trees and stars flash gold and red and green from storefronts and neighborhood porches, Santa and the reindeer, complete with Rudolph’s red nose, gallop across rooftops to the tune of Jingle Bells, crooners dream of a white Christmas over in-store speakers.  Blinking lights, sound systems pouring out endless variations of familiar nostalgia, boisterous crowds cramming the aisles and competing for holiday bargains:  our Christmas preparations are nothing if not noisy!

How can we hear the Word coming amid all that racket?  We might look to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as she prepared for the birth of her Child in Palestine over two millennia ago.  Life in a small village like Nazareth or a larger town like Bethlehem was far from quiet.  People lived together in large families crammed into homes that rarely had more than one room, maybe two at most, and a flat roof.  People spent their days in the street  a lot of the time, drawing water at a communal well, carrying dough to a communal bake oven, standing in doorways shouting conversations to one another above the din of passing donkeys and yelling children.  Artistic renderings of a young woman seated alone in an empty room with an open book on her knee are probably wishful thinking. 

That said, we actually have no gospel account of how Mary spent the nine months preceding Jesus’ birth except the story of her trek over the hills to visit her elderly pregnant cousin Elizabeth and the story of her second trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem before her son was born.  Neither journey could have been solitary, allowing her simply to soak in the silent scenery as a backdrop to her inner musings on the angel’s startling words.  Young women didn’t travel around the countryside unchaperoned and unprotected.  Even had Joseph gone with her, they would have needed other companions for safety and propriety.  And, later, the road to Bethlehem was no doubt crowded with many travelers headed there, as Joseph and Mary did, to register for the Emperor’s census.  People shouting greetings, drivers loudly cursing stubborn pack animals, dogs barking as they passed through villages, donkeys braying, flies buzzing, maybe even children clamoring for alms or trying to sell fruit to the travelers:  that trip to Bethlehem hardly provided a quiet milieu for maternal reflection. 

In a later in the story, after the shepherds had left the stable where the little family from Nazareth was housed, Luke’s gospel gives us a clue about Mary’s pondering:  “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary, in Luke’s gospel, was a listener par excellence.  When the angel disrupted her life with news that she would conceive and bear a Son, and an extraordinary one at that, she took God’s Word not only into her mind but into her heart and, literally, into every fiber of her being because this Word was not just the sounds the angel made but the very Word of God later understood to be the second Person of the Holy Trinity.  Every mother can say that she nurtures her child to birth with her love, certainly, but also with her life’s blood, her endocrine system, her muscles and nerves, her energy, her emotions—everything she is.  Mary listened to the Word with an intensity and focus of mind, heart and being that gives us a hint of what it really means to listen to the Word with the ears of the heart, even from the lesser intimacy of people not called to mother the Word physically.

Advent, the season of the Word, is therefore also the season for honing our listening.  St. Benedict never mentions Advent or Christmas.  It is impossible to date the origin of the Advent season.  Scholars suggest it was in place in the West by 480, the year of St. Benedict’s birth, but we don’t know how widespread it was during his lifetime.  Nevertheless, St. Benedict gives us some guidance for honing our listening skills in preparation for the coming of the Word—whether during Advent, at Christmas, or in everyday life—in Chapter 49 of the Rule on Lent and in fact throughout the world.

Let’s take a look at some of what he proposes to make us better listeners.  In RB 49, he tells us to give up “evil habits.”  These need not be immoral practices.  It seems possible to read into the unfolding chapter the notion that any habit can become “evil” if it takes over so much time, energy, and physical capacity that it prevents us from turning readily to “holy reading” and to prayer. Too much food and drink and too much sleep are examples. (Ah, those pre- Christmas parties overflowing with goodies!) That may be an unwarranted stretch in reading Chapter 49, but it surely fits the general approach of the Rule in structuring a way of life where “holy reading” (lectio divina) and prayer are given pride of place.  St. Benedict’s structures, taken literally, won’t fit life outside a monastery and sometimes don’t actually fit life inside the monastery today, but they do give us food for thought in this season of learning to listen more deeply to the Word by seeking a more balanced life.

St. Benedict also tells us to quit making so much noise ourselves.  He recommends that we give up “needless talking and idle jesting.”  We can’t listen if we’re always chattering!  And neither can those around us.  St. Benedict does not confine this advice to Lent.  Chapter 6 on “Restraint of Speech” sets taciturnity as a valuable goal for the everyday life of a listener.  The chapter makes good Advent reading.

Finally, not in Chapter 49 but throughout the Rule, St. Benedict urges us over and over to pursue relationships of peace:  to live together in humility, to seek forgiveness for offenses given, to respect one another, to grow into a people characterized by love.  Chapter 4, Chapter 7, and Chapter 72 are prime sources here.  We cannot listen intently to God’s word when we are busy rerunning arguments, defending ourselves against slights, stoking up anger, climbing over others’ heads to get ahead, or engaging in any of the other ways in which we focus on ourselves at the expense of others.  The God who speaks is, in every such scenario, the voice in the background that we are blotting out.
This brings us back to Mary, the Listener.  It is easy for us to excuse ourselves from intensifying our life as listeners on the grounds that the world around us is always noisily on the go, especially in this pre-Christimas season.  However, Mary does not seem to have waited for a noise-free environment to listen to the Word within her.  She must have been able to withdraw from the noisy surface of life into a quiet heart where the ears of her heart were always attuned to God’s voice.  The Rule does try to create a quiet environment for those who live in monasteries, but far more important for all of us is the wisdom St. Benedict offers us on the asceticism of becoming listeners by withdrawing from all the ways in which we ourselves cultivate inner as well as outer noise. 

During Advent, then, think about picking out relevant passages from the Prologue, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, and Chapter 72 and “reflecting on them in [your] heart” (Lk 2:19) so that at Christmas you are better able than you are right now to receive God's Word in the depths of your being.

Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Invitation to Study!

The academic schedule ruled my life as student and teacher for so long that September still makes me itch to start a new project.  This year, it will be an exploration of St. Gregory the Great’s Life and Miracles of the Blessed Father Benedict and the Rule of St. Benedict placed in conversation with one another.  My goal is to get to know both St. Benedict and the Rule in a different light. 

I invite you to come along via the blog and newsletter!  But I also invite you to explore for yourself.  The primary resources I plan to use are two modern translations of the Life and two of the Rule, both with annotations and commentaries:  St. Gregory the Great: Life of St. Benedict, translated by  Hilary Costello and Eoi de Bhaldraithe, with commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé (Petersham MA: St. Bede Publications, 1993), The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great, translation and commentary by Terence G. Cardong (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press 2009), RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English, with notes (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981), and Terence G. Kardong,  Benedict’s Rule: A Translation with Commentary (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996). (These annotated translations of the Rule are expensive.  Try used book search sites!)

St. Gregory the Great (Pope 590-603 CE) concludes his Life and Miracles of the Blessed Father Benedict with this advice:  "If anyone wishes to have a closer knowledge of [Benedict's] life and habits he will find all the points if his teaching [his] rule for this holy man could not possibly teach other than as he lived." (XXXVI, de Vogüé 174) The Life serves a very different purpose than the Rule. Written as one section, Book II, of Gregory's larger hagiographical work The Dialogues (so called because Gregory wrote in the popular form of dialogues between himself and a listener addressed as Peter), The Life and Miracles of Blessed Benedict looks to demonstrate St. Benedict's holiness by way of an impressive array of miracles no one could have performed unless favored by God.  Until modern tastes challenged the genre, most hagiographers since have followed the same principle: miracles demonstrate holiness.  Besides, they were very entertaining to readers as yet blissfully unaware of action comics and other kinds of modern heroic tales. 

The Rule is a more sober work altogether.  Written in the sixth century by the holy man himself—though authorship has sometimes been disputed-- as a "modest rule" for those who aspired to follow the monastic life as he himself had tasted and learned from it, it provides principles and directives for living to his followers then and now.

But St. Gregory points to the intersection of Rule and Life in the person of St. Benedict himself. The pope, himself a former monk snatched away from the quiet of his monastery for the work of Church administration, maintained that as St. Benedict wrote, so also he lived; as he lived, he wrote.  It's as likely a hypothesis as the dearth of historical data permits.

Putting the two works in dialogue with each other has provided me with a fruitful source of reflection on the principles of Benedictine life.  I am happy to share this exploration-in-progress with all of you as an invitation to follow the imperative voice that tumbled St. Augustine into a lifelong reflection on the Bible:  “take and read, take and read,” the voice said.  So: take and read both the Rule of St. Benedict and the Life and Miracles of the Holy Father Benedict in tandem as dual lenses through which to write the story of God's work in your own life.

Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB, Oblate Director

Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Learning "Alleluia!"

At this season, I still sometimes have dreams about the classroom.  I have one final exam left.  But I suddenly realized I've never been to the class.  I have no idea what I was supposed to have learned.  Or I do remember, but I can't find the exam room.  I taught my last class twenty-five years ago.  I took my last exam as a  student thirteen years before that.  But the bones remember. It's May, and school is or soon will be out!

But not for us.  St. Benedict steps into our school day reveries to remind us that we are lifelong learners in "the school of the Lord's service" (RB Prologue 45).  School won't be out till "they call the roll up yonder," as an old song puts it.  Every day brings us something new to learn, or something old to practice.  And we're not studying for a grade.  We're studying to know the Teacher, the Christ of endless riches buried in endless seams of light, waiting for us to make yet another energizing discovery.

The Easter curriculum we've been exploring since Easter Sunday and will explore until Pentecost Sunday on May 24 offers a particular class entitled "Learning Alleluia."  Alleluia's abound in Sunday liturgies and in the daily Liturgy of the Hours, where we sing (or say) alleluia's that weren't there during Lent and will disappear again after Pentecost.  Even the psalms are peppered with the word year round, except during Lent.  It doesn't seem to call for much study.  A few syllables, easily said or easily sung.  Just verbal punctuation marks we hurry past to the get to the meat of the next verse. 

It is in fact a simple word.  In Hebrew it means, "Praise Yahweh!"  "Yahweh" is of course the mysterious identifier God reveals to Moses from the burning bush when Moses asks God's name.  It is variously translated as "I am who I am" or "I am who am" or "He is who is," it's as close to  a personal name as we get, but it isn't really a name at all in any familiar sense. It doesn't tie the holder to a particular family or a particular place or a particular work, as, say, "Johnson" (John's son) or "Berg" (mountain) or Miller and Baker do.  It is held by one Being only and not shared with a host of others.  And so holy did the Jews consider it that, after a while, they never spoke it aloud. Readers substituted "Adonai" (Lord) for it when reading the Scriptures aloud.  Allelu-Ya praises the Name without speaking it.

But it's the praising part that constitutes "alleluia"'s demand.  Evelyn Underhill, in her classic book Worship, explains that worship as such requires a purity of focus on God and a corresponding detachment from every remnant of self-concern that exceeds most of our ability.  Self-forgetting does not come easily to any of us. That lesson requires a lifetime to learn in the school of the Lord's service, doesn't it?  Thanksgiving comes more easily.  And it is certainly a major characteristic of Christian prayer, both private and public.  Thanksgiving keeps one eye fixed on God but the other fixed on us who are the beneficiaries of the countless gifts God heaps upon us.

Praise seems to stand somewhere between worship in the purist sense and thanksgiving.  On the one hand, we find the mysterious denizens of the heavenly Jerusalem – “what sounded like the voice of a great multitude in heaven” (Rev. 19:1), “the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures” (Rev. 19:4), and "something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder” (Rev. 19:6)—singing “Alleluia” as a refrain before the throne of God.  They recall the even more mysterious “living creatures” seen by the prophet Ezekiel to move instantaneously in any direction taken by the Spirit (Ezekiel 1:19-20).  These beings, and their counterparts in the Book of Revelation, seem to focus all their attention and energy on nothing but God.  Alleluia indeed!

On the other hand, we have the insistent voices of the psalmists, whose words we pray daily, lamenting their suffering, cursing their enemies, complaining and complaining and complaining.  It is “woe is me!” they often address to God, not “alleluia”!  I am not about to pass judgement on psalmists long dead, but I know that when I am busy complaining about the heat or the cold, an aching shoulder, a work overload, or someone else’s misbehavior, I may be addressing the psalmists’ words to God as I sing the Divine Office, but I’m afraid my focus is very largely on my own small self and its troubles.  In every case except Psalm 88, the authors of the psalms of lament invariable turn from complaint to confident thanksgiving to God, in whom they trust as their deliverer.  They remind me, too, to make the switch from “gimme” to “thank you” in the end! 

It’s all part of the “alleluia” curriculum. “Alleluia” takes the next step, from self-consciousness to God-consciousness.  It is a very long step.  St. Benedict presumes it will take all the rungs of the ladder of humility,  all the ways small and great he calls us to practice love of neighbor, even when we imagine the neighbor to be less than loveable, all the hours and hours in choir and in life practicing our “alleluia’s” until, very slowly, they become our native language.  He sums up the process and the goal of “alleluia” in Chapter 72:3-7, 11-12:  “This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else… Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”  “Alleluia” sings better, but oh, how beautiful Chapter 72 sounds when it is read as the story of a Benedictine’s life!

So remember as you choose graduation cards and gifts, make plans for summer vacation, and otherwise take note of the start of summer,  for us as Benedictines, tomorrow is another school day in the school of the Lord’s service—tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  Every day, St. Benedict urges us to “1Listen carefully… to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (RB Prologue 1).  And these studies are not drudgery crying out for a summer break.  On the contrary,  “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” (RB Prologue 49). Alleluia!

Copyright 2015  Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Tomb Proclaims: an Easter Reflection

This reflection was published in Give Us This Day, April, 2015.  Reprinted with permission of The Liturgical Press

On that first morning of the week, day breaks into chaos. Sorrow, joy, disbelief, and hope fight out rival claims to the first disciples’ hearts as rumors and stories chase one another through the community. No wonder the accounts clash! Amid the confusion, though, one irrefutable fact stands out: The tomb is open. And it is empty.

Explanations spring up like weeds. The ubiquitous “they” have carried Jesus off, says Mary Magdalene to a doubtless amused “gardener.” Not any “they,” claim the guards assigned to prevent that very thing. His own disciples stole the body away in the night, they say, their employers’ bribe jingling in their pockets. But no, counter some of the women. He met us. He talked to us on the road. He’s alive. As more and more voices add to their chorus, and tales of Jesus’ appearances multiply, the tomb begins to fade into the background of this week’s Gospels, and the witnesses move elsewhere.

But still the tomb stands open. And still it is empty.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem contains an empty spot venerated as its very site since the fourth century. But the point is not a place back then or over there somewhere. The point is the tomb’s proclamation of Easter here and now.

From the Israelites in the desert to the Pharisees in Jerusalem, God has lamented our human habit of burying ourselves not in the ground but in the stone caskets of hardened hearts. God calls to us still today in Psalm 95, often prayed at the beginning of the Church’s Morning Prayer: Don’t do it again! “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert . . .” when Israel, fresh out of Egypt, refused to trust that God would do anything about the hunger and thirst that were killing them. They could not imagine that God would summon a future for them out of the desert wastelands, even though they had seen the sea open at their feet. And where imagination is locked in a box, hope suffocates and dies.

In the Gospels, Jesus grieves over the Pharisees. Their hearts have hardened into whitewashed sepulchers, filled with the bones of their dead forebears’ hopes. The prophets had fueled those hopes with the promise of a new covenant. Its laws would be written not on stone tablets but in human hearts. But Jesus’ present hearers have shut their eyes, ears, and hearts to any possibility that God might break out of their own stone-carved rules, even when the new law made flesh in their midst raises the dead to life before their very eyes.

We know them, the Israelites and the Pharisees. We know what it is to seal ourselves into stubborn refusal of Christ’s invitation to come out of the habits of mind and spirit that are slowly destroying us. We are afraid, as the disciples were afraid behind their locked doors on Easter night. We dare not hope any more than they did that God will overcome the invisible enemies threatening us with suffering and death.

Yet still the tomb stands open. And still it is empty. It announces that no tomb can hold us now, not even our selfmade sepulchers, unless we choose to stay. When our imagination fails and hope withers, the tomb proclaims in silent boldness that all things are possible with God.


Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB
Oblate Director

Monday, March 30, 2015

To the End: a Reflection for Holy Week

Crucifix in Abbey Refectory

 [Jesus] loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. (John 13:).

Nice thought, true of many good people, we might say.  Until we pay attention to the whole story.

No one questions that Jesus loved his own in the world.  Where matters get tangled is when we turn “his own” into a neat box with the disciples, and by extension all disciples, ourselves safely inside and everyone else locked out.  

Jesus did love his disciples.  The warmth and intimacy of John 13-15 make that very clear.  But he didn’t stop at the boundaries marking off the twelve, or the seventy-two, or even the hangers on.  Jesus loved them all.  He loved the friends who accompanied him, the crowds who drained him, the suffering who counted on his power to save them from their plight.  And he didn’t stop with those who needed him.  He loved Jerusalem and wept over those of its people who refused all his efforts to gather them in as a hen gathers her chicks.  That startlingly tender image makes it clear that his love was always deeply personal,  even when it was not returned.  And he didn’t stop with the anonymous populations of the city.  

His failure to stop becomes more and more incomprehensible to us as the story unfolds. He loved even those who fought him tooth and nail over his upsetting message.  He loved the angry little knot of leaders who condemned him, men who could have held such promise.  He loved Pilate, who had a glimmer of the truth and refused it for his own political safety.  He loved the crowds who hollered for his crucifixion, though they were mostly his own people, and crucifixion was an alien barbarity imported by the Romans.  He loved the soldiers who whipped him, forced rough thorns onto his head, mocked him, and led him pitilessly to the place of execution under the weight of an unbearably heavy cross.  They were doubtless all strong men, but it was a bystander they forced into helping him.  He loved the crowds assembled for the spectacle of crucifixion.  He loved the soldiers who threw him down on the ground, the men who drove nails into his hands and feet, the none-to-gentle crew that hauled the cross upright and set it in its place.  They were not ghouls, though they seem so to us.  They were soldiers just doing their job, hardened by years of violence.  They even took the trouble to offer him a bit of wine on a sponge when he was thirsty.   He didn’t love them in the abstract, after the fact.  He loved them, all of them, even at the very moment they went about their terrible task.  He loved them not as an aggregate—“the Romans,” “the Sanhedrin,” “the soldiers.”  He loved them personally one by one.

You see, they were all his own, because they were all the works of God’s hands, all part of the distorted human race God set out so resolutely over centuries and millennia to retrieve from their selfish choices, all potential members of Christ’s body crucified and risen and, in a way we will never comprehend, opened out to gather all human beings into his own being, except those who refuse.  And even those, he loves enough to let them make their own choices, though he did and does go to unimaginable lengths to convince them otherwise. 

Love, said St. Thomas Aquinas, is not about fuzzy feelings.  Love is willing the good of the other.  To will a good means to go to every length possible to bring it about.  And Jesus did. And does.

As we read the Passion accounts this week, and remember the events they recount, we may ourselves think ill of the “enemies,” from the relative safety of our assurance that we belong to “his own,” and they, of course, do not.  What is nearly impossible for us to imagine is that they do.  From our perspective, what they did gave him every reason to strike them all down in retaliatory rage.  We would have found it satisfying if he had.  We like to see the good win and the villains come to grief at the end of the story.  But Jesus did them no harm at all.  No doubt the evil at work everywhere in the story did its best to tempt him to hate them enough to wreak havoc on them.  Perhaps that was his final temptation.  If so, he refused it to the end.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We cannot even stand back in remote admiration at so remarkable  a choice.  That’s a luxury he denied us himself.  “Love your enemies,” he says, “and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  And, this week, shows us what he meant.

Some days, I wish he hadn’t.

Note:  St. Benedict articulates all the demands of love, mostly through extensive Scripture quotations, in Chapter 4 of the Rule, “The Tools of Good Works.”

Copyright 2015 Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sheep, Goats and Shepherd: Monday of the First Week of Lent

Today's Gospel is a familiar but scary story from Matthew 25.  The scene is set for the Last Judgment.  A throne is set center stage.   To a fanfare of trumpets (Matthew forgets to mention that), the Son of Man arrives bathed in the living fire the bible calls "glory."  Angels accompany him, all looking stern for the occasion.  The nations are all gathered before the throne for judgment.  You know this isn't going to be fun.  Roll is called.  The final sorting begins.  With no explanations, the Judge divides the vast flock into sheep and goats, like a Shepherd.  The mention of a Shepherd gives us hope--the Shepherd is a good guy in Psalm 23 and in John's Gospel.  We calm down a little.  The sheep are gathered over on the right, and the goats are sent to the left.  The sheep are given a push toward the gate over which the sign says, "Blessed."  The goats begin to get excited.  "Wonder what our gate will say?  "Rewarded?"  "Best?"  After all, goats are very useful creatures. 

But the sheep hold up the process.  They're confused.  "Why 'Blessed'," they ask. They don't remember ever doing anything particularly great. The answer surprises them. Apparently as human beings they fed the Judge when he was hungry, gave him a drink when they found him thirsty, clothed him when they saw him naked, visited him when he was sick or in prisone, and generally treated him kindness and generosity in his times of need.  They're a little confused.  They're murmuring behind their hands, "But I never saw this guy before in my life!"  And he explains that whatever they did for human beings in need, even street people and addicts and irritating neighbors and anyone else who seemed unimportant in life, they did for him.

At this point, the goats start to get a little nervous.  They've never seen the Judge before either, but they can't remember ever doing all those good works for which he praised the sheep.  Maybe they did something else just as good?  They certainly didn't treat anyone badly!  But sure enough, they get sent off into the neighborhood where the devil and his angels are already toasting in the fire.  Why?  Precisely because they didn't do the good works attributed to the sheep.  And the one they didn't do them for turns out to be the Judge.  

That's the parable's double punchline:  whatever we did or didn't do for "the least," we did or didn't do for Christ, and our deeds and neglects are what determine our future, not all the pious stuff we thought really counted.  The story is meant to scare us out of our complacency into paying attention what we have done for others and what we have neglected to do, especially to those we maybe thought didn't count for much.

But I can't help stopping to think about the Shepherd, the one left sitting on the throne when the flock is gone.  Surely the Shepherd cared about all those sheep and goats, tried to find them and rescue them when they were lost, hooked them back from cliff edges they wandered too close to, got them into green pastures beside fresh waters whenever he could, accompanied them safely through the valley of the shadow of death, protected them from wolves and lions.  He speaks to the goats sternly during the judgement scene, but when they're gone to their fate and he's left behind, does he sit on that throne grieving the ones he has lost?

That thought puts me in mind of St. Benedict.  In the Rule, he admonishes us pretty sternly at times about good behavior according to the gospel.  In the Prologue, he threatens us with a dark future if we don't get busy with the works of obedience:  "In his goodness, he has already counted us as his sons, and therefore we should never grieve him by our evil actions. With his good gifts which are in us, we must obey him at all times that he may never become the angry father who disinherits his sons, nor the dread lord, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow him to glory" (Prologue 5-7).  Throughout the Rule, he alternates between encouragement and dire warnings, with an obvious sense of urgency that surely reflects the great Shepherd. 

I don't like the grim bits.  I don't like being scared with the threat of a stern Judge--I'm pretty good at imagining that for myself.  I like the encouraging words, the images of hope, the pushes and tugs with which Christ's love moves me somehow toward what St. Benedict calls the tent of his kingdom, at the top of that mountain that the Book of Revelation makes look so inviting.  But sometimes, from stories like this one about the sheep and the goats,  I get a glimpse of how much love it takes for the Shepherd, whether Benedict or Christ himself, to try to shake me out of my invariable tendency to choose that broad straight flat road that does NOT lead to the mountaintop, even if his urgency makes him sound harsh.  In the Shepherd's book, harshness now isn't attractive even to him, but it sure beats the grief that awaits him if even one goat has to walk off through that second gate, tail down, feet dragging, misery engulfing every fiber of his being.  After all, the Cross was a pretty harsh measure, especially for him.  But that didn't stop him.

Copyright  2015, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thursday after Ash Wednesday (Short Reflection)

 During Lent, watch the blog for occasional short reflections.  The easiest way to do that is to sign up for email notification of changes to the blog (see side panel).  These are fairly spontaneous, so be kind to mistakes!

The first reading for Mass in the Roman Catholic Lectionary for today is from the Book of Deuteronomy 30:15-20  Here, Moses sets before us the essential choice we are asked to make for Lent:

  See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil.   If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I am giving you today, loving the LORD, your God, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and ordinances, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.   If, however, your heart turns away and you do not obey, but are led astray and bow down to other gods and serve them,   I tell you today that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.   I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live,   by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the LORD swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.

Lent is the road we walk in Christ's footsteps through all the small deaths required to shed the less-than-useful habits we've acquired into at least a foretaste of the abundant life to come (cf. John 10:10).  Here, at the beginning of this season, we stand at a crossroads: the narrow road that leads to life or that nice, flat, wide, smooth road that has a different destination (Matthew 7:13-14).  Moses has pounded a signpost in front of us with two arrows: "This way life!" and "This way death!"  Pretty definite.

The road to life is laid out according to God's commandments, those itchy words of love that so easily chafe us when we would rather be doing one of the "thou shalt not's"--and how inviting they sometimes look!  But Moses begins with the First Commandment, which is not one of the ten carved on the stone tablets on Mount Sinai.  It is one of the most frequent commandments God gives in Scripture.  Benedictines recognize it immediately.  It is "Listen!"

Before we make all those choices Benedict lays out in Chapter 49 of the Rule about "devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial" and "we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink.... let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting," let's spend time sitting down and listening.  

Listen to what experience has taught you since last Easter about which choices further the trip along the road to life and which ones don't.  Listen to your mistakes.  Listen to your good decisions.  Listen to what others have said to you when they didn't intend to be giving you directions.  Listen above all to the Voice of God threaded through all those experiences, helping you to sort them out.  You'll be much better able to decide then what to emphasize during Lent, what to drop from your life, what to throttle back and where to go full speed ahead, what baggage you can leave behind at the crossroad.

We often speak of Lent as a journey.  Benedict offers us some ideas about where we are headed, as Moses does.  

Blessed traveling!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Seasons of Hope

As January winds down toward February, we stand midway between New Year's Day and Ash Wednesday. Summer is a memory, spring a distant daydream. Is hope out of season amid the cold grays and browns of winter?
So accustomed have we become to labeling Advent "the season of hope" that we're unprepared to recognize other seasons that could claim the same title. What are New Year resolutions but acts of hope? Or Lenten resolutions?

Every year late December and early January bring us memory's roundup: best pictures of 2014, most significant events of…, most important people of.., top box office winners, Golden Globe nominees, Oscar contenders. We have our personal memory albums too, whether we assemble them consciously or not. Advent tried to teach us that hope builds on memory. Israel's hopes for the Messiah to come grew most eloquent when the great prophets stood in the ruins of a vanquished Jerusalem and remembered the glory days of King David-- then forged images of a new shoot sprung from the dead stump of Jesse, David's father, a new kingdom of peace and justice spread even beyond David's borders, a new and greater conqueror and ruler, anointed as David was, but this time one whose reign would bring peace and justice to those who had known neither. "Christ," as you may remember, means "anointed."

New Year's or Lenten resolutions almost always look back before taking a deep breath and pressing forward.  They look back to better days, when I was thinner, more faithful to my daily walk, more seriously committed to lectio divina.  Then, if they’re honest, they look back to the nearer days of failure, when I put on weight at Christmas or opted to stay inside because it was cold or found priorities more pressing than daily prayer.  Then they look forward to a thinner, fitter or more prayerful me, square their shoulders, and take practical steps to turn those wishes into reality.  Hope is far-seeing, unhampered by the boundaries of the present moment that blind us to past and future, but it lives and works in the here and now.

New Year's resolutions might focus on physical betterment, social betterment (I will call my mother every week), work betterment (I'll make that planner I got for Christmas work) or any betterment that inspires us.  
Lenten resolutions, like Advent hope, wade deeper into our history and our future.  They look back at the story of our souls thus far, and they look forward to a two-chapter future lit by the presence of God.  

They look first toward the chapter that opens with Easter, toward the baptismal promises we will then renew, toward a life transformed by our own participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through deaths small or great to the bonds of our own selfish habits of being, mind, or behavior.  During Lent, we make choices now that will better fit us at Easter to claim the name of Christian fully immersed in Christ.  "Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus,” urges St. Paul (Philippians 2:5)--but that will require the same self-emptying, self-forgetful suffering and death that brought Christ to a life suffused and transformed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Philippians 2:6-11).
The trick is to recognize that his self-emptying wore no external drama till the very end.  Christmas is too recent for us to forget that Christ began as what looked to most people as an ordinary baby, unless they happened to hear angels sing differently or see exotic strangers present even more exotic gifts on bended knee.  “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3), Jesus said to the disciples.  Later, he said, "“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (John 3:3), that is, without starting out all over again as a child with everything still to learn.  Lent is our classroom, the Scriptures and the Rule of St. Benedict our schoolbooks (cf. RB Prologue 45).

And our resurrections, through fidelity to wise Lenten resolutions inspired by our listening to the words of One who loves us (cf. RB Prologue 1), may be as ordinary as a little child tottering across the living room floor into the arms of an encouraging parent.  Ordinary, of course, except to the waiting parent!

Like Advent, which looks toward the arrival of the Child in Bethlehem, but then looks farther forward to the second coming of Christ in glory, Lenten resolutions also look toward the second chapter of our story, the farther future when the tottering child will finally run the road of the gospel in gladness of heart right into the bright glory of life everlasting (cf. RB Prologue 49).  A lifetime of Lents, or a life lived as a perennial Lent, that is a perennial work of conversion, will finally fit us to find ourselves at home in that glory (cf RB 49:1).

New Year hopes, written down in our journals or planners as resolutions toward health or work or relationships may or may not have much long-term impact on our lives or the lives of those around us.  The Lenten resolution, the one made concrete and specific in our yearly promises, is the resolution to grow in love of God and neighbor according to the image of Christ and with Christ's full collusion.  That resolution builds toward a future not only for us but for the entire world, a future that is "far more than all we ask or imagine” (Philippians 3:20) That is the ultimate hope driving all our true resolutions.  And it is God's own hope tugging us toward the fulfillment of God's great vision of a world where “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Hope out of season in winter?  Never!

Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga