Sunday, April 28, 2019


While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. (Luke 24: 36-37)

 What is a ghost but memory made wispy flesh?

They have good reason to fear this memory, the disciples. It comes to them clad in grief and guilt— their grief, their guilt, not his. They believed in him, or thought they did. They loved him, or thought they did. They left a lot behind to follow him. Then they left him. Terror pierces through the grief and guilt. Will their abandoned families take them back? Will their villages look at them with anything but suspicion, scorn, maybe pity if they’re lucky? Are boats and nets and tax collector’s booth still waiting, or has someone else taken them over? There they are in the upper room, the crumbs of the supper still on the floor, and they locked into an empty limbo, unable to go back, afraid to go forward.

And suddenly there he is, the reason for it all. They hope he is a ghost, mere memory made wispy flesh. He will haunt them all their days in any case, this man— surely no more than that? He died, after all, whatever he may have seemed to claim or promise. But . . . he will haunt them, clad in their grief and guilt, this man they believed in and loved and left before he could leave them. But you can live with ghosts and go about your business. The hardy reality of wives and mothers-in-law and children demanding to be fed, of nets and boats and clinking coins will hold the ghosts at bay until they fade. Except maybe at night when all the others are asleep and you’re not.

And here he is, ghost and nightmare, absolving them with a word: “Peace.” Well, he had always seen right through their blustering and swaggering to their fears and griefs and guilt. Perhaps they begin at this moment to allow a tiny fragile shoot of hope to break through the stone walls of their prison, their tomb.

Then he clinches it. He forces them to face the truth from which they’re hiding. He never has allowed evasion. Always truth with him. He makes them look at his hands and feet, touch them even. He makes them confront the fact of his wounds. They weren’t there to see him get them, you see, except John. Now he makes them face the thing they fled. The world-shattering reality of the cross, and of him hanging on it, beaten, bruised, bloody, dying, dead. It is not his strength he reveals to them there in that upper room. They have already seen and believed in that: the blind wondering at the sunlight, the deaf hearing their children’s voices, a seemingly dead girl hugging her mother and eating a bit of bread. It is not his strength they are forced to own now, but his weakness, which is theirs, his wounds, which are theirs, his mortality, which is theirs. Weakness not denied but accepted as the only source of strength for them. Wounds not refused but held open as the only source of healing for them. Mortality not rejected but embraced as the only source of life for them.

At last they know him for what he really is.

And they are us.

Genevieve Glen, “Ghost,” in Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018). Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Judas: Mirror and Mystery

 Matthew 26: 14-16

Judas is a question mark: why did he do it? Matthew tells us what Judas did, but he doesn’t tell us why. Down through the centuries, readers and commentators, librettists and screenwriters have filled in the blanks: he did it for the money, he did it because Jesus had failed to live up to his expectations of a political messiah, he did it because the devil made him do it, he did it . . . well, no one knows why he did it.

As we listen to the story, Judas becomes a mirror the Gospel holds up to us. In it we see the face of our own betrayals looking back at us. Piety may forbid us to see anything but horror in Judas for what he did. After all, he sold Jesus to his torturers and murderers. But honesty requires us to admit that he is not alone in having sold for small change the one thing that mattered. How many of us have sold our prayer for entertainment, our integrity for power or prestige, our life’s work for an easy ride? Is selling God’s gifts for a handful of trifles any less heinous, really, than selling the Savior?

Come now, you’re probably saying, there’s no comparison. I’ve made my little compromises, sure, but nobody died for it. Is that really true? Jesus, Son of God, died in a few hours on one particular afternoon, but the echoes have reverberated among believers and doubters alike ever since. We, the children of God, die no less decisively when we trade away our own God-given truth over a lifetime of little compromises. St. Basil the Great defines sin as the use of God’s gifts for purposes other than those for which they were given. Most grievous, he says, is the misuse of love— our love for God, our love for those among whom we were planted in this world, our love for those to whom we can offer some service through the talents and tasks God has given us. A gifted storyteller puts the gift to use writing trash for cash. A gifted artist devotes a lifetime to producing commercials peddling luxuries rather than painting great masterpieces. A gifted singer forces a soaring voice into a style that damages it for the sake of a place in the top ten. A gifted parent sacrifices time for the family in favor of clean and lovely surroundings or a weekend in front of the TV or a fishing trip. Not major crimes, surely? Ah, but the serpent’s tooth poisons by small bites. And the serpent’s whisper is well disguised as “everybody does it” or “you owe it to yourself” or “come on— be practical.”

After a while, maybe, we forget we have options. We may well have our little stash of silver coins hidden somewhere, rewards for our betrayals of true selves, but it’s never too late to trade them in again for forgiveness, freedom, life. The loss may be painful, the prospect of change frightening, the way back long and hard. But the offer is always there.

Jesus forgave Peter, who denied him, and the other disciples who abandoned him, and even the men with hammer and nails who crucified him. Surely he was just as ready to forgive Judas. Why didn’t Judas accept? Why didn’t he allow the Savior to save him from his own despair? Why did he hang himself after three years in the company of God’s mercy-made-flesh (Matt 27: 5)? I wonder if it was because he had so eroded his soul with a lifetime of betrayals that he could no longer see the outstretched hand. Having walled himself into the very small cell of his own self-interest and shame, perhaps he could no longer recognize that the door stood open. And who knows? Maybe, in the privacy of one of those moments of anguish and mercy that go unreported by the evangelists— who had reason to think ill of Judas anyway— God finally managed to pry open Judas’s fist and fill it with something far better than thirty pieces of silver. I hope so. But what went on for Judas in his darkness remains as much a question as his motives.

If Judas is question, puzzle, thorn in the flesh of the Christian mind, he is also, like all of us, mystery. How many of us can really fathom in ourselves the depths where betrayal and grace meet? I would rather not reduce Judas to a simple explanation. I would rather allow him to remain a mirror. If I can’t see into his soul, perhaps he can let me see into mine. My prayer is for the courage to look.

Genevieve Glen, “Judas: Mirror and Mystery,” in Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018). Used with permission

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Joyful Seekers

“…let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice” (Psalm 105:3).

St. Benedict set the desire to seek God in all things among the criteria for discerning a novice’s call (RB 58).  It has become a hallmark of Benedictine spirituality. 

The fourth week of Lent opened last weekend with what is called “Laetare Sunday,” named after the Latin first words of the entrance chant at Mass.  “Laetare” means, “rejoice,” a command one does not ordinarily expect to hear during Lent, with its call to austerity in pursuit of conversion of heart.  Yet the note of joy pervades all of the week’s lectionary readings.  St. Benedict himself gives us a hint for understanding joy breaking into Lent’s purple solemnity.  In his summary of Lent, he writes, “In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (RB 49:7)

Lent originated and still serves as a season of preparation for Easter, both for those who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil, according to the ancient custom St. Benedict would have known, and for those of us who will renew our baptismal commitment then in order to provide the newcomers with a community renewed in holiness where they can grow.  With Easter in our immediate liturgical future, the light of the risen Christ shines back onto our path as we travel toward it.  And light brings joy to those accustomed to the darkness of sin and death that prevails in so much of our world as it did in St. Benedict’s.

The hope of Easter supplies the reason for our Lenten joy, but the psalmist takes it even deeper for Benedictines: “…let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice” (Psalm 105:3). It seems curious advice on first reading.  Surely it is those who find the Lord who have reason to rejoice?  But those still seeking?  Monastic tradition offers an unexpected reason.  

A little background:  the desert monks of early Christianity were expert diagnosticians of the human heart—that very heart the prophet Jeremiah describes as “more tortuous than anything” (Jer 17:9).  One of their key discoveries, first laid out systematically by Evagrius Ponticus in the fourth century, was the intricate and powerful interactions of eight dark psycho-spiritual forces common not just to monks.  You may know them by their later designation, the “seven deadly sins,” after St. Gregory the Great had combined them in the fifth century. Unlike Gregory, Evagrius identified them not as sins but as temptations used by evil to distract us from our path to God.  They have also been called “the passions,” a reflection of the strength of the energy they generate if we allow them to run unchecked.  One of the trickiest of them was “acedia,” variously translated as boredom, restlessness, despondency and depression.  Evagrius supplies a very entertaining account of the monk beset by acedia, one that is remarkably contemporary: “The demon of despondency, which is also called the noonday demon (Psalms 90:6), is more grievous than all others. ….It begins by making a monk notice dejectedly how slowly the sun moves, or does not move at all, and that the day seems to have become fifty hours long. Then it urges the monk to look frequently out of the window or even to go out of his cell to look at the sun and see how long it is till the [three o’clock], at the same time making him glance hither and thither to see if some of the brethren are about. Then it arouses in him vexation against the place and his mode of life itself and his work...,” and ultimately sends him wandering from place to place, unable to find satisfaction and settle anywhere. Today Evagrius might rephrase the description to read, “checks his text messages every few minutes, surfs the web, goes to the coffee pot or to the fridge to get a soft drink, checks the supply of snacks, calls friends.”

In reading this description and others like it, I have come to see acedia as boredom and restlessness engendered by a lack of purpose.  A life without purpose is a life without meaning.  Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl identified how essential meaning or purpose is to the human enterprise.  He found that in the camp, the physically weak who had a sense of purpose—his was reunion with his wife when the camp nightmare was over—often survived when the physically strong but inwardly purposeless didn’t (Man's Search for Meaning). According to Genesis 1, we were created with an inborn purpose: to provide this newly made universe with a future by cultivating the land and having children.  Creative relationship and creative activity continue to give us purpose, though the scope of both has broadened and deepened over millennia. And both have found their ultimate expression in the vibrant and abiding mystery of Christ.  There, all becomes relationship in the service of the new creation, the reign of God, the universe redeemed and transformed.

In St. Benedict’s shorthand, the nature of the core relationship is expressed more concretely as seeking God in all things in order to discover and love Christ above all else. That includes choosing to love as Christ loves.  To follow this injunction is to live a life of constant purpose   under the driving force of the Holy Spirit, one of whose fruits is joy (Gal 5:22-23).  This purpose frees us from acedia, that is from bored purposelessness that seeks only our own small satisfactions and finds them forever dissatisfying.  In its place, we discover the quiet joy of living our deepest truth toward the fulfillment of our greatest purpose, the one Jesus summarizes as total love of God and neighbor. 

Since the asceticism of Lent gradually frees us from the strident demands of self that is seeking only its own good, it frees us also to seek God ever more deeply and ever more faithfully in prayer and service. That is a life of fine, deep purpose.  So hearts that seek the Lord are filled with joy in the seeking long before we find the One we are looking for—and who is looking for us.

Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga