Tuesday, May 26, 2020

After the Ascension

This week we stand between the Ascension and Pentecost.  It was surely an odd time for Jesus’ followers, a time of suspense between the unexpected and the unpredictable.

The Solemnity of the Ascension, which we celebrated on Sunday, seems to mark the moment of Jesus’ departure from the followers who had walked with him for what was actually a short time—one year or three, depending on which gospel calendar you follow—but a time of presence so intense that they didn’t want to see it end. We see their anxiety at the Last Supper when Jesus begins to talk about departure and return.

Certainly his most dramatic departure was his death on the cross.  He did return-- but with no drama at all.  Instead, he appeared very quietly to his followers, usually either one-on-one (Mary Magdalene at the tomb) or in small numbers (the disciples on the road to Emmaus and the breakfast at the Sea of Galilee).  He came to teach them where they would find him in the future: not by holding onto him physically, as he told Mary Magdalene, but by listening to God’s word from an Easter perspective and by breaking bread together, as he told the two who were Emmaus-bound.  And they left us those stories to teach us what they had learned.

Then, in Acts 1, he left them abruptly.  Or he seemed to.  Acts 1:16 says “he was lifted up” and then “a cloud took him from their sight.”  (The Cloud is God’s presence throughout the Old Testament.) We can imagine them standing there with their mouths upon looking at the sky in which he seemed to have vanished, until “two men dressed in white garments” (presumably a pair of helpful angels “ said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

And he has and he does.  He disappeared quietly and he returns quietly, as he did in those post-resurrection stories.  Other biblical passages about the great cosmic drama of his final appearance at the end of time tend to draw our attention away from the quiet privacy of the here-and-now.  Jesus still comes to us one-on-one or in small groups (even a large parish gathering is small potatoes compared with the final gathering of the whole world!); he comes in the biblical Word; he comes in the breaking of bread, whether in a Eucharistic assembly or in the more intimate gatherings of family in friends.  (Yes, of course, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and at the family table are very different in mode, but he himself told us that where two or three are gathered in his name wherever or for whatever reason, he is present as he was at that inn on the Emmaus road).  In fact, wherever we are, he is because he suggests that he has never really left when he promises the apostles gathered to see him off on the Mount of Olives in the ascension account in Matthew 28 that he will be with us always.  After all, his second name is “Emmanuel…which means ‘God is with us’” says the Angel Gabriel to St. Joseph.

So, in this long interim between the Ascension and Christ’s final return, we can do as St. Benedict says, which is to “seek God in all things” because we have been assured that Christ is in fact there to be found.  And Benedict’s Rule supplies us with many tools for meeting with him in all sorts of places:  in the word pondered in lectio divina and in the liturgical Hours, in the people who come to our door, either literally or figuratively by phone and e-mail and text, in the young, the old, the needy and the sick, and in fact in the communities to which we belong, whatever form they may take.  Some of St. Benedict’s search tools are obvious, but some are not:  obedience frees us from the clamor of the willful inner child to listen to God giving directions (Prologue and RB 5), silence (better, taciturnity) frees us from constant inward and outward noise to hear God’s voice in the depths of life (RB 6), humility frees us from the burdensome necessity of running the world as if we were God  so that we can live in communion with the One to whom responsibility for the world properly belongs (RB7).  Chapter 4 on the tools of good works in fact teaches us to construct the whole network of our relationships with self, others and God, so that we can be at peace with Christ at the center of that network.

One of the questions we might ask ourselves (and Christ) in this time between Ascension and Pentecost is: which of these many tools for seeking and finding Christ do we keep sharp and effective, and which ones have we allowed to get rusty from disuse?  When the Spirit of God blows through the world like a great wind, that force can blow away the rust and sharpen our desire to live more deeply in the ever-present Christ.

Copyright 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, May 14, 2020


 St. Benedict would agree.  In fact, to keep the monks at home, he directed that “The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and the various crafts are practiced” (RB 66:6). But his concern was not contagion of the body but contagion of the heart. He was echoing a widely circulated piece of sage advice given by an elder to a young monk seeking counsel in the desert: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Confinement at home, never mind in a small monastic one-room hermitage, chafes, as we have all learned during the long period of “stay-at-home.”  It chafes most when home is populated with other people, even people dearly loved, but it chafes the solitary as well.  However, God’s gifts come in strange packages.  Staying put opens a door to wisdom, should we chose to go there.  It invites us to renew our commitment to listen, and listen with the ears of our heart, to Christ who is always our true inward reality. 

But St. Benedict’s building plan suggests that we will be able really to hear if we clear out our ears by shutting the heart’s door on all the voices that clamor for our attention: the TV with 24 hours a day of pandemic news, the computer, the radio (unless music serves as a welcome wall between the heart and the racket outside!), the phone, the shelf of books that start by relaxing us and end by simply distracting us, and all the other intake with which we so often protect ourselves from the dreaded possibility of a silence in which there is nobody there.  There is never nobody there.  Jesus did say, as I often quote to myself as well as to you, “I am with you always” (Matthew 20:).  And he is God’s word forever speaking us into being as in Genesis 1 and speaking to our inmost being using the same powerful words of creative love that keep the world spinning.  As we all know, the Benedictine habit of lectio divina and praying the liturgical Hours mediates those words to us, but so does simply sitting still in God’s presence in whatever attentiveness we can muster, however long or briefly.

I am currently reading Michael Casey’s daily homilies collected into the book Balaam’s Donkey (Liturgical Press) in honor of his fiftieth anniversary of priesthood.  Today’s selection is entitled GIGO, the acronym for “garbage in-garbage out” familiar from early computer days. He warns that “The things we allow to enter our thinking also have a role to play in shaping who we are and what we will become”—that is the life of conversion to which all Benedictines, and not only Benedictines aspire.  St. Benedict didn’t put it that way, but he understood it in building walls to keep his monks from wandering all over the place physically and therefore interiorly.  It’s safe to stay at home – at appropriate times and in appropriate ways, of course—in the inner room of the heart.  But only if we are not simply taking refuge in selfishness, and only if we take care about what we carry with us into that inward cell. 

Whether it’s by means of  newscasters or journalists bombarding us with pandemic news or a relative’s gripes about all the pleasant things we no longer have access to or our own inner collection of fears and complaints, we do can cultivate deafness of heart without meaning to.  And that is sad, because, as Casey suggests, we really do become not only what we eat but also what we listen to.  And that’s not only in times of pandemic!

Of course the desert monks roamed about, sometimes quite far afield, to visit other monks, to talk with a spiritual father, to take their handmade goods to town to sell them for money to buy bread for themselves but more especially for the poor.  Of course St. Benedict’s monks traveled too, to get to the surrounding fields where they worked the harvest and no doubt to run errands for various purposes.  And of course, we all go out and about as needed, even much less often under “stay-at-home” and now “safer-at-home” regulations.

But that ancient monk’s advice, echoed by St. Benedict and by his modern disciple, Michael Casey, it remains true that it’s really necessary regularly to “stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”  As long as you’re careful about who is in there with you!

Copyright 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga