Thursday, December 31, 2020

Happy New Year!

 Ah, it’s that time of year.  Time for some introspection and decisions regarding appropriate conversatio morum for the New Year—though only Benedictines would call it that!  Most folks would recognize it better as making New Year resolutions.  St. Benedict doesn’t mention custom specifically, of course, because the holiday-with-resolution project hadn’t been invented yet.  He presumed that conversatio went on all year long, with particular emphasis during Lent.  His idea is probably less fraught with tension than gritting our teeth, putting past flops out of our mind, and drawing up that list many of us make at this season, and sometimes keep for a few days.

There is an approach to decisions about conversatio that is relevant every year and every season.  It draws upon St. Benedict’s ever-fresh urge to listen with the ears of the heart.  I have found that Psalm 1 supplies excellent and challenging guidance here. 

 Here is the version of the Grail translation that we pray at the Abbey:

 Blessed indeed is the man

who follows not the counsel of the wicked,

Nor stands in the path with sinners,

nor abides in the company of scorners,

But whose delight is the law of the Lord,

and who ponders his law day and night.


He is like a tree that is planted

beside the flowing waters,

That yields its fruit in due season,

and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all that he does shall prosper.


Not so are the wicked, not so!

For they, like winnowed chaff,

shall be driven away by the wind.

When the wicked are judged they shall not rise,

nor shall sinners in the council of the just;

For the Lord knows the way of the just,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

The psalmist challenges us not merely to listen but to listen with discernment—another staple quality in the monastic tradition.  Not all the voices that bounce around in our environment or in our hearts are life-giving.  Some would qualify as the wicked, the sinner, the scorners whom St. Benedict, with the psalmist, would call destructive. They might come from our past—the voices of family or teachers or coaches who harped so constantly on our failures that we gave up trying; the voices of video or printed fiction that convince readers that violence is the only way to confront evil (Jesus might beg to disagree); the endless ads that try to persuade us that we are entitled to remain young, beautiful (whether we ever were or not), and successful at any price; the self-help books that teach us how to compete successfully at our chosen work or leisure activities by stepping on the competition on our way up the ladder.  These voices conjure up for me a picture of barkers in a bad carnival, hawking dubious pleasures if only we would just step inside into their tent.   Obey them, the psalmist says, and stability flies out the window.  Instead of being rooted and growing beside the living waters traditionally interpreted as the Scriptures themselves but equally applicable to St. Benedict’s scripture-studded Rule, the indiscriminate listener risks drying up into mere chaff.  Chaff is the dry husks that are separated from the grains of good wheat in the threshing process.  Chaff serves no useful purpose, feeds no one, and blows away in the wind, leaving nothing but dusty scraps on the ground.  This is probably not the goal we are hoping to accomplish as we confront the new year.

 There is, of course, another Voice, the psalmist says.  When it appears as “the law of the Lord” in the first stanza, it may seem as dusty as old law books in a law library.  To those of us who are not scholars and practitioners of the law, they may seem to promise death by boredom rather the delight the psalmist encourages.  But that’s because we fail to recognize the law as God’s Word, the force that creates all life, including ours.  More, the law of the Lord is the law of the covenant.  The enduring covenant between God and humanity is not a set of words—though it first appeared so when Moses brought it down Mount Sinai inscribed on stone tablets.  The ultimate covenant is Jesus Christ, in whom God and humanity have been bound together in one Savior.  In other words, to delight in the law of the Lord is to delight in Jesus Christ, to whom, says St. Benedict, we prefer nothing and in whom we find life at its deepest and best.  In him, we discover our humanity brought to ultimate perfection.  And we are invited not simply to stand back and admire, not simply to worship, but grow as members of his living Body.  That is the reality that undergirds all that St. Benedict has to say about relationships in Benedictine life.  Living in Christ, God’s Word made flesh, we are indeed firmly rooted in the truth about God, about ourselves, about the world around us, like a tree beside running water.  And it’s a fruit tree that provides nourishment for all who come. 

 So, about those resolutions.  Psalm 1 provides the real criterion for making resolutions about what we are called to do, and not to do.  Look down the road at what our resolutions will make us:   chaff or tree, hollow shell or living, fruit-bearing tree?  Our choice.  Before we decide, St. Benedict would advice us listen with the ears of our hearts to the One who loves us.

Copyright 2020, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Reflective Prayer for Christmas Eve

 Lord, Jesus Christ, I wish I could say all is ready to receive You--stable swept and clean, ox and ass washed down and brushed, nice little wooden manger sanded to ensure no splinters, and filled with fresh straw.  Then it dawns on me that You didn't (and don't) come simply to set Your seal of approval on redemption already achieved (by my own work, of course).  You came (and come) to clean up the mess made over and over again by the sin with which we persist in wrecking the creation intended to offer life to the full.  You came (and come) to heal the wounds we inflict on ourselves and one another. You came (and come) to light up from within the darkness in which we hope to hide all our self-made damage so we won't see it, and neither will You. We don't really want You to come till we're ready to show you a nice world, all clean and tidy.  That Advent prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus"?  We really meant, "Come, but not yet.) But You came and come anyway.  Thank you!

Well, those herald angels are tuning up.  Time for us to tune up too, and sing, and mean it, as best we can: 

Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic hosts proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! the herald angels sing:
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Loneliest Christmas



Loneliness seems unconnected with Christmas, but it isn’t.  Many will be lonely this year because of very necessary COVID precautions. But, in fact, this COVID isolation casts a spotlight on the isolation and loneliness experienced by many every year, and at all seasons. Christmas draws attention to what a contradiction this is to God’s desire for us. 

 In the mystery of Christ come among us, God has begun the long, slow work of transforming scattered since Eden (see Genesis 1-11 for a capsule account!) into a togetherness of extraordinary depth.  St. Paul calls it the Body of Christ.  It is not spatial or geographical.  It is a gathering of every splinter of fragmented humanity and fragmented individuals into a communion so deep it transcends space and time.  Our Christmas gift to one another, loved ones and strangers alike, is to turn it from theology into experience in whatever small ways we can.  When physical gatherings are impossible, we already know and are making use of phone calls, virtual conversations, e-mails and notes, but that nonphysical network includes only those we know and love.  Let us not forget the power of a more powerful network, the network created by God in Christ, and strengthened by attentive awareness expressed in prayer.  It seems like nothing, I know, and it satisfies no desire to see the kind of results we might get from staffing a soup line or taking baskets to poor families.  It’s a gift that expects no return, something that the promoters of a commercialized holiday could never understand.  And we can’t exactly understand it either, but we are invited to believe in it with the faith that is God’s great gift, or one of them.

 St. Benedict urges us to seek God in all things, not just the nice things that come tied up in bows. This year the grace of Christmas might be to seek and find small hints of the ultimate togetherness given us as gift in Christ. One of the places we might have to look is in the very separation, isolation and loneliness of this particular Christmas.  What we are looking for, really, is threads of light that can still be seen drawing people together in the very depths of things: the courage of those who suffer, the mutual concern among strangers in odd places, the steadfast perseverance of those who refuse to believe that loneliness is all that is possible.  What we are looking for is sparks and candle flames, not bonfires.  Christ arrived on the bleak human scene  not as monarch enthroned in power and glory but as a newborn child in an unknown backwater of the Roman empire who might have been cute, as newborns are, but who certainly didn’t seem to be of any particular import to anyone but Mary and Joseph.  Looks deceive, even the look of loneliness that hides our real and becoming togetherness. 

 St. Benedict also offers clues as to what our togetherness might actually look like.  Read Chapter 4 and Chapter 72. Neither offers grandiosity or drama.  Both require a good bit of reinterpretation for life beyond a sixth-century monastery of men. And they require work. Prayer is a pretty good tool for seeing what lies beneath the surface of our present COVID-limited Christmas, and our perennial struggle with everything that contradicts the experience (but not necessarily the reality) of that togetherness which is the hidden goal of every Christmas, for every person on earth.  This might make good food for thought and conversation for oblate groups who are making the best of creative ways of meeting and sharing in defiance of the blanket of isolation and loneliness that seems to envelop so much and so many this year.

 One verse of the old favorite seasonal hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” reads:

O come, Desire of Nations bind

In one the hearts of humankind.

O bid our sad divisions cease,

And be for us our King of Peace.

He will, whether we recognize him at work or not.   Emmanuel means God-with-us.  And God means that.

 Copyright 2020, Abbey of St. Walburga






Sunday, December 20, 2020

Promises, Promises, Promises

Emerging as we are from a contentious election, we are moving from the season of promises made to the season of promises kept, or so we hope.  And liturgically, poised on this final Sunday of Advent with Christmas only a few days ahead, we are following the same trajectory. 

Advent has set before us the very long story of God’s promises, first made in the creation itself, of a future when all would be brought to completion.  Since we human beings are key protagonists in the story, there have been a lot of ups and downs.  Only God has remained steadfast.  Stubborn, really, when we consider the many and quite inventive ways that we and our forebears have found to thwart the divine plan for our greatest good.

The promise has remained in place through it all, growing in depth and richness with the passage of time.  Come Christmas, we will celebrate the promise kept—but how oddly!  No sign of the victorious warrior or the glorious king of peace that the prophets have led us to expect.  Instead, a newborn cradled in his mother’s arms beside a cradle full of straw, with ox and ass looking on with interest.  Yes, there are choirs of angels out over the fields of Bethlehem, but their song is brief and apparently unheard except by a handful of shepherds.  Yes, eventually there arrive exotic foreign sages with gifts fit for a king, but they don’t stay long.  Yes, Simeon and Anna identify the six-week-old brought to the Temple by his parents as the promised redeemer, but no one seems to have paid much attention except Mary and Joseph.  Then it’s on to an unreported life of exile off in Egypt, followed by an equally unmentioned life as a village carpenter in Nazareth.  What sort of promise keeping is this?

This is God’s promise keeping, and it unfolds with God’s slow patience through Jesus’ private years and public ministry, still bearing very little resemblance to warrior or monarch.  Or so it seems.  It would take the early believers long pondering, and later believers long theological arguing, to discover that a battle really was fought during those years, a battle that came to a climactic victory in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But, as we will see during the Easter season, it was a victory without fanfare, victory parades, ticker tape, or endless crowds gathered around the risen Savior, yelling questions and getting sound-bite answers to be broadcast all over the world.  And there was still no sign of throne or crown beyond the cross and crown of thorns whose hidden transformation is sung only obliquely in psalms whose vocabulary is as old as King David’s time and after.  Awash with political fury, murder in the streets, hints of unsettled times still to come, and all under the cloud of a worsening pandemic, we may find it hard to see how the promise has been kept.

Ah, but it has not been fully kept, not yet.  Next year, when Advent begins, we will be reminded once again that the Savior’s triumph over the forces of sin and death is still a work in progress in the history of the world, and perhaps even the cosmos.  The victory was decisive, but, in our human way of reading history, the aftermath will be an unknown time settling until Christ comes again in glory.

Fortunately, we are not called to explain this continuing paradox of the already but not yet.  Traditionally, we call it characteristic of the season of Advent, but in reality it is always with us.  We are not called to explain it, but we are called to live it, with no other light to see by than the one that burned largely unnoticed in Bethlehem, remained unrecognized in the Temple except by two oldsters, and lit the unsung lives of the first believers and all of us who have followed them since the resurrection. It shines still, even in our present darkness, visible only to the eyes of faith.

 Meanwhile, our own lives, lived in the practical ordinariness set out for us by St. Benedict, are the promise being kept.

May your Christmas be bright with God's promise!

 Copyright 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga






Thursday, December 3, 2020

Psalm 46: An Advent Prayer

 This entry was reposted with permission from the new blog at Give Us This Day,  The essay first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Give Us This Day.  New entries from Give Us This Day will be posted daily on the Give Us This Day blog. I encourage you to visit the blog, where you can sign up to receive the post daily by email.  This service is free, but of course the publishers, The Liturgical Press, would be delighted if you would subscribe to the publication itself.  A paid subscription also gives you access to the online (and downloadable) issue.  Since they publish both my essays and my books (just one so far, two more in the works), I like to support them!

Every Advent we hear: this is the season for listening quietly to God’s Word. And every Advent we remember: it is also the busiest season of the year. What to do?  

Psalm 46 offers a suggestive geography. It pictures an outside world where chaos is imagined as earthquake, tsunami, political turmoil, warfare. But there is also an inner world where God’s presence and protective power banish all turmoil. There we can sit quietly and hear ourselves think. The obvious Advent strategy is to find the way into that quiet place within while the holiday-mad world around us is in turmoil. Lucky for those who can, but many of us find it nearly impossible. Are we then shut out of the holy season’s gift?  

Maybe not. What if Advent shifts the strategy? As we prepare to celebrate God’s entry into human history as Word-made-human-flesh, perhaps we could reconsider where we might go to hear God’s Word in the midst of the season’s bedlam. Advent and its Christmas sequel remind us that God’s point of entry was never a silent sanctuary, outward or inward. After long, tumultuous years of promise, the Word arrived in a stable in Bethlehem—a town bursting with incomers who were summoned for a census, a murderous dictator hovering in the background. So wouldn’t it be appropriate to listen for the Word not just within our own hearts but also in the less-than-quiet world around us? What if we learned to recognize the Word in raucous shoppers, quarrelsome family members, and the muttering of homeless people we pass by?  

We might rather not. Our own inner sanctuary offers a quiet retreat, but the surrounding babble invites us into the chaos of real human dramas where we often don’t know how to help. Psalm 46 offers a strategy for that, too, but not the one we usually come up with. “Be still, drop that heavy fix-it toolbox, and just be there where God is.” Learn to hear God’s ever-creating Word spoken in the human voices of expectation and despair, joy and suffering, desire and anger.  

On the Advent doorstep of the Good News made flesh among us, be present, pay attention, listen, and seek to love all those speakers milling everywhere, the welcome and the unwelcome alike. Presence, awareness, listening, and love—God’s fix-it toolbox—are far more powerful than bows, spears, and shields. They are, after all, the tools that Christ, the ultimate Word, brings into the world for our salvation. Let us study them now, in this season of listening—even if only in hurried snatches—so we may learn to put them to use in doing the Gospel’s work year-round.  

Copyright Give Us This Day 2020.  Reprinted with permission.