Monday, July 19, 2021

Lectio Divina: Think Small!

 Think of St. Benedict in his tower at Monte Cassino.  Think of the library of codices to which he had access. (If you weren’t born knowing this, the codex was a stack of pages bound together at the left side, like modern books, as opposed to the scrolls that preceded it.  And no, I wasn’t born knowing that either!) Most likely, the library shelves held single books of the Bible separately bound and single works of the early Christian writers because a whole Bible or a collection, say, of all the sermons of St. John Chrysostom, would have been physically unmanageable. Think of reading laboriously hand written texts, before the advent of the Carolingian miniscule provided clear spaces between words, lower case letters, and other improvements made for legibility.  Think of reading by daylight coming through very small window openings.  Think of reading by the light of small wicks floating in olive oil.  Look at the books on your shelf or stacked by your chair or on the nightstand by your bed, or available on your phone or e-reader.  Different worlds!  And most of us would not prefer to return to St. Benedict’s!

 We have been well trained by our consumer culture to believe that more is better, large is valuable, and new is preferable to old.  So when we take out our Bibles, Old and New Testaments handily bound together and perhaps supplemented with other useful aids, we may think thoughts like, “I’d like to read the Book of the Prophet Isaiah from beginning to end for my lectio this year.”  If we’re organizers, we might plan to read a set number of chapters a day for and perhaps assign a set amount of time for the task—say, finishing the whole book in a year.  (Don’t laugh: I did that one year, though I didn’t set a twelve-month time limit.  Just as well.  By the end of the second year I had finished Chapter 31 out of the 66.  I wasn’t getting any younger, so I switched to the nice little Gospel according to Mark!)  We might persevere—as I did not—but then we might start looking at the Table of Contents and thinking this book is taking too long and maybe we should try something new, maybe a book we have not read.  (This is not including the times when we might be lured to put aside the Bible altogether and try that latest spiritual bestseller touted by Amazon!)   And we might find ourselves discouraged by all we have not read.

 St. Benedict would have been baffled.  As we read his Rule, we might begin to notice the number of small gems, single phrases or verses, he quotes, apparently from memory as scholars have not always been able to track down what Latin version he used.  Many of them have been lifted from their original context in the Bible, like jewels taken from a bracelet and turned over and over to catch the light reflected from different facets and treasured for what they offered, regardless of their original context.  An example for us might be one of my favorite verses: “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path,” lifted out the extraordinarily long Psalm 119 and treasured for itself alone.  Like many verses, it gathers others to itself from altogether different settings:  “I am the light of the world,” and “the one who follows me will not walk in darkness,” and “the light that cannot be extinguished,” and “you are the light of the world.”  And those never get old. 

 What St. Benedict’s tradition teaches us is that oft-repeated bit of advice:  when you are reading for lectio, word count is unimportant, pages covered irrelevant, books checked off our list in their entirety not the point.  When a single line, or a single word, reaches out from the page and jabs you in the ribs, stop and pay attention!  Turn it over and over in your mind (or, better, your heart) for as long as it yields its juice.  Return to it again later when it calls out to you.  Carry it around in the pocket of your mind to pull out and re-examine later in the day. If that’s a matter of a day, or a week, or a lifetime, think of it as gift and don’t worry about achievement.  In the library of the Reign of God they don’t put stickers on our library card for every book we finish.  And they don’t give out prizes at the end of the summer for those whose cards boast the most stars!

 When you sit down to do lectio, think “slow,” think “small,” think “deep.”  And consider do-overs a rich blessing!

Copyright 2021, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, June 24, 2021

June 24: Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist

 

To see the readings from the Mass lectionary for today, click here.


He must increase and I must decrease. John 3:30

Today we remember the birth of John the Baptist, host of Jesus’ first public appearance as an adult.  The story is rich in a humor we don’t readily associate with the fierce Baptist, as everyone resorts to pantomime to get the baby’s name clear, even though the Gospel reports his father Zechariah as mute, not deaf.  The child’s mother has to step in and settle the question with the sort of common sense matter-of-factness we will not see again in her son’s dramatic life story. The story is even richer in promise, as John’s father sketches the power of God’s extravagant promise of salvation wrought by the Messiah, whose coming John will announce to a world far broader than the shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem. 

 

John the Baptist’s self-description appears in a much later passage of the gospel when the two children, Messiah and Baptist, are adult.  The time has come when John will step back and let Jesus step to the fore.  So the words “He must increase; I must decrease” belong to his own more or less farewell discourse to his disciples, far simpler than Jesus’ would be at the last supper. They are hardly the claim of an over-achiever.  But John, for all his apparently self-sufficient ferocity, silently accomplished a goal far greater than any of us can manage without large infusions of courage and strength from the Holy Spirit.  He accepted his own truth in God’s plan and renounced all attempts to promote himself to stardom. St. Benedict would have approved of it. Here he was simply sketching the life he was called to live, a life of both obedience and humility, however unlikely it looks clad in camelhair and leather.

 John’s statement can be turned into a question to us:  “And you?  Are you willing to live the same life?”  Because we are called to.  Not in a public forum like John’s, but in the privacy of our own interior life.  One of the hidden dangers of immersing ourselves too exclusively in monastic literature, from the Rule of St. Benedict to contemporary authors like Michael Casey, OCSO, is that we can become extremely self-preoccupied, too often measuring our own success or failure in living the principles we aspire to follow.  Am I doing lectio well enough?  Am I humble enough? Am I growing in my commitment to Christ? Am I living well with others.  You probably have your own list of values on which you question yourself.  A good dose of honesty about our own fidelity to Benedictine principles is healthy, but an overdose can become deadly.  This danger has been the subject of concern for centuries, so it is not new. 

 The antidote is found in St. Benedict’s core principle:  Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.  Christ, not the state of our own souls, is what St. Benedict intends for us to make our focus.  We see in the well-known story of St. Peter’s attempt to walk on water the shift of perspective we are constantly called to: when St. Peter got out of the boat at Jesus’ invitation, he did fine till he started looking at his own feet sinking into the stormy waters.  He had to lift his eyes to Jesus’ outstretched hand to get him out of his predicament.  He was never in any real danger.  Jesus was right there, himself entirely secure on the sea.  But Peter lost sight of that essential truth, as we sometimes do.  That’s when he got in trouble. (See Matthew 14:22-31)

 Keeping our eyes on Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves takes a lifetime of prayer and practice.  The Baptist offers us the right advice:  even in our own minds, “he must decrease and I must decrease.”   The words “decrease” and “increase” are the key: it’s not a matter of thinking of this but not that.  It’s a matter of proportion.  What John the Baptist allows us to see is that an important dimension of our growth in Christ is: less me, more him!

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Steadfast Presence

 Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, perhaps better known still as "Corpus Christi," Latin for "the Body of Christ."  In the centuries since it was first established, enough has been written about it to fill libraries.  This reflection offers just one small perspective.

It's a thought that first occurred to me one day when we were praying Psalm 78 about the behavior of God's people during the long desert journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And God's behavior in return. The story offers a contrast so familiar we may not even notice it.  Over and over and over again, the people fuss, complain, and wander off into ways alien to the God who is leading them.  They gripe about food, they scream for water, they worship that golden calf, they close themselves into their tents for what must have been suffocating bouts of complaint.  One of their most ungrateful (and most understandable)  refrains is that they were better off in Egypt, where they had good things to eat in plenty.  As we all know, memory often does cast a golden glow over a past less than pleasant!  This  goes on for forty years, till the old generation of those who remembered Egypt, is dead.  Forty years!

But there is another side to those forty years. Every morning, including the mornings after their latest grousing fest,  they got up to find the desert floor littered with manna.  Whether they complained, disobeyed, or even worshipped a golden calf, they never went a day without that manna, on which their lives depended.  It was there every day, no matter what.  For forty years!

The solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ presents us with the reality of God's presence and the call to offer God our presence.  And the Exodus story, which is not read today but certainly could be, reminds us forcefully that God's presence is steadfast.  No matter how badly our fidelity may fail, God's never does.  No matter how often we wander away chasing mirages in our personal deserts, God never does.  God's presence which is condensed powerfully in the Eucharist but comes to us in all sorts of other ways as well--the Word, the daily inspirations that wake us up and guide us, the love others give us and we give them, the beauty of the world around us,  Faithful to his other name, "Emmanuel," which means God-with-us, Jesus never leaves the scene. As we saw in the Easter stories, even locked doors can't keep him out.

God's steadfast presence is the presence of creative love.  Christ is the mirror in whom we can see every day what it looks like to live more deeply and grow more fully into that same love.  In him we see the fullness of our own commitment to both steadfast stability and every living love. 

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Into the Light

One way of looking at the events of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection is to look for the darkness and the light.  Jesus plunged into the very darkest dimensions of human experience and returned as the true Light of the World, casting the light of life into every dark corner for those who dare to look.  These past months of pandemic have plunged all of us into darkness in various ways and at various times.   It has taken great courage sometimes to believe that the Light has never gone out and to look for it in the midst of fear, confusion, and pain.  And that pull between darkness and light, though it has lessened as hope has broken through more and more powerfully, isn't over yet. And won't be.   Pandemics come and go, just as famine, war and fire come and go, but the one assurance we are given is that Christ our Light is always there, threading a network of light through whatever darkness threatens.  Part of the work of conversion is to seek the light and seek to live by it when we see it.

Powerfully prodded by St . Benedict in Chapter 49 of the Rule, we tend to focus on Lent as the season of conversion.  But St. Benedict proposed that the lives of his followers should always be a Lenten journey through the darkness of sin into the light of life in the risen Christ.  

In fact, we see in the early Church, whose story we read in the Book of Acts in the liturgies of the Easter season, that the conversion begun when those first Christians heard Jesus' call did not end with relief and celebration when he rose from the dead!  In fact, their experience of the time between Easter and Pentecost, which we celebrate tomorrow, was a whole new plunge into a life of conversion.  They had to go back to school, as it were--Jesus did urge them and us to become as little children--whom St. Benedict has since enrolled in his "school of the Lord's service" from which there is no graduation! (See the Prologue for the fuller picture!)  They had above all to learn to see differently by the new light of the risen Christ.  Mary Magdalene had to learn to let go of the Jesus she had known and loved in his pre-resurrection humanity.  The disciples headed for Emmaus had to learn to read the Scriptures differently through the lens Jesus shone on them during their journey with him--whom they thought was a stranger.  And perhaps he was in his new reality. They had to learn to recognize Jesus himself no longer in the familiar rabbi-carpenter but in the bread in which he remains perennially present.  Peter had to learn to get over himself, as one of my seminary students used to admonish himself regularly, leave his misery and guilt behind, and devote himself to feeding Jesus' sheep! And he had lots of learn about that, as we read in the Book of Acts.  We can read all of the Easter stories as classes whose essential curriculum was becoming and living as Christ's own risen Body--and image repeated again and again in the stories and letters of St. Paul.

And learning to see and hear and live differently by the light of the risen Christ now and forever present among us did not end at Pentecost. On the contrary, the disciples upon whom the Spirit was poured with the force of wind and fire were only just starting to translate their commitment to Christ into the realities of every day life in a world not particularly interested in what they had to say. 

Our clothes differ from theirs.  Our langauges have changed.  The world in which we live would be unrecognizable to them.   But the story is the same:  we have spent weeks living the Lenten journey and more weeks learning about the day-today implications of the resurrection of Christ.  Tomorrow we celebrate again the gift of the Holy Spirit who impelled those first Christians out into the lifelong conversion which our relationship with the living Christ requires of us. 

And then comes Monday.  And the Monday after that.  And the Monday after that.  And we continue to grow every Monday, every day, every week into the depths of life illumined by the presence and love of the Light of the World who continues to lead us on through whatever awaits us!

Blessed travels!

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga


 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Ghost (Luke 24:36-37)

 

 

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, Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2021)

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.

Reprinted from Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB. Published by The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2018. Reprinted with permission from the Liturgical Press.  Copyright 2018 by the Abbey of St. Walburga.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Long-Fingered Light (Easter)

 The Benedictine Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga wish all of you the light, peace and joy brought from darkness by the Risen Christ--even as many are still overshadowed by the darkness of the pandemic and of the violence erupting in different places.  You are all in our prayers.

See Matthew 28; Mark 16:1-12; Luke 24:1-50; John 20:11-18

 Easter lies too far beyond our experience for us to grasp more than impressions of startling appearances by a Jesus who is but isn’t dead, is but isn’t a ghost, is but isn’t the familiar figure his followers knew so well. What was he like? Well, flesh but not flesh as we know it, wounded but not with wounds as we know them, transformed but not in any way we can really picture. He appeared unannounced in locked rooms, walked incognito with discouraged disciples, ate solid food but passed through solid walls. Conceptual explanations of the resurrection don’t help much more than our flawed images do. They make use of words we know, but they use them to expound a reality we don’t, not really.

   We’re in good company, to judge by the general confusion that seems to have left the first Easter Christians babbling contradictory accounts of who saw what when and who believed whom—or didn’t. A stammer was probably the most honest way for them to describe a reality into and over which they stumbled in happy but fearful discovery. Perhaps our own Easter alleluias are our contemporary way of stammering out a truth for which we have no coherent words.

 The risen Christ, transformed into the Fire hidden at the heart of human flesh, sheds a light so bright it blinds us. Paul discovered that on the Damascus road (Galatians 1:15-24). But he was not the first to learn it. Jesus’ resurrection appearances are stories of that light reaching out to touch one by one the dark places in which his early followers walked: the apostles’ fear, Mary Magdalene’s grief, Thomas’s angry doubt, Peter’s shame. Those stories console because the beloved Christ appears in person to cast light into murky experiences we too have known. Fear, grief, doubt, and shame are shadows through which we have all walked.

 But the story doesn’t end with those personal post-resurrection encounters. Jesus disappears from the scene at the Ascension, or seems to, but the Light does not. In the Acts of the Apostles we see a lame man, condemned to a lifetime of begging, spring up and walk at the sound of Jesus’ name (Acts 3:1-10). We recoil at an angry mob stoning Stephen, but Jesus appears to him in glory (Acts 3:54-60).  We hear of fights between Christians of differing ethnic origins settled by Peter’s creative wisdom (Acts 6:1-7). We see disciples jailed (e.g. Acts 5:1-20), apostles arguing policy (Acts 15:1-21), missionaries thrown out of town (e.g. Acts 14:11-19), communities split (e.g. 1 Cor 1:10-17). We see, in other words, all the dark corners in which Christians sometimes find themselves even now, some two millennia after the resurrection. The darkness of the New Testament Church is far from outdated.

In Acts, we do not see Jesus appearing to solve the problems, at least not as he did in the Gospels. Instead we see what he promised: the power of Spirit and Word working to enlighten flawed human beings to see things in new ways, to discover what it really means to “love your enemies as yourself,” to pick up pieces and put them back together in creative ways so that the image of God can shine more clearly in a world still deeply held in the grip of night.

 The Light still reaches long fingers from God’s hidden depths into our present shadows. I cannot really imagine the risen Christ. All my inner pictures seem unreal. But in the annals of the early Church, in the chronicle of the world, and indeed in the story of my own soul, I can see the Light at work. And that Light is very real indeed.


Reprinted from Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB. Published by The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2018. Reprinted with permission from the Liturgical Press.  Copyright 2018 by the Abbey of St. Walburga.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Judas

 The character of Judas looms large in the story of Jesus' Passion this week. He raises questions for us as we ponder.  The gospel passages at Mass feature him on Tuesday and Wednesday


Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over. (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 screen writers 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 read, 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 whose echoes have reverberated among believers and doubters alike ever since, but we, now made 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. The good news that seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the tragic Judas is laid out before us during Holy Week in all its urgency. 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.

 It was there for Judas. 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's finally managed to pry open Judas' 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. 

Reprinted from Sauntering Through Scripture: A Book of Reflections by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB. Published by The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2018. Reprinted with permission from the Liturgical Press.  Copyright 2018 by the Abbey of St. Walburga.


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Palm Sunday: Two Faces

 As many of you know, our Abbey was founded in 1935 in Boulder, Colorado, by nuns from our German motherhouse, the Abtei St. Walburg.  We lived there until 1997, when the exigencies of a growing community and the generosity of benefactors prompted a move to our present location in Virginia Dale, Colorado, 100 miles north of Boulder.  This week, we grieve deeply with and for all those in Boulder who are suffering in the wake of the fatal shooting at a Boulder grocery store, not far from our former home. And, moved by the example of Jesus who prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," we pray for the shooter and for all those whose lives are enmeshed in violence against others.  Please pray with us during this Holy Week of Jesus' passion.

On Palm Sunday, we are confronted by a sudden and troubling transition.  As Mass opens, whether we are participating in person or watching on live streaming or simply remembering Palm Sundays past, we gather outside the church to remember Jesus' moment of apparent triumph, when the crowds greeted his entry into Jerusalem by stripping nearby palms trees of branches and taking off their own cloaks to spread on the road before him, as if he were a king.  The words of the prophet Zechariah echo in the background: Behold: your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, Humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow will be banished, and he will proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:11).  The prophecy will be fulfilled, but not as the crowds on the road to Jerusalem imagined.  We join them in spirit, processing with blessed palms in hand as we enter the church.

But then the entire tenor of the liturgy changes.  Palms are laid down and forgotten. We plunge very quickly into the somber reading of Isaiah 50:4-7, where we see Jesus' face in the prophet's description of the Suffering Servant is beaten and mocked. We sing verses of Psalm 22 with the refrain "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me," part of the story of the crucifixion as recorded in Matthew's Gospel.  And we hear the story of Jesus' passion and death as recorded by St. Mark (14:1-15:47, or abbreviated to 15:1-39). Where the story is read in parts, we suddenly hear crying out in the voice of s the crowd of spectators crying out to Pilate, "Crucify him!" (Mark 15:3).

In the space of only a few minutes, we are confronted with the truth of our own two faces.  On good days, we are more than willing to enter into the Church's prayer of praise in psalms and canticles.  "Praise the Lord" and "Thank you, Jesus" come easily when we know ourselves surrounded by God's love.  But there are other days when we might speak those words with our lips while our hearts are filled with bitter complaint against this same God who seems suddenly to have heaped us with trouble and sorrow.  In these past months of pandemic, all-consuming wildfires, and riots on every side, we have learned again that complaint is easier than hosannah's and palms.  

This Holy Week, we will hear both chapters in the life of Jesus and of his first community.  On Holy Thursday evening, we already see our own two faces in the disciples' protestations of undying loyalty when Jesus speaks of his impending death and their sudden vanishing act after his arrest just hours later.  We could avoid the whole contradiction, of course, by simply denying not Jesus, as Peter did, but our own reality as sinners in need of salvation.  We would, of course, then be proclaiming with all our frightened might that Jesus could have skipped all this week's drama because we really don't need the redemption he won for us.  

On Good Friday, we will hear Jesus saying to Pontius Pilate, "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth," and Pilate responding "What is truth?"  He had evidently already decided that for him, truth was expediency, the value of his own skin, because he immediately went out and let the crowd decide who would die, Barabbas or Jesus.  But Jesus had said that not only was he sent testify to the truth but also, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” That's us, to whom St. Benedict says again and again, "Listen with the ear of your heart."  And that listening means always to keep an ear cocked for the words of the Word made Flesh, Christ, God's ultimate word of love to us and for us.

Real love is always honest.  Real love always tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in the courtroom of life.  And the whole truth is that both of tjpse faces laid bare in the Passion story are ours, whether we like to see it or not.  And the whole truth adds that we may indeed be laying down palm branches before our king and savior and then crying out "Crucify him" because we have recognized him as a danger to whatever complacent self-satisfaction we may be hiding behind. In both these sides of ourselves, repeated with far less drama in daily life, the whole truth is that are above all else loved by the One who thought death on the cross a price worth paying for us.  

Our best response is not to deny either face but to seek always, as Benedict's disciples, to allow the Crucified and Risen Savior to look upon as we are (he will anyway!) and transform these inner divisions into the wholeness we call salvation.  In other words, our best response is to continue the life of honest conversion to which we have committed ourselves.

Then on Easter, sinners and saints though we will still be, we can in all honesty and joy sing out "Alleluia!"

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Mass Texts for the Solemnity of the Passing of Saint Benedict

This year the Solemnity of the Passing of Saint Benedict is celebrated on Monday, March 22, rather than the usual March 21, since the latter falls on a Sunday of Lent.  Since this feast is celebrated only by Benedictines, the texts do not appear in resources such as missalettes, so they are printed here for your prayer and reflection.  They are very rich texts that make for excellent lectio divina all week!

ENTRANCE ANTIPHON.

There was a man of venerable life,
Benedict, blessed by grace and by name,
who, leaving home and patrimony
and desiring to please God alone,
sought out the habit of holy living.


COLLECT
O God, who made the Abbot Saint Benedict
an outstanding master in the school of divine service,
grant, we pray,
that, putting nothing before love of you,
we may hasten with a loving heart
in the way of your commands.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.


FIRST READING          Proverbs 2:1-9
My son, if you receive my words
and treasure my commands,
Turning your ear to wisdom,
inclining your heart to understanding;
Yes, if you call to intelligence,
and to understanding raise your voice;
If you seek her like silver,
and like hidden treasures search her out:

Then will you understand the fear of the LORD;
the knowledge of God you will find;
For the LORD gives wisdom,
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
He has counsel in store for the upright,
he is the shield of those who walk honestly,
Guarding the paths of justice,
protecting the way of his pious ones.

Then you will understand rectitude and justice,
honesty, every good path.


RESPONSORIAL PSALM          34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9, 10-11

R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord or: I will bless the Lord at all times.


I will bless the LORD at all times;
praise shall be always in my mouth.
My soul will glory in the LORD
that the poor may hear and be glad.


R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord or: I will bless the Lord at all times.


Magnify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.
I sought the LORD, who answered me,
delivered me from all my fears.


R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord or: I will bless the Lord at all times.


Look to God that you may be radiant with joy
and your faces may not blush for shame.
In my misfortune I called,
the LORD heard and saved me from all distress.


R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord or: I will bless the Lord at all times.


The angel of the LORD, who encamps with them,
delivers all who fear God.
Learn to savor how good the LORD is;
happy are those who take refuge in him.


R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord or: I will bless the Lord at all times.


Fear the LORD, you holy ones;
nothing is lacking to those who fear him.
The powerful grow poor and hungry,
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord or: I will bless the Lord at all times.


ALLELUIA          Matthew 5:3
Blessed are the poor in spirit;
for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.


GOSPEL          Matt 19:27-29
Peter said to Jesus,
"We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?"
Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you
that you who have followed me, in the new age,
when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory,
will yourselves sit on twelve thrones,
judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters
or father or mother or children or lands
for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more,
and will inherit eternal life."

 

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Making Space for Joy

March 14 is traditionally called Laetare Sunday because the opening word of the entrance chant in Latin is "Laetare", which means "Rejoice!"

Really?  During Lent? Only two weeks away from Palm Sunday?

Yes, really.  The Church's liturgical calendar on both the Second and Fourth Sundays of Lent urges us to look up!  Take your eyes off your feet, growing sore and weary on that desert road. Discouragement is one of the traps the Enemy sets on our Lenten way because it turns all our attention to ourselves (cf. Psalm 140:5-6; Psalm 142:4), Look instead at Jesus on that same road to Jerusalem so long ago, no doubt encountering the same snares. He kept his eyes on his destination and drew from it the determination to keep going.  He was headed toward his death, and he knew it.  But that death was only the last narrow gate through which he would pass to reach his final destination:  the Resurrection.  On Lent's Second Sunday, we caught sight of the fire of Easter already burning in the transfigured Christ.  On the Fourth Sunday, we hear the greatest argument against discouragement ever written: "...God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (John 3:16).  Rejoice indeed!

Not too long ago--and I'm sorry I can't remember exactly what day that was--we read "“Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Luke 6:37-38).  The blog entry entitled "The Work of Lent" (February 16, 2021) considered some of the tools St. Benedict recommends for clearing away the thorns that prevent God's word from taking root and flourishing in our lives. Today, we look again at clearing space in our hearts, this time by uprooting the really bad habit of sitting down by  the roadside to contemplate all our grievances against others.  We can't keep Jesus in sight on that Jerusalem road if we do that.  But it can be so much more comfortable, can't it, in this season of penance and conversion to catalogue everyone else's faults while ignoring our own? 

Instead, says the Gospel, take that Lenten pruning hook to this particular thorn bush.  Clear out all those criticisms of everyone else, be they people you know (even people you love?) or all those people you don't know but whose faults you find readily catalogued on in the news or on the web.  Are the flaws of the British royal family or of American politicians really worth the cost of the time and energy you could otherwise have spent on your own Lenten work of conversion?  When you remove all those faces from your personal rogues' gallery, you may be amazed at how much inner space you've freed up. 

But Jesus warns of the danger of empty space recently vacated by your personal demons.  They'll be back, he says, with all their destructive families and friends (Luke 11:25).  Instead, open all your inner doors to the Holy Spirit, the breath of God's creative love bearing a new set of vocabulary into whatever dark corners you've opened up.  It's an invitation God never refuses.  Oh, and don't get preoccupied with another catalogue, this one of all the judgemental habits you've now become ashamed of.  That's another trick to make you sit down again and focus on yourself and fill up with guilt, shame and remorse.  

No, Jesus says that all the space you've made by clearing away your grudges is space God will fill with the Spirit, that love that impels God's never-ending work of redemption.  And one of fruits of the Spirit's presence, says St. Paul in Galatians 5:22, is joy! 

So, make space!  Laetare!  Rejoice!  The risen Christ is already breaking through, even here and now two weeks away from Holy Week. 

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga


Friday, February 26, 2021

Into the Fire

Second Sunday of Lent 2021: Gospel: Mk 9:2-10

 Did you ever pick up a shovel as a child and set out for the flower bed to dig a hole down to China?

 When I was six years old, it was first-grade lore that you could.  Some of us tried, but as far as I know, no one ever made it.  Just as well!  If we could have dug down far enough, we would have reached not China but fire.  As we learned in later science classes, earth’s core is molten stuff called magma, not a healthy place to visit.

 But during Lent, we are in fact called to dig down into the core of our life to the fire that burns there.

 In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, read at Mass on the Second Sunday of Lent every year, Jesus invited Peter, James and John to climb a high mountain with him. There he “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:2-3).  This transfiguration revealed the fire that burned within him.  It was an overwhelming experience for the three disciples who would have known the story of the Exodus from the synagogue.  Before them on the  mountain,  where Jesus burned with light in the company of Moses and Elijah, they could not have escaped the memory of Mount Sinai, where both of these prophets met God. The God of the Exodus spoke to Moses in fire.  This same God led the people through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land in the form of a pillar of fiery cloud, often called God’s glory.  And the voice from just such a cloud spoke to the terrified disciples, calling Jesus “my beloved son” and telling them to listen to him.  The disciples could have finished the sentence, had they not been so befuddled with awe and fear, “as Moses listened on Mount Sinai.” Then, “[s]uddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:8).  But they would never see him in the same way again.

Why are we reading this story during Lent?  First of all, it is grounded in the story of the Exodus,  the context in which much of Lent is situated.  The book is read almost daily in the Office of Readings.  A number of the passages read at Mass quote portions of the Law revealed to Moses on Sinai by the God of fire, and the gospel readings urge us to obey its prescriptions about how to treat other people of all sorts.  And the story of the Passover from the Book of Exodus, the story that sets off the journey from Egypt into the desert, opens the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, thus plunging us into the paschal mystery spread out before us on Thursday, Good Friday, and in the magnificent readings of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. 

 Secondly, we read the story of the transfiguration early in Lent because it points us toward the season's goal.  Jesus burns always with God’s presence, but the presence is veiled through much of his public life, though the stories of his ministry hint at it often for those baffled followers not able yet to see it.    For example,  we read of those possessed by the one whose aim is always to twist and derail  God’s creation as he had done in conversation with the first human beings in Eden (Genesis 3) and tried to do again in conversation with Jesus in the desert. Jesus set these possessed ones free and brought them back to themselves and their families. Similarly, he healed lepers condemned to isolation by the Law revealed on Sinai and reunited them with their communities.  Again, he provided bread in abundance to the crowds, heirs to those who gathered God’s gift of manna day after day for forty years in the desert.  

On Good Friday, darkness took over the earth, but on Easter Sunday, Jesus, the fiery Sun of Justice broke through the darkness to deliver all peoples from ultimate death.  That is where our Lenten journey is taking us through all our penitential efforts to prune away what holds us back and keeps is down beneath the thumb of sin and death.  So the Second Sunday of Lent makes the promise that leads us from this present "valley of darkness,” whatever form that takes in our lives, into the presence of the Risen Christ who embodies God’s fiery glory in human flesh.

 We think of Advent as the season of hope, but Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan offered a different perspective in his book The Road of Hope: “Keep going forward on the Road of Hope….St. Paul knew that ‘imprisonment and afflictions await me’ (Acts 2:23) and Jesus himself foresaw that the road to Jerusalem would lead to his great Passion (see Matthew 16:21). Yet both continued onwards.”  Jesus traveled knowingly toward suffering and death, but he assured the bereaved Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  St. Paul followed Jesus’ path years later, trusting that whatever he suffered was worth it because it would bring him to the risen Lord who had appeared to him on the Damascus Road  as “a light from the sky, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13).  Both Jesus and Paul traveled in obedient hope toward the light beyond the approaching darkness of their deaths. And we are called to do the same through Lent to Easter, when the Crucified of Good Friday will appear to us in the flame of the Paschal Candle.  So Lent, too, is a season when hope fuels us to travel on, to Easter and beyond.

 As our Lenten prayer and pruning leads us deeper and deeper into our own reality, we need not wait for Easter to discover that at the deepest heart of our being we find Christ, “in whom [we] live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  This is the crucified and risen Christ in whose inner being burns the holy Fire of the Exodus journey seen by three disciples at the Transfiguration.  He is the glory of God into whose living flesh we have been baptized, or maybe at Easter.

 So let us take up the spiritual picks and shovels that will uncover who we really are in Christ, and let us travel on through Lent in hope until we reach that Fire!

 _____________

Note:  Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) was a  remarkable man. A native of Vietnam, he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Saigon six days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese Army.  He was imprisoned by the communist government of Vietnam in a re-education camp for 13 years, nine in solitary confinement (Wikipedia).  While there, he did not spend his time and energy brooding on his own suffering but instead found every way he could to scribble messages to his people on whatever scraps of paper he could get. The messages are not complaints, though complaints would certainly have been justified.  They are calls to hope.  They were eventually compiled into the book, The Road to Hope: A Gospel from Prison.  The most recent edition was published in 2013 by Wellspring. Pope Benedict XVI said of the book: “During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.”  The late Cardinal’s cause for beatification was officially opened in 2007.

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Into the Desert

Lent is the season of the desert.  Every morning in the Office of Readings  through most of Lent, we read a passage from the Book of Exodus which centers around Israel’s years in the desert as they traveled from slavery to the Promised Land. On the First Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus’ venture into that place of presence and memory for God’s people to confront the Voice that derails us from our own spiritual journey to the Promised Land.

 For the people of Israel and for us, the desert is a stark place of revelation.  It offers no entertainments.  It offers no comforts.  It offers no place to hide.  In the desert we are brought face-to-face with life.  And death.  And, hardest of all, ourselves.

 In the desert, the people of Israel found themselves freed from slavery but shackled by their own fears, their own insufficiencies, their own pettiness.  The fears were justified:  inexperienced nomads in that harsh landscape really did find their own survival plunged into uncertainty. Where were they going?  When would they get there? What would they eat when their unleavened bread ran out?  What would they drink?  How would they provide for families and flocks?  And who was this God who had brought them here—why?  Their insufficiencies were real.  There were no paying jobs in the desert, not even the job of slavery which actually did provide them with a place to live and some sort of sustenance.  They had no maps.  They were strangers in this unfamiliar landscape. They knew nothing about surviving this harsh climate.  They had to rely totally on this God of their ancestors who had sunk into the oblivion of forgetfulness over those 400 years in Egypt.  And on Moses, who suddenly seemed the cause of all their problems.  Their pettiness, their selfishness, their spirit of complaint, however, had all traveled with them since they left home in Egypt.  The food wasn’t right. The drink wasn’t satisfactory.  They had nothing to do beyond surviving during those long stops along the way.  They were ungrateful.  They were quarrelsome. They were low on courage.   And there was no way out but back. But that road was closed.  As we take in the picture, we see that they had no entertainments.  They had no comforts.  They had no place to hide.  And they didn’t have any Lent to motivate them to leave some of those consolations behind. 

In the desert, Jesus sought none of them.  He came face-to-face with the Tempter. who had been at work undoing God’s beloved human beings from the start.  He was brought face-to-face with his own life and his own truth: if you are the Son of God, the Tempter said again and again, here is what you should do.  And Jesus wouldn’t do it.  He was brought face-to-face with his own death when the Tempter offered him a quick escape.  And he wouldn’t accept that escape, either. He was brought face-to-face with the heart of the struggle ahead.  And he did not refuse it.

 The desert people of God  look back at us from the mirror every morning.  Jesus does too—we are his Body.  But his is the harder  act to follow.

 There is one certainty about the Lenten desert he calls us into.  We will come face-to-face with our own reality as heirs to God’s people and as members of Christ and as  sinful people of hope somewhere between those truths.  And we will come face-to-face with God.  In fact, St. Benedict says we must:  he urges us to seek God always and everywhere, even in the desert.  Perhaps especially in the desert, where our need is more apparent.  And Jesus promises: seek and you will find.

 Blessed travels!   

 Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga

 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Work of Lent


The call of Lent is always at heart a call to conversion.  Jesus himself provided the script when he made his first public appearance after his baptism and his desert conversation with the Tempter.  Then and now, the Tempter’s goal is to persuade us to desert our own true identity as God’s beloved for a different name than Christian, with a different allegiance defined by a different voice, a voice that promises all gain, no pain.  Knowing very well that we may already have taken at least a few steps down that path since we made or renewed our baptismal vows last Easter, Jesus calls: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

 The Rule of St. Benedict puts a number of tools in our hands for accomplishing that purpose.  They begin with choosing which voice we listen to:  Jesus’ or the Tempter’s.  We know what St. Benedict’s choice would be! To the opening call we all know by heart—“Listen…with the ears of your heart” (RB Prologue 1), he adds a bit farther along, “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts” (RB Prologue 10).  He is quoting Psalm 95, with which he urges us all to begin every day. 

 In commenting on that line in The Road to Eternal Life, Michael Casey, OCSO, identifies four causes for our hearts to harden, that is, to grow an outer shell that will not allow God’s voice in.  All four merit serious attention as we prepare to step into the Lenten work of conversion.  Today, I would like to focus on just one of them:  “A second cause of hardness of heart is using all our energy on things that don’t really matter. Switching the metaphor slightly, Bernard of Clairvaux sees spiritual blindness as the result of spending too much time and energy on pursuits of no great significance.” Or, we might say a bit more colloquially, spending our life as a game of Trivial Pursuit. 

 The opportunities are, of course, legion.  While we all have serious commitments to keep and worthwhile choices to make, it is so easy to lay them aside for a while when we are tired, overwhelmed by too many demands (including those we make on ourselves, of course), frustrated by failures, wounded by conflicts, or drowning in the chaotic sea of possibilities that tug at us from every side. There is nothing wrong with taking a rest break when it all becomes too much.  In fact, Jesus provides an invitation for just such times: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

The problem arises when we lay our deepest commitments and best intentions aside for a bit and then forget where we have put them.  To speak from personal experience, I sit down at the computer in the morning intent on putting into writing the thoughts I’ve been pondering about Lent for all of you (and myself).  But my morning coffee seems long ago, I’m overwhelmed by the number of e-mails I should be answering, and other jobs pressing, so the visual tug of my online news site calls out to me to read it from beginning to end, as if the latest gossip about the British royal family mattered to my day, or the newest buzz about an obscure mollusk recently discovered near the Hawaiian islands will nudge me closer to the reign of God.  Twenty minutes disappear, and the essay on Lent is still nothing but a blank page.  (And I don’t even care about the gossip or the mollusks!)

 Casey notes that the way we spend our time determines the quality of our lives far more than we sometimes admit.  It is not that God doesn’t take any interest in the endless doings of the human race and the planet we live on—just read through some of the detailed rules of the Book of Leviticus to prove otherwise.  It’s that every day of every year of our lives offers us only 24 hours to grow into the gospel life Jesus is offering us, sometimes in the apparently trivial, but often in the obviously significant.  Those mollusks probably won’t do much for my response to that call. 

 So Lent is a very good time to do some serious pruning.   The tools Benedict proposes in chapter 49 of the Rule, "On the Observance of Lent", much amplified by the rich array of tools laid out in Chapter 4, “On the Tools of Good Works” include quite a number of sharp blades for cutting back the thorns Jesus describes in the gospels.  Those thorns include things like, “worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke [the Word of God we ponder in praying the Liturgy of the Hours and doing our lectio divina], and it bears no fruit” (Mark 4:19).  (Matthew and Luke provide other versions of this parable of the Sower.) Switching from the imagery of sowing and harvesting to the imagery of the vineyard, Jesus says in John’s gospel: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned [by] the word that I spoke to you” (John 15:1-3). In fact, the Word is the most important pruning tool of all!

Originally, Lent began with the First Sunday of Lent.  Contingencies irrelevant here caused the days from Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday to be added.  They always seem to me to be a runway that allows me to get up some speed before I launch into the heart of the Lenten season. So here is my suggestion to you:  take these days to search out what seem to be for you the thorns that keep God’s word from bearing fruit in you—ask for a little help from the Holy Spirit to see and hear more clearly; spend some time reading through St. Benedict’s list of Lenten tools in RB 49 and the whole tool shop laid out in Chapter 4—ask yourself which ones would best suit the work of dealing with your particular varieties of thorns; write them down, with enough detail to keep you honest as the season unfolds and they lose the appeal of a fresh start.  Try praying Psalm 95 daily during Lent, either as part of the Hours or on its own, to ask God for the grace to hear and heed his word, with the help of your tool selection.  Make periodic checks on the state of your inner briar patch—does it look any thinner?  (Effort is what Lent calls for, not resounding total success!)  All along the way, pray to St. Benedict for his support. 

 If pruning thorns gets wearisome—and it probably will because it’s hard work—there is another option to St. Benedict's toolbox you can turn to instead:  the daily biblical readings for Lent both prune and promise, helping us to remove clutter and look forward to the fruits we hope to see at Easter. (Daily Liturgical Readings.)

 By Easter, be prepared to be surprised by that wheat field or orchard that was so dead-looking today!  There will be ample reason for all those alleluia's!

 Let us all pray for one another that our Lenten efforts will bear fruit not only for us but for the world around us which is in such sore need of every sign of new life.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Stability in Unstable Times



Every day, we read new stories of angry violence.  Every day we see new figures of the pandemic’s cost in terms of human life, and we hear of unpredictable mutations.  Every day we hear of natural catastrophes--fire, storm, floods, earthquakes. Our swiftly changing world seems to become a quagmire of quicksand everywhere. 

The Benedictine commitment to stability offers guidance through circumstances both familiar and unexpected.  At heart, it reflects the steadfast fidelity the psalms we pray daily find in God.  It invites us very simply to live our convictions faithfully day by day into an unknown future.

The psalmists often describe God as a rock.  What better image than that could we hold before as we pray as we face all these constantly shifting sands?  God is the ultimate stability. God has always been there and will always be there from time immemorial to time unimaginable. God is always protecting us from the monsters who have emerged into the light of day from under the bed and in the closet where they lived when we were children. God is always loving us now into the future beyond the currents that seem to be consuming all normality.   Because we tend to imagine safety as an untroubled life unthreatened by suffering or death, we may have a hard time recognizing this ever-protective Rock, but stability includes the commitment to stand on it, take refuge in it, and believe in it even in darkness.  The psalms can strengthen us in this stable conviction as we pray them over and over.  Why not pick out your favorite psalms or your favorite lines and write them down somewhere you can see them easily?

We don’t live our stability alone.  Benedictine life is always essentially communal, even when no one seems to be around.  We were made in God’s image, so let us be Rock for one another and for those around us, as they may be for us.  The prophet Isaiah said of God’s faithful: “Each of them will be like a shelter from the wind, a refuge from the rain. They will be like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a great rock in a parched land” (Isaiah 32:1-2). We have a constant example in Christ himself, whom St. Paul described as the Rock in the desert (1 Corinthians 10:4). Our Rock, in our desert.

And Jesus, the Word of God, tells us that our one real security is to build our house, our lives on him, the foundation that is immovable rock (Matthew 6:47-49; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-11).

So let us pray for one another and encourage one another.  As the Rock—God, Christ, God’s Word -- becomes more real to us, let us help others to take refuge in it too. As we pray the psalms here at the Abbey, we keep you in our thoughts and prayers often.  I think Jesus might say, as he did to the disciples on occasion, “Go and do likewise.”  (And please include us in those prayers!)


©2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, January 11, 2021

Down with Idols!

At first glance, the rant of prophet and psalmist against the worship of idols might seem out of date to contemporary readers.  A little reflection, though, tells us that it is as current as can be.  “Idol” is defined in modern dictionaries as a representation of an object of worship, carrying the connotation of “false god”.  Nowadays, with religious idolatry a matter of concern only to select circles,  it is more common to see the title “idol” attached to any person who attracts adulation, regardless of personal qualities, or any perceived good that determines how we live our lives.  Idols are identified by their popularity rather than by what they represent.  A movie star might be an idol, sometimes for no apparent reason, certainly not acting talent. Wealth or power might be a goal to which we render obedience and devote our lives as to a god.  These idols and their implications for people’s lives make countless appearances in the media, enhancing their power over people’s thoughts and behavior, no less than did the idols of Egypt in the days of the Pharaohs, though normally no one would consider them real divinities. 

 The idol we recognize less often is more dangerous.  The psalmist warns, “Pagan idols are silver and gold,/ the work of human hands. They have mouths but they do not speak; /they have eyes but they do not see./ They have ears but they do not hear; /there is never a breath on their lips./ Their makers will come to be like them, and so will all who trust in them!” (Psalm 135:15-18) Think about these idols not in the usual sense of statues or even all-consuming goals, but as the images we have used as models, creating selves made false and rendered lifeless, There are many means at hand to disguise ourselves behind exteriors of silver and gold, the work of our own hands, or the hands of others—makeup, clothing, plastic surgery, clothing designed to convey a desired image, styles of speech or accents not the ones we grew up with, letters after our names, a certain house, a certain car, even appearances of piety.  We have learned how to look good to our chosen audience—parents, children, teachers, employers, co-workers, neighbors, voters, whoever’s good opinion we have come to value above our own integrity.  But skill does not supply reality. The image is an illusion, not the living, breathing human being we really are—or were.  In this case, we have ourselves become idols to ourselves.

 In most cases,  fortunately, we don’t remake ourselves over entirely by the pattern of false images.  But we can take on the bits and pieces of the images and so, to some degree, falsify ourselves. And, with God’s help and the intervention of people who love us as we are, we can outgrow the falsity as we mature. If we look back at the teenager or the twenty-something or the ambitious “newbie” we once were, we can breathe a sigh of relief at having left that “self” behind!

 St. Benedict offers us two powerful tool for abandoning self-falsification and self-worship. The first is humility, which he presents as a process rather than a finished achievement (RB 7).  He might have rooted it in an earlier line:  “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (RB 4:62).  The hidden trick is that if we truly become holy, we will no longer worry about another person’s opinion or seek to make ourselves  look better to impress others because our life will be devoted to Christ who is himself our “truth” (cf. John 14:6), a truth far greater than we alone could ever become.  In a larger sense Benedict’s directive really calls us to be who we truly are right now and seek to become who we will ultimately really be in the next life by the power of God, our real Creator., not some hollow image we have made of ourselves according to some pattern we have thought might be to our advantage.   Each real self is unique.  There are no duplicates in the reign of God, only vivid originals.

 The second tool, more surprisingly, is community in whatever broad sense our way of life provides.  Surrounding ourselves with others committed to the same quest for God as we are, the same values as we aspire to live, and the same ultimate goal we are pursuing, as oblates do, is the best way to protect ourselves from the falsities that might tempt all of us.  A network like this binds us to people who love us enough to offer us inspiration, encouragement, and, yes, honest feedback to keep us on the path integrity. And it invites us to do the same for them.  Human truth is never simply individual; it is always shared in Christ, belong as we all do to the Body of Christ.

 Believe it or not, with Christmas now behind us, Lent is not too far ahead.  Ash Wednesday this year is February 16.  We need not wait.  We could start now to tear down whatever idols we have made of our own gifts, talents, or empty dreams.   How small, tacky and tarnished they appear next to the reality seen in the bright light of Christ!  God much prefers the real thing. So do the people who genuinely love us.  And so, in our best moments, do we. 

 Copyright 2021, Abbey of St. Walburga