Sunday, January 14, 2018

Here I Am...But Who Are You?

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, "Here I am." Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me." "I did not call you, " Eli said. "Go back to sleep." So he went back to sleep. Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. "Here I am, " he said. "You called me." But Eli answered, "I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep."

At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, "Here I am. You called me." Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, "Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening."

When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, "Samuel, Samuel!" Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening.

1 Samuel 3:3b-10
First Reading for Mass
Sunday, January 14, 2018

The boy Samuel was still a resident apprentice with the old priest Eli when he was rudely awakened by an unrecognized voice one night as he slept in the Temple.  Eli was the only other person around, it seems, so Samuel quite naturally got up from his  sleeping mat, perhaps grumbling a little as we might, and ran in to ask Eli what he wanted.  But Eli hadn’t called.  When the same thing happened two more times, Eli recognized what was happening and told the boy that if the voice woke him again, he should say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel seems to have been an obedient boy, but he didn’t quite answer as Eli had told him to.  Instead of saying, “Speak, Lord,”  he just said rather abruptly, “Speak. for your servant is listening.”

This passage is often used in retreats, workshops and talks on finding one’s personal calling.  When you feel a sense of call, a speaker will say, you might ignore it at first, but if it keeps returning, turn to God in prayer to find out what God is calling you to do.

Good advice, but the biblical passage is also something of a cautionary tale.  When we feel an inner urge or call, perhaps we should be warned by Samuel’s small disobedience.  To turn to God and say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” is one thing.   To respond instead, as if to the empty air, “Speak, your servant is listening,” is exactly what we often do when we feel an inner urge but don’t take the time or trouble to identify who or what it is that is calling us.  We feel the tug and obey it, as if, like Samuel, we were asleep when it came and haven’t quite awakened enough to pay real attention to what’s going on.

What if, without realizing it, we stumble too quickly from urge to action, only to discover that the voice belonged to the chocolate cake in the refrigerator or the kind of curiosity that has a lethal effect on cats or the spontaneous chemistry that flames up when we meet someone who attracts us physically or a coworker says casually, “I just found an app that lets me download pirated music and videos! Want a copy?” 

Prompt obedience to God’s voice is a good thing, but prompt obedience to unidentified voices can get us into a lot of trouble.

There are lots of voices buzzing in our mind’s ears every day.  When one seems louder and stronger than usual, and we feel the urge to hop off our sleeping mat and go and do as it says, we might be better off taking the time to stop and say what Samuel didn’t:  “Here I am, but who are you?”

Copyright 2018, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Different Desert

A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said,
"If you wish, you can make me clean."
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched the leper, and said to him,
"I do will it. Be made clean."
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. ( Mk 1:40-41)
Gospel for January 11, 2018, Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

The desert of his temptation was not the last desert Jesus met.  Shortly into the public ministry to which he had recommitted himself in defiance of the Tempter, Jesus found himself faced with a leper pleading for healing.  Here was a wasteland created not by sun and sand but by hideous disease.  Here was a man who had once lived a normal life.  Perhaps he had a wife and children. Perhaps he was respected by his neighbors.  Perhaps he had grown wheat to supply the village with bread.  Perhaps he had cultivated olive trees to supply oil to soothe sunbaked skin, or to give lamplight on a dark night, or to season a simple diet of barley bread.   Leprosy had cut off every "perhaps" that might have defined his life.

Like the desert of rock and sand and scrub through which Jesus had passed into the busy streets and marketplaces of Galilee, this man’s life had become empty, sterile, purposeless.   He had lost family, work, community, even his name.  The evangelist calls him simply, “a leper” -- a face, a marred body, a threat to those around him, but no longer Joshua or Simeon or Judah, cherished son, spouse, friend.  Just “a leper.”  He could exchange kind words, a loving touch, simple companionship with no one now, because he had become a danger to everyone.  He  could feed no one, except perhaps fellow lepers with whom he shared the bread family members sometimes left for the leper colony.  He could produce nothing for anyone.  He could do nothing but survive, and that not for long.

But the Word, now made flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, had known the primal chaos, tohu-wabohu in Hebrew.  Translator and commentator Robert Alter says the phrase means “emptiness” or “futility,” and, “in some contexts, is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert” (The Five Books of Moses).  And, at God’s command, the Word had as it were, dived beneath the dark surface of this primal sea to the nameless, purposeless, isolated possibilities it contained, and he had drawn them forth to become sun, moon and stars, and all that is.  At Jesus’ baptism, just a few verses before this meeting with the leper, he had been identified by dove and Voice as the beginning of the new creation that would restore and transform into a new reality the ruined creation wrought by the first human beings.  

So Jesus looks at the wasted, barren, ruined body before him and sees the human being buried within it.  And, with words few but powerful, he draws that human being forth,  draws the man, the son, the brother, the spouse, the father, the neighbor out to take his place in the ordinary world from which he had been banished. As God had said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, Jesus says “Be made clean.”  And the leper is made clean.

That leper is long gone now, but Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, continues to make of us all and of our lives and our world the new creation that will flourish long after the old one has disappeared.  Again and again, he says to us in our sinfulness, our failures, our broken families and communities, our lost purposes, what he said to the leper:  “Come out of those ruins.  Live!”

Amen, amen, so be it!

Copyright 2018, Abbey of St. Walburga


Monday, January 8, 2018

Jesus's Not-So-Hidden Years

The liturgical season of Christmas ends today, January 8, with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Tomorrow dawns the season of Ordinary Time.

Custom has encouraged us to see Jesus’ life on earth as a diptych:  the first panel, only vaguely filled in, is his dramatic early childhood, followed by the so-called “hidden years” of which the gospels tell no stories; the second panel, much clearer, portrays his public ministry.  So seething with activity are his public years after a long privacy that we tend to forget that Jesus lived his life as a whole, as we all do.

When he left Nazareth for the wilderness of Judea where John was baptizing and the desert where he wrestled with the Tempter and, finally, the towns and roads of Galilee and Judea, he did not come as a wide-eyed stranger seeing the world for the first time.  He had at least thirty years behind him, most of them probably spent in Nazareth and its environs. He was already the mature adult that experience and choice had made him.

Reading as most of us do in English, we imagine him to have spent those years doing carpentry for his fellow villagers.  However, the Greek word translated as “carpenter” actually means “builder” in a broader sense, so scholars have ventured to propose that he and Joseph might have been employed as construction workers on Herod Antipas’ ambitious new city of Tiberius, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The Gospels do not say. Wherever Jesus worked at whatever he worked at, he did more during those years than earn a living while he waited for the time when his public ministry would begin.  Rather, he gathered in what life in a Galilean village and its environs had to teach him about the world he had come to redeem. 

The nuclear family which some cultures within the United States take as the norm would have been rare in Palestine,  so we can surmise that Jesus grew up as part of typical extended family that included not only Mary and Joseph but all the other relatives who play cameo roles in the gospels:  his aunt, Mary’s sister, for example, and the various “brothers,” a kinship word that could refer to siblings or cousins, and no doubt others not mentioned in the gospels because they played no part in the unfolding of his public life.  He would have had plenty of neighbors to play with when he was young and to talk with when he grew older.  He was apparently no solitary dreamer but a relative and neighbor so unremarkable that the townsfolk couldn’t take in the startling claim he made later to be the one in whom Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).  To them, he was the local carpenter, the son of Mary and Joseph, not the boy next door grown up to be the promised Messiah.

We know very few concrete details of his growing up, but we do know a good bit about what he observed, heard, thought about, and probed for images of the reign of God which he was bringing into being, both in his private years and in his public ministry.  He paid attention to the field anemones we know better as “the lilies of the field.”  He noticed birds, both as wild beneficiaries of God’s providence and as small, helpless victims of hunters and merchants.  He had an eye for the weather:  “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning,” or its Greek equivalent in Matthew’s gospel.  He seems to have paid a good bit of attention to local agriculture.  He was familiar with the cultivation of vines and fig trees.  Galilee served as the breadbasket of Palestine, and Jesus knew all about the sowing, harvesting, and grinding of wheat for flour, as well as the work of working yeast and flour together, kneading the dough, letting it rise, and baking it in the village bake ovens. 

He took note of the human landscape in which he lived as well.  He knew of family squabbles over inheritances.  He would have had no need to invent the parable of the prodigal son from scratch.  No doubt he knew a family or two where a younger son had taken off to sow his wild oats, with unhappy results.  He knew the pitfalls that could bring a wealthy landowner to a sorry end.  He had heard enough of the fabled bandits who prowled the Jericho road to give flesh to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And he had obviously observed with compassion  the struggles of the poor to survive, the miseries of lepers, the pain of the blind, deaf, mute and disabled.  The human foibles, the human suffering, the human tragedies he met (and rewrote) during his public years did not come as news to him when he met them.

And, given his habit of withdrawing into solitary prayer during his ministry, we have to assume that he prayed, mulling over all he learned about the world and its human inhabitants  in communion with the Father and the Spirit.  That experience and that prayer became the meat of what he showed and taught about the reign of God which is God’s goal for us.  That God, whom we have come to know as  Father, Son and Spirit, is the architect and builder of all that is. And that God, says the Book of Genesis, saw all of creation as good. But the creation God loved most profoundly seems to have been, and still is, humanity.  Jesus, God’s love made flesh, took seriously the world into which had been sent, paid attention to it, understood it.  And that long learning and loving and comprehension did not begin when he first walked onto the beaches that ringed the Sea of Galilee.

So, as we reflect on the years of Jesus’ public years, let us remember what they grew out of.  Let us see the two panels of the traditional diptych together as the single life of the One who loved and redeemed it all.  As we do, we will come to know him more deeply.  Perhaps with St. Paul we will be come to say, “I … consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).  Knowing grows into loving and serving.  Long, long ago, the old Baltimore Catechism hit the nail on the head when it taught us to say, “God made me to know, love and serve him in this world.” And, Jesus added with his second commandment of love, to know, love and serve one another. This Ordinary Time, by the gift of God’s creative love, let us seek to come closer to doing just that.

Copyright 2018, Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

In the Beginning....

“In the beginning was the Word,” says St. John (John 1:1) in an echo of Genesis 1.  There, in the beginning of creation, was the word of God spoken into the dark seas of the primal chaos and drawing forth the beginning of the universe as we know it.  Powerful, that word.  Creative.  Life-giving. 

The story of that word continues into the gospel of John, where the evangelist provides us with more detail: “….the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:1-3)  The word God spoke in Genesis is now recognized as the Person we have come to know as “the second Person of the Blessed Trinity,”  a difficult abstraction John makes concrete:  “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Ah!  Here is the One who is at  the center of the Christmas mystery we are still celebrating as the Christmas season unfolds toward Epiphany:  Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, born in a Bethlehem stable, cradled in his Mother’s arms as shepherds and Magi troop through to view the Savior no one expected to meet as an infant.  This Word, spoken into flesh by the Holy Spirit, is also powerful, creative, life-giving.  Hard to imagine that in the Nativity scenes around us, but true nonetheless.  And this Word, Jesus Christ, grew up to speak in turn the powerful, creative, life-giving word into the ordinary lives of ordinary people in first century Palestine.  But the Word, Jesus Christ, spoke the great word of love finally on the cross, dying a human death as he had been born in a human birth, but in so doing, unleashing the full force of God’s life-giving breath into all that is.  Still with us, as he promised the apostles (Matthew 28:20), he still speaks that word to us in our ordinary everyday lives, if only we will listen (and sometimes even when we don't!)

If you haven’t dotted the final “i” and crossed the final “t” on your New Year’s resolutions, you might give some thought to adding on something like “becoming a better listener to the Word of life.”  A little time spent daily with the Bible, a little thought given to the Word of life spoken through the people and events around us, a little silence in which to recognize where it comes from, that whisper that tugs at us off and on throughout the day, or gives us a little push along a path we weren’t expecting to take, or simply offers us the strength and comfort that come from knowing we are loved, no matter what the cynics around us say. That’s the word God speaks to us at the beginning of every day.

Happy New Year!

Copyright 2018,  Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, December 24, 2017

God's Mercy Made Flesh

"Chesed, mercy, means the ability to get right inside other people until we can see things with their eyes, think things with their minds, and feel things with their feelings."  William Barclay

Chesed, more often translated "loving kindness,"  is one of the key attributes of God in the Old Testament.  In Jesus, whose birth in Bethlehem we now celebrate, the divine chesed  took human flesh. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus continues to be Emmanuel, that is "God with us" always. However alone we may sometimes feel, we are always known and understood by the God who made us.  And, "Understanding is a creative act in a dimension we do not see" (Elizabeth Goudge).  

Let us give profound thanks for this mercy at work among us, and let us turn and share it with all those we meet, either in person or through the daily news of the world's suffering.  

Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Advent: St. Joseph and the Puritans

When [Jesus's] mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.  Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

Matthew 2

Puritans don't really belong in the Christmas story, at least not the Puritans we remember best from elementary school.  There, we usually met them at Thanksgiving.  I had friendly feelings toward them because their simple clothes were so easy to draw and color in the obligatory Thanksgiving art projects.  And the first Thanksgiving always had a nice feeling about it because, for a change, the new and old inhabitants of the land sat down for a nice meal together, at table decorated with that pretty Native American corn, rather than doing their best to wipe each other out.  (Remember: this was elementary school.  What did we know about real history?)

It wasn't till years later, in high school and college, thanks in part to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter,  that I learned something about the repressive downside of Puritan beliefs.  And it was later still that I met the Puritan who inhabits my own interior world.  Whenever the lifelong call to conversion invites me to break out of whichever particularly restrictive box I've built around myself (and around God, of course) to breathe the freer air of the Holy Spirit, the Puritan appears on the scene.  With lips purse, nose upturned, and a suitable severity about the eyes, the Puritan warns me sternly:  "You mustn't.  There are rules you know, and you must abide by them.  Otherwise God will  go off and find someone else who is really holy, and doesn't think adventuresome thoughts."  Of course, the Puritan never identifies the actual author of all those rules.  Rarely is the author God.  More likely, your mother or your third grade teacher or all the rule makers you've met since.  (You will notice an awkwardness of language here. I can't use a pronoun for the Puritan, because I don't actually know the Puritan's gender.  Perhaps Puritans don't have them.)  

I usually fall for it, until God steps in and reminds me of the extraordinarily creative and unprecedented work of creation, or Jesus' bad habit of irritating Pharisees by breaking out of their rules in favor of God's rule of love,  or the Holy Spirit blowing the first disciples out of the locked safety of the upper room into the street, where God's word obliged them to be very unconventional indeed.  One of the profound and recurring messages of the Scriptures is that God doesn't like boxes.   And God did not write ten strict rules, multiplied into many even stricter rules about such earthy things as food preparation or money lending or family finances, to squelch every aspect of our humanity.  In fact, God gave and gives us rules that teach us how to be fully human. (And those, God does expect us to abide by, and helps us to do it, whatever the local Puritans think.)  Jesus sums them up in the two great commandments of love, which have always taken holy people out of overly pious boxes and into the streets, where the redeeming Christ continues to live and walk.  Mother Teresa, for example.  Or St. Therese, whose feet never left her cloister but whose desire for a world redeemed took her heart to the far reaches of the earth.  Or St. Maximilian Kolbe, who persuaded even Nazi soldiers to set aside their own ruling about who must die in the starvation bunker so that he could take the place there of a family man.  The list goes on: just add your own  holy people.

Which brings us back to St. Joseph.  Joseph, says the gospel, was a righteous man, his righteousness defined by his obedience to God's law.  That obedience required him to give up his plans to marry Mary, a respectable young woman suddenly found to be pregnant, but not by him, her betrothed.  But already we see the law of love creeping in to undermine the kind of rigid, unreflective obedience his inner Puritan, if he had one, would have insisted on.  (And no doubt he did have a Puritan or two lingering in the wings, because Puritans especially like to take the law-abiding under their suffocating wings.)  Joseph makes the only concession the law as he understands it will allow:  he decides to divorce Mary quietly (they were betrothed which was the first stage of marriage rather than our practice of engagement).  We shouldn't get all romantic about this.  Marriages were arranged in those days.  They were matters of building up families rather than of individuals falling in love.  Because we know nothing at all about Joseph, except that he was a righteous man and a carpenter, we can't even know how well he knew Mary.  His decision to spare her the danger of death is not necessarily the act of a man crazy in love in the modern sense.  It is the act of a man already clearly governed by God's law of love, that is, of choosing another person's good as the criterion for action.  

Then along comes the angel.  The angel tells Joseph quite clearly and explicitly to set aside God's familiar law about marriage to venture out into very new territory indeed and marry a woman whose child, illegitimate under the law, is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Joseph, dreaming, can't have had a clear theological understanding of what that meant.  What he did have was his own established willingness to do as God told him, even if, in this case, it made no real sense at all.  

Joseph's Puritan must have had a fit.  "An angel?  How do you know it was an angel?  Why would an angel, if it was an angel, bother with the likes of you?  Pride, pride, pride, that's what it is.  Marry a young woman whose behavior has clearly been questionable, to say the least?  Forget about it.  The Law is the Law.  The Law says no, so you have to go back to that original plan--already a bit too lenient, I would have thought--and set her aside quietly.   Safety lies in unquestioning obedience to what you have been taught that God's law us -- taught by reliable Puritans of course.  None of this venturing out into uncharted seas for you, my man."  

Fortunately for the history of the world, Joseph ignored the Puritan.  He is surely the patron saint of those whose inner Puritan threatens to suffocate them in a locked box that has no key.   Most of us remain unvisited by angels, in dreams or otherwise, but we do get strong prods from the God of love.  In fact, tomorrow's O Antiphon calls Christ "the key of David"--who opens doors no one then can close.   When Christ opens a door to you and invites you in, don't let the Puritan fool you.  Seek a little wise advice from someone who knows how to identify where those inner voices come from.  Then, if your guide gives you the nod, walk on through that door.  Who knows what wonders might be waiting? 

(Puritans don't approve of wonders of course.  Too unmanageable.  Your mother or your teacher notwithstanding, it isn't really rude to thumb your nose at them as you walk by--but not in public of course!)

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent: Desert

Abbey of St. Walburga
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! (Isaiah 40:3)

Year after year, we hear that Advent is the season of "already" and "not yet."  We look back and remember that Christ, Messiah and savior, has already come and is still with us.  We look forward and remember that Christ has not yet come in his promised fullness. 

The desert is Advent's not-yet.  At the beginning of Mark's gospel, which we read this Sunday, the cast is gathering in the desert region beside the Jordan within reach of Jerusalem.  John the Baptist is there, offering a baptism of repentance and a promise that one greater than he is coming.  We readers know that will be Jesus, but Jesus isn't there just yet.  

The desert where the scene unfolds is not the Saharah, nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see.  It's a tough wilderness of sand, scrub, and rock.  You wouldn't want to live there.  

But in fact you might.  Translator-commentator Robert Alter notes that at the beginning of the Genesis creation story, the earth is tohu wabohu in Hebrew.  He translates the phrase as "welter and waste." Other translations include, "without form or shape," or "without form and void" .  According to Alter, the key word here, tohu, "means 'emptiness' or 'futility, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert." In fact, the gospels refer to the desert also as "wilderness" and "wasteland."  Like the primal chaos, the desert appears to be useless barren emptiness that offers human beings no hospitality, neither  rest nor shelter nor food.  Don't we all sometimes endure desert times, when life feels empty and unproductive, of use to no one, not even ourselves?  

That is the "not-yet,"  the places in our hearts or in our lives where it seems that Christ has not yet come bearing the gift of new life he promises: "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).  We are "they"--but where is that life now?

These desert interludes are miserable.  Sometimes they are infrequent and brief, and experience has taught us that we will survive them if we can just hang on till the rains fall.  If you have ever spent time in a geographical desert, you know what magic water works: green plants, edible fruits, gorgeous flowers all appear overnight where cactus and thorn had dominated the landscape.  But sometimes our desert interludes seem to take up residence in our lives as permanent and unwelcome guests. Will they never end?

Yes, they will.  In Advent, the desert is the place of hope: stubborn, resilient, determined perseverance in the belief that the Christ who seems not yet is the Christ who has already come.  It is we who can't see him or hear him, not he who went away at the Ascension and has never come back. We sometimes call Advent "the season of hope."  That is not only true but comforting.  The Christ we imagine in Bethlehem, the Christ who walked the roads of Palestine for a few short years, the Christ who died and rose, the Christ who seemed to vanish at the Ascension is still here, whatever our experience is telling us.  "I am with you always," he promised (Matthew 28:20). We remember that during Advent when we sing, "O come, O come, Emmanuel."  Emmanuel is Jesus' "second name." It means "God-with-us." Hope and faith walk hand in hand in the conviction that, as empty as the not-yet times may seem, it's true.  

So our Advent prayer is not really that Christ will come, but that we may learn to recognize him here with us in the dark now.

Copyright 2017 Abbey of St. Walburga