Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Easter Journey: Emmaus

Where are the alleluia’s?  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are clearly in no mood for singing as they go.  Look at them:  shoulders hunched, they walk like old men bearing the burden of a disappointing world.  Brows furrowed, eyes on the dust at their feet, thoughts trapped on a dark hill and at an even darker tomb, irrevocably sealed in stone. They see no one in the present story who will stand at the tomb’s entrance and command, “Come out!”  (cf. John 11:1-44) The truth is that the tomb is their own:  dead hopes lie there, never to rise again.  No, the tomb is themselves:  they are buried in their own misery.

It’s hardly any wonder they failed to recognize the stranger who joined them on the road.  They had no room for him in their shrunken and desiccated expectations.  And they certainly had no room in their minds to see a Jesus who was anything more than a mangled corpse wrapped in grave cloths and already returning to dust and bone. 

He revived them, of course.  They were as hobbled and blinded as Lazarus had been by his shroud, but Jesus inflicted on them none of the shattering drama of Lazarus’ summons from the tomb.  Instead, he listened.  He knew that once their shroud of discouragement was out in the light where they could name it, he could begin to cut it away and set them free.  His blade was the Word of God, which St. Paul would call “the sword of the Spirit,” (Ephesians 6:17) but he wielded it slowly and gently.  Bit by patient bit, he opened the enshrouded eyes of their hearts, using the word as the psalmist had once described it:  “Your word is a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).  He led them gradually to see the present reality of a post-Calvary darkness from the new perspective opened by that light.  Like the good teacher that he was, he brought them to the brink of that “Oh!” moment when everything changed.  Seeing things differently is the beginning of conversion.   Later they would call the experience fire: “Were our hearts not burning within us?”

Perhaps with a hidden smile, he accepted their urging to stay with them for a meal as evening fell.  No doubt Luke, writing thirty or more years after the event, took it for granted that conversion from the isolation of self-centeredness to the communion of love in Christ begins by hearing the word broken open and then receiving the bread also broken and shared, just as we do at the Eucharist.  And so Jesus first put heart into his downhearted disciples on the road to Emmaus by giving them new access to the word of God; then he fed them, strengthened them, and energized them with the bread of his own life.

They were utterly transformed.  No more hunched shoulders and downcast eyes, no more hearts weighted with the burden of dead hopes, no more suffocating imprisonment in their own misery.  All that forgotten, they ignored the gathering dusk and ran back immediately to Jerusalem to share the good news with the others whom they had abandoned as the community began to splinter under the pressures of grief, disbelief, and mistrust of one another’s accounts. 

And Jesus, who had disappeared before the meal was over?  He went with them unseen, of course.

And he still travels with us, often unrecognized, as we walk that Easter road taken by the two disciples who thought they were going to Emmaus.  And he still feeds us with his own life, wrapped up as word and bread.  But let’s be honest.  Our journey is not always a matter of eager alleluias either.  The road seems long, and we are tempted now and then to retreat to what we imagine to be the peace and security of the tomb we left behind.  Clothed though we are with the risen Christ, we tell ourselves that we’re really warm and cozy there in the dark as we shiver in the shroud of self-concern, thin and full of holes, sewn tight shut with the heavy threads of discouraging “should” and “ought” and “can’t.”  What were we thinking?  That we were headed toward the Promised Land, and in good company?  Disbelief still sneers at us in our idealistic Easter hopes.  Don’t worry.  He will come back for us again.  And he won’t stand outside the tomb of self in which we are immured.  He will come in and get us and carry us back out into the sunlight and set us once again on the road, traveling with us as we go (see John 14:18).  That’s what he promised—and he keeps his promises!


Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga, 2017

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Across the Sun: A Song of the Myrrh-Bearing Women

Easter 2017

Several of the women who had followed Jesus and provided for his and the disciples' needs as they traveled from place to place came to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week--Sunday in our calendar--to prepare his body for proper burial.  They had been unable to do so on Good Friday because the Sabbath began at sunset, too soon after the crucifixion to allow for the ritual anointing with spices customary in burying a body.  These women became known in the liturgical tradition of the Christian East as "the myrrh bearers,"  though the list did sometimes include Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  We read their story in their story in the gospels of Easter week in the Roman Catholic lectionary.

Across the sun, the sullen clouds
Rolled gray and heavy as the stone
That sealed the tomb where lay the One
We thought that death could never own.

Upon our hearts, the weight of tears
Sat gray and heavy as the clouds
That poured the grief of heaven down
Like rain upon the silent crowds.

Upon our way, the loss we bore
Sat gray and heavy as the tears
We could not shed amid the storms
That washed away the hope of years.

Upon the Sabbath rest our prayer
Sat gray and heavy as the loss
We carried with us as we left
The desolation of the cross.

Today at dawn we take our myrrh,
As gray and heavy as our prayer,
To mark with our farewell the flesh
Of him we left untended there.

But look! The gray and heavy sky
Breaks into light where there was none.
The song of larks rolls back the clouds

In homage to the rising Sun!

Hymn Text: LM; Genevieve Glen, OSB; ©2004, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO 80536-8942

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tasting Dust

Good Friday 2017

Do you know the taste of dust?

Of course you do.  “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  The old Ash Wednesday admonition echoes Psalm 103: “As a father has compassion on his children, the Lord’s compassion is on those who fear him. For he knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are dust.” God never forgets, though we do.  As Genesis 2 tells our story, God was there, on that riverbank in Eden, right down in the dust, mixing up a batch of clay from earth and river water, and breathing life into it: the first human being!  And God still remembers it.

The westerns beloved of my childhood—as confessed in the previous post—taught me many things about the perennial battle of good vs. evil, though I hardly thought in those terms as a five-year-old entranced by the very first TV cowboys on my grandparents’ brand new set.  One thing those cowboys taught me was the inescapable connection between dust and death.  Many a gunfighter on those shows “licked the dust” or “bit the dust.”  And I gradually learned that they never got up to rinse out their mouths and go on with life. 

Years later, I was a little startled much later to hear the psalmist express the emphatic hope that the enemies of Psalm 72’s royal hero would “lick the dust!”  But in the gospels, it is instead the hero himself who licks the dust.  We see it happening before our eyes in the Stations of the Cross where we remember Jesus falling down on the dusty road to Calvary, not once but three times.  The gospels don’t record those stories, but it’s not hard to believe that a fairly young man once muscled by years of toting carpenters’ tools and wooden beams and heavy tables and stools, and further strengthened by a three years’ trek the length and breadth of Palestine and beyond, could at last have exhausted all his resources in preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons, and even raising the dead.  “To lay down one’s life” for all the others means far more than dying. Giving all he had to give, he spent himself utterly in the battle of good vs. evil.  And, worn out at last by sleep deprivation, emotional abuse, physical punishment, and blood loss, he fell three times.  He got up again each time, the foretaste of mortality dry as dust in his mouth as he walked on toward that final showdown.  

In a very different time and place, and on a very different scale, it was the same battle I had first learned about when I watched good guys and bad guys fight it out in those long ago days when you could tell which side a gunslinger was on by the color of his hat.  (And yes, they were all men.  Annie Oakley was all for show and not for real.  But I wasn’t deceived.  I already knew that the fight wasn’t limited by gender.)  In those old stories, the good guys always won, so I was not really prepared, on first hearing the gospel story, to see the Good Guy bite the dust so irrevocably on the cross.  Surely he would get up again?  He had to!

Like Jesus, we all know the taste of dust.  We are children of that ancient riverbank, born from dust and to dust destined to return.  And we too have fallen face down on the road, more times than we can count.  And we have wondered how we would ever find the strength to stand up and journey on.

The answer awaits us on Easter.  There we will remember again that Jesus, clay broken and ground back to dust on Good Friday, did get up again.  But not like any TV cowboy getting to his feet unassisted, dusting himself off, holstering his six-gun, whistling for his horse and riding off into the sunset to get back to business as usual.  Jesus got up unseen and emerged from the tomb transformed, robed in glory, never to die again.

And, taking the hand he stretches out to us, so will we!

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Donkey's Story

Palm Sunday 2017

Many years ago, at the beginning of my religious life, before I became a Benedictine, I was taught the Ignatian method of meditation.  Since I had grown up in an inner world rich in imagination, the part that appealed to me was the “composition of place” and what went with it:  imagining the scene of whatever biblical story the daily meditation book set before us, and then imagining myself into the story by “becoming” any character in the scene, just as I had imagined myself into a wide array of the cowboy stories and fairy tales and adventure sagas  I had once listened to on the radio or watched on TV or read.  The Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid and Superman were my personal friends.  I carried stories in my head wherever I went, much to the dismay of some of my teachers.

However, as a new Sister-in-the-making I tried to be suitably restrained, focusing on the holy people in the gospel scenes and following the scripts they lived by.  I didn’t think my formation directors would have approved of my identifying with the star in the sky over Bethlehem reporting on what lay below (and what an interesting report it would be!) or one of the lilies of the field arrayed in scarlet and gold and smelling like my favorite lilies of the valley (I was still adjusting to an all-black wardrobe).

But I am older now.  I don’t use this exact method of prayer as such very often, but sometimes I still indulge in a little inner story telling based on the scriptures.  One day, I was thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37),  well-worn and even worn out by years of reading commentaries, hearing homilies, and pondering from every possible angle and some that are impossible.  Having just about exhausted the imaginative possibilities of the poor man beaten and left for dead by robbers, the passing priest and Levite, and the admirable Samaritan himself, I began to notice the other characters in the story, the secondary players no one ever talks about.  There were the villains and the inn keeper, of course, but my wayward imagination turned to an even less likely character: the Samaritan’s donkey. 

Donkeys were very much a part of Jesus’ world.  They were your everyday beasts of burden, much more down to earth than the exotic camels who fared better in the desert than in town. When Jesus speaks about the gate too narrow to carry all our bits and pieces through, he mentions no donkeys, but I often conjure up a picture of one with fat panniers that simply will not go through that gate, leaving the owner in a painful pickle.  When Jesus argues with the Pharisees about healing on a Sabbath, he turns  to the common example of what happens when someone’s donkey falls into a pit—no one is expected to leave it there till the next day, poor thing.  And of course  what Christmas meditation would be complete without the donkeys:  the one we always assume Mary rode to Bethlehem—it would have been a long walk for a woman so heavily pregnant—and the one artistic tradition has made an indispensable feature of the nativity scene, despite the fact that the infancy narratives in the gospels make no mention of ox or ass?  (The Christian imagination seems to have borrowed them from God’s lament in Isaiah 1:2-3:  “Sons have I raised and reared, but they have rebelled against me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” In the stable they stand in mute counterpoint to God’s own children, who “have rebelled against me!” (Isaiah 1:2).  So ox and ass are a theological comment on the birth of Christ.  If only they would tell their story!

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the donkey is a willing silent partner in the Samaritan’s work of mercy.  Those of us whose daily lives don’t bring us into much contact with working animals might think that a common beast of burden had no choice but to collaborate with the owner's plan, but it isn’t so.  Surely you have seen, as I have, pictures of an over-laden donkey solving its problem by sitting down splat in the middle of the road and refusing to move.  And there is nothing quite as immovable as a donkey that has made a single-minded decision to quit!  The owner’s whip, the driver’s cudgel, the air blue with curses, all fail to move the beast.  Without bothering with words, it announces, “As soon as you lighten the load, I’ll get up.  Till then, good luck!” The Samaritan’s donkey must surely have been carrying at least saddle bags for its owner’s trip to wherever and perhaps it also bore some of his trade goods or purchases.  Although we can hope he lightened the load a bit before heaving a man who was all dead weight onto the creature’s back, the burden could hardly have been light, but the donkey went along with the idea, willingly doing what needed to be done.

We’ve all met him in other guises, of course.  Every household, every neighborhood, every workplace has bearers of burdens who shoulder whatever load the situation requires of them, unprotesting, unnoticed—and absolutely indispensable.  They claim no credit, make no demands for a lighter load, and, more often than not, are undeterred by the fact that no one thinks to thank them.  This story calls to mind the ones I live with and makes me grateful to them, sorry to have taken them for granted—and ashamed that I can't claim to be one of them.

So I think rather highly of the Samaritan’s donkey, and I hope the Samaritan gave him a big bag of oats once they got to the inn and the victim was unloaded. But I think the real reason he attracted my attention to begin with is that he reminded me of another donkey, one I first met in the era when the Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood played regularly across my mind’s screen during study period, though I should have been doing my homework.  I was probably eleven or twelve when Sister Stanislaus gave us this poem to read, around this time of year:

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked 
   And figs grew upon thorn, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
   Then surely I was born. 

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil’s walking parody 
   On all four-footed things. 

The tattered outlaw of the earth, 
   Of ancient crooked will; 
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, 
   I keep my secret still. 

Fools! For I also had my hour; 
   One far fierce hour and sweet: 
There was a shout about my ears, 
   And palms before my feet. 

G.K. Chesterton

Riveted, I’ve never forgotten the poem, or the donkey.  It comes back to me every year on Palm Sunday especially, as  I “watch” on my inner screen the odd entry into Jerusalem, with the donkey bearing the Bearer. This time it is He who is choosing to carry the dead weight of our own sinful, beaten and broken humanity through the narrow gate into the light beyond, unprotesting, unnoticed by large portions of this world’s crowds—and absolutely indispensable.

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, October 21, 2016


The world writes essays in my notebook every day. Or at least paragraphs, yearning, stretching, tugging at my elbow to become essays.

Take the red candle and the red-headed woman in chapel this evening. The candle isn't really red. It's a short, fat white candle in a red glass set in an iron scrollwork holder affixed to the gray stucco pillar some anonymous artisan with a pallet of stucco has decorated with very subtle swirls and flourishes. There are twelve of them around the church, silent memorials of the church's consecration, November 7, 1999, lit on the anniversary and other consecratory days and anniversaries, unlit otherwise. This evening, the candle, unlit as usual, is surmounted by a band of sunlight, unwelcome after a day gray with promises of rain never kept. The woman, a guest, sits alone in the guest pews, as quiet and as still as the candle above her. She is dressed in black and gray, but her flame is a cap of short red hair playing to straw.

Once again the hidden Artist has twirled a brush in the palate of ordinary circumstance to create, however fleeting, a still life moment of quiet beauty.  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Cough Drop Pep Talks

This morning, my cough drop wrapper spoke to me.  Oh, not out loud.  But I noticed that the white wrapper trellised in dark yellow also bore bright blue markings.  Unfolded and smoothed out, the wrapper yielded up a series of brief inspirational sayings, like “Get back in there champ!”, “Go for it!”, and “Be resilient!”  Every wrapper in my pocket carried a different set of messages.  Only one admitted, “A PEP TALK IN EVERY DROP.”

Why?  I mean, who reads cough drop wrappers?  I do evidently, but I never have until today, and I’ve used Hall’s Menthol Cough Drops forever.  If the wrappers have been talking to me all along, I haven’t been listening. So why does Hall’s bother? I can’t imagine that little printed pep talks on wrappers usually scrunched up and tossed without a glance sell more cough drops than the next brand whose wrappers remain mute and silent.  I can’t imagine Hall’s needs them to.  They make great menthol cough drops.  I didn’t choose them for the printed wisdom.  I chose them for their blessed ability to silence the coughs induced by postnasal drip before they can ricochet through the meditative silence of my monastery chapel at the worst possible moments.  I would continue to use them if the wisdom disappeared.  I imagine most customers are like me.  So why bother with the printed pep talks?

Perhaps one day an anonymous cough drop wrapper designer in Hall’s wrapper-printer department suddenly gave in to the human craving for words.  And crave them we do.  We were made, after all, in the image of the divine Wordsmith who fashioned everything we know from an unlikely palate of possibilities boiling in the primal darkness using nothing but words (see Genesis 1). To top off the work, the Wordsmith’s final words created us in the Speaker’s likeness and set us as untried lieutenants to collaborate in that first garden world summoned out of nothing by the sheer power of language.

The first human beings learned the hard way, as we all do, that not every word is trustworthy.  We reaped the fruit, literally, of the first lie told to a gullible listener not yet well versed in the art of discernment (see Genesis 3).  And with the fruit, we harvested new capacities to wield words to deceive, to harm, to tear down the harmonies we long for.  But we have never forgotten our first essential truth:  by words we were made, by words we were woven together into the fabric of the universe, by words we learned and grew and forged bonds with other hearers in the vibrant ever-changing network we call life, by words we became ourselves.  Without words, we are nothing but small mute shells forever concealing our story in seed. And we couldn’t bear it.  Why else would Helen Keller have bothered to fight so hard to make her way out of the silent isolation into which she was born? Why would Annie Sullivan’s fingers moving in her palm have touched her so powerfully that they brought her finally as speaker and writer into the heart of the human communion?

It was not accident but insight born of experience that led the psalmists to describe the shadowy half-life of the dead as they did:  “the silence” (Psalm 115:17). In the grave, human beings did not cease to exist, but their isolation was even worse than annihilation.  Unable to hear or speak, they were forever cut off from one another, from the living, from God in a solitude unbroken by any word.  The cliché “silent as the grave” is born of a very old memory and a very old belief.

When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, reflected on the creed’s statement, “[Christ] descended into hell,” he spoke of hell as utter loneliness so sealed in upon itself that no word of love can penetrate it to draw its inhabitants into relationship with the speaker or with other hearers.  This is not the silence of the deaf or the mute but the silence of those have severed themselves absolutely and by choice from language.  “The silence” is the antithesis of our humanity.[1]  Even those deprived of hearing and speech by physical circumstances, like Helen Keller,  refuse that silence and find ways to break out of it with gestures or facial expressions or pictorial art. And when they can’t, others find ways to reach into their silence to bridge that terrible, unbearable gap even without any sign of success.  Think of a mother talking daily to her comatose child daily, year after year.

No wonder our craving for words, for the touch of a speaker, for the awareness of other hearers even if we may never know who they are, is so great that we are willing to write and to read little unimaginative words of encouragement on a cough drop wrapper.  “Words are us” is not an advertising cliché.  It is the fundamental statement of who we are and yearn to be.

Thank you, Hall’s!

 Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga

[1] Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,  2004)  Kindle Books, loc 3574-3692.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  The Gospel of the day is the story of the Annunciation, Luke 1:26-35.  

What is most haunting about the story of the Annunciation is not what's said but what isn't.

No where, no when, no time of day, no picture for the eye to hold .

No introductions, no preliminaries except to calm her fears so she could hear. No warning of the earthquake.

No question except her "how?" No "will you?", though the question quivers in the air between them.

No explanations on either side, really. Just three stark statements: "You will conceive." "Yes." "The Holy Spirit will come."

No talk at all about what followed, about that moment when Word and flesh met and melded, shielded in unfathomable silence.

But nothing would ever be the same again.


©2014 Abbey of St. Walburga