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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Mountain Climbing

“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s!” (Isaiah 2:3)  Isaiah’s invitation sets our itinerary for the Advent season. Come along, we have someplace important to go!

Why the mountain of the Lord? Aren’t we supposed to be headed for Bethlehem? In the immediate future, of course: Christmas is less than weeks away. Stables large and small are coming out of attics, closets, basements and garages and getting dusted off. Shepherds and mangers and magi are being unwrapped. Lost sheep, lost camels, lost angels are being hunted out. We won’t even talk about the little town of Bethlehem already floating through the air at the grocery store. In Church, we pray, “Come, Lord, Jesus!” But wrapped deep in the memories of Christmases past, we know he is already here, has been for as long as we can remember and longer. It’s very comforting to say a prayer we know has already been answered. It may be the only prayer that carries with it no anxiety, no uncertainty, no bothersome questions. We speak of Bethlehem as if it lay in the future, but we firmly believe the great events that marked it out for its unforgettable place in world history took place long ago.

The mountain of the Lord, on the other hand, lies in the past and in the future. The mountain Isaiah is using as a visual aid for his prophecy is the mountain on which Jerusalem, and particularly the Jerusalem Temple, were built. That mountain is still there, but it has become both a holy relic of past greatness, the Old City at the heart of a thriving modern one,  the center for conflict among religions that Isaiah never knew, the stubborn foothold of belief with blood on its stones, dust in its streets, and merchants hawking tourist souvenirs in its bazaars. 

However, Isaiah takes off from the clamor of reality into poetic visions of the mountain of the Lord as it will be when all the promises have been fulfilled. He paints a memorable picture of predator and prey gathered together in peace: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-7)
Lambs inviting wolves to dinner? Leopards and kid goats lying down together, neither one dead? Bears and lions grazing on grass and hay, with cattle as their table companions? Really? What has to happen for that dream to come true? Not surprisingly, what must happen is conversion. Surprisingly, the conversion doesn’t turn wolves into lambs (or lambs into wolves, for that matter), lions into calves, bears into cows. No one has to turn into what she or he is not. What changes is relationships: the animals remain the same animals, but the roles of predator and prey disappear. God, speaking through the prophet, sums it up succinctly: “They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 9:9a).

Wolves, lions, and bears won’t starve on God’s mountain, mind you. No one will. God will provide a new menu: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Isaiah 25:6).

This culinary imagery captures in a few words a radical shift in cosmic food service. The Second Letter of Peter describes evil as the fiercest of predators: “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour” (2 Peter 5:8).  C.S. Lewis expands this image into senior demon Screwtape’s description of the philosophy of hell to his nephew, junior demon Wormwood: “Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger.” In this context, “us” includes Satan and all his demonic minions. We, of course, would never do such a thing. But Screwtape sums up the demonic dietary philosophy in a single sentence that skewers us to the wall as we’re trying to disown the image: “To be is to be in competition.” Carol Flinders, author of several books on medieval women mystics, says she once caught herself trying to bolster up her sense of self by pointing out (to herself) those who didn't play tennis as well as she did, those who were shorter or fatter or otherwise didn’t measure up to her. Her summary is cuts close to home: “a sense of self is something you build and consolidate over time by defeating or disempowering other selves. … [S]omething very like religious faith is involved here—the faith that I will be confident and secure, and, by extension, more fully a subject and ‘human,’ in proportion to the number of individuals I have defeated and disempowered – or could if I wanted to.”

But on God’s holy mountain, this unholy competition of devourer and devoured, predator and prey, will vanish. Death will become an ancient chapter in a closed book: “[God] will destroy death forever” (Isaiah 25:8).  What will bring about this bright new world? “[T]he earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). God complains now that “my people do not know my ways,” (cf Psalm 95:10)  but when we reach the mountaintop, we will. Knowledge of God includes intimate knowledge of God’s ways. Remember that “knowledge” in the bible is not a phenomenon of the mind but a communion of being. We will know God and know God’s ways and recognize that they are our ways too, we who are made in the divine image. So we will no longer be driven by a twisted sense of survival to devour one another, because God doesn’t. On the contrary, God will feed us all on a menu that “rich food” and “fine wine” don’t really quite capture. Part of Jesus’ job is to reveal the Father to us not merely by speaking explanatory words but by doing as God does. And Jesus nourishes us with his own very life (cf. John 6). Now there is a menu no cordon bleu can ever surpass!

But why is the prophet tickling our imagination with pretty pictures of idylls and feasts? What do lions and lambs and groaning festal tables have to do with your life and mine in the nitty gritty where we live? These passages from Isaiah, and more like them, are set before us during Advent to force noses from grindstones and eyes from the dirty sidewalk with stabs of hope that force us to look up and look ahead. These flashes are the carrot and stick that drive Advent hope: here is what awaits you; what are you doing now to make yourself and your world ready?

Hope is not an escape from today but the energy God gives us clamber up the mountain toward tomorrow. Most of humanity has a desire for peace tucked into pockets somewhere deep in the mind. Most of us yearn for what the prophet promises. We might have other pictures for it, we might be plagued with doubts about whether or not it can ever happen, we might struggle with temptations to sit down on the nearest rock and take a nap, but the prophet goads us: climb!

Wait a minute!  What about Bethlehem? The Christmas story-- an earthquake wrapped in yet other comforting images of a devoted couple beside a manger, angels caroling in winter skies, shepherds trudging in from the fields to see the sight--is base camp for our climb. Soon now, we will stop there for a week or two. We might think we’re taking time out from the arduous work of scaling that ever-inviting, ever-receding mountain, but Christmas is far more than a vacation from school and work, a truce in wars as small as the family and as large as the world. Christmas is where we meet once again the most important person in the whole story, the One who will lead and accompany us every inch of the way: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-(climbing) with-us.

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperCollins e-books; © 1942, 1996, C . S. Lewis Pte. Ltd) 94.
Carol Lee Flinders, At the Root of This Longing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) 294.

©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sheep and Goats

Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King.  The gospel chosen for Year A is the story of the last judgment, found in Matthew 25:31-46.

Born left-handed, I get a little twitchy when I read this parable.  Jesus assumes we know more than we do about the work habits of Palestinian shepherds.  Why separate sheep from goats?  His original hearers probably knew, but the rest of the story tricks us, in our twenty-first century ignorance, into assuming that the purpose is to sort the unacceptable from those who won’t make the cut.  Sheep to the right, goats to the left, and you know which one you want be when that roll is called up yonder.

It seems a little unfair.  What makes a sheep better than a goat?  The answer is: absolutely nothing.  Genesis 1, where the business of distinctions and separations got started, cuts light from darkness, firmament from earth, land from sea, but makes no mention of sheep vs. goats.  Verse 24 would lump them together as “tame animals,” as opposed to wild animals and ground crawlers.  However, not one of the seven days puts any hierarchy of “ok” and “not ok” into all these disparities.  On the contrary, God pronounces it all good.  So, God made both sheep and goats.  The Israelites made use of both for their coats, hides, milk and meat.  No reason anywhere for the sheep to feel safer than the goats when judgment roles round.

In fact, for the listener both sheep and goats turn out to be just furry distractions from the main question, which concerns choices and consequences.  The only distinction that counts is between the “doers” and the “didn’t-doers.”  Both groups have one thing in common: surprise.  “When did we…?” “When didn’t we…?”  I wonder if the reason they don’t recognize what they have or haven’t done in Jesus’ list is that they’re both thinking too big.  “I was hungry and you gave me food” could mean, as we often imagine, “I was on the streets and you cooked for me at the soup kitchen (or didn’t),” but it could also mean, “I needed a peanut butter sandwich after school, and you were too busy gossiping on the phone to fix it for me,” or “You knew how much I loved chocolate cake, but on the day after my birthday, you ate two pieces and left me none—and you had just said you wanted to lose weight!”  “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,”  could mean, “I was one of those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, but I came across the Rio Grande, and you closed your neighborhood to me.” But it could also mean, “I was the new kid in your class, and you turned your back on me at recess,” or “I was the new hire at the office, and you refused to show me where to get paper.”  The dramatic satisfies the imagination more than the everyday, but it’s in the everyday where the commandments of love are mostly lived. 

Whatever the details of the times when the sheep did and the goats didn’t, Jesus intended the parable to serve as shock therapy to bounce us out of our complacency, especially our pious complacency.  In case we imagine we have the right to stand right up there at the front of the Temple with the Pharisee in that other parable and read off the list of the religious good deeds we’ve done and demand the award we deserve, Jesus basically tells us we’ve got another think coming.  It’s not that such things as prayer, almsgiving, and tithing don’t matter.  It’s more that they’re easier to fake, at least to ourselves, than spending time at the sickbed or trying to understand the person imprisoned in a bottle of pills or spending Sunday afternoon at the nursing home instead of the mall or writing that email greeting I've been putting off to a relative stranger who asked for my help.  The deepest identity of the person at the receiving end (or neglecting end) of what we’ve done (or not done) may very well surprise us, but we’ve had ample warning about the door being open or closed when we arrive at the end of our story.  Choose the action, choose the consequence:  God has been trying desperately to teach us to grasp that equation since the first scriptures hit the first piece of parchment.   

All in all, I don’t find any of the gospel parables of the last judgment  very consoling.   I don’t think they’re meant to be.  Jesus doesn’t tell them in order to pat complacency on the back.  When I put this story of sheep and goats down, I want to beg the storyteller, “I didn’t choose my dominant hand, but I can think of a few other choices I’d like to revise! Couldn’t you put in one more chapter, one where I can at least make a stab at putting things right?”

Then I realize he has.  Its title is, “Right Now.”

©2014 Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Long-Fingered Light

Easter lies too far beyond our experience to grasp much more than than impressions of startling appearances of a beloved Lord and Master who is but isn’t dead, who is but isn’t a ghost, who 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 we can really picture.  He appeared unannounced in locked rooms, walked incognito with puzzled and 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 of accounts of who saw what when and who believed whom—but quite often didn’t.  A stammer was probably the most honest way they could have described a reality into and over which they stumbled in happy but fearful discovery.  I sometimes feel as if all our Easter alleluia’s are our own
contemporary way of stammering out a truth for which we have no really coherent words.

The risen Christ, transformed into the Fire hidden at the heart of human flesh which set Peter babbling on Tabor, sheds a light so bright it blinds us.  Paul could tell us something about that from his experience on the Damascus road.  But in fact, all the early believers could.  The gospel stories of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection, and the Acts of the Apostles, which we read in its entirety during the Easter season during the liturgy, is the story of that light reaching out of an unimaginable future to touch one by one the dark places in which Christ’s early followers walked: the apostles’ fear, Mary Magdalene’s grief, Thomas’ angry doubt, Peter’s shame.  Those are consoling stories because the familiar and beloved Master, Teacher and Healer appears in person to cast light into experiences we too have known.  Fear, grief, doubt and shame are all shadows, sometimes consuming shadows, through which we all have walked.

But the story doesn’t stop with those personal encounters.  Jesus disappears from the scene at the Ascension, or seems to, but the Light does not.  We see a lame man condemned to a lifetime of begging at the Temple Gate spring up and walk at the sound of Jesus’ name invoked by Peter.  We hear of fights between Christians of differing ethnic origins settled by Peter’s creative wisdom.  Peter had learned a thing or two about humility by then and saw that no one could do everything that was needed, so he assigned some community members to be deacons who would care for practical needs the apostles couldn’t address.  Time management through delegation is not a new invention, just a new name for an old one.  We recoil at the sight of an angry mob driven by their religious beliefs to stone Stephen to death only to see Stephen himself walk through a horrible death with the courage inspired by the sight of the risen Christ, whom no one else, apparently, could see.  We see disciples jailed and freed, Paul held in suspicion by fellow Christians (for very good reason),  apostles arguing about what to require of Jewish converts, preachers thrown out of synagogues and cities, communities split in their loyalties to different leaders. We see, in other words, all the dark corners in which even Christians and Chrisitan communities sometimes find themselves even now, some two millennia after the resurrection.  We too know of crippling illness and injury, of jealousies that split families and communities, of offended believers casting killing stones—a story that appeared on this morning’s news, in fact—of Christian ministers jailed, of Church leaders held in suspicion, of Church leaders arguing policy and practice, of preachers fired or driven out of town, of communities divided by loyalties to opposing pastors.  The darkness of the New Testament church is far from outdated.

When we read Acts, we do not have the consolation of seeing the Jesus we’ve met in the gospels appear in these stories to solve all the problems.  What we see instead is what he promised:  the power of Spirit and Word at work illuminating flawed human beings like ourselves to see things in a new way, to discover suddenly what it means to “love your enemies as yourself,” to pick up pieces and find creative ways to put them back together so that the image of God can shine more clearly in a world still deeply held in the grip of darkness. 

The Light of the risen Christ still reaches long fingers from the hidden depths of God into our present shadows to pry us out of the dark grip of sin and death.  I cannot myself imagine the risen Christ, not really.  All my inner pictures seem unreal.  And I certainly cannot explain him.  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.

Copyright 2014 Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


A shorter version of this reflection appears in the April, 2014 issue of Give Us This Day, published by The Liturgical Press (

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 down river 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—God’s gifts of love, our own love for our the tasks God has given us, our love for those among whom we were planted in this world. A gifted storyteller puts the gift to use writing trash for cash. A gifted singer holds back songs that change the world for fear of criticism. 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—don’t be a prig.”

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? 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 the open door. 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.

Note: The phrase "for a handful of silver" comes from Robert Browning's moving poem about betrayal and forgiveness, The Lost Leader. See

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga