Tuesday, December 25, 2007


My deepest apologies for those of you who have been waiting for the next installment on the topic of, er, waiting! Other responsibilities have prevented me from posting any new entries since early December. I hope to get on with the business of blogging later this week! Meanwhile, I wish all a very blessed Christmas season and a joyful New Year!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Advent: the Wait

Advent, we say, is the season of waiting. We might more truly say that Advent is the season of desire—and desire unfulfilled, at that. Waiting is form of emptiness, but it’s an emptiness that implies expectation: we wait for someone or something, do we not? And we desire the arrival of what we await.

As anyone knows who has sat at a traffic light clearly controlled by an electronic switch that is out to lunch, waiting is not always constructive. There are at least two ways waiting can be warped out of true. Neither one results in real advent waiting.

Waiting Warped
First, waiting stripped of expectation is a resigned passivity. We’ve all experienced it when we’ve waited too long and see no sign of the arrival of whoever or whatever has kept us waiting. In Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, life is painted as waiting drawn out to absurdity because Godot never comes. The one who never comes fades into fantasy. Waiting pales to mere wishful thinking. Life goes on as usual without much hope of change.

There is a second, more active form of waiting that is still not Advent waiting. It happens when expectation has become dread because the watcher does not look forward to the arrival of the one awaited. The apocalyptic passages read during the last weeks of the liturgical year and the first week of Advent give voice to this dark side of our waiting. When Christ comes, they say, the world as we know it will fall apart. Complacency stands up and cries “Amen! That’s exactly what I was afraid of! Let him take is time, life is fine just the way it is. Not perfect, maybe, but tolerable, familiar, comfortable as an old pair of slippers that my feet have grown to fit. We can wait awhile longer.” As long as we can envision Christ’s dreaded coming as something far in the future, we can remain as we are. What we perhaps don’t want to hear from these readings is that they are not necessarily about the cosmic future. They are about the moment Christ becomes real in our lives, and we fall apart in that radical makeover we call conversion. Waiting in dread for this kind of change to afflict us becomes a matter of warding off what we do not desire.

Waiting stripped of resignation becomes a destructive apathy. How many Advent seasons are undermined from the start because we don’t really expect anything to be different when Christmas arrives, except that we’ll probably be a little tireder, a little more frazzled, and a lot poorer. We might as well fill up our time as best we can because we’re going to be waiting a long time. Let’s make ourselves useful in the meantime, or at least let’s make ourselves happy. Waiting shaped by dread becomes an even more destructive impetus to frantic distraction from the underlying abyss of despair. Let’s keep ourselves busy enough to shut out the unsettling fear that what we see might not be all we get and that what we get under the artificial Christmas tree might not be the goodies we asked for but might, instead, be Christ—a consummation we devoutly do not wish.

And real Advent waiting? Look for the next post ...
©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Obey Whom?

Today is the solemnity of Christ the King in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. The feast was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical letter Quas primas. The “war to end all wars” had itself ended a few years previously, but another loomed on the horizon as the issues unresolved by the Treaty of Versailles continued to fester. Political instability, masked by a frenetic cultural quest for meaning or, lacking meaning, pleasure, drowned out any intimation of peace. A worldview devoid of God prevailed in many parts of what was once considered Christendom. It found political embodiment in communism. Pope Pius diagnosed rejection of Christ’s sovereignty as the root of this illness of the western spirit. He created the solemnity of Christ the King to promote an alternative—and, he believed, healing—view of the universe.
We no longer live in the political, social and ecclesial world of 1925. Except in those countries fortunate enough to be governed by upright working monarchs, the imagery of kings and queens has been relegated to the realms of fantasy and distasteful journalism. Nevertheless, the question raised by Pius XI remains: whom do we obey? It was not a new question when he raised it. It is as old as Eden. Although we customarily label the primal sin of the first human beings as “disobedience”, we are speaking in shorthand. Genesis 3:1-7 paints the human tragedy not simply as disobedience to God but as the transfer of obedience from one “god” to another. The serpent, who may in fact have represented a Canaanite deity in the world of the biblical storytellers, persuades Eve to obey him rather than the Creator-God by eating the fruit that God had forbidden. The serpent’s argument awakens a god every human being can recognize: the god Ego. The serpent appeals to the human desire to be autonomous and in charge. Thereby, in a move characteristic of evil in every age, the serpent subtly redirects human desire from a desire for communion with God to a desire for the supremacy of the self created in the image of God. Therein lies the heart of the tragedy: the reader familiar with the first chapter of Genesis knows that in the story of origins told there, Eve and Adam are, in fact, already “like God”. They have been made as the very image of God cast in human being (Genesis 1: 26-27). Eve, and apparently Adam, have forgotten it, but perhaps the serpent has not. He calls upon their own inmost but unrecognized truth to destroy them. This sleight-of-mind which distorts a good into its travesty is evil’s thumbprint. According to the story, Eve, and then Adam, were the first to fall for it, but they were certainly not the last, as the unraveling of the world in Genesis 4-11 is intended to show.

Their dilemma is still alive and well: whom do we obey? No longer in humanity’s first naïveté, we need no actual serpent to prod us into abandoning one God for another. Sadly, we are often all too ready to burn the incense of our lives to the god Ego, who guarantees the satisfaction of our desires as we misunderstand them. A little devil dust astutely sprinkled into our inner eye, and we are suddenly blinded to our own history, never mind the larger history of the world. We forget not only who we actually are but also what misery we have called down upon ourselves in the past by obeying a god other than the One in whose image we are made.

Take the recent U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving as a small but potent example. If we were among that small portion of the world’s population fortunate enough to have the means to eat well, we may very well have eaten rather too well, or at least too generously. The aura of holiday seasons the array of festal foods with a sense of carefree irresponsibility. Calories and cholesterol be—well, consigned to a warm climate. It’s Thanksgiving. Eat, drink and be merry. Add some beer and chips with the football game—the one we watch from the couch, not the one we play with our kids. Consequences? Not to worry. When this year, like last year and the years before, the god Ego, whom we have obeyed in its bodily disguise, exacts its ugly penalty in the form of the physical ills caused by overindulgence, the pharmaceutical industry rushes to our assistance with promises of immediate relief in the form of antacids, anti-gas capsules, analgesics, and maybe even a little sleeping pill to help us to sleep it all off in blissful unconsciousness. Stripped of the golden haze of holiday nostalgia, it’s really not a very pretty picture.

In his rule of life, St. Benedict (480-ca. 547 CE) proposes a different (but unpopular) antidote: just don’t overindulge in the first place (Rule of Benedict 39:7). Good advice, and not only for Benedictines. It is actually part of Benedict’s larger campaign against the worship of that alien god, the self out of place and out of proportion, whom psychology has baptized “ego”. Obedience is one of Benedict’s central tenets of life. What he really means by obedience, though, is undoing Eden by choosing to obey the real, life-giving God this time. If you shake off the devil dust, this alternative is no loner as unpalatable as it once seemed The God we are to obey is the God who, unlike the serpent, has our genuine long-term well-being at heart. Benedict works constantly to dethrone the ego that has taken God’s place by advocating every form of stamping out self-will. The goal is not dishrags or doormats but healthy human beings living life fully in the image of the God by whom and for whom they were created. The means is radical adherence to Christ as the source and center, the rule and ruler, of our daily lives. Christ is the image of God embodied in humanity brought to its full maturity. Within the limits of our created human being, Christ is who we want to be when we grow up.

Centuries before Pius XI, Benedict did actually challenge us to honor the sovereignty of Christ: “This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord” (RB Prologue 3). Benedict makes it clear that lip service won’t do it. A once-a-year-and-then-forgotten celebration of Christ the King is not enough. In fact, although the word “king” would have had real-life meaning in Benedict’s day, he uses it only twice, both times in speaking of Christ. What he repeats instead is the one all-sufficient directive that puts even obedience in its right context: “…prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11). Nothing. Even and especially not the self-in-isolation who has wrought such havoc in our lives and in the world around us. The full sentence reads: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. (RB 72:11-12). That is a petition no other god can grant.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bells: a Monastic Apocalypse

Not long ago, I was walking down the short hall through which the nuns pass from our monastery to the chapel. The fall day was warm. Sunlight fell through the wall of windows lining the hall and warmed the tiles, all in variegated shades of dusty red, dusty rose and gray. The moment seemed endless.

Across this sunny idyll fell the sound of the monastery bell summoning the community to prayer. It provoked an unexpected memory. In the film version of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, set in Australia between the world’s final nuclear war and the inevitable moment when the last remaining lives will be extinguished, one scene shows a revival in which an evangelist harangues his listeners to prepare for the end. Above his head hangs a banner on which is printed, “There is still time, brothers!” At the end of the movie, when everyone is gone, the camera pans the streets of the city, all deserted. Finally, it leads the viewer into the empty square above which flaps the banner: “There is still time, brothers!” Seeing it on television in the early 60’s, when apocalypse was in the air, was an arresting moment. I have never forgotten it.

Fall carries its own poignancy. On that late fall day, remembering the movie, I heard the same message in the bell: “There is still time”. The mundane meaning was that there was still time to get to the chapel in time for the appointed Office in the daily round of Liturgy of the Hours. Nuns in our monastery develop an uncanny sense of timing: “There goes the bell. Five minutes. I still have time to…” We admit it, we laugh at ourselves, we wish we were a bit more prompt about dropping our work and hurrying to the chapel as St. Benedict exhorts in his Rule: “On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.” (RB 43:1-3) Still we find ourselves, sometimes anyway, squeezing in that last word on the computer, that last swish of the mop, that last paragraph of the book, with just enough time to be in our places when the signal is given to begin the Office. The bell is our friend: it tells us that there is still time.

On that late fall day, however, with the closing scene of the movie on my mind I heard the message with a difference urgency. In the prologue of the Rule, Benedict himself spells it out: “If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then—while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life—we must run and do now what will profit us forever.” (RB Prologue 42-44). The bell does tell us that there is still time to get where we are going, but that isn’t exactly where we think. Nor is the time between here and there as endless as it seems on a warm, sunny lazy autumn afternoon. The bell tells us to drop the small tasks we imagine to be so important—and many of them are, in their time. But their time is not now, says the bell. Now is the time to leave them behind and go at once to attend to the great work, the work of prayer, which is our rehearsal for an eternity in communion with our beloved Christ and our service to all those we hope to gather up with us into that eventual delight.

During these closing weeks of the liturgical year, we read a good bit of the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testament. Its language can be frightening: temples falling, wars and rumors of wars, earthquake, plague, the moon turned to blood. Not a pretty picture. Its purpose, though, is not to scare the socks off us and send us skittering into the nearest air raid shelter, there to sit out the end-times in relative safely, emerging only when it’s all over. Its purpose is the purpose of the bell: to tell us that time as we know it is not a permanent abode but a ribbon that is unwinding toward its end, whether that end for us is death or universal nuclear destruction. Whether it unwinds slowly or with the speed of light is not given us to know. What is given us to know is that we still have now. “Now” is not to be held lightly. “Now” is not a mere way station through which we pass without noticing it as we hurry on to somewhere else, which always looks more important before we get there. “Now” is the time for our conversatio, our conversion, our shedding of the inessentials that hinder us along the road where, Benedict tells us, “we shall run [toward our end] on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue 49). “Now” matters.

But we don’t have to wait for the apocalyptic readings of the final weeks of the liturgical year to remember what “now” is for and why we cherish it. Daily, every day, the bells—or their equivalent in lives lived outside the monastery—remind us with their kindly urgency: “There is still time, brothers. There is still time, sisters. There is still time.”

Quotations of from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from RB:1980, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981)

©2007 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Doorstep Demons

In a rather entertaining opening to the parable of a dinner invitation gone awry (Luke 14:15-24), Jesus describes the unexpected response of those first invited to a feast. One said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just bought some real estate, and I have to go look at it, please excuse me”; the next one said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just bought a team of oxen, and I have to go look them over, please excuse me”; the third one said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just got married, please excuse me.”

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a bit of land, a pair of work animals, and maybe even an evening à deux for the newly-weds could wait long enough for those invited to go to a party? But no, all of them have fallen prey to the sleight-of-mind typical of doorstep demons.

A retreatant first introduced me to these household pests when she said, “The hardest part of contemplative prayer is getting over the threshold.” In fact, the hardest part of every form of prayer, and of many another gospel work besides, is getting over the threshold because of the doorstep demons camped there. One cannot say what they look like because no one has seen them. One can say, though, what they do. They spread a miasma of ill-feeling between you and what you’ve been inspired to do. The miasma is a distorting fog through which what you were planning suddenly looks much less attractive.

Let’s say you heard the parable of the dinner invitation read in church. It made you laugh, and then it made you want to take a look yourself at an invitation of grace you’ve refused. Come prayer time, you plan to sit down with that parable and use it to help you take a look at what it was you turned down and why. As you open the bible, the story no longer seems either funny or compelling. In fact, it begins to look boring. You’ve heard it so many times. You know what it says. You know what you’re supposed to think about it. “Been there, done that, I think I’ll go get a cup of coffee. I’ll come back in a minute and find something else to pray.” But the headline on the paper sitting by the coffee pot catches your eye. “I’ll just sit down and read this for a minute while I drink my coffee. Otherwise I might spill it on the rug in my room.” The headline story is really interesting and reminds you of an article you’ve been meaning to read on famine in China. You go and look for the article, coffee cup in hand, the well-being of the rug forgotten. You can’t find the article, but your eye falls on that letter you meant to answer yesterday. In the blink of an eye, prayer time is over, the parable is forgotten, and you’re deep into your correspondence. You missed the feast of the Word altogether, but, except for a twinge of guilt, you don’t even give any thought to what you’ve missed. The doorstep demons chalk up another win.

Most of us are a bit less honest than the invited dinner guests. They at least named their doorstep demons honestly as they refused the invitation. We’re a bit more apt to sidle away from the threshold so mysteriously blocked by the demons “boring,” “hard,” “too-much-work-to-get-into-right now,” “painful” (who is usually disguised as one of the others), or downright “you-just-don’t-want-to-go-there-and-you-know-it”. We throw out excuses behind us as we go, creating our own trail of fog, which deceives neither God nor ourselves, really. And always we are the losers. It was a great party. We just didn’t go.

The most effective way to deal with doorstep demons is to recognize that they’re there and pray for the miasma to clear. If God could blow the Red Sea aside, God can blow away a little fog. Then look the doorstep demons in the eye, call them by name and then walk right through them. They aren’t actually very substantial. You say, “Look, you ‘fake-sense-of-urgency’, that pair of oxen you’re throwing across that doorway really could wait. They’re bought and paid for, they’ve been stabled and fed, they don’t need me right now. I’ll take care of them as soon as prayer time is over.” And you’ll find the little pests have disappeared, leaving the threshold clear for you to cross.

The feast is worth the effort.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints

Today is the Solemnity of All Saints--the day when we remember all those, publicly acknowledged or known only to a handful, who have completed their journey into the fullness of life in Christ.

We celebrate, and rightly, their fidelity to Christ, but when their stories are honestly told, these men and women serve also as living signs of Christ's unwavering fidelity to us. None of us needs much convincing that God is with us when times are good, but it's a different story when times are bad. It can be heartening, then, to recognize that God stood by them in every painful circumstance: political and religious persecution (the apostles, the Carmelite Nuns of Compiègne, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein]), material poverty(St. Francis, Blessed Juan Diego, St. Benedict Joseph Labre), desolation of spirit (St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux in her last months of life, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta), political disaster (St. Edward the Confessor, St. Bernard, St. Louis, King of France), the death of a beloved spouse (St. Elizabeth of Hungary), misunderstanding, mistreatment, betrayal either by their religious communities (St. Francis, St. Bernadette, St. Alphonsus Ligouri) or by family (St. Clare and her younger sister) exile, whether voluntary (St. Francis Xavier and countless other missionaries) or involuntary (St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom), threats of sexual abuse (St. Charles Lwanga, St. Maria Goretti). Whatever the cross that befell them, Christ was with them always, as he promised in the gospel--even when they felt entirely abandoned, as he did on the cross.

This list, a tiny fragment of the roll of canonized saints, includes only those men and women whose names are known to history and honored publicly by the Church. As we read the papers or watch the news, with their endless chronicle of human suffering, we could find the faces of many more whose names we will never know--believers of every time and place who hung in there when there was every reason to abandon love of God and neighbor for the sake of self-preservation, believers with whom God hung in there when there was no reason even to imagine there was a God.

On our own bad days, we might remember and draw strength from these our older "brothers and sisters," as the preface of today's Mass calls them. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that they are eagerly awaiting our coming to join them and adding their own prayers to ours that we will see them one day. They never forget us, he said, even when we give them not a thought. Everyone can use older brothers and sisters like that when the going gets tough. Today is a good day to thank them for being there.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Will We?

Today, Sunday 29C in Ordinary Time, the gospel selected by the Roman Catholic Lectionary is Luke 18:1-8. The story of the recalcitrant judge worn to acquiescence by a persistent widow is familiar. So is the story's motto: "pray always without becoming weary". The NRSV translation, "to pray always and not to lose heart," seems to catch the flavor of the story a bit more sharply. Weary or not, says Jesus, keep on praying!

Jesus concludes the story with a powerful assurance: "Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily."

But then he adds a poignant twist: "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" The Son of Man is to be God's answer to those who cry out for justice. The Son of Man is to come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, as we profess in the creed. The Son of Man is to be the vindication for which the chosen ones plead. Jesus could be wondering, almost as a muttered aside, "But will there be anyone with sufficient faith to pray for that vindication always, without losing heart?"

Without denying that reading, the text lends itself to another. "Will there be anyone with sufficient faith to receive the Son of Man when he comes?" From a gospel perspective, faith seems to include the power to grant God permission to act for us or on us. It's part and parcel of the trust that faith implies, I suppose. You might think that of course anyone would trust God to do whatever God wanted, but it's not as easy as that. You never really know what God will actually do, but you can be pretty sure it won't be exactly what you expect, and it might not be what you think you want, either.
It might sound a bit odd to say that we have to give God permission to do something for us. But you'll recall the story of Jesus' Nazareth homecoming, told in Luke 16. After announcing his mission in the synagogue, he must have heard the whispers in the crowd. In Mark's version of the story (Mark 6:1-6), their murmuring is reported more fully than it is in Luke's : "They said, "Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" In Luke's version, he takes the words right out of their mouths: "Doubtless... you will say do also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum." Although both gospels say that the townsfolk heard him with wonder and amazement, he must also have heard the doubts that underlay their applause and known that all they wanted was a show to rival the show he had given in Capernaum. He in his turn was amazed--at their unbelief (Mark 6:6). In the face of that unbelief, he could do very little for them. He did not have their permission. And the Lord, who respects our freedom far more than we do, would not act without it.

When the Son of Man comes again, wonders Jesus in today's gospel, will he again find his hands tied by unbelief? Will he be unable to bring the vindication God's chosen ones desired because no one desired it with enough faith to receive it?

Of course Jesus does not wait till the dramatic moment at the end of time to heap God's blessings on us . He is with us always, as he promised, hearing our prayers and providing us with far more than we can ask for or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). The question remains: will we meet him with the faith to receive it?

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Surely Not I, Lord?

Today is the memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Syrian bishop who was martyred at Rome around 107 A.D. On his journey from his home to his death, he wrote seven letters to various churches. He wrote on a number of subjects, but he spoke with vivid eloquence of his ardent desire for martyrdom. Certainly, in this epoch of religious violence, many contemporary Christians from St. Ignatius' part of the world and elsewhere are suffering torture and death for their commitment to Christ and the gospel. But those of us who live less threatened lives might squirm a bit at the vehemence of Ignatius' plea to be allowed to die the death to which he has been condemned, without the intervention of well-meaning fellow Christians.

Nonetheless, Ignatius recalls for all of us the discomforting challenge of Jesus, who said there was no greater love than to lay down one's life for the others. He himself, of course, lived and died by that uncompromising love. And, lest we give pious thanks and go on about our business untempted to follow his example, he left us the commandment to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34).

Ignatius responded to that commandment according to his personal call at a time when Christians were actively persecuted. We are asked to respond to the same commandment according to our personal call in our present circumstances, whatever they might be. For some , the response may very well be fidelity to Christ in the face of torture and death. For many of us, it will rather be fidelity to Christ in the face of the humdrum demands of everyday life. It will likely be a fidelity that requires not drama but simple perseverance in ordinary things. If we are asked to lay down our lives minute by minute by spending the precious wealth of our time, our energy, our company, our attentiveness, our talents, or simply our willingness to be of service, the sacrifice is not as spectacular as Ignatius' death in the arena but it is just as authentic. Washing dishes so someone else doesn't have to has none of the aura of being torn to bits by wild beasts--but it may demand just as much love.

Ignatius gave a unique twist to the reason for it, though. He understood his martyrdom not simply as a death died willingly in imitation of Christ. He understood it as a death died willingly for the same reason that Christ died. He left us a graphic description of his purpose, quoted in the communion antiphon of today's Mass as well as in the Liturgy of the Hours: "I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ." The reference is, of course, to the Eucharist. Ignatius laid down his life not to copy Christ but, in Christ and with Christ, to feed the life of Christ's Body with his own.

Ignatius' words raise two questions we must ask ourselves: when I "lay down my life for others," who am I feeding? who am I seeking to build up? Whatever offering we make of our time, energy, company, attentiveness, service, we make not simply to do what Jesus would do, but, in obedience to Christ, to do it to feed Christ's Body with his own love visibly embodied in ours. Anything less is apt to feed and build up only our own ego--a ravenous beast, to be sure, and perfectly capable of grinding us down to fine flour for bread, but not to build up the Body of Christ in love.

Arrest, torment and death were the price Ignatius paid for his fidelity to Christ. Because we don't expect martyrdom, we ought not to imagine that our own fidelity to Christ's command to love as he did will always be rewarded with gratitude, blessing, praise. There is a telling line in Psalm 38: "attack me for seeking what is right". "They" may be the resentful, the jealous, those who fail to understand, or our own doubts, hesitations, failures of nerve in the face of hostility. And "they" may be just as frightening to face as the wild animals in the arena.

Lay down my life? Surely not I, Lord!

You know the answer.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Lectio Divina: Brief Overview

The Rule of St. Benedict allots a significant place in the daily monastic horarium to the practice of lectio divina, or divine reading. This style of prayer was in fact common practice among Christians of the first centuries and has returned to popularity today. You don't have to belong to a monastery to do lectio.

It's a very simple approach, really, readily available to anyone interested in praying with the bible. Commentaries written to describe common experience generally identify four "steps" or aspects of the prayer, but these are descriptions, not rules. If you choose to do lectio, you should follow the promptings of the Spirit in deciding how long to devote to each aspect. In fact, quite often it isn't possible to tell which aspect you're engaged in, as they flow fairly freely into one another as you pray. And you can move back and forth among them as you feel drawn to do so.

In general, before beginning to pray, it is helpful to decide on a time, place and environment conducive to quiet concentration and to follow a regular routine, especially when prayer grows dry and uninteresting.

The first step is lectio, which means reading. You can take any section of the bible, or even some other piece of religious reading. Some people prefer to use the readings provided in the daily lectionary for Mass. Others prefer to follow a particular book of the bible from beginning to end. Others prefer to move among related passages. Whatever choose, forget everything you've ever learned about speed reading. Lectio requires that you read it very slowly to allow it to sink below the surface of your mind. You can mouth the words, or even read them aloud, to help you to slow down and focus. You can read a whole passage to get an overview and then go back and repeat parts of it, or you can read very slowly from the beginning. What matters is that you read attentively, prepared to pause for meditatio and oratio when something strikes you.

The second step is meditatio, which means meditation. Meditatio can take one of two traditional forms. Perhaps the oldest is the simple repetition of the text without a lot of analysis, allowing the words to sink deeper and deeper into the heart as you memorize them. It's amazing how much work they can do to rebuild our inner ways of looking at the world without a whole lot of conscious effort (or control!) on our part. The other form of meditatio involves thinking about the text actively -- questioning the text in light of your experience and allowing your experience to be questioned by the text. Either or both forms of meditatio can be useful.

The third step is oratio, which means prayer. This is the point at which reading and thinking turn into explicit conversation with God, either in words or simply in wordless directing of thoughts and feelings to God.
The fourth step is contemplatio, meaning contemplation. The word can mean many things, and it can sound frightening, but contemplation isn't a matter of esoteric knowledge, mind-breaking labor, or exotic experience. During lectio, it's the point at which words give way to silent presence, either briefly or for longer periods of time, depending on the individual and the gift of God. It is the part of prayer in which God is more active than we are. It can't be commanded, only accepted. When it ends, it's time to go back to reading again.
Lectio divina is really a way of surrendering the imagination to God. We all know that our minds are busy all day long, sometimes with worthwhile thoughts, sometimes with destructive ones. The habit of regular lectio divina provides food for thought to which we can return throughout the day, repeating a phrase or a line or two of what we've read or reconsidering reflections, whenever the mind falls idle or starts down the path toward unkind thoughts, criticisms, worries, and all the other unhealthy inner habits that stand between us and the gift of dwelling in God's presence in peace.

This posting is a revision of an article on lectio divina from our monastery’s website at: http://www.walburga.org/Lectio.html.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Discovery: a Light Moment

One of my assignments is to cook part-time in our monastery’s retreat house. This poem is the product of a bout of refrigerator cleaning.


The lovely leaves of gray and green
Float softly on a bed unseen,
Its edges hid by tufted fuzz.
The stench, alas, is rather strong.
Perhaps it has been here too long?
I wonder what it was.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO 80536-8942

Sunday, September 30, 2007

I Lift Up My Eyes to the Mountains

I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where shall come my help?

(Psalm 121:1—Grail translation)

Mountain-dwellers recognize the paradox of their mountains. They offer both protection and danger. To some extent, they wall out the unwanted, but they also conceal predators. In winter, they hold the possibility of avalanche; in summer, the peril of flash floods. Still, their beauty both stirs and answers an unnamed longing in the human spirit. And something about their lofty indifference to the doings of the mortal two-legged flies that presume to “conquer” them draws human beings to risk life and limb to climb them or simply to seek shelter in their shadow.

The psalmist belonged to a people for whom the ambivalence of mountains was rooted both in paradox and in a tradition of conflict. Not only did human beings seek the strategic superiority of the heights over military opponents, but also the gods competed for the high places. The prophets make clear that people succumbed from time to time to the seduction of alien gods who were worshiped at hill shrines. In contradistinction, their God claimed the highest place. The God who had made covenant with them on Mount Sinai took up residence among them on Mount Zion, in the Temple built in Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah announces God’s primacy over the competing gods of the surrounding nations:

In days to come,
The mountain of the LORD'S house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it.

(Isaiah 2:2 (NAB))
This is not a geographic claim but a theological one.

The New American Bible commentary suggests that in Psalm 121:1 the psalmist may be looking up to Mount Zion for God’s help or looking up to the surrounding mountains with anxiety about who or what might be lurking there. However, in verse 2, he answers his own question with the categorical assertion: “My help shall come from the Lord/who made heaven and earth”(Grail) The remainder of the psalm addresses to the psalmist a series of poetically beautiful and fortifying assurances about God’s help:

He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.
(Psalm 121:3-8[RSV].)

How will God keep us? How will our help come from the mountains?

The prophet Isaiah maintains that God will keep us by teaching us his ways so that we may walk in his paths: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). The paths of God will lead us safely through whatever hazards may surround us, especially, of course, the ultimate hazard created not by those who can slay the body but by the one who can “destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). This is the expectation that animates the psalmist in Psalm 23:4 to walk without fear even through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, the shadow of death will be lightened, says Isaiah, for the word that will go forth from Jerusalem will be the terms imposed on many people, that “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; /One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again (Isaiah 2:4 [NAB])

However, the prophet Joel opens the door to an even deeper answer to the question of how our help shall come from the mountains: “on that day, the mountains shall drip new wine” (Joel 3:18 [NAB]). The Hebrew word used to describe the wine may be translated either “new” (NAB, KJV) or “sweet” (RSV, NRSV). The image of “new wine” evokes two key New Testament passages. First, "new wine" brings to mind Jesus' saying that you don't pour new wine into old wineskins (cf. Matthew 9:17 and par.). Secondly, in the Last Supper account in Matthew 26:26-30 and Mark 14:22-25, Jesus says of the wine in the cup that it is his “blood of the covenant” and that he will not again drink of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in the kingdom. But for us who receive it, this is new wine, the best saved till last. Taken together, the passages from Joel and from the gospels evoke the image of Mt. Calvary, dripping with the blood of the Crucified, the new wine that fills the Eucharistic cup of the new covenant. It is the blood of the covenant “poured out for many” (Mark 14:24; Matthew 26:28 [NAB]). In Matthew, Jesus adds “for the forgiveness of sins”. The help that will come to us from the mountains is not merely instruction in walking safely in the paths of God but the blood of the Lamb that will wash away the damage that sin and evil have done us.

So when the psalmist asks, in Psalm 72:3 “May the mountains bring forth peace for the people and the hills, justice” (Grail), we may understand God’s answer to the prayer as a petition not simply as an edict of peace (Isaiah 2:4) but as the very life of the One who is our peace (Ephesians 2:14), poured out for all of us, that we may indeed be brought into the one new humanity of the risen Christ, all hostilities and divisions forgotten.

Jumping from one translation to another, as this artcle does, yields poor scholarship but, sometimes, rich reflection. That is my apologia for the procedure I have followed.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

Friday, September 28, 2007

Gone Fishing--Part 1

y vow or oblation, Benedictines make a commitment of conversatio morum (see note below).This Latin phrase has long given scholars headaches and Benedictine candidates much food for thought. It means literally “change of ways”. St. Benedict says, in the sixth-century rule of life which Benedictine men and women have followed ever since, that conversatio morum is what one does when one enters a monastery: one changes one’s way of life. More broadly, the phrase includes the basic Christian commitment to lifelong conversion, not only of one’s ways of daily schedule and activities, but, more fundamentally, of one’s ways of being, seeing, understanding and believing. Conversion is an in-depth makeover that does not end until we have passed through the transforming gates of death into the fullness of life in Jesus Christ.

Good preacher that he is, Jesus often uses a pattern of “tell and show” in the gospels. In Mark’s gospel, he inaugurates his mission with a single dramatic announcement: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15 [RSV]) That says it all, as we will discover when the gospel unfolds. But it says too much for us to take in. We get a first glimpse of what it means in the next few lines, when Jesus says to the fishermen Simon and Andrew, "Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men." (Mark 1:17 [RSV]). And, quite literally, they do: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:18[RSV). And, just as literally, he does: slowly he turns them into “fishers” who trawl not for sardines and telapia but for human beings.

Their story gives us an interesting insight into conversion. We sometimes thinks it means becoming a different human being entirely: the lazy become type-A achievers, the sloppy become neat freaks, the 98-pound weaklings become Olympic gold medalists, those for whom school is one of the punishments for original sin become rocket scientists, and so on. In other words, we identify conversion’s end product with our own dreams of a perfect self, that is, whatever self we are not but would like to be.

Jesus seems to have a different picture. Simon (Peter) and Andrew apparently fished for a living, a lucrative profession in those days. They seem to have given it up rather dramatically to take up discipleship instead. Consider, however, the odd wording of Jesus’ call to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The call implies that they are not being asked to give up their interests, their skills and their experience but simply to apply them to a new trade. Their weather sense, their eye for a promising catch, their patient cunning as hunters of the sea, their physical strength and stamina, their willingness to work long hard hours under difficult or even dangerous –remember those storms on the Sea of Galilee!—will all stand them in good stead. They will need to judge the figurative climate of places they had never dreamed of; they will need to look over a crowd and spot likely friends and followers; they will need to create innovative strategies to attract their hearers and await with patience the moment when the hearers take the gospel bait; as we learn from St. Paul’s accounts of his own adventures, they will have to travel far, live under duress, endure physical dangers of all kinds, and, ultimately face the certainty of a cruel death.

Perhaps conversion does not make us into impossibly different characters after all. Perhaps conversion makes the very best of what we already are. My experience of life in a monastery suggests to me that God wastes nothing. Whatever interests or skills or experiences we bring with us come in handy somewhere along the line, usually in the most unexpected ways. When one of our newcomers mentioned that she had apprenticed as a plumber’s mate, the nun in charge of maintenance lit up like a Christmas tree. When another admitted that tailoring had been a favorite hobby while she pursued a business career, she found herself making habits as well as balancing checkbooks. A third who majored in fine arts but worked in an office to make a living became an iconographer and, oh, by the way, typed the pages for revisions in our prayer books. The stories go on and on.

If God doesn’t waste simple work skills, why would God waste anything else about us? In fact, God appears to treasure the very personalities we are so eager to shed for some alien skin. What they require is conversion, not annihilation. Simon Peter’s impetuosity, forged under the harsh hammer of failure, guilt, and forgiveness, became the steely but humble courage that enabled him to face all comers for the sake of the gospel. In the end, he was able to stare down even death itself as he perished on the cross, upside down, so legend says, because he felt unworthy to imitate his Lord. Once his bold self-reliance was transformed into reliance on God, he became a truly memorable “fisher of men”. Even our worst flaws can be made into greatness by the alchemy of God’s creative love.

The conversatio morum of the Benedictine, like the conversion of every Christian, can fly in the face of conventional wisdom. We might not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as the saying goes. But God can. And does. Or, better said, God makes saints out of the most unlikely of sinners.
©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

Benedictine men and women follow the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-ca. 547). Monks and Sisters or nuns make perpetual vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum. Laymen and women may commit themselves by oblation, whose root meaning is “offering”, to live according to the spirit of St. Benedict’s Rule in whatever walk of life they are called to. They make that commitment in affiliation with a Benedictine monastic community, but they do not live in monasteries. For more information:
www.osb.org or www.walburga.org .

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Tricky Steward (Luke 16:1-9)

Tricksters abound in the scriptures. There is Abraham who lied to Pharaoh about Sarah’s status. There is his grandson Jacob, who impersonated his older brother to con his father into giving him the birthright that was his brother’s due. There is Jael, who lured her people’s persecutor into her tent and murdered him while he slept. There is Judith, who tricked the enemy leader into getting drunk and then cut off his head while he lay in a stupor. Heroes and heroines all, they achieved good, but their means were less than admirable.

Then along comes the tricky steward of Luke 16:1-9. Threatened with dismissal for dishonesty, he summons his master’s debtors, persuades them to rewrite their promissory notes for less than they actually owe, and thus assures himself of a place to go when he is turned out. (One wonders what he thinks they will do for him—take him in as a hanger-on of some kind or offer him a job? He hasn’t exactly commended himself as an honest employee! But this is a parable, not a history, so it need not answer such questions.) To every reader’s astonishment, Jesus commends him for his prudence! He even holds him up as an example: “I tell you, make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9, NAB).

What kind of advice is this from the One who is the way, the truth and the life? It is, appropriately enough, tricky advice. The Roman Catholic lectionary’s selection of Mass readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, exposes the trick. In the first reading, the prophet Amos rails against the dishonest merchants who swindle the poor out of the little have, caring only for their own profit and not for the ruin of their victims (Amos 8:4-7). Now that sounds more like it! That's what we expect to hear from the Bible! But the dishonest steward of the gospel dupes only his own wealthy master, and not for financial profit but for some guarantee of a tolerable future for himself. He does not take anything: he refuses, in his master’s name, to take the full amount the debtors owe.

Refusing to take is a form of giving. Basically, the steward gives away goods—admittedly, his master’s, not his own—to make friends for the days to come. Indirectly, even the goods are in some sense his own: they would enable his master to pay him his wages, or , less creditably, they would provide him with more property to squander for his own gain, the crime for which his master is planning to fire him. Perhaps we might even think they represent the “extra” he intended to bilk the creditors out of to line his own pocket, but then the master would not have discovered the steward’s trick. In any case, the wealth these goods represent is “dishonest wealth,” as Jesus notes, but it is real wealth nonetheless. And the steward gives it away.

In fact, he follows the familiar gospel advice Jesus gives the person we remember as “the rich young man,” though Luke says nothing about his age: “ sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Luke 18:22, NAB) In other words, give away your wealth, and you will indeed “be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9, NAB). The point, it seems, is not how the steward acquired the wealth, but what he did with it: he gave it away for the sake of a better future.
Parables are characterized by a sting in their tail. The parable of the dishonest steward certainly qualifies, but it’s the second reading of the Mass that adds the real sting. In 1 Timothy 2:6, St. Paul speaks of Christ as one “who gave himself as a ransom for all”. This is the One whom the rich young man—and we-- are to follow. First, says Jesus, give away all you own, for, as we all know, what we think we possess too easily comes to possess us. Then, says Jesus, you are free to come, follow me. But where is he going? To Jerusalem, where he will give away his last and greatest possession, his life, to assure all of us real treasure “in the eternal dwellings.”
And, as always, the final word is spoken from the heart of the mystery of the cross: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO