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: or .

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