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:

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