Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas 2008: A Poem

Christmas 2008

The Word takes flesh in inward hours
when Mother nurses Child and prays
that children everywhere will joy
through length of days.

The Word takes flesh in seasons when
no spring rains fall, when harvests fail,
when winter eats our hopes, when we
learn life is frail.

The Word takes flesh in newborn love,
in days of wonder, in the long
fidelities that losses test,
in trust grown strong.

The Word takes flesh in burning years
of war, when splintered heartbreak learns
the price of lust for others’ lands
whose lives greed spurns.

The Word take flesh in questions and
in doubts that ask why buildings fall
on playgrounds, why a loved one dies,
if this is all?

The Word takes flesh in darkness
and in light, in tears and pain,
in laughter bubbling like the sun
through falling rain.

The Word takes flesh in living centuries
of human struggle to discover how
to weave the hours into real life. The Word
still takes flesh now.

©2008 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Unasked Question

Jesus told a story once, about a man just bursting with success. He surveyed with satisfaction all the grain piled up to the roof of his barns, the yield of the land he owned. Only one thing troubled him. The barns were full, but the harvest was not yet all gathered in. “Where would he put the waiting wheat?” he asked himself. Left in the fields, it would rot. “I know,” he answered himself. “I’ll tear down these barns and build bigger ones to hold all this harvest gold.” Then he made plans for the perfect retirement: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). (He was obviously a man much given to talking to himself.) However, God had plans for a different kind of retirement: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' (Luke 12:20). The moral of the story, Jesus says, is this: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

The man’s real problem, it appears, is the limited circle of his conversation. He talks to himself, listens to his own advice, and acts on it. He does not even think of consulting God. There is a telling passage in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Here God is speaking to the city of Jerusalem as it prepares for a siege: “In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many, and you collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:8-11). In other words, you asked yourself what you needed to protect the city, and you listened to your own answer: you gathered weapons, you strengthened your defenses, you collected water. But you did not ask me, who gave you the city and lived there with you. The Jerusalem war committee had a good reason not to ask God. God had already told them to trust in him and not in their own utterly inadequate resources for war against a far more powerful enemy, Babylon. They didn’t like that answer, so they didn’t ask the question. Perhaps that was the rich landowner’s strategy also, for he belonged to the nation whom the prophets had chastised in God’s name for centuries for hoarding wealth rather than using it to care for the orphan and the widow and the starving poor. If you don’t ask, you won’t hear the unwanted answer you suspect is coming.

We see a different version of this story in the life of Joseph, husband of Mary. When Joseph discovers that his betrothed is pregnant with a child not his, he finds himself in a dilemma. According to the law, she could be stoned to death, although scholars say that it is not clear how often that law was invoked by the time of Jesus. Even if she was not condemned to death, she would certainly be disgraced. So, apparently, he asks himself what he should do.

He is a just man, St. Matthew tells us, and does not want to see her shamed publicly. So he answers his own question by deciding to divorce her quietly. (It is a little difficult to imagine how this might save her from public disgrace—she is still a single pregnant mother, probably a young teenager.) That night, of course, God sends an angel with a different answer: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21).

Joseph was a just man, that is, an observer of the mosaic Law. He did not exactly ignore God in his debate about what he should do, but he assumed he knew what God would say because he knew his options under the law. (Scholars point out that the opinion that the law obligated him to divorce Mary is not justified, but he could not, as a just observer of the Law, unite himself with a woman who had offended so seriously against it.) But, as far as the story goes, he did not actually ask what God wanted him to do in this troubling situation. God told him anyway, as God told the rich man and the leaders of Jerusalem—and God’s way was not Joseph’s way anymore than it was the way of the landowner or the city: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8). (One of God’s irritating habits is to answer questions he has not been asked, so persistent is he in his desire to lead us to happiness despite our best efforts to go somewhere else.)

The first moral of Jesus’ story is to lay up treasure not for ourselves but for God, but the second moral goes even deeper: if any of these biblical characters had asked God rather than themselves what they should do, they would have found themselves sent down surprising roads, not always to their own comfort but always to their good. The unasked question is the one that traps us in the dead ends of our own too-small minds.

©2008 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Guadete Sunday 2008

Gaudete Sunday takes its name from the first word of the Latin entrance chant of the Mass: gaudete, meaning rejoice.

Today is also sometimes called "pink Sunday" because the priest may wear pink, or more properly, rose vestments.

Not being fond of pink, the sudden blossoming of color in our chapel put me to thinking. Our Advent wreath is rather a sober affair: a bronze ring, time-darkened to the point where the colored enamelwork has become invisible, hung by black chains from a tall, graceful black tripod. The traditional candles--three purple, one pink--stand out against this darkness, but they too are muted in color. Beneath it, deft hands have planted a gaudete garden: a froth of carnations, white, pale pink, dark rose, against a dense bush of juniper top a pink-wrapped pot set amid folds of medium-rose cloth. Outside the windows, the heavy gray clouds of winter storm are edged in radiant rose by a sun not yet risen.

Rose, I suddenly realized, is a lightening of the red strands that, woven with blue, form the traditional Advent color of purple. Rose offers a hint of light in a season of gathering darkness. Rose makes a promise: the night will end, the day will break, the Sun of Justice will arise out of the Christmas midnight to come. Wait. Hope. These darkening days are not the end of the story.

That's a promise we can use these days. Not only are the days around us growing shorter and the nights longer, but the hope of solstice is waning amid the fears spawned by growing violence and a failing economy. The specter of unemployment sits at many a family table. For the fifth year in a row, there are empty places at those same tables, marking the absence of family members sent off to war. A new government waits in the wings, promising change--but what changes will it bring? What changes can it bring? Will they really better our lot? Will they come in time to save us?

The Advent prophet Isaiah also acclaimed a new government waiting in the wings, a government promising change:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Isaiah 9:6

That is the government whose coming we really await, the rule for which we really hope, the dawn for which we really long. In fact, it came a long time ago, an inauspicious solstice on a night in Bethlehem, very little noticed at the time. That small dawn, which we will celebrate again this Christmas, is still growing toward the fullness of the promised day we yearn for. The dark clouds still obscure its brightness as they roll in and out, sometimes thinning to wisps, sometimes thickening again to smothering blankets of fog.

Nor are we mere hapless observers of the dramas of our skies. Sometimes the clouds above us are smoke from our own fires, smog from our own freeways, choking fogs from our own battlefields. We can't make the waited sun rise, nor can we prevent it. But we can and do clear the way for the light or force it into hiding behind the oil residue from our ego-driven works of darkness, as the Bible often names them. We, who live at the heart of the rising Sun, are called to light up the world with its blaze, said Jesus. He said that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket. He lights the lamps--whatever goodness burns in us--but we can be expert basket weavers, covering it up and even smothering it to ashes because fire does burn what holds it.

I personally would be just as happy to see the pink come and go on this one Sunday of the year. To be part of the work of lightening the heavy purple of the gathering night every day is another matter entirely. However, I recognize, at least some of the time, if I clamp down the bushel basket to hide me safely, I too will have to live in the resulting darkness. And so must we all, if we refuse to burn with the light of Christ, the dawn that edges our night with reflected fire.

©2008 Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, August 8, 2008

Thanks, But No Thanks...(Matthew 16)

In Matthew 16, Jesus makes the statement: "Whoever wishes to come to me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me." In the wake of his own death on the cross, the statement took on a stark reality. We learn what the cross means for those who choose to follow Jesus: death. As our homilist this morning, Father Robert Williams of Dallas TX, reminded us, the challenge is not physical death but death to self.
As Father Robert said, it's a challenge we don't really want to hear. Death of any kind gives the shivers to the human spirit. Jesus' challenge sounds like one more offer from God-the-party-pooper whose main desire is to quench any sign of joy under a great wet blanket of misery labeled "Thou shalt not" and, on the reverse side, "Thou shalt." It's an idol we cling to rather stubbornly, even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, including the number of times "joy" is mentioned in the New Testament (never labeled "Christians need not apply")--even among the fruits of the Holy Spirit, where gloom appears not at all. In the beginning, God made human beings in the divine image, and we've been returning the favor ever since, but we often seem to clothe the images of God we create in the drab wardrobe of the most repressive of Puritans. When this false god makes an offer like the one Jesus quotes, our preferred response is "Thanks, but no thanks..."

What we fail to realize, though, besides what rotten image painters we are, is that in refusing death, we are refusing life. The cross is a two-sided coin. Flip it on Good Friday, and it comes up "death". Flip it on Easter Sunday, and it comes up "resurrection". You can't have one without the other, says the gospel.

You'd think the promise of new life, physical or otherwise, would make the business of death at least a little more tolerable, if not downright inviting. However, I'm currently reading an old book that everyone I know seems to have read years ago, except me. It's entitled The Road Less Travelled. The author, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, points out how hard we sometimes work to refuse not death but life, especially new life. He tells story after story of men and women who have refused to accept options that would bring a solution to a miserable situation, or to take responsibility for decisions that have put them in unhappy circumstances. Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, his post-WW II classic describing his concentration camp experiences and deducing from them the absolute human need for meaning if we are to survive, said something to the effect that the one freedom that cannot be taken from us is the freedom to choose our own attitude. How sad that it is often we, not the God of the Bible, who prescribe the attitude of misery as a must. It seems no wonder that Jesus asked the long-term sick man at the pool of Bethesda, "Do you want to be well?" (John 5:5). The answer is not always yes. If it's no, even Jesus' hands are tied.

So, the question lurking behind the challenge to take up the cross seems to be "Do you really want to live?"

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, May 17, 2008


This morning, Saturday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time, we stumble suddenly across the startling story of Jesus' transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13), which we with greater solemnity on the Second Sunday of Lent and on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6). The story is startling not only for its own inner drama but also for what it tells us about ourselves. On the high mountain of the gospel, Jesus makes manifest the fire that burns always within him. In the Scriptures, that fire signifies the burning presence of God, the Mystery that illuminates all creation with inner light. With the resurrection, Jesus in his personal human individuality was transformed into the Christ whose glorified humanity opened to receive all humanity. Incorporated into Christ, we must now recognize that the Fire that burned within him on the mountain now burns within all of us.
Think of our own earth as tangible macrocosm: its core is fire. We who are born of the earth and reborn of the Spirit can say the same of ourselves: our core is Fire. What radiance could shine upon the path before us and the world around is if we only allowed our deepest truth to break out!
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Silence of the Word

During Holy Week, we hear: "The Lord has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak a word to the weary, a word that will rouse them." (Isaiah 50:4-7)

Throughout Jesus' public ministry, we hear him speak again and again a word to the weary to rouse them: "Blessed are the poor in spirit," "Go, your faith has saved you," "The kingdom of God is at hand". We probably all have a list of our favorites, words that have sustained us, inspired us, impelled us. As the evangelists note, Jesus spoke these words with authority, not simply because he had the prophet's well-trained tongue, but because he himself is the Word in human flesh. When he spoke a word of healing, the sick were cured; when he spoke a word of command, demons were driven out; when he spoke a word of forgiveness, the burden of sin was lifted. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council claims that when the gospel is read in the Christian assembly, it is Christ who speaks. His words continue to heal, to liberate from evil, to forgive.

We could sit back now and bask in consolation, but the prophet doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, " I gave my beard to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting." (Isaiah 50:6) After Jesus’ arrest, his words grow sparse. He limits himself to a few stark statements of the one truth for which he stands, but he does not explain or justify them. Otherwise, to his questioners, his tormentors, his mockers, his executioners, he says nothing at all. He gives himself into their hands without a word of protest or self-defense. Ultimately, he ceases to speak at all. On the cross, the Word “goes down into the silence,” a phrase the psalmists use for death (cf. pss 92, 103, Grail translation). What an incredible triumph: evil has silenced the Word itself.

Holy Saturday is the day of great silence. The second reading from Matins quotes an ancient homily for Holy Saturday: “Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.”

I am reminded again of the final scene in the film On the Beach, when the last human being has been snuffed out by the silent spread of the nuclear fallout from the last world war. (See the posting “Bells”, November 17, 2007) In that silence, one hears the flapping of a banner in the wind, the rustle of crumpled papers blowing through the streets, the clanking of a bottle driven against a curb—but one does not hear the one sound sought: the sound of the human voice. And one knows that cherished sound will never be heard again.

The silence of Holy Saturday is not that silence. It is the silence of expectation. We know the end of the story, and we know it is not the final fadeout of the sealed and desolate tomb. In that tomb, life stirs. Tradition speaks of Christ’s descent into the realm of the dead, where all humanity awaits deliverance. I like to think that in every place where the death of the human spirit has imposed the dreadful silence of despair, Christ has gone before us and awaits us, stirring up new life even as the old life falls silent. No matter how great our darkness, Christ has been there before us, and is still there with us, kindling the spark that can explode into the great fire of Easter. We may not see it; we may not feel its warmth; but it is there—the silence of death has not snuffed out the human voice forever.

Tonight, in all our churches, we will sing peals of “alleluias”. They may or may not come from hearts reborn. Life doesn’t always follow the church calendar. There will be people at the Easter services who have tasted the bleak darkness but not yet the light; there will be people whose hearts are keeping vigil with loved ones dying even as we proclaim the victory of life; there will be people who know for sure that the tomb is real but aren’t so sure about the resurrection. It isn’t just the flame of our little candles we are asked to pass on to one another. Whether we are living Easter or still mourning Good Friday, we reach out with the inextinguishable light of Christ and hold hands with one another in the night. “Alleluia” is the sound of faithful people daring to whistle in the dark because, once upon a time, a handful of faithful women rushed back from the tomb with the news, “He is not there! He is risen!” And a handful of sorrowing disciples believed them. And they all passed on the living Word.
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter Triduum: Disciples

Jesus' disciples make a poor showing in the stories of Jesus' passion and death. After the Last Supper, which must have baffled them as well as fed them in a way they could not have named, they accompany Jesus to Gethsemane. There, while he prays in the agony of decision, his three chosen companions, Peter, James and John, fall asleep, not once but three times--just as Peter, later in the wee hours, will deny him three times (Matthew 26:36-43, 69-75). Are we to read their sleep as denial? After Jesus' arrest, they all "left him and fled" (Matthew 26:56), though Peter hung around for awhile on the fringes of things. Are we to read their flight as cowardice?

Perhaps their sleep was denial, but perhaps it was not denial of their association with Jesus. Overcome with confusion, pain, indecision, have you never chosen to blot it all out in sleep? If not physical sleep, the kind of sleep of the spirit kindly provided by alcohol or escapist entertainment or a thousand other anodynes ready to hand in our pain-denying culture? At the supper, they had heard him say in various ways that his death was at hand. They had followed him from the familiarity of home into the strange waters of a new world promised; they had revered him as their rabbi, perhaps even as the Messiah, perhaps even as something more than that; they had, presumably, loved him. They had never really, it seems, expected him to fail, never mind to be put to death. It was all too much, surely. Can you fault them for sleeping? I can't, having all too often slept myself in one way or another when the world has become more than I could face.

Perhaps their flight was cowardice. John clearly thinks so. In John 20:19, he says they were hiding behind locked doors "for fear of the Jews". They had good reason to be afraid if they thought the authorities were out hunting for the followers of the so-called messiah they had put to death on Good Friday. The gospels give us no reason to believe that the authorities cared one way or another, beyond making sure a guard was posted to keep those followers from stealing the body and claiming resurrection. The synoptic gospels give us no reason to believe that the disciples were hiding, either. Perhaps on Thursday night, they were afraid they too would be arrested. But perhaps they were also afraid of what they would see if they stayed. If the three, at least, fell asleep in the garden because they couldn't cope with the imminence of his suffering death, perhaps they all fled because they couldn't cope with the prospect of watching the trial, the torture, the execution carried out. Charles Dickens has painted an immortal picture of Madame deFarge and her company of ghoulish women knitting at the foot of the guillotine in order not to miss the glorious sight of aristocratic heads rolling, but the heads did not belong to their beloved friends. Have you always been willing to stick around to watch a loved one endure anguish, shame, torment, even death? Even if you've chosen to stay, haven't you sometimes gone for a walk to escape for awhile the sight of a suffering you could not prevent? If the thought of that suffering sends us to the nearest drugstore for something to make us sleep, doesn't the reality sometimes have the same effect? It isn't fear but love that sometimes demands that escape.

We do the disciples, and ourselves, a disservice if we turn them into cardboard figures, capable of only a single reaction in every case. They were the same complex human beings we are. In the previous posting, I posited Judas as a mirror in which we can see the faces of our own betrayals. If we allow the disciples their full humanity, they become a mirror in which we can see our own ambivalence. Sometimes, maybe, the cross strengthens and comforts us. But sometimes, maybe, it overwhelms us with dread or sends us running in fear. The disciples came back. We will too. Jesus forgave them their moments of weakness and entrusted them with the gospel. We needn't be ashamed of our own moments of weakness. They don't negate our discipleship; they simply make it real.
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Psalm 23: A Roadmap

This weekend, I am giving a retreat at our Abbey Retreat House. Its title is "Roads: a Lenten Poetry Retreat." What follows is a sketch of one of the retreat conferences. Think of it as what Wikipedia calls "a stub": a basic nub to which you are invited to add your own reflections (though not online, alas!) The translation given here is the King James Version, on which I grew up as a Presbyterian until a quirk of the divine sense of humor landed me in a Roman Catholic religious community. The divine sense of humor sees no need to explain its quirks.

Although very few of us now live among sheep, Psalm 23 remains one of the most cherished jewels of the psalter. Somehow its imagery touches a core that does not seem to depend on our surroundings. There are, of course, countless ways of reading this psalm. By a quirk for which I will not hold the divine sense of humor responsible (God is responsible for enough!), I have begun to think of it as a map of the life journey of the human spirit. Maps sketch the land. They don't tell us which roads we have to choose to travel it, but they tell us something about what landscapes we can expect to find as we do.

Psalm 23 (KJV)
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

These verses have always provided comfort to us human wanderers as we weary of roads that sometimes seem to be going nowhere except perhaps in circles, or roads that seem so long we have forgotten their beginning and their end. We just want to lie down and rest for awhile. Let someone else be responsible for running the universe, never mind my small fragment of it.

In Jesus' day, I imagine, shepherds still led flocks from place to place in search of food and water. JesuIn times and places where shepherds still care for sheep, a good shepherd can sense the flock's fatigue. One option is to drive them on despite it: they have a destination to reach before sunset. I don't know about you, but that's an option I too often choose for myself. In our goal-and-achievement oriented world, I want to get the job done on time, no matter how tired I get in the doing. It takes a very strong shepherd indeed to make this stubborn sheep lie down in the grass, let the mountain breezes play over it, and the refreshing sound of running water lull it to sleep. Yet, like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, I can travel so much faster and farther if I take the refreshment offered. One of my humbling discoveries in life is that God's timetable differs from mine. There will be time to reach the destination, although it may not be the time I planned.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

The pastures carpeted in green grass and watered by running streams are oases, not journey's end. The temptation of the desert road on which the scriptures concentrate during Lent is to pitch our tents, settle down, and refuse to budge. "I like it here, in whatever oasis of the soul I happen to have been led to." Why move on? But if we don't, we'll never get to the Promised Land. Luckily, the resources of every oasis are limited. Eventually, we sheep run out of food and water. The Shepherd picks up his staff and leads us on.

The publication of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's private journals and letters caused great consternation among those who believe that the good always walk in the light. Here she was, a cultural icon of spiritual heroism, admitting that she traveled a good long ways in darkness. How could her community allow the world into that secret (which, I gather, she made no real effort to keep a secret from those who might care)? Perhaps it was a clever bit of shepherding on the Shepherd's part to allow us all to see how real and how inevitable is the valley of the shadow of death through which all of us must travel. In part, the shadow is cast by our enlarged egos. (See the posting "The Valley of the Shadow of Death I) In part, though, the shadow is cast by the awareness of our own very real (and unwanted) mortality. We cannot really live until we have embraced the fact that we are going to die. St. Benedict, in his Rule, urged us, without a hint of morbidity, to keep death daily before our eyes. It's a great curative for our self-inflated illusion that we are the rulers of our universe. Death is one reality we cannot rule. Embracing its inevitability frees us from that illusion. Illusions shed like useless baggage free us to travel on with a lighter heart. The language of the psalm reminds us that travel we do. Death is a passage, not a doorless wall. Many people are really afraid to negotiate that passage alone, although my grandmother was wont to say, "Dying is the one thing you have to do alone". Not really, though, as she herself might have added, diligent bible-reader that she was: the Shepherd goes first and goes with, to lead us through.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Here is the reason for getting up out of that refreshing field and moving on: there is a better feast awaiting. The psalmist transforms the Shepherd into the best of hosts, one who anoints the parched and weary arrivals with oil (often read as an image of the Spirit of God by the Christian imagination), sets the table and fills the cups to overflowing. This vision of journey's end, rich in biblical allusions to the great and final feast, reveals the Shepherd's "goodness and mercy" in goading us out of our comfortable oases and making us brave once more the burning desert sands and the icy night of the valley of the shadow of death so that we can finally come to rest in the House of God.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Back to the unfinished present. We aren't there yet. But the Shepherd's care and the Host's promise give us the courage to believe that we don't have to travel on our own resources. "Goodness" and "mercy" are biblical ways of describing God in shorthand. We still have all the days of our life to get through, but even the valley (or maybe valleys) of the shadow of death don't look so terrifying with goodness and mercy along for company. This seems to me a perennial warning against choosing cynicism or bitterness for traveling companions. They are so inclined to feel more at home in the valley of the shadow of death than in the house of the Lord. I imagine them dragging at our coattails to keep us from leaving the valley for the House of Light.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Glory Road

Yesterday morning, intending to leave my office to run an errand, I opened the door only to find my way barred by a postulant on a ladder. "Oh no!" I thought. "The revolution has begun! They're on the barricades! We're under siege!" In reality, she had climbed up there to clean the dusty corpses of moths out of the light fixture over the door.

Poor moths! They never learn. They die by the thousands in light fixtures all over the house, impelled by what Percy Bysshe Shelley described in a phrase now famous:

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.

I wonder, though, if the moths are not wiser than we. They perish in the realization of their greatest desire: communion with the light. I'm reminded of another often quoted stanza, this one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every bush afire with God;

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.

This morning at Matins we read the passage from Exodus where Moses, intrigued by the sight of a bush that burns unconsumed, swallows the bait and finds himself with a whole new, unexpected, frightening life on his hands. He is one of the moths: from that moment on, he is plunged into God's "burning yes" to the liberation of humanity from slavery to the powers that rule the valley of the shadow of death. (The phrase "burning yes" is borrowed from Stephen R. Covey--see yesterday's posting). It consumes his life until he dies a very old man on Mount Nebo, looking out over the promised land. Although he had some acrimonious arguments with God about the whole thing along the way, he seems to have considered the land worth the burning. In contemporary language, we might say that he died fulfilled. (Or almost fulfilled: some of you will surely remind me that, in punishment for disobedience, he was allowed only to see the promised land but not to enter it. I wonder, though, if the punishment was not a reward in the larger schema of things. Joshua and the others still had years of slogging and fighting ahead of them before they could take possession of the land. Moses was given a shortcut, not to Canaan but to the real Land of Promise that lay hidden in Canaan's skin.)

Back at our own burning bushes, sitting round the bush plucking blackberries is certainly safer than hurling oneself into the fire. You get light, warmth, and a tasty snack. Nothing else changes.

I wonder, though, if the "will-to-meaning" so poignantly explored by Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning doesn't impel us into the flames, on the principle that a life worth living requires that we have something we believe worth the burning? This is Covey's point about the "burning yes" that enables us to say no to all the lesser invitations that can clutter our days into purposeless chaos. To have a dream worth living and dying for is the stuff of greatness. For Christians, it's the pull of the cross, that narrow gate that opens out into a quality of life and love we hardly dare even dream of.

In our second reading at Matins, we heard St. Irenaeus paraphrasing John's gospel: "I wish that where I am they also may be, that they may see my glory" (see John 17:24) See it, and share it: "I have given them the glory you gave me" (John 17:22). In biblical terms, the "glory" is the fiery presence of God in our midst, first made known to Moses at Horeb in the burning bush. We see it again and again in the Old Testament and the New.

To share in Jesus' glory is to leap into the fire. It is to become a part of Jesus' "burning yes". Like the moths, we will perish, but what perishes is not our true selves but the all-ruling ego to which we are enslaved, like the Hebrews in Egypt (see the posting The Valley of the Shadow of Death-I). Out of those ashes, the phoenix rises. In Christ burning with the presence of God, our true selves, the selves made capable of the love the gospel commands, burn greener.

The moths seem to "think" the hall light worth the perishing, though it's only plastic they've mistaken for a star. A good bucket of blackberries will earn us that pale sort of imitation "glory" we offer one another as a reward for achievement, but Jesus makes impassioned efforts to convince us that the gain is not worth the loss: " What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Matthew 16:26)

He does not lie to us. Like the moths, we will find that the fire we so long for will hurt. Our falsities do not lie down and die quietly. Still, I think somehow the moths have it right. The need for a star worth the time, the effort, and the sacrifice of those blackberries is built into us, as the need for communion with the light is built into them.

Lent seems a good time to stop and check that it's not just the hall light we're headed for. The Easter Exultet sings of Christ, the Morning Star. Christ, the light of the world, offers us no one-dimensional plastic surface, here today and gone to recycling tomorrow. As the gospel insists, Christ offers us instead the multi-layered and multi-textured reign of God, where there is no need for candle flames because God will be the light (cf. Revelation 21:23, 22:5). Which aspect of that rich reality becomes the star that draws us will depend on each one's story, call, personality, experience. There may be only one light, but it shines through many windows, as one the sun shines through the glorious windows of the great cathedrals and the cracked and broken windows of the poorest hovels. In no case, though, is it worth less than the price of all the blackberries in the world.

In every case, as the moths seem to know, communion with the Light is worth the burning.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, February 8, 2008

Fasting: an Afterthought

This piece is an addendum to the previous posting. Whatever chance it has of making sense depends on your reading that posting.

What good does fasting do, my "practical" voice demands to know. It can help me to lose weight. It can strengthen the habit of discipline. Well, ok, but those ends both seem far too self-serving to survive the vision of fasting developed in the last posting.

It can free income that would have been spent on food. That money can be given to the poor. That's better. But it's not quite enough.

Christ's "burning yes" is still setting alight the force of life that consumes the old gods of darkness and death, whatever masks they wear. Wherever that force of life flares up in any human being or any community of human beings, the old gods are forced to loosen their hold on all of us. To participate in and be shaped by that "burning yes" in order to become some small part of the spark, the candle flame, the bonfire of life seems to me to be the deepest reason for fasting and the greatest contribution fasting can make.

©Abbey of St. Walburga

Lent Thoughts: Fasting

This is not the promised posting on "The Valley of the Shadow of Death"--Part II. That will come. However, I hope to post short thoughts for Lent a bit more frequently, beginning today.

Lent requires that we give some thought to the traditional practice of fasting. On this first Friday of Lent, it occurred to me that one way of looking at fasting is to consider it as a way of becoming more deeply integrated into Christ on the cross. There he fasted not from the pleasures that add spice to life nor from the food that sustains life but from life itself.

It must have been a fast as dark as the skies over Golgotha. Every fiber of his will as human being and as divine Person must have strained toward life. The will to live is our deepest and most tenacious drive as human beings. The will to life is inseparable from the being of the life-giving God. How could Jesus have willed instead to die?

The only thing that could have overriden his will to live was his will that we should live. Stephen R. Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says that only "a burning yes inside [makes it possible] to say 'no' to other things." In the absolute selflessness of his love, Jesus' "burning yes" to our becoming fully alive made it possible for him to say "no" to his own will to live.

The word "burning" recalls that the most powerful and consistent image of God in the scriptures is of One who stands among us as fire. Fasting, it seems to me, is one small way of taking part in Jesus "no" to his own deepest drive for the sake of God's "burning yes" to the life of all that lives.

Thomas Aquinas said that to love is to will the good of the other. Jesus' "burning yes" on the cross is, it seems to me, an icon of that love which John Cassian calls purity of heart: the unwavering eye on the good of the other that is blind to any demands of the self. Fasting is, from this perspective, an iconic act that captures in a nutshell the goal of Lent.
Note: Stephen R. Covey. The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. New York: Free Press, 1989, 2004. p. 149
©2008 Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Valley of the Shadow of Death-I

For those of you who checked this blog on Sunday, January 28, and found something different than is now posted, let me explain: for want of time, I put up a hasty piece of reflection, unfinished and slapdash, for which I later repented. I've now transformed it into a 2-part reflection, the first part of which appears today.

The shadow of death haunts us as we read the scriptures. Psalm 23 invites us to pass through it, whistling bravely in the dark, as we look around to make sure the Shepherd is there with crook and staff. The Canticle of Zachary (Luke 1:68-79) promises a rising sun that will break upon us who live in darkness and death's shadow. On the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A (January 27, 2008), the first reading and gospel team up to paint a portrait of this sun in its advent (Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Matthew4:12-23).

To appreciate this daybreak, let us ponder first the night. The "people who walked in darkness" are named literally as the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali who lived in northern Palestine, in the area the gospel identifies as "Galilee of the Gentiles". The area had been subject to domination by successive invaders, a fact at which Isaiah hints.. In Jesus' day, it still included a large non-Jewish population. It was then, a land where Jews mixed fairly freely and frequently with those who were not people of the covenant--not unlike us, who live among and mix freely and frequently with many who do not share our Christian beliefs. Ours is a rich world, like an exotic bazaar filled with doors that open into enticing glimpses of silks and spices made by worldviews different from our own. In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council challenged us to abandon the fortress of monolithic thought—a temptation rather than a reality even in the pre-Vatican II Church—for the marketplace, as Jesus abandoned the small safeties of Nazareth for the synagogues and markets of a wider Palestine. However, neither Jesus nor the Council advised indiscriminate shopping of the sort that fills our consumer homes (and minds) with all sorts of useless, ill-matched, and sometimes dangerous goods. The clutter of an unreflective syncretism casts its own kind of darkness over our inner world.

The early Christian world, reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict, held a strongly sacramental view of the world. Ancient Christians believed firmly that God was not only present but at work in all of creation, not just church interiors. A delightful book by Robert Louis Wilken, entitled The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University, 2003), captures in its subtitle the purpose of Christian exploration in those first centuries. St. Benedict might have attached the same subtitle to his Rule, had subtitles been in fashion then. Those early thinkers were courageous adventurers into the bazaars of a widely diverse Greco-Roman culture, but they went armed with that one single purpose that enabled them to choose wisely what they brought home and how they integrated it into their homes: seeking God’s Face. Theirs is a wisdom that serves us well in a world reminded by Teilhard the Chardin that the Word of God made flesh provides us with a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” to borrow from Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: "By virtue of creation and still more of the Incarnation, nothing is profane to those who know how to see." But to see, we need light. The shadow blinds us.

However, the deepest shadow is not the one cast by a cluttered world but the one cast by the truly monolithic realm governed by the great god Ego. There is no shadow quite so blinding. Ego imagines itself the ruler of all it can see, but in reality, it rules a narrow, cramped distorted domain no bigger than ourselves at our smallest. That domain is a prison disguised as a kingdom. C.S. Lewis’ now-famous reflection on love takes an unvarnished look at its dynamic: " To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will be become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell." (The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, World, Inc:1960. 169) The inward landscape darkened by the shadow cast by Ego, enlarged as the Wizard of Oz was enlarged by pretence and illusion, is indeed the valley of the shadow of death.

However, the gospel announces that we are not condemned to darkness: the Light has come.

See the next posting for the sequel!

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Work Impeded


It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Wendell Berry
(Collected Poems)

On January 13, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It's a moment of glory, isn't it? Jesus emerges triumphant from the water. The dove descends. The Fathers of the Church made much of that dove. The last time we saw it was in the story of Noah. Or rather, the last time we lost sight of it was in the story of Noah. After the rains, Noah saw only floods where the earth had been, but --ever a hopeful man even in the face of hopelessness--he sent out a dove in search of dry land. The first dove returned: it had found nowhere to land. Then he sent out a second dove. The second dove returned bearing an olive twig. (One strand of much later rabbinic tradition thought the Tree of Life had been an olive tree. That thought adds a real kicker to the story.) That dove no doubt appeared on more than one Christmas card in your mailbox this year, bearing the hope of peace. That dove is the one that figures in some of the patristic homilies about Jesus' baptism also. However, there was a third dove. That dove flew out and never returned. Noah knew then that creation the earth had emerged new-born from the flood. It was time now to start over. I like to think that it is the third dove we see descending on Jesus, the new creation emerging from the waters of chaos, like Israel emerging from the twin waters of the Red Sea and this very Jordan that bracketed the desert years when they were forged into a new creation, a new people. The dove is, of course, the image of the Spirit/Breath that hovered over the primal sea, bearing the word that would summon forth all created things. In the story of Jesus' baptism, another word is spoken: God claiming the Son. It is, indeed, a glorious story.

But not for long. In less than a month, we will celebrate Ash Wednesday. On the First Sunday of Lent, we will read the story that actually follows immediately upon the baptism in the gospel story: Jesus is driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan. The work is no sooner announced than it is impeded. The road is barred by the tempter, whispering that old familiar love song--"Come to me, come to me, I will lay at your feet power, wealth, glory...You shall be like a god." The script has never varied; only the wording has changed.

Life is like that. The warmth of Christmas is quickly succeeded by the frosts of desert nights. The angels leave, the shepherds go back to their sheep, the magi take off for parts unknown, the baby and family are sent into exile-- in Egypt, as a matter of fact, whence the young man "returns" at baptism, crossing the Jordan to claim the land of promise. On the day of baptism, the voice of God replaces the song of the angels, announcing that the promised messenger has come; the crowds replace the shepherds, wondering at what they have seen and heard; the magi don't show up this time, but the scribes and the Pharisees, the wise hearts of Israel, do. But the wonder is once again short-lived. The voice of God is silent as Jesus himself takes up the task of proclaiming the good news. The crowds grow fickle, one minute wanting to crown him a king, the next minute wanting to throw him over a cliff. The wise are uncertain that they have indeed found the one they sought. Many of them decide they were mistaken. There are no soldiers with swords going after babies this time, but there will be plenty of soldiers of one kind or another with blood on their minds as the story unfolds. And always there is the tempter, doing evil's utmost to undo the creative work of God, not in Jesus only but also in all disciples.

Wendell Berry's poem suggests that in the impediments lies the way that Jesus must follow, and we after him. Evil often defeats its own purposes. When the new life-giving impulses that arise from the moments of chaos on our lives are right, evil is waiting around the corner to block the way. The roadblock is the confirmation that we are on the right road. If we weren't, evil wouldn't care. (This is, of course, an overstatement: all serious decisions require discernment rooted in facts, because sometimes the road is blocked because it's the wrong one.) Moreover, in finding our way over, around, and through the impediments, we grow strong in our convictions and our creativity and our courage to carry them out. I am reminded of the familiar warning that if you very kindly assist the butterfly in its struggle to emerge from the cocoon by breaking the cocoon open for it, the butterfly may emerge, but it will be unable to fly. I like to imagine that only the butterfly with torn wings can fly into the sun.

Only the gospel-bearer impeded is strong, courageous and creative enough to sing.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Note: Wendell Berry's poem is no doubt under copyright, but it appears in several places on the web, so I have taken the liberty to reprint it on this website too. If there are objections, I will remove it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

From a Far Country

The magi, whose story we tell on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, came from "the East" to do homage to the newborn "king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2). The Christian imagination long ago turned them into three kings, though the gospel text says nothing about number or royalty. Christian scholarship has suggested them to be astrologers from somewhere as far away as Persia or as near as Arabia or the Syrian desert. No matter: they were and are exotic figures, cloaked in mystery, who came from a far country do pay honor to the newborn Christ and then disappeared as suddenly as they had come.

If they came from a far country, how much farther is the country from which we have come to worship the Word made flesh. Our journey originated somewhere east of Eden, in the hostile land to which the primal human beings were banished after that unfortunate picnic on a menu of forbidden fruit (cf. Genesis 3). Aelred Squire devotes a chapter of his classic Asking the Fathers to "the land of unlikeness" in which original sin landed us after Eden. The chapter is not about geography but about exile from our own truth as men and women created to live in God's likeness. God, say the scriptures, has been laboring ever since to persuade us to come home again. The moment when we turn from worshipping at the ancient shrine of the great God Ego to worshipping the God enshrined in Christ marks a milestone on the long road back to where we belong. It's a fragile moment: we tend to come and go between one shrine and the other for a lifetime. But it's a decisive moment. We can, like the Magi, go back to where we came from, and sometimes we do, if only for a visit, but we do not go unchanged.

When we first arrive at the house where we see "the child with his mother" (Matthew 2:11)--whatever the shape of the house, whatever age our image of Jesus--we are not likely to produce gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, at least not if we come as adults. We may more likely offer, embarrassed, a rather shopworn heart, some tatty prayers that vanish as quickly as the smoke of burning incense, and plenty of reason for the mourning myrrh signifies. We are always astonished to find that the gifts are not only received but welcomed and cherished. It was only that old hissing whisper from Eden days that tried to convince us that only high class, undamaged goods are acceptable at that "throne". We may be persuaded to snatch them back again after all, but we will find them as great a source of delight to the One we want to honor every single time we present them again. The Receiver may even throw a party--as long as the giver is the first of the gifts (see Luke 15).

Every year, Epiphany reminds us that the journey is not over. We still have a ways to go on a road likely to be marked by all sorts of detours, backward looks, even times when turn back altogether and have to retrace our steps to the place of meeting. All that matters, really, is that we keep forging ahead. Because we are not headed backward to the Eden from which we like to imagine we came, an Eden of childhood innocence unmarked by tears or pain or struggle -- or the growth that demands all three. We are headed forward toward a place much farther than Bethlehem, which even Jesus left long ago for the road to Calvary. It is a place which will not even fully exist till all of us get there, or so we are forced to think from within the narrow confines of a reality defined by time past, time present and time future.

Whether or not the magi were kings, they were, as we have always called them, wise. Fittingly, then, they have left us a legacy not of material treasures but of wisdom gleaned from hard experience. They have taught us that we may have to travel a long way to get from the far country to the place to which the star is leading. They have taught us that the journey is worth the trouble. And they have taught us one thing more: to see the star, we have to be willing to travel in the dark.

Note: Aelred Squire's book, Asking the Fathers, was originally published by Morehouse-Barlow in 1973. A new edition was published by SPCK in 1994. I am under the impression that I've seen a more recent edition published by an American house, but I can't find any information to substantiate that.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga