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