Friday, September 4, 2009

From Outside In

This morning I was reading a homily by St. Gregory the Great (d. 406) on Matthew 12:46, 50, the story of Jesus' family's vain attempt to visit him while he was preaching. Jesus' reply to those who were no doubt nudging and whispering and waving to get his attention to tell him that his mother and kinsmen were waiting outside was, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?....Whoever does the will of my father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother." A bit hard on his mother, but surely she of all people understood.

Gregory turns this story into a really regrettable bit of anti-Semitism, as was, sadly, the custom of many Christian preachers of his time. Equating Jesus' Jewish relatives with "the synagogue," he says, "[Jesus] does not acknowledge the synagogue because when it clung to the observance of the Law it did away with its spiritual understanding and established itself outside, guarding the letter." I was about to close the book in disappointed disgust--I hold Gregory in high esteem and had expected better--a little sliver of light shot out from between the pages and stung me in the eyes. Suppose for "the synagogue" I substituted "Genevieve?" I thought about how easy it is for me to shut out the words of Scripture as we sing them in our seven daily services (the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours) while I brood about something else, like my ever-present and ever-unfinished To Do list. Am I not establishing myself outside the words, guarding their letter by chanting them, but abandoning any claim to spiritual understanding? And what about the days when I run madly across the surface of things, keeping our customs, observing the Rule of Benedict, doing what I'm supposed to be doing--but skating along the thin skin of superficiality that stands between me and all the depth and richness of this contemplative monastic way of life? In fact, I realized, I'm very good at establishing myself outside of genuine life altogether, guarding its surface and refusing to plunge into its depths.

Three other famous "outsiders" crossed my mind. The first two also appear in the Scriptures, each one quite well known in his way. Neither has a name, belonging as they do to a parable (Luke 15). The younger of the two has a nickname: we call him "the prodigal son." His older brother has nothing at all to distinguish him. Both of them also chose to station themselves outside. The younger brother packed up all his worldly goods and left home to spend them on wine, woman and song. No doubt visions not of sugar plums but of happy pleasures danced in his head: he would have the best to eat and drink, he would have a host of friends around his table, he would have company in the night, or anytime he wanted it. Visionary sugar plums don't feed real hungers, but he didn't know that. When the visions evaporated, and he found himself cold, lonely and hungry, he finally recognized that he had mistaken "outside" as the place where all the good things of life were stored. Instead, he discovered to his chagrin, "inside," back in the home he had left, was the place where the truly good things were kept, above all the astonishing love of his forgiving father. At least he was smart enough to go back in.

His older brother was not so bright. He had kept his feet rooted at the old homestead, but he had in reality shut himself out of his home all along. He had wrapped himself up in a cloak of jealousy and resentment. He had not even requested, never mind claimed, all the good that might have come his way because, had he received it, as he surely would, he would have had to leave the nasty feelings outside and go in by the fire with his father. Resentment is oddly self-justifying and so, in a peculiarly twisted way, satisfying. To the very end of the story, we never learn whether he was ever able to make the decision to go in, though his father urged and urged him. We leave him, as the parable concludes, still standing outside.

I thought about how easy it is to shut oneself out in the cold, out of the real home of the spirit God has opened to us, even when God stands there in the door begging us to come on in. Like the prodigal, we can let ourselves be dazzled by far mirages: that forbidden relationship, that dishonest job, that money--well, it's the company's, but no one will ever know, will they?--that sugar plum over there always looks better than what we really treasure when we're in our right minds. And we sell out the treasure for such tawdry goods, sometimes--another TV show instead of a few minutes of prayer, a glamorous friend instead of Suzy who has been our best friend since kindergarten, even though she's now a little the worse for the wear of the years on the outside, a new opportunity instead of the steady job we could hold for a lifetime if we would. Any kind of excitement instead of the only kind of fidelity: God's, to us. I often wonder after the fact why I thought x or y or z was such a good idea at the time when I knew perfectly well from a long life's worth of experience that it would go flat in the end.

Or take the older brother. Like him, we can so easily refuse joy for the thin pleasure of ugly feelings, like resentment. We can stand outside shivering and sulking because the brother or sister got a feast, never seeing that we were also invited. Again, it's so easy to trade in the real happiness we have--the pleasure of a beautiful morning, the touch of a child's hand, the look of love in the eyes of someone we care about--for the chance to revel in our envy of the happiness we imagine someone else has. I'm reminded of Edgar Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory":

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.

So, who is the third outsider, you ask? (Or had you forgotten there was one?) Ah, the third is another prodigal who recorded famously his discovery that he was standing on the wrong side of the door of home:

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."
St. Augustine of Hippo (died 430).

His story ended happily. In fact, happily ever after, as far as we know. If he were here, and if he saw you or me standing outside, he'd be the first to say: "You don't have to stay out there. Come on in."

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Fog

My usual summer apology for the infrequency of postings!

This morning I woke up to thick fog. From my window, all I can see is a hint of rock, a ghost of tree, and fog. My world has grown very small. My range of vision is constricted by cataracts of gray wet mist. I know the water-rounded, lichen clad boulders rise up in a high cliff to meet the deep blue Colorado sky. I know the Ponderosa pines and junipers spring up out of sheer rock, or so it seems, across the cliff face. I know there are black pockets that hide the possibility of mountain lions. But no matter how hard a squint, I can’t see any of it. All I can see is hints, shadows, ghosts—and the relentless fog.

The scene has set me to thinking about shortsightedness. It seems to me that all of us carry around our own personal fog, settled around the hidden recesses of the ever-probing mind and hiding from us a great deal of what we know or guess or hope to be there. We suspect the existence of a larger world than we can see, but all we see of it is hints, shadows, ghosts—and the relentless fog that shuts us in. The fog is thicker for some of us than others, at some times than others, in some places than others. But it never lifts entirely, this side of the grave.

In fact, so used to it can we become that we cease to believe or guess or even hope that there is more behind it. We then hunker down within our blinding circle of mist and grow comfortable in a deepening certainty that what we see is all we’ll ever get.

It’s an old story. I think of the Israelites, not too far into the desert, screaming at God (or telling Moses to scream at God for them because they sometimes recognize that God might be a dangerous Someone to scream at). They scream because they’re hungry and thirsty and afraid. They’re town dwellers, farmers and laborers, used to a world run by Egyptians, though they carry a dim memory of times when it was not so, of places far away, of heroic ancestors and their God. But so dim is the memory that it has lost most of its reality and all of its power to animate them. It’s mostly, now, a matter of a good story to tell around the fire at night, with the events and names getting scrambled over time until no one knows anymore what really happened or to whom, or if anything really happened at all. Suddenly, they find themselves thrust out of Egypt into the alien, hostile desert as nomadic herders who must live from oasis to oasis because there are no wells, no town squares, no homes to go to at night. All they can see is wasteland and more wasteland and more wasteland beyond that, as far as the eye can reach. And so, quite reasonably, they scream to go home. They might have been slaves—they were slaves—but when they got up in the morning they could see the food in their larders, the water in the water jars, the vegetables and fruits growing in vibrant orchards, the flocks and herds safely penned or tethered or guarded for meat, milk, wool, and skins. Here, all they see is a dry, sandy circle of death closing in on them.

They grew shortsighted. They saw here and now. They saw their children hungry, their animals thirsty, their breadbaskets empty. They saw, in other words, their need. They lost sight of the grand promise of a land running with milk and honey, of a God who could part water and drown armies and restore to them the homeland they had lost so long ago they had nothing left of it but their vague stories.

You can’t really blame them. Hunger, thirst, and the threat of death lurking behind them are very tangible realities. Survival is an overwhelming drive. Let Moses, Aaron, Miriam and God get out of their way to the life they craved. Not long ago I read a novel called Black Monday by R. Scott Reiss. The premise of the novel was that bad guys had created a microbe that ate oil. The villains disseminated it through most of the oil fields of the world. The results were catastrophic: airplanes suddenly fell out of the sky as their oil vanished, cars slid to a silent halt on freeways during rush hour causing multiple vehicle disasters, and all kinds of machinery began mysteriously to break down. (The author paints all this devastation in such gripping colors that one is distracted from asking why the planes even got off the ground or the cars out of the garage if the bacteria multiplied and consumed oil at the rate later tracked by scientists.) The by-product of these mechanical horrors is the rather swift disintegration of the social fabric as families are faced with starvation as food distribution, then food production, grind to a terrifying halt, and homes are threatened with hypothermia as fuel oil ceases to generate heat. Normally law-abiding parents turn into looters, hoarders, hard-hearted guardians of a dwindling food supply for their children. Marginally law-abiding men and women become thieves, raiders and murderers for the sake of the illusory wealth and power available to the “haves” in a rising sea of “have-nots.” Jobs disappear, police can no longer patrol in useless vehicles, soldiers commandeer horse carts to get from one place to the other. The law of the jungle—kill or be killed—becomes the norm of a desperate world. There are heroic exceptions, or near-exceptions, but they are very few and powerless. The picture was dreadfully credible. It made a few complaining Israelites look like small potatoes indeed. (And even a small potato is a very risky thing to be in a world defined by “eat or be eaten.”)

The book made me realize, though, that the short-sightedness that afflicted those Israelites can become lethal. If we cannot see beyond the small circle of the self and its survival, we become dangerous protectors and predators of “us” vs. “them” or, eventually, “me” against “you.” I suspect that this dynamic of short-sightedness may be one way of thinking about what St. Paul means when he writes about the “law of the flesh” vs. “the law of the spirit” (e.g. Galatians 5:16-18). We heirs of a Greek philosophical worldview have often confused this common biblical distinction with “body” vs. “soul,” but the biblical world didn’t operate by those categories. The human being is the clay into which God had breathed the breath of life on the banks of a river in Eden (cf. Genesis 2:4b-7): every human being, good bad or indifferent, is “enspirited matter,” so to speak. In the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s work, “flesh” usually means the world untouched and untransformed by the life-giving Spirit of God let loose by the death and resurrection of Jesus, whereas “spirit” means humanity seized, possessed and made new by that Spirit. “Flesh” is radically self-centered. It is therefore, by definition, very short-sighted indeed: it can see no farther than the feeble circle of light cast by “me” and “mine.” Paul lists a series of nasty behaviors that result from the radical assertion of “me” over “you,” but they are not merely sins of our bodily being (Galatians 5:19-20). They are, as Jesus suggests in the gospel, sins of the “heart” (Matthew 15:17-20). The “heart” in the bible is that center where we take in the random bombardment of experience that assaults us second by second and organize it into a worldview out of which we can understand, think, believe, decide and act. Sins of the heart are actions produced by the way we look at the world and everything in it (and beyond it), including ourselves. If all I can see in the surrounding fog is what I need to survive, then I can readily believe myself entitled to go after it, no matter what that might cost anyone else.

The Israelites did not remain slaves imprisoned in a hostile Egypt. In spite of themselves, they were delivered and sent on their way toward the land promised to their ancestors long before. Even their desert shortsightedness could not, in the end, keep their children from the Land, though it caused most of the Exodus generation to perish in the desert they had chosen (cf. Numbers 13-14). Neither are we condemned to spend time and eternity in the fog. Fog does eventually burn off in the sun. We can look forward to that moment long before it comes, because even the worst fog is permeable to the light while it still hides the landscape from view. St. Gregory the Great describes us in our fogbound existence as people of the dawn:

While we do some things which already belong to the light, we are not free from the remnants of darkness…. When he writes, the night is passed, Paul does not add, the day is come, but rather, the day is at hand. Since he argues that after the night has passed, the day as yet is not come but is rather at hand, he shows that the period before full daylight and after darkness is without doubt the dawn, and that he himself is living in that period. It will be fully day for the Church of the elect when she is no longer darkened by the shadow of sin. It will be fully day for her when she shines with the perfect brilliance of interior light. This dawn is aptly shown to be an ongoing process when Scripture says: And you showed the dawn its place [Job 38:12].

So, in the midst of our self-focusing fog, Paul encourages us to look beyond its dark circle toward the larger world lit up for us even now by Jesus Christ, “the light of the world” (John 9:5): “the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” We may not be able to see very clearly yet, but we have a lamp to guide us through the fog toward the arriving day: “Your word is a lamp to my feet

and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Word maps out the basic route pretty succinctly: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

It takes courage to step out into the fog, but Christ reassures us, out of the light we can barely see, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).

©2009, Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beyon Emmaus: A Poem

Today, the Third Sunday of Easter, we read the story of Jesus' appearance to the disciples after his meeting with the two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Like all the stories of Easter appearances, and like the Acts of the Apostles as it recounts the life of the early post-Easter Christian community, this one reminds us that Easter was and is a life-changing event not only for Jesus but for every life he touched and touches.  We see the first disciples and the early Christians struggling to make sense out of what they have witnessed, to pick up the pieces of lives whose basic assumptions had been blown to bits, to forge a future out of hints and guesses (with lots of help from the Holy Spirit) in order to be faithful to their call.  Any conversion that brings new life presents us with these same tasks.  They may be exciting, life-giving, joyful--but they are always also confusing, sometimes frightening, even paralyzing as we fight to get our bearings in a whole new world we had not expected.  This poem seeks to express Easter's effect.  

On Easter’s road we meet the Mystery,

half seen, half hidden from unwilling eyes

that know the invitation but resist

lest we be burst asunder by surprise

and find ourselves made new before we take

farewell of what we were, before it dies.

The taste of daily bread seems passing sweet,

though yesterday we found it hard and thin.

New leaven makes a wilder loaf that breaks

in fragments we can barely gather in,

for all our baskets now have grown too small

to hold the feast we hardly dare begin.


The wine is heady as it spills from cups

that careful craft cut shallow by intent

to mete out life by sips too cautious now

to hold in check the vintage that has rent

our wineskins with a stone-displacing force

erupting from a fountain never spent.


We thought we knew you when you spoke to us

the word that seized our lives and turned them round

to face a different sun than we had seen

along the roads we tramped, eyes on the ground

to measure steps with care lest pebbles trip

or unsuspected crossroads, met, confound.

What fools we were—we never knew you then,

who hardly know you now by voice or face,

but only in the breaking of the bread

catch sight of what you are and were.  The grace

spills through your wounded hands and floods the room

with fragrance from some strange, familiar place.

©2008,  Abbey of St. Walburga
Reprinted from Beside the Streams of Babylon (Virginia Dale, CO: St. Walburga Press, 2008). All rights reserved. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lazarus Among the Dead: A Poem for Holy Saturday

This poem was written during the fifth week of Lent, when the gospel of the raising of Lazarus is read either on Sunday or, as this year, on an alternative weekday. It was not written for Holy Saturday, but it seems appropriate as a reflection on one connection between the story of Lazarus of Bethany and the story of Jesus as we recall the line from the creed: "He descended into Hell."

Today I took the book in hand and read
the tale of Lazarus among the dead.

The darkness, gray, is tinted by the stench
of rotting souls. Their faces, white, drift in
and out of sight.
“Here we exist between
the day and night, our twilight timeless. Why?
Oh yes, we know. We are the ruin. Here
the garden stood, and we its trees. You have
heard tell the fruits that we were born to bear:
love, joy, and patience, peace and gentleness,
staunch faithfulness and generosity
and kindness, luminous upon the stem
of self-restraint.
Behold us now: the worm
found invitation in our discontent
with what we were but did not know we were.
We drank the wormwood and the gall, and lo!
the beauty blackened on the branch,
the sweet fruit poisoned to the core, the roots
sunk deep in streams polluted by our choice.
And we are legion. Look: our children’s seed
and theirs, down generations wasted by
our sin.
The tree of life is barred to us,
but we await in this gray world the spill of light
to flow from its pierced fruit.”
The Voice breaks through
their whispers. “Lazarus, come out.” Unbound,
he sees the sun. The Eyes are dark. They know
what Lazarus has seen. The others think
him pale from four long days of silence in
the dark of death. He wishes it were so.

I laid aside the book in cold and dread;
for I had seen my face—among the dead.

Genevieve Glen, OSB; ©2009, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO. Once again the technical limitations of Blogger make it impossible to place the broken lines correctly. Here I have chosen to insert a blank line before each of the lines that should be indented to complete the previous line.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Poem for Good Friday


And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him,
they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb.
Acts 13:29

With careworn hands, the Mother tends her Son.
She does not notice, when she lifts the thorns
with tender care and wipes away the blood,
her fingers bleed. She smoothes the tangled hair,
sweat-drenched and limp. She pays no heed to stains
upon her dress where rests the tortured back,
red-cloaked, but not with majesty. His weight
lies heavy on her lap where once the babe
lay just as still in sleep, thirst satisfied.
She knows his hands and feet feel nothing now,
but her hands ache with something deeper than
the age of bones. When friends have lifted him
to bear him to his bed of stone, her feet
will follow, pausing now and then to rub
the bloodied footprints from the sand.

The chill
will never leave her once they roll the stone
across that charnel cold. Though he will rise,
the flesh that bore him will not ever lose
the imprint of that final dark. The hour
of night that seized the earth at afternoon
once light was quenched, will settle in her soul
as memory no morning sun will quite
And so, remembering, she tends
the wounded flesh of all the human race.

Genevieve Glen, OSB; ©2005, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO 80536-8942. Reprinted from On Threads of Hope (Portland OR: Pastoral Press, 2008). All rights reserved. Please note that the technical limitations of Blogger do not allow the proper placement of the broken lines.

A Hymn for Holy Thursday

How could a friend betray you,
A follower deny?
How could they then forsake you
And leave you there to die?
How weak our claims of fealty,
How little does it take--
A handful of their silver
To put your life at stake?

Yet you, when handed over,
Accepted at the hands
Of brutal and dishonest
The pain of torture’s brands.
And when they crucified you,
You prayed, “O God, forgive”;
You knew the ones who slew you
And died that they might live.

How could we doubt the mercy
That bled for us that day?
When we have seen the nail marks,
How could we walk away?
Our sin deserves your anger;
You give us life instead.
Before your cross we tremble,
To take your wine and bread.

Your gifts have far exceeded
All human want or need:
You lay your life before us
With wounded hands that bleed.
You ask of us no payment,
You welcome us to eat
Like guests at your own table—
But first you wash our feet.

How can our thanks repay us,
Our lives make some return
For this vast debt we owe you?
Our hearts with longing burn
To offer you some token
Of all we cannot say—
Take these, the hearts that love you,
O Christ our God, we pray!

Meter: 7676D

Genevieve Glen, OSB, b. 1945; ©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO 80536-8942. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Sweeper: a Parable

She filled the house with clouds enough to choke
all thoughts but this: “My coin is lost and must
be found! My last!” She lit the lamp, and woke
a dancing chorus of more blinding dust.
She swept in vain until a flicker caught
a hint of gold half hidden by old oak
where shelves well laden with what she had bought
bowed to the ground and moaned and all but broke
beneath their burden.
Overjoyed, she heard
a voice she knew. “What goods your wealth has brought!
What did they cost? Whose face is that upon
the coin you lost and in such frenzy sought?”
She looked. The face was hers. “And whose is drawn
upon the other side?” She looked once more.
The second face was his.
She flung the door
wide open, called her friends to celebrate
her find. She gave them gladly all her store
of precious treasures. When the hour grew late
she found the empty shelves and clean-swept floor
filled her with joy she had not known before.
One thing remained. She did not want to wait.
She went at once in haste to throw her last
best coin into the Temple treasury.
He watched her, knowing what this final fast
had cost --and bought.
She went home free.

©2009, Abbey of St. Walburga

Beware: this poem combines several New Testament passages--Luke 15:8-9; Matthew 22:20; Mark 10:17-21, 12:41-44, to be exact--and in doing so, changes the message of several of them, but stays within the general framework of the gospel, I think. I hope this won't get my poetic license revoked!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Memory is a tricky business. It is fully owned and operated by an independent editorial staff on duty 24/7. Or so it seems to an outsider looking into the workings of his or her own mind. The Acquisitions Editor begins the process. Picking through the experiences of the day—what we have seen, done, thought, read, said, heard—it sorts them into baskets labeled: RECALL, REPRESS, REWRITE. Contrary to our experience, there is no basket labeled: FORGET. (I suspect, however, that there is one labeled MISLAY IN THE BACK ROOM.) The REWRITE basket is full to overflowing with manuscripts in progress, the work of the Content Editor, who is also a skilled artist and writer, particularly of fiction. No need for a copy editor—memory doesn’t bother to check facts, references, spelling or punctuation. The supervising Editor-in-Chief takes the finished work of the Content Editor, arranges it for publication, and files it in the most useful spot on the vast shelves of our interior library. The CIRCULATION EDITOR takes it from there, selecting what we remember at any given moment. This busy editorial staff never sleeps, since a lot of their work is done in the night workshop of the unconscious. Dreams are often their rough drafts.

The business of memory would be of only passing interest if it did not shape so much of our waking lives. Various schools of spirituality stress the importance of living in the present moment. Certainly taking conscious responsibility for life at hand in the moment is important. However, living exclusively in the present seems a task outside the competence of the human mind. By the design of the God who put order into the primal chaos by creating lights in the firmament to govern the day and the night, the times and the seasons, that is, who created time as past, present and future, the human psyche lives in a multi-layered present where past and future are always in conversation with “right now.” When I am washing dishes, I may focus consciously and intentionally on the task at hand, but the order in which I wash and rinse, the attention I pay to food remnants stuck on a plate, or to ardor with which I do battle with the black stuff on the bottom of pots, depend a great deal both on the style of the parent who first taught me dishwashing and on what I plan to do with dish or pot later. My mother’s voice says in one ear, “Scrub all that black stuff off the bottom of that copper-bottomed pan so it will look nice hanging up there on the wall.” (My mother didn’t really say that.) My uncle’s voice says in another ear, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. A good dish-dryer should be able to take off whatever the dishwasher leaves.” (My uncle, the family dish dryer, did.) The past speaks through those family voices; the future speaks through the image of the copper-bottomed pan hanging on the wall or the faithful dish dryer wiping off the stubborn particles of broccoli. We live in a time-rich tapestry. The notion of liturgy as memorial in which past, present and future meet and interact NOW is simply an objective extension of our subjective experience of living in time.

That being the case, it matters a great deal what we remember and how and why because those departments of memory give our daily life its textures. If we remember this morning’s conversation with the accent on hurt taken, belittlement perceived, or disdain for the ignorance of the other speaker, and we keep rehearsing it with the intention of returning wound for wound, of defending ourselves against disparagement we fear might be justified, or of chalking up points by putting the other person down
[1], we will live the day under a dark cloud of hurt, anger, pride, and contempt. That’s rather an unpleasant prospect for most of us. If, on the other hand, we remember the conversation with the accent on gratitude for the other’s insight or honesty or creativity, we live in the sunlight.

I said in the beginning that memory is the work of independent editors, but, true as that seems, it is not in fact the only truth. We do have the capacity to choose our attitudes. In fact, Viktor E. Frankl, in his classic description of life in a World War II concentration camp, says that only freedom that cannot be taken from us is the precisely the freedom to choose our attitudes. It is a difficult freedom. It demands conscious work in examining and forming or reforming the decisions of our memory’s editorial staff. We may not be able to control what the Acquisitions Editor takes in, but we can attend to the way the Content Editor writes it, shapes it, and colors it insofar as it can be made accessible to our conscious mind and will, and we can exercise some authority over what the Circulation Editor presents to us for rumination. I can learn, with the grace of the God of truth, to look for the good in people, circumstances, and events. Both gratitude and humility will follow and perhaps become habits of mind. I can learn to choose which door to walk through when the mind presents me with one labeled “Resentments” and one labeled “Gifts.” The same events may lie behind both: behind “Resentments” they are colored dark, behind “Gifts” they are illuminated by the light of the Spirit (cf. Psalm 36).

The psalmist lament what happens to God’s people when the editor in charge of selection feeds them on memories of the good life in Egypt rather than the great deeds God has done for them. (See, for example, Psalms 78 and 106). The result is rebellious sulks rather than the grateful praise that makes obedience a joy and not a chore.

Our primary love and obedience to God are expressed through obedience to the two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39; NRSV). “Heart, soul, and mind” take in the whole of our inner life, including memory. So remembering, too, must become an act of love. I don’t know about your editors, but mine still need a few lessons in that department. Lent is on the doorstep. Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It’s a good season to provide them with some continuing education.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, rev. ed., tr. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), xi.
[2] See “Tenting on a New Campground,” posting for 12/28/08. An expanded and revised version of that posting—with typos removed, I hope—appears in Pebbles on the Beach: Reflection for Lent and Easter by Genevieve Glen, OSB (Virginia Dale CO: St. Walburga Press, 2009). This newly-released book also includes revised versions of some other postings from this blog. It will be available today or tomorrow at Watch the sidebar for an announcement of our opening!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Town Folk of the Mind--Part III

Please read Parts I and II, posted below, first!

Because the paralytic was, in fact, unable to help himself, he would never have reached Jesus without the four men who not only carried him, on his pallet, to the house where Jesus was preaching and healing but, when they couldn't get to Jesus himself, managed to get the pallet up onto the roof of the house and lower it down at Jesus' feet through a hole they had made in the roof.

From time to time, all of us find ourselves paralyzed at heart, if not in body, and unable to help ourselves out of the circumstances that have frozen us in place. Perhaps the cause is indeed sin, as the story in Mark's gospel suggests--not that paralysis, inward or outward is punishment for sin, as the town folk believe, but that ill-doing is apt to trap us, like squirrels in a cage, on a treadmill that takes us around and around in the same circle of repetition and guilt. Kathleen Norris, in her recent book Acedia and Me, repeats a story told to her by a teacher of a classroom full of young children who were out of control. Likely they were chasing each other, yelling, shoving desks out of the way, maybe throwing things, and generally leaving havoc in their week. One little girl, when asked what was going on, answered, "We're being bad, and we don't know how to stop!"

When we're being bad and can't figure out how to stop, or when we're simply feeling helpless to be genuinely good, or when we long for Jesus but can't seem to get our spiritual feet to the place where we can meet him, we need pallet carriers like the four men in the gospel. We know very little about these men. We don't know if they were friends or relatives or simply neighbors. We don't know why they agreed to carry the paralytic to Jesus. We do know that they were generous, determined, and inventive. We also know they were strong. It was no easy task to get someone who could not move onto a roof, pallet and all. It took strength to lower him through the roof without dumping him on Jesus' head. Jesus spots their main quality: their faith prompts him to forgive the paralytic's sin (Mark 2:5).

Since we've been considering the town folk of the mind, both the crowd that blocked the paralytic's road to Jesus and the paralytic himself, we might cast around in our own inner world for the pallet carriers. They are the insights, the qualities, the characteristics that can carry us to the One who can heal us even when we feel utterly unable to walk their ourselves. They include, the story suggests, generosity toward ourselves, determination, creativity, strength, and, of course, faith. Generosity toward ourselves when we are in trouble is essential to protect us from trying to solve our need by simply punishing ourselves. Guilt is heavy. It will not help us to walk. Determination moves us to get up and go without any clear picture of what will happen when we get there. Creativity of heart will free us from the squirrel's treadmill but giving us a different perspective on the issues at hand. That is already a form of liberation and healing--and it is the gift of a creative God to every human being made in the divine image. Our strength may not be apparent to us in our weakness, but most of us are stronger than we imagine, if only we would call on the inner resources God has given us. And, in this case, faith is trust to take the whole sorry mess to Christ without having any idea how he will heal it. For the paralytic in the story, he did the unexpected--he forgave his sins. For us, too, he will quite likely do the unexpected. Let him!

However, lest we imagine ourselves to be self-sufficient and curse ourselves when we find we're not, it would be wise to look outside ourselves for the pallet carriers we need. Who are the generous helpers? Where will we find them? The obvious answer is among relatives, friends, pastors or other religious figures. However, sometimes they might appear in the form of a wise novelist, an insightful poet, or an artist or musician who can lift us out of our entrapment in our small selves. Their commitment to the integrity of their own craft, their creativity, their strength of vision, their faith may carry us into the Presence for which we long. And they are only suggestions--as moments of disaster always demonstrate, generous human beings with helping hands outstretched are everywhere, if only we allow them to see our need and to help us out of it.

An interesting lot, the town folk of the mind, our constant companions, our friends and our foes. And, more often than we know, our saving grace.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, February 1, 2009


The bones of aspens, trailing widows’ veils,
lean eastward, where the sun shone till the shroud—
wet, gray and heavy—smothered it. Thick cloud
hangs dripping in the branches. Mourning wails
are quenched by fog. Half-hid, the abandoned trees
sink roots in memory for anchor, tilt
their heads toward vanished dawn, and tuck the silt

of springs and summers past around their knees.

Snow fell last night. Dark morning is the price,
but all the aspen trees stand wreathed in light,
each upstretched fingertip ablaze with white
where frozen flame engulfs the grove in ice.
It does not matter now if sun returns.
Who stares into remembered fire, burns.

©2002, Abbey of St. Walburga. Reprinted from Landscapes: Poetry by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB. Revised Edition. Virginia Dale CO: St. Walburga Press, 2008.

Part II of "Town Folk of the Mind" will be posted later this week.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Town Folk of the Mind--Part II

This posting will make more sense if you read the previous one, "Town Folk of the Mind--Part I" first.

And the paralytic? Who is he among the town folk of the mind? In the story, he is an interesting figure--unknown but known. We are given only one fact about him: he is unable to walk unaided. We are given two hints. First, either he is a man who inspires friends or relatives to go to great lengths to help him, or his carriers are the kind of people who pop up in the wake of fire, famine, flood and earthquake to rescue their fellow human beings for no apparent reason other than generous kindness. Secondly, either he is a sinner, or Jesus is working from the assumption popular at the time that any misfortune, but particularly sickness, is God's retaliation for sin. (Jesus contradicts this assumption elsewhere. He was patient enough to work within the given frameworks of his hearers and only gradually to expand them or shatter and rebuild them.)

Among the town folk of the mind, the paralytic stands out as radical dependence in radical need. The dependence in this case is on others. The paralytic is utterly unable to act in his own behalf. The need, though, is for Jesus. No one else can heal his paralysis. No one else can forgive his sin. In other words, no one else can set him free from all that constrains him within the small circle of his own helplessness. Perhaps he knows that himself. Perhaps only his friends put their trust in this new Healer. It doesn't really matter: need is need, whatever the motive that plants us at last at the feet of the One who can meet it.

Perhaps the need is what causes the crowd to ignore him. The "thoughts" or "passions" that drive us wear a mask of self-sufficiency. That is part of the ruse they use to snare us: “You can get what you want if you get out there and fight for it.” They are intolerant of powerlessness. Greed grabs more than its share; lust dehumanizes both its agent and its object into fodder for sheer abusive use; anger arises in response to the frustration of powerlessness. Vainglory is embarrassed by any manifestation of helplessness: it makes us look so bad when compared with the achievers around us! Pride simply refuses to accept powerlessness: it can do all things unless thwarted by the perversity of others who will not give in to us. These "thoughts" and their companions don't want to see or know that part of us which cries out to God, "O God, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me!" Only weaklings show that kind of neediness. The strong, the beautiful and the good do for themselves.

In his helplessness, the paralytic has another strike against him. He is quite unable to produce any tangible fruits through his labor because he is unable to labor. That part of us that seeks God out of deep need is not, apparently, productive. That in itself is a capital sin in a techno-consumer culture. The demon of productivity is not listed per se among the “thoughts” identified by Evagrius Ponticus and the other desert sages because productivity was not one of their goals. They worked at weaving mats and baskets out of local reeds, but they did so both to earn their own living and to earn money to give to the poor. They were useful, but they were not driven by the need to be useful as we so often are. There may well have been some among their number who surreptitiously compared his or her basket output with that of the neighbors to satisfy the competitive spirit of pride, but I haven’t come across their stories in the desert literature as yet. Perhaps enslavement to usefulness does belong to pride, but it seems to be ruled by a desire to be accepted as often as it is by a desire to win the race to achieve the most toys or the biggest cheese. It is certainly a major roadblock on the road toward God. No one can measure the “accomplishments” of prayer, particularly the prayer that asks for nothing but deeper communion with Christ. As spiritual writers often lament, it is perceived as a useless waste of time. “Get out there, get busy, contribute!” scream the voices in our head. As contemplative nuns, we are often forced to wrestle at least inwardly with the judgment, implied or sometimes even stated, that we are nothing but parasites wasting God’s gifts by shutting ourselves up in our cloister and spending too much time in prayer. Paralytics in a society where success is defined by product, men and women who seek God in their need for that sometimes unnamed “more” and who contribute nothing to the world but love poured out in prayer, in the cloister or in the marketplace, will get many a cold shoulder from the crowd, sometimes even the crowd gathered around Jesus’ door.

Yet need our paralytic. We need our powerlessness. We need the recognition that only one is God, and we are not the one. Otherwise, we are apt to spend our whole lives turning our back on the radical Love that can heal us and free us--if only we will allow others, and even that Love itself, to carry us up on that roof and lower us down at the feet of Christ, who shows an uncanny knack for honoring what we despise in ourselves and others by touching our weaknesses, speaking to them, explaining them, pardoning them, and converting them into strengths.

To be continued: Part III—The Pallet Carriers

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Town Folk of the Mind--Part I

In the story of the paralytic with the ingenious friends (Mark 2:1-12), our attention usually goes immediately to the clever determination that leads the men carrying the paralytic to lower him into Jesus’ presence through the roof. Their faith, says Mark, prompts Jesus first to forgive the paralyzed man his sins, to the consternation of the scribes, and then to heal him.
However, before the action really begins, the evangelist sets up the necessity for drastic action by saying “they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd” (Mark 2:4). Think for a minute about the scene. Having discovered that Jesus was home in Capernaum, “So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them” (Mark 2:2). You can imagine people jostling one another for a better spot so they could hear. A few well-placed elbows and a little toe-stomping could probably get a determined person to the front. Some of the crowd may have brought their own sick to be healed. Others were no doubt looking for something exciting, some action or some word that would liven up their day-to-day existence and give them something new to gossip about. This rabbi was new on the scene, after all, and had been known to work wonders already. Whatever their motives, they were apparently not ready to make way for a paralyzed man carried by four other men. Although Capernaum seems to have been a good-sized place that drew business from the surrounding area, chances are that a lot of people gathered knew one another, but they don’t seem to have been exhibiting much neighborliness.

Why not? What sort of people would ignore and even bar the road to such obvious need? Were they so preoccupied with hearing and seeing for themselves, so blinded by their own determination to get close, so hungry themselves that they could not make space for a man whose need for Jesus was so much greater than their own? Evidently so.

This troublesome little scene stuck in my mind like a burr when I heard it read in church lately. In the context of the gospel, the story is neither parable nor allegory, but it forced my thoughts toward the town folk of my own mind. Are there in me preoccupations, plans, purposes that stand in the way of my own need to seek and find Christ in the busy marketplace of my days? Of course there are. Usually, they look like harmless squiggles in my planner, but the ancient monastic tradition of the early Christian desert prods me into recognition that some of them are more than squiggles and far from harmless. Those unforgettable voices of a wisdom that knew all too well the foibles of the human spirit spoke plainly about the “thoughts” that drive us. Conventions of translation used to call those “thoughts” the “passions”, but once “passion” was generally co-opted by the literature of sexual morality, it lost the real flavor of what the desert fathers and mothers were talking about. They meant the inner forces that invaded the peaceful harmony of mind, heart, spirit, and body and drove those powerful faculties into a focused preoccupation that shut out prayer, charity, wisdom and balance in order to concentrate all energy on whatever “thoughts” consumed and drove the hapless human taken up with them. The desert teachers eventually named them gluttony, lust, avarice, acedia (a sort of restless, unfocussed dissatisfaction that guts initiative and perseverance in anything worthwhile), anger, despondency, vainglory and pride. The list is familiar. These are not passing whims but the gathered energy of imagination and body toward the fulfillment of some need perceived as urgent, with the collaboration of a mind happy to provide all sorts of convincing rationalizations.

Wait a minute! We began by considering the mindset of people so eager to hear and see Jesus that they block the way of a paralytic carried on a pallet. Surely these “thoughts”—which, in fact, do become passions—do not apply to the mind in quest of Christ? Of course they do. I won’t speak for you, but I am perfectly capable of setting up an imaginary Christ sketched from the gospel but cleverly twisted by my own thought processes to represent the fulfillment of all the desires of the almighty Me. The crowd in Capernaum was likely as driven by curiosity, hope of break from their normal routine, avidity for wonders, undefined desire for something more, competition with the others to get the best place, and anger when someone else got there first as they were by pure religious impulse. Most of us are sometimes, aren’t we? The town folk of my own mind don’t differ much from the town folk of Capernaum or of any crowd collected to hear and see any celebrity.

To be continued...Part II: The Paralytic

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Evening Toll

After a day that was far too busy....
I long for stiller places than the mind
where hubbub’s rowdy children will not sleep.
The day recites its deeds, too many marked “undone”,
too many labeled, “Urgent! Will not keep!”

Night’s rest has fled the clamor, fingers stuffed
into her ears, with chatter at her heels,
a pack of puppies nipping her to flight,
a ceaseless rough-and-tumble. Nightfall feels

like battlefield where neither army won,
but none can find a way to halt the fray
no one remembers starting. Why the hours
were slain and scattered, fruitless, none can say.

But more than hours are dead as day dies down.
Among the wasted victims, none left whole,
lies one who should have lived. Beside the ash
of fires burned out, I kneel and mourn my soul.

Genevieve Glen, OSB
©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Epiphany 2009: A Star in the Clouds

The piece I started for this week's posting turned out to be too long for a blog and too hard to shorten without losing the sense, so here is just a short sketch of a thought for the feast of the Epiphany (celebrated in the US Roman Catholic liturgical calendar on the Sunday nearest January 6, rather than on the traditional January 6 date).

A day or two ago, the news on the web carried a dramatic photo of heavy brown clouds billowing above the ground in the wake of an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. It brought back memories. When I was a child, the mushroom cloud from the first hydrogen bomb tests appeared in Life Magazine (yes, I'm that old). My mother hid that issue from me because she thought it would frighten me. Why, I'm not sure. I wouldn't have understood the implications, although I already knew about the A-bomb. We had regular air-raid drills at school. What I remember from them is learning to fear a flash of white soundless light (by the time you heard the explosion, it would be too late to run); filing out of the classroom and crouching down along the wall with my face hidden in my knees and my sweater pulled up over hands and neck to protect them from burns. It seems a pitiful gesture now, to use a sweater to shield yourself from an A-bomb. I think the drills did give me nightmares, so perhaps that was why my mother hid that issue of Life. The web photo reminded me of the terror a bright light and a mushroom cloud could stir up in a small child.

I wondered about the children of Gaza. I wondered about the children of Afghanistan. I wondered about the children of Iran. They make a discomforting picture in the background as we sing Christmas carols about the newborn Prince of Peace.

Iran, the former Persia, may in fact have been the home from which the three Magi of the Epiphany story (Matthew 2) set out to follow a bright light in the sky to faraway Bethlehem in Judea. Very little is known about them or their journey. Imagination and scholarship have filled in lots of details: they may have been astrologers, they may have been descendants of the Jews exiled to Babylon "in the East" centuries before, they may therefore have know of Balaam's from the Book of Numbers: "I see him [the deliverer], though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob..." (Numbers 24:17), there may have been three of them because they carried three gifts, they may have been kings, they may have been named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, one of them may have been black...a lot of "may have's", almost no known facts.

Surely they travelled through their fair share of clouds--dust storms, thunderclouds, even snow clouds in high passes, clouds of dust raised by fast bands of brigands in search of unprotected travellers, clouds of flies feasting on bodies left on the road by thieves or local wars. A strong Roman Empire ensured a certain amount of peace in the territories within its reach, but the legions probably couldn't suppress local blood feuds, and probably didn't try. The world was not a prettier place then than it is now, but it couldn't broadcast its violence and tragedies live across the world as they happened, so we don't have much of a record to go by. The three travellers must have weathered discomfort and danger as made their way "from the East" to that little Palestinian town.

Why did they do it? No one really knows. Sermons and hymns have assumed they came to worship at the crib of the Savior, Son of God and Son of Mary. Their three gifts--gold, frankincense and myrrh--were all things prescribed for worship in the Jerusalem Temple. (It was later Christian imagination that attached to them allusions to Christ's kingship, divinity and passion.) But the Magi did not come from Jerusalem. And they did not come to worship, according to Matthew's gospel. They came to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. Homage is the honor due a ruler. Why would they want to honor an infant king of a small province of the great Roman Empire? The gospel does not say.

Perhaps the gift they give us is their perseverance. They saw a star. They believed it pointed to the newborn King of the Jews. They felt they must take the long road to Israel in its wake, no doubt at great cost to themselves in terms of time, effort and money. Perhaps they themselves didn't know why. Sometimes we chase unlikely goals simply because we believe we must. They may have met obstacles that frightened them. They may have met landscapes, beasts and men who threatened them. They may have grown weary and discouraged. They may, sometimes, have lost sight of the star when the clouds were heavy. But they never turned back. They found the child, they paid their homage, they gave their gifts--and then they went home. And that's all we really know about them: they followed their vision, they gave what they had to give, and then they left. If they were hoping to get something out of that for themselves, we don't know what it was or whether they found it. All we know is: they followed, they gave, they left and then disappeared from history.

There is something to ponder in their stubborn fidelity to the star and its promise, even when the clouds are heavy, blinding and menacing. Even when they are great clouds of brown dust rising over a ruined town, or mushroom clouds threatening to rise over a ruined world. Even when everything in us wants to turn back and run for the safety of home. Even then, especially then: remember the Magi.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga
Two disclaimers are in order here:
About chronology: A child's memories are not historical records, obviously. We did have air raid drills in school during the Korean War because we lived on the San Francisco Peninsula, not far from the Naval Air Station at Alameda. There was some fear, apparently, that the air station might attract enemy bombing. As I look back, I can't imagine anyone really expected North Korea to drop an atomic bomb on California because the only country that had shown itself able and willing to commit that atrocity was the United States. However, I do remember that the teachers instructed us in how to recognize and take shelter from an atomic bomb, or A-bomb as we called them then. (The more I think about it, the more I wonder that adults who must have known the cataclysmic effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could possibly have dreamed that we could do anything to protect ourselves in a small school a few miles away from a possible target. That makes me think that, whatever I think was said, the air raid drills must have been based on fears of some lesser kind of bombs.) The other point in which I am not clear and did not have time to research is whether the first pictures of hydrogen bomb tests on the Pacific atolls appeared before, during or after the Korean War. The point really is the memeory, not the history.
About the Magi: This reflection is drawn from the story of the Magi as it is told in Matthew 2, without reference to any kind of biblical scholarship that offers a much more sophisticated picture of the story's significance. The Magi are in fact presented as representatives of the Gentile nations streaming to Jerusalem (Bethelehem was near enough) to pay homage to God after the restoration of the exiled people of God to a Jerusalem restored to splendor. See, for example, Isaiah 61 and Psalm 72, whose promises the Magi from the East seem to fulfill. They are therefore intentional characters in the messianic drama of promise and fulfillment on which the gospel story is based. But they are no less mysterious figures of human interest for all that!