Monday, April 30, 2012

They Went Away (John 6)

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" ….As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him (John 6:60, 66).

They went away.  Of course they did.  He spoke to them not merely in parables but in riddles that baffled even the brightest among them.  It was all very well for him to talk about manna.  They knew that story; of course they did.  Some of them were doctors of the law after all, men who lived and breathed and taught Torah.  Manna was clear:  the Israelites were starving in the desert, they called out to God for help—though their prayer most often took the form of grumbling “why’s:” “Why have you done this to us?”  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt with its luscious fleshpots, its melons, its leeks, to starve us to death here in this desert?”  And, later, after the dailiness of manna got old, “Why can’t you vary the menu?”  God listened as patiently as the parent of a two-year-old who has just learned the two key words of toddlerhood:  “why?” and “no!”  But God didn’t send them loaves of ready-baked bread, like the ones the angel brought to Elijah in the desert generations later (1 Kings 19:5-7).  No, God sent them ingredients.  They woke up in the morning to find the desert whitened with dew that evaporated under the sun and left behind something that looked like “fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground” (Ex16:14).  Their first response wasn’t “We give you thanks, O almighty God, for these and all your benefits.”  No, their first response was another question:  “manna” means “what is it?”  And without even knowing what it was, they had to figure out how to gather it up, how much to gather, and how to turn it into bread. (Can’t you just imagine the unrecorded conversations back home at the tent:  “What do you mean, make it into bread?  Look, I learned how to make bread at my mother’s knee.  That is not flour! You see if you can make bread out of it!”)  The hearers who found Jesus’ words so difficult seem to have forgotten all the questions.  What they remember is:  God gave it, the people ate it, all was well.

But Jesus was asking them for a bigger stretch of the mind than manna ever required.  He served them up a platter of conundrums seasoned with distasteful hints of cannibalism and sweetened with an unexplained promise of “eternal life.”  They couldn’t make any sense of it.  Remember, the “bread from heaven” to which we are accustomed draws all its being and power from Jesus’ death and resurrection, but those staggering events hadn’t happened yet when Jesus first talked to them of his flesh made real food and his blood made real drink.  What on earth was he talking about?  Or, more accurately, what in  heaven’s name was he talking about?  They couldn’t get past the bad taste his words left in their mouths.  So they went away.

It isn’t any wonder they left.  What is a matter for wonder is that the followers from Galilee, not a teacher of the law among them, stayed.  The words can’t have made any more sense to them then than they did to the others.  But they had learned Jesus’ habit of tell-and-show.  They had often heard him throw out strange statements like, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,”  followed by startling demonstrations like a man delivered from an evil spirit, or Simon’s mother-in-law healed or crowds of sick people made well by his word (see Mark 1).  The stories make it clear that they didn’t quite understand those episodes either, not till later.  But faith is born blind, like a kitten with eyes as yet unopened.  The kitten might not be able to write the Summa Theologiae of its universe.  It might not be able to explain “Mom” and “milk.”  It might stumble around in the dark for a while.  But every kitten has a pretty unerring sense of where to find Mom and milk, the sustenance of its life.  The disciples couldn’t possibly have unraveled, then, the meaning of  Jesus’ words, but they had crossed the divide the doubters couldn’t reach:  they had chosen to put their faith in the Speaker, even when the meaning of his words left them behind, panting, “What is it?” 

They wrestled with plenty of questions themselves.  Some they asked, some they didn’t dare to.  But they got the essential point long before they grasped the explanations.  They caught a glimpse of “who” before they really understood “what” and “why.”  So they stayed, not because of the words but because of the person:  “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life—(even though, they might have added, we have only the dimmest hold on what they mean, hindered as we are by the limitations of our experience, our language, our minds.”)

Things don't seem to have changed very much, even on this Easter side of the cross that makes it all possible.  Even Jesus’ question remains the same:  “Do you also want to go away?”

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Holy Saturday Mourning: A Poem

The fisherman had aged, they saw, when dawn
at last broke through that endless night.  He had
no words to strengthen them, his bluster gone
to silence. One by one they came .  Grief bade
them gather there. The shadowed room was clad
in memories. Furtive eyes sought out the spot
where He had stood.  The big man’s shame burned hot.
The One with whom he’d sworn to die was dead.
And he was not.

©2011, Abbey of St. Walburga 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

But If Not: a Meditation for Holy Thursday Evening and Good Friday

The story is told that in late May, 1940, over 300,000 British, French and Belgian troops were trapped by the German army on the beaches and in the harbor of a little Belgian town called Dunkirk.  There seemed to be very little reason to believe they would survive.  But for reasons still unexplained, the Germans withdrew briefly to regroup.  From the British forces a single terse message arrived in London.  It contained three words:  “But if not.”

Commonplace words oddly chosen.  But the British commander obviously knew whence they came and what they meant.  They come in fact from the Old Testament Book of Daniel.  The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, has set up a vast image of gold and commanded that whenever the people heard any kind of music, they were to fall down and worship before it.  Images of gold and music, Swastikas and fiery words and jackboots, the props change but the story does not.  Three young Jewish men, faithful to God’s commandment that they worship no other God but the God of Israel, refuse.  Malicious tattle-tales betray them to the king.  He asks them if it true that they have refused to worship the golden image.  Do they not know, he asks, that if they do not obey, he will have them cast into a fiery furnace?  “And who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15).  The three young men reply, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up (Daniel 3:17)” .

Those who received them also understood.  “We believe that God can save us, but if not, know that we will not bow down before Hitler’s army or the Swastika which they have set up.” 

These seventy and more years after Dunkirk, the thing that astonishes is that not only the British commander who sent the message but also those who received it recognized the words and what they intended to say.  And so, it seems, did the British public, though they were not told immediately the extent of the Dunkirk disaster or the peril of the troops  Churchill said later that he had “feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history.” He expected only a few thousand men to be delivered during the two days he thought the British Navy would have to take troops off the before the Germans blocked the evacuation.  He added, “The whole root and core and brain of the British Army, on which and around which we were to build, and are to build, the great British Armies in the later years of the war, seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.”  The British destroyers dispatched immediately on May 26 could not sail into the harbor or close to the beaches because the water was too shallow. 

But on May 27, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping began to call for the use of what became known as “the little ships of Dunkirk”—small boats of every kind, from merchant marine ships to small fishing vessels to pleasure boats.  Hundreds were assembled.  Some ferried men to the large Naval vessels waiting in deeper waters.  Others sailed back and forth across the dangerous waters of the British Channel, carrying men from the beaches back to the English coast. 

On May 27, the second of the two days the British authorities had projected, the Luftwaffe began to strafe and bomb the beaches and attack the RAF planes flying protection for the ships.  The evacuation went on.  It took nine days.  Men died on the beaches and in the boats, but the rescuers carried on.  By the ninth day, 338,226 troops had been saved.  On June 4, the BBC reported that the commander of the rear guard had inspected the shores by motor boat to ensure that there was no one left undelivered before he himself boarded the last ship for England.  It was indeed what Churchill called it:  “the miracle of Dunkirk.”

Seen in retrospect, the words of the three young men and the British commander move me deeply.  In fact, the whole episode of Dunkirk undoes me every time I read of it. 

Seen in prospect, the words terrify me.  They have never been confined to the furnaces of Babylon or even the beaches of Dunkirk.  We hear not the exact words but their echo in later biblical stories.    The Jews of Jerusalem in the second century BC, for whom in fact the Book of Daniel was written as a sort of coded message, made much the same response.  Threatened with destruction by a Syrian despot if they would not abandon their own religion to assume the practices of the Greeks, who then ruled the world The author of the First Book of Maccabees writes, “They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant.”  (1 Macc 1:63 (RSV)  Some two centuries later, Jesus, threatened by the determined wrath of the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees, again echoed the words from the furnace:  “Father, if it be possible, take this cup from me.” “Cup” is a biblical image for one’s destiny.  “Take this cup from me.  But if not, your will, not mine, be done” (cf. Matthew 26:39 and parallels).  We hear the same echoes from the martyrs facing the wild beasts in the Roman arenas, from men and women on crowded cattle trains to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, from Middle Eastern Christians under Moslem threat today. 

But the story that frightens me the most is not one of the great epics of human persecution and courageous defiance hurled even in the teeth of death.  I am fairly safe from those.  The story that frightens me most is quieter and less widely told.  It’s the story of a young woman who died in a strictly cloistered Carmelite monastery in 1897, so unknown and so unremarked that her Sisters wondered what on earth they would write about her in the obituary customarily circulated to other monasteries.  She was introduced to me as to many as “the Little Flower,” but there was nothing little or flowerlike about her.   Through a life not more than ordinarily difficult, she grew into a tower of steel, wrapped in the deceptive fluff of late nineteenth century pious language.  But nothing could have been worse than her own Dunkirk.  Trapped in a body literally disintegrating under the then invincible onslaught of tuberculosis, she entered into a darkness deeper than Gethsemane, in which she could find no sign at all of the God she loved so profoundly.  No doubt she prayed, “Father, if it be possible, take this cup from me.  But if not…”.  No one came to take her off that beach, but she did not surrender.

She frightens me because I suspect she is not the last.  Oh, most of us now won’t be besieged by a Babylonian king or Hitler’s army or the chief priests and Pharisees or even tuberculosis.  But what about the forces around and within us that whisper daily, “What would it hurt to give a little? All anyone is asking of you is a little compliance, a few small dishonesties, a compromise with conscience here and there.”  But the thing is that though the characters and the props and the music change, the story is repeated. Nebuchadnezzar, the chief priests and Pharisees, Hitler, all wear different names and speak with different voices now, but they are still there, and more are coming behind them.  I can talk myself out of following the example of the young men in the furnace.  What are Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonian music to me?  And I can excuse myself from joining in with the stubbornness of the Maccabees who resisted their Syrian conquerors to the death.  I can even talk myself out of being too literal in imitating Jesus, whom I claim to follow.  After all, he was divine as well as human, and I am very far from anything like divinity. So I can thank God there are no beaches in my world, even as I weep over the miracle of Dunkirk.  But when it comes right down to it, I find it much harder to dismiss a little nun who grew up in ordinary stuffy bourgeoisie, took on a habit much like mine, though hers was Carmelite and mine is Benedictine, lived the humdrum daily routines of the cloister, and died not so terribly many years before I was born.  And I know that the darkness into which she went so went so courageously after her Lord lurks in the corners of my monastery too, as prayer sometimes dries up and busy-ness overwhelms and nuns my age fall prey to the pains and illnesses brought by advancing years.  And, thanks to the Internet, I also see beyond the walls and know that I am not alone in watching the dark troops advance along the humdrum highways of contemporary culture, looking for whom they may devour (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). 

In the face of the advancing night, they rise up in the mind:  the young men facing the furnace, the Maccabees, Therese.  But especially on Good Friday, Jesus, who is not so easy to dismiss after all.  All of them ask me:  when Dunkirk comes, what message will you send?

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga

Notes: This reflection was inspired by a homily preached at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament (Hanceville AL) by Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, MFVA. 

Some of the versions of the Dunkirk story that circulate on the web report the British message as “And if not.”  But the King James Version of the Bible, which the British would have known, says “But if not.”  I recommend the articles from Wikipedia on the Dunkirk evacuation and the little ships, with their links to things like Churchill’s famous June 4 speech, “We will fight them on the beaches.”  

The crucifix pictured at the head of the post hangs in the monastic refectory (dining room) of the Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, Colorado.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Branches and Cloaks and All

Small sacrifices grudgingly made and seasoned with grumbling. Comforts lost to another's need. Half an hour of naptime on a sleepy day. A few days' use of the electric wheelchair that gets me painlessly to the farther reaches of the monastery in a week when my foot isn't hurting at all. (The foot injury is minor and mending.)  As extrinsic as branches cut from someone else's tree. As unnecessary as a cloak thrown down by someone surrounded by an excited crowd. So much for the palms I bring to acclaim the strange Savior who spurns a richly caparisoned palfrey in favor of a donkey on this Palm Sunday
Today's preacher, St.Andrew of Crete, whose words we read at the Office of Readings, suggests that instead of palm branches or cloaks (or small comforts grudgingly given) we lay down ourselves, not stripped of those unneeded cloaks but fully clothed in the Christ to whom we are come to acclaim. 

 He introduces this odd image gently enough. Let us prostrate--lay ourselves down-- before him by being humble.  Clearly he does not intend us to fling ourselves down literally in the roadbed. That would be rather extravagant, but he was a Cretan after all, and an ancient one at that. Perhaps they did those things then. No, surely he just means that we should become humble of heart.  No need for show.  Of course, St. Benedict, in Chapter 7 of his Rule, “On Humility” does expect us to match the deed to the word.  But let us not exaggerate.  Perhaps a little deeper bow at the creed or before receiving communion. Nothing too flashy, of course. Not like that worshiper in the next pew who goes all hunched over after the consecration. That's a bit unnecessary. But a tasteful mid-sized bow rather than the usual head bob. Yes,  that should do it.

St. Andrew doesn't stop there, however. He adds to his suggestion that we prostrate before Christ by doing his will.  Oh, now, we have to be careful with this one.  St. Andrew doesn’t mean for us to lay our wills down there at his feet for him to trample on.  Of course not. We have all had plenty of experience of wills trampled by those older or more powerful than we—unheeding parents, impatient teachers, indifferent bureaucrats, officious officials of one sort or another.  No, thank you, we are not interested in playing that part again.  Of course, it’s true that self-will can be a bit of a problem, especially for those around us.  Ask any parent whose two-year-old has just learned the art of the red-faced, puffed-cheek, arms-akimbo, foot-stomping “No!”  But we are adults, are we not?  Reasonable people, surely?  Willing to give a little here and there, bend a bit before the breeze, give up a little bit of what we want (A half-hour nap? A convenient wheelchair? Oh, surely not so much.) We don’t want to become doormats.  And anyway, Jesus never walks on people’s wills.  He asks.  We can always say no.  Well, yes, we did agree to follow him.  And, yes, he laid down a lot more than his will in that ugly story we read at length in today’s liturgy.  And, yes, no doubt the Father asked—but the thing is that he didn’t say no.  On the contrary.  Oh dear.  A short nap missed, a few days on foot down the hall are beginning to look rather small.

Now St. Andrew is back to suggest laying down not our pride, not our will, but ourselves before him.  Not the old self in the patched cloak or the dirty rags, but the new self, clothed in him.  The fresh, clean, obedient, willing, loving self we would like to think we are.  And we are, actually, at least potentially.  But our tragedy is that we can still say no, we can still cast off this amazing garment, we can still go back to the dirty rags, the patched cloaks, the foot-stomping no, the proud, unbending neck.  We can always go back. Our freedom, our call.

I wonder if one of the reasons we celebrate Holy Week with such powerful dramas of word and music and props and processions is to remind us that we can, but we don’t have to, not anymore.  That’s what the end of the story means, is it not? The part we don’t read till Saturday night and Sunday, after all the miserable, gory, tragic verses have been read. The part where the tomb stands empty, the bread broken by familiar hands. and all that light shining around us as the Voice says, “Lo!  I make all things new.  Even you.”  The part where we answer not “No!” but “Alleluia!”

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga