Sunday, March 24, 2013

Crumpled Cloaks: Reflection for Palm Sunday

The rowdy crowd that cheers Jesus into Jerusalem is rather extravagant, don’t you think?  It’s one thing to strip roadside trees of their branches.  Branches grow back.  It’s another to throw your cloak down for the donkey to walk on.  I doubt the street sweepers had gone out early to clean the road before Jesus arrived, and I doubt the donkey was careful where it stepped or where it, er, made additions to the road.  And front hooves are a donkey’s weapons.  Besides the damage the hooves might do to cloth laid down on a rough road, think of the trampling crowds that no doubt fell in behind Jesus and followed him over those cloaks into the city.

Cloaks were a necessity in the biblical world.  The Law given on Sinai says, “If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in?” (Ex 22:25-27).  God reinforces the commandment with a bit of a threat:  “If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:27).

But here they are, the people in the crowd, throwing down their cloaks before Jesus.  Theirs is the same instinct that rolls out red carpets for arriving dignitaries or celebrities.  Tree branches are all very well, but a well woven cloak, now there’s a mark of honor!

However, after Jesus had gone on into the city, the owners of the cloak will find themselves with good garments crumpled, soiled and probably torn.  This rather tempers the beauty of the exhortation of St. Andrew of Crete, an 8th century bishop, read at the Office of Readings for Palm Sunday.  He urges us,  “Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish.”   Yes, but look what happens to those garments and branches!

And we know very well from the gospel what advice Jesus gives about worn out and tattered cloaks:  "No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one. Otherwise, he will tear the new and the piece from it will not match the old cloak” (Luke 5:36).  There is nothing to do with the torn cloak, he suggests, but throw it away and get a new one.

But that is exactly what the approach of Easter promises us!  We should have spent Lent stripping off the old cloaks, sin-woven and sin-stained, which no longer fit us, as directed by the Letter to the Ephesians: “you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires” (Eph 4:22). That “old self” was never anything but the false cloak that hides and smothers the identity with which humanity arrived, brand-new, in Eden: “ God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).  At Easter, either newly baptized or with our baptismal identity renewed, we will be given a new cloak:  “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:27.)

So we don’t need those old cloaks anymore.  Why not go ahead and throw them down in the road for that donkey to trample as we honor Jesus on his way to the death that made new cloaks possible?  As St. Andrew puts it:  So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him…. [L]et us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.”

©2013, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, CO 80536

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Dust, dust, dust.  Dust everywhere.  Dust on the desk, dust on the lampshade, dust under the chair.  Conscientious housekeepers will recoil in horror at the thought.  The rest of us throw up our hands in resigned despair.  Unless your house is hermetically sealed, dust creeps in under closed windows, over doorsills, even out of the heat registers.  You dusted just an hour ago—and look!  The familiar film is already coating the nightstand.

Relentless housekeeper or half-hearted dust warrior, we all know the proclivities of dust.  It collects.  It dulls colors and blurs textures.  It holds dust bunny meetings under the bed and sneaks out to tickle noses into sneezes, eyes into watery itching, minds into distraction. 

Like rabbits in the vegetable patch, dust does more than mere mischief.  Depending on what it was before it was dust, its tiny unseen claws scratch fine wood.  Wind-borne, sand dust scars buildings, muddles electronics, digs into the skin to its harm. It blinds and chokes. It causes drivers to smash into telephone poles and armies to march into enemy fire.  It offers free rides to traveling bacteria and viruses.

What is to be done? Air purifiers, chemically impregnated dust cloths, dust-resistant sprays—the solutions proliferate.  But the dust returns.

If we cannot banish the dust from the chair rungs, how can we fight the dust that clogs the mind?  Thoughts and bits of thoughts, memories and bits of memory, things to do, things to bring, video reruns in the head, snatches of music, obsessions, conversations with someone not there, resentments, hopes, dreams all collect and swirl through our mental crevices.  They cloud clarity, clog thought, disrupt concentration, make mockery of inner silence.  Sometimes they are nothing more than dust bunnies, hopping here and there through the background, harmless enough.  Sometimes, though, they slash resolve, distort decisions, cut and wound the heart.  And, unlicensed, they take the wheel and drive us down roads we had not chosen on the map.

There are, of course, defenses: disciplines of focus, schools of mind control, techniques for purifying mental air.  You can go into any Barnes and Noble and buy the book.  Or you can download it to your Kindle or your Nook.   You can take the class, practice the program, drive the dust clouds into the back country where it will disturb you less.  Artists and mystics learn the skills of inner focus through intense desire and long practice.  Successful business people often seem equipped from birth with the kind of inner drive that blots out all distraction as they pursue their goals. 

But beware.  When the wind is blowing dust clouds, it is easy to mistake seeds for house dust.  The musician or writer focused on the work at hand captures by instinct sudden irrelevant insights as they fly through thought and stores them for later planting.  The most dedicated mystic knows better than to blot out the whispered word that may sting and whip prayer down new and unknown roads.  Sometimes the mental dust that chafes and irritates turns out to be gold dust. 

The discipines, especially the disciplines of prayer, have their value, but the first step toward taming the dust cloud without losing seed or gold is not reading the latest book or signing up for the latest workshop in mind control.  The One who tames wind (Mark 4:39) and even rides it (Psalm 104:3, referring to God) spells it out the real answer Matthew 7:7:  “Ask and it will be given to you”  by the Giver who knows how to give bread even to those who walk unthinking down the bookstore aisles and fill their baskets with stones or snakes masquerading as cures for the soul (see Matthew 7:9).  And what shall we ask?  The psalmist supplies the answer:  A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit” (Psalm 51:10)

When you adopt this prayer, though, watch out!  You will see (or not see amid the dust clouds)  God the housekeeper arrive in an apron and go to work in your inner room, sweeping out the darkest corners and reaching in under the furniture.  We have Jesus’ word on it (Luke 15:8-10).   Of course God has more in mind than leaving the room “clean, swept and garnished.”  Jesus warns against the dangers of inner space left merely empty of demonic dust makers (Luke 11:26).

 God wields the broom with a more positive goal:  finding the coin that has disappeared somewhere behind the dust bunnies of the mind. Or worse, the gold scratched and disfigured by the sand storms stirred up by the thoughts that blow from the Deceiver’s honeyed tongue. It’s not the coin itself that preoccupies the divine housekeeper.  It is the image stamped on it:  the precious likeness that defines us as our best, most creative, most life-giving selves. “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  God is far more aware than we are when the image becomes dust-veiled or damaged, and far more concerned.  That image, stamped on the unrecognized gold of our humanity,  is charged with the vital task of reflecting the Light of the World into our own inner spaces and the darkened homes of those around us.  Worth moving the furniture for.  Worth wading through the clouds of dust stirred up by that busy broom.  Worth even the cross, we’re told, at least to God.

Don’t expect to stand by idle till the dust disappears, though.  When you pray for a clean heart, be ready to find yourself handed a broom.  It is Lent.  Get sweeping.!

Note:  "Create a clean heart in me"  serves as the Gospel Acclamation which introduces Matthew 7:7-12 ("Ask and it will be given to you") on Thursday of the First Week of Lent.
©2013  Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO 80536

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Yen for Order

Note: An abbreviated version of this post is published in Give Us This Day, February 2013. Give Us This Day is a personal prayer periodical published by The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN

Summer undoes my careful allotment of time parcels to this and that--this day, this hour for administration, that other day, that other hour for writing my blog, and so on. Actually, life, aka God, undoes my careful allotment of time parcels all the time. And I realized this morning that I spend far too much time trying to tie them up again.

According to Genesis 1, "making order" is a quick way of describing God's creative work. God spends five days out of seven ordering time, space, and the first pragmatic interactions of created beings in a life-sustaining food chain. Only then does God set human beings down into an ordered cosmos, suggesting that a certain amount of order is essential to human survival. However, if you read carefully, you begin to notice that God is not particularly tied down to the kind of linear order laid out in your typical planner. (I wonder if the proliferation of calendars, planners, time management seminars, how-to-organize-your closet-your-desk-and- your-life books, and other gems of the human gift for parting one another from our money reflects a love of order or a frantic but fruitless scramble to impose it.) God creates light and darkness quite a while before coming up with sun, moon and stars, for example. God makes provision for seed-bearing plants both to feed animal life and to proliferate into an undefined future to feed future generations of animal life but offers very little for the sustenance of marine life (in Genesis 1, not in the actual cosmos. This may be one more sign of the Israelites' utter disinterest in having anything to do with the seas and their denizens.) And there is the forever unanswered question about how Evil, the force that runs around undoing all order, got into the picture at all.

God's work of ordering has two facets that tend to elude me when I sit down to plan the tying up of my careful time parcels into nice, neat, diagrammable pages in my various calendars, planners, and notebooks, which, of course, I can never find when it comes time to put the diagrams into practice because my desk is such a jumble. The first is that God's creative energy all goes into orders that sustain the always-untidy business of life and living on a very grand scale. If we don't understand where cockroaches and mosquitoes fit (God's gonna have a lot of 'splainin to do in heaven), why mountains sometimes fall into the sea as the psalmist notes, what good hurricanes are, and above all why human beings, charged with the task of continuing the divine work of creating, make such an all-fired mess out of it without calling down on our heads another cosmic flood (see Genesis 6!), perhaps it's because we don't really understand what life in all its richness is.

The second facet of God's creative work that eludes me when I'm "planning," is that it always starts with chaos: the rather terrifying primal chaos of Genesis 1:1-2, or the degenerate human chaos with which the biblical new creation begins in the prophets' promises of a new promised land after the return from exile in Babylon or in the gospels' testimony to Christ, the restorer of all that has gone awry. In both cases, chaos is the essential preliminary to the work of creation. The primal chaos is what I've often called "a seething cauldron of possibilities" out of which God draws everything.

I am a creative person. We all are, whether our creativity makes Michelangelo's David or Bach's Magnificat or a birthday cake to delight the hearts of a roomful of four-year-olds or simply that unappreciated gift, a clean, uncluttered space in which we can live, move and have our being. We must be creative persons. At the end of Genesis 1, when we know very little yet about God except that God is an incredibly imaginative Creator, God says "let us make humankind in our image." Christian reflection has heaped all sorts of things into that basket, "the image of God," but the image begins with creativity. As a creative person, I need to start where God started: with chaos, with "the seething cauldron of possibilities" as yet unnamed, unsorted, apparently purposeless. If we try to explain Genesis 1 from the belief that God created ex nihilo (out of nothing), then we have to believe that God first made the chaotic mess from which the Divine Word then drew all of created reality. Contemporary thinkers who have given us the chaos theory propose that God never actually reduced all that primal chaos into order: it is still among us and around us, still seething with possibilities, still giving birth to beings.

I wonder, then, if "chaos" is really an enemy to be confronted with the chair and whip of my various planners and licked into submission so that I can get on with life. I wonder if chaos isn't rather the perpetual treasure chest from which spill out all the possibilities that spur creative work in all its forms. Human beings do need order, especially the truly primal order of purpose, to survive. But I wonder what would happen if I were finally to succeed in wrestling every breath of time, every corner of space, every piece of paper and dust bunny of my own small universe into the kind of careful order for which I seem to hanker. I wonder if I would find that it is not chaos but excessive order, neatly packaged in linear rows, that is sterile.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga