Monday, July 31, 2017

The Folly of Solomon

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

1 Kings 3:4,7-12 is read this Sunday as a prelude to the story of the merchant who finds a great treasure in a field and the merchant in search of fine pearls (Matthew 13:44-52).  The biblical passages cited or quoted here are all from 1 Kings 3-10.

Solomon grieves me. 

Young though he is, he knows what the pearl is, and he knows where to get it. He doesn't have to sell anything. He doesn't even have to dig. All he has to do is ask his father David's God, the One who has set him on the throne in his turn. God told Solomon to ask for something and promised to give him what he asked. Apparently, this generous Providence was expecting the usual wish list from a young man seated on the throne of his father's achievements and already into making important political alliances: long life, victory over enemies, wealth. But Solomon surprised even God, who had seen everything and knew a thing or two about human foibles, when he made his request: "Give your servant… a listening heart to judge your people and to distinguish between good and evil. For who is able to give judgment for this vast people of yours?" (1 Kgs 3:9)

Solomon was clearly already wise. He knew his own limitations, he saw what his people needed most, and he made their good the one thing he asked for. God was pleased and gave him the whole package, both what he had asked for and what he hadn't: "I now do as you request. I give you a heart so wise and discerning that there has never been anyone like you until now, nor after you will there be anyone to equal you… In addition, I give you what you have not asked for: I give you such riches and glory that among kings there will be no one like you all your days." (1 Kings 3:12-13).  God added the promise of a long life but included an important rider:  “if you walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and commandments, as David your father did” (1 Kings 3:14). But Solomon had already stopped listening. He had all those gifts to think about.

However, his first act after receiving the gift of discernment he had requested was to demonstrate his new found wisdom in the famous episode of the two mothers who came to him to resolve a tricky situation.  They had both given birth at the same time, but one of the children had died while the other lived.  Now they were both claiming to have mothered the living child. In fact, they got into a hot argument over it right there in front of the king.  He put a stop to it by calling for a sword.  When it came, he told one of the servants to cut the baby in two and give each woman half.  One of the women said, “Ok, the child won’t be hers or mine.  Go ahead and cut it in two!”  (Good grief!  What had she been drinking?) But the other one pleaded, “No, please don’t do that.  Give her the baby.”  Solomon immediately said, “Let the baby live.  Give it to her.  She’s the mother.”  The whole kingdom was in awe, recognizing that God had given him the wisdom to judge aright. And his fame spread.  People came from all over to ask for his judgement.  Even the Queen of Sheba “came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (Matt 12:42; 1 Kings 10:1-10).

It didn’t hurt his reputation that after he had solidified his vast kingdom according to God’s promise, he set about carrying out his father David’s dream of building a great temple to house God’s presence in Jerusalem.  David had in fact stockpiled all sorts of valuable materials for the project, which God did not permit him to complete.  Solomon, as bidden, did.  The resulting “Temple of Solomon,” seven years in the building, was magnificent.  When it was done, God’s glory filled it as it had filled the old portable Tent of Meeting that had led Israel through the desert long before.  And God appeared once more to Solomon, as he had years before, saying, “I have heard the prayer of petition which you offered in my presence. I have consecrated this house which you have built and I set my name there forever; my eyes and my heart shall be there always”  But once again, God added the proviso:  “As for you, if you walk before me as David your father did, wholeheartedly and uprightly, doing all that I have commanded you, keeping my statutes and ordinances,  I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father” .  And once again Solomon seems not to have listened.

Sadly, the only person in the world known not to have consulted the wisdom of Solomon was Solomon. Instead of heeding God’s proviso, made with increasing urgency, the great king, master of all he surveyed, solidified his sovereignty among the other peoples by making political marriages on all sides, and taking well-placed concubines as well, although God’s statues and ordinances and pleas to Israel had forbidden marriage those who worshipped other gods.   God knew what would happen if they did.  And, in Solomon’s case, it happened. The author of First Kings claims that he “held them close in love,” all seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:2-3).  In fact, he loved them so much that he built places of worship for all their pagan gods.  The older he got, the more he honored them, and the more he turned away from his own God who had so richly blessed them.  Solomon clearly forgot the proviso, but God did not.  He expressed his displeasure to this king of wandering allegiance, telling him that the kingdom would be broken in two and most of it taken from his house—but, for the sake of God’s beloved David, the consequences of Solomon’s infidelity would be visited not on him, but on his son.  And it was.

Solomon held the pearl in his hand.  It had been given to him without cost and without effort on his part.  But he threw it away.  It wasn’t his great wealth or political power or status as Temple builder.  It wasn’t even his extraordinary ability to make good judgements, at least for people other than himself.  True wisdom is a deep communion with the God from whom all wisdom comes.  That’s what Solomon threw away so lightly.

Most of us will never be as wise as Solomon, but we can certainly be as foolish.  The antidote? Do what Solomon did not:  “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts!”[1]

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

[1] Psalm 95:7-8 as quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Vine and Branches

I am the Vine, you are the branches.
(John 15:5)

When I was a small child, it was customary to harness little ones when you took them outside.  When my grandmother took me to the park, on would go the harness and off we would walk.  Not being a particularly adventuresome child, I didn't mind at all.  On the contrary, as I toddles after birds I couldn't catch, or explored mushrooms my grandmother warned me not to eat, or made friends with curious dogs, I always felt safe, knowing I was connected to someone who was always there to take care of me.  (As a side note, she also taught me the names of what we met, but one day, when she pointed up at the sky as a plane flew over, she asked, "And what is that."  I am reputed to have considered it carefully and then answered, "A DC-3".  I was three years old.  But I was also an airline pilot's daughter!)

The image of the vine and the branches conjures up this memory of our walks in the park.  A branch, however small and far from maturity, is always attached to the vine, unless some malicious or careless gardener cuts it off.  The vine feeds the branch and strengthens it, but it leaves the branch free to go off exploring, seeking a patch of sunlight, shaking off an encounter with a puddle, and growing, growing, growing, but always sheltered by the older branches.

And when the vine is Jesus,  it probably also laughs with delight when the three-year old identifies correctly the model of airplane soaring overheard because to learn is also to grow.

Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga 2017

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Resurrection Step by Step

The Book of the Acts of the Apostle, our Easter reading fare at Mass this season, might well be retitled "The Book of Chaos."  It might sell better, chaos being much more a part of our daily experience than apostles are.  And it would be true.  In it, St. Luke chronicles the ups and downs of the post-Pentecost Christian communities spreading from Jerusalem to Rome.

Some of them take with them the memories of the chaos that followed upon the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb in the gospels, including Luke's.  The impression all four evangelists give is that the early disciples were plunged at first into the kind of grief everyone knows from experiences of loss, bereavement, and discouragement as all their hopes fell to pieces in the wake of the crucifixion.  Jesus certainly talked to them about rising from the dead, but they were obviously utterly unprepared for what that really meant.

How could they be prepared, really?  They had some idea of a general resurrection from the dead at the end of time, a belief that had become fairly common among some groups of Jewish believers at that time.  The Pharisees, so often painted in dark colors by the evangelists, were prime supporters of that conviction.  But vague visions of the far-distant future are a very different thing than having your very dead leader, whom some have actually seen sealed into a tomb with a great slab of rock rolled across its entrance, suddenly appear among you, talk to you, share food with you, and show you the very real wounds of the crucifixion many of the disiciples had actually not seen because they had fled.  Quite understandably, chaos reigned as people ran around telling excited stories of what they had seen or what rumors they had heard and who had said what and who believed whom, or didn't.  Anyone who has ever tried to turn all those accounts into a coherent timeline knows that can't be done because experiences differed so widely.

Amid this narrative chaos, though, there is a single strand that draws all the stories together:  Jesus' actual appearances to one person after another, one small group after another, on Easter day and for some time after that.  These meetings become pools of quiet, intense conversation with no outsiders there to cause  ructions as Jesus gradually convinces all of them that, yes, he was indeed crucified, yes, he had indeed died, and yes, he had risen from the dead and was very much alive and with them through whatever would come.  "Peace be with you," was the refrain with which he reassured them in their frazzled, frightened confusion.  And the chaos could never drown that peace.

However, at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts, Jesus is withdrawn from the disciples' sight and the Holy Spirit falls upon them and quite literally blows them out into the street to tell the whole world the good news.  The chaos begins all over again as the stories of Jesus spread beyond the small group of followers to Jews and gentiles alike, some interested, some convinced to join the disciples, some furiously antagonistic.  And in the midst of it all, the disciples themselves discover that what they know about Jesus and his teaching is challenged over and over again by new experiences:  disciples sent to do jail time and released by angels, ethnic groups fighting with one another even in the intimacy of the early Jerusalem community, leaders disagreeing over whether and how to incorporate gentiles into their tight Jewish-born community, authorities threatening death, Christians at home in Jerusalem and Galilee forced to flee to other places where Greek rather than Aramaic is the common language and not everyone welcomes them.  Issue after issue arises to require that they deepen and expand their understanding of what Jesus' message means far from a Galilean hillside or the Temple in Jerusalem, and how it is to be lived in alien settings and what it means to be an alien in the Greco-Roman world without sacrificing anything essential about their faith. Over and over again, they have to learn what it really means to be a follower of the crucified and risen Christ.

And so do we.  It would be so much easier if we could travel through Lent to an all-encompassing profession of faith at the Easter vigil and emerge, whether as new Christians or newly transformed Christians, into the simple clarity of a gospel-driven life in our times.  We might envy St. Paul, who charged up the Damascus road a fire-breathing warrior for the Law against this new Christian stuff only to find himself knocked to the ground by a great light, blinded, skewered by Christ's words, and turned into an ardent campaigner for the gospel almost overnight.  That kind of starting over on a brand new page has always appealed to me as "real" Easter conversion.  But, as my fresh Easter script gets blotted or washed out in spots when I fall on my face all over again, I realize that even for St. Paul, conversion wasn't actually instantaneous.  Faith in Christ was, but figuring out what that meant for daily life took long hard work. Paul went off to the wilds of Arabia and spent fifteen years pondering and praying before he emerged as the great apostle to the Gentiles.  And even then, with every new encounter in every new place, with every new community offering new challenges, Paul had to keep deepening his understanding of the mystery of Christ and figuring out how on earth he and others should live it.

The story of the early Church, with all its crisis, chaos and learning, teaches us that although Jesus rose from the dead very quickly, it takes us much longer to grow into the resurrection.  Deadening habits, stifling mindsets, wounded histories all require that, with prayer joining us constantly to Christ, we have to struggle day by day to find our way out of the tomb and into the new life given us through the cross.  But remember the strand that linked all the episodes of resurrection chaos in the gospels:  quiet, intense personal conversations with the risen Christ.  We would call them prayer, and we will find them in our own lives if we look.  Remember, too, that it was Christ who appeared to his followers, not they who sought him out.  So we know he is waiting here beside us for us to notice so the conversation can begin.

The most consoling words I know about this lifelong process of dying and rising comes from the Book of Lamentations, product of Jerusalem's misery in the wake of conquest and destruction:  "remembering [my state] over and over, my soul is downcast.But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! The LORD is my portion, I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him" (Lamentations 3:20-24).

Amen!  Alleluia!

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Different Hungry

The gospel of the disciples on the road to Jerusalem is read again today, the Third Sunday of Easter. Read the passage from Luke 24 by clicking here.

A new leaven is at work in the Jerusalem community of disciples.  There are rumors and counter rumors causing turmoil as word spreads that Jesus' tomb is open and the body gone.  No one knows for sure what has happened.  Some women claim to have had a vision of angels reporting that Jesus had risen from the dead, but other disciples refuse to believe it.  You can imagine the buzz!

But two disciples have no taste for the confusion, so they take off.  They've had enough of Jerusalem.  They're heading for Emmaus.

If you had stopped them and asked if they were hungry, they'd have told you you were crazy.  They were baffled, disheartened, and despairing, but hungry?  Not a chance!  They were, though.  They were hungry for hope, the hope they had had a for a new future and lost when that future died on a cross.

Jesus knew their hunger.  He always very good at spotting the hungers of the human heart.  Still is.  How often did he feed a multitude of people who came to him hungry for wonders to spice up their lives and found themselves fed instead with words that brought new life?  And when stomachs growled, they found themselves handed more bread and fish than they could eat in one sitting. Leftovers were not a daily experience for the poor who scrabbled hard for meals, but on those occasions, there were baskets full of them.  Jesus knew all their hungers, and fed them unstintingly.

So it's no surprise that he joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He knew what they ached for, and he knew it wasn't bread.  So, very patiently and at great length, he unpacked trunk loads of scripture for them, showing them what God had promised over the centuries, what God had provided, and what God would work through the Messiah, under whatever name different schools of expectation knew him.  And he showed them that it would be hard, bloody work because rewriting the whole death-doomed history of humankind would cost everything the Messiah had to give.  Literally everything.  You don't reorient a fixed path of history with a few words and a kindly look.  Not if you have to work from within the confines of humanity's hardened self-interest, break open the tomb in which the human spirit had buried itself, and break the barred gates of the dark prisons of sin and death  from inside so that all its hopeless prisoners could finally get out.   And that's what Jesus had to do.  And what he explained to those two disciples.

When day started to close down on them, they discovered that their cold, dead, hopeless hearts had already been warmed with a newly kindled fire set by his words.  But their hunger for their lost hope, for a life with meaning, for a new way to see and to be, wasn't quite satisfied, so they didn't want him to go.  They asked him in for supper at a nearby inn.  He went with them, but not to eat.  Instead, he continued to feed them, this time with bread.  And in breaking it for them, he let them see who he really was, this stranger who was no stranger.

And then, at last, they were fed.

Satisfied, he disappeared--he had other appearances yet to make on this busy Easter evening, other hungers to feed.

As his disciples always must, the two ran back to join their companions in Jerusalem and pass on what he had fed them.

I wonder if they stopped to grab the broken loaf before they went?  Maybe not.  They weren't hungry any more.   But you?  Hungry?  You know who to invite in to join you.

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Shutting Out the Sun

"...The sun of justice will arise with healing in its wings," promised the prophet Malachi (Mal 3:20, RNAB).  Perhaps the evangelist Mark had this promise in mind when he wrote that on "the first day of the week" (our Sunday), three of Jesus' faithful women followers went to the tomb to carry out some of the burial rites that couldn't be performed on the day he died for want of daylight.  They arrived "very early when the sun had risen" (Mark 16:2)--and discovered that their beloved rabbi, the light of the world, had indeed risen from the tomb.

This week, those lines make me chuckle.  Our monastery is amply lit by clear glass windows that look out onto our high country valley and its bordering hills.  Very early in the morning this Easter week, one of the nuns faithfully closes the blinds on the east side of the chapel to shut out the rising sun, lest it blind the nuns seated on the west side.

The sun has the last word, though.  After all the blinds are firmly closed, there remains one spot where the newly risen sun shines through, bathing at least a few of our choir stalls in the glorious first light of this Easter day.  So much for shutting out the sun!

And so it was at the first Easter.  The authorities who had put Jesus to death made every effort to prevent any rumors of resurrection from spreading.  They denied that any such thing had happened, accused the disciples of stealing Jesus' body,

and bribed the guards to back of their story.  It didn't work.  Jesus, the risen light of the world, kept appearing here and there to his discouraged and baffled followers, healing their misery by transforming it into joy.  He lives!  The word went out quickly after the Spirit descending at Pentecost essentially blew Jesus' followers out into the street to spread the good news, which lots of people believed and welcomed.  Crowds were baptized, Luke says in the Acts of the Apostles.  So much for shutting out the sun!

And it still happens.  No matter how dark the world sometimes gets, no matter how firmly disbelievers of various kinds try to bury word of the resurrection--and Jesus with it--back in some sealed tomb, the news still gets out and new disciples are added to the centuries' long accumulation of Christians that stretches back to those first believers.  And wandering disciples are brought back into the Easter light, and discouraged disciples find new heart in the same words spoken at the first tomb:  "He is not here.  He is risen."  To which we add, alleluia!

So much for shutting out the Sun of justice, risen for us too with healing in his wings!  Even when the blinds are closed!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Easter Journey: Emmaus

Where are the alleluia’s?  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are clearly in no mood for singing as they go.  Look at them:  shoulders hunched, they walk like old men bearing the burden of a disappointing world.  Brows furrowed, eyes on the dust at their feet, thoughts trapped on a dark hill and at an even darker tomb, irrevocably sealed in stone. They see no one in the present story who will stand at the tomb’s entrance and command, “Come out!”  (cf. John 11:1-44) The truth is that the tomb is their own:  dead hopes lie there, never to rise again.  No, the tomb is themselves:  they are buried in their own misery.

It’s hardly any wonder they failed to recognize the stranger who joined them on the road.  They had no room for him in their shrunken and desiccated expectations.  And they certainly had no room in their minds to see a Jesus who was anything more than a mangled corpse wrapped in grave cloths and already returning to dust and bone. 

He revived them, of course.  They were as hobbled and blinded as Lazarus had been by his shroud, but Jesus inflicted on them none of the shattering drama of Lazarus’ summons from the tomb.  Instead, he listened.  He knew that once their shroud of discouragement was out in the light where they could name it, he could begin to cut it away and set them free.  His blade was the Word of God, which St. Paul would call “the sword of the Spirit,” (Ephesians 6:17) but he wielded it slowly and gently.  Bit by patient bit, he opened the enshrouded eyes of their hearts, using the word as the psalmist had once described it:  “Your word is a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).  He led them gradually to see the present reality of a post-Calvary darkness from the new perspective opened by that light.  Like the good teacher that he was, he brought them to the brink of that “Oh!” moment when everything changed.  Seeing things differently is the beginning of conversion.   Later they would call the experience fire: “Were our hearts not burning within us?”

Perhaps with a hidden smile, he accepted their urging to stay with them for a meal as evening fell.  No doubt Luke, writing thirty or more years after the event, took it for granted that conversion from the isolation of self-centeredness to the communion of love in Christ begins by hearing the word broken open and then receiving the bread also broken and shared, just as we do at the Eucharist.  And so Jesus first put heart into his downhearted disciples on the road to Emmaus by giving them new access to the word of God; then he fed them, strengthened them, and energized them with the bread of his own life.

They were utterly transformed.  No more hunched shoulders and downcast eyes, no more hearts weighted with the burden of dead hopes, no more suffocating imprisonment in their own misery.  All that forgotten, they ignored the gathering dusk and ran back immediately to Jerusalem to share the good news with the others whom they had abandoned as the community began to splinter under the pressures of grief, disbelief, and mistrust of one another’s accounts. 

And Jesus, who had disappeared before the meal was over?  He went with them unseen, of course.

And he still travels with us, often unrecognized, as we walk that Easter road taken by the two disciples who thought they were going to Emmaus.  And he still feeds us with his own life, wrapped up as word and bread.  But let’s be honest.  Our journey is not always a matter of eager alleluias either.  The road seems long, and we are tempted now and then to retreat to what we imagine to be the peace and security of the tomb we left behind.  Clothed though we are with the risen Christ, we tell ourselves that we’re really warm and cozy there in the dark as we shiver in the shroud of self-concern, thin and full of holes, sewn tight shut with the heavy threads of discouraging “should” and “ought” and “can’t.”  What were we thinking?  That we were headed toward the Promised Land, and in good company?  Disbelief still sneers at us in our idealistic Easter hopes.  Don’t worry.  He will come back for us again.  And he won’t stand outside the tomb of self in which we are immured.  He will come in and get us and carry us back out into the sunlight and set us once again on the road, traveling with us as we go (see John 14:18).  That’s what he promised—and he keeps his promises!


Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga, 2017

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Across the Sun: A Song of the Myrrh-Bearing Women

Easter 2017

Several of the women who had followed Jesus and provided for his and the disciples' needs as they traveled from place to place came to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week--Sunday in our calendar--to prepare his body for proper burial.  They had been unable to do so on Good Friday because the Sabbath began at sunset, too soon after the crucifixion to allow for the ritual anointing with spices customary in burying a body.  These women became known in the liturgical tradition of the Christian East as "the myrrh bearers,"  though the list did sometimes include Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  We read their story in their story in the gospels of Easter week in the Roman Catholic lectionary.

Across the sun, the sullen clouds
Rolled gray and heavy as the stone
That sealed the tomb where lay the One
We thought that death could never own.

Upon our hearts, the weight of tears
Sat gray and heavy as the clouds
That poured the grief of heaven down
Like rain upon the silent crowds.

Upon our way, the loss we bore
Sat gray and heavy as the tears
We could not shed amid the storms
That washed away the hope of years.

Upon the Sabbath rest our prayer
Sat gray and heavy as the loss
We carried with us as we left
The desolation of the cross.

Today at dawn we take our myrrh,
As gray and heavy as our prayer,
To mark with our farewell the flesh
Of him we left untended there.

But look! The gray and heavy sky
Breaks into light where there was none.
The song of larks rolls back the clouds

In homage to the rising Sun!

Hymn Text: LM; Genevieve Glen, OSB; ©2004, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO 80536-8942

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tasting Dust

Good Friday 2017

Do you know the taste of dust?

Of course you do.  “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  The old Ash Wednesday admonition echoes Psalm 103: “As a father has compassion on his children, the Lord’s compassion is on those who fear him. For he knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are dust.” God never forgets, though we do.  As Genesis 2 tells our story, God was there, on that riverbank in Eden, right down in the dust, mixing up a batch of clay from earth and river water, and breathing life into it: the first human being!  And God still remembers it.

The westerns beloved of my childhood—as confessed in the previous post—taught me many things about the perennial battle of good vs. evil, though I hardly thought in those terms as a five-year-old entranced by the very first TV cowboys on my grandparents’ brand new set.  One thing those cowboys taught me was the inescapable connection between dust and death.  Many a gunfighter on those shows “licked the dust” or “bit the dust.”  And I gradually learned that they never got up to rinse out their mouths and go on with life. 

Years later, I was a little startled much later to hear the psalmist express the emphatic hope that the enemies of Psalm 72’s royal hero would “lick the dust!”  But in the gospels, it is instead the hero himself who licks the dust.  We see it happening before our eyes in the Stations of the Cross where we remember Jesus falling down on the dusty road to Calvary, not once but three times.  The gospels don’t record those stories, but it’s not hard to believe that a fairly young man once muscled by years of toting carpenters’ tools and wooden beams and heavy tables and stools, and further strengthened by a three years’ trek the length and breadth of Palestine and beyond, could at last have exhausted all his resources in preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons, and even raising the dead.  “To lay down one’s life” for all the others means far more than dying. Giving all he had to give, he spent himself utterly in the battle of good vs. evil.  And, worn out at last by sleep deprivation, emotional abuse, physical punishment, and blood loss, he fell three times.  He got up again each time, the foretaste of mortality dry as dust in his mouth as he walked on toward that final showdown.  

In a very different time and place, and on a very different scale, it was the same battle I had first learned about when I watched good guys and bad guys fight it out in those long ago days when you could tell which side a gunslinger was on by the color of his hat.  (And yes, they were all men.  Annie Oakley was all for show and not for real.  But I wasn’t deceived.  I already knew that the fight wasn’t limited by gender.)  In those old stories, the good guys always won, so I was not really prepared, on first hearing the gospel story, to see the Good Guy bite the dust so irrevocably on the cross.  Surely he would get up again?  He had to!

Like Jesus, we all know the taste of dust.  We are children of that ancient riverbank, born from dust and to dust destined to return.  And we too have fallen face down on the road, more times than we can count.  And we have wondered how we would ever find the strength to stand up and journey on.

The answer awaits us on Easter.  There we will remember again that Jesus, clay broken and ground back to dust on Good Friday, did get up again.  But not like any TV cowboy getting to his feet unassisted, dusting himself off, holstering his six-gun, whistling for his horse and riding off into the sunset to get back to business as usual.  Jesus got up unseen and emerged from the tomb transformed, robed in glory, never to die again.

And, taking the hand he stretches out to us, so will we!

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Donkey's Story

Palm Sunday 2017

Many years ago, at the beginning of my religious life, before I became a Benedictine, I was taught the Ignatian method of meditation.  Since I had grown up in an inner world rich in imagination, the part that appealed to me was the “composition of place” and what went with it:  imagining the scene of whatever biblical story the daily meditation book set before us, and then imagining myself into the story by “becoming” any character in the scene, just as I had imagined myself into a wide array of the cowboy stories and fairy tales and adventure sagas  I had once listened to on the radio or watched on TV or read.  The Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid and Superman were my personal friends.  I carried stories in my head wherever I went, much to the dismay of some of my teachers.

However, as a new Sister-in-the-making I tried to be suitably restrained, focusing on the holy people in the gospel scenes and following the scripts they lived by.  I didn’t think my formation directors would have approved of my identifying with the star in the sky over Bethlehem reporting on what lay below (and what an interesting report it would be!) or one of the lilies of the field arrayed in scarlet and gold and smelling like my favorite lilies of the valley (I was still adjusting to an all-black wardrobe).

But I am older now.  I don’t use this exact method of prayer as such very often, but sometimes I still indulge in a little inner story telling based on the scriptures.  One day, I was thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37),  well-worn and even worn out by years of reading commentaries, hearing homilies, and pondering from every possible angle and some that are impossible.  Having just about exhausted the imaginative possibilities of the poor man beaten and left for dead by robbers, the passing priest and Levite, and the admirable Samaritan himself, I began to notice the other characters in the story, the secondary players no one ever talks about.  There were the villains and the inn keeper, of course, but my wayward imagination turned to an even less likely character: the Samaritan’s donkey. 

Donkeys were very much a part of Jesus’ world.  They were your everyday beasts of burden, much more down to earth than the exotic camels who fared better in the desert than in town. When Jesus speaks about the gate too narrow to carry all our bits and pieces through, he mentions no donkeys, but I often conjure up a picture of one with fat panniers that simply will not go through that gate, leaving the owner in a painful pickle.  When Jesus argues with the Pharisees about healing on a Sabbath, he turns  to the common example of what happens when someone’s donkey falls into a pit—no one is expected to leave it there till the next day, poor thing.  And of course  what Christmas meditation would be complete without the donkeys:  the one we always assume Mary rode to Bethlehem—it would have been a long walk for a woman so heavily pregnant—and the one artistic tradition has made an indispensable feature of the nativity scene, despite the fact that the infancy narratives in the gospels make no mention of ox or ass?  (The Christian imagination seems to have borrowed them from God’s lament in Isaiah 1:2-3:  “Sons have I raised and reared, but they have rebelled against me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” In the stable they stand in mute counterpoint to God’s own children, who “have rebelled against me!” (Isaiah 1:2).  So ox and ass are a theological comment on the birth of Christ.  If only they would tell their story!

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the donkey is a willing silent partner in the Samaritan’s work of mercy.  Those of us whose daily lives don’t bring us into much contact with working animals might think that a common beast of burden had no choice but to collaborate with the owner's plan, but it isn’t so.  Surely you have seen, as I have, pictures of an over-laden donkey solving its problem by sitting down splat in the middle of the road and refusing to move.  And there is nothing quite as immovable as a donkey that has made a single-minded decision to quit!  The owner’s whip, the driver’s cudgel, the air blue with curses, all fail to move the beast.  Without bothering with words, it announces, “As soon as you lighten the load, I’ll get up.  Till then, good luck!” The Samaritan’s donkey must surely have been carrying at least saddle bags for its owner’s trip to wherever and perhaps it also bore some of his trade goods or purchases.  Although we can hope he lightened the load a bit before heaving a man who was all dead weight onto the creature’s back, the burden could hardly have been light, but the donkey went along with the idea, willingly doing what needed to be done.

We’ve all met him in other guises, of course.  Every household, every neighborhood, every workplace has bearers of burdens who shoulder whatever load the situation requires of them, unprotesting, unnoticed—and absolutely indispensable.  They claim no credit, make no demands for a lighter load, and, more often than not, are undeterred by the fact that no one thinks to thank them.  This story calls to mind the ones I live with and makes me grateful to them, sorry to have taken them for granted—and ashamed that I can't claim to be one of them.

So I think rather highly of the Samaritan’s donkey, and I hope the Samaritan gave him a big bag of oats once they got to the inn and the victim was unloaded. But I think the real reason he attracted my attention to begin with is that he reminded me of another donkey, one I first met in the era when the Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood played regularly across my mind’s screen during study period, though I should have been doing my homework.  I was probably eleven or twelve when Sister Stanislaus gave us this poem to read, around this time of year:

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked 
   And figs grew upon thorn, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
   Then surely I was born. 

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil’s walking parody 
   On all four-footed things. 

The tattered outlaw of the earth, 
   Of ancient crooked will; 
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, 
   I keep my secret still. 

Fools! For I also had my hour; 
   One far fierce hour and sweet: 
There was a shout about my ears, 
   And palms before my feet. 

G.K. Chesterton

Riveted, I’ve never forgotten the poem, or the donkey.  It comes back to me every year on Palm Sunday especially, as  I “watch” on my inner screen the odd entry into Jerusalem, with the donkey bearing the Bearer. This time it is He who is choosing to carry the dead weight of our own sinful, beaten and broken humanity through the narrow gate into the light beyond, unprotesting, unnoticed by large portions of this world’s crowds—and absolutely indispensable.

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga