Saturday, April 22, 2017

ROAD TEST

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I have began “road testing” the manuscript of my book of daily reflections for the Easter season. (I'm waiting to hear from Liturgical Press about getting it published by them.) Each morning during the past week, I’ve sat in church and used it for my meditation. So far, so good. The one for this morning, (Saturday of the Octave of Easter), for example, proved to be a real gift.


The chapter is based on a verse from today’s gospel passage: “Then Jesus told them: ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation.’” (Mark 16:15)
The main point of the short story is this: As a Christian, I am called not just to speak the Good News but to actually be the Good News for others by my words and my actions -- often in simple and unforeseen ways. To focus my thoughts, I used the reflection questions at the end of the chapter. The first one is: “Think of some people who serve as Good News for you. Do they do so by their words? Their deeds? Their attitude toward life? By simply being who they are?”

I spent several delightful minutes thinking about all the people who are God’s Good News for me. Fortunately, no one was near enough to notice the big smiles that followed one after another as I thought of various people, young and old, men and women, who have announced, and keep announcing, the Good News to me.

(photo by Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno)
A few minutes later, I was in my choir stall singing Lauds with my brother monks, still thinking about “people who serve as Good News” for me. As I looked at each monk, one after the other, I realized that each one of them was, in his own unique way, Good News for me. This beautiful and gratifying exercise made me appreciate how much these men have shaped my relationship with God over the years.


Later, as I sat at breakfast, I looked at the rest of the reflection questions: 2. Are there people for whom you act as Good News? 3. Think of the various ways in which you are Good News for each of them. 4. How might you become a more effective bearer of the Good News?

These last three questions seem problematic, and I think I need to get better ones. In Question 2, For example, how do I know whether or not there are people for whom I am Good News? And Questions 3 and 4 assume that I know what makes me Good News for others.

When I think of all the people who are Good News for me, I realize that not a single one of them knows they are that for me, nor do they do anything on purpose so as to be Good News for me. Maybe, then, the best way for me to be a bearer of the Good News to others is to do my best to be Christlike in everything, and let Him use me as He sees fit.

So, this morning's "road test" has shown me a few design flaws that need to be corrected. If you have any suggestions on the topic, please share them with the rest of us -- I would be grateful for the help.
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He is risen! Alleluia!
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Saturday, April 15, 2017

WAITING WITH MAGDALENE

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SITTING AT THE TOMB


Matthew’s account of Good Friday ends with these verses:


So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. (Mt 27:59-61)

During our simple, somber service of Vigils this Holy Saturday morning, we monks took up our post, sitting beside the tomb with Mary Magdalene. As we prayed the psalms, I began wondering what was going through her mind as she sat there? What was she feeling? I don’t imagine that on that first Holy Saturday she was waiting for her beloved Jesus to rise from the dead and walk out of the tomb. She must have been overwhelmed by grief.


But, then, what about us, who have already encountered the Risen Lord? What is it that we are waiting for as we sit beside the sealed tomb with her? Certainly, we’re waiting for Easter morning to come, so that we can celebrate and sing and shout “Alleluia!” But, the Paschal Mystery (Christ’s passion, death and resurrection) should also make a difference in the way we live every day.


The expression “expectant church” came to mind as the rising sun was brightening the stained-glass windows. Although “expectant church” has several meanings, I simply reflected on the expression from the point of view of the Latin verb expectare, “to await.”


I began to ask myself if we Christians look like an “expectant church” when we settle into a comfortable truce with the materialism and self-centered culture around us. Do we act like an “expectant church” when we quarrel among ourselves over liturgical practices or changing translations of texts? The expression “sacristy church” came to mind as well -- a church that is turned inward, concerned only about itself and its inner power struggles and institutional concerns.


Another expression occurred to me, from the prayer after the “Our Father” at mass: “as we wait in joyful hope.” That became my prayer as we finished the psalms and readings of Vigils.  


Lord, help your church to be a sign of joyful hope to the world. Help her, by her actions, to be a church of the poor, of the alien, of the persecuted, and especially a church that is a sign for those whose lives are filled with darkness and despair. Help us to be “Easter People,” each of us an Alleluia from head to toe, even as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Alleluia.
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A BLESSED EASTER!


      

Saturday, April 8, 2017

OPTIMISM AND HOPE

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A week ago, I heard someone make a distinction between “optimism” and “hope,” and I've been pondering that difference, off and on, ever since. I’ve noticed that we often use the words “hope” and “optimism” interchangeably in everyday speech, for example, “As he began running the diagnostic tests, the engineer was hopeful that he would be able to pinpoint the problem.” The word “optimistic” would fit just as well in this case.  

Just now I Googled “optimism versus  hope” and found lots of different approaches. A counselling psychologist, a rabbi, and an educational leadership instructor each had their own definitions and made their own distinctions between the two ideas. The following reflection includes, along with my own ideas, a couple of phrases and ideas gathered during my ten-minute web search.


I think it was the psychologist who wrote “Optimism can be defined as being confident of the future or success of something, it claims everything will be all right despite reality.” I’ve heard optimism described as the typical American virtue, the “can-do” attitude that built a railroad across a continent, dug a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, and put a man on the moon. The problem is, as everyone knows, that reality does not always cooperate with our dreams, nor does it always yield to our best efforts -- that's just the way life is sometimes. And optimism cannot stand up to that kind of abject failure of our dreams and wishes. As another writer puts it, “When real trouble comes, the house [of optimism] inevitably comes crashing down.”


“Hope, on the other hand, is a far deeper and more rigorous disposition. It is built on surer foundations and looks to greater realities than just the material world. Hope knows the goodness and value of life in the face of limits, and even in suffering. Unlike mere optimism, hope is able to weather the storm when trouble comes.” I find this a very useful description -- by saying that hope is founded on ultimate realities outside the material world, this author is connecting hope with religious belief.

Last night I had a profound experience of the difference between optimism and hope during a service of the stations of the cross.


.As Jesus fell the third time under the weight of his cross, overwhelmed by its weight, by his human fear of death, and by the weight of the world's sins, I realized that no one would say that Jesus was “optimistic” in this situation. As he hung in agony on the cross, the word “optimism” didn’t fit. But Christians say that Jesus never lost hope: he believed that his heavenly Father would not abandon him. For us, the cross is a sign of hope. The classical Christian symbol of the virtue of hope is the anchor: hope casts an anchor into the future, and fastens itself to God. We trust that God is greater than our problems, that Love conquers hatred, that suffering becomes the means of our salvation, and that death itself is ultimately  transformed into eternal life. This is not optimism, it is hope -- it is based on realities that lie beyond the limits of physical suffering and temporary defeats.


As we enter into the mysteries of Christ’s redemptive suffering, death and resurrection, we may not feel very optimistic about many of the things that are happening in our world, in our country, or in our personal lives. But the Cross and the empty tomb will revive our hope, our belief, anchored in God’s promise, that in the end, goodness and life will be victorious over sin and death.


p.s. Check the list of labels to the left for previous posts about "Palm Sunday."

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

ECHOS OF SLAVERY?

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I have to run to New York this morning to make a presentation as a panelist at a symposium entitled “Slavery on the Cross: Catholics and the ‘Peculiar Institution,’ Praxis and Practice,” at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. Here’s my fifteen-minute panel presentation.


I have been invited to speak about St. Benedict's Prep, a school for boys in grades 7 through 12, staffed by the Benedictines of Newark Abbey, located in the center of Newark New Jersey's largest city. We have 560 students: 51% African American, 34% Latino, and 9% white.
St Benedict’s had been a highly regarded boys preparatory school for over 100 years when it closed its doors in 1972 because of declining enrollment, a lack of new vocations in the monastery, and the changing racial makeup of the student body and the neighborhood, from all white to an increasingly minority population.
When the school closed in 1972, half of the monks transferred to another monastery, leaving behind a dozen of us who felt that, because of our Benedictine vow of stability, we shouldn’t simply walk away without asking if, perhaps, God still had more work for us to do in Newark.
Analyzing our situation, we saw that we had empty school buildings, a group of dedicated teachers, most of us with advanced degrees, and, in our city, plenty of young men who were in need of a good secondary education. So, we decided to open a small school for boys. This may seem like a logical, reasonable step until you realize that we had no money, no students, and only a vague idea how to run a school.
Our lack of administrative experience would prove, however, to be a great advantage, because we didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas of how a school must be organized and structured. One thing we were sure of, however, was that the school had to be racially integrated, firstly, because the gospel demanded it, and a racially integrated school would be a Christian counter-witness to the racial strife that was poisoning our city in 1972, and also because we believed there would be an advantage to having students from a wide variety of backgrounds learning together, So, we sat down with a blank sheet of paper and set about shaping a school that made sense to us, always thinking in terms of what would be best for the students. Then, in July 1973, in the spirit of Benedictine hospitality, we welcomed 92 students, about 75% of them African-Americans, into grades 9 to 11, and started to teach them -- and to learn from them as well.
At the time, we younger monks, who were providing the energy for the project, had been breathing the heady air of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and reading Liberation Theology, and Stanley Elkin’s book, Slavery. We also acted, inevitably, on the principles of our Benedictine spirituality and on our assumptions about how to live the Gospel.  
To be honest, our educational philosophy was articulated mostly after the fact, as we introduced and tinkered with different approaches. Our sophisticated planning strategy went like this: “On your marks, go, get set!”  
I want to share with you four vignettes from the past 44 years, and let you draw your own conclusions about their possible relationship to the terrible legacy of slavery in our country.  
My first story comes from the earliest days of our new school. An african-American freshman named Robert handed me a homework assignment that was terribly sloppy and totally unacceptable. So, in my practiced teacher’s voice, I screamed at him, “You expect me to accept this? This is crap!” But instead of being provoked to do better, he stared at the floor and mumbled, “Yeah, you’re right, it’s crap.” I heard in his voice “Yeah, I’m crap!” I was shocked at this response. Was this a distant echo of the institution of slavery robbed people of their dignity and worth as persons?
Whether it was or not, we began to make a special effort to encourage in our students a sense of identity and self worth. Over the years, for example, we have developed many practices and programs that offer opportunities for our students to confront and overcome challenges, and so develop a sense of competence and self-confidence. Take, for instance, the Freshman Orientation Week, during which all the freshman live at the school for their first week of classes, sleeping on the gym floor, and facing carefully calculated, difficult challenges, academic, physical and emotional; by the end of the five days they have discovered that they can overcome seemingly impossible challenges, with the help of their classmates and older students.
At the end of freshman year, every ninth-grader backpacks 53 miles on the Appalachian trail with his team of six classmates. Completing this challenge is one of the most important experiences of the student’s time at St. Benedict’s.
A second story comes from several years later, when a black alumnus was made Assistant Headmaster in charge of discipline. And African-American mother came to school to speak to someone about her son’s continental disciple problems. When Mr. Green came to meet her at the front door  for their conference, she was shocked to see a Black man, and immediately demanded, “Thank you, but I need to speak to speak to someone in charge.” Was this a distant echo from the days when slavery made Black people powerless to be in charge of anything, especially of control their own destiny? In any case, we offer our students as many opportunities as possible for taking responsibility for their lives. A crucial underlying principle here is that an adult should never do anything for a student that a student can do for himself.
The best example of this is our system of student leadership. About three years after our 1973 new beginning, one of our new monks, a former scoutmaster, showed us how to arrange the day-to-day running of the school on the principles of the Scouting movement, that is, by making the students responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the school. Student leaders run morning convocation, take attendance, decide when adjustments need to be made in the schedule for some reason, and have charge of keeping order in the lunchroom.  
A third story will illustrate another important aspect of our approach. We have a student residence that houses 64 students. A couple of years ago, a sophomore who had gone home for the Christmas break, came back to school and as he stepped into the residence hall breathed a sigh of relief and said “God, it feels so good to be home!” Was that possibly a distant echo of slavery’s destruction of the African-American family? We realize that a school cannot be a substitute for a biological family, but we spend a lot of time and effort creating a warm, supportive and safe community in which our students feel a strong bond with their brother students as well as with the faculty and staff. Over the front door of the school is a large wooden plaque that displays the motto: “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me!” The soccer coach hung as sign on his office door that read, “Their team versus our family!”  
We start each day with a “family meeting or “convocation” of the entire school, run completely by the students.  It includes a scripture reading, prayer, and lots of enthusiastic singing followed by attendance-taking by the students, and announcements by faculty and students.
Another way of fostering a sense of belonging and commitment is our method of dividing the student body into smaller homeroom groups of twenty or so, each led by a student leader, and containing members from all grade levels, who will belong to that group for their entire time at St. Benedict’s. During homeroom period, older members of the group are expected to help their younger brothers academically and in other ways.  
A fourth and final story. Many, even most public high schools in the inner city now have a majority of black and minority students, but no one shares with these new students the stories of the students who attended that school long before them, no one refers to the sometimes illustrious past of their school. The story-telling stopped as the minority students arrived. Is this a dim reflection of the institution of slavery that robbed Black people of their history, their story, leaving them with no definite sense of being rooted in a line of ancestors?
In any case, Saint Benedict’s helps students feel a part of the school’s 150-year legacy by retelling the stories, some of which are even true, by naming its homeroom groups after famous people in the school's history, by having alumni return to visit and share tall tales; a number of our graduates come home to join the faculty, while others send us their sons to be part of a new generation of the St. Benedict’s family. When graduates return to visit St. Benedict’s, they fully expect to talk with the monks who taught them 30 or 40 years ago. This is another result of our Benedictine vow of stability of place.
In conclusion, perhaps this vow of stability is what makes this whole story possible: when other institutions were fleeing Newark in the 1970’s the monks stayed, and handed on to a new generation of young men the deeply rooted traditions of an institution that was founded in 1868, three years after the abolition of slavery, and that now stands like a beacon of hope to the descendants of slaves, and a pledge of God’s continued, permanent presence among the people of Newark.      


Saturday, March 25, 2017

THE ANNUNCIATION IN THE KITCHEN

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LET IT BE DONE UNTO ME ...
 

March 25 is the Solemnity of the Annunciation; nine months from today we will be celebrating the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas. 

We are all familiar with the story of the annunciation from Luke (Lk 1:26 – 38) in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary who says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me as you have said.” During Women's History Month, and during a time in our country's history when many Americans seem to be looking upon the poor and minorities with less and less sympathy and empathy, this seems a timely post.


THE ANNUNCIATION: A LUCAN STORY 
The first part of the following meditation is adapted from Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Gospel of Luke (Sacra Pagina Vol 3, p. 39). 

Only St. Luke would have thought to tell the story of the annunciation in just this way. He loves to give major roles to minorities (such as women) and outcasts, he emphasizes Jesus’ humble origins, and enjoys pointing out the law of divine reversal (whereby the rich become poor and the poor rich, etc.). These themes give us some new perspectives on the story of the annunciation. 

In Ch. 1:5-25, Luke tells the story of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist: an angel appears to the priest Zechariah as he is performing his duties in the temple. This story provides a contrast with the next one, the announcement of the birth of Christ, in which an angel appears to a young girl.  

In contrast to Zechariah, Mary holds no official position among the people,
She is not described as “righteous” in terms of observing Torah, 
She is among the most powerless people in her society: 
- she is young in a world that values age, 
- she is female in a world ruled by men, 
- she is poor in a stratified economy. 

Furthermore she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence. 
Yet she has “found favor with God” and has been “highly gifted.” 

Here we one of Luke's favorite themes: God acting in ways that are surprising and paradoxical, reversing human expectations. 

Finally, Luke prizes simplicity and humility; thus the most important dialogue in the whole bible, ending with Mary’s telling the angel, “Let it be done to me,” does not take place in the temple (as Zechariah’s vision does), nor in a royal palace, but rather in the obscure village of Nazareth. 

FR. KILIAN'S POEM 

Father Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B., a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, wrote a lovely reflection on this very theme. I offer it here as a reminder that we should be ready to encounter God at any time, anywhere, especially in our everyday activities. But before reading it, first take a look at Jacopo Bellini's 1444 painting, referred to in the first stanza.
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..................                    IN THE KITCHEN 

........................Bellini has it wrong. 
........................I was not kneeling 
........................quietly at prayer, ..........................
........................head slightly bent
........................to show submission. 
.....................
........................Painters always 
........................get it wrong, skewed, 
........................as though my life 
........................were wrapped in the silks, 
........................in temple smells. 

........................Actually I had just 
........................come back from the well, 
........................pitcher in my hand. 
........................As I placed it on the table 
........................I spilled some on the floor. 

........................Bending to wipe 
........................it up, there was a light, 
........................against the kitchen wall 
........................as though someone had 
........................opened the door to the 
..........................................................sun.
 ..........................
........................Rag in hand, 
........................hair across my face, 
........................I turned to see 
........................who was coming in, 
........................unannounced, unasked. 
..........................
                              All I saw 
........................was light, whiter 
........................than whitest white. 
........................I heard a voice 
........................I had never heard, 
........................walking toward me, 
........................saying I was chosen, 
........................The Favored One. 

..........................I pushed back my hair, 
..........................stood baffled. 
..........................With the clarity of light 
..........................the light spoke 
..........................of Spirit, shadow, child 

..........................as the water puddled 
..........................large around my feet. 
..........................Against all reason, 
..........................against all rationality, 
..........................I knew it would be true. 

..........................I heard my voice 
..........................“I have no man.” 
..........................The Lord is God 
..........................of all possibilities: 
..........................with Elizabeth no flow 
..........................of blood in thirty years 
..........................but six months gone. 

..........................From the fifteen years 
..........................of my Nazareth wisdom 
..........................I spoke to the light 
..........................in the joy of truth: 
..........................“Let it be so.” 
..........................Someone closed the door. 
..........................And I dropped the rag. 
"The Annunciation" by Henry Owassa Turner

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

THIMBLE THEOLOGY

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The final verse for this past Monday’s gospel reading has stayed with me all week.


Jesus said to his disciples:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you. (Luke 6:36-38)


I reflected on the last two lines, “For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.” The Greek word for “measure,” metron, means simply an object that is used for measuring, such as a measuring cup. I started asking myself what kind of “measure” I use with various people when offering them forgiveness or a patient hearing; I concluded that with a student who is being insolent to me in front of the class, the measure I use for patience is a lot smaller than the measure I use with someone who is, say, lying in the hospital. I wondered how many different measuring devices I use every day.


Then an image of a thimble came to mind, specifically the small white plastic one in my sewing kit. Is this the metron that I use when measuring out, say, patience with others? Is a thimbleful of forgiveness all that someone can expect from me? How much effort do I put into understanding what the other person is feeling at the moment -- a thimbleful? How much compassion does someone get from me when they are disturbing my routine?


I imagined myself standing in front of the Throne of Judgement and asking the Lord for his understanding of my weakness, and asking for forgiveness. And the Lord produces a small white plastic thimble and says, “Okay, here we are; let’s measure out some compassion, and then some forgiveness.”    
As I sat there in church I decided that right after Morning Prayer I would get that thimble, put it in my pocket, and carry it around for the rest of the day as a reminder. All during the day, especially during class, I found myself reaching into my left pocket of my habit to touch the thimble. Simply knowing that it was there was an effective reminder to be patient, to be as compassionate as I hope the Lord will be toward me one day.

It worked so well that I kept it in my pocket all week -- it’s still there. I’m wondering if I should just let it stay there. At least for the rest of Lent? Or... maybe I should get a 50-gallon drum and pull it around with me?

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

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This Sunday’s Gospel passage is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, the vision in which Jesus appears in his double nature as a human and the Son of God. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
"Rise, and do not be afraid."
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
(Mt 17:1-8)

Since, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, this vision follows immediately after a prediction of Jesus’ passion and death, one obvious purpose of the vision is to give the three apostles a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, in order to strengthen their faith in advance of Christ’s suffering and death.

But I came across an additional insight this morning from the theologian John Macquarrie, which I’ll summarize here. The story of the transfiguration seems to express the transition that must have taken place in the disciples, from acquaintance with the human Jesus, to faith in that same Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Transfiguration story begins with the human Jesus who is going to suffer and die; the presence of Moses and Elijah shows Jesus’ continuity with the prophets, human beings who often suffered for delivering God’s message. Suddenly, “Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” And the divine presence comes in an overshadowing cloud, from which a heavenly voice is heard: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."  

This event may be a distant echo of the experience of the disciples as they came to understand that Jesus was divine. On the one hand he was a weak, suffering human figure, yet in this completely human and suffering figure, God revealed himself and drew near to the disciples.

In the story of the Transfiguration, this realization of Jesus' divine nature seems to come all at once -- notice that the three disciples "fell prostrate and were much afraid" because they knew that no one can see the face of God and live to tell of it. In our own journey to faith, however, the realization comes over time -- maybe over an entire lifetime.

In the transfiguration, “What we see in Christ is the destiny that God has set before humanity; Christ is the first fruits, but the Christian hope is that ‘in Christ’ God will bring all men to God-manhood.” (Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, p. 279, 1966).

From this point of view, the glimpse of Christ’s divinity is intended not only to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ passion and death, but to give them a glimpse of the glory to which God intends to bring every human being one day. It is as if the Lord is saying to us “This is what all of you will look like one day.” (I just re-read a previous post on the Transfiguration from just over a year ago, and found that I offered this perspective there as well, possibly from a different author.)

This divinization of us humans is our story, our destiny. St. Basil once wrote: "A human being is a creature whose whole purpose is to become God." But, clearly, this divinization is God’s gift, God’s work in each of us. During this Lenten season, then, we might try to be more aware of how God-the-Divinizer is already at work in each of us, and we can try to cooperate with that work by our efforts: by opening our hearts through prayer, for example, or by quieting unruly passions through fasting and self denial, or by imitating God's unconditional love for us by performing works of charity.

During this coming week I will try to look at two particular students of mine as people who destined to be transfigured one day into Christ -- and keep in mind that I'm destined to be transformed with them.