Saturday, March 24, 2018



It seems a good idea to take a few minutes' rest from the 24-hour news cycle in order to turn our attention to the meaning of the greatest news story ever and the rituals that the Church invites us to participate in during the coming week. The following are some ideas I posted in 2012.

The idea of a Palm Sunday procession originated, not surprisingly, in Jerusalem where 
people could really have the sense of re-enacting various events of Jesus’ passion and death in the very places where they had occurred. It was well established by the fourth century: a large crowd, including lots of children singing “Hosanna,” preceded the bishop on a long walk from the top of the Mount of Olives into and across Jerusalem into a church to celebrate mass. It’s easy to see how such a ritual would capture people’s imaginations; and by the ninth century there were Palm Sunday processions in Spain and Gaul. The custom would take root in Rome only in the eleventh century. The actual rituals of the blessing of palms and the procession varied quite widely from place to place. The blessing of the palms could be very elaborate, for example, while in some places the bishop would imitate Christ by riding in procession on a donkey. Last year on Palm Sunday I posted some thoughts about the custom in some countries of having a statue of Christ on a donkey that was rolled along in the procession.


The detailed ritual re-enacting of various sacred actions of the gospel, begun in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the Christian world, while it is appealing to many people, also poses a danger: we can begin to think of each episode as a separate stand-alone event without seeing it as part of the single “paschal mystery” of suffering-death-resurrection.

A good example of this unfortunate splitting up of the paschal mystery is the popular devotion called the fourteen “Stations of the Cross.” These meditations follow Jesus’ passion from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate through his death and burial, and end (incredibly!) with Jesus’ lying dead in the tomb. To stop the story at that point is not only misleading, it’s almost blasphemous. Worse, it implies that you and I can or should look at our own suffering and pain apart from Jesus’ triumphant victory over suffering and death at Easter. That’s real bad theology! Presently when the stations are celebrated in public, the service often ends with a sort of “fifteenth station,” a brief meditation on the resurrection – i.e. the event which gives all of the events of Christ’s suffering and death their ultimate MEANING.

A similar unfortunate separation of the resurrection from the suffering and death of Christ is reflected in the history of the so-called “holy triduum.”


The expression “holy triduum” or “sacred triduum” originally referred to the three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Easter was an integral and essential part of the “holy week” celebration. Saint Augustine, for instance, refers to this triduum in the fifth century. Toward the middle of the seventh century, however, a commemoration of the Last Supper was introduced on Holy Thursday at Rome (where that day had previously been mostly the day for reconciliation of penitents). This new commemoration caused an unfortunate shifting of days: the “triduum” then became Thursday-Friday-Saturday, and Easter was cut completely out of the picture! The triduum became a self-contained unit involving only Jesus’ suffering and death.

This new arrangement is misleading and could very easily distract at least some people from the full MEANING of Christ’s suffering and death (which, after all mean nothing without the resurrection). The church has revised her rituals and her language in recent years to try to counter that misconception. The official language in the church’s calendar, for example, now refers to “the Easter Triduum of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection,” which begins only with the evening mass of the Lord’s Supper, thus restoring the original unity of suffering and resurrection.


The ceremonies of Palm Sunday can still be misunderstood in that fragmented way mentioned above by making the blessed palms the center of attention. I once saw a pastor being set upon by angry parishioners complaining vehemently that the ushers at the side door of the church were distributing smaller pieces of palm than the ushers at the main door. This outrage would color or even define their whole experience of Holy Week that year!

Try to consider Palm Sunday from the original perspective in which the events of Holy Week including Easter were not seen as reenactments of a disjointed series of events but rather as the celebration of a single unity known as the “paschal event.” Here, too, the church since Vatican II has helped us to correct our vision by revising the rituals of Palm Sunday. First, note that its official name is no longer “Palm Sunday” but “Palm Sunday of The Lord's Passion.” The preceding Sunday, formerly called "Passion Sunday" has been given back its original name, “The Fifth Sunday of Lent.” Centuries ago the Church began emphasizing Christ's sufferings and so pushed "passiontide" further back into Lent, usurping the Fifth Sunday and naming it "Passion Sunday." The Sundays in Lent, however, are clearly intended to prepare us for the resurrection. This idea is obvious when you notice that the gospel for the Fifth Sunday (that we used to call "Passion Sunday") tells the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Sounds like a resurrection theme to me!

Secondly, besides the name change, there are the various prayers, blessings and options for the procession that now help us to focus on the more important theme of the Palm Sunday ritual, the procession. The actual blessing of the palms is limited to a brief introduction and a short prayer of blessing, teaching us that “Palm Sunday” is not about the blessing and carrying of palms that are to be brought home as almost magical tokens disconnected from anything about the Paschal mystery.

The true perspective is reflected in the fact that the blessing of the palms should be held someplace besides the sanctuary, preferably outside the church building, so that there can be a procession. There are even a couple of options for the entry into the church so as to encourage the use of a procession even in less convenient circumstances. The emphasis is where it should be: we as the People of God are accompanying the Messiah on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he will suffer and die and RISE again.

Thirdly, the sacramentary helps us to focus on the paschal mystery as a whole by opening the ceremonies of Palm Sunday with the priest's saying these words:

“Dear friends in Christ, for five weeks of Lent we have been preparing, by works of charity and self-sacrifice, for the celebration of our Lord’s paschal mystery. Today we come together to begin this solemn celebration in union with the whole Church throughout the word, Christ entered in triumph into his own city, to complete his work as our Messiah: to suffer, to die, and to RISE AGAIN. Let us remember with devotion this entry which began his saving work and follow him with a lively faith. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life.”

Notice the various emphases:
1. We have been preparing to celebrate the “paschal mystery” (passion-death-resurrection as a single event).
2. We are doing this as a community, in union with the Church throughout the world.
3. Christ is about to complete his Messianic work “to suffer, to die, and to rise again.”

A fourth help to keeping focused on the unity of Holy Week and Easter is found in the mass readings. During the mass we will listen to the reading of the passion, but this is preceded by the second reading from Philippians that includes these lines that combine the passion and the resurrection:

“he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).


So when I preside at the Palm Sunday mass tomorrow morning in one of the seedier neighborhoods in Newark I will be conscious of marching up to Jerusalem with Jesus in company with the whole Church throughout the world. In our procession will be many Spanish-speaking immigrants, some suburban white folks who come to help the sisters serve Sunday dinner to the poor, and there will be some homeless and hungry people, too, along with AIDS patients and recovering addicts. It’s these last folks that will truly appreciate knowing that we are going with Jesus not just to SUFFER with him on Friday; no, we are very definitely walking with Jesus in order also to RISE again with him on Easter Sunday. And we’ll all join our voices in welcoming our Savior, singing 
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Romare Bearden  "Palm Sunday Procession" (1967)


Saturday, March 17, 2018


I guess you might say I'm stuck. I'm re-reading for the fourth time The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr in which he makes a case for, among dozens of other things, an all-merciful God who is not into "retributive justice," who does not exact from us punishment for every sin of ours, nor demand that His Son pay the price for the sins of the world. 

I say I'm stuck, because I'd love to share Rohr's case with you in a blog post, but he takes 170 pages to build the context in which he makes his case. So I'll content myself with presenting a couple of snippets to intrigue you.

In a section entitled "What about the Wrath of God?" he tackles the common belief that God is capable of anger, vengeance and retribution. He points out that the bible, which is full of such language, is itself a gradual progression forward. "You see the narrative arc moving toward an ever-more-developed theology of grace, until Jesus becomes grace personified. But it's a concept that the psyche is never fully ready for." 

We resist it, and see this resistance even in the New Testament, where even John's statements about God's unconditional love are interspersed with many lines that seem to imply conditional love: "If you obey my commandments" is either said directly or implied many times. Fr. Rohr writes, "The biblical text mirrors both the growth and the resistance of the soul. It falls into the mystery, and then it says 'That just can't be true'."

The Prodigal Son - Rembrandt
The Bible moves inexorably toward inclusivity, mercy, unconditional love, and forgiveness. Why not interpret the scripture the way Jesus did? "Jesus ignores, denies, or openly opposes his own Scriptures whenever they are imperialistic, punitive, exclusionary, or tribal." (Rohr, 176)

For example, Jesus does exactly this in Luke 4:18-19, when he reads from the scroll Isaiah the words "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor..." and ending with "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." He leaves off "and the day of vengeance of our God" which is in the original passage (Is. 61:1-2). Then, rather than proclaim foreigners as the enemies and objects of God's vengeance, Jesus praises faithful foreigners from Zarephath and Syria, while criticizing the attitudes of his fellow Jews, the "chosen People." The people become so angry at his selective reading that they try to throw him off a cliff.

My take on this is that we, as rational creatures, want a God who is
comprehensible, who responds and acts the way you and I would. When someone hurts me, I want to hit back, and when someone cheats me or lies about me, I get angry and what to get back at them. A God who acts that way is understandable, predictable, reasonable, and so we have this God pretty much under control. 

But, when Grace shows up, logic breaks down; if, for example, God forgives everyone everything, this behavior offends my sense of retributive justice, it makes no sense. To say that "God loves you just the way you are right now, and there's nothing you could do that would make God stop loving you" offends my sense of retributive justice. That behavior is incomprehensible to me, it makes no sense; consequently, if God is beyond the reach of my intellect, then God becomes, pardon the expression, a Mystery. But I want to hold on forever to my comfortable, rational, predictable God, who loves and hates, rewards and punishes, plays favorites, and does all those things that every human does.

As we prepare to enter deeply into the mystery of Christ's self-sacrifice on the cross, I suggest that you forget the theology of retribution that says that the Father demanded the sacrifice of Christ to atone for the sins of the world so that justice would be served; when gazing on the cross, think instead of God who, out of sheer love, became one of us so as to share our humanity and willingly took on himself the evil of the world, and even death itself so as to conquer them and free all of us from sin and death through the mystery of Divine self-giving love. "God so loved the world..."

Saturday, March 10, 2018



As I've mentioned before, our comm- unity is celebrating this year the 150th anniversary of St. Benedict's Prep's founding in 1868. One of the events marking the anniversary is an original play written by our students in a couple of drama classes in recent years, that tells the story of the school from the mid-1800's through the present. It includes original songs written for us by Jeff Izzo, a professional musician, composer and professor.

The cast is made up of students from our Prep Division and our Middle Division (including one girl), two lay teachers, and five monks (including me). We've already done two performances (Thursday and Friday), and have two more -- tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. 

I've never acted on a stage before, but being in this play isn't just acting some playwright's script -- it's literally living out on the stage some of the pivotal and most emotionally charged moments in my life. My experience of acting in the play is different from anyone else's, because I sat in those meetings where we fought and agonized over the fate of our school and even of our monastery. Many of the lines in the play are direct quotations of people at the time (taken from a doctoral thesis of Dr. Thomas McCabe, which he used as the basis of his book, Miracle on High Street). When I'm on stage in an imaginary meeting, I see the faces from 1972, and hear the voices and feel the whole range of feelings, from anger, disappointment, and fear as things fell apart, to hope, love, and exhilaration as we began to plan a new school. 

It's really too early to describe what re-living those moments means to me since I'm still in the middle of it; the perspective of a few weeks will undoubtedly reveal a lot more of the meaning.

Here are a couple of lessons that might relate to your own life.
First, this is a story of the death and resurrection of St. Benedict's Prep, perfect for the middle point of Lent. Our faith assures us that death and suffering are part of every person's story, and a sharing in the story of Christ's conquering of suffering and death.

Second, acting in the dramatization of my own life-story helps me to appreciate once again that God is the one doing the work, even (especially) when we can't understand what is happening. St. Benedict's Prep closed when I was 29 years old, but in retrospect, that was an essential part of God's plan for the school and our monastery. 

Let me leave you with an excerpt from a prophetic address given by Abbot Martin Burne, the abbot of St. Mary's Abbey (which included two monasteries, Morristown and Newark) to the friends, alumni and civic leaders at the centennial banquet at the Robert Treat Hotel on March 21, 1968 (four years before the school closed).

A teacher at St. Benedict’s today, lay or clerical, has to be either cynical or blind if he believes himself to represent human society, while ignoring the situation that is at his very doorstep.  Which way St. Benedict’s you ask? Toward a deeper involvement in the society of which it is a part, toward an increased endeavor to help parents in the education of their sons. Can we, the Faculty at St. Benedict’s, begin to shape somewhat the situation at our doorsteps, by offering each year a college prep education to youngsters from the ghetto who need that type of education and who can well qualify for it?  Or shall we turn our faces away from our front door, and pretend to the world around us that one really need not attend to his neighbor? The words of Christ are pure fiction! I propose to the business community of Newark, to the industry of Newark, to interested private citizens of Newark and its suburbs, the challenge of a lifetime…I challenge a society that talks a great deal about helping the underprivileged to let St. Benedict’s do just that.
It took a lot of time and a lot of suffering, but I believe that Abbot Martin got his dream.

Saturday, March 3, 2018


I had to give a homily last Thursday to a group of about forty students. The responsorial psalm at mass was Psalm 1. I talked to them about the verse that describes the just one who follows God's ways:

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever he does prospers. (Ps.1:3)

Here are some thoughts from that homily.

Look at the image of the tree that is planted near a stream, where its roots could tap down into the moist soil, causing In the arid country of Palestine, this image would have been really powerful.

I'm really attracted by the idea of those roots. I reminds me a demonstration that some sophomore biology students did a few years ago: They planted seeds in various kinds of soil, and applied varied the amounts of water to different seeds, and then noted the progress of each seed, comparing the effects of the various conditions in which the seeds were growing.

It wasn't so much an experiment as a demonstration: everyone pretty much knew ahead of time what was going to happen: The seeds that got less water didn't thrive, and those planted in sterile sand did poorly compared to those planted in soil rich in minerals and nutrients.

In this experiment, where light and temperature were not varied, the differences depended on the soil in which each seed and then each shoot was growing. The roots of each plant absorbed only what they could get from the soil: everything depended on where they they were planted.

The same is true of you and me. Where are your roots? What anchors your life and nourishes you? From what I can see, it seems that most of our teenagers and many adults
are anchored in and nourished by their phones: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and so on. Their roots seem sunk deep into cyber-soil. But does that soil nourish your spirit? Does it call you to be a nobler and more loving human being? Does that soil give you strength?

Do the people making billions of dollars in the social media industry care about whether you grow up to be a morally responsible adult, a good father, a generous neighbor?

Watch where you put down your roots, where you spend your time and focus your attention. I once heard Rev. Jesse Jackson, give an address to a group of educators. He told us, "Our kids eat junk, they listen to junk, they watch junk, they read junk; and then we wonder why they become spiritual junkies!"

Where are your roots right now? Are they planted in junk?

Lent is a good time to check out your roots -- to look at the amount of time you spend on various activities, at the kind and quality of things you watch, read and listen to. These are where the roots of your life a planted, and they determine the kind of person you will be.

Get those roots into the right soil and watch what happens:
You will be like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever you do will prosper. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018


The three traditional Lenten practices have always been prayer, fasting, and alms giving. I've been thinking a lot about the first of these this past week. Some of the following ideas are borrowed from Cyprian Smith, O.S.B., The Path of Life, a book I heartily recommend for lay folks as well as monks.

We tend to see the Christian life as having to do with "doing good." So it can come as a shock to hear that our life as Christians not about doing anything, but about being something. Once we start to understand and become what we're meant to be, then we have a much better chance of understanding and achieving what we're meant to do.

There are lots of ways of describing what we a Christians are supposed to be, but when approaching the subject of prayer, it's helpful to think in terms of "relationship:" We are meant to be in a personal relationship with God.

Prayer is opening myself to God, it tries to keep the channels open so that God can communicate with us, it maintains and deepens our relationship with God. Prayer, from this point of view, is a lot more passive than active. It's something that happens in me and through me rather than something I do myself. Prayer becomes really deep and authentic when it is something done in me by the Spirit of God, while I, for my part, simply let it happen, and gently remove whatever obstacles may be hindering it.

This approach, making myself a mere channel for God's power, requires a lot of self-effacement and humility. It also requires letting go of one of our culture's most deeply rooted values: The hunger for results. Many of us, when we sit down to pray, do so with a number of unconscious or half-conscious expectations. Since I've decided to give up some of my valuable time to God, I expect God to do something for me in return -- preferably right away. Maybe a sense of peace and tranquility, say, or an insight into God's mysterious plan for me.  If none of these things happen, I start to feel gypped. I've put my dollar bill into the vending machine and nothing's happened. I want my money back.

This is when it's really helpful to remember that prayer is not so much about doing but about being, about entering into an intimate relationship with God, and leaving ourselves vulnerable to disappointment. The primary thing is the contact, the relationship. Everything else is secondary.

Prayer is essentially a gift which we make of ourselves to God. It's all about giving and surrendering. And this, it seems to me, is the greatest thing we can "give up" during Lent: our selves.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Come, follow me!
The gospel reading for Saturday Feb. 17 recounts the call of Levi, the tax collector (Lk 5:27-32). It contains an interesting detail that caught my eye. In Matthew and Mark, when Jesus calls disciples, they leave specific things behind: their nets, their father, their tax-collecting post. But not so in Luke: In Luke, Peter, Andrew, James and John "leave everything behind," just as Levi does in this today's passage.

This seems to reflect Luke's theme of complete detachment from material possessions (look at Lk 12:33, 14:33, and 18:22). 

But, what does this have to do with you and me? What might "complete detachment from material possessions" look like in your life, or in mine?  What does it have to do with Lent? 

One possible approach might be to distinguish between "renunciation" and "detachment." Renouncing material things seems to me to smack of body-hating and an un-Christian negative attitude toward material creation; being detached, on the other hand, seems to respect the inherent goodness of material things while encouraging us to keep them in proper perspective. St. Gregory the Great warns us that our possessions have a way of turning the tables and owning us. Lent is a good time to ask myself what things I need to be more detached from (my iPhone? My television?)

Another thought that occurs to me comes from Jesus' encounter with the rich ruler in Lk 18:22; you remember how the rich man says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth, and Jesus says that there is still one thing lacking for him -- to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor, then come follow Jesus. The idea here, it seems to me, is that in the case of this individual, what was keeping him from being able to follow Jesus was his wealth; for another person it might be their pride, or their years-old feud with a relative. Lent is a good time to ask myself what one thing might be holding me back from following Jesus.

In any case, Luke's insistence on complete detachment from material possessions can be a salutary and sobering shock as we begin to spend the forty days of Lent in the materialistic wilderness that is our contemporary culture.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


I'm reading Richard Rohr's  The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation for the third time. It's such a radically different way of looking at God and the Trinity, that I have to keep re-reading it to let my mind adjust to the new perspective. And each time I read one of it short chapters, the new perspective makes more and more sense. I think I've blogged about it already, but the book is really worth further reflection.

Here are the notes of a talk I gave to the parents of the Religious Education Program Here at St. Mary's Church. I offer them because, although it was a gamble to try to treat the topic in a short time,  the parents seemed to "get it," and had lots of good questions at the end.  So, here goes: Richard Rohr with an admixture of Fr. Albert.


Aristotle  (Greek philosopher 384-322 B.C.) composed a list of ten qualities or “categories” of things (e.g. "location", “quantity” and “quality”). For our purposes we need to consider just two of these: “SUBSTANCE” and “RELATIONSHIP”.

A “Substance” is something independent of everything else (a tree, a stone), while “Relationship” obviously requires something else for its existence (daughter, father).  Substance was for Aristotle the highest category, precisely because it does not depend on anything else for its existence, but can stand on its own.

By 2nd-3rd Century, Western Christianity found itself using Aristotle to prove that this God of ours, the Holy Trinity, was a substance. We wanted a “substantial” God, a god whom we could prove was as good as any pagan god. And so it was that God became an object of our study, just like any other thing in the created world. (Can you see trouble coming?)


When Jesus’ idea of God the Father encountered the Graeco- Roman world, people immediately made a connection: they identified Jesus’ “God the Father” with their Greek God, "Father Zeus," the all-powerful one who sat alone on top of Mt. Olympus and hurled thunderbolts on people any time he felt like it, but especially when he got angry.

This image of a vengeful, fearsome Zeus-God whose approval is only conditional and can be lost or earned, this image could not be farther from the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God is pure love. Since God is love, God can't not-love us, no matter what we do. God can never stop loving us. On our end, however, we are free to deflect or interrupt the Flow of divine love in our lives -- that's called sin, which is its own built-in punishment, and hardly needs God to intrude in order to punish us for being outside the dance.


The Zeus-God keeps score; he gets even, he metes out punishment to those who don’t measure up.
Zeus-based religion becomes the grim pursuit of mastery over a system of requirements and obligations.

A Zeus-based saint is someone who has mastered the system and knows how to avoid getting God angry, and who scores very high on all the criteria for holiness. 


Western Christianity is so bound up with this image of a solitary vengeful, fearsome Zeus-God sitting alone atop mount Olympus, whose approval can be earned and lost, that we find it nearly impossible to get along without this kind of God. This God is, after all, very comprehensible -- there’s no mystery involved, and in such a view God follows all of our rational rules and expectations.

But this image could not be farther from the idea of God as Trinity, as the flow of love in the world. The Trinity is a divine, universal circle dance that includes all of creation, from electrons whirling around nuclei to galaxies strewn across the immensity of space. We humans are included in the dance, in the “flow.” 

If God is Love, then, by definition, God can't “not-love,” no matter what we do. God can never stop loving us. 

On our end, we can deflect or interrupt the Flow of love in our lives, we can isolate ourselves from the divine circle dance, but the Spirit is always working to draw us back into it.

Jesus in the gospels reveals himself as “Son of the Father” and “one with the Father,” giving clear primacy to relationship. God is not, nor does God need to be a “substance”  in the sense of something independent of all else: God is relationship itself! Although it took Christians a couple of centuries to come up with the doctrine of the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, Jesus already spoke about “I and the Father are one,” and said “the Spirit blows where it will.”
And St. John wrote that “God is love, ” God is relationship, while St. Paul wrote lots of tantalizing things that work best from a trinitarian perspective.

The Father, Son and Spirit love one another, God is this mutual loving, the Divine Dance. And we are all involved it that Dance, along with everyone and everything in creation, from neutrons and molecules to exploding stars and galaxies.


Holiness: A holy person is one who can stay in relationship at all costs.
-People who are toxic (psychopaths etc.) are always people who cannot maintain relationships - they run from them. Loners, lonely people, cut off from others.

“Sin” means blocking the flow of the Trinity’s love and conversely
a “saint” is one who allows that love to flow freely and visibly in his or her life.

Salvation is the readiness, the capacity, the willingness to stay in relationship.

The Holy Spirit helps us in this difficult task of maintaining relationships. If we refuse to give others any power or influence over us (“You’re not gonna convince me!” “You have nothing to teach me.”) then we’re spiritually dead.

Kingdom of God, the central metaphor of Christ’s teaching: "My kingdom is not of this earth." It is a new way of relating to God, to others and to self. The Kingdom is relationships: it’s what characterizes the spaces between us: love, forgiveness, generosity.

Most of Rohr's comments about the Trinity are not his, but reflect the thinking of many saints, mystics and theologians over the centuries whose thoughts and writings have been overshadowed by the Aristotelian mindset of the Western Church. Roh'r's book is truly worth reading and reflecting on!