Friday, September 22, 2017

ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES!

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This morning, I had to celebrate mass for the Benedictine Sisters in Elizabeth, which meant that I had to come up with a homily based on the readings. I read both of them, but nothing catching my fancy. Then I discovered this interesting Greek noun that occurs in 1 Tim 6:6. The translation says “Indeed, religion with contentment is a great gain.” Don’t worry, I couldn’t understand what it meant, either!


Aristotle  384-322 BC

But I looked at the Greek word that was translated as “contentment” and found it was autarcheia. Maybe you can see that it’s made up of two words, autos (“self”) and archeia (“govern” - as in monarch). In any case it refers to a virtue found in such Greek philosophers as Aristotle and the Cynics and the Stoics; it means “the virtue of independence from material goods.”


The word really spoke to my heart: I can use some autarcheia myself, some “independence” --not from material goods,  in my case, but from everything that I depend on that is not God. I asked the Lord, as I sat staring at that word, to help me to be “independent” from all those emotions, influences, habits and so forth, that draw me away from depending on God.


I remember that commercial advertisements years ago would warn, “Accept no substitutes!” Now, like you, I know perfectly well that there are no substitutes for God, but that doesn’t always keep me from wandering off in pursuit of one or another substitute when God is not responding fast enough, or when God seems to have left me feeling unfulfilled. If autarcheia means “the virtue of independence from material goods,” then my version of the word would be “the virtue of independence from substitutes for God.”

Benedict was into autarchaeia
Can you imagine what we’d be like if we could pull off that virtue? The great saints are saints because they practiced this virtue, and accepted no substitutes for God. Let’s pray to our favorite saints to help us learn that sacred discipline ourselves, and “accept no substitutes.”

Saturday, September 16, 2017

LIFE IN THE ROCK TUMBLER

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These have been in a tumbler

This past Tuesday, one of the young monks handed me a small tin that he’d found while cleaning out Fr. Mark’s room. The round container that might have once held hard candies now held eight smooth pebbles of different kinds. They looked interesting enough to pass on to one of our school’s science teachers who, I knew, was an amateur mineralogist.
So, I showed them to John, and watched his reaction as he picked up the stones one at a time and easily recognized each like an old friend: “Oh, this is hematite. Nice!” Then he remarked, “This one’s been in a tumbler,... and so has this one,... and this one, too. See how nice and smooth they are? But this piece of iron ore is still rough.”


Hobbyist's rock tumbler
We spoke for a couple of minutes about rock tumblers, cylinders into which you place rocks and then rotate (usually with electric power). By knocking together, the rocks eventually give each other a smooth, polished finish.


As I left the science classroom, I realized that living in the monastery is like living in a rock tumbler: you knock against your brothers so often, in so many circumstances, that after awhile your sharp points and knife-like edges get knocked off or worn down without your even noticing it.


It occurred to me that this is why it’s so much better for a new monk to have classmates and agemates in the monastery -- they bump against one another and form each other into smoother monks. Then I suddenly remembered a final remark that John made about using a rock tumbler; as I was leaving his classroom he added “It takes forever!”


These guys must be novices!
Oops! I began to wonder how many edges and sharp points I still have after fifty-five years in the rock tumbler? I know there are a couple of brothers who help me to wear down those little points of pride and angles of impatience. It’s not, I concluded, just the new guys in the monastery that need to be smoothed out. I’m not yet as polished as the Lord wants me to be.

When I’m done, He’ll take me out of the tumbler and welcome me into the Kingdom. Meanwhile, we rock on together.

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Will our monastery ever look like this?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

HURRICANES, EARTHQUAKES, and THE GOSPEL



Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments,“You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)


As I was meditating on this text (this coming Sunday’s second reading at mass), I kept thinking about floods (Houston), earthquakes (Mexico) and hurricane Irma, in terms of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  I kept thinking about a New York firefighter who was interviewed on the radio as he set off for Florida to help with the anticipated destruction -- he was using his vacation time to volunteer his services.

There were lots of stories from Houston about private citizens setting out in their own boats to rescue their neighbors, and others who opened their homes to strangers.

I can imagine what kind of selfless helping has been happening in the Caribbean islands in the wake of Irma.

Wanting to look deeper into the passage, I looked it up in the original Greek as I sat in church (thanks to my Kindle Fire), and my eye fell right away on the word heteron, “the other,” in the opening verse: “the one who loves the other has fulfilled the whole law.” It doesn’t say to love ones brother, or even ones neighbor, but, simply, to love another human being. Okay, cool; we all understand that. By coincidence, today is the feast of St. Peter Claver, the Spanish Jesuit, who spend his entire life helping the newly arrived African slaves as they got off the boat in Colombia.

The question now becomes, to what extent can a principle or command such as "Love one
anther" apply to a whole group of people (specifically, a nation)? Does the Lord expect a nation to love “the other?” To the extent that a nation doesn't have a soul or a conscience in the strict sense, it can’t strictly “love” at all. But I remember traveling in Europe in 1976 and having people tell me how grateful they were to America for delivering them from the Germans and sending food and clothing, and helping them rebuild after the war. I believe that we have always had a reputation for being a generous people.


So I was a little uneasy listening to a representative of the United States reminding Americans and the world, earlier this week, that our first principle will always be to put America’s interests first. Granted, “America first” can mean many things to many people, but I must say that, even if it is not shouted at a political rally, it sounds like a cloak for a host of opinions and principles that don’t agree with the Gospel message.

I pray that St. Peter Claver will intercede for us, so that the Lord may show us how we as a nation can continue acting as a generous helper to less fortunate countries around the globe -- after all, “America first” can also mean a lot of beautiful and live-giving things as well, depending on what it is that we want to be first in.  

Saturday, September 2, 2017

HOUSTON AND THE EASTER MYSTERY

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TEXAS-SIZE TRAGEDY


It seems to me that Texans like to cultivate the notion that every-thing in Texas is bigger than anywhere else. (Think Texas toast). Well, during the past week Hurricane Harvey has enhanced their bragging rights in a tragic way.


The past few days I’ve been writing the introduction to a manuscript (which I hope some publisher will decide is a book) about the Easter Season, centering on the “paschal mystery” -- the belief that Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection are inseparable from one another, and that our own sufferings and deaths are also parts of the much larger story of redemption, resurrection and, finally, everlasting life. Thus our suffering and pain have an eternal significance right now.


WHAT THIS ALL ABOUT, ANYWAY?


In the expression “paschal mystery,” the word “mystery” does not imply that the event is completely unintelligible, but rather that it is so immense that our human minds will never fully understand it, and therefore we must be content with fleeting insights into its meaning for our lives today, and occasional glimpses of the glory that awaits us in the future in heaven. So, the paschal mystery gives us the background into which, by faith, we can try to fit our suffering, pain, and even death.


But, as I was praying the psalms of Vigils this morning, I kept thinking of my friend Jennifer, a school teacher in Houston, and the suffering that she and her neighbors are experiencing right now. “Overwhelming” doesn’t seem to quite describe what the sorrow and shock must be like in the face of the devastation of the hurricane. This Texas-size tragedy seems too big to glibly fit into the story of the paschal; mystery -- that works for minor setbacks and tragedies, but what does one do with the overwhelming horror of four feet of rainfall in the space of a few days?


The thought made me look hard at the Introduction I’ve been writing, and reminded me that the mystery can sometimes be so awesome that we don’t even get any hints or glimpses of meaning. That’s when we just hang on and pray for God’s help without any visible signs that God is anywhere around.


I’ve been praying for Jennifer, who, in my mind, stands for all the people afflicted by the storm, that she and they my not lose hope, but may hold on until the water recedes, and the work of rebuilding begins. Maybe then they can get a couple of fleeting insights of how this tragedy can, from God’s point of view, be part of a story that is ultimately about beauty, joy, and everlasting life.
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Saturday, August 26, 2017

IN THE SAME BOAT

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Sunday, August 20, we celebrated our 18th annual “Monkfest,” our family picnic, for a few hundred guests under a big white tent that protected us from the sun’s rays. As always, it was a celebration of our extended family of students, parishioners, aluminum, neighbors, relatives, and friends from all around -- a celebration of our unity as children of God  in one multi-hued, multi-tongued family.



Sunday, August 20, also marked the fortieth anniversary of the launching of Voyager I, a robot sent to explore the outer solar system and the vast darkness beyond. It contained a gold-plated record and a player, with directions on how to operate it; on the record Carl Sagan had hastily put together a presentation of all manner of human achievement sna hints about who we are, from a song by Chuck Berry to a greeting from President Carter.


Five years ago Voyager I’s magnetic field and cosmic ray measurements indicated that it had exited the magnetic bubble that extends like an umbrella over all the planets: our space robot had become the first human artifact to escape the solar system into interstellar space. Another reminder that we are all on the spaceship earth.


Monday, August 21, about 400 of our students attended our eclipse party (see last week's post). We grilled the hamburgers left over from the Monkfest, and served iced tea and lemonade as well. The field was alive with excited conversations among the hamburger-eating attendees. The eclipse began 25 minutes after last class as the science department handed out special eclipse-watching glasses, and teachers offered looks through specially adapted telescopes and low-tech “pin-hole in cardboard carton” devices. This celebration was one of the best ideas ever. To nme, at least, there was a sense of unity among all of us who depend on the sun for life on our shared planet.



This is not what they looked like!
Thursday, Aug 24, after school I drove four miles to watch the new kids on our rowing team at one of their first practices on the river. As I watched the new kids step gingerly into their seats in the sleek eight-man boat, I knew that these kids were about to be exposed to an important lesson about being human: the eight rowers had to learn how to row as a unit, and had leave behind on the dock their own personal problems and agendas, giving up what they want for what the team needs. As the boat slid away from the dock, the eight kids and the coxswain became their own world. They would determine whether their boat would be a pleasant place or not, whether it would be successful or not.

As I watched them begin to row tentatively together for the first time, I thought about the fact that all of us on the planet are in the same boat, and that we, too, can decide whether the time spent here will be pleasant and successful or not.

Face painting at Monkfest
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Saturday, August 19, 2017

ECLIPSE THERAPY

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.On Monday, August 21, after classes, we are inviting our students (who started school three weeks ago) to attend our school “eclipse party,” where we will share the experience of a 74% eclipse of the sun. Protective sun-watching eyeglasses will be provided, along with snacks.

I love reading about the excitement of people all across the country, of fully-booked hotels along the path of “totality,” of celebrations like ours, and so forth.


I can understand the excitement of the scientists who hope to gather an unprecedented amount of valuable information about the sun’s corona, and therefore about the nature of the sun and its effects on our ionosphere and countless other bits of new data. The have recruited thousands of citizens to help in gathering data through photographs and, interestingly, through recording the noises made -- or not made -- by birds in the wild during the eclipse. But for us non-scientists, where does the excitement come from? Here are just two of the many possible reasons.


First, I’ve heard that the most primitive part of the human brain, the “reptilian brain,” is extremely sensitive to the cycles of sunlight and darkness; when that part of the brain detects that the sunlight is suddenly disappearing, it sends out all sorts of warnings: things are not the way they’re supposed to be! Well, we share the reptilian brain with all other animals, including birds and alligators. So maybe part of the thrill of watching an eclipse comes from the part of our brain that we share with all the other vertebrates, uniting us all as “creatures of our God and King.” (See last week’s post about St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun.)   


And, secondly, there’s the sense of unity with the millions of people who are all seeing this wonder of nature at the same time that I am. I think that’s the more important one for me.



By happy coincidence, the Sunday readings assigned for August 20, the eve of the eclipse, concern the theme of “universalism.” The first reading from the end of Isaiah, presents a vision of the temple in Jerusalem becoming “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Every nation on earth will be joined with the Chosen People to praise and adore the one God. In the gospel passage, Jesus discovers that his mission is not only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” when he grants the request of a pagan woman who begs a cure for her daughter. We can see the human side of Jesus slowly realizing that his mission of preaching the Kingdom extends beyond the bounds of Judaism to all the peoples of the earth.


By happy coincidence, the Sunday readings assigned for August 20, the eve of the eclipse,
So, on Monday afternoon, as I stand with my students and gaze at the eclipse through my special glasses, I’ll be very aware that I’m sharing the experience with all God’s creature (at least the ones with reptilian brains) as well as with millions and and millions of brothers and sisters.


During these days when people are mowing down crowds of innocent pedestrians with cars and trucks,  or celebrating racial supremacy and division, we certainly need as many eclipses as possible, so that we can experience firsthand that, whether some people like it or not, we are all brothers and sisters of the on Father, the Creator of heaven and earth -- and of solar eclipses.
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Saturday, August 12, 2017

CANTICLE OF THE BIRDS

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True story. Thursday morning at morning prayer, as we were singing the hymn for Lauds, a bird began chirping happily, her voice coming through the open window behind me. As she sat on her branch in the garden, she seemed to be consciously joining her voice to ours, enjoying singing harmony to our baritone voices.


So, this morning, as I sat in church at 5:30 for meditation, I noticed the busy chirping and chattering and trilling going on outside in the garden. I thought I recognized the voice from the other morning. I occurred to me that the birds had been awake for some time now, and were singing Vigils. (Vigils is the first prayer hour of the day, and Matins consecrates the hours of the night, of silence and darkness; it’s a time of prayerful, quiet waiting for the coming of the Lord, who, the Gospels say, will come in the early hours of the night.)



I enjoyed listening to their singing, and began looking forward to having them join the monks for Vigils in half an hour. At the appropriate time, the bells in the church tower sang out, calling the monks to prayer. I’d never noticed how loud the bells are. I tried to hear the birds voices underneath the insistent calling of the bells, and noticed that, one after the other, the voices stopped as the ringing continued. When the tower bells stopped, and the morning quiet returned, the birds had stopped their singing.


Figuring that this was just a temporary pause, I still hoped to hear from them again when we began Vigils ourselves in the monastic choir. No such luck. As we sang, I heard nothing more from the birds’ choir in the garden. I was truly disappointed that we monks had to do this on our own.


It occurred to me that maybe the birds, once they heard the bells for Vigils, decided that they would now hand over the task of praising God to the monks who were filing into church. The birds, I figured, had all gone off in search of breakfast, having finished for the moment their duty of praising the Lord. But then, I thought, birds and monks are not the only creatures called to praise the Lord. All of creation is involved in a constant song of thanks and celebration, from the angels on down. Since I couldn’t hear the birds, I began imagining the trees in the garden praising the Lord by lifting their branches toward heaven; I saw the sun’s rays sifting gently through some open windows as Sister Sun sang her praises; Sister breeze joined us as well, through the same open windows. I couldn’t see the sky, but I sensed that clouds were joining us as well in our work of praising and thanking God. I do wish, though, that the birds had joined in as well. But, to be fair, they had been singing Vigils since four o’clock, and deserved a rest.
   
You might enjoy re-reading Francis of Assisi’s take on this experience of all creation praising the Lord, his “Canticle of the Sun.”


Some of his early verses read:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
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