Saturday, June 23, 2018

GOD'S POST IT NOTES

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CELEBRATING OUR STORY


Thursday evening several of us, in our Benedictine habits, went to the Main Branch of the Newark Public Library for a reception celebrating a special exhibit in honor of the 150th anniversary of Saint Benedict's Prep. The exhibit consists of nine panels of photos and printed narrative, as well as a few tables containing realia such as a freshman beanie from the 1930's. The whole thing is beautifully done.


As I studied each panel, I began to see once more how the Lord has been guiding our community and our school over the years. My personal experience of St. Benedict's goes back to 1955 -- you do the math -- so my personal story is very much wrapped up with the narrative displayed on the panels.

SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN


This Sunday, June 24, is the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist, a celebration so important that it replaces the Sunday prayers and readings at mass. One of the many themes underlying the story of John the Baptist is that God foresaw the coming of the Messiah, and so prepared for it by setting certain people apart ahead of time; Mary, of course, and John, who was to "prepare the way of the Lord." The church reflects on this theme in the day's masses (one for the vigil and another for Sunday) by offering us prophecies from the Old Testament that foretell the coming of the Messiah or of someone who is to go before Him to announce his coming. 

So, even though people were pretty much unaware of what was happening as the story was unfolding, God's saving plan was being played out in history. 

RECALCULATING...


In the gospel passage assigned for the Sunday mass we have Luke's account of the birth and circumcision of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-66,80). Take a good look at verse 59 that says they wanted to call the baby Zechariah after his father. In the Greek, the verb "to name" is in the imperfect tense, and so can be variously translated as "they wanted to name him..." or "they were going to name him..." or -- and here's the neglected possibility -- "they were already calling him Zechariah..."



Think about it; the child has been around for eight days already, so we can presume they were calling him by some name during that time. The obvious choice of a name, almost automatically, would have been Zechariah. So picture the scene: They come to the ceremony of circumcision, and when it's time to officially name the child as a son of Israel, his mother says his name is to be John. The family and friends all look at one another with eyes wide with astonishment: "But we're already calling him Zechariah; it makes perfect sense, after all!" When they consult his father he confirms Elizabeth's statement: "His name is John!"

My reason for bringing this up is that I think it's really helpful to translate verse 59 as "they were [already] calling him Zechariah," because it reminds us that often God will intervene in our well laid out plans and force us to "recalculate," as your GPS would say. 

Next time I walk through the exhibit of the 150 years of our school's history, I'll imagine little Post-It notes stuck at certain points in the narrative panels bearing a single word: "recalculating." When things didn't go as we had expected, we had to revise our plans, until the Lord got us to where he needed us to be. Some of these Post-Its will mark events that we experienced as major tragedies at the time, but in retrospect, with the hindsight of historical reflection, they now make perfect sense in the over-all narrative.

It seems a good lesson: always carry some Post-Its with you, since you never know when the Lord will come up with a plan that's better than your own. Just hope you won't need a whole lot of them!

Happy feast of Zechariah John the Baptist!





Saturday, June 16, 2018

HUMILITY AND TRUTH

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Here are a few ideas and quotes I came across during the past few days while we in the monastery were on retreat.

Sr. Margaret Mary Funk, O.S.B. in Thoughts Matter notes that in the Rule of Benedict, "humility" is very similar to "wisdom." That makes a lot of sense. Just about any description of wisdom involves being in touch with what is truly and actually the case, knowing "the truth" in some deep sense. And most descriptions or real humility involve the idea of knowing and accepting the truth about oneself.

Let's say someone comes up to you after hearing you sing, and says, "My, you have a lovely voice." You're told that all the time, even by musicians; but you deflect the compliment as you always do, and say, "No I don't, not really." That's not humility because it's not in touch with reality. Humility would accept the fact that God's given you a lovely voice that people like to listen to, and respond to the compliment with something like, "Thank you, I love singing."

In our culture it seems that people think humility means "putting yourself down;" but being humble really means being in touch with and accepting the truth about yourself, including both your good points and your bad ones).

"Humility is far more fundamental than the practice of virtue: It is a matter of primary disposition rather than of behavior patterns" 
-- Michael Casey, OCSO, Introducing Benedict's Rule, 59)

"Humility matters. It is at the core of our experience of life in Christ. So central is this quality of being that it may be said that humility is for a Christian what enlightenment is for a Buddhist, realization is for a Hindu, sincerity is for a Confucian, righteousness is for a Jew, surrender is for a Muslim and annihilation is for a Sufi."
-- Margaret Mary Funk, O.S.B. — Humility Matters for Practicing the Spiritual Life

I came across the following on the last day of the retreat:

"Some of us try to commune with God without stopping to take off our shoes."


This final quote fit in perfectly with my reflections on humility. How can we ever approach God except in bare feet, humbly, acknowledging that we're being allowed to approach the divine mystery itself? There's a story about a rabbi who, before he went off to pray each morning would kiss his wife and children, just in case the Lord should choose to come so close to him in prayer that he wouldn't survive the experience.  

St. Benedict's Chapter on Humility is usually seen as the most important one in his entire Rule for Monks. All of us Christians spend our entire lives working on humility, learning how to "walk humbly with God."







Saturday, June 9, 2018

Render to Caesar....

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"Render to Caesar what is Caesar's , 

and to God what is God's" (Mt.12:17).

This is one of those quotations that we're so familiar with that it loses its punch. So, when it came up recently as the assigned gospel passage, I went and read it in the Greek. As usual, the effort proved worth it. Here's what I found.

The verb "render" or "give" (apodidomi) is made up of two elements: didomi (give) and apo (back, return). It implies giving to another something that is due in payment of a debt, pay back something owed. This is the case here, with the question of the payment of Roman taxes. Here's a way of seeing the interaction:

Pharisee: Is is lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Roman emperor?
Jesus: Well, show me a Roman coin.
[Several people reach into their purses and take out a Roman coin. Jesus accepts one.]
Jesus: So, I see that all of you use the Roman monetary system, which is stable and convenient and well administered. Well, if you're going to use the Emperor's monetary system, then it's only fair that you should pay for the privilege. So, pay your taxes to Caesar; give Caesar what is his due -- but give God what is God's due.

So, reflecting on the meaning of apodidomi as paying back a debt, we  have the question that is posed in Psalm 116: "What shall I render to the Lord, for all the good things he has done for me?" Other translations say "How can I repay the Lord..." Before replying that there's no way I can ever repay the Lord for all the goodness I've received, try phrasing it this way: "What do I owe the Lord?"

The bible is full of answers to that question, so many that it makes your head spin. Jesus sets the example in Gethsemane: "Not my will, but yours be done." 

"Jesus went off by himself to pray."

Or how about this: "Whatever you do to the least of my people, you do unto me. I was hungry and you gave me food."

In Psalm 65 we read "To you our praise is due in Sion, O God."

You can go through the scriptures yourself and find plenty of other answers to the question of "What do I owe the Lord."

Most of us are pretty good at paying our bills and our taxes; it's just the way the system works.
But I wonder how many of us are willing to admit that we really owe God a debt. Some of us seem to want to dispute the charges.

I believe that Jesus is telling us that the way to true happiness is to spend our lives repaying our debt to the Lord by imitating his life of love and prayer and service to others.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

ST. JUDE AT GRADUATION

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The first reading for today's mass (Saturday) is from the letter of Jude. It seems that this short letter (only one chapter long) was written in response to the threat posed to a Christian community by outsiders who were preaching some sort of false doctrine. The selection in the lectionary is from the end of the letter, in which the writer encourages the members of the community to stand fast against the false preachers. 

"Build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Jude v. 21)


St. Benedict's Prep includes girls

As I reflected on this sentence this morning, I thought of last night's eighth-grade graduation ceremony, and how so much of the program was aimed at encouraging the new graduates, or, to use the words of Jude, to "build them up." 


"Build yourselves up" could well be translated "Encourage one another." It's not telling individual Christians to engage individually in some sort of spiritual exercise program, but rather is instructing the community to mutually strengthen one another.

The Greek word for "build up" is based on the ordinary word for "build,"  (as in "to build a house"), and makes for a nice image of members of a community mutually strengthening one another.

Jude's advice to that beleaguered community remains good advice for members of any community today, whether a family, a religious community, or a parish. 

The divisive and competitive atmosphere in which we're living poses the same sort of threat to our communities as the destructive teachings that were dividing the Christian community addressed in the Letter of Jude. 

It isn't only eighth-graders that need to learn how to "build up one another" instead of tearing one another down or competing against everyone. 

At this time of year we hear lots of commencement addresses
telling the graduates that they are now prepared to go on and compete with others (and, supposedly, win). How about a commencement address to graduates at every Christian institution encouraging the graduates by telling them that they are now prepared to go out and build up one another? We could simply quote the Letter of Jude:


"Build up one another in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ." 












Saturday, May 26, 2018

HOLY TRINITY - AGAIN

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I've now read Richard Rohr's  The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation four times; on this weekend of Trinity Sunday I want to re-publish a recent post about the Trinity, with a few changes. 

Rohr points out that some of the greatest difficulties that people (both believers and non-believers) have with Christianity are avoided it we change our perspective and stop thinking of God as an isolated monarch observing the world from afar and occasionally intruding into it, and who seems intent on keeping count of sins in order to punish us for them when we die. Fr. Rohr proposes that we look at God in an entirely different way -- in terms of the ancient model of "trinity" which never caught on in the Western world, but has been at the center of the theology of the Eastern churches, and is behind much of St. Paul's thought.  

An understaning of God as Trinity is such a radically different way of looking at the divine, 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.

IS GOD A “SUBSTANCE?”

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?)

GOD AS ZEUS

Several weeks ago I was sitting in on a class of seniors as they studied Homer's Odessey. I was startled to hear one of the warriors praying to "Father Zeus." I could see how easy it would have been for converts from Greek pagan religions encountering Jesus’ idea of "God the Father," to immediately identify Jesus’ “God the Father” with their familiar Greek "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, 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.

SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF ZEUS-BASED RELIGION

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. 

GOD AS TRINITY

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.


SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF “TRINITARIAN” RELIGION

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. On Trinity Sunday we might pray that one day our modern western idea of God may give way to a Trinitarian concept of a God who is unconditional love and who is the dynamic force that animates all of creation, inviting us to become part of the Divine Dance. 








Saturday, May 19, 2018

HOLY DISORDER

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Shortly after his resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples and proclaims "But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts:1-8).


So as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday it's not surprising to see the theme of "the ends of the earth" taking a prominent place in the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. After they were "filled with the Holy Spirit" they went outside and immediately began to preach to "all the nations:"

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
"Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God. (Acts 2:5:10)

The disciples are to be Christ's witnesses to the ends of the earth. That is still our job -- to be a powerful witness of what Jesus intends the church to be. We're meant to show the world what transformed lives look like. Not perfect lives, but lives testifying to what is possible when Jesus is at the center of our lives.

Acts 2:41 tells us that about three thousand were added to their number that day. The church went from zero to three thousand on Pentecost, the birthday of the church, and the throng included people from all over the map.

When you or I read the list of fifteen nations above, we naturally tend to think in terms of a map containing all of these territories and countries, each one a different color, each separated from the others by clear boundary lines. But this is exactly the opposite of what the passage is meant to convey: Now, all of these people can understand the preaching of the Galilean apostles, each hearing it in his or her own language. It's an image of unity, of the overcoming of divisions and separation through the unifying grace of the Spirit.

We should note that the "list of nations" mentioned poses lots of problems for scholars; there are lots of hypotheses about possible organizing principles behind the list, but none can be proven. For our purposes, why not celebrate the fact that the list is not neat and orderly, but is as random and varied as our church is today -- as our world is.

Some of us are uncomfortable with this sort of randomness, and feel that the world should be better organized, and its people separated by language groups or skin color. "If the people would just go back where they came from...."

On my recent trip to Rome, our international group of students was not as representative as it should have been because many could not get visas on such short notice. Imagine the visas and passports that it took to assemble that crowd in Jerusalem on Pentecost morning!

Once again, the message comes through: Jesus' dream of the Kingdom is that the world will be united as one; the Dream has begun to be fulfilled in the Church, his body, his presence on earth. And it is our task to be living examples of that unity, to be his witnesses, to break down barriers and build up one another.

This is an impossibly tall order, until we allow the Holy Spirit to take over our lives, our churches, our families, our towns and so forth. Let us take up our task again on the Pentecost day, descendants as we are of that motley crowd who heard the gospel being proclaimed each in our own language.

Come, Holy Spirit!


Saturday, May 12, 2018

STRENGTHENING EXERCISES

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Here's a verb that caught my attention recently, occurring in three mass readings during this past week: 

In Acts 14:22, Paul and his companions visited the towns where they had already preached, and "they strengthened the hearts of the disciples." 

In 15:32, Silas and a disciple named Judas "exhorted and strengthened the brothers with many words."

In 15:41 Paul "traveled through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the
Paul's Missionary Journeys
churches."


In In 18:23 Paul "traveled through the Galatian country, bringing strength to all the disciples."

The word, episterizo, is made up of the prefix epi- "upon," and sterix, "a prop, support;" the idea is "to make lean upon" and thus to strengthen or confirm someone. 

I love the image of Paul, Silas and the other missionaries traveling around to visit the brothers and sisters whom they had converted a while ago, and strengthening" them in their faith by inviting them to "lean" on the apostles. I think of the song, "Lean on me."

How often do you or I strengthen people around us by offering them a "support" to lean on? When we do so, we should realize that we Christians have been doing that for one another since the days of the apostles. It's a beautiful tradition that we can hand on to the next generation by setting the example of supporting one another.