Saturday, May 30, 2020

ON BEING ISOLATED

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The second reading for the mass during the day on Pentecost Sunday (May 31,2020) gave me plenty of food for mediation this morning. Like most people, I suppose, my thoughts constantly return to the present pandemic and its effects everyone in the world. Read this passage from the perspective of the world-wide attack of the covid-19 virus:

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.

As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:4 -7, 12-13)

The last six lines caught my eye as I was reading. During this time of isolation, a millions of people are feeling the effects of being cut off from physical contact with their fellow humans, these verses above encourage us to take some time to notice the spiritual reality that we are all one with our brothers and sisters around the world.

Think about it: Why do most of us feel badly about being "cut off from everyone else?" It seems to me that the deepest answer is found in Paul's words to the Corinthians: "... a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body..." As we sit in front of our televisions or computers and watch the news from around the world, instead of feeling isolated, we might look at these broadcasts through Paul's eyes: These are my brothers and sisters who are dying or starving or being killed. They are members of Christ just as I am.

It's frustrating, of course, to watch the news and not be able to do anything to help our brothers and sisters in need. Each of us should pray to the Holy Spirit to help us to respond in the way the Lord needs us to. But the task gets much easier the closer we get to our own homes where we live under the same roof with others, or have various ways of staying in touch with relatives or friends who need our encouragement and love.


I just read an article in the New York Times in which a psychologist offered a practical step to avoid getting depressed during this period of being shut inside. Guess what the secret was? Concentrate on being kind, generous and considerate toward others! We're made that way, this doctor said, and so we'll feel much better if we concentrate not on ourselves and our own needs and desires, but on the needs of those around us.


Hmm. Maybe Paul was on to something?


Saturday, May 23, 2020

A TIMELY GIFT

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THE GIFT OF THE ASCENSION


This year our Archbishop has transferred the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord from Thursday, May 21 to Sunday, May 24. The message of the feast, however, remains the same. The liturgy of the paschal season has been leading us toward this feast for weeks, and reflecting on the meaning of the mystery of the Ascension can be a help to all of us during these pandemic days.  


In  the na├»ve worldview of ancient Israel, where the earth was as flat as a dinner plate and the firmament was above and the netherworld below, the idea of Jesus’ “ascending” up into a cloud was easily accepted. Too easily, perhaps, because it would then seem to mean that Jesus, taken “up” into heaven, had gone away from us and was thus no longer present.

Fortunately our modern astronomy won’t allow us to settle for this simple picture of Jesus rising “upward” to heaven. And that’s great, because we’re not as likely to misinterpret it as meaning “Jesus left us.” We are forced to look for the meaning of the event rather than simply settling for “Jesus went up into the clouds of heaven.” And it is precisely this theological meaning that can be a comfort to us during these sad and uncertain times of pandemic.

The feast of the Ascension celebrates Jesus’ passing beyond the familiar dimensions of time and space, beyond the reach of our senses and into the presence of the Father. So what? Well, think about it: This means that Jesus is no longer bound by time and space, so he is now more present to us than he ever was previous to the Ascension. He is in our hearts and bodies, in our friends and our foes, in the spring breeze and, mysteriously, in the strands of DNA insde the novel coronavirus.

Now, we may be repelled by the idea that God could somehow be present in a terrible, deadly virus and all of the suffering it has caused, but that’s far more comforting than the alternate view – that God is totally absent from those tragic events and horrible microorganisms, and that we are left to face these horrors on our own. A God who’s only present to us when times are good is not much of a God.


So as we continue to struggle with the depressing statistics, the deaths of family members or friends, the dark uncertainties of unemployment and closed classrooms, let's remember the lesson of the Ascension: Christ is intimately present with each of us in the midst of this whole mess, and is walking every step with us through this valley of the shadow of death.


 "Though I walk in the valley of darkness
I fear no evil, for you are at my side. (Psalm 23:4)" 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

THE CHRIST OF THE PANDEMIC

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When you can honor and receive your own moment of sadness or fullness as a gracious participation in the eternal sadness or fullness of God, you are beginning to recognize yourself as a participating member of this one universal Body. You are moving from I to we.  
- Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, 42.

I'm taking my time reading and absorbing Rohr's "The Universal Christ." I highly recommend it. Like most of his books that I've read, it requires the reader to let go of many treasured preconceptions, beliefs and mindsets that he or she considers fundamental to his or her belief in God.  

The present book couldn't be more timely. Its thesis is that we have concentrated on "Jesus," the human person who live for thirty years in a particular time and place, and have almost forgotten "Christ," the Second Person of the Trinity, the Divine Word who existed from all eternity and through whom everything as created and is maintained in existence even today. In Colossians 3:11, Paul says "Christ is all and is in all," or "Christ is everything and is in everyone." 

Since we're so at home with the human "Jesus," we underplay the "Christ" side, leaving an imbalance that has caused countless problems for the churches ever since. One problem that Rohr keeps mentioning is that "Jesus" is small enough that various groups can latch on to Him and "own" him exclusively, leaving the rest of humanity excluded from any relationship with Him. "No one owns him and no one ever will (35)." 

"Christ Pantocrator" (All-powerful)       Cefalu, Sicily
As I mentioned in my April 4, 2020 post, the counterbalancing concept of "the universal Christ" completely bypasses every kind of limitation and division that comes with the human "Jesus" side of the incarnation and invites us to relate to the Christ who is from all eternity, who created everything that is, including worlds and maybe universes that we will never discover, We can't capture the Universal Christ and use him for our own purposes.

This way of seeing Christ seems exactly the right perspective for looking at the present pandemic. In the quotation from Colossians 3:11 cited above, "Christ is all and is in all,"  the Greek word for "all" is panta, the same root that we find in "pandemic." When in last week's gospel our Lord says "I am the way and the truth and the life," who is speaking? It would seem that at this point the emphasis has shifted from the human side of Jesus who has just washed the feet of his disciples, to the mysterious and boundless "universal Christ."

So, while we see and hear all of the beautiful human interest stories of bravery and compassion and so forth springing from the pandemic, and see them as imitations of Jesus, it is important to balance the picture with the image of the "universal Christ," who exists in everything and everyone from before time began. "The Christ is always way too much for us (35)" may sound like bad news to some people who need to be in control all the time, but it's wonderfully good news to all of us who are suffering during this pandemic because it means that Christ is immeasurably greater than any tragedy or trial or disease we can imagine.



   

Sunday, May 10, 2020

MOTHERS' DAY BONUS POST

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Since I have today's homily already typed up, I'm sharing it with all of you at no extra charge.
I hope everyone had a good Mother's Day.


Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Albert Holtz, O.S.B.     -    Newark Abbey   -     May 10, 2020
Gospel Reading: John 14:1-12  “I am the way, and the truth and the life”

Where is this whole pandemic thing going? We get the feeling that we’re being swept along  by circumstances way beyond our control. How can we plan for the future: When will our  churches be open? When will our classrooms be full again? When will the covid finally recede? What will life be like after the pandemic? Will any of my loved ones fall victim to the virus? The entire planet has been overwhelmed by the experience. It almost seems as if God has lost control of the situation. God might be as overwhelmed as you and I are!
We come to church this morning for various reasons. Some of us pray for healing or for safety for ourselves, others for our jobs, or for help with paying bills. But, looming over the whole experience is the sense of threat and danger.
Look at the gospel passage this morning: At the last supper, Jesus has just revealed to the apostles that someone will betray him, and that even Peter the Rock will deny knowing him, and that he, Jesus, will be leaving them. Imagine the terror they must have felt! This is where the gospel passage begins this morning, with Jesus comforting his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and afraid!”
We should listen hard to what he’s telling them, because his words are addressed to each of us this morning. As scientists around the world are scrambling to find a vaccine or an antidote to the novel coronavirus Jesus is offering us an antidote to our fear, foreboding and discouragement.
First, he tells them that everything that’s happening is part of God’s mysterious loving plan. It’s heading in a definite direction: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” There’s a key word hidden in here: The Greek for “dwelling place” comes from verb meno, John’s favorite verb for describing the intimate, permanent indwelling of Jesus and the Father.
He’s telling us that the place that we are heading is a share in this divine life. And if we are all heading toward that goal, then Jesus tells us “I am the WAY to that goal. “Have faith in me!” he tells his apostles in their fear. This is good advice for us as well.
Jesus is giving us a glimpse into the mysterious inner life of the trinity: God is relationship, God is Love. He’s giving us the key to everything, the truth about the universe: I am the Truth, I am the dynamism that lies behind and within everything and everyone. John’s gospel begins “In the beginning was the word,” the word through which everything came into being, the word of truth that says “God is love” pure, boundless, self-giving love. That is the ultimate truth.
“I am the way,” he tells us, “and I am the truth”. Then He goes on to reveal more of the unfathomable mystery: “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me; the Father and I are one.” The Father and I share this divine life with each other –-and with each one of you.  “I am the life” – and you participate in that life with and through me. So when you feel overwhelmed and at the end of your forces, be encouraged by Jesus who says, “I am the life that wakes you up every morning, that courses through your arteries, that fills your heart with love”.
In this terrible time of Pandemic, this time of fear and foreboding, when the future is a mysterious threat, let us  remember Jesus’ words to his apostles when they were feeling the same way that we are this morning. Christ, the second person of the Trinity, invites them and us:
“Follow me through this terrible problem, for I am the WAY that carries you forward.
“Hold fast to the truth that this experience is somehow all about the Father’s love.  For I am the TRUTH that fills you with courage.
“I am the Word that was present at the beginning, I am the very source of everything that is: I am life itself. I am the LIFE that fills you this morning with a new sense of vigor and energy and hope.
“Especially in the midst of this Pandemic, remember that I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”




Saturday, May 9, 2020

LOVE IN THE WILDERNESS

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In the first reading this past Thursday Paul is giving a summary of the history of God’s dealings with the Chosen People to the assembly in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. Here's part of what he says:

The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and exalted the people during their sojourn in the land of Egypt. With uplifted arm he led them out of it and for about forty years he put up with them in the desert. When he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. (Acts 13:17-19)

There’s a phrase in this passage that seems odd in the context of God’s “exalting” the nation, leading them out, and giving them the promised land:“he put up with them in the desert.” 

This jarring note in the midst of God's loving deeds sent me to my Greek New Testament and put me on the trail of a timely insight. It seems that there is an alternate reading, i.e. a different Greek word, that shows up in place of the one the translators used. And this alternate reading fits the context much better.

If you change one letter, a phi to a pi then etrophophoresen,“to put up with” becomes instead etropophoresen , “to take care of.”

Interestingly one commentator notes that his second word “to take care of” actually shows up in the ancient texts more often than the word “to put up with.” Most translations that I looked at, even in French and Spanish, give the translation “[God] took care of them.”

And certainly this fits better in the context of God’s delivering His people from Egypt, guiding them through the desert and bringing them into the Land of Milk and Honey. I can’t tell you why the translators of the version in the lectionary chose to go with the other variant.

Of course, the Lord certainly did “put up with” the fickleness and infidelity and cowardice of the Israelites for forty years, the same as He "puts up with" my sinfulness and yours. But I’d like to suggest why we might prefer one reading over the other in this time of pandemic.

What Do I ask of God?

Look at these two different ways you and I can relate to God, depending on what we think God is like: Does the Lord “put up with his people for forty years in the desert” or does the Lord “surround his people with care?” I know which version of God I prefer.

When I find myself in the wilderness, in some trackless waste filled with unknown threats (like a pandemic?), I don’t pray to God to  “put up with me.” No, when I’m wandering in the wilderness, I ask the Lord to “take care of me.” The Jerusalem Bible has, “[God] surrounded them with care in the desert." 

Imitating God’s Love Today
 
Jesus told us that our love for one another should imitate God’s love: self-sacrificing and boundless. So it matters who our God is.

Let me end with this timely question: In this wilderness time of pandemic, when we’re confined to our homes in close quarters with others, shall we settle for imitating the God of etrophophoresen and  just “put up with one another,” or shall we reach out in self-giving love and imitate the God of etropophoresen, who didn’t just “put up with” his people, but “surrounded them with care” during their time in the wilderness?


In Thursday’s Gospel Jesus has just finished washing his disciples’ feet and is about to speak to them. I don’t think that he’s just going to invite them to put up with one another.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

MONASTIC WISDOM FOR QUARANTINE TIME

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The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and the various crafts are practiced. Then there will be no need for the monks to roam outside, because this is not at all good for their souls. (Rule of Benedict, Chapter 66, The Porter of the Monastery)

Benedict didn't think it a good idea for monks to be "roaming outside," so the present shelter-in-place conditions would please him, I'm sure.

In our monastery, the daily schedule hasn’t changed at all.  The most noticeable difference is that in 
church and in the refectory we’ve modified our seating so as to keep as much distance as possible between us. But our weekday schedule is the same: Morning Prayer at 6:00, Breakfast at 6:50, Midday Prayer at 11:50 followed by lunch, 4:00 quiet reading, 5:00 mass, 6:00 supper, 6:45 Vespers, 7:15 recreation, 8:00 most of us are in our rooms. Since things like food shopping or driving our children to ballet lessons were never part of our life anyway, the restrictions aren’t as noticeable for us as they are for everyone else.  

Right now I’m responsible for educating our two novices (new members of the community) in the spirituality and customs of the monastery. (Remember that monastic wisdom is simply gospel wisdom packaged in a slightly different way.) As we go through these principles, attitudes and practices I've noticed that many of them might be of value to anyone living in tight quarters with others right now, or might help a person to grow spiritually from the present challenges. So, here are a couple that my be of use to you.

The first is “restraint of speech.” While it’s important to communicate with one another (you must never use silence as a weapon), there are times, St. Benedict says, when even good words are better left unsaid out of respect for silence. You might try to become more aware of your speech -- how much, what you say, your tone of voice, and so on.





Another help to getting along with others is surely the virtue of humility -- the honest, down-to-earth assessment and admission of the truth about myself, both the good and the bad. There’s this wise saying making the rounds these days that says “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” Benedict is big on putting your own wants second to the wants and needs of others. Any group of people who think this way will find it much easier to build a peaceful community.


Another practice that Benedict encourages is “mutual obedience.” He says that obedience is a blessing that we monks owe to each other and not just to the superior. It’s another angle on putting aside what I want for what the other person or the group needs.

A final trait that St. Benedict shows in writing his Rule for Monks is one that you might do well to imitate is his wise assessment of the frailty and limitations of human nature. Life in community becomes much easier once you admit that you're not perfect and neither are any of your brothers or sisters, your superiors, your children, your students or anyone else. So, when someone gets on your nerves, it’s helpful to remember that love is often about putting up cheerfully with one another's shortcomings and weaknesses and trying to be of help to others.


 If you notice, all of these ideas are applications of basic Gospel teachings. Monks simply try to live the gospel in a more obvious and emphatic way. The Coronavirus pandemic is offering everyone, not just monks, the challenge and the opportunity to do the same: To live the gospel in a more intense, emphatic way. Benedict tells us that God is everywhere (e.g. the workshop, and the refectory, as well as the chapel), and that Christ is present in every person (especially the poor, the very young, and the sick). So, no matter where the pandemic forces you to go, and no matter who it may force you to encounter, you can comfort yourself in knowing that God in Christ is there to be discovered and served. No crisis, no pandemic is bigger than the Universal Christ whom you meet in every situation and in every human being.


Saturday, April 25, 2020

ST PAUL'S TIMELY ADVICE

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Three days a week I teach my New Testament class via Google Meeting. It's been going fairly well. I often have on the screen the live images of all twelve sophomores at once, so I can monitor who's dozing off, or who's sneaked away.

At the end of class yesterday I spent a couple of minutes asking them  how they're doing, and what they do to pass the time. (Video games, sleeping and eating, in case you're wondering.) I feel really sorry for these teenagers who need to be outside getting exercise and blowing off steam. As I listened to them I realized how really hard it must be for them and for the members of their families to stay out of one another's way.

After class was over, I found in my mailbox a letter from a friend who mentioned that she's taking advantage of this period of being shut-in to spend more time with her husband. In an ordinary week their work schedules keep them from seeing much of one another. I found that a very uplifting little  thought, realizing that she and her husband have decided to profit from this awful crisis to grow in their love for eachother.

Then, at Vigils this morning (on the feast of St. Mark -- happy feast day, Br. Mark!) we heard the following words of encouragement addressed to the Christians of Ephesus. I think they're valuable for us to hear during these days:

I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-ff).

This turns out to be a very good list of things to do to make Christ present in your home by the way you treat one another:

humility
gentleness
patience
bearing with one another through love
striving to preserve the bond of peace.

Maybe you can work on one of these this week, and even invite someone else to join you in making the risen Lord present in your home despite the closed doors.

Stay well!