Saturday, December 8, 2018

MOTHERS AND ADVENT

Today, December 8, the Soleminty of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, our novice, Br. Mark Dilone, will profess his vows. Since it's going to be a busy day, I've decided to re-post something I wrote a couple of years ago that addresses the seeming self-centeredness that is so prominent in our lives as individuals and even as a nation. I hope you enjoy it. Please pray for Br. Mark and for our community -- and for more new members!

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Caryll Houselander 1901-1954 
My niece just gave birth to a baby boy, right in the middle of Advent. Pretty cool timing, right? It was certainly because of her that I was moved by a meditation read at vigils this morning. It was taken from the Christian spirituality classic written in Britain in 1944, The Reed of God, by Caryll Houselander, a British Catholic mystic, artist and writer. I enjoyed it so much that I’d like to share this excerpt with you. I found it online on the web site of Notre Dame University. I hope that my first publisher, Ave Maria Press, won’t mind a little free advertising as I borrow this excerpt from their edition of The Reed of God.
When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart. 

This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.
We could scrub the floor for a tired friend, or dress a wound for a patient in a hospital, or lay the table and wash up for the family; but we shall not do it in martyr spirit or with that worse spirit of self-congratulation, of feeling that we are making ourselves more perfect, more unselfish, more positively kind.
We shall do it just for one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back to the world.
By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go nowhere but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart.

Today Christ is dependent upon us. In the host he is literally put into our hands. We must carry him to the dying, must take him into the prisons, workhouses, and hospitals…
The modern world’s feverish struggle for unbridled, often unlicensed, freedom is answered answered by the bound, enclosed helplessness and dependence of Christ – Christ in the womb, Christ in the host, Christ in the tomb.
This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry him in our hearts to wherever he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him to them.

May you spend these days of Advent in calm, fruitful waiting for the coming of the Lord.
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Saturday, December 1, 2018

NEED A LITTLE ADVENT

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I don't know how you feel these days about the state of our world, our country and our families, but when I think about these and so many other topics I feel a deep need for Advent.

The name "advent" comes from the Latin word "adventus" which means "coming, arrival." Starting four Sundays before Christmas, it's a period of preparation for the coming of Christ. I've been pondering the theological meanings of the season, hoping to make advent this year as meaningful as possible in the face of all the worries that confront us. Here are some of my ideas so far.

The Crucible
The crucible: One of God's best tools

Advent reminds us of the thousands of years during which the just were waiting for the coming of a Savior. This expectant longing was especially evident in the Jews, whose prophets kept telling them that one day the messiah would come to deliver them. (No wonder the prophet Isaiah is given center stage in the liturgical readings during this season.) The prophets' message of hope was a very hard sell during periods of exile or foreign oppression, but it was precisely in the crucible of suffering and darkness that Judaism was formed into the People of God that the Lord had in mind. So here's a good reminder for me: No matter how grim or depressing things seem, the Lord's plan is working itself out in history, in the wide sweep of world events and in my own life. The period of advent-waiting is a good reminder that humanity's weakness and sinfulness cannot overcome God's loving plan for us -- and that in fact the Lord makes use of our weakness and sinfulness to achieve his final victory.

The Tension 


At the heart of advent is a contradiction: Christ has already been born years ago, yet we are anxiously awaiting his birth. A classical image the church uses to express this contradiction is that we are living in an in-between time, in the tension between the "already" of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the "not yet" of his final coming when he will return to set things right once and for all. Tension is a central element of the natural world: Think of the tension produced by the blood in your arteries pushing outward against the pressure of the surrounding atmosphere. If that tension is not there, and your have a peaceful BP reading of 0 over 0, you obviously are not alive. To use a rather playful image, I remember the advertisements in the back of comic books touting the body-building exercises of Charles Atlas, based on the secret of "dynamic tension:" The secret was that growth comes when you make the right use of tension. Advent is like that, I think -- a time for experiencing the tension between the fact of Christ's birth in Bethlehem and the not-yet of today's sin-sick world. The secret is to use this tension to strengthen our faith and hope.


Our Lady of Sorrows - Titian

Mary: The Advent Attitude

This is why the church has always made Mary a central figure during advent, seeing her as the first person to keep advent. Despite any confusion or wondering, despite not knowing clearly what was happening to her, Mary held steadfastly to her confident belief that God would take care of her, that "the Lord's words to her would be fulfilled." We sometimes honor her as "our Lady of Sorrows" who in the midst of all her trials never lost hope in God's promise. She'll be a good companion for me over the next four weeks.




Let's pray for one another and for our world that so badly needs Advent's message of Hope.

Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

THANKSGIVING TABLE

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This year we can learn some important and timely lessons from the image of the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner table.

First, the purpose of the day's celebration is gratitude. In French, when you say "I'm grateful," you say "Je suis reconnaissant," from the verb that means "to recognize." The idea is that I recognize that you have given me a gift. Remember Luke's story of the ten lepers who were cured? One of them "seeing that he had been made clean" came back and thanked Jesus. 

Did you ever wonder what the other nine had felt? Whatever they were feeling, it certainly was not gratitude to the one who had healed them. They didn't "recognize" their healing as a gift, but  must have mindlessly accepted their new condition. Their cure had given them tons of new opportunities, and they'd suddenly become extremely busy.  They had to go to the mall to buy clothes and shoes, and then had to start looking for jobs. Life suddenly got so busy there was no time to reflect on how they'd suddenly been healed. We in the United States are fortunate that some wise leaders instituted Thanksgiving Day so that at least once a year we have a chance to pause and become reconnaissant, recognizing the countless gifts we've been given, and then thanking the one who has given them to us.. 


Second, around the table are assembled a variety of people; I may think that this one relative is a boor, and another one talks too much and a third is shallow, and another's political ideas are the opposite of mine. But here we all are together, a glorious variety of different characters, sitting and sharing at the same table. There's something good going on here. Something beautiful and deep and precious.


This leads to a third idea: there's only one table. (There are exceptions when there are too many people to fit around only a single table, but you get the idea.) This is a crucial symbol for us these days when some of our fellow Americans (and leaders) are encouraging us divide ourselves into different tables. We are being told to be afraid of people whose ideas are different from ours: they have to sit at a separate table, and are to be considered our enemies. No more of this "one table" business. We demand a table for "us" and another for "them." There's something sad about this. It plays into a basic instinct to divide ourselves into opposing tribes, but we need to consciously push back against that base instinct by consciously appealing to the nobler instincts of generosity and openness, instincts that call us to see all human beings as brothers and sisters of ours in the one family of God. That family itself is, after all a gift, too!

HAVE A BLESSED THANKSGIVING!





Saturday, November 17, 2018

BOUNDARIES AND WALLS

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In this morning's class with our three junior monks we discussed an article about  monastic enclosure, its history, purpose and varieties. After a few pages I began thinking about the importance of "boundaries."

A monastery puts up signs on fences and doors saying "Monastic Enclosure," the idea being that only
those who belong inside should pass into the interior of the cloister. Withdrawal from the world is one of the oldest marks of the monastic life. It used to be that a few walls and a strong front door could really serve as a protection from incursions from outside influences. St. Benedict did not allow his monks outside the boundaries of the enclosure because, he said, "it is not good for their souls." 

Separation from the world is not intended as a flight from the sinful and evil generation around us, but rather a time-tested means of establishing a framework in which solitude can be practiced, in which prayer can be pursued more easily.

BOUNDARIES

There's a sign on the door leading from our school into the monastery: "Monastic Cloister. Private." It's a boundary marker. But what is the spiritual function of that boundary in the 21st century? In Benedict's time if a monk wanted to interact with the world he usually had to leave the enclosure. (Benedict doesn't allow monks to speak to guests!). In our time, however, the physical enclosure hardly keeps the world's influences from entering through newspapers, television, and now the Internet. (Okay, blog posts too.)

In a world where young monks connect with their counterparts in other monasteries via Facebook, , Instagram and various web pages, we formation directors have to teach them the importance and the spiritual purpose of those old-fashioned words: enclosure, separation from the world, and boundaries. Since I don't even have a cellphone and I'm not on Facebook, and would not know an Instagram screen if I saw it, maybe I'm actually in a good position to help the younger guys to see the purpose of separation from the world, and encourage them to guard the boundaries of their own monastic lives.


I want to help them to experience the value of this separation, and let them see that our ability to love and serve our brothers and sisters outside the monastery is in large part the fruit our lifestyle of solitude which gives us the time and space to pray and to seek the Lord. 


This post is just a beginning of a discussion of the rich theology that underlies the ages-old practice of monastic enclosure.
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Young Buddhist monk emailing a novice at Newark Abbey?
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Saturday, November 10, 2018

DO YOU BELIEVE IN ZEUS?

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This morning at vigils the reader stumbled over the word "propitiate." So the word caught my attention, and I asked myself "What is the word 'propitiate' doing in a text about our God?"

A dictionary definition of propitiate is "win or regain the favor (of a god, a spirit or a person) by doing something that pleases them."

This is what the Greeks did with "Father Zeus" and the other residents of Mount Olympus: one had to do all sorts of things to keep the gods happy and avoid their wrath -- one had to propitiate them.

Coincidentally, this past week I began reading Richard Rohr's book "Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality." As usual Fr. Rohr is challenging lots of things I thought I knew.  Just as with his book on the trinity, I'm being called to question lots of presuppositions about God.

Here are a few sentences that I highlighted so far:

"It takes all of the Bible to get beyond the punitiveness and pettiness that we project onto God."

"We must know that for most of human history God was not a likable, much less lovable character."

So what about those texts in scripture that portray God as vengeful and needing to be propitiated? Rohr has this image that scriptural revelation proceeds in a certain direction by taking three steps forward and two steps back. Some people mistakenly grab onto the "two steps back" passages and mistake them for the direction that scripture is heading. Rohr writes:

"Our job is to see where the three steps forward texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust), which gives us the ability to clearly recognize and understand the two steps backward texts (which are usually about vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substances and technique over relationship)."

This idea makes a lot of  sense, and certainly helps me to put into perspective the biblical passages that make our God look like Zeus. Still, there's something in us that welcomes the predictability of a God who plays by our rules of  power and punishment, revenge and retribution, and which makes it very hard to let go of the image of God as Zeus. We seem to prefer a God who makes us earn his love and who will stop loving us if we do too many bad things. Preachers of the Good News seldom tell people "God loves you exactly the way you are right now!"

What happens to morality if God loves you no matter what? I have two responses. First, the belief that God punishes evildoers does not seem to be having much of a deterrent effect on potential evildoers at the present moment. Second Fr. Rohr insists that we have things backwards: "It is not that if I am moral I will be loved by God, but rather I must first experience God's love and then I will -- almost naturally -- be moral." 

Lots of things to ponder here. Maybe I'll pursue some of these ideas next week.
Meanwhile, if you find it hard to let go of your "Zeus" picture of God, then just remember: you are made in God's image. So it's important to be sure you've got the right God!


 


Saturday, November 3, 2018

ALL OF US SAINTS

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This past week the church celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls' Day).

It's important, I think, to consider the two feasts at the same time, rather than as totally separate from each other. Christ revealed to us the truth that we are all one in him, all brothers and sisters, children of the same Father. St., Paul teaches us that we are as closely united as parts of a single body.

I like to think of a network. All human beings are in this network; some of us are alive, while most of us are deceased. But all of us together form the network of God's children, members of the dynamic loving family of the Holy Trinity. One word for this unity is "the Communion of Saints."

All of us are called to be saints -- let's not forget that. All Saints' Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate people who did a heroic job of being saints, people who can serve as models for us and who can intercede for us in the presence of God. But we saints on earth are striving to let the Holy Spirit fill us and transform us just as it did each of the canonized saints we venerate.

In professing the Creed each Sunday we say "I believe in the Communion of Saints" -- the "network" of which we are all members, living and deceased. The word "communion" naturally evokes the idea of "community." One of the lectionary readings for All Souls' Day is a well-known passage from Matthew containing these lines:


Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Mt 25:34-40)


In this passage Jesus is telling us how we ought to treat our fellow community members. We can't
say, "Well, they're not from our country," or "They dislike us," or "Our economy might suffer if we help them."

Once again, saints, let us start by taking this passage personally, just as we did in last week's post, and ask ourselves what the Lord may be demanding of us as individual saints. If all of us were to respond to Jesus' challenge, the differences of opinion in our country would take on a whole different feeling. In speaking to or about others in the Communion of Saints we would naturally speak with respect, kindness, humility, generosity and, well, love.

Let's ask the saints who have gone before us to intercede for us with the Father that we may overcome together the problems that divide us in our part of the network.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

A CHALLENGING SCENE

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APOLOGY. Why no blog posts the past two weeks? Two weekends ago I was delightfully busy giving a day of reflection to our Benedictine Oblates, then celebrating a mass and a reconciliation service for high school senior retreatants, and, on Sunday attending a memorial service for a former student.  Then last weekend I spent traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh to celebrate a family wedding. The problem with the blog is that I can't find a way to simply paste into it a Word document. Otherwise I would have shared with you a couple of homilies. Oh well... Anyway, it's nice to be back. 

THE CHALLENGING SCENE

Just this morning, after finishing breakfast, I walked into the school's reception area to find it crowded with students. The members of our rowing (crew) team were waiting for the bus that would take them, they told me, to Lawrenceville for a rowing match. Maybe even a regatta, I didn't ask. More about this scene later.

I'd been planning to reflect in today's post on the idea of unity that has filled the mass lectionary this week, especially the excerpts from Ephesians. It's abundantly clear that any kind of enmity and division is contrary to God's plan for humanity. It is also clear to all of us that today's world is shattered into splinters by divisions of every kind, led by the very leaders whose noble calling used to be to offer their country a vision of unity and harmony and peace.


Okay, so that was what I was thinking about this morning as I stepped through the door from the monastery into the lobby. As I jostled my way through the throng of rowers, I started to think of what rowers aim at. They call it "swing." It's the state (seldom achieved, I hear) when every rower is working in perfect coordination with everyone else in the boat. Each individual leaves behind on the dock his own worries and concerns in order to concentrate completely on being one with the rest of "the boat." I've read that when that happens, the boat takes on a whole new feeling, and begins flying across the water. The rowers are able to ignore pain and fatigue, lifted along by the "swing" that they're sharing, something much larger than any single person, larger, in fact, than the sum of their efforts and abilities. 

I believe that "swing" is what our Lord was praying for for the church and for the world. I've experienced it a few times -- in my family, in the monastery, maybe even in the classroom.

Unfortunately, I've seen the opposite of swing in our city, our country, and our international scene.

He was different from me, so I KO'd him.
Someone has convinced us to stop aiming at productive harmony and cooperation in favor of competition, where the most important thing is to come out on top. You can write the rest of that description yourself.

As Christians we can respond to the challenge posed by all the divisions and discord in our world first by praying to this Lord who told us that that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God. Second, if we can't make much of a direct impact on our government's policies, we can certainly take responsibility for our own heart and work to fight against discord and disunity in our own family, our workplace, our own worldview. Third, to the extend that it makes sense, we can make ourselves heard by voting for candidates who seem less prone to fomenting bigotry and egoism of all kinds.

I was encouraged by the sight of our crew members in the lobby -- a typical St. Benedict's group: Kids from Sri Lanka and South America, African Americans and European Americans, all of them looking forward to the challenge of working together as one unit to make their boat fly over the water, and hoping for "swing" that will let them share the joy of crossing the finish line together.

I hope to hold onto that image for as long as I can.