Saturday, November 18, 2017

TALENT SHOW

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At this time of the liturgical year, the readings in church turn our thoughts to the “last things:” our deaths, the end of the world, and the final coming of Christ.


I had an interesting experience early this week when one of my brother monks taped an interview with me as part of a graduate school project on how people of various ages view the aging process. I was the oldest person he interviewed, and found the questions very provocative, literally, because they provoked a lot of reflection on my part. In the Holy Rule, Benedict says that a monk should always keep death before his eyes (a less gloomy translation says “The monk should always remind himself that he is going to die.”), so maybe I was better prepared for the interview than I realized. In any case, I’m told that the class enjoyed watching it.
 
This Sunday’s gospel (Mt 25:14-30) contributes to the theme of the “end time” by offering us the parable of the three servants who were entrusted with three different amounts of money (Greek talanton). It is from this very parable that we get the English word “talent,” meaning a human ability or gift.


Of course, I can draw  from the parable the lesson that God expects me to use the human talents he has given me, and that the Lord will ask for an accounting of how I used those talents. But maybe it would be even more profitable to think about the invisible riches of the gospel that have been entrusted to me. If I’ve been given the gift of faith, for example, what might God expect me to do with that gift? Or, if I have the gift of hope, might the Lord be expecting me to pass that on to others? And surely, if the Lord has given me the gift of self-sacrificing love, might it not be wise to think that God has “entrusted” that gift to me, and expects me to invest it somehow? After washing the disciples’ feet at the last supper, Jesus says something like, “You see what I have done for you, now you go and do likewise.”


Faust selling his soul
Twice this week I was invited to sit in on a literature class in which the students were analysing Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Poor Faust is imprisoned by his own ego; everything in his life centers upon him: his knowledge, his powers, his desires. This egocentrism turns him into a black hole from which nothing can escape -- no light of love, no concern for the poor, and so forth. It was a timely thing to be considering during the season when the church is praying for the faithful departed and encouraging us to think about our own mortality.


So, as Thanksgiving Day approaches, and I count my blessings, I need to think of them as talanton, gifts that are on loan from the Master who will one day ask me to account for what I did with them.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

BENEDICTINE VOWS

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On Saturday, November 11, Br. Francis Michael Woodruff will profess temporary vows to Newark Abbey.  Please, remember to pray for Br. Francis, and for the new monks in the community and those intending to join us soon.  We senior monks can use your prayers as well, of course.
I thought you might like to see a summary of what “vows” entail for a Benedictine. The following borrows heavily from Fr. Michael Casey, O.C.S.O., Introducing Benedict’s Rule.

THE THREEFOLD BENEDICTINE VOW

The content of the Benedictine's promise is the triple commitment to Stability, Conversion of Life, and Obedience. These three Benedictine vows are intimately related to one another.  The three join together into a single stream of freely undertaken obligation. It is almost impossible to keep one without keeping the other two. On the other hand, if one of them is lost, the others lose their meaning.
STABILITY
Outward, literal meaning of the vow of Stability: The monk promises that from now on his life will be physically and spiritually rooted in this particular monastery with these particular brothers, this particular work and these particular problems.
Inward, spiritual meaning of the vow of Stability:
By this vow of stability, the monk is saying "God is not elsewhere." The monk stays put and embraces life as he finds it, knowing that this, and not any other, is his way to God. Stability is an attitude of heart and mind by which he roots himself in God by making God the center of his life.

CONVERSION OF LIFE
Outward, literal meaning of the vow of Conversion of Life (in Latin "Conversatio Morum"): The monk promises an ongoing change of attitude and behavior. He promises from now on to reject the world's goals by means of certain practices: power is rejected by practicing obedience and humility, pleasure is rejected by practicing celibacy and frugality, money is rejected by practicing common ownership of goods.
Inward, spiritual meaning of "Conversatio Morum":
The monk promises that from now on God and not self will be at the center of his life. Since the only way to achieve this is with God's help, prayer becomes essential for leading the monastic life. While the vow of stability calls the monk to remain, conversion of life calls him to change and grow, to be transformed by the Spirit.
OBEDIENCE
Outward, literal meaning of the vow of Obedience: The monk promises that from now on he will submit to the judgments of his superior. This is not a mindless conformity but a conscious and free decision; it is motivated not by compulsion or fear but by love.
Inward, spiritual meaning of the vow of Obedience: The real meaning of obedience is to put others before oneself. It is thus an indispensable ingredient in all human relations, and not just in monasteries. Saint Benedict says that obedience is practiced in imitation of Christ who was "obedient even to death on the cross."

Saturday, November 4, 2017

THE KINGDOM AND ARISTOTLE

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AN IMPORTANT DISTINCTION


(In writing the first two paragraphs of this post, I’ve borrowed shamelessly from The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, by Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell, p.40) The Greek philosopher Aristotle once enumerated twelve possible kinds of things that can be the subject or the predicate of a proposition; he called them “categories.” For our purposes here, I want to look at just two of them: “substance,” and “relationship.” “What defined substance was that it was independent of all else -- so a tree is a substance, whereas “father” is a relationship.” Aristotle ranked substance as the highest, precisely because it was “independent,” it could stand on its own.


Aristotle 384-322 BCE
So it was that Christians in the West as early as the third century began using Aristotle's ideas to show that God, whom Christians had already come to refer to as trinity, was a substance -- much more “substantial” than a vague, abstract “relationship” God! Thus the Christian God could stand up against any rival gods in the neighborhood.


But in the New Testament, Jesus is revealed to us by calling himself the Son of the Father, and yet one with the Father. This is clearly the language of “relationship.” The idea of relationship fits perfectly with the concept of God as Trinity: God is relationship, God is family; St. John says “God is love.” These descriptions clearly refer not to some independent “stand-alone” substance, but a relationship.


“Relationship” also describes nicely Jesus’ central metaphor of the “Kingdom of God,” which, as we know, is not a place, not a nation state with borders. The Kingdom is not of this world, not a substance. The Kingdom is a new way of relating with God and with one another.

WHERE IS THE KINGDOM?



In Luke 17:21, Jesus says “the Kingdom of God is en autou,” which can be translated as “within you” or “among you.” We westerners, who emphasize the individual so much, are comfortable with the idea that the Kingdom is “within” us, so that we can go our separate, independent self-contained ways. This is perfect “substance” language.


On the other hand, if the kingdom of God is “among” us,” this sounds like relationship: the Kingdom exists in the spaces between us. We make the Kingdom real by filling those spaces with love. By our actions we choose what characterizes the spaces, the relationships between us: love or hatred, humility or pride, concern or indifference, and so on.


THE NETWORK

On Thursday, All Souls’ Day, I was really aware of this “relationship” model of the Kingdom when praying for certain people who have died. I was aware of them as members of the Kingdom to whom I still have a relationship. Relationship does not decompose in the grave the way a substance such as a human body does.
I don’t say “I’m praying for my former parents,” or “I’m remembering my former brother.” No; the relationship is still there. And on All Souls’ Day we celebrate members of the Kingdom who have passed into a different dimension of the Kingdom, but are still in relation to us on earth through their bonds of love, the bonds of the Kingdom.


I think of the Kingdom as a network of relationships of love; when someone dies, they remain part of the network, just as they were before. That accounts, in a way, for the closeness I still feel with my deceased brother and parents.


And, while we are on earth, our task is to keep building up the Kingdom, filling the spaces between one another with Love.  


Saturday, October 28, 2017

THE CHURCH: WHOSE HOUSE?

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In the last several weeks the monks have been listening to a book being read at table during
supper, called City of Dreams: the 400 Year Epic History of Immigrant New York, by Tyler Anbinder. Besides recounting uplifting stories of people’s courage, determination and resiliency, it also tells the sad story of how each new immigrant group became the target of discrimination, distrust and hatred by the preceding group of immigrants who had been subjected to the same discrimination, distrust and hatred by immigrants who had preceded them. Whether you call it tribalism, herd instinct, or whatever, it is ugly, and runs counter to our highest traits and nobles aspirations as human beings.



I had this in mind as I read the first reading of today’s mass (the feast of the apostles Simon and Jude), a beautiful passage from Ephesians that follows Paul’s insistence that the church now includes not only Jews but also gentiles, so that all of us make up one single unified church.


19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).


In these four verses, some form of the Greek root-word for house (oikos) appears six times, underlining the writer’s point that Jews and gentiles have now been fitted together into the one household of God, the Church. And Christ is the capstone of the whole structure.


If you’re interested, here’s the passage with those six greek words in parentheses:


19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens (paroikoi), but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household (oikeioi), 20 having been built (epoikodomethentes) on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building (oikodome), being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together (sunoikodomeisthe) into a dwelling (katoikterion) of God in the Spirit.  


Think the writer is trying to make a point? Anyway, my favorite of these six words is oikeos, “household,” which conveys the idea of a group of people living together, including family and servants. To me it implies a sense of belonging, of a safe place where you have an identity, and are surrounded by people who care about you and value you. St. Paul speaks of the church as “the household of God,” made up of Jews and gentiles, saints and sinners, rich and poor, and people of various races, nations and languages. And this sounds like a worthy ideal for the Christian church to aspire to.


Yet, just as with immigrant New York, tribalism and xenophobia have always worked their way into the church, beginning in the time of Acts, when the Christians wondered what to do about the non-Jews who wanted to join their community.  


It seems to me that the latest version of this kind of exclusionary stance can be seen in the
passionate reaction by some Christians against Pope Francis’s questioning why we must exclude certain people from the Lord’s table, and publicly suggesting that we need to look at ways of welcoming more and more of God’s children to the household of God. There are people who believe that this attitude of the Pope's makes him the Antichrist because it threatens to dilute the purity and the holiness of the household of God.



In this passage from Ephesians, there’s mention of the foundation of the house (the apostles and prophets), and the cornerstone or keystone (Jesus), but nothing about walls. Hmmm.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

H.HAINES & CO.

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In the monastery’s guest dining room, hanging on a wall, unnoticed among a dozen tintypes
Abbey church, early days 
and old photos, is a handsome wooden picture frame about 14” by 18.” At first glance it looks as if someone has removed the picture that’s supposed to be there and left the wooden backing, a piece of age-blackened wood.  But a closer look at the wood reveals an intriguing detail: its surface is covered with nearly invisible scratches that, on further inspection, turn out to be names: Ed Amend, Otto Heresel, H. Haines, and others. When the light is just right, you can make out, among the names crudely scratched with a nail, a couple of elegant signatures done in what appears to be pen and ink. The latter seem to be much older than the others, but maybe that’s simply because the ink has disappeared into the dark wood.



Abbey church today
Some fifteen years ago, we hired someone to restore the paintings in the abbey church. While moving through the crawl space between the roof and the flat ceiling of a side aisle, he noticed this board nailed to a beam. When he realized that it was a collection of workers’ “signatures,” he detached it and brought it down to show the monks. Scratched among the names, the date 1/19/15 appears twice. But some of the signatures appear to be older than the carved date.


Evidently the names belong to men who built the church in the 1880’s or improved it in 1915.


Whenever I look at the now-framed piece of wood, I started musing: These men were not architects or artists, right? They were probably laborers hauling lumber for the the roof and ceiling. Did the first people to sign the wood do so in broad daylight, before the slate roof was installed?Did Otto and Ed know one another? Did they eat lunch together?


The men who scratched their names on that dark wood would have made up a team, hoisting wood up to the roof together, and holding beams in place as one of them drove the nails or the pegs. Each of them was a unique individual, as you can see from the way each signed his name, from the fastidious fellow who signed in ink, to “H. Haines” who signed his name four times in four different ways (I bet his co-workers laughed, knowing that this was just H. Haines being himself).

With permission of  Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno
Constructing a church requires a lot of different people all cooperating with one another. Building a community requires the same thing, whether a parish or a monastery. Each time I bring visitors into our guest dining room, I show them the dark board with the names scratched on it, and thank these workmen for building our church for us, and also for reminding us, by writing their names on a single small piece if wood, that in order to build a community we need to work together as one -- even if some of us sign our name four times.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

WHAT THE LADY SAW

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WHAT THE LADY SAW

Early in July I wrote a post about a woman who came to advise us on designing a new cloister garden. I described how she seemed to see in her imagination the new garden long before it was even planted. Well, here’s a picture Brother Aziel took of our new cloister garden today -- what the Garden Lady saw last July is starting to take shape. Even I can picture what it will look like in the summer when  beds of flowers make it glow with bright colors.


WHAT THE LORD SAW


We’ve been praying for decades, asking the Lord to give us the gift of new members so that our monastery can continue to be a witness to the Gospel here in the middle of downtown Newark. Every eight years or so, we would get a new monk. Then, about two years ago, the Lord finally started to answer our prayers.


Thursday of this week the monks voted to admit Michael Woodruff into a period of temporary vows beginning of November 11, and to allow Mark Dilone to begin novitiate (date to be announced); we also have another young man staying with us for the month, who seems very interested in pursuing his inquiry into joining the monastery here. There are also two visiting monks who are both intending to join us eventually. If you’ve been watching the abbey’s Facebook page, you know that we have two newly professed 25-year old monks as well.

The Lord made us wait all those years, but the present situation is what He saw all along, the way the Garden Lady saw the new cloister garden months ahead of time.


Then, just today I heard that a dear and deeply prayerful friend of mine who has been praying for years to be able to have a baby is now pregnant. Finally! But this is what the Lord saw all along, just like the Garden Lady looking at the mess in our garden last July.

After last week’s post, I know better than to ask why the Lord does things the way he does, but at least this week the events have been good ones!  


Saturday, October 7, 2017

OUR INCOMPREHENSIBLE GOD

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The tragedies we’ve been watching on the news in the past few weeks can make you wonder: What kind of God would allow all this unspeakable suffering? This is an interesting question that needs to be very carefully considered.


THE TRUE GOD, OR THE REASONABLE  ONE?


As a religious believer and a monk, I spend hours a day praying privately and publicly to the God who is revealed in the bible, specifically the God who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ.  This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator and redeemer, who rescued the Chosen People out of the slavery of Egypt and brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey. This is the same infinitely merciful Father revealed to us in the person of Jesus. But this God, besides being infinitely loving and infinitely merciful, is also, by definition, infinitely incomprehensible.


This last word is a tremendous stumbling block for us moderns. We can’t help it -- it’s the way we’ve been brought up, the way we’ve been educated. The ultimate argument against any statement is “It doesn’t make sense!” or “There’s no evidence for that!”


One scripture scholar puts it this way: "It is all too easy to make the mistake of speaking and thinking as though God might be a being, an entity within our world, accessible to our interested study… open to our investigation by the same sort of techniques we use for objects and entities within our world." (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, Why Christianity Makes Sense, p. 56)


So, here’s the problem: If your “God” can be neatly defined and understood in terms of logic and evidence, as an entity within your world and accessible to your analysis, then you’re dealing with something finite -- oops! By definition that can’t be God.  


The “God” that atheists do not believe in has zero to do with the God I pray to every day. Their God is “a being, an entity within our world, accessible to our interested study… open to our investigation by the same sort of techniques we use for objects and entities within our world," and who, of course, fails the rationality test miserably.


SWITCHING GODS


I mentioned that we can’t help reverting to this second approach to God: our entire culture, everything around us, follows the laws of logic and the rules of evidence. That’s our default position on everything.


It’s from this position that we can ask “If God is all loving, how can he let hurricanes and earthquakes happen? The logic doesn’t work; God is acting irrationally and irresponsibly.” And, of course, from the rational position, there are no answers to the questions. The flaw lies not in the questions themselves, which are very logical, but rather in the God who is the object of the discussion. A “God” who is subject to the boundaries of logic and restricted by the rules of cause and effect is a contradiction in terms, like a four-sided triangle.


So, when we’re faced with monstrous evils, whether moral ones such as the massacre in Las Vegas, or physical ones such as the recent hurricane in Puerto Rico, we have to avoid the trap of looking for “explanations,” as if everything must have a rational explanation, and as if God were “a being, an entity within our world, accessible to our interested study.”


ON HOLY GROUND


As a Christian, you humbly remove your sandals in the presence of such awesome mysteries

as these evils, and you pray to the God of Abraham, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ask for strength and courage for yourself and for people who are suffering from these tragedies. You can scold God the way the psalmist does a lot: “Lord, where are you?” “Lord, how could you let this happen?” But the questions are rhetorical ones, posed from the standpoint of a personal relationship with a loving God; they’re not questions of scientific inquiry looking for a rational answer.

The idea of an incomprehensible God may make us moderns uncomfortable, but it sure beats the idea of a comprehensible god, who by definition isn’t God at all!


Let’s pray for our brothers and sisters who are overwhelmed with grief right now, and who are angry at God because of the tragedies God permits. We can all sympathize with their feelings, which means that we can pray that much harder for them.

Just make sure that the loving God you’re praying to is the One who is infinite and incomprehensible.
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