Saturday, August 18, 2018

PRAYING IN THE RAIN

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Tomorrow, Sunday, is our annual "Monkfest" picnic, when over 400 people come bringing picnic food for the food tent. There are games, face-painting and plenty of hot dogs and hamburgers. It's held outdoors, on a big lawn next to the gym. All the preparations are finished. Nothing much left to do until tomorrow morning when a whole lot of people will scurry around putting up signs and banners and things that have to wait until the last minute. 


This was the background for this (Saturday) morning's meditation period, when I sat down in church at 5:30, looking forward to 45 minutes of quiet prayer and reflection. Suddenly there was the unmistakable sound of a drenching rain beating on the trees in the garden. It began pounding insistently on the roof of the church as well, as if demanding that I stop reading my bible and pay attention to the tons of water that were cascading from the heavens.


I resisted for a minute or two, but then gave in, troubled by images of tomorrow's picnic being held in the pouring rain. What if nobody shows up? What if the field turns into a mud pit? What if the wind starts blowing rain into the food tent ruining the empanadas and turning the hamburger rolls into soggy lumps?

Over the years I've learned to ignore the weather forecast for Monkfest day, but this morning's rain really got me worrying about tomorrow. Finally I deliberately turned to the day's gospel reading, in which Jesus insists that the little children be allowed to come to him. My eyes soon fell on a footnote that said that Jesus was holding up children as an example of the Kingdom not because of their supposed innocence, but because of their simple, unquestioning trust in their parents. It is this simple, unquestioning trust in God that qualifies a person for the Kingdom.


As the rain continued to drum on the roof, I tried to put myself in the position of simple, unquestioning trust in the heavenly Father, and let Him worry about tomorrow's weather. Little by little I began handing over to divine providence the boggy field, the soggy hamburgers and the mushy empanadas. "Lord," went my prayer, "if it rains tomorrow afternoon you've got a problem! I'll do what I can to help you, but it's your responsibility." That felt right.


I guess you could say that this was the attitude of a trusting child, right? In any case, it's sure a lot
easier on my nerves!




Tuesday, August 14, 2018

THE GIFT OF BEING SICK

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I spent much of last week suffering with the effects of a stubborn intestinal bug. The experience, which
went on for days, left me exhausted. At last, as I started feeling better, I got back into my routine of going down to the church at 5:00 a.m. to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

There I sat, still exhausted, unable to follow my usual prayer routine. The best I could do was flop in my chair, too tired to take charge of the 45 minutes. It began to dawn on me that this was definitely a form of "stretching" in prayer: Wordless reaching out to the Lord from a position of helplessness.

The irony of the situation wasn't lost on me: Usually I'm the one calling the shots during my morning meditation - I decide if I'm going to start by reading the day's Gospel, or maybe begin instead with some centering prayer or some other alternative. But there i was saying, "Okay Lord, why don't you take charge this morning." As the minutes glided slowly past, all I could manage was a tired mumble "It's all yours, Lord, whatever you want to do is okay with me!"

Suddenly I saw the gift in the situation, namely, I was getting a look at my situation before God as it truly is. I was able to see clearly what the Lord has always been asking of me -- to let him be in charge.

"Let it be done unto me..."

"Let it be done to me according to your word." "Not my will but yours be done." These echoes from the gospel assured me that I was indeed experiencing a special prayer time that morning. I wasn't in charge -- which was just what the Lord has been trying to teach me for decades!



Saturday, August 4, 2018

MORE STRETCHING

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Last week I reflected on the idea of prayer as "stretching yourself out toward God." Let me tell you
what happened this morning at 6:30 Vigils. I'd spent the previous half hour meditating in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and consciously trying to "stretch" in my prayer.

Then I found myself in my place in choir singing the opening or "Invitatory" psalm of Vigils. "Seek the face of the Lord, and yearn for him." Those words of Psalm 24 got my attention as all of us kept repeating them together, encouraging one another each time to stretch ourselves out in prayer: "Seek the face of the Lord, and yearn for him." The psalm continued in the same vein for several verses. I kept praying and stretching through the next three psalms, and the reading from the Book of Job. When we began to recite some Old Testament canticles, things suddenly got turned upside down.

The first canticle, from Jeremiah, goes like this:

See, days are coming—oracle of the LORD—when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke my covenant, though I was their master—oracle of the LORD.
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the LORD!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me—oracle of the LORD—for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin. (Jeremiah 31:31 ff)

Here was God stretching toward us! I began praying the canticles with an eye toward watching for God's reaching out toward me, rather than the other way around. Of course! Isn't this the whole story of salvation - God's loving pursuit of us? Whenever we creatures pray, isn't that a response to God's invitation through grace? St. Paul tells us that we don't even know how to pray, but that God's Spirit has to pray in us.


Think about the Incarnation: isn't that precisely God perfectly "stretching Himself out" toward us?

All of these thoughts were filling my heart and my head as we stood and sang Lauds. Our Morning Praise always ends with singing the Benedictus, Zechariah's canticle of praise at the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:68-79). I've sung this song every morning for 46 years, but I was singing with a new awareness this morning. Here are the words, about a God who stretches out toward us:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.
He has raised up a horn for our salvation
within the house of David his servant,
even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old:
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
to show mercy to our fathers
and to be mindful of his holy covenant
and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father,
and to grant us that,
rescued from the hand of enemies,
without fear we might worship him
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord* to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
by which the daybreak from on high will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

When we realize that there's stretching going on at God's end before there is at ours, we can understand why an old Jewish mystic once said, "Prayer is the moment when heaven and earth kiss each other."

Amen!


Saturday, July 28, 2018

SACRED STRETCHING

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YEARNING

Reflecting on this (Saturday) morning's Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 84, I spent a lot of time with the phrases "My soul yearns and pines..." and "My heart and my flesh cry out for the living  God."


These verses fit in well with St. Benedict's teaching about prayer that our novice Br. Mark and I have been studying this past week. In this sober Roman document you might be surprised to find that Benedict often talks about prayer as being accompanied by "tears," "compunction of heart," and "fervor." It has a lot to do with intimacy. For Benedict, then, prayer is above all the place in which we realize our search for God. 

All of the great saints who've written about prayer take the same approach to prayer: it involves longing, searching, yearning for closeness to God, 

STRETCHING

Early this week I reflected on the passage in acts in which Peter is thrown into prison and the community of believers in Jerusalem began praying for him:

Peter thus was being kept in prison, but prayer by the church was fervently being made to God on his behalf (Acts 12:5).


Stretching Prayer at Pentecost 
The Greek says "The church was praying ektenos for him." 


 "Fervently" is a good translation for this adverb to describe how they prayed, but there's an interesting story behind the Greek word. It comes from the verb ekteino, "to stretch, to stretch out." This common verb is used by Jesus when he tells the man with the withered hand "Stretch out your hand" (Mt.12:13). Luke tells us that Jesus stretched out his hand to touch and heal a leper (Lk 5:13). 

When Luke uses the adverb form of ekteino (to stretch out) in the passage about the praying church, we can imagine the Christians gathered together and stretching out not just their hands but their hearts, their very souls to the Lord. They were praying with fervor, intensity, and longing. There was nothing half-hearted or distracted about this prayer. Maybe there were tears being shed. This sounds like the kind of prayer that Benedict would encourage 450 years later.


Stretching prayer in Gethsemane
I've been asking myself how often I pray "stretched out" the way Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane (where the gospel writer uses our adverb again)? How often is my prayer filled with earnest longing and yearning (Psalm 84)? How often do I leave myself totally vulnerable to the Lord in passionate prayer?

It seems to me that I was taught that "prayer is not about emotions." Well, it also seems to me that that was a sadly mistaken view of prayer. 

So, lately I've been trying to do a lot more stretching when I pray. (By the way, you can find more on this topic if you Google "stretching prayer.") 



Sunday, July 22, 2018

JESUS AND THE ALIENS

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I've always liked today's second reading, from Ephesians (Eph. 2:13-18).
It refers to the way that Christ has united the Jews and the gentiles into one body. As you read it, notice the imagery: "you who once were far off" refers to non-Jewish Christians, and the "dividing wall of enmity" refers to the low wall in the temple area that separated the "court of the Jews" from the "court of the gentiles." Notice, too, the references to unity, reconciliation, and peace:

Brothers and sisters:
In Christ Jesus you who once were far off
have become near by the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, he who made both one
and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh,
abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims,
that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two,
thus establishing peace,
and might reconcile both with God,
in one body, through the cross,
putting that enmity to death by it. 
He came and preached peace to you who were far off
and peace to those who were near,
for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

This reading seems very apt in our world today, where so many people think in terms of us versus them, and where anyone who is different from me is automatically a foe.

One of the very early computer games involved shooting at "aliens." The implication of that story line always bothered me -- "an alien" meant "an enemy to be eliminated." The word "alien," of course, originally meant simply someone or something "different," for example, a person from a different country. I always felt that the computer game amplified a second, negative meaning: for the kid playing the game, "aliens" were threats that needed to be shot at and killed. 

At the time, I was living and working, as I still do, in a city filled with African Americans and immigrants, people who are different from the predominant White culture. Maybe it was just me, but I felt that the idea of shooting "aliens" subconsciously implied that ideas or people that are "strange" or "foreign" are automatically not to be tolerated but must be fought off and even elimated. 

I had a professor at Columbia Teachers College who once asked his class "What is it that makes some people say "Your ideas are different from mine, therefore I must kill you?" That was in 1971. His question seems more pointed today than ever.
Lots of places on the New Testament offer a vision of a world in which divisions and enmities are overcome by the grace of Christ's suffering and death at the hands of people to whom his ideas posed a threat. 

I just noticed that I wrote a similar post five years ago. We would all do well to read the above passage from Ephesians more than just once every third year.
Let us pray for this fractured country of ours, and for the entire world, and especially for people who are so terrified by "alien" ideas or people that they say and do terrible things. Let us pray, too, for the victims of this kind of unchristian thinking. 





Saturday, July 14, 2018

STRANGE FLOWERS

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This week I came across the following poem by the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. [If you're interested in the authenticity of the text, you can check out this web site. But don't bother: it seems safe to say that Coleridge did indeed write it.]

What if you slept 
And what if 
In your sleep 
You dreamed, 
And what if 
In your dream 
You went to heaven 
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower. 
And what if 
When you awoke 
You had that flower in your hand. 
Ah, what then? 

I've enjoyed musing about the story line of this poem. Here are a couple of, well, musings. 

HEAVEN AND EARTH

One of the basic beliefs of Judaism was that at certain times and in certain places heaven touches earth. When God intervenes in the history of Israel (e.g. delivering the Jews from Pharaoh at the Red Sea), that's heaven touching earth. The two primary places where heaven touched earth are the Torah and the Jerusalem temple. 

Jesus makes mortal enemies of the Jewish authorities when he speaks of replacing the old temple with a new one -- himself and his followers -- as the place where heaven touches earth. 

Christians inherit that vision of heaven touching earth and use it as a fundamental way of understanding the Christ Event: God stooped down to earth "and became flesh and dwelt among us." From this point of view, Coleridge's vision is not only plausible but to be expected.

A FLOWER IN YOUR HAND?

And what if when you awoke you had that flower in your hand. Ah, what then? I've experienced the sudden realization that I was holding some strange and beautiful flower in my hand but unable to give a rational explanation of how it came to be or where it
came from. We all have these special times: falling in love, for example, or staring in awe at a marvelous sunrise, or looking into the eyes of a newborn baby. Some of us may not think of these experiences as "heaven touching earth" simply because we don't pause to reflect on our experiences. 

Others of us don't believe that there is any other kind of reality than the one our senses can detect, and dismiss any idea of "heaven touching earth" by saying "It's mere poetry." My counter to that statement is "Rather we should say, 'It is indeed poetry'." 

LOOKING FOR FLOWERS

When you scientifically measure a certain object or reduce it to a mathematical formula, this is proper science; as wonderful and amazing and useful as scientific knowledge is, it's earthbound. Many of us hear a whisper in the back of our minds from time to time: "Psst! There's more." Once you allow yourself to believe that there is more to life, and that your existence has an ultimate meaning, then you start noticing the strange and beautiful flowers that appear in your hand with no explanation.

One of the many powerful examples in my own life is my book Pilgrim Road. When people tell me how much they love that book and that they read it every Lent, I always tell them "It was a gift. I feel as if that book just happened." Of course I remember working on it and writing the chapters, but when I hear or read people's reactions to the book I have the feeling that Pilgrim Road can't be explained simply as the result of my efforts. It's a strange and beautiful flower that I found in my hand.

Why not take a moment to look at some of the strange and beautiful flowers in your hand?  








Saturday, July 7, 2018

A PAINFUL GIFT

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I spent the past several days visiting my brother who is in his mid-eighties and who uses a walker or a wheelchair to get around -- even to his dialysis treatments three times a week. He never complains about his disabilities and his diminishing powers.


During those days I happened to be reading No Journey Will Be Too Long: Friendship in Christian Life by Jose Mendonca, and came across the following in Chapter 13 (pp 102-103). 

I have often heard the poet Tonino Guerra quote the words of a medieval monk: "We must move beyond mere perfection." In friendship it is precisely this that confronts us: Perfection can be a path that we tread superficially, or an illusion that prevents us from gaining access to what is real and true. We spend so much time even in losing the mania of perfect things, perfect persons ...
...
It is the impact of frailty in us that reveals our deepest reality, shows us the life of God and his footprints. In this sense, imperfection makes us human.

The last three lines above came back to me as I walked the corridors of the assisted living facility where my brother and his wife are living at the moment. 

It is the impact of frailty in us that reveals our deepest reality, 

What a gift -- to realize that your frailty, far from burying the "real" you under layers of disability and diminished powers is actually revealing to you your deepest reality!


[Our frailty] shows us the life of God and his footprints. 
What a gift -- to make use of your frailty as a unique, privileged lens through which you can see deeply into the hidden life of God, and through which you can see God's footprints everywhere, even in the dialysis center! 

In this sense, imperfection makes us human.
Surely frailty and imperfection make you feel that you are falling short of what you used to be, or that your life is now somehow less that it once was; in that sense you feel less human. But Jose Mendonca contradicts that view and insists that imperfection makes us human. We can stop trying to be God (the only perfect being) and simply be our own funky selves, imperfect, frail, and trying to grow every day into the person that the Lord had in mind when creating us.

Maybe this message is not just for the residents in the assisted living facility; it can help to the rest of us who are watching our loved ones cope with diminishment. It's an opportunity for all of us to "move beyond mere perfection" to something deeper and more life-giving.