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 Gods
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. 










Sunday, July 1, 2018

MANAGING GOD'S MANNA

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The second reading in today's mass is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, seems a pretty timely one for us in the 21st Century U.S. It seems that a severe famine in Judea was causing great hardship for the Christians in Jerusalem, and Paul was encouraging the Christians in Corinth to send financial help to their need brothers and sisters:

Brothers and sisters:
As you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse,
knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you,
may you excel in this gracious act also.

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, 
so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Not that others should have relief while you are burdened,
but that as a matter of equality
your abundance at the present time should supply their needs,
so that their abundance may also supply your needs,
that there may be equality.
As it is written:
"Whoever had much did not have more,
and whoever had little did not have less."

The last two lines are from Exodus 16:18, describing the way the Lord distributed the manna to the Israelites in the desert, giving to each family exactly what they needed, and he uses this passage to back up his instruction:  "that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs, that there may be equality."

Recent Catholic social teaching and papal addresses have challenged us to keep these principles in mind even on the international level. But even before getting to that widest application of the idea, we Christians should be mindful, in this time of such economic inequality, that the Lord who distributed manna with such equity is going to ask each of us to account for our own use of the worldly possessions he has given us.

What is your own attitude toward your possessions relative to your obligation to your needy neighbors? Much current political rhetoric seems to imply that our country has little obligation toward poorer nations or toward refugees. Today's message from Paul challenges us as individuals not to let that attitude sift into our souls so that we feel less obligation to share our wealth with our neighbors.

Paul's argument in favor of generosity to one's neighbor in 55 a.d. still holds for us: For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor.

Amen!
 




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!