Saturday, October 17, 2020

WHAT BELONGS TO GOD

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The gospel for tomorrow, Oct. 18, 2020 tells of one of those famous showdowns between Jesus and his enemies who keep "trying to trap him in his speech." This episode concerns whether a pious Jew should pay taxes to the pagan emperor. If Jesus answers no, then he'll get in trouble with the Romans, but if he answers yes, then he'll be going against God's law.  

Tell us, then, what is your opinion:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"

Knowing their malice, Jesus said,

"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?

Show me the coin that pays the census tax."

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"

They replied, "Caesar's."

At that he said to them,

"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God. (Mt. 25:15-21)


Jesus'
clever response avoids the trap that had been laid for him, but points up a challenge to us his followers. It's easy enough to see what "repay to Caesar" means: Living in the everyday world of making a living, of buying things and providing ourselves with practical necessities (not to mention taxes of all sorts). Even the Pharisees bought into the Roman economic system. Notice how easily someone came up with a Roman coin when Jesus asked to see one.


But what about the second part, "repay to God what belongs to God?" I may be wrong about this, but I suspect that many people today would be at a loss as to what the expression means. Their answer would be a blank stare or a statement such as "I'm not religious"; "I don't think much about God"; "I don't consider God part of my life." Others, though, might say it means to go to church on Sunday or give alms to the poor. Or pray a lot, or avoid sin.



But my more immediate concern right now is my own personal response to the challenge to give God what belongs to God. What does it mean for me? I've been reflecting on this for much of the morning. The problem is that what belongs to God is everything. So if I want to try to respond seriously to the Lord's demands and ask myself "What does the Lord want of me?" the answer is "Everything." Yikes! Am I prepared for that? I had in mind something more limited. You know, like being charitable to everyone, avoiding vices, praying often, things like that. But "everything" seems a little extreme.

GIVING IT ALL TO GOD


In a few minutes, our novice brother Robert Islas is going to profess his vows as a Benedictine monk. Here is the vow formula he'll read aloud and sign:


+ In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. I, Brother Robert of Molesme Islas, of CaƱada de Islas, Jalisco, Diocese of San Juan de Los Lagos, promise with vows valid for three years, before God and his saints, in the presence of our Father in Christ, Abbot Melvin J. Valvano, O.S.B., and the monks of this monastery, stability in this community, conversion through a monastic way of life, and obedience according to the Rule of our Holy Father Benedict and the law proper to our Congregation. In witness whereof I have prepared this document and signed it here at The Benedictine Abbey of Newark in the year of our Lord 2020, on the seventeenth day of October, the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch. 


This starts to sound a lot like "giving to God what belongs to God." 

Let's all pray for our new twenty year-old monk, that the Lord will bless him with a long and joy-filled life in the monastery!




Saturday, October 10, 2020

ON SEEING AND SEEKING GOD

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I spent the past four days at the abbey's property in the wooded mountains of Sussex County on a retreat preparing novice Br Robert for his profession of simple vows on Oct. 17, 2020. I gave him a few conferences based on chapters from Flowers in the Desert by Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B. The following post is based on material from that book, but I haven't used quotation marks. So, consider the whole thing a citation from Fr. Demetrius -- except for the errors, of course. (Please excuse the masculine pronoun for God from the Old Testament.)

The weather for the retreat days was perfect: Bright sunshine, a light breeze, mild October temperatures. One of the more memorable experiences was a drive we took through the nearby valleys, marveling at the wide vistas and the subtle fall colors decorating the mountainsides. I kept thanking God for the beauty all around us. This was God showing himself in a way that's comprehensible to us: The God of beauty, goodness and order in the world. How easy it was to sense God's presence in Walpack Valley!


But during the silent times or while praying Vespers in the little chapel the Lord challenged me to go beyond the simple children's paradise of the visible and very understandable world of the autumn beauty of Sussex County. I found myself praying for a couple of friends who are very sick with serious illnesses.  These are such good people, the question naturally arises: Why does God stand by while these loved ones suffer? The God of the autumn sunshine suddenly disappears and is no longer present in ways that I can understand and appreciate. Actually, he seems to be absent. The bible is full of experiences of the apparent absence of God. For example, the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took so many Jews into captivity. Jesus, hanging in agony on the cross, borrows David's words from Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 

At these times in our lives, God no longer conforms to my human understanding of what divine

goodness should mean. He asserts his freedom and uniqueness and sovereignty; he becomes mysterious, apparently absent. These are the prophetic moments when the prophets would appear and assure us that, in spite of contrary appearances, God still loves us. God, they say, is now asking us to live in trust, to believe that faithfulness and perseverance will lead to a much better presence. There is a gift in the mystery, hidden in the incomprehensible experiences of illness, pandemic and so on..

God's true and most gracious presence will be on his terms. The Lord has not left us, but has changed the manner of his presence. He is actually more present and more loving now than ever because he is now present as he always intended to be, in his own preferred way. It is we who must change,be converted, be opened up to receive and entertain  the new, better presence of the Lord.

This turns out to be a more beautiful and powerful experience than even the view in Walpack Valley. 



  

Saturday, October 3, 2020

A SPECAL KIND OF FLOWER

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Therese of Lisieux 1873-1897

This past Thursday, October 1, was the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the "Little Flower." I want to share a couple of personal thoughts about this popular saint but often misunderstood saint.

When I was studying in Paris I joined an excursion to Normandy, which included a visit to the house in

Therese's home
Alencon where Therese of Lisieux was born and raised. I remember that the rooms were tiny by American standards, and were furnished in the style of the time. Lots of decorations and furnishings, for example. I don't remember being particularly overpowered by the experience at the time, but years later the memories of that visit would prove helpful.

Then in 1994, while traveling on a sabbatical year, I had occasion to visit the town of Lisieux and the basilica dedicated to Therese. I remember being overwhelmed by the  immense church that seemed to be glowing with the love and devotion of the faithful who still venerate her as one of the most popular of all modern saints.The second part of the visit to Lisieux was to the carmel or convent where Therese lived and died and the chapel where the saint would have spent so much time praying. 

Chapel at Lisieux

Once again I remember noting that the place, like the house in Alencon, reflected the style and the spirituality of the time. The exterior of the chapel was typical of the era, reflecting a certain ornate fussiness and the spiritual stodginess of the day. This time, however, I could sense Therese's presence, and prayed to her there.

These two places -- the house in Alencon and the Carmel in Lisieux -- were the only places that Therese ever lived. They shaped her way of being and of seeing.

A couple of years ago in the monastery here we read a book at supper about Therese. That was when my picture of "The Little Flower" began to mature. The book, a modern biography of the saint, helped me to filter out all of the incidentals that used to distract me -- especially the emotional and sometimes cloying spirituality, and the ways of expressing one's way of relating to God.  My brief visits to Alencon and Lisieux helped me with the job of filtering out the distracting elements that reflected Therese's time and culture so as to get to the basic message of her extraordinary life.

And according to the book, it was indeed an extra ordinary life, far from soft and sentimental and "nice." In the biography I met a young woman of tremendous strength, a fiercely faithful follower of the suffering Christ. She died at the age of twenty-four after a long period of suffering with tuberculosis.

Her superior asked her to write her autobiography, which we now know as "The Story of a Soul." In it we see a courageous and determined woman being tried in the crucible of suffering in her community life and in her prayer life, but whose life was uncompromisingly filled with love. One of the reasons that she became so beloved so quickly was her teaching ordinary Christians the secret of her "little way" of holiness: to do little things out of love, to do everything, even the smallest acts, for God. This was not towering mysticism or heroic martyrdom, but something within the reach of every Christian, even the "littlest."

In these days, when there seems to be so much suffering in the world and in our own lives, we can pray to Therese for a share of her courage, of her absolute trust in God and in the redemptive value of suffering. By the way, you might enjoy watching this10-minute video on the life of Therese by Fr. James Martin.

Saint Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!

Basilica in Lisieux




Saturday, September 26, 2020

SOME SEED FELL ON GOOD SOIL

One of the characteristics of a New Testament parable is that it teaches only one simple lesson. That makes sense -- you don't want to blunt the point of the simple story by loading it down with a ton of different meanings. But just recently I was reminded that this is first century palestinian speech, and therefore should contain ambiguities and mysterious non-linear meanings. I agreed with that idea right away. Here's an example of this second approach to parables, borrowed from Fr. James Martin ("Jesus: A Pilgrimage" 186)  

Take the parable of the sower who sows seed on various kinds of soil, so that the seeds yield various


amounts of grain, depending on the kind of soil on which they fall.Fr. Martin writes, "Can you see your whole self as a field and consider what parts are fertile, what parts are rock, and what parts are choked with weeds?"

I copied that sentence into my prayer journal, and followed it with the word "Yikes!"  The parable can help me to become more aware of which parts of my life are which. I could see right away certain parts of my life that are choked with weeds or are barren and rocky, as well as ones that seem to be very fertile, yielding sixty-fold. 


For example, my relationship with a certain brother in the monastery isn't what it should be, and looks like a thorny patch where the Word is having a hard time growing. Another part of my life seems overgrown with worries -- which the parable says can choke the life out of the Word planted there. This approach to the parable can provide an interesting variation on the traditional "examination of conscience."

Like any parable, however, this one is meant to move me to action. I uncover some truth about myself that is not from the Lord, and I have the courage to name it and claim it as my own. But so far this is only an insight, The big question is "So what?" What will I do with this insight? Will I simply look at the image of myself in the mirror and then walk away unchanged? Or will I see it as an invitation to a change of heart ("repentance" or metanoia)? 

Something else that occurs to me is this question: "What effect do the various part of my life have on the other parts?" Do the negative ones compete with the beautiful, life-giving parts? Can some neglected areas of my life distract from, detract from and otherwise spoil the good work that God has begun in me? I pray that the influence will run the other direction, and that the good and fruitful parts of myself will eventually take over the rocky ground and the thorns and the weeds.

 


 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

PRAYING ON THE STRAW MAT


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The past few days I've been discussing with our novices, Brs. Robert and Rafael, St. Benedict's vision of community living. Yesterday the three of us began our class by reading the story in Mark 2:1-12 about the paralyzed man whose friends climbed onto the roof of the house where Jesus was and lowered their friend down on his mat so that Jesus could heal him.

The lesson is pretty obvious, I suppose: Often, when we're struggling or in pain or are discouraged, we rely on others to carry us to God. At other times, we are the ones holding the ropes and presenting a friend to the Lord.

Reflecting on this passage with my two young brothers combined with my recollections of my experience of recuperating from knee surgery a month ago, when various brothers had to bring me my meals or Holy Communion and whatever else I needed. It was a gratifying experience to see how cheerfully and willingly each of them pitched in to help me. It was a powerful parable about depending on God. Like most people, I don't think very often about how dependent I am on God for everything -- starting with breathing and heartbeats. But the two weeks of depending on others gave me a valuable opportunity to see just how dependent I really am on God and on others.

I start to think about how I pray when I'm feeling afraid or discouraged. I imagine myself in the place of the paralyzed man. I'm lying, paralysed, suspended precariously between the ceiling and the crowded floor, swinging on four ropes. I've squeezed my eyes shut to lessen the fear of being dropped, or of one of the ropes breaking. Somehow this seems like a very special time and place to pray. My approach to Jesus is honest and sincere. Then I take a peek at the hole in the roof, expecting to see up there the faces of my four friends and their four ropes. I'm shocked at what I see.

Over my head are dozens of ropes attached to my mat, and hundreds of faces looking down at me. I recognize a lot of familiar faces of people who've promised to pray for me. But there are dozens of others, too, whom I'm sure I've never seen before, but they each have a rope, too. The communion of saints, present and past. I'm overwhelmed with the realization that, far from approaching Jesus alone in time of need, I'm being borne along by hundreds and thousands of brothers and sisters.


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Saturday, September 12, 2020

CONVERSATION STARTER

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APOLOGIES

This has been a unique couple of weeks. First, on August 18 I had a total knee replacement. Everything has gone extremely well, thank God. I'm walking without a cane and going to physical therapy three times a week. The second reason I haven't posted anything recently is that our internet here went down, and I had no connectivity even for email, let alone for Blogger. But everything is back now, so let's pick up where we left off.

LISTENING FOR GOD TO START

The God of Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments, is a God who acts in history. But we often forget that God's acting in the course of history is not confined to the pages of the bible: God is acting in our lives all the time. It's obvious, for example, that the Lord suddenly intervened in the course of history by sending the angel Gabriel to that teenage girl in Nazareth, but recently I got a great reminder of another truth about the annunciation. 

I was rereading Fr. James Martin's "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" which I highly recommend when, in the chapter

on the annunciation I came across this simple sentence describing what Mary might have thought when Gabriel suddenly appeared to her. "Perhaps this is God beginning a conversation." These words went right to my heart, as I sat here in my room in the abbey infirmary doing my rehab exercises. I'd already been reflecting on how this surgery might affect me, but Fr. Martin's question put a sharp point on my meditations: "Perhaps this is God beginning a conversation."

I started asking the same question about lots of different emotions and events, such as when one of my brothers is extraordinarily kind to me, or when the Lord offers me a beautiful reflection or consolation during lectio divina, or when I start to get "down" because I'm cooped up indoors and can't take noce power walk around our school's running track. "Well," I ask myself in each of these instances,"Perhaps this is God beginning a conversation." 

St. Benedict would approve heartily of this approach. He believed that God is always trying to communicate with us, and so our first duty is to listen. So, when I start feeling crumby because of my knee, I need to be quiet and listen, because this is probably God beginning a conversation. I need to say with young Samuel when he heard the Lord calling his name, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening" (1 Sam 3:10). 


Speaking to God is, it seems to me, often overrated. Our transformation happens not by our speaking to God but by our listening with the ear of our heart to the Lord. So, as I go though the experience of recovering from my knee surgery, or as all of us suffer through the privations of covid-19, a great question to keep asking is the one that James Martin puts in the heart of the young maiden of Nazareth, "Perhaps this is God beginning a conversation." 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

GETTING ON LINE

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I’m currently living in a comfortable room in the monastery’s infirmary where Br. Asiel is living up to his recently acquired title of “deacon” -- the Greek word, diakonos, as you know, means “servant.” He’s going way beyond just keeping my room cleaned up and so forth while my left knee heals from the surgery.

I started using the cane yesterday, weaning myself off of the walker, and the p.t. therapist who comes a couple of times a week has started stretching my “bad” knee to tighter angles. OUCH! I can see where rehab is heading over the next few weeks.

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Let me start this post with the first reading for this morning’s mass  for the Passion of John the Baptist:

Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord. (I Cor. 1:26-31)

I woke up this morning to the sound of quiet conversations on the sidewalk one story beneath my window. Then I


remembered that this is Saturday, and people will be coming for bags of groceries this morning. With six-foot distancing, the line will sometimes reach up to the corner by the abbey church.

Thanks to my experience of depending on Br. Asiel and my fellow monks so much the past ten days in the infirmary, this morning I easily identify with my brothers and sisters down on the sidewalk who have come with empty hands, depending on the generosity of everyone involved in the Pierre Toussaint Food Pantry. 

I picture myself on a line approaching the merciful Lord with empty hands, needing the sustenance that only the all-merciful One can provide. I have not earned anything, rather, everything I receive on this line is a gift. I just stand before the heavenly abba, the Father that Jesus revealed to us: He doesn’t ask what I’ve done to earn my way into divine favor, he doesn’t ask if I’m qualified to receive anything from him. It’s all grace -- unconditional love. 

If  someone driving past the long line of folks on the Saturday morning food line grumbles to himself that a lot of those on the line are just taking advantage of the monks, and ought to get jobs and support themselves, I suggest that he might try to identify with the folks who are genuinely in need of help. I suggest that he look closely at Saint Paul’s words above: 

“God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world.... It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus .… Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”

In terms of our experience of God, I’m sure that there are folks who feel that they don’t need to stand on the line because they have followed all the Rules and have earned enough Grace to get them to heaven. This morning I realize that I’m definitely not someone who can drive past the line smugly knowing that I’m earning my own way, and so don’t need any handouts from God. 

Beneath my window the quiet conversations continue.