Saturday, May 14, 2022

WORDS FOR AN ABBATIAL ELECTION

FIRST A TREMENDOUS "THANK YOU"
On Thursday, May 12, 2022, the monks of Newark Abbey elected Rev. Augustine Curley, O.S.B. as the third abbot of our community. The preceding abbot, Abbot Melvin Valvano, O.S.B., served as head of the community for 48 years. The important word here is "served," because that is what an abbot does, and what Abbot Melvin did with wisdom and kindness for all these years. How do you even begin to thank someone for that kind of gift? I'm in awe when I look back over those decades of unflagging faithfulness, so I pray that my brothers and I will find adequate ways of expressing our gratitude by our continued support and our words of thanks and encouragement.

TWO NEW TESTAMENT WORDS WHEN ELECTING AN ABBOT

The readings for Sunday, May 15, 2022 contain a pair of words in Greek that I've found useful recently.

(1)  What's new?

First, for the past two weeks I've been meditating on a verse that happens to occur in this Sunday's second reading: "The one sitting on the throne said 'Behold, I make all things new.' (Rev.21:5)" You can imagine what it was like for us who had lived under the same abbot for almost half a century to be facing a change of regime. I, at least, had to keep telling myself that our loving God is in charge, and that the Lord is always doing "something new" with us -- in fact it seems to be one of God's favorite things.   

What I found truly unsettling, though, was the Greek word the writer uses for "new." The common Greek word for new is neos, “new in the sense of recent, young.” For example, Jesus declares “No one pours new (neos) wine into old wineskins (Lk 5:37).” Something that is neos can be a new version of something else: Jesus is called “the mediator of a new (neos) covenant (Heb. 12:24).”

So the arrival of a “new creation” and my becoming “a new person in Christ” both sound like great news, a cosmic renovation project. But there's more to the NT idea of "new" than that -- a lot more. This is because besides the word neos, Greek  has a second word for “new:” kainos, which has a whole different feel. It means “something entirely unheard of before, not previously present, unknown, strange.” Far from welcoming this kind of newness, most of us are very uncomfortable with it. We have a fear of the unknown, and a mistrust of the unpredicted. Unfortunately for us, though, it is precisely this second kind of new, kainos, that the figure on the throne is speaking about in our second reading: "Behold, I make all things kainos, previously unheard of, unknown, and strange."

So, my brothers and I have been forewarned: Maybe this new abbot will challenge us to move outside our comfort zone and experience God in the previously unheard of,  the unknown, the strange."

(2)  Bulking Up

The second word on this Sunday's reading that has given me food for reflection is in the first reading, from Acts:

After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to [Derbe] and made a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:21-22)”

The writer tells us that Paul and Barnabas "strengthened the spirits of the disciples."  The word for"strengthened" comes from the root that give us our English "steroid," "to make sound or solid."  

So, here's a word we monks can use for this post-election period: Like Paul and Barnabas, we need to be about the business strengthening one another's spirits, and especially encouraging or new abbot. 

I like to imagine our Benedictine community on steroids. Wow! Imagine the witness we would give to each other and to our students, our neighbors, the church and the people of Newark and beyond! A community bulked up by our faith in Christ and our love of one another. Yes. I like that idea.

Please pray for Abbot Augustine and the monks of Newark, that we may strengthen one another as we bulk up on God's love.



Saturday, May 7, 2022

WHAT WAS ANDREW THINKING?

 

When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”  He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little [bit].” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish..." (Jn 6:5-9)

Look again at this scene. Philip has just finished pointing out that there are thousands of hungry people standing by, way too many for the apostles to feed even with two hundred days wages. But then Andrew chimes in, "

Andrew: There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. 

Peter (angrily): Be quiet, Andrew! We've got a serious problem on our hands here! This is no time to be joking around!

Andrew (offended): Well, sorry! All I said was that there's this kid here with some bread and fish.

Thomas (sounding doubtful): Well, I'll be honest, I can't imagine how even Jesus is going to figure a way out of this situation!

Let's pause here for a moment and ask ourselves, What was Andrew  was thinking? 

Maybe he is just pointing out how impossible the situation was: all they have is five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish. I suspect that had I been in Andrew's spot, I would have tried to make exactly that point: realistically, we have just a ludicrously tiny amount of food, and so we're in an impossible situation. Or maybe Andrew is trying to help by  contributing whatever he could at the moment? 

In any case, let's pick up the dialogue as St. John tells it. While the apostles are staring at Andrew and laughing at his report about some kid with a few loaves of bread, there is one person in the group who isn't scoffing, and that is, of course, Jesus himself. He responds immediately:

Jesus (in a clear confident voice): Have the people recline.

Peter: But, Lord! We have nothing to give them!

Thomas (muttering to himself): Well, I'm afraid this is about to get embarrassing!

Jesus (smiling confidently): Andrew, go bring that boy over here, please. How many loaves did you say he has?

Andrew (answering over his shoulder as he goes to get the boy): Five, rabbi -- and two fish.  

Jesus (answering excitedly): Perfect! That should do just fine! (Turning to the other apostles) Now make sure everyone is sitting down, ready to eat. 

Thomas, his mouth gaping in disbelief, is standing still with the rest of the apostles. Peter quickly takes charge:

Peter (in his loud fisherman's voice): You heard him! Get the people to sit down. Let's move it! 

[END]


How many times has the Lord asked me tobe part of such an impossible scene in which he intends to make a way where I can't see any way? How many times do I shamefacedly show Jesus my inadequate little basket with its seven loaves and two fish only to see him break into a radiant smile and say "Perfect! That should do just fine?" I guess I just need to keep being Andrew when I find myself in an impossible situation, and offer the Lord what little I have. I know that he'll respond each time, "Perfect! That should do just fine!"


Saturday, April 30, 2022

THE PRAYER OF STRETCHING

In a couple of hours, our Br. Mark Dilone, O.S.B., will be ordained a priest. The ceremony includes lots of fervent prayer for the one being ordained. 

The candidate prostrates himself on the floor of the sanctuary while the community chants the Litany of the Saints. I've always found this a very intense moment of prayer. A second special moment comes as the bishop[p anoints the hands of the candidate with Sacred Chrism while everyone sings the Veni Creator Spiritus, invoking the special gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Early this morning, as I was reflecting on the intense prayer moments in the upcoming ceremony, I began thinking about the many people who've been commended to my prayer recently for one reason or another, usually people who are experiencing some sort of trouble or sorrow or pain. I asked myself just how intense my prayer is when I prayer to the Lord for a particular intention. 

The following is something I wrote on the topic a few years ago, but which comes to my mind fairly often, as it did again this morning.  And so I share it with you, hoping that you may find it helpful.

Let's start with this passage from Acts:

About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword, and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (It was [the] feast of Unleavened Bread.) He had him taken into custody and put in prison under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. He intended to bring him before the people after Passover. Peter thus was being kept in prison, but prayer was fervently being made by the church to God on his behalf. (Acts 12:5). 

The Greek says "The church was praying ektenos for him." 

 "Fervently" is a good translation for this adverb to describe how the Christians prayed; but there's an interesting story behind the Greek word, ektenos. 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). 

Luke uses the adverb form of ekteino (to stretch out) to describe the way the community was praying. Try to imagine those earliest Christians gathering together after hearing the  that Peter was in prison and about to be executed by Herod. Imagine them praying: stretching out not just their hands but their hearts and their very souls to the Lord. 

They were praying with fervor, intensity, and longing. They were not “saying prayers” for Peter, there was nothing half-hearted or distracted about their praying. Maybe they were even shedding tears. This sounds like the kind of praying that Benedict would recommend to his monks 450 years later.


Luke uses this same adverb in his account of the Agony in the garden: “After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.(22:41 ff)

We see earnestness, even agony in Jesus’ prayer. Are we ever called upon to agonize in prayer? How can you not agonize in prayer, say, over a son or daughter who is in deep trouble?  

Wasn’t Moses agonizing in prayer when he cried out to God “Ah, this people has committed a grave sin in making a god of gold for themselves! Now if you would only forgive their sin! But if you will not, then blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex. 32:31-32)?

Wasn’t Paul agonizing in prayer when he said “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3)? 

Recently, I've been asking myself how often I pray "stretched out" the way Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. How often is my prayer filled with earnest longing and yearning (Psalm 84) or of Moses, or Paul? How often do I leave myself totally vulnerable to the Lord in passionate prayer? Not just prayer of petition, but also adoration, thanksgiving or contrition.

So, lately I've been trying to do a lot more “stretching” when I pray. And I must say, it seems to be working.  

So, as we gather to pray for Br. Mark this morning, I'll be sure to be "stretching out" during those high points of prayer for him. Perhaps you'd like to join me 9n -praying for our new young priest!

Come. Holy Spirit! 



Saturday, April 23, 2022

PATIENCE! PATIENCE!

I had serious surgery on my lumbar spine a month ago, and so far everything is going as promised. Thank the Lord. 

Of course, I've had to learn to be patient with the slow pace of the recovery. Everyone keeps reminding me to take it slow and not try to rush things. I'm supposed to walk as much as I can to help me recover, but I found at first that I could only walk a few steps before my back muscles started to complain. Which brings me to a second point: The chilly weather. 


I've found it really hard to make myself step outdoors to walk when almost every day the temperature is in the forties. I keep wishing for some spring-like weather that would entice me outside to walk. So, another lesson: I have to learn to be patient with the slow arrival of spring weather. 

This patient (or not-so-patient) waiting over the past few weeks has made me reflect on how the Lord fits into this. There's a wise saying in some African American churches, 

"God may not come when you want him to, 

but he's always on time."

When I thought about this saying early this morning, I naturally thought about how I have to be patient with God's way of doing things, and with the seemingly slow pace of the Lord's answering my prayers. But then I suddenly realized how different my situation must look from God's point of view: For all these years God has had to be patient with me! The Lord has been putting up with my foot-dragging, my timidity, my procrastination. The list could go on and on: my stubbornness, my lack of trust... I'll stop here before I get depressed looking at the list.

Okay, so I'm impatient with the slow pace of my recovery from surgery, with the the seeming delay of the coming of spring and with God's sometimes slow response to my prayers. But the amount of patience this requires of me is nothing compared to the infinite patience Jesus has always shown toward me. How many times a day do I try his patience almost to the breaking point? Yet he is always faithful, just like the Lord in the book of Exodus, who time after time keeps forgiving the infidelity of the Israelites in the wilderness.    

Maybe the most important lesson I've learned in the past month is not about how to be patient, but rather how patient the Lord is and has always been with me!

Have a Blessed Easter Season!


Saturday, April 16, 2022

ANOTHER EASTER WITH COVID-19

 Although I continue recovering (too slowly!) from back surgery and am able to get to meals and community prayers, I still haven't gotten back to my normal energy level. So this morning, instead of writing a new meditation, I thought I might offer you one I'd written for some Easter in the past. 

As I looked at the twenty posts I've written about Easter over the years, I was surprised to find a few Easter posts about COVID-19, and noticed how timely they still seem. So, I invite you to scroll down the column to the left of this post to the list of "LABELS" and click on "Easter."  There you'll find lots of meditations on the great feast we're celebrating this weekend. I pray that one or another of them may offer you something the Lord needs you to hear this Easter.

May the Risen Lord fill you with all the blessings and graces of this holy season.


Happy Easter!

Friday, April 8, 2022

(EXCUSE MY ABSENCE!)

Dear sisters and brothers,

Two weeks ago I had surgery on my lower back. The doctor proclaimed it a success, but the experience 
left me without much energy or ambition. Now that I'm getting back on my feet I'm finding the energy to do other things --such as writing a blog post.

Let me tell you briefly of my experience of not-praying for two weeks. I knew I had all sorts of people from kindergarteners to elders praying hard for me. So. when I woke up from the surgery and couldn't manage to pray, I relied on the payers of all those people. This went on for nearly two weeks.

It felt exactly right, as if this is the whole idea of telling someone "I'm praying for you." So, I just relaxed and let myself be carried along on the prayers fall these people, many of them loved ones but many others simply members of prayer groups and parishes. 

Since experiencing being carried along on the prayers of others, I now have a deeper appreciation of  what it means to belong to "the Communion of Saints" (which includes us on earth as well as those in Glory).

As I get back to praying, I find that I'm hearing a deeper dimension to people's request to "Please pray for me."

Have a blessed Holy Week!

Saturday, March 19, 2022

THE OTHER SHOE

This post is Part Two of last week's reflection on God and Prayer. In that post I quoted Fr. Francois Varillon's objections to our thinking of God as the Universal Fixer whom we call on only when we admit that we can't do a certain thing by ourselves. But we mustn't understand this to mean that we should never ask God for anything in prayer. So, let me drop the other shoe concerning what we traditionally call "prayer of petition".

First of all, Jesus himself tells us  "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Mt 7:7). But Jesus also teaches us the right frame of mind to bring when approaching prayer. One time his disciples noticed him praying fervently by himself. Afterward one of them asked him "Lord, teach us to pray." His response, you remember, was "When you pray, pray like this: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name ..." 

Let me quote a footnote from the New American Bible:  "In answer to their question, Jesus presents them with an example of a Christian communal prayer that stresses the fatherhood of God and acknowledges him as the one to whom the Christian disciple owes daily sustenance (Lk 11:3), forgiveness (Lk 11:4), and deliverance from the final trial (Lk 11:4)."

You can't miss Jesus' starting point for prayer: We are not entering into a business transaction with some Supernatural Repairman with whom we negotiate a price for some service or other. Rather we are to pray to "our Father." Our Lord immediately puts prayer in the context of a family.

In a family we don't negotiate or contract with a parent or a sister or brother, but instead we simply ask, "Could you please help me with this?" or "Would you mind giving me a hand?" So think about the child Jesus growing up in the holy family's home in Nazareth. (By the way, today, March 19, is, appropriately, the feast of Saint Joseph,) The Christ child must have asked his mother and his father Joseph for things the way any child would.  

If the human Jesus first experienced "asking his father" in the context of a loving family where he was confident of being loved and accepted, then we can begin to see the kind of asking that Jesus is talking about when he teaches us to pray "Our father," and when he promises that if we ask, we will receive. 

Jesus' God is not a repairman with whom we negotiate for help, nor an accountant who is keeping a carefully detailed balance sheet of our sins to see if we are worthy of being loved. Jesus' God is his "Abba," "my father and your father. (Jn 20:17)" And our Lord clearly wants to share that relationship with us: "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us (Jn 17:20-21)."

So much for the "useful God" and "useful prayer!"

Happy Saint Joseph's Day!