Saturday, December 3, 2022

THE SEASON OF NEWNESS

 

Our Judeo-Christian God is a God who acts in history. This is in fact how the Jews knew God: from his actions in their history on their behalf. Now, on the Second Sunday of Advent,we hear the message that the God of history is on the move again, acting to deliver his people. John the Baptist appears, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Mt 3:1)

In other words, God is doing something new! Not only that, but we need to respond to this initiative by "repenting," by changing our lives. The verb "is at hand" is pretty much equivalent to "is present now." It has a sense of urgency about it.

CALL AND RESPONSE

A week ago I gave up  driving after an unnerving incident in which I stepped on the gas instead of the brake. No one was injured, and only my car took the brunt of my mistake. While thanking God that nothing worse had happened, I decided on the spot that at the age of eighty it was time for me to give up driving.

I've been asking myself for some months what the Lord may be expecting of me at this stage of my life. The decision to stop driving has underlined the fact that that the Lord is indeed calling me to something new.  So I opened my bible to the story of the call of Abraham looking fopr some insights:

The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you. Abram went as the LORD directed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. (Gen. 1-4)

I discovered a footnote to this passage in the NAB: "The syntax of the Hebrew suggests that the blessings promised to Abraham are contingent on his going to Canaan." I read this note as a challenge to me personally at this juncture in my life's journey, namely that if I'm counting on the Lord to be with me and bless me, then I need to respond to his invitation to "go forth from your land ... to a land that I will show you."

The good news is that the Lord commands Abraham not to "come to a new place" but rather to "go to a [lace that I will show you." So, just like Abraham, I can set out without a clear plan and count on the Lord to show me the way I travel.

THE ADVENT CHALLENGE

So, during this holy season the Lord of History is on the move again, breaking in on your life and mine, wanting to do something new with each of us. So, let us be attentive, watching and waiting!

"Go to a land that I will show you."





Monday, November 28, 2022

 

WHAT IS GOD'S WILL FOR ME?

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THWARTING GOD'S PLAN?

I've been reflecting more and more lately about what God may be expecting of me. This morning I came across the following reflection that I posted in Advent ten years ago. It begins with Jesus speaking about John the Baptist:

I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ (And all the people who heard this, including the tax-collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) (Lk 7:28-30)

I was struck by the phrase, “[they] rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”
Other translations include: “[they] frustrated God’s purpose for them (Phillips Bible)” and “[they] thwarted God's plan for them (NJB).

When I was reflecting on this passage about the people who “frustrated God’s plan for them” and applying it to myself I decided that instead of looking at the hundreds of ways I frustrate God’s plans for me, I would take a more positive approach and look at what happens when it DO cooperate with God’s plan for me. The exercise was tremendously gratifying.

I discovered that the events or periods in my life that have been most satisfying usually show one of two characteristics: risk-taking or putting myself second. And these just happen to be the characteristics of the two principle personalities of the Advent season: The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.

THE VIRGIN MARY’S COURAGE

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Dec. 18) is the story of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel gets Mary’s consent: “Mary said, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me as you have said.” Mary is the perfect example of willingness to cooperate with God’s plan. But of course, Mary had an angel appear to her and tell her what God expected of her. That made it a lot easier, right? We keep wishing that God would just send US an angel the way He did to Mary, and tell us what he wants. Then we’d be able to do God’s will much more easily.

But Luke makes it pretty clear that Mary was in fact uncertain about what was happening and what she was getting herself involved in. Think about it: She was saying yes to something that was unheard of, unthinkable in fact, that she would conceive through the Holy Spirit 'the Son of the Most High God." This makes her Let it be done to me that much more impressive. She had to keep “pondering all these things in her heart,” trying to discern God’s will for her. She is actually a good model for us who are living with uncertainty in our lives and who have to take risks without the security of knowing for certain if this is the right thing to do.

So, in my own reflections I found that two of the most blessed times of my life involved risk-taking, venturing out of the comfortable circle of the given into alien, unknown places. Specifically, when we decided to re-open St. Benedict’s Prep in 1973 we were leaping into the dark because it seemed to be what God was asking us to do at the time. The second life-changing event was when I left the security and routine of monastery for an eleven-month sabbatical, traveling to completely new places both physically and spiritually. There’s no doubt in my mind that these two decisions were part of “God’s plan” for me.

JOHN THE BAPTIST’S HUMILITY

As I reflected on how I’ve managed to “follow God’s plan for me,” I found that often this involved putting myself second. This seems, in fact, like a universal property of life at least in my experience, like one of Newton’s three laws of motion: the less self-centered I am, the more satisfying my life becomes. When I go out of my way to stop and pay attention to a little child who wants to say something to me, that is always rewarding – and it’s clearly God’s will for me. When I skip my afternoon walk to talk with a troubled student who needs a sympathetic listener and a word of encouragement, that is always a rewarding experience – and it feels like God’s will for me.

The Advent model for putting myself second is, of course, John the Baptist. The gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent (Dec.11, 2011) tells of how John bore witness to Christ. “I am not the Christ,” he told those who asked him. His job was to decrease so that Christ could increase, to point out to people “Look! There is the Lamb of God.”

John is the perfect model for “It’s not about me!” If I want to follow “God’s plan for me,” then, I need to follow John’s lead and remove myself from the center of the stage so that Christ can become visible to people through my actions, words and attitudes.

ADVENT ADVERBS

“Does God want me to put the house on the market now?” “Does God want me to start looking for a new job?” “Does God want us to take our daughter out of the school she’s attending and transfer her to another one?” We shouldn’t expect help from God in the form of answers to these questions. (Sorry!) The answers are simply not going to come.

But we can be sure of THE WAY in which God wants us to approach those questions. We get two good adverbs from the example of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.

The first adverb is “confidently:” “Does God want me to trust in his goodness as I try to decide to accept this job offer?” “Does God want me to wait in joyful hope as I wait for the results my medical test?”

The second adverb is "humbly:" “Does God want me to grab the limelight and make myself the center of attention as the family is grieving over the death of my aunt, or does He expect me to help people meet Christ through my humble loving words and my quiet sharing in their various ways of dealing with their grief?”

It’s clear HOW God expects me to act in these cases even if I don’t know exactly WHAT I should do. But it’s the “how” that I'm going to be judged on, it seems to me. Did you act humbly? Generously? Openly? Considerately? These ways of acting are without any doubt “God’s plan for me.”

And I’ve found that they are also the keys to living a life that is rewarding, fruitful and life-giving..


,,,,,Henry Owassa Turner "The Annunciation

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The following is the text of a talk given by our new abbot, and which offers a timely insight for all of us. It also puts me in the mood for Thanksgiving.

Address to the Honors Convocation on Founder’s Day

Boniface Wimmer
Saint Vincent College, Latrobe PA, November 17, 2022

Augustine J. Curley, O.S.B.


On his way from Germany to Latrobe, Boniface Wimmer (a Benedictine from Bavaria who was to establish the presence of Benedictines in the U.S.) stopped off in Newark, NJ, where he was the guest of Fr. Nicholas Balleis, a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg, Austria, who was the pastor of a parish established to serve the sacramental needs of the many German Catholics who had been settling in Newark since the 1840s. Balleis tried to convince Wimmer that there was a greater need for his work in Newark than in western Pennsylvania. Wimmer did briefly consider staying and making his foundation in Newark, b Wimmer but he decided to continue on to his original destination. Perhaps part of the reason for his reluctance to stay in Newark had to do with Balleis’s personality. Wimmer probably had hints already of something he would discover more clearly later, that no one would be able to live with Balleis. But that was not the end of the story. After Wimmer had made his monastic foundation in Latrobe, the bishop of New York, John Hughes, implored him to make a foundation in Newark, offering to let him take over St. Mary’s parish. Pleading a lack of personnel, Wimmer demurred, although he did send a couple of monks to help Balleis. 


In 1853, New Jersey was separated from the dioceses of New York and Philadelphia, between which it had been split, and the Diocese of Newark was established. The newly-appointed Bishop of Newark, James Roosevelt Bayley, asked Wimmer to send monks to take over St. Mary’s and found a priory. Wimmer did not like cities, and thought they were not a good place for monks, especially young monks who could be enticed by the attractions of city life. So he again demurred.


In the meantime, Balleis was busy expanding his parish. The parishioners came from the various regions that would eventually join together to form the country of Germany, as well as from other German-speaking lands, such as Balleis’s native Austria. They seemed to get along fairly well, with some of the biggest controversies centering around which hymns to sing. But there was one disagreement that would split the parish. Balleis was opinionated and nationalistic. He antagonized many in the parish and in the city.  He was intent on making the parish an instrument for the preservation of German culture and language. He was reluctant to allow the children to learn English in the parish school. Some in the parish disagreed with this. They had not come to America to remain German. They wanted to become Americans, not forsaking their German heritage, but recognizing that they should become part of the land they had come to. 


1854 was the height of the Know-Nothing movement in America. Led by radical Protestants who considered themselves the true Americans, they looked down on these non-English speaking foreigners who swore allegiance to a foreign power.  That power, the Vatican, was, according to the nativists, sending these rejects from Ireland and Germany to be the advance guard of a papal invasion that would eventually subvert the American government and the American way of life.


On September 5, 1854, the American Protestant Association planned a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the first sitting of the American Congress. Orange Lodges from around the area came to participate. The originally planned route of the parade would not have gone past St. Mary’s, but after a break for lunch, the organizers decided to change the route, now bringing the marchers past St. Mary’s Church. Some claim that the march was intended to end at St. Patrick’s Church, newly-established as the cathedral of the diocese. Whether or not this is true, they never made it there, since, at least according to The New York Times of the next day, the “orderly group of marchers” was fired upon by Irishmen who had barricade themselves in the church and were firing guns through the windows. Naturally, the marchers felt the need to defend themselves, and so they broke into the church, where they proceeded to cause much damage to the altar and the furnishings, and even the organ, putting it permanently out of tune, as the New York Times remarked. And they did not encounter any Irishmen with guns. The only person in the church when they entered was the housekeeper, armed only with a broomstick.


Boniface Wimmer came to visit the pastor after the riot, and pledged his help to restore the church. But it all proved too much for Balleis, who soon resigned his pastorate, and left to visit his native Austria. A Redemptorist would take over as pastor, and make plans for a large brick church to replace the small wooden one damaged in the riot. But soon, he took off, abandoning his baggage at a railroad station. Bishop Bayley once again implored Wimmer to send monks, offering to give him ownership of Saint Mary’s and the cemetery at the original site of the church, and encouraging him to establish a monastery of Benedictines in Newark. Under their leadership, the parish completed the building of the new church within three years. It was the tallest building in the city, and stood on a height overlooking downtown, looming over the Presbyterian church which was the church of the Puritan founders of Newark. Its status as the tallest building in Newark lasted only a few years, until a Dutch Reformed church was built downtown that exceeded the height of St. Mary’s by just a few feet.


So the Benedictines came to Newark at a time of great animosity. And the animosity was not just between the descendants of the founders and the newcomers, it was also between the Irish and the Germans who, while united when faced with a common enemy, otherwise did not get along with each other. 

A new venture would soon face Wimmer. Seton Hall College had been founded in 1856 as a residential college. By 1868, the bishop saw a need for a day college, catering to those students whose family wanted them to get a college education, but needed their sons to live at home and help with the family business. Wimmer agreed to meet this need, and the Collegium Sancti Benedicti was opened.  


Wimmer had experienced the tension between the Irish and the Germans in western Pennsylvania. And the church generally was unsettled. As more and  more Irish and Germans came to America, and as most of the Bishops were Irish or of Irish descent, a movement to insist on German Bishops for the German Catholic immigrants took root. This dispute almost split the church in America.


Faced with the difficulty of dealing with the German/Irish animosity in Newark, Wimmer’s solution was similar to one he tried with St. Vincent’s. Forget the adults, he said. They are set in their ways and you are not going to change them. The hope for change lay in reaching the young people. If the young people studied together, played together, and generally got to know each other as individuals, they would be able to overcome the prejudice and animosity that beset their elders.  


The first two students at St. Benedict’s of which there is any record were the McGuirk brothers, sons of Irish immigrant parents, who lived down the street from the new college. But they were soon joined by a large number of students of German descent, and even by a number of students who had come to America as scholastics, preparing themselves to enter the monastery. Over the years, as other ethnic groups came to Newark, they were folded into the St. Benedict’s family. Except for one particular ethnic group.

Due to the efforts of one monk in particular, who heeded Abbot Martin Burne’s call in his address to those attending the banquet celebrating the centennial of the founding of St. Benedict’s that the school not continue to be an island of whiteness that was surrounded by the changing population of Newark that resulted from the great migration of African-Americans from the South, many of whom were Catholic. Even the Catholic African-Americans were not accepted by many in the church, priests included. 


My class, which entered in 1970, was the first class with a significant population of African-Americans and Hispanics. Two years later, I sat in the auditorium as the Headmaster announced that St. Benedict’s would be “suspending operations.”  Disagreements arose among the monks about how to conduct a school that was now across the street from a significant African-American population, in a city that had been torn by –a riot, insurrection, rebellion–whatever you choose to call it–a city that many suburban parents were reluctant to send their sons into. So the school closed, and there was an attempt to move the monastery out of the city, out to the suburbs to where the alumni had moved, but the Benedictine vow of stability, and the commitment of many of the monks to serve the people where God had planted the monastery, prevailed. Today we have students from many different countries stretching from Latin America to Mongolia. And

we also have students from different religions–Catholic and Protestant Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists–who play, work, pray together at our morning convocation, putting  the lie to the idea that we have to be divided because of our differences. Rather, it is our differences, we have found,  that enrich our community.


A number of years ago, when I was teaching Christian morality in St. Benedict’s, I asked the students–telling them that they would know what I was talking about even if I were not explicit–“How many of you, if you brought one of your friends home from school, would have a family member or a neighbor, either aloud or just in his or her thoughts, say ‘What is he doing here?’” Several students raised their hands. That was the case for a number of years. The last time I taught the class, I asked my usual question. The kids had no idea what I was talking about. I think, and I hope I am right, that it had become normal for our students and their families, to welcome young people of different ethnic groups and religions into their homes. 


Of course, some of these early students are now parents themselves, many of them not passing on what they had learned from their parents, but rather what they had learned from the experience of  studying, playing, and praying with students of other races and religions. This is one of the ways that we at Newark Abbey and St. Benedict’s Prep carry on the legacy of your founder, and our founder, Abbot Boniface Wimmer.  

 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Saint Martin's Fire


Yesterday, November 11, was the feast of Saint Martin of Tours. A classical biography of St. Martin, written by Septimius Severus, is available on line. Today, however, I'd like to share with you a little story about Martin excerpted from my book Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey Through Lent.


Abbey of Ligugé

I’m speeding across the fertile farmland of France’s Poitou region on the train from Paris to Bordeaux. We’re about five minutes south of Poitiers when I look out the window to my left. The narrow, tree-lined canal that lies lazily alongside the tracks was built by the Romans when this was the province of Gallia. I look out the other side of the train just in time to glimpse a collection of stone buildings huddling around a church tower. This is the Benedictine Abbey of Ligugé, said to be the oldest monastery in the Western Christian world. Its story takes me on a trip back in time. . . .

About the year a.d. 361, a strange young man in his late twenties took up residence in the ruins of an ancient Gallo-Roman villa on the site of the present monastery. He was born in Pannonia (present-day Hungary) but was raised in Italy. At the age of fifteen, he had been forced by law to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was an officer in the Roman army. Three years later, he was baptized a Christian and soon became a disciple of Hilary, the saintly bishop of nearby Poitiers. Well-known for his holiness of life even before his baptism, over time the young man would become more and more famous for the countless miraculous cures he performed. As so often happens to holy men in the fourth century, he would eventually be drafted by the people to become bishop of their town.

Martin shares his cloak

As Bishop of Tours, he became an energetic foe of the pagan cults that still flourished in the Roman Empire at the time. His fame as a miracle worker spread across Gaul, and by the time of his death he was already being honored as “Saint Martin of Tours.” Many paintings and statues recall the famous story of his cutting his soldier’s cloak down the middle in order to give half of it to a beggar. The next night, the story goes, Jesus appeared to Martin clothed in the cloak he’d the saint had given to the poor man.


In the earliest biography of Saint Martin, Sulpicius Severus gives a long and impressive list of the monk-bishop’s wonderful deeds to prove that Martin was a perfect saint whom God protected from all harm. After the Life of St. Martin was published, however, Sulpicius felt he had to write a letter to a certain Eusebius to defend Martin from slander: there was a story going around alleging that the supposedly invulnerable Martin had once been burned in a fire. Here is the story that Sulpicius retells.


Martin is making the rounds of the parishes in his diocese and decides to sleep in a little room attached to the church he is visiting. He is uncomfortable with the luxury of the straw mattress that has been made up for him and so pushes the straw aside and sleeps on the wooden floor. During the night, a defective stove used for heating the room sets fire to the straw and Martin is awakened around midnight by a cloud of thick, choking smoke. He gropes his way quickly to the door and begins pulling frantically on the bolt to unlock it. The bolt won’t budge! Within a few moments, flames fill the room and engulf the bishop, singeing the hem of his robe. Weak with fear, he struggles again with the stubborn bolt. Still no luck! I’ll let Sulpicius finish the story in his own flowery style:


At length recovering his habitual conviction that safety lay not in flight but in the Lord, and seizing the shield of faith and prayer, committing himself entirely to the Lord, he lay down in the midst of the flames. Then indeed, the fire having been removed by divine intervention, he continued to pray amid a circle of flames that did him no harm.

By Martin’s own admission, he had taken longer than he should have to turn to the power of prayer. He’d been startled out of a sound sleep to find himself in terrible danger. The saint later spoke of this incident as a snare that the devil had laid for him, a snare that, for a moment, had worked.


Sulpicius is truly indignant when people imply that this scene shows some imperfection in Martin. “This event which is ascribed to the infirmity of Martin,” he argues, “is, in reality, full of dignity and glory, since indeed, being tried by a most dangerous calamity, he came forth a conqueror.”

The story certainly does end in dignity and glory, but maybe Christians would be better served by meditating on what the good bishop did for the first half-minute after he smelled smoke. I keep hoping to find a painting of this scene: Saint Martin, eyes wide with fright, desperately tugging with both hands at the rusty bolt as flames lick at his robe. That is a saint I could identify with.

I’ve experienced that minute of panic often enough, when I’ve forgotten that God is there with me. In the flames of difficult situations, when everything seems to be coming apart, I take too long to hand things over to the Lord. I, like Saint Martin, the great Bishop of Tours, have wasted time tugging at the rusty bolt and only later remembered to stop trying to control things and turn confidently to the power of prayer.


Maybe I could settle for a picture of the saint lying in prayer on the burning floor, untouched by the flames all around him. In any case, Martin of Tours is the one I pray to for the grace to keep my cool when I’m starting to panic. He knows what that feeling is like.


The blur of gray buildings is well behind us now, and the train continues rattling southwest toward the sea. No one else is looking out the window.





Tuesday, November 8, 2022

 

ON DEATH AND DETERRENTS


The following are not conclusions but rather questions.


THE LAST JUDGMENT

This is the time of year when the Church’s calendar directs our minds and hearts to “the last things,” the end of the world, and our own death. I’ve been thinking about the magnificent carved tympanum over the main doors of the church of St. Foy de Conques in southern France. I remember gazing up at this image, guidebook in hand, for quite awhile 19 years ago.
Tympanum  carving "The Last Judgment," Conques, France

Recently I was bothered, however, by the problem of the perfect symmetry of the image: Christ in the middle, and half the people (those on his right) are saved and enjoying heavenly delights, but fully half the people (those on his left) are damned for all eternity to be gored, bitten, half-swallowed and otherwise tortured.. Fifty-fifty. I don’t like those odds! Okay, so we can chalk that up to the demands of aesthetics: It wouldn’t do, after all, to have Christ the Judge sitting way off to one side with 99% of the humans on his right and then just one or two miserable figures on his left side in hell.
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FAILING BY A POINT

I gave a chapter test in my Religion class this week. I corrected and scored the tests and then, as usual, had to decide what constituted a passing grade on this particular test. Looking at the distribution of scores, I decided that 70% made good sense as a passing grade. Anyone below 70% got an “F.” Simple, right? But then the usual decisions came up. What about the kid with the 69%? Well, okay; he’s a good kid, so maybe I should pass him. But there’s also this kid with a 67% who lost five points on one question because he simply misread the question – I know perfectly well that he knows the correct answer. Do I give him an F? 

So, now cut to the scene of the last judgment. What’s God’s cut-off point for getting into heaven? The stakes are unimaginably high: either eternal bliss or conscious excruciating agony for billions of unending years. So, suppose a sinner misses the cutoff for salvation by half a point? (Don’t say send him or her purgatory; that’s for people who've made the cut but need to be softened up a little before their final entry into heaven.) I want to know about the person who misses the cutoff by just a fraction of a point. Can God, like a soft-hearted professor, give that sinner the half-point and send him or her to heaven? Nope! Sorry. God is “all just” and must abide by the rules.  

Poor God! I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.  

MORNING IMAGES

At 5:30 in church this morning I was praying the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me a sinner.” Then I was distracted by that image of the last judgment, “troubled” is a better word, and in a snippy mood I continued my prayer this way: “Lord Jesus Christ, please do not be merciful to the really nasty sinners who have terribly offended you and spent their lives in sin and selfishness. Give them exactly what they deserve. Give all of us our just deserts.” I figured that this last part was a safe prayer since my own average has got to be at least an 85%, maybe higher.


But then another image came to me: The father in the parable throwing his arms around his prodigal son and welcoming him back with unconditional forgiveness. Hmm, that sort of messed up my prayer for divine retributive justice.

The next image was one from the French playwright Jean Anouilh. It’s the end of time and all of the just are lined up at the gates of heaven waiting to enter. Suddenly a rumor starts to spread like wildfire: “God has decided to forgive absolutely everyone. Everybody’s is going to get in, even the worst sinners!” Some of the righteous, filled with furious indignation, begin to complain bitterly, “Hey, I worked my whole life to get here while those sinful slobs spent their lives ignoring God's commandments! This isn't right. It’s not fair!” And at that instant, the story goes, those righteous complainers were damned.

Woops! No wonder Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1-3)

Next image. It’s September 11, 2001, later to be known simply as “nine eleven.” The full horror of the attack on the World Trade Center 13 miles to the east has not even begun to sink in yet. But the owner of a little gas station on McCarter Highway downtown has already put an ominous hand-painted sign in his window. It reads simply “Payback’s a Bitch!” He doesn’t know who we’re going to pay back, of course; he just knows it will be a bitch when we do.

I hope you find the sign's crude language; I do. But then think of the millions of Christians who are convinced that God has those same three words inscribed in a prominent place to greet each sinner passing down that famous tunnel at the time of their death. Yup! That’s what Christians believe. “Payback’s a bitch.” If you don’t think so, just check out the tympanum at Conques: People being swallowed, chewed, burnt, and torn apart. Now that’s payback! Glad I’m on Christ’s right other side.  

WHAT’S YOUR GOD LIKE?

So then a question posed itself: What kind of God, what kind of Jesus, is sitting on that judgment throne? I find him sort of scary. I mean, is this Jesus, the Gentle Shepherd who is all-loving and all pardoning and who gave himself up to death for us? Has he suddenly, at the moment of our death, turned into someone totally different, a cruel relentless tormentor? We make all sorts of excuses for Him to soften the dichotomy. (“People are free; it’s their choice to go to hell.” “God is not the one doing it, it’s the sinners who have chosen it". "God has no part in this.”) Maybe. 

All I know is that if the father of one of my students did such a quick turnaround I’d fear for his sanity and for his children’s safety; I’d probably consider reporting the situation to the state child protection authorities.

I’m not the first or the only one to be bothered by the theology behind all this judgment business. I wonder if Jesus, who told the parable of the Prodigal Son, isn't at least a little uneasy playing the role he’s been thrust into on that tympanum at Conques.  

Some say that the Church’s emphasizing of hell is intended as a deterrent to sin. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #'s 1036, 1041.) Well, if it is intended as a deterrent, it doesn't seem to have worked all that well in recent years. Where it does seem to have some deterrent effect, however, is that it deters plenty of potential followers of Jesus who find it hard to stomach a God who runs an operation in which certain of creatures who don't do God's will suffer excruciating, conscious and endless agony. Come join the Church of Jesus the Gentle Shepherd.
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Meanwhile, let's pray for Pope Francis. I wonder what his God looks like?
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Rembrandt "Return of the Prodigal Son" 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

FIFTY YEARS OF BEGINNINGS

 It's time to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the "re-founding" of our school, St. Benedict's Prep in 1972, after it had bee closed for one school year. As one of the central figures in  the re-opening, I'm being called on to retell the stories of those first days fifty years ago.. 

Each year our Prep Division presents and interdisciplinary project on some particular topic, involving presentations by the Departments of Art, Music, Theater, English, Science, History, and so on, culminating in a single evening of presentations for parents, friends and students. 

The topic chosen for this year is "Fifty Years of New Beginnings," the story of the resurrection of St. Benedict's Prep in 1972 and the ongoing story of what has been happening here in the fifty years since then. That's the background for this blog post.

Yesterday I visited two art classes in which the kids are beginning to look for ideas about "Fifty Years of New Beginnings" to represent in various forms of graphic arts.

I sat on a high stool in front of a room full of young men and retold briefly from my perspective the story of how our school, which had been closed for a year, suddenly stirred back to life. Retelling the story was, of course a moving experience for me in lots of ways. But a thought that kept coming up was this: God kept on supporting us, guiding us and shaping us through suffering into a community of monks that the Lord could use to bring about a miracle.

It was a humbling experience to sit there and rattle off the long series of decisions we had made, many of them leaps of faith into the unknown future, relying on one another and of course on the Lord. Looking back on the experience, I found that the emotions of worry and fear had faded away, leaving only an inspiring feel-good story about death and ongoing restriction. 

Our memory often does us the favor of slowly erasing the really unpleasant and fearful emotions  that accompanied past events. In the case of the closing and re-opening of St. Benedict's Prep, I'm particularly thankful that I can't conjure up the feelings of fear and sometimes even panic that were for me a very real part of the process of reopening our school.

So, here are three lessons I took away from my guest lectures to the students yesterday.

First, without the emotional side, the story is very flat and two-dimensional, so I have to be willing to provide some of that third dimension that brings the stories to life, even if this is at times unpleasant or painful.

Second, I was reminded once again that the Lord has been present to our little community at every step and every crossroads, and continues guiding us along the path we're supposed to take.

Third, I was reminded again how incredibly kind the Lord has been to us monks in letting us be his instruments over these fifty years of building a community of almost 1,000 students, of alumni, parents and generous benefactors. I'm always amused when someone says "You guys have done such a great job with this school, bringing it back from nothing and making it what it is today." I always say to that person, "Look around you at all these buildings, and this community of hundreds of students and this marvelous faculty. Do you really thank that a couple of guys in 1972 could be responsible for accomplishing all this? Clearly not.  This is all God's work; we just had to try to keep out of his way!"

Fifty years with my brothers, trying to keep out of the Lord's way -- Not a bad way to spend my life I suppose.   



 

Saturday, October 22, 2022

A LESSON FROM THE SHOPPERS

In the Gospel for this Sunday, October 23, Jesus tells us the parable of the two men who went up to the temple to pray:

Jesus addressed this parable

to those who were convinced of their own righteousness

and despised everyone else.

"Two people went up to the temple area to pray;

one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,

'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --

greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.

I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'

But the tax collector stood off at a distance

and would not even raise his eyes to heaven

but beat his breast and prayed,

'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;

for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,

and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Lk 18:9-14)


There is a good lesson here about our own approach to prayer.


International Friendship Bridge
The International Friendship Bridge crosses the Paraná, River, which marks the border between Brazil and Paraguay. The prices of goods are much lower in Paraguay, enticing thousands of shoppers to cross the bridge, many of them on foot, to take advantage of he bargains. Many of the shoppers crossing from Brazil into Paraguay are carrying huge canvas bags or large suitcases which are, like those canvas bags, completely empty. The shoppers returning from Paraguay are also lugging large carryalls and suitcases, but now the bags are bulging with the bargains they're bringing home to Brazil.


You and I can learn something about prayer from these Brazilian bargain hunters streaming across the

bridge into Paraguay with their empty bags and suitcases: These shoppers show up, you might say, empty-handed, with plenty of room to receive the things they hope to buy.


Now look at the two characters in the gospel story. The Pharisee shows up feeling quite full of himself and doesn't really think he needs anything from God. The tax-collector, by contrast, shows up like one of those Brazilian shoppers crossing the International Friendship Bridge with their empty bags: he comes before the Lord empty-handed and needy, asking for nothing but the Lord's mercy.


When Saint Augustine is pondering the mystery of why God does not always answer our prayers, he suggests that our continual prayer and repeated asking have the effect of making our hearts capacius, "roomier." In this way, we will be even more able to receive the grace of God's answer when it finally comes. I can't help thinking of those optimistic shoppers crossing that bridge carrying their huge, empty bags that contain nothing but empty space waiting to be filled.


May the Lord teach each of us how to come before the throne of mercy, how to show up empty.