Saturday, July 31, 2021

"DIDN'T" OR "COULDN'T?"

 

"Did Not" vs "Could Not"

Yesterday's gospel at mass was the familiar story about Jesus in his home town preaching to people who knew his family, who'd gone to synagogue school with him years ago, or had ordered things from the carpenter shop run by his father and him. (Mt. 13:) Matthew ends the episode with "And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith (Mt. 13:58)." 

"Wait! Is that what the verse actually says?" I asked myself. Half a minute later I was reading the original Greek text and there it was, in plain Greek: "He did not work many mighty deeds there..." Hmm. I still felt something was missing. So I looked up the same episode in the gospel of Mark (Mk 6:1-6), and there I found the verse "So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there" (v.5).   

Now I felt better -- I hadn't been imagining things. So I began reflecting on the difference between Matthew's "he did not" and Mark's "he could not" do his mighty deeds. Interestingly, both writers use the Greek word dynamis, "mighty deeds" as a synonym for "miracles." But the noun dynamis itself simply means "power" (as in "For thine is the kingdom and the power...") So here we have a  picture of Jesus, the Powerful One, who, according to Mark, is powerless to do his works of power; Mark tells us that he is "not able" to do the powerful miraculous things he wants to do for the people in his town. 

I started asking myself, "Are there things that make it difficult or even impossible for Jesus to work his works of power in my own life?" I made a quick list of some pretty impressive impediments that I put in the way when Jesus wants to work wonders in my life, when he wishes to transform me into my true self, a totally new person. The first obstacle on the list was fear. 

Sheltering in Place

In today's world, most office buildings and schools have mandatory instructional sessions concerning "active shooter" situations. One of the basic responses is to hide -- get into a room, close and lock the door and then stack furniture against the door as a barricade. Then get down low and stay away from the door. 

This scene is an accurate image of some people's way of being in the world: their goal is self-protection. Nobody gets in. That way they can't get hurt, they're invulnerable. In psychological terms you could say that they are avoiding "intimacy." This is, of course not a very life-giving kind of existence because we are not made for isolation but for love. We're made in the image of a God who is love itself, a Trinitarian God, i.e.a God who is relationship. And this God created you and me in that same image and likeness. Piling up furniture at the door is a fine strategy in an active shooter situation, but it's not a great model as a way of living.

Remember that famous painting of Jesus knocking at the door of ones heart? Picture him standing there, his arms loaded with gifts he's bringing to the person who lives there. But what if, on the other side of the door that person is frantically shoving the sofa, armchairs, lamps, and end tables against that door as a protective barricade?

"Don't Be Afraid"

On the list of things that keep Jesus from working miracles in my life, the first one was fear. Fear of letting go of all those protections that I've built up over the years, those external, visible, measurable activities and attitudes that define me for most people. What would happen if I let go of my "external" self, letting all those things drop away? That's scary! I would be left vulnerable, with no familiar shields to hide behind. "And the Lord was unable to work any mighty deeds there."  

But, as I looked at all those externals that I use to define my public self (teaching, celebrating mass, writing books and blogposts, and so forth), I realized that my closest friends and family members, people who really love me, they don't love me because of any of those externals. They just love me. When I let my guard down and share with someone who I really am deep inside (the Latin word for deep inside is intimus, which gives us our English "intimacy") then I'm doing exactly what Jesus needs in order to work wonders for me: I'm leaving myself open for a deep, personal, trusting relationship of intimacy with him. I'm buying into the paschal mystery, in which everything, including sin and all kinds of evil, are, like Christ's crucifixion and death, transformed into salvation and new life.


Prayers and masses, sacrifices and acts of obedience to the divine commandments cannot and do not take the place of surrendering myself into the Lord's loving embrace, of trusting that everything that happens in my life, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is somehow part of the Lord's loving plan for me. It's always about love. 

Little by little I've been removing the pieces of furniture that are blocking the door. The next time He knocks I hope I'll be able to say "Come in, Lord!"




Saturday, July 24, 2021

SIGN ME UP FOR SIXTY

 

Why not 18 and 0?

Some years ago, when our newly hired soccer coach Rick Jacobs held his first meeting with the St. Benedict's Prep soccer team, he walked into the room with a piece of chalk his hand and asked, 

“What are your goals for next year? Let’s say we have eighteen games; what do you want our record to be?” 

The kids were coming off of a losing season the previous year, so some kids answered, 

“Well, better than .500.” 

“15 and 3!” added another player.

“Uh huh. That sounds pretty good,” Jacobs answered. Then he looked around at the young faces, all of them showing curiosity as to what was next. Then he asked them,

“Why don’t you want to be 18 and 0?”

The kids sat there mute for a few moments, digesting that new way of approaching their season. His teams were to do a lot of 18 and 0’s over the next many years, but even when they missed that goal by a game or two they were still pretty good. 

Why not a hundredfold?


"But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.(Mt 13:23)."

Imagine Jesus looking around at his disciples after telling them the parable of the sower and the seed (Mt 13:18-23). With the sound of the last sentence (quoted above) still echoing in their ears he looks around, and begins to question each of them individually: 

"Peter, what can I sign you up for? 30? 60? 100?" 

"Lord, you know me! Put me down for 100!"

"Good. Who else? Thomas?"

"Well, I'm not sure about this whole business yet. Put me down for 30."

And You: How About You?

Now we come to the crunch -- it's my turn. He turns to me and looks into my eyes.


"And what about you, Albert? What have you been aiming for in living the gospel lately?"

He looks into my heart and can see that I think I've been doing pretty well with this following the Gospel business. So he's not surprised when I puff out my chest a little and report,

"Lord, I think that, thanks to your grace, I've been bearing well over sixty-fold." There's a twinkle in Jesus' eye because he knows that I actually rate myself much higher than sixty, but I don't want to come across to the others as being arrogant. 

“Uh huh. That sounds pretty good,” he replies, sounding eerily like a soccer coach. Then he pauses for a moment and looks at me again with that loving gaze and asks me,

"Why aren't you aiming for one hundred?

I sit there mute for a few moments, digesting this new possible approach to living the Gospel. 

Like some kid going out for soccer, I ask myself, "Am I ready for that kind of total commitment?" 

I'm still thinking about my answer.

Why not a hundred fold?


Saturday, July 17, 2021

A GOD TOO SMALL

For my lectio this morning I spent time with the sentence "[Jesus'] heart was moved with pity for them." As I put myself in the scene, and felt Jesus wrap his arms around me the way a shepherd might a little lamb, I started to notice a familiar disconnect. I've been confronting it more intensely recently in various books I happen to be reading. I'll try to unpack at least some of what I've been wrestling with.

Forty years ago J.B. Philips wrote a book with the catchy title "Your God is Too Small." Although I didn't read the book, I've never forgotten the title. It's only very recently that I've started to realize that the challenge in that title is not addressed just to others but to me. My God seems to be getting smaller every day! Here are two indicators that I've been faced with in the past few days: 

- The great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner reminds me that "God" cannot be thought of as one more object within my perceived world, alongside everything else in creation. The idea of "God" has to go beyond (transcend) the limits not just of my senses, but even of my limited intellect. Jesus took on flesh and dwelt among us to bring this transcendent God within our experience, revealing something of God's inner mysterious Trinitarian life of Love. But the mystery of God still remains too big for me to simply latch on to. Beware of people who have God in their pocket!


The God of Moralism at work

-- The Franciscan Richard Rohr keeps throwing down various versions of a certain challenge all the time. Most recently I came across it in his "Immortal Diamond." Religion, he contends, always makes God into an object of some kind, and reduces God to the role of manager of a great System of rewards and punishments. "Moralism" offers you the goal of heaven if you obey the rules scrupulously. From the perspective of "moralism" God's love and compassion revealed by Jesus are suddenly restricted to a few people who follow the moral formula. As for the rest of humanity, well, sorry, Jesus, but they don't qualify. The system of "moralism" seems to be what religion has usually been reduced to. What, then, becomes of the Jesus of the gospel whose heart is moved with pity at the sight of all the tired and hungry people who are like sheep without a shepherd? 

Is this a perfect caterpillar? 
Jesus doesn't call me to moralistic perfection but rather to transformation, Transformation means letting go of my individualistic project of earning my way to heaven by following rules and measuring up to various minimum standards. The "Good News" that's presented from the pulpit is almost always from the perspective of "moralistic" religion supervised by a God who calculates and measures everyone's worthiness or unworthiness. Do I dare to push back and object that this God is way too small! Again, where is the Jesus of the Gospel?  

Only seldom do we hear about the foreboding challenge of "transformative" religion as opposed to "moralistic" religion. One big stumbling block to "transformative" religion is that the latter requires me to let go of my comfortable well-understood God. The total letting go required by transformative religion requires complete trust in a mysterious God who loves me and everyone unconditionally and infinitely and intimately. A God who does not follow our human rules. Most of us have never been invited by the Church to a personal intimate friendship with God, a friendship that can ultimately transform us into someone totally new.

Instead we are presented with at God who is way too small for that kind of intimacy: a God whomeasures, who gets even with people who screw up, who is concerned about the rules being followed. so that no one unworthy can share in the Eternal Reward that is due only to those who merit it. This is a human-scale God, a God who is way, way too small. No wonder so many good people are no longer interested in dealing with such a God.


Because of time constraints, let me leave the problem hanging here for a week, if you don't mind.

Meanwhile, try praying with the scriptures and receiving the Eucharist and encountering others with the idea of encountering a mysterious loving God who is incredibly bigger than the one you may be familiar with and are comfortable doing business with.

The God of Transformation at Work


Saturday, July 10, 2021

WAIT! I HAVE A PLAN!

Authors of "thrillers" love to use this sort of crucial turning point in the plot: 

The four friends are exploring a deep, dark cavern armed only with knapsacks, flashlights and canteens. Suddenly  there's an earthquake that causes the surrounding tunnels to collapse. The four are safe for the moment in this large room; but after a thorough search reveals no exit tunnels they realize that they're hopelessly trapped. [Skip the dialogue here and the closeups of terrified faces, and cut to the scene some time later as all are lying around the floor of the cave, each lost in his or her own thoughts] 

Suddenly our hero stands up and starts rummaging through his knapsack.

"What are you doing?" a sleepy voice asks. Without looking up, he announces in a businesslike tone,

"I have a plan!"

"I HAVE A PLAN"

Dr. King's famous words "I have a dream" continue to inspire millions of people around the world, including me. But there's something just as thrilling when in the midst of a situation from which there seems to be no escape, and everyone has given up hope, the hero confidently announces, "I have a plan." Yes! Just when it seems that all is lost, the plot takes on a whole new dynamism, a fresh start. The story can now proceed -- and with a more interesting story line.

Today so many people rely solely on their senses and rational thinking to find the meaning in their lives. Unfortunately, the really important things such as the ultimate meaning and purpose of our existence don't show up on any measuring devices, and escape the entire array of  marvelous detectors in the physics lab. Speaking of physics labs, our Fr. Mark Payne, O.S.B., who died six years ago today, used to have a  sign posted in his physics lab:

"If you cannot measure it, it's not physics.

If you can measure it, it's not ultimately important"

Searching for answers in Surfside

There's the problem in a nutshell: We are are made for meaning, we want and need to know the ultimate significance of things, the gist, the plot of the story, of our story. When certain folks tell us that there is nothing beyond our material world, that there is therefore no larger plot, no gist, no ultimate meaning, we may be able to live with that for awhile, provided we can stop our minds from asking the very questions it needs most to ask. But when the roof of the cavern caves in, or the condo collapses, or you're told that you have COVID, your mind just naturally kicks back in and asks "Why?" 

Of course, people of faith know that in situations of suffering and catastrophe, we don't usually get nice clean answers when we ask "Why?" But the first reading in today’s mass (Genesis Ch. 50) assigned for July 10, shows Joseph in Egypt revealing his identity to his brothers who many years ago had sold him into slavery. The brothers are now worried that Joseph will avenge himself on them. Here’s the dialog. The brothers start pleading with Joseph:

"Please, therefore, forgive the crime that we,
Joseph forgives his brothers
 the servants of your father’s God, committed.”
When they spoke these words to him, Joseph broke into tears.
Then his brothers proceeded to fling themselves down before him and said, “Let us be your slaves!” But Joseph replied to them:“Have no fear.  Can I take the place of God? Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve his present end, the survival of many people. Therefore have no fear. I will provide for you and for your children.”

Joseph clearly had figured out that the terrible experiences of being sold into slavery by members of his own family had some deeper meaning. "Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good,
to achieve his present end, the survival of many people." His attitude of trusting that God's loving plan was at work in his life is a gift that all of us pray for. 

Joseph, however, received a truly rare gift: a sense of what God's plan actually was.(Namely, "the survival of many people"). Most of have to walk by faith and not by sight, taking it on faith that in God's overall loving plan for the world, everything, including suffering and evil ultimately works for the good in the end. 

I'm sure that Jesus must have a special, warm place in his heart for people who are so overwhelmed by grief or anger that they cannot see how God could allow such a terrible thing to happen and consequently they no longer believe in God, and look someplace else for meaning.

Meanwhile, as we pray for people who see no meaning in their lives, we should also praise and thank the Lord for allowing us to believe his consoling voice when it whispers to us, "Do not be afraid: I have a plan!"  

Photo from Hubble telescope: A star "swarm" by the One with the Plan



Saturday, July 3, 2021

LEAVE A MESSAGE, I'LL GET BACK TO YOU

Three Tries But No Answer 

I ended last week's post about prayer with the thought that I might look at the problem of "unanswered prayer" this week. And now, conveniently enough, we find the following passage assigned as part of the Second Reading at mass for Sunday, July 4:

Brothers and sisters:That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. 
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 4:7f)

Paul has just finished describing a mystical vision which had lifted him to the heights of heaven and let him see secrets that he can't even put into words. Then comes the above passage in which he explains that God wanted to prevent him from getting too puffed up over that experience. We don't know exactly what he's referring to by his "thorn in the flesh;" but it's some sort of suffering, whether physical, spiritual, or psychological. One scholar suggests that it may have been a particular person who opposed Paul at every turn and made his preaching ministry very difficult. 

In any case, Paul grows weary of being "beaten up" by this affliction, and prays intensely on three occasions to be delivered from it. But in vain. Some might say that God doesn't answer his prayer, but this isn't the way Paul himself sees it. God does answer his prayer, telling him: “My grace is sufficient for you." Paul's own preferred plan is that he be freed from this affliction, but God offers a different plan in which Paul will be strengthened by his suffering, "for power is made perfect in weakness.” God doesn't just tell him "Find a way to deal with it!" but assures him that God's loving presence will be with him through every trial, and will be enough to get him through. 

Stretching Exercises

St. Augustine suggests that when God doesn't answer our prayer immediately it's because the waiting in faith increases our desire and "expands" our hearts. I remember reading this in his "Letter to Proba" and having to look up his Latin word capacius. It turns out to be the comparative form of the adjective capax, which means something like "of sufficient size, roomy." Ever since then, when I'm in the midst of some bout of unanswered prayer I picture my heart being stretched, made capacius, by my constant earnest asking. Why does God need my heart to be made "roomier?" There's the mystery: I've no idea. But I do know this much: that the Lord's grace is sufficient to get me through the situation, and that whatever the mysterious plan is, it has to do with Love, with making me less selfish and more able to welcome others into my now roomier heart.

The Vending Machine Problem

One key to dealing satisfactorily with the question of unanswered prayer is the notion that we are created for a relationship of personal intimacy with God. God wants to have a relationship of love with each of us, but such a relationship involves risk-taking: leaving myself vulnerable, letting the other know all about me, leaving the other person free to respond in love in whatever way they wish, being open to surprises and to disappointments. That's what "intimacy" involves.

A telling contrast is the example of a vending machine. I insert my dollar bill with complete confidence that the machine is going to deliver exactly what I asked for, right away. This is a mechanical operation performed by a machine. There's no question of conscious response to a request -- the machine is engineered to "react" to specific commands. So of course I get outraged if the machine gobbles up my dollar but then just sits there mutely without reacting. I fume: "Where's my bag of chips!"

So, now. think about your relationship with God. Do you ever think of God as a vending machine that is supposed to react the way you want because you've inserted some required amount of prayers or masses or good deeds? Or is your God a Person who is free to respond to you in the most loving possible way, even if that way is beyond your ability to understand?

Disappointed 
Customer
When the vending machine doesn't deliver, people get upset and may even start rocking the machine or kicking it. When their Vending-Machine-God doesn't deliver, people get upset and feel betrayed, even crushed by their disappoint- ment. God didn't deliver.


The Mystery Remains 

Because God did not create us as automatons but as free persons designed for intimacy with our loving Creator, unanswered prayer will always be a possibility, a mystery we have to live with. 

But at least now it sounds like a plan. Or should I say a Plan?



Saturday, June 26, 2021

HIS PRIVATE NUMBER

 

A friend of mine wants me to go to this certain spine specialist to get my back looked at. (I used to blog about my back pain years ago, but then I got bored with telling you about it, and then the pain subsided anyway.) Well, this friend so insistent about my needing to see this really cool doctor that the other day he emailed me, "The doctor told me to give you his private cellphone number so you can talk to him right away and he'll squeeze you in. Here's his number." 

Yesterday I was reading the writings of the great mystic Benedictine nun, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). (The process to canonize her as a saint got stalled for centuries until her fellow German, Pope Benedict XVI restarted it. She was canonized in May of 2012 and half a year later was declared a Doctor of he Church).I came upon a passage in which she states very matter of factly that God began speaking to her directly through interior voices and visions. She dutifully wrote down what she was told, and published the results.

So, reading about Hildegard's experiences started me thinking about the various ways God has of relating with and communicating with me, and I with God. Like any relationship, this one takes work, of course, and in this case the important effort is centered around contemplative listening. Listening to what? Well, of course there's Sacred Scripture, and the liturgy and sermons. But remember that definition, "Contemplation is a long loving look at reality." The Lord is constantly trying to communicate with me through my daily experiences of loving and being loved, of failure and success, of anger or peacefulness and so on. So, I need to be looking hard, or I might add, listening hard. 

On the other hand, while I'm working hard at contemplative listening to the Lord, it seems that the Lord  loves me so much that he's given me his direct cellphone number. "Call me any time, night or day, and you'll get right through. No receptionist, no being put on hold. When you call I will answer." It takes some faith to really believe the Lord's words to Jeremiah (29:12-13): "Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."

And, of course, it takes even more faith to believe that the Lord has listened to my prayer if my request doesn't get met. The mystery of unanswered prayer is one of the most troublesome ones for many faithful believers. Maybe I'll try tackling that one in the next post. Keep your phone charged just in case.

"Kneeling in Prayer" - Nadine Rippelmeyer



Saturday, June 19, 2021

OUR SELFIE WORLD

 

Plaza Mayor in Madrid

A week ago one of our lay Benedictine Oblates told me of her surprise when visiting Madrid's beautiful Plaza Mayor a few years ago: everybody had their selfie sticks out and were so intent on taking their own pictures that they were practically poking each other, and hardly looking at the beautiful buildings.

That image has stayed with me, and in fact has grown into the following scene: The entire world is crowded with people, all taking selfies. They're bumping into each other, accidentally poking those around them with their selfie sticks, heedlessly backing up to the edges of cliffs and shark tanks. They are all so focused on looking at themselves that they don't notice the beautiful scenery or the needs of the brothers and sisters around them. 

In a selfie I'm always in the foreground. "This is me near the Eiffel Tower." "This is me, with the Swiss Alps in the background." "This is me with the sunset behind me." This makes me ask what what happens when I take that mentality into my relationship with Christ. What sort of pictures do I get if I bring my selfie stick to my bible meditation? "Oh, here's one of me in Jericho. The guy in the back there who's healing the blind man, that's Jesus." Tomorrow's gospel story would give me "This is me sitting in the boat during the storm. You can't see Jesus in this one -- he's sitting behind me in the stern." Or, on a more spiritual level, "Here's one of me asking Jesus for forgiveness." 

Somehow my selfie stick seems to be growing more and more irrelevant, and worse than useless because it's completely misleading, forcing me into a view of reality that's totally backwards. By definition my "self" becomes the center, the very purpose of a selfie. Did you ever meet somebody who was a walking selfie, who thought they were the center of the universe? (Besides a two-year old, who, we hope, will quickly grow out of the "terrible twos.") 

Sometimes, on a bad day, I start to feel as if the world is crowded with people brandishing selfie sticks and completely oblivious to everyone and everything around them, including everything within their heart or soul. But then I start of think about my brother monks, my loving relatives and friends, the donors and the faculty and staff of our school whose generosity always humbles me. There's not a selfie stick in the whole crowd. That's enough to encourage me. I keep trying to learn from their example, and to live in a world where things are in the right perspective: God is all in all, and Christ's infinite, unconditional love permeates and rules everything, including especially me, my "self."