28 October 2008

Called to be a Living Temple of God

There is an online conversation about the new Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, and it falls about the way one might expect: Traditionalists hate it, call it Protestant, non-Catholic, castigate it for lacking Catholic symbolism, gothic sensibilities, altar rails, bell towers, etc ad infinitum et ad nauseam. This morning one person (in a more generous comment) called it "nice but plain" and it got me to thinking about what is actually missing from this Cathedral in the pictures these folks are looking at (because almost none of them have actually SEEN the new Cathedral first hand). With the help of today's readings I got a good kick in the pants (it's a jeans and work tunic kind of day!!) re what is the crucial element that Cathedral itself calls for and needs so clearly.

It was an obvious answer. What is missing is the ASSEMBLY, the coming together of the "called ones" who will make up the living stones of the living Temple. Because when the assembly is present, the Cathedral pulses with a life which is palpable; it is what it is meant to be at these times. Now don't get me wrong. The Cathedral is beautiful in any case. Its symbolism is rich and clear and more traditional or truly Catholic one could not get. It is alive with light and living water (the image of the Christ of majesty is created second by second by the light that enters the cathedral through minute holes, and the baptismal font has the water contantly moving), and of course, there is also the reserved Eucharist. But this cathedral is not a museum; it is a worship space, and despite its inherent beauty and symbolism, it is built so that it is really only complete and completely alive when it is filled with worshipping Christians. The Cathedral of Christ the Light is wonderful, but it, in its own way, steps back and serves the more important reality: the Temple of living stones which are Christ "brought to full stature" as Paul's letter to the Ephesians puts the matter.

For some time the term "vocation" was something the church, at least in practice, associated solely with religious and clergy. We all remember this and may see signs of it today. In fact, bits of this way of thinking and viewing things may still reside in our own hearts and prevent us from taking our lives as seriously as God does (and as he desires we do as well!). To "have a vocation" meant to be called to religious or priestly life. Nothing else was honored with the term "vocation" --- not marriage, not single life. Vocations were understood as wonderful things, to be highly esteemed, but only a relative few were thus called by God. The result was inevitable: those NOT called to religious life or priesthood came to see their own lives as less important or significant in God's eyes. They were taught that religious life is a "higher vocation" (a misunderstanding of the idea of relative "states of perfection") and naturally, they heard in their heart of hearts that their own vocation (if they could even apply that word effectively!) was "lower" or second class.

Today's readings cut the heart out of such a practice and undergird the changes that were achieved at Vatican II in this regard. Each of us is called by NAME to be --- that is, simply to be is a response to a call of God --- and more, each of us is called to be part of the very inner life of God --- called to take a place within his very life even as we allow him to reside more and more fully within us and fill our own lives with being and light. It does not matter whether we are religious, hermits, priests, or laity; each of us is called to be this living temple of God and living stones in the larger Temple which is the People of God. Awareness of this tremendous dignity and challenge is at the root of all truly prayerful and faithful living. It leaves no room for thinking of oneself or one's vocation as second class --- nor for thinking that one's vocation is "higher" than another's.

As the first reading from Ephesians affirms: "You are no longer strangers or sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God. . .[through Christ you are being built into a structure which] is held together and grows into a Temple sacred in the Lord; in Him you are also being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit."

Imagine being a temple of the Spirit! The place where the Holy Spirit dwells in our world! Imagine really being people of prayer, not because we undertake an activity called prayer once or even several times a day, but because the Word speaks and the Spirit breathes in us in a way which MAKES us God's own prayers --- for remember, prayer is not what we do, but what God does in us. If it sounds astounding, it should, and yet, it is our everyday vocation, our call to be genuinely human, to be a dialogue between this world and God --- for that is what authentic humanity really is. Religious or eremitical life, priesthood or laity, marriage, single life, or consecrated virginity are all simply paths to this universal vocation. All of this is what Paul is referring to when he speaks of us as living stones or temples of the Holy Spirit. So imagine saying this living stone, this temple of the Holy Spirit is a first class stone, and this one is second class! Doesn't really work, does it?

The new Cathedral of Christ the Light, like any cathedral is the diocesan mother church, the seat of the Bishop. But to be complete, to be perfected in its structure and purpose it must be filled with praying people, people who are and are becoming PRAYER -- living stones in a living Temple with Christ as the capstone. If this new cathedral's symbolism of mediating the light and reality of the risen Christ between heaven and earth is to really be SYMBOLIC (which is to be more than a sign, afterall!) it must be filled with people who have themselves become dialogues between this world and God and who come together to celebrate the fact and, especially, the God who makes it continually possible. So, if the Cathedral of Christ the Light is "nice but plain" without its assembly of living stones, then that is as it should be. For, beautiful as the new cathedral is, it is a vehicle for something even more awesome --- the vocation of Christians, both individually and corporately, to realize their call to be the dwelling place of God and to be taken up into his own life at the same time, the vocation to be living stones in a Temple which will outlast (and outclass!) ANY Cathedral.

23 October 2008

Big Sur Hermitage Safe and Monks return

Update, 27, October: The monks returned to New Camaldoli Hermitage on Saturday (October 25). At this time they expect that guests (even those just passing through and not staying overnight) will be allowed to come to the Hermitage next Friday (October 31, Halloween). Right now there is still a lot of heavy equipment on the Hermitage driveway that would make it difficult for guests to come in and for the firefighers to move the equipment around.

The Chalk Fire update posted on Inciweb this morning is apparently the last update that will be posted...that clearly means that the work is really limited to mopping up and catching a few small hotspots.

Update, 26 October: Sorry, no more recent new news about the Hermitage. However, in this case I am assuming no news is good news and that it means the projected reopening for this weekend came off without a hitch. I will be on retreat for this week (beginning this evening) and will be posting here on the blog, but I may not be in contact with others who can give me information. We'll see. Certainly if I hear anything contrary to the supposed good news I will post it here.

(23, October, 2008) More prayers are requested for the Big Sur Hermitage. The monks have evacuated but the latest news is the fire is closer to the hermitage than it has been in 50 years of fires, and is actually burning parts of the monks' property. The winds are uncertain and this adds to the danger. The fire had been almost completely contained (83%) but with the winds and change in humidity the story is different now.

A core group of monks remain at the monastery but it is uncertain how long that will be either. Others are at St Clare's retreat house in Soquel and several are at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley. All are safe but concerned about the Hermitage.

20 October 2008

Camaldolese Hermitage Evacuated: Chalk Fire

The following information on the evacuation of New Camaldoli Hermitage was posted on the Oblate list. The Chalk fire has been burning for some weeks, but the danger of evacuation became serious just recently. Please pray for the monks and the hermitage itself. Contributions would also be welcomed not only because the Hermitage was closed for part of the Summer due to another serious fire and evacuation and lost a great deal in ordinary and necessary revenue from retreatants, but because they will be closed to guests for another week or so now and again lose revenue.

[[New Camaldoli Hermitage was evacuated Friday 10/18 because of the threat posed by the increased activity of the Chalk Fire which has been burning south of the Hermitage since the end of September. While a week ago the fire seemed to almost entirely contained, on Thursday 10/16 the fire jumped some lines on the northern edge and hot spots were now detected in Limekiln State park located next to the Hermitage. Xasauan Today has the MODIS satellite image from Friday afternoon which anyone can view at http://xasauantoday.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/chalk10-17pm.jpg. The monks are staying at St. Clare’s Retreat House in Soquel, near Santa Cruz (where they stayed in July during the earlier evacuation).

The most recent message recorded by Fr. Isaiah, the guestmaster, indicates that the Hermitage will be closed to guests at least until the weekend of October 24-26, although he also said that it is quite possible the monks will still be evacuated at that time. He did state that the monks were optimistic that the structures at the Hermitage would be protected. Four monks have remained behind at the Hermitage to work with firefighters, as well as about a half dozen of the workers employed by the community. Gordon, who is at the Hermitage, sent the following to Big Sur Kate on Sunday morning (10/19) which she posted on her blog (bigsurkate.wordpress.com):

“There are four monks remaining and about six workers including my son who chose an interesting time to come visit from Seattle. We all have faith that the hermitage will remain intact. There is good dozer line protecting us. Depending on who you ask word is that they may do a backburn from the [?] but it is not clear at least to me if/when that will happen. From within the monastery grounds we can’t see the fire. It’s just over the E/NE edge of the bowl we live in.”

The Sunday evening update (8 pm PDT on 10/19) stated:

“The firing operation which started about noon today was successful. Crews started from the dozer line approximately 2 miles north of the New Camaldoli Hermitage and burned south along the dozer line. As of this afternoon the firing had almost reached the Hermitage. Crews will continue with the firing operation into this evening as long as there is still opportunity to burn. Crews supported by helicopters and air tankers worked to hold the ridge NW of Twin Peak parallel with the Carizzo Trail. In the Limekiln State Park area, the fire is backing down slowly.

Tonight crews will continue to hold and support the firing operations. Structure protection continues in Limeklin State Park and the Hermitage. Cool temperatures and good relative humidity with light winds should result in minimal perimeter growth. Along the coast, below 1,500 ft. the marine layer will continue to be temperatures cool and moist throughout the night.”

And Big Sur Kate (who lives on a ridge south of the Hermitage and has been providing amazing first hand information for the 24 days that the Chalk Fire has burned) wrote on her blog yesterday (Sunda 10/19)“I am no fire expert, by any means, but what I witnessed today, the burn-out operation north east of the Hermitage really looked good today.”]]

10 October 2008

Continuing in Galatians, Lections for Friday 27th Week of Ordinary Time

Today and yesterday the readings from Galatians provide the real heart of Paul's arguments. Yesterday Paul called the Galatians idiots (foolish, stupid, blind and deaf) and asked if they had been bewitched. This is no mean accusation in a world populated by demons and, as Paul sees the matter, either under the power of the Gospel (which means graced and free), OR under the power of that which is anti-God. Paul's questions are incredibly shocking, and calculated for just that purpose. As Jesus' parables are meant to disorient and reorient at fundamental levels Paul's use of really harsh characterizations and either/or thinking is meant to do the same. So many times we forget that with regard to the Gospel it really IS a matter of grace OR sin, commitment to God OR commitment to that which is contrary to God, Faith OR Faithlessness, and both Paul and Jesus remind us that fundamentally our lives can ONLY be oriented one way OR the other. As I have said before, there is no neutral stance from which we can live our lives, no safe dispassionate place from which we can approach reality. We are committed to God in Christ with all that means, OR WE ARE NOT. As today's Gospel tells us, "those who are not with me are against me, those who do not gather with me scatter."

In today's reading from Galatians Paul lays out his most fundamental insight: Christ was condemned (cursed or adjudged Godless) by the LAW. And yet, as Paul's experience of the Risen Christ clearly signified, this "Godless blasphemer" was vindicated by God and raised from the dead (from Godlessness and non-being). Either the Jews (including Paul himself) were correct and Jesus was rightly condemned and crucified under the Law (which was correctly applied!), OR they had to reevaluate the place of Law and look again at what God had done in this man Jesus. Paul's theology is clear that God is working in the ultimately weak and "godless" to reveal himself exhaustively. He KNOWS the Law was correctly, that is legally, applied, and that all that Jesus did and stood for cried out for this application. He does NOT doubt that the Law was correctly applied, nor does he think that people simply made a mistake in applying it. Rather, he sees clearly that LAW is unable to cope with what God was doing in Christ; Law falls short here (hamartia, central NT term for sin = to fall short, remember) and, in conjunction with human sinfulness, becomes the very curse it accused Jesus of being.

This is the essential reason Paul does not allow for a Gospel buttressed by Law. The good news he proclaims is the gospel where God's love goes beyond anything the Law can either bring about or legislate; it goes beyond anything human beings could imagine, much less codify. It is an imperfect and transitional form of Divine wisdom which is pedagogical or instructive (and excellent for the immature!), but which is transcended by what God is doing in his Christ, for what God is doing there is remaking human beings into a new creation, a creation where Law actually holds us back from genuinely ethical behavior. (Remember the Gospel reading on the good Samaritan!) So when Paul points out that the Gospel saves, he really means the Gospel proclaimed to us transforms our very being when it is heard, and that transformation results in a higher ethic (way of being human) than Law itself could ever legislate or even express. To combine Law and Gosepl is to compromise the very truth of the Gospel which is the good news of ultimately responsible freedom --- that is the outworking of God's empowered new creation. Either there IS a new creation in the CRUCIFIED Christ or there is NOT. Either the Law is still the way we are truly human, or it is not. To straddle the line here and build on a Gospel buttressed by Law is to deny what God was doing in Christ. Paul sees that clearly, as does the Church. That is especially clear in her choice of Gospel passages today with Luke's reference to the returning demons who come to reoccupy the once cleaned out home.

As noted above, both lections today are about the notion that with regard to the Gospel there is no room for compromise. We either build our lives on it OR on some other (and antithetical) reality. (Even Law becomes antithetical here.) Luke is especially clear here, but the remoteness of the image may puzzle us rather than make this point clear. What is all this stuff about demons being cast out and then returning with others to make the original dwelling even more unfit than originally? It all has to do with neutral stances and their impossibility when God and his Gospel are at issue. What Luke knows is that the human heart can be cleansed of that which defiles it (and these things are ALWAYS matters of our own commitment), but that if one does not replace these commitments with a genuine commitment to God and his Christ, then they will be replaced by something far worse than the original defilement.

With regard to Paul and the issue of the Law, this is probably pretty clear. Before Christ it was possible to rightly understand the Law as the ultimate wisdom and gift of God. It was not perfect (though some Jews clearly forgot this!) but it was absolutely the most exhaustive way available to give oneself to God and one's neighbor despite its limitations. But after Christ, a new wisdom (power perfected in weakness) and a better way, a more perfect and exhaustively and authentically human way existed to return oneself to God and give oneself to one's neighbors was established. It was a different wisdom and way too because it did not allow one to define neighbors in terms of those who kept the law vs those who did not, nor did it allow one to put matters of legal responsibility first (like avoiding defilement in order to serve in the Temple rather than ministering to a person fallen to bandits). It demanded a new way of seeing reality and a new heart as well. One either committed to this new way of being human, this quite literal new creation, or one did not. If one did not, and, say, one recommited oneself to the Law, then one not only adopted the more imperfect ethic, but has rejected the new person one had been remade into and all that implied with regard to Christ and God.

Moreover, since one had been remade and then failed to make the necessary commitment to this new way of being, Luke knew that one would commit oneself to something far less worthy. The human heart abhors a vacuum, so once it is freed FOR this new humanity, a commitment to something will follow. IF it is to the Law instead of God's new gift -- a new creation and the freedom of the Christian, then Law becomes an idol and a heart that was newly configured witnesses against its very self. I suppose it is a lot like a drug house being cleaned up in order to be a sign to the whole neighborhood of commitment to a new way of existence, new possibilities, new hope, new life. If the house is allowed to remain vacant after being cleansed and renewed then squatters will reoccupy it and what it becomes is a worse defilement than what originally existed. If we allow God to remake our hearts, to open them and ready them for the relatedness and commitment which is part of being truly human and then fail to commit fully to him IN HIS Gospel (and his Christ), SOMETHING and someone ELSE will SURELY take their place.

For Paul, this is the story of Law vs Gospel. There is still more to say about all this (I have not even begun to talk about conditonal vs unconditioned love and salvation by grace, for instance), and more to read in Galatians, but this was the focus of today's readings especially.

07 October 2008

Introduction to Galatians: A look at the Pauline Lections for this week and the next

This week and part of next we are reading Galatians and I have to say it is one of my favorite letters, not simply because it is Paul at his most passionate and biting, but because it is here we see one of the greatest bits of evidence that the Church came only over time to understand the Gospel and its implications; further, because it gives us a sense that church documents do not have to be studies in compromise when the truth is at stake I find it tremendously refreshing.

Galatians is the story of a man fighting for the truth of the Gospel, a truth he knew deeply and which came to him from his experience of the risen Christ. This experience led him to understand that Jesus was truly the Son of God and God's own messiah or anointed one. It was an understanding that so completely conflicted with his former pharisaical wisdom and position, especially his rightful persecution of the Church apparently idolizing a crucified man, that it overturned everything he held dear --- not least his own love of the Law and emphasis on the need to show one is a member of the covenant people by being circumcised. For Paul, it took real courage not to compromise and accept a Law-laced Gospel, not to insist that Gentile Christians also become Jews to be the REAL covenant people, but despite his love for the his own Tradition he came to see that indeed, God was doing something really new in Christ -- even while it was consistent with the best of the Jewish Tradition.

There are so many lessons for us today in this short book that it is one of those that make me thank God it was included in the Canon. Certainly life in the church would have been much easier without it: No condemnations of Peter's hypocrisy, no examples of letting go of long-held God-given gifts (Traditions) so that God could do something new, no sustained examples of genuine conversion and apostleship despite not being among the original twelve, no sharp indictment of law and its opposition to the freedom (and spirit-breathed responsibility) of the Christian, no examples of actually going against what Jesus himself APPARENTLY held onto as necessary for the time being (circumcision!)!! (Consider this last carefully because the NT certainly does not indicate Jesus ever exempted anyone from circumcision, nor was he himself exempted --- and yet, here we have Paul arguing that maintaining the practice is insufficiently sensitive to and even undermines the truth of the Gospel! For those who argue, "Had Jesus wanted x (or not wanted x), he would have DONE x (or not done x)," Galatians is a wonderful kick in the backside.) The resurrection did indeed turn things on their heads, and cultural truths as well as God-given tradtions fell in the process. And thanks be to God this is the case, for there would be no truly catholic church had this not been the case, merely a Jewish sect stamped with a need and capacity to do great good but also marked by a kind of separateness and righteousness open to the relative few.

Yesterday's readings were a great combination: the introduction to Galatians where Paul covers briefly (and sometimes merely implicitly) all the accusations made against him and states what is at stake in the Gospel he has preached, and the Lukan version of the parable of the good Samaritan. In the Gospel from Luke we see that two men doing their duty according to the Law avoid what looks like (and could well be) a dead man. The Law demanded they not defile themselves in this way, and further, that they take care of their temple duties. Hence, they passed by the injured man. Yes, the Law allowed for intervening in life and death situations, but it also leaves a lot of room for casuistry: note the scholar of the Law's final question to Jesus: "who is my neighbor?" Jesus' own ethic leaves no room for such casuistry: the one who loves even the least as God loves has discovered who is the real neighbor, and has acted as one himself. There is nothing more important than this love, no piety which is more demanding. This is a love that law cannot legislate and is dependent upon a freedom law does not give or (sometimes) even allow. It is an extravagant love that calls for no compromises beyond the canny shrewdness of the Samaritan's generosity. What Paul will be arguing to the Church in Galatia this week and the next is precisely this point: The Gospel gives is the freedom of Christ, a deeply responsible freedom which far exceeds the freedom of the Law. We combine it with Law at our own peril, but most significantly at the peril of the Gospel itself.

For now, let me make one point clear which was at the heart of things for Paul: if Christ has really been raised from the dead and vindicated by God, then nothing could go unchanged or without reevaluation. The Law especially and its place in the life and piety of Jews and Gentiles could not go unchallenged, for it was according to the Law that Jesus was crucified as a blasphemer and stigmatized as Godless. It was according to the Law that Paul persecuted Jewish Christians. It is either Law OR Gospel for Paul, because he knew that either Jesus is the risen Christ killed by the Law, or what was done to him was not only legal but the correct way to deal with a blasphemer. Galatians is largely the story of what happens when Paul, as the result of his experience of the Risen Christ, sees this clearly and others do not, but instead try to compromise between Law and Gospel.

I will try to post several more times this week (and next) looking at the daily lections and the challenges posed by Paul's letter to the Galatians. For now let me encourage readers to really spend some time rereading it in the next ten days. If you are looking for a readable and inexpensive but good commentary to use with it try NT (Tom) Wright's Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians. James Dunn's The Theology of the Letter to the Galatians is also quite good, and Sacra Pagina's volume on Galatians is excellent, of course. For readability though, Tom Wright's books are nearly unbeatable.

03 October 2008

Feast of St Francis of Assisi

My God and My All! Deus Meus et Omnia! All good wishes to my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers on this patronal feast! I hope it is a day filled with Franciscan joy and simplicity and that this ancient Franciscan motto echoes in your hearts. In today's world we need more than ever a commitment to Franciscan values, not least a commitment to treasure God's creation in a way which fosters ecological health. Genesis tells us we are stewards of this creation and it is a role we need to take seriously. Francis reminds us of this commission of ours, not least by putting God first in everything. (It is difficult to exploit the earth in the name of consumerism when we put God first, and in fact, allow him to be our God and our All!)

Another theme of Francis's was the rebuilding of the Church and he came to know that it was only as each of us embraced a life of genuine holiness that the Church would be the living temple of God it was meant to be. Having just come from the dedication of our new cathedral and then reading a series of comments by those who denounce everything about it as "protestantized", ugly, etc ad nauseam --- all without ever seeing the place --- I know that the church needs rebuilding. We are a divided household, so it is appropriate that we begin lections on Monday from Paul's letter to the church in Galatia where he takes on those who try to substitute a law-laced Gospel which require Gentile Christians to become practicing Jews as though baptism needs be supplemented by circumcision and the church is to be composed of two classes of Christians, the traditional (circumcized) remnant and the gentiles who lack in externals what the law requires --- nevermind the state of their heart or the truth of their adoption by God. As Paul knew, THIS was the true blasphemy.

But both Paul and Francis knew that if they truly put God and his Christ first what would be built up was a new family, a new creation, undivided and of a single heart. So, in a broken world, and an ailing church, let us learn from these two "fools for Christ" and rebuild in Christ a living temple of unity and love. Again, all good wishes to my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers! I am off to read Chesterton's biography of St Francis, I think.