31 December 2009

Rule Of Benedict, January 1, May 2, September 1

Three times a year Benedictines read through the rule of St Benedict and tomorrow we begin anew. The tone is patient, the advice wise and measured. It is a good way to begin the new calendar year (and for me it is wonderful that the third time through begins again on my own birthday). In every way I get the impression that it is fine to begin anew. On a holiday when people are formulating resolutions, this passage from the prologue to Benedict's Rule strikes just the right note I think --- not only for our own spirituality, but for the world which so badly needs us to be what Saint Benedict describes.

January 1, May 2, September 1


L I S T E N carefully, my child,
to your master's precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father's advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.

To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.

And first of all,
whatever good work you begin to do,
beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,
that He who has now deigned to count us among His children
may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds.
For we must always so serve Him
with the good things He has given us,
that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children,
nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions,
deliver us to everlasting punishment
as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.

25 December 2009

Alleluia, Alleluia!! Hodie Christus Natus Est!

The scandal of the incarnation is one of the themes we neglect at Christmastime or, at best, allude to only indirectly. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We live through the struggles of our lives in light of the moments of hope and joy our faith provides and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the wonder and joy of the birth of our savior. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality nor with all the light and glitter and sound of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. For a brief time we allow the joy of the mystery of Christmas to predominate. We focus on the gift God has given, and the gift we ourselves are meant to become in light of this very special nativity.

Among other things we look closely at the series of "yesses" that were required for this birth to come to realization, the barreness that was brought to fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit. The humbleness of the birth is a piece of all this, of course, but the scandal, the offense of such humbleness in the creator God's revelation of self is something we neglect, not least because we see all this with eyes of faith --- eyes which suspend the disbelief of rationality temporarily so that we can see instead the beauty and wonder which are also there. The real challenge of course is to hold both truths, scandal and beauty, together in a sacramental paradox.

And so I have tried to do in this symbol of the season. This year my Christmas tree combines both the wonder and the scandal of the incarnation, the humbleness of Jesus' estate in human terms, and the beauty of a world transformed with the eyes of love. Through the coming week the readings are serious (massacre of the holy innocents, a warning about choosing "the world," and so forth --- all interspersed with reminders that darkness has been unable to quench the divine light that has come into our world, and the inarticulate groaning which often marks this existence has been brought to a new and joy-filled articulateness in the incarnate Word. Everything, we believe, can become sacramental; everything a symbol of God's light and life amongst us; everything a song of joy and meaning! And so too with this fragile "Charlie Brown" tree.

All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide for all who read here, and to all of your families.

20 December 2009

Fourth Week of Advent, 2009

16 December 2009

All the Nations Shall Proclaim his happiness! (Ps 72:17)

Tomorrow's Gospel is the Genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew. It is not unusual to have our eyes glaze over as this is read in Church. If we have to read it ourselves, we may scan the passage as we read along to find out just how much longer this goes on, how many more unpronounceable names we have in front of us! If we are particularly creative we may focus on the individual names and see how much OT history we recall. Feminists are apt to focus on the few but significant women's names included here quite against the tradition of such genealogies! Judith, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary are all mentioned --- important because they are women of ill-repute, irregularity, or barrenness graced by God in a way which makes them pivotal in both divine and human history. A very few will be excited by this long recital of somewhat familiar but mainly alien names, but generally, the genealogy is a challenge to listeners and preachers. What, after all, did Matthew intend here? Why did he construct this list in such a carefully theological (and historically inaccurate) way? What does he want us to hear?

The thing that strikes me most about this lection is the plan of God it outlines, and especially the patience with which God carries this out. Throughout history men and women have responded in greater and lesser ways and degrees to the Word and will of God. History is the story of the intertwining of divine and human destinies and in the Christ event all this comes to a climax. In Jesus divine and human histories are inextricably wed. God allows us to participate in his very future. He profoundly desires us to be a living part of that future. All throughout history he affirms and reaffirms that he has chosen not to remain alone; that, if we will only not refuse him, he will be our God and we will be his people. This is God's will and destiny. It is also quite literally his delight and joy!

There is a reason I hear this in tomorrow's Gospel. About 25 years ago I was struggling with quiet prayer. There comes a point in contemplative prayer marked by a letting go, and sometimes by a shift in consciousness and awareness --- a kind of altered state of attentiveness. I found, unfortunately, that some parts of this point or process reminded me of the sensations that accompanied the loss of consciousness and/or control preceding or accompanying the beginning of a seizure. Thus, as I approached this moment in prayer I found myself becoming frightened and I refused or at least resisted letting go and giving myself over to the prayer (and so, over to God's activity within and around me). One evening, I was working with my spiritual director and in order to help me through this, she held out her hands and asked me to rest mine on hers. Then she instructed me to just do what I would ordinarily do in approaching contemplative or quiet prayer. I did and immediately went deeper than I had perhaps ever gone before. God was waiting (indeed, he was really leading) and he was completely delighted! He "said" to me (silently but really), "Finally! I have been waiting SUCH a long time for this moment!" There was not a smidgin of recrimination, no blame, no reference to sin or to disappointment or sadness in my regard. God's joy was unalloyed and revealed his very nature in this and his complete patience.

I think we sometimes forget this side of things. Partly it is because we focus on ourselves in prayer, and partly it may be because we were taught some version of God's impassibility. But really, it is rather like something that always strikes me about the Sacrament of penance. We all know that this Sacrament is a gift --- that in it we receive the grace of mercy and forgiveness, love, support and encouragement. How often do we pause to ponder the gift our confession is to the confessor? And yet, that is one thing that is often very clear when we receive the Sacrament today. Similarly then, we rightly emphasize that God gives himself to us, that his love, mercy, and forgiveness are gifts to us, but how often do we regard ourselves as the gifts which God himself has patiently but ardently desired and waited through the aeons to receive? How often do we see God working unceasingly through generation after generation after generation just for the Word only we can speak and become in response, for the gift only we can become and give in gratitude and joy? How often do we consider that God is truly delighted with this gift --- whatever its condition or history? How often do we stop to reflect on the truth that, in fact, he desires nothing so much as this and, in some mysterious way, will be incomplete without it?

Christmas is the season marking the nativity of the One in whom both human and divine history reach their goal and climax. It has been long in coming, engineered and directed with infinite patience and desire despite all of the human resistance and refusal God has also endured. Tomorrow's Gospel marks all of this dramatically, but in a way which challenges us to hear with new ears what is most often a deadly dull wholly uninspired recital. On Christimas, we will celebrate the fact that God entrusts his Son to us --- fragile, weak, powerless and wholly dependent; God looks to us to mark the climax of a long preparatory history and reciprocate with our own lives. My prayer is that each of us can approach Christmas with a sense of just how ardently God desires and delights in the gifts we make of ourselves --- and of course, that, with God's assistance, we can find the courage to let go past our resistances, doubts, insecurities, fears, and guilt, and commit ourselves into the arms of an overjoyed God.

15 December 2009

A Closed or Hardened Heart: The Essential Blindness

I wrote this for last Friday, but didn't get it posted there in time. I am putting it up here instead for the time being.

Today's Gospel is sometimes trivialized. We think perhaps that people were upset because Jesus was some sort of "party animal" and that they contrasted that with the asceticism of John the Baptist and other prophets only to take exception to Jesus --- as though the Scriptures are really contrasting two different approaches to spirituality. But what Matthew is getting at in today's Gospel is that very often we are unable or refuse to see with the eyes of our hearts, and we therefore reject the very revelation of God that stands in front of us --- no matter the guise. We act childishly by refusing to admit either our needs or to humble ourselves in a way which allows God to respond to them as he wills (rather than as we will!). We neither repent nor do we celebrate God's presence in true faith; instead we concern ourselves with conforming the world (and the God who is its creator and Lord) to our own (often religious) demands and expectations.

Jesus has just finished a long exposition comparing and contrasting himself with John the Baptist. He is speaking to his own friends, family, and neighbors (Bethsaida is a center of Galilee and so, a center of Jesus' own home-life). And, as always, his speech is honest and challenging! He is reminding them they thronged out to see John and have now rejected him precisely because he WAS what they were supposedly looking for, and he does so by putting some sharp questions to them: What did you expect to see? A reed blowing in the wind? (Did you go out looking for someone tossed about by the wind of current fashion and concerns, or were you looking for something less transitory?) Did you go out seeking someone dressed in the clothes of nobles and Kings or someone dressed as a prophet, a true desert dweller and messenger of God? Were you seeking a prophet or not? Jesus completes his series of questions by affirming that indeed John the Baptist was precisely what people were looking for, and more in fact --- the greatest of the prophets and the forerunner of the messiah! And yet, a fickle people turned away from John and said he had a demon instead --- the surest religious way to denigrate and dismiss someone and the most effective way to be sure others don't follow him!

At the same time, Jesus has come with news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God and acts accordingly. No mourning ascetic He celebrates with his disciples by feasting and drinking! And so, his friends and neighbors label him a drunkard and a glutton --- an accusation, we should remember, a Son's family could accuse him of to Temple officials in order to have him stoned to death! [There was a precise formula in this matter and we read it today in Deuteronomy. The parents would come to the Temple and say, "This son of ours. . ." and accuse him of being a drunkard and glutton, disobedient and willful. If the charges were sustained, the Son would be put to death.] The fear was that through his disobedience, etc, this Son would bring evil upon Israel and perhaps even show himself to be a false prophet who would lead her seriously astray. Better deal with such a person in a preventative and definitive way than risk such damage!

Jesus uses the story of children at play with make-believe games to characterize the immaturity and hardness of heart of those he is addressing, those he calls, "this generation." He describes two groups of kids, one who tries to get the other to join in the games, and one who simply will not. The first group plays the wedding game and pipes a joyful tune, but the second group stands off refusing to be moved by the music, the song, or the comraderie. When this fails, the first group switches to the funeral game and sings a dirge --- something perhaps more appropriate to the second group's mood, but again, the second group of children are recalcitrant and simply refuse to be moved or join in. It is hard to imagine a symbol of something which is able to move us more completely than the music at either a wedding or a funeral. One form moves us to dance and the other to deep sorrow. This music speaks to our hearts, that is, to the core of ourselves and to that which symbolizes our whole selves in Scripture. And yet, John the Baptist came preaching repentance, moved by mourning over a badly sinful people, and was rejected by many of those Jesus now addresses as being moved by Satan. Jesus himself came "piping a song" -- so to speak -- of celebration and tremendous joy, and he too is labelled a false prophet, demon-possessed (later also in Matt), a danger to authentic religion, and set up for execution!

But perhaps there is one thing which moves us to open our hearts even more than the music mentioned: the birth of a baby, the appearance of an infant swaddled in his parents' arms or trundled around in a stroller. I don't think I have personally ever seen someone incapable of being moved by a newborn baby --- though of course there are stories where humanity's worst attrocities are marked by a hardness of heart to even these most helpless and fragile among us. In the NT we have the story of the massacre of the innocents. In contemporary history we have slaughters and holocausts which seem never to abate. Still, when I reflect on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ which we are each preparing to celebrate it seems clear that a huge part of our God coming to us in this way is God's desire to touch our hearts, break them open anew and rescue us from any essential blindness that afflicts us. Advent gives us readings which echo John the Baptist's "piping of songs" of repentance and mourning intertwined with Jesus' "tunes" of celebration and feasting. Christmas gives us the birth of an infant meant to break open even the hardest of hearts with gratitude and wonder so that we can begin to consider and shape our lives according to a God whose power is truly perfected in weakness.

Will we resist or join in wholeheartedly? Will we remain untouched and blindly cynical as the children in Jesus' parable, or will we "play the games" and dance to the tunes of authentic faith which allows God to reshape our lives as his true children and people of real vision? Will we see what stands right in front of us or turn away uncomprehendingly? My prayers to all for a good Advent as we each continue to prepare our hearts for the coming anew of such a surprising and challenging God!

13 December 2009

Revisiting the Question of Disedifying (reactive) Withdrawal

[[Dear Sister, for someone already professed as a hermit, are the dangers of withdrawing for negative reasons as strong as the danger of getting too involved (for instance, in parish life)? I wondered because your post on reactive withdrawal seemed to indicate this was the case.]]

Thanks for the question! Once one has, with the Church herself, discerned a vocation to be (and especially been professed as) a diocesan hermit, the danger of removing oneself from the solitude of the cell is more dangerous. In my experience, if one has discerned a vocation to eremitical life in this way then the major danger --- choosing solitude because one is withdrawing in a reactive or disedifying way --- shifts or changes. One's vocation, everyone now agrees, is mainly to remain in cell and live out one's solitude in this way. One does this because God calls one to this primarily. That is really the defining characteristic of the eremitical life. The temptation one faces more usually is now more that of leaving the cell for insufficient and disedifying reasons.

However, for the hermit who also finds herself called to some limited degree of parish ministry, it can happen that she might "duck" some legitimate challenges of the active dimension of her life for less than legitimate reasons. The need to discern what is happening remains, but now the presumption is that one is generally called to remain in cell and if one errs in discernment, one should probably err on this side of things. The burden of discernment shifts so that one must be more careful about justifying reasons to leave her hermitage. Note that the need to be able to discern one's motives has not changed. What changes is the perspective from which one decides. In my original post I was addressing the question of discerning the reasons one may feel drawn to solitude and noting that one should be aware that not all reasons are good ones or indicate a vocation to solitude -- especially to eremitical solitude. With regard to your question, the person has already discerned such a call and done so with the Church's assistance and approval. I hope this helps. Again, good question.

"Gaudete" by Karl Rahner

[[As the Autumn season fades and the Winter takes over, the world becomes still. Everything around us turns pale and drab. It chills us. We are least inclined to hectic activities. More than in other seasons of the year, we prefer to stay at home and be alone. It is as if the world had become subsued and lost the courage to assert its self-satisfaction, the courage to be proud of its power and its life. Its progressive growth in the swelling fullness of the Spring and Summer has faded, for the fullness has vanished, In this season, time itself bears eloquent witness to its own poverty. It disappoints us.

Here is the moment to conquer the melancholy of time, here is the moment to say softly and sincerely what we know by faith:"Gaudete, let us rejoice. I believe in the eternity of God who has entered into our time, my time. Beneath the wearisome coming and going of chronological time, life that no longer knows death is already secretly growing. It is already here, it is already in me, precisely because I believe."

Time is no longer the bleak, empty, fading succession of moments, one moment destroying the preceding one and causing it to become "past," only to die away itself, clearing the way for the future that presses --- itself already mortally wounded. Time itself is redeemed. It possesses a centre that can preserve the present and gather itself into the future, a nucleus that fills the present with the future that is already effected, a focal point that coordinates the living present with the eternal furure. The advent of the incarnate God, of the Christ who is the same yesterday, and today, and in eternity --- this advent has penetrated into this time that is to be redeemed.

A "now" of eternity is in you. And this "now" has already begun to gather together your earthly moments into itself. For into your heart comes the One who is himself Advent, the Boundless Future who is already in the process of coming, the Lord himself who has already come into the time of the flesh to redeem it.]]

From The Eternal Year, by Karl Rahner

12 December 2009

Advent 2009, Week Three

10 December 2009

Belated Good Wishes for Advent!!

Well, here it is, the end of the second week in Advent and I have added nothing to this blog except a picture for the first week! Life here at the hermitage has been fine. I have spent a few days cleaning out stuff I have accumulated over the years (mainly books and papers, but other things as well!) and still have some ways to go! My apologies to readers though! Sometimes preparing the way for the coming of Christ means getting rid of stuff and that takes time and energy away from other things.

This preparation happens on a number of levels of course, but it is amazing what material things can represent for us. The clearing out of stuff can be done prayerfully and when it is, that includes a period of remembering what was, what we dreamed of and hoped for, what we clung (and perhaps still cling) to for security or sentimentality, or that we just hold onto because we don't know what else quite to do with it! It can include gratitude for the present --- for the healing and love others have brought one to, and commitment to reflect more fully whatever vocation God has graced us with. All in all it is a challenging and compelling project, worthy of the beginning of Advent or Lent, and certainly worthy of the attempt to prepare oneself for a deeper and more complete dependence upon God and trust in the future he has opened for us.

Belated though this is, I wish readers a wonderfully fruitful Advent! May it be a time of preparation to meet anew and afresh the God who comes to us in weakness and who is found in the unexpected place. May it also be a time to look at the baggage we each carry around with us, and may we commit ourselves to letting go of whatever we no longer need and which serves merely to weigh us down in our journey to follow the poor Christ!