24 February 2015

The Lord's Prayer: Concerning Ourselves With God's Own Life and Plans (Reprised)

Today's Gospel includes Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. As we continue to focus on the basic themes of Lent it is only appropriate that the Church looks at what prayer is and reminds us of Jesus' own instruction in it --- what was primary and what followed naturally. In Lent one of the things we attempt to do is die to self in ways which make us more open to God's presence, God's Word, God's own hallowing of his name within us and in our world. We fast in ways which help us set aside our more superficial needs; we open ourselves to the love of God which we allow ourselves to savor so that we might be profoundly nourished and God's own will be done, God's own life be fulfilled in and with us. Our Lenten journey reminds us that genuine spirituality is forgetful of self, that it "gets out of the way" and lays aside self-consciousness. In today's gospel, Jesus (via Matt) provides a model of prayer which assists in this. It is a model of prayer in which we concern ourselves first and last with God's own needs, and with being there FOR HIM! We know it as the Lord's Prayer

In the first three petitions (and the invocation itself, though that is a topic for another time!) we concern ourselves with God's very self (holiness and name refer to God's own self, not to mere characteristics or tags); we ask that he might be powerfully present in our world (because both name and the hallowing here refers to a powerful presence which creates and recreates whatever it is allowed to touch and make holy). With the second petition especially, we open ourselves to God's sovereignty, that is, to God's very selfhood and life as it is shared with his creation. God assumes a position of sovereignty over that creation when his life is truly shared and that creation achieves genuine freedom in the process, but the reign or kingdom of God refers to God's own life once again --- this time as a covenantal or mutual reality. And, with the third petition in particular, we open ourselves to the will of God --- to the future and shape of a reality which is ordered by his sovereignty and fulfilled by his presence.

Now, it is true that God possesses what is called aseity. That is, he is completely self-suf-ficient and in need of nothing and no one. But that is only one part of the paradox that stands at the heart of our faith. The other side of the paradox is that our God is One who has determined to need us; from the beginning, indeed, from all eternity, God has chosen not to remain alone. He creates all that is outside himself and he summons it (continuing the process of creation) to greater and greater levels of complexity until from within this creation comes One who will be his true counterpart and partner in creation. At bottom this is a call to share in God's very life. In fact, it is the ground of an existence which can only be fulfilled when it shares in the Divine life and God himself becomes all in all!

All of Scripture attests to this basic dynamic, whether cast in terms of creation or covenant. All of Scripture is about God's determination to share his very life with us, and his creation's capacity in the Spirit to issue forth in, or become his own unique counterpart in the fulfillment of this plan. When God's plan is fulfilled, when his very life is shared to the extent he wills, everything he creates reaches fulfillment as well, but it is the human vocation in particular to allow this to become real in space and time. And afterall, isn't this what prayer is truly all about: allowing God's plans to be realized in his creation; cooperating with his Spirit in ways which let his own life be made PERSONALLY real here and now so that EVERYTHING acquires fullness or completion (perfection) of life in God?

Unfortunately, one of the most pernicious problems I run into, whether in myself or in my work as a spiritual director is the occasional inability to "get out of the way" of the Spirit or to "forget self" in prayer. Prayer seems always to be about us, our problems, our sinfulness, our needs and concerns in ways which sometimes contribute to our own self-centeredness. While I am NOT suggesting we neglect this side of things in our prayer, I am suggesting that there are ways to pray these concerns which are NOT self-centered. (Note, the key here is in praying these concerns rather than merely praying about these concerns. Sometimes we have to silence conversation about concerns and simply live them in our prayer as we give our whole selves to God for his own sake.) I think this is part of what Jesus is getting at in today's gospel when he reminds us that God knows what we need before we ask him! It is certainly mirrored in the form of the Lord's prayer and the priority of the invocation and petitions. If we open ourselves humbly to God in prayer, the sinfulness, needs, concerns, etc will be part of that but the focus will not be on these.

Because of this, one of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves in checking in on our prayer occasionally is, "what kind of experience was this for God?" Ordinarily this puts a full stop to the sometimes problematical self-centered focus and chatter about ME in prayer which can occur, and puts the focus back where Jesus clearly lived it himself --- on God and the way in which God wills to be present to and for us. What today's Gospel gives us in this model of prayer is a sense that contrary to much popular thought and practice otherwise, prayer is really the way we give or set aside our lives for another, namely, for God and his own Selfhood and destiny. And while it is absolutely true that in the process of giving ourselves over to God's own purposes our own hearts will rightly be opened up, poured out, and our own needs met (as Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, God's Word will not return to him void!), prayer is first of all something we are empowered to do for God's own sake!

23 February 2015

The Cross: Revelation of a Humility that Stands in Spite of Humiliation

[[Dear Sister, when we look at the cross I don't think your distinction between humiliation and humility holds. Jesus suffers all kind of humiliation and is humbled. He shows real humility as a result of his humiliation.]] (cp. From Humiliation to Humility: Resting in the Gaze of God)

Thanks for your comment. I get what you are saying: it is in being humiliated that Jesus shows great humility, right? At the same time you are saying, I think, that humiliation leads to humility. In this you have actually put your finger on one of the most destructive confusions and interpretations of the cross ever imagined. You see, while I would agree that Jesus shows incredible humility in the midst of great humiliation, where we seem to disagree is that his humility is a result of his humiliation. Remember that Jesus possesses great humility throughout his life. He possesses it in spite of temptation, trial, and in spite of humiliation. Humiliation leads to or results in shame; humility, on the other hand, is a form of graced dignity.

Jesus knows who he is in light of God's love, "You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased", and he holds onto that sense of identity, that dignity we know as humility even in the midst of shaming torture and crucifixion. When others are betraying him, abandoning him, and trying him for blasphemy and betrayal of the God he knows as Abba, that is when others are shaming him, Jesus counters all of this by holding onto who he knows himself to be in the light of God's love.

It is important in reflecting on the cross that we distinguish between the judgment and activities of a sinful body-and-soul-murdering mankind and what is of God. The humiliation and arena of shame is created by human beings who see Jesus' incredibly wonderful works and deem him demonic and blasphemous. When they raise a person up it is to the heights of degradation and shame. But at that same point God sees most clearly his beloved Son, loving and obedient even unto death on a cross. From THAT vantage point what is revealed to us, what empowers Jesus even in his dying, is the epitome of humility --- a transcendent dignity which is perfected in weakness.

Again then, when you look at the cross and find humiliation you can trace that to the soul-killing judgment of men and women and to their murderous "execution of judgment." As I wrote recently, God NEVER humiliates. NEVER! Human beings lift or hold us up to shame. God raises to humility. When you look at the cross and find genuine humility you must trace that to the graced knowledge of self that comes ultimately from God. It would be an incredibly destructive reading of the events of the cross to see humiliation as the cause of humility. Humility is the incredible dignity Jesus possesses in spite of the shaming humiliation human judgment subjected him to.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

22 February 2015

From Humiliation to Humility: Resting in the Gaze of God

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I was intrigued by something you said in your post on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, namely, that our senses of worthiness and unworthiness are not even present until after shame enters the picture. If that is so then what are we to make of all the writing in spirituality that stresses our unworthiness of God's love or the extensive literature on humility that associates it with the sense of being "nothing" or with practices of humiliation? A lot of this was written by saints and spiritually gifted people. Is your observation about worthiness and unworthiness based on the readings from Genesis alone or does it comes from other places too?]]

Several really great questions! Let me give them a shot and then perhaps you can help me follow up on them or clarify what I say with further questions, comments, and so forth. Because shame is such a central experience it truly stands at the center of sinful existence (the life of the false self) and is critical to understanding redeemed existence (the life of the true self). It colors the way we see all of reality and that means our spirituality as well. In fact, this way of seeing and relating to God lies at the heart of all religious thinking and behavior.

But the texts from Genesis tell us that this is not the way we are meant to see ourselves or reality. It is not the way we are meant to relate to God or to others. Instead, we are reminded that "originally" there was a kind of innocence where we knew ourselves ONLY as God himself sees us. We acted naturally in gratitude to and friendship with God. After the Fall human beings came to see themselves differently. It is the vision of estrangement and shame. This new way of seeing is the real blindness we hear of in the New Testament --- the blindness that causes us to lead one another into the pit without ever being aware we are doing so. Especially then, it is the blindness that allows religious leaders whose lives are often dominated by and lived in terms of categories like worthiness and unworthiness to do this.

Religious Language as Shame Based and Problematical

The language of worthiness and unworthiness has been enshrined in our religious language and praxis. This only makes sense, especially in cultures that find it difficult to deal with paradox. We are each of us sinners who have rejected God's gratuitous love. Doesn't this make us unworthy of it? In human terms which sees everything as either/or, yes, it does. This is also one of the significant ways we stress the fact that God's love is given as unmerited gift. But at the same time this language is theologically incoherent. It falls short when used to speak of our relationship with God precisely because it is the language associated with the state of sin. It causes us to ask the wrong questions (self-centered questions!) and, even worse, to answer them in terms of our own shame. We think, "surely a just God cannot simply disregard our sinfulness" and the conclusion we come to ordinarily plays Divine justice off against Divine mercy. We just can't easily think or speak of a justice which is done in mercy, a mercy which does justice. The same thing happens with God's love. Aware that we are sinners we think we must be unworthy of God's love --- forgetting that it is by loving that God does justice and sets all things right. At the same time we know God's love (or any authentic love!) is not something we are worthy of. Love is not earned or merited. It is a free gift, the very essence of grace.

Our usual ways of thinking and speaking are singularly inadequate here and cause us to believe, "If not worthy then unworthy; if not unworthy then worthy". These ways of thinking and speaking work for many things but not for God or our relationship with God. God is incommensurate with our non-paradoxical categories of thought and speech. He is especially incommensurate with the categories of a fallen humanity pervaded by guilt and shame and yet, these are the categories with and within which we mainly perceive, reflect on, and speak about reality. In some ways, then, it is our religious language which is most especially problematical. And this is truest when we try to accept the complete gratuitousness and justice-creating nature of God's love.

The Cross and the Revelation of the Paradox that Redeems

It is this entire way of seeing and speaking of reality, this life of the false self, that the cross of Christ first confuses with its paradoxes, then disallows with its judgment, and finally frees us from by the remaking of our minds and hearts. The cross opens the way of faith to us and frees us from our tendencies to religiosity; it proclaims we can trust God's unconditional love and know ourselves once again ONLY in light of his love and delight in us. It is entirely antithetical to the language of worthiness and unworthiness. In fact, it reveals these to be absurd when dealing with the love of God. Instead we must come to rest in paradox, the paradox which left Paul speechless with its apparent consequences: "Am I saying we should sin all the more so that grace may abound all the more? Heaven forbid!" But Paul could not and never did answer the question in the either/or terms given. That only led to absurdity. The only alternative for Paul or for us is the paradoxical reality revealed on the cross.

On the cross the worst shame imaginable is revealed to be the greatest dignity, the most apparent godlessness is revealed to be the human face and glory of Divinity. These are made to be the place God's love is most fully revealed. In light of all this the categories of worthiness or unworthiness must be relinquished for the categories of paradox and especially for the language of gratitude or ingratitude --- ways of thinking and speaking which not only reflect the inadequacy of the language they replace, but which can assess guilt without so easily leading to shame. Gratitude, what Bro David Steindl-Rast identifies as the heart of prayer, can be cultivated as we learn to respond to God's grace, as, that is, we learn to trust an entirely new way of seeing ourselves and all others and else in light of a Divine gaze that does nothing but delight in us.

This means that, while the tendency to speak in terms of us as nothing and God as ALL is motivated by an admirable need to do justice to God's majesty and love, it is, tragically, also tainted by the sin, guilt, and shame we also know so intimately.  It is ironic but true that in spite of our sin we do not do justice to God's greatness by diminishing ourselves even or especially in self-judgment. That is the way of the false self and we do not magnify God by speaking in this way. Saying we are nothing merely reaffirms an untruth --- the untruth which is a reflection of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is the same "truth" that leads to shame and all the consequences of a shame-based life and is less about humility than it is about humiliation. God is ineffably great and he has created us with an equally inconceivable dignity. We may and do act against that dignity and betray the love of our Creator, but the truth remains that we are the image of God, the ones he loves with an everlasting love, the ones he delights in nonetheless. God's love includes us; God takes us up in his own life and invites us to stand in (his) love in a way which transcends either worthiness or unworthiness. Humility means knowing ourselves in this way, not as "nothing" or in comparison with God or with anyone else.

Contemplative prayer and the Gaze of God:

My own sense of all this comes from several places. The first is the texts from Genesis, especially the importance given in those to the gaze of God or to being looked on by God vs being ashamed and hiding from God's gaze. That helps me understand the difference between the true and false selves. The focus on shame and the symptoms of shame (or the defensive attempts to avoid or mitigate these) helps me understand the development of the false self --- the self we are asked to die to in last Friday's Gospel lection. The second and more theologically fundamental source is the theology of the cross. The cross is clear that what we see and judge as shameful is not, that what we call humility means being lifted up by God even in the midst of degradation, and moreover, that even in the midst of the worst we do to one another God loves and forgives us. I'll need to fill this out in future posts. The third and most personal source is my own experience of contemplative prayer where, in spite of my sinfulness (my alienation from self and God), I rest in the gaze of God and know myself to be loved and entirely delighted in. While not every prayer period involves an explicit experience of God gazing at and delighting in me (most do not), the most seminal of these do or have involved such an experience. I have written about one of these here in the past and continue to find it an amazing source of revelation.

In that prayer I experienced God looking at me in great delight as I "heard" how glad he was that I was "finally" here. I had absolutely no sense of worthiness or unworthiness, simply that of being a delight to God and loved in an exhaustive way. The entire focus of that prayer was on God and the kind of experience prayer (time with me in this case) was for him. At another point, I experienced Christ gazing at me with delight and love as we danced. I was aware at the same time that every person was loved in the same way; I have noted this here before but without reflecting specifically on the place of the Divine gaze in raising me to humility. In more usual prayer periods I simply rest in God's presence and sight. I allow him, as best I am able,  access to my heart, including those places of darkness and distortion caused by my own sin, guilt, woundedness, and shame. Ordinarily I think in terms of letting God touch and heal those places, but because of that seminal prayer experience I also use the image of being gazed at by God and being seen for who I truly am. That "seeing", like God's speech is an effective, real-making, creative act. As I entrust myself to God I become more and more the one God knows me truly to be.

What continues to be most important about that prayer experience is the focus on God and what God "experiences", sees, communicates. In all of that there was simply no room for my own feelings of worthiness or unworthiness. These were simply irrelevant to the relationship and intimacy we shared. Similarly important was the sense that God loved every person in the very same way. There was no room for elitism or arrogance nor for the shame in which these and so many other things are rooted. I could not think of my own sinfulness or brokenness; I did not come with armfuls of academic achievements, published articles, or professional successes nor was this a concern. I came with myself alone and my entire awareness was filled with a sense of God's love for me and every other person existing; there was simply no room for anything else.

Over time a commitment to contemplative prayer allows God's gaze to conform me to the truth I am most deeply, most really. Especially it is God's loving gaze which heals me of any shame or sense of inadequacy that might hold me in bondage and allows my true self to emerge. Over time I relinquish the vision of reality of the false self and embrace that of the true self. I let go of my tendency to judge "good and evil". Over time God heals my blindness and, in contrast to what happened after the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, my eyes are truly opened! This means not only being raised from humiliation to humility but being converted from self-consciousness to genuine self-awareness. In the remaking of my mind and heart these changes are a portrait of what it means to move from guilt and shame to grace.

So, again, the sources of my conviction about the calculus of worthiness and unworthiness and the transformative and healing power of God's' gaze comes from several places including: 1) Scripture (OT and NT), Theology (especially Jesus' own teaching and the theologies of the cross of Paul and Mark as well as the paradoxical theology of glorification in shame of John's gospel), 2) the work of sociologists and psychologists on shame as the "master emotion", and 3) contemplative prayer. I suspect that another source is my Franciscanism (especially St Clare's reflections on the mirror of the self God's gaze represents) but this is something I will have to look at further.

18 February 2015

We Are People of the Cross

Three years ago I wrote an article here supporting the idea that we Christians are People of the Cross. (cf., We Are People of the Cross). I felt strongly about my disagreement with Sister Joan Chittester's point --- though I understood what she was focusing on and completely empathized with that. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that the importance of that label would be underscored in blood and martyrdom in the way that occurred just three days ago.  On that day ISIS took 21 Coptic Christians out to the beach somewhere along the Mediterranean and beheaded them for being "People of the Cross" and People of the illusion of the Cross. We have all seen the pictures: the long row of young men in orange jump suits, each accompanied by his murderer dressed in black and masked from identification; the ISIS member brandishing his knife towards the camera; the headless torso lying in a pool of blood on the sand; the sea turned red with the blood, bodies, and separated heads of these martyrs.

Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly murdered in Libya by self-proclaimed Islamic State militants mourn for those killed.
Families of Martyred Christians in Egypt
On Sunday our parish celebrated several baptisms of children. In each case the parents and godparents traced the sign of the cross on the child's forehead following our pastor who had first done so --- claiming these children for Christ. It was a joyful occasion also marked by our own renewal of baptismal vows: "Do we renounce. . .?" "Do we believe. . .?" and echoes of our own initiation into the People of God, "Let your light shine. . .!" "Keep your baptismal garment unstained. . .!"

Today, on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, we will each have a cross traced on our own forehead in ashes and this cross will be visible for at least several hours as we move through our world identified as believers in either the greatest foolishness or the greatest wisdom the world has ever known. Remember, it was Paul, the last and in some ways, the greatest Apostle who said, "If Christ is not raised from the dead then we are the greatest fools of all!" ISIS is certainly not the first to claim the cross was the symbol of an illusion! They will not be the last to suggest Christians are deluded in their faith. But we know Christ crucified and risen, we know him intimately since through him our lives have been changed in ways only the Living God and certainly no mere illusion (or delusion) could do.

I have no doubt that ISIS believes the orange jumpsuits and beheadings are somehow degrading, scandalous, and shameful. (They, at the very least, literally represent a complete loss of face and the taking away of honor. In honor-shame cultures honor resides especially in the head.) Perhaps they see these in somewhat the same way the cross was perceived in Jesus' day. I am sure they believe death has forever separated these Christians from God's love. But in this case orange is the new white --- the white garment of men and women who have been baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection. The white garment of witnesses, martyrs, who know that our God loves us and all of creation with an everlasting love from which no guilt, no sin, no shame, no death, can separate us. The sign of that love, a love which enters into the godless depths of our own terrible alienation and shame  in order to bring us back "home" to ourselves and our God is the cross of Christ. We are People of the Cross --- marked by both the world's guilt and shame and the righteousness and hope of God's vindication.

Coptic Tattoos; Marked as People of the Cross

Today we will wear that sign both proudly and humbly, joyfully and in grief at our renewed recognition of all it can mean in a broken and often savage world; once again we wear that sign on our very flesh as we renew our commitment to repent and believe in the unconquerable Love-in-act made real for us in the depths of human shame and shamefulness on and through the cross of Christ. Today as we renew our own professions and identities as People of the Cross, we especially remember these martyrs, these brothers in the faith. They died with Christ's name on their lips; may our own lives similarly proclaim him and the God he revealed.

+Milad Makeen Zaky
+Abanub Ayad Atiya
+Maged Solaimain Shehata
+Yusuf Shukry Yunan
+Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
+Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
+Somaily Astafanus Kamel
+Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
+Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
+Girgis Milad Sinweet
+Mina Fayez Aziz
+Hany Abdelmesih Salib
+Bishoy Adel Khalaf
+Samuel Alham Wilson
+Ezat Bishri Naseef
+Loqa Nagaty
+Gaber Munir Adly
+Esam Badir Samir
+Malak Farag Abram
+Sameh Salah Faruq
+And the martyr whose name we do not know, a “Worker from Awr village”
Faces of Honor: St Mark's Coptic Church
marks Martyrs with Crowns, Candles, and Flowers 

15 February 2015

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Poison of Shame

As we look forward to Lent the daily readings have led us through the Genesis story of the Fall. Last week we heard the entire story as the movement from a certain kind of innocence to the disastrous consequences of "eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil". Several days running portions of this narrative were repeated and teamed with NT readings in ways which underscored various aspects of the wisdom it embodied. I came away from the week understanding several things more fully and clearly than I have ever understood before. Especially, I came to understand the distinction between guilt and shame and the costly price healing shame required of our God. But also I came to understand the innocence spoken of in the stories and the terrible fall from that to the sense of either worthiness or unworthiness which distorts our ways of seeing ourselves, others, and all of creation. (see also, Their Eyes Were Opened. . .NOT!)

In the story of the Fall Adam and Eve are part of a creation which God sees as (and which therefore IS) good. Humanity (symbolized in Adam and Eve) know themselves and everything else in this light and ONLY in this light. They exist in a state of innocence, a state of essential freedom and humility. They have vocations and live those out in Divine friendship and intimacy with one another; they know themselves as God knows them, as loved and a source of delight to God. It is an incredibly responsible life untouched by thoughts of worthiness or unworthiness. (Remember, Genesis 2:25 summarizes all this by saying, Adam and Eve "were naked yet they felt no shame.") It is a life which is open to transcendence --- an openness which takes the form of obedience (an attentive responsiveness) to God and the truth he reveals. But for this reason, because an openness to transcendence stands at the heart of this life, it is also a state in which temptation is already present.

And so the narrative moves from innocence through Eve's "theologizing" as she reflects on what God has said, who he is, who she is and is meant to be --- to her complete seduction and sin. From being a person who walks humbly with God, who knows herself and all of reality only as God knows them, she distances herself from such union and begins to think about God rather than conversing with God. (It is Walter Brueggemann who points out this primordial act of theologizing in his Interpretation commentary on Genesis. It is this universal tendency to theologize (and the challenge of preparing to do theology professionally) that led to my own prayer, "God forgive us our theology, our theology perhaps most of all!")  From theologizing and temptation Eve moves to the decision to outright disobedience. She is dazzled by her new way of seeing reality and embraces it by "eating of the fruit of the tree" which is forbidden her. She trusts herself rather than God, she listens to her own "wisdom" rather than to that of God and she makes a new knowledge, a new "truth" her very own. It is a disastrous act of betrayal of God, self, and others, whose consequences will color the rest of her life and that of all of her descendents for the whole of human history.

A Vat of Blue Dye and the Inappropriate Knowledge of Good and Evil:

Consider. You are arriving early for Mass in your parish chapel looking for some quiet time with God and as you come in to sit down you find a huge vat of dark blue dye sitting in the middle of the worship space. There was a sign on the door as you entered which said you are free to do all the things you usually do to prepare for Mass, but please leave the vat of dye alone. It is good in and of itself but it is not meant for you. It will change the way you see things, set you apart, and just generally mark you as a possessor of a knowledge of good and evil which is inappropriate for you. Someone has left a small step ladder against the side of the tub; its presence is intriguing and suggestive, but its purpose is unknown. You think about the sign and examine the tub and dye. You consider what a lovely color dark blue is for you and think, "Surely this can't do so much harm as all that! Perhaps the experience would be good for me. God surely does not wish to prevent me from knowing as much as I can. After all, God made me curious! He made me to steward this world and I must experience it intimately to do that!" Slowly you climb the steps testing them for solidity, strength, and balance (are you merely pretending to legitimate curiosity and research now?). Finally, you decide to dive in and, despite the qualm in the pit of your stomach, you make the leap! At this point you have sinned and know guilt. But this is not the biggest problem by far.

When you come up out of the dye you are dismayed to find that not only is every crevice of your body stained dark blue, but that your eyeballs are too. You look around the chapel and everything looks different. Other members of the assembly arrive and two things happen: 1) they look as though they too have been stained with dye, and 2) you know they are looking at you and thinking what a sinner you are! You have begun to know shame and the influence of shame. Over the next days you get rid of the ruined clothes, scrub yourself several times and manage to remove most of the dye, but as you walk through the world you are convinced that everyone sees the remnants of blue lodged in the creases around your fingernails. You even believe that despite your clothes they can see the dye you have not managed to wash out of a few well-hidden wrinkles and crevices. You sit next to these folks at the Eucharist and you are certain they know you for the horrible sinner, the worthless person you are. Over time you come to see yourself ONLY in terms of the dye and the imagined judgments. Even more unfortunately, you come to see everyone else as less or more worthy than yourself. You imagine, in fact you are certain, that they too jumped into the vat at one time or another and have little bits of dye in hidden crevices they never let anyone see. You confess your own sin and are absolved (guilt is easily forgiven) but your shame (a much more difficult animal) remains.

You hear the Gospel story of the lepers with their bells and cries of "unclean" from today's Gospel and you think, "there I am!" When people wish you the peace of Christ or tell you how much they love you, you think, "If only they knew how stained (inadequate, unlovable, unworthy, unfixable, unforgivable, etc) I am !! But you also think, "They are as stained as I am! Who do they think they are?" You know profoundly the knowledge of good and evil which God wanted you never to know. Rather than being love-based and trusting in God's mercy, your life is shame-based. Rather than knowing the humility, the appropriate dignity of being lifted up by God's love, you know the humiliation of being cast down by what you think of yourself --- and what you believe everyone else sees and either says or would say about you if only they could see you as you "know" yourself to be. Despite the fact that the ACT of disobedience and failure to trust (the decision to leap into the vat) has long been confessed and forgiven, the shame (the touch of the blue dye) remains and the healing required is deep and extensive.

N.B.: in this section I have spoken of the vat of blue dye in terms of the consequences which occur when someone decides to jump in. The analysis of the occasioning of shame works as well when someone else has thrown us into the vat and one has no personal guilt at all. In such a case the thoughts are similar: "Everyone can see what x did to me", "Everyone will know I deserved what was done to me," "They may say they love me, but if they only knew what x did to me they'd see me for who I really am," (this is especially powerful when the one doing the injuring was a parent!) "I am sure the dye has been washed away superficially (for instance by the good life one has led in spite of their woundedness) but deep down it is still there!" "I am unworthy, unlovable, broken, unfixable," and so forth.

The Signs and Symptoms of our Need for Transformation and Healing:

I have spoken of several signs of the move to a shame-based life: 1) the shift from judging the quality of an action to judging oneself and others (the shift from guilt to shame), and 2) the shift from standing in the truth of God's love where we share the knowledge of the dignity we call humility to feeling humiliated, being cast down to this degraded state by one's judgment of self. It is significant that in the narrative of Genesis Adam and Even do not know themselves in terms of worthiness or unworthiness until AFTER they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. That God loves them is the foundational, the defining truth of their lives until they exchange it first for guilt and then, more disastrously, for shame. (It is also significant, by the way, that psychologists see narcissism as a shame-based illness or disorder which is every bit as destructive as the horrible inferiority many know.) There is a third shift then which is central to the story of the Fall, namely, the move from self-awareness to that of self-consciousness. This shift is definitive for "eating the forbidden fruit" and is at least implicit in the other two shifts already spoken of.

Other symptoms and signs obtain as well. Fear. Fear of ourselves, of others, of revelation and exposure and so much more. A tendency to blame others, a propensity to shut ourselves away from others, to fail to risk loving, an inability to be transparent or to see others for who they are in light of God's love, a need for secrecy and an instinct to cover our guilt (the word shame has the same root as the verb "to cover"), and the tendency to overcompensate for one's perceived (and often masked) inadequacy or unworthiness by accumulating wealth, power, status, etc. God's love is the only thing that allows us to see ourselves as the same as others --- another sign of humility . Shame dictates we view them as either less worthy or more worthy than we and to do all we can to compensate one way or another. Whether we are looking at a despairing person's suicide or the narcissist's tendency to look at the poor (uneducated, etc) and say, "Who do they think they are?" we are looking at the effects of the forbidden knowledge of good and evil and the shame it brings in its wake.

Jesus, His Miracles and his Passion, the Solution to Shame:

Every healing Jesus does points beyond itself to his desire to heal the deeper and more fatal illness we know as shame. Last year I wrote that even had Jesus healed every ill person that came to him it would not have been enough.  Jesus' mission was broader and deeper than this. Jesus was not a mere miracle worker; he was the Messiah, the redeemer. Now I will add that he could have forgiven every sin ever committed, but that would not have been sufficient either. Again, his mission was the redemption and recreation of all of reality, the bringing of reality to the kind of innocence (truth) that is untroubled by shame, that knows and is known neither in terms of worthiness nor unworthiness but only itself in the light of God's love.

It is profoundly significant that the Gospel writers and Paul do not focus on the physical pain and suffering of Jesus' passion, but instead on its terrible shamefulness. While the pain he suffers is not unimportant Jesus suffers the depths of human shame, the soul murdering reality we each and all know so well. He drinks the cup of human shame to the dregs and drains the wine of isolation and alienation which separates every shame-based life from the Divine love and truth that leads to genuine freedom and fullness. He does so while remaining open to God;  through his obedience God's love,  the only solution to shame and its calculus of worthiness and unworthiness so characteristic of the fruit of the tree we should never have known, triumphs. (cf, God humbles us by Raising us Up).


For now I want to note that shame seems to be the missing explanatory ground of the events of the cross in almost every theologia crucis I have read. It is spoken of extensively by exegetes to illustrate what Christ himself suffered but it is not ordinarily mentioned by theologians as the cause of his condemnation,  torture, and death, nor is it usually identified as the profound universal illness that Jesus' death and his Father's subsequent vindication and resurrection of Jesus addresses. I think this is a critical deficit in our theology of the cross which is usually framed in terms of the dynamics of sin and guilt without ever mentioning shame. Given the honor-shame society which found Jesus' countercultural kingdom ministry so profoundly offensive, it is even more imperative that we understand shame rather than guilt alone as the illness he comes to heal, the scourge he comes to destroy. Paul said the sting of death is sin; we must also say clearly that the sting of sin is shame and the soul-murder it brings. Only the cross of Christ effectively addresses this whole dynamic.

07 February 2015

On Gentleness, Penance, and the Obligation to Live my Rule in Times of Illness

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-wXGyAiaOfRg/SmkskJq3JTI/AAAAAAAABUQ/XH_s9Ub85F4/s1600/Library.jpg[[Dear Sister, you wrote, "When illness intervenes everything changes of course. Our need for rest increases and at the same time this means our ways of praying change as well --- not that we cease praying. You, for instance, may not be able to work, study, or attend liturgy, but perhaps you can read a few minutes here and there, listen to Taize or other tapes or CD's you don't always have time for, do a bit of journaling, read a book you simply enjoy, sit up for a while and work on a jigsaw puzzle, consider a line or two of a psalm every few minutes, and simply allow God to companion you in a conscious way during all of these."

This is a gentle way of approaching things and I think for most people it would be a very good way of praying when they are sick. I am wondering if it is not too gentle for a hermit vowed to live assiduous prayer and penance. If your Rule demands that you do certain things at certain times and you don't do them, then aren't you sinning? Doesn't your Rule bind you under pain of sin? I understand that illness changes things but don't you need some sort of dispensation from your Bishop or delegate to just let go of your Rule or the requirements of canon 603?]]

Thanks for your questions. There are probably several different ways of approaching this (I say that because my mind is sort of exploding in several different directions each triggered by your questions), so let me start with the notion that my approach might be too gentle. That is something I have probably not already spoken of here. The Canon governing my life speaks of "assiduous prayer and penance"; it does not define these nor does it necessarily specify that I should understand them in harsh terms. And in fact, I do not understand them as harsh realities. Challenging, demanding, intense, and disciplined? Yes. But also consoling, gently shaping and forming, and personally supportive. Especially you may be unaware of how my own Rule understands and defines penance; that is key in responding to your concerns so let me repeat that here:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-xaXzbly1Hho/TruEKBC0lII/AAAAAAAAB-o/QjQO5lbo7_4/s1600/IMG_0620.JPG[[I think the first thing one must realize is that prayer and penance are intimately linked; they are related to one another in an integral and profound way. Penance functions to support and facilitate prayer, while prayer, and especially a life of prayer, requires penance if it is to be authentic and achieve depth or breadth in one's life. In other words, we undertake penance so that we may become people of prayer, and in fact, that we may become instances of prayer in our world. In my Rule I define penance as, "Any practice which assists in achieving, regularizing, integrating, deepening and extending our openness and responsiveness to God through the deprivation and death of the false self and attention to the genuine needs and growth of our true selves in Christ. While prayer corresponds, in part, to those deep moments of victory God achieves within me, and includes my grateful response, penance is that Christian and more extended form of disciplined "festivity" implicating that victory in the whole of life, and preparing for the fulfillment which is to be accomplished only with the coming of the Kingdom in fullness."]] cf. On Penance and Penitential Living (I think this whole article will be helpful to you in understanding the way I approach penance and the demands of my Rule more generally. In some ways all I can do here is comment on that.)

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-x1DTcNMZOyk/Tbq4B6oLuiI/AAAAAAAABzg/JZrOceJzRYE/s1600/prodigal+daughter2.jpgWhat should be clear from that is that penance does not exist for its own sake nor can it really be undertaken without an eye to what it actually acomplishes in one's life. It has a purpose. It is meant to support and lead to one becoming prayer by dealing with the false self so the true self can emerge and thrive or flourish in God. If treated as a practice one undertakes of itself -- as unrelated to a more integrated approach to spirituality -- there would be no way to distinguish penance from masochism or self-hatred and no way to discern what is appropriate or genuinely lifegiving. I believe that only insofar as penance supports and leads to life-as-prayer can we speak of it as a valid Christian practice. As noted in the article cited, the principal forms of penance in the eremitical life are silence and solitude which are integrally linked to the stricter separation from those things which serve to distract from or distort one's responsiveness to God. I tend to treat illness as a form of penance that itself is also an opportunity to learn to trust and depend upon God. It increases our sense of separation or isolation, it recalls times when we have been lonely or helpless, or faced with the seeming fruitlessness of our lives; thus it may trigger disproportionate reactions we need to work through as another part of our penitential lives. It is challenging in many ways and like all suffering, needs to be treated carefully and attentively --- but NOT harshly. That would truly be counterproductive, or even downright destructive, and it could certainly fail to lead to or support prayer.

My own preference is to accept certain dimensions of my life as penitential and therefore as opportunities for growing into my truest self in God. Additional penitential practices I might undertake are tied to the call to authenticity and geared to allowing those dimensions to mediate God's life. It is a holistic approach and my Rule reflects this. Thus, while there are a number of concrete activities I may undertake as penance, some of which are consistent realities in my life and some that are more occasional or "episodic", my Rule does not list penitential practices as though these can be separated from the dynamic context of my life. This means that when I am ill both penance and prayer look differently than they do at other times and yet there is no doubt that I am aware of and honor my call to assiduous prayer and penance as a hermit even when I am ill.

The Obligation to Live my Rule:

The obligation to live my Rule does bind under the pain of sin in the sense that I am not free to simply blow it off. However, it is also written less as specific activities and more as the values I believe God calls me to embody. As part of this my Rule provides a basic structure and space for the things which are generally essential to my prayer: Office, Communion service or Mass, quiet prayer, journaling, and lectio (Scripture). These are daily realities for me ordinarily. I also build in time for clients, study, writing, exercise, and rest. But during times of illness certain things cease or otherwise change. I don't see clients, I tend not to study much (though I still read) and writing may be limited (I do usually manage to blog or do some journaling though sometimes I cannot focus enough on these). Office is often abbreviated, especially since I may not be able to sing it, but it is not dropped entirely. I won't go to Mass, but I do receive Communion or celebrate a Communion service. The idea is to do what I can to maintain the focus and commitment of my life in spite of circumstances that may militate against that. Because the goal of my life is to BE God's own prayer, however, illness can also provide the opportunity to learn about what it means to depend on God as the source of life and meaning from a different and in some ways even more demanding perspective.

Since our God is a God of life and love I try to take care of myself and let God be that for me. I do my best in this and that means sin is rarely a major concern. Most often it involves failing to honor the limitations that exist and that is another reason I have not written the Rule as a LIST of things I MUST DO every day. My Rule is specifically written to honor the limitations I have while it also maximizes my capacity to transcend these whenever possible. The Rule, like penance itself, does not stand alone nor is it meaningful in isolation; it serves a purpose. That means it must be able to change to some extent in changed circumstances and situations even as it stands to remind me what I am obligated to return to as soon as I am able. I do not need a dispensation from my Bishop to accommodate illness or other entirely temporary situations. I do count on my delegate to sometimes help with suggestions in this kind of thing. If I have to modify my Rule in a major way because of a long term or permanent change in circumstances, then yes, I would submit the changes so the Bishop can review and discuss them. I have not discussed the elements of canon 603 here because those do not change nor do I "let go" of those.

On Gentleness:

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-sJnQO7BLlr0/UHJF-6JDG4I/AAAAAAAAC2Y/dV-hSA_z_48/s1600/inGod's+hands.jpgI think it was St Francis de Sales who said, "There in nothing as strong as gentleness and nothing as gentle as real strength." In any case, in my own life, God's love has never taken the form of "tough love"; it has always been gentle. Insistent, yes, sometimes surprising and always challenging, but never harsh. My approach to penance and to my Rule is similar. In the Bishop's declaration of approval of this Rule there is a portion that thanks God for this specific gift of consecrated life and expresses his sincere hope that the Rule will be advantageous in living eremitical life according to both the eremitical tradition and canon 603. So far it has proved so. I really think that would not have been the case had it been written or lived according to the tenor advocated in your own questions.

03 February 2015

Toccata and Fugue for Feet

Both pieces in this video are great but I posted it for the toccata and fugue. It's not on any topic I usually deal with here but it sure is fun and a great way to celebrate LIFE!

02 February 2015

"Pope Opens Year for Consecrated Life": Homily, Feast of the Presentation

Homily: Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
by Pope Francis

2 February 2015

[[Before our eyes we can picture Mother Mary as she walks, carrying the Baby Jesus in her arms. She brings him to the Temple; she presents him to the people; she brings him to meet his people.

The arms of Mother Mary are like the “ladder” on which the Son of God comes down to us, the ladder of God’s condescension. This is what we heard in the first reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews: Christ became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb 2:17). This is the twofold path taken by Jesus: he descended, he became like us, in order then to ascend with us to the Father, making us like himself.

In our heart we can contemplate this double movement by imagining the Gospel scene of Mary who enters the Temple holding the Child in her arms. The Mother walks, yet it is the Child who goes before her. She carries him, yet he is leading her along the path of the God who comes to us so that we might go to him.

Jesus walked the same path as we do, and showed us a new way, the “new and living way” (cf. Heb 10:20) which is himself. For us too, as consecrated men and women, he opened a path.

Fully five times the Gospel speaks to us of Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the “law of the Lord” (cf. Lk 2:22-24,27,39). Jesus came not to do his own will, but the will of the Father. This way, he tells us, was his “food” (cf. Jn4:34). In the same way, all those who follow Jesus must set out on the path of obedience, imitating as it were the Lord’s “condescension” by humbling themselves and making their own the will of the Father, even to self-emptying and abasement (cf. Phil 2:7-8). For a religious person, to progress is to lower oneself in service. A path like that of Jesus, who “did not count equality with God something to be grasped.”: to lower oneself, making oneself a servant, in order to serve.

This path, then, takes the form of the rule, marked by the charism of the founder. For all of us, the essential rule remains the Gospel, this abasement of Christ, yet the Holy Spirit, in his infinite creativity, also gives it expression in the various rules of the consecrated life, though all of these are born of that sequela Christi, from this path of self-abasement in service.

Through this “law” consecrated persons are able to attain wisdom, which is not an abstract attitude, but a work and a gift of the Holy Spirit, the sign and proof of which is joy. Yes, the mirth of the religious is a consequence of this journey of abasement with Jesus: and when we are sad, it would do us well to ask how we are living this kenotic dimension.

In the account of Jesus’ Presentation, wisdom is represented by two elderly persons, Simeon and Anna: persons docile to the Holy Spirit (He is named 4 times), led by him, inspired by him. The Lord granted them wisdom as the fruit of a long journey along the path of obedience to his law, an obedience which likewise humbles and abases – even as it also guards and guarantees hope – and now they are creative, for they are filled with the Holy Spirit. They even enact a kind of liturgy around the Child as he comes to the Temple. Simeon praises the Lord and Anna “proclaims” salvation (cf. Lk2:28-32,38). As with Mary, the elderly man holds the Child, but in fact it is the Child who guides the elderly man. The liturgy of First Vespers of today’s feast puts this clearly and concisely: “senex puerum portabat, puer autem senem regebat”. Mary, the young mother, and Simeon, the kindly old man, hold the Child in their arms, yet it is the Child himself who guides both of them.

It is curious: here it is not young people who are creative: the young, like Mary and Joseph, follow the law of the Lord, the path of obedience. And the Lord turns obedience into wisdom by the working of his Holy Spirit. At times God can grant the gift of wisdom to a young person, but always as the fruit of obedience and docility to the Spirit. This obedience and docility is not something theoretical; it too is subject to the economy of the incarnation of the Word: docility and obedience to a founder, docility and obedience to a specific rule, docility and obedience to one’s superior, docility and obedience to the Church. It is always docility and obedience in the concrete.

In persevering along along the path of obedience, personal and communal wisdom matures, and thus it also becomes possible to adapt rules to the times. For true “aggiornamento” is the fruit of wisdom forged in docility and obedience.

The strengthening and renewal of consecrated life are the result of great love for the rule, and also the ability to look to and heed the elders of one’s congregation. In this way, the “deposit”, the charism of each religious family, is preserved by obedience and by wisdom, working together. And, along this journey, we are preserved from living our consecration lightly and in a disincarnate manner, as though it were a Gnosis, which would reduce itself to a “caricature” of the religious life, in which is realized a sequela – a following – that is without sacrifice, a prayer that is without encounter, a fraternal life that is without communion, an obedience without trust, a charity without transcendence.

Today we too, like Mary and Simeon, want to take Jesus into our arms, to bring him to his people. Surely we will be able to do so if we enter into the mystery in which Jesus himself is our guide. Let us bring others to Jesus, but let us also allow ourselves to be led by him. This is what we should be: guides who themselves are guided.

May the Lord, through the intercession of Mary our Mother, Saint Joseph and Saints Simeon and Anna, grant to all of us what we sought in today’s opening prayer: to “be presented [to him] fully renewed in spirit”. Amen.]]

Followup: On the Significance of the Designation Er Dio (Eremita Dioecesanus)

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I am grateful you answered my question on the issue of humility and titles. I realize you rewrote your response. I am sorry if my questions were upsetting. I do have a followup one though. In the blog article On Humility and Hermit Titles, the author seems to reluctantly accept that the use of titles and post-nomial initials by Religious Congregations is relatively meaningful because their members are all under a single Rule but that diocesan hermits are individuals with each one being unique and governed by his or her own individual Rule. I think she is saying that hermits shouldn't use a single set of post-nomial initials or titles because they have less in common with one another than they have differences. Does the use of Er Dio or Erem Dio serve to mask an eremitical individualism? I know you argue that eremitical life is not about individualism so it would be pretty serious if the use of the designation "diocesan hermit" were a way of masking that --- something I think maybe On Humility and Hermit Titles is suggesting. I hope this is a more substantive question than my others!!]]

Yes, thank you. This is indeed a substantive question and an interesting one (at least I find it interesting, not least because it was my own Bishop who first approved the use of the initials Er Dio or Erem Dio in 2008!). The poster "joyful hermit", a privately vowed (i.e., a lay or non-canonical) hermit rather than a publicly professed diocesan hermit with the right to use either title or such post-nomial initials, wrote the following: [[ One has come to accept that those in religious orders thought it best to clarify they are of this or that order (Benedictine, Franciscan,  on and on). Perhaps it was necessary to self-identify based upon different rules of life, different foci of spiritual and corporal works of mercy. But they are groups of consecrated religious, living in monasteries under one rule. Hermits are individuals living under individual rules, other than the handful of hermit monastic orders. Even then, their lived daily rules of life are uniquely individual, and in solitude and silence. If there is any point to our identifying ourselves by name and especially by letters or symbols following our names, the reason eludes this nothing. It is rather odd to even add "Catholic hermit" to the "nothing", but this nothing Catholic hermit has a point--attempts to make a point by including "Catholic" with "hermit" to "nothing". ]]

What the poster whom you and I have both cited has missed, I believe, is that while Religious living in community do indeed live under a single Rule and set of Constitutions, diocesan hermits, no matter their individual differences or location (country, diocese, spiritual tradition or family, etc), are each bound by the same canon, both morally and legally. They especially live their lives according to and under the aegis of Canon 603, both sections 1 and 2. They each live their own Rule, yes, but each Rule is a tailored expression of the way their lives are an instance of assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and the content of their public profession in the hands of the local  Ordinary. Each Rule will reflect the life of a consecrated religious with legitimate superiors and a commission to serve the People of God. The life, unlike that of the privately-vowed hermit, is thus a specifically and formally ecclesial one which is marked by certain public relationships (Bishop, Diocese, delegate) and responsibilities. Other canons which apply to all religious may also legally bind diocesan hermits but it is canon 603 that primarily defines every one of our lives.

As I have written here a number of times all of these requirements and governing norms serve to assist the Diocesan Hermit to fulfill her public commitment and obligation to live eremitical life in the Name of the Church. Each Diocesan Hermit has assumed responsibility for responding to, protecting, and extending the scope of the movement of the Holy Spirit in regard to the Christian eremitical tradition. Each diocesan hermit's life is meant to be an expression of the norm Canon 603 represents --- a paradigmatic example of solitary eremitical life with the commonalities and individual flexibilities every authentic hermit shares but lived in a publicly accountable way as the Church has commissioned him/her to do. The designation Er Dio (or Erem Dio) points to all of this; it establishes a very substantial shared content with a similarly significant degree of authentic freedom to be embraced by public vow and approved Rule. It is, when lived well and with integrity, about as far from individualism as I can imagine.

Er Dio (Eremita Dioecesanus): A Measure and Marker of Commonality

You see, when I see, read about, or hear of a hermit using the initials Er Dio (or others which signal their identity as professed and consecrated under Canon 603), I know that we share a host of similar values, relationships, daily commitments, joys and struggles. I know that different as we each are (and indeed we are each amazingly unique) we have been called and given our lives in Christ to the same charism, the same tradition, the same ecclesial vocation. We share the same vows, explore the same solitary, silent depths of union with God in service to the Church and World --- and we know that we are each publicly responsible to do so for the whole of our lives --- not least so our brother and sister hermits may also be sustained in their own commitments.

While our Rules and horaria differ one from the other we maintain this commitment as solitary hermits, usually, though not always, within a parish community with its joys, friendships, opportunities and sorrows; moreover we do so as consecrated persons responsible for our own upkeep, cognizant that others are similarly responsible, and often times, may be struggling just as we may sometimes do in living without the usual securities, challenges and consolations provided by Religious communities. Er Dio, a designation some canon 603 hermits in several countries have adopted with their Bishops' permission witnesses to all of this and more. It stresses commonality, a shared and numerically very rare contemporary vocation, and omits distinguishing dimensions (like the hermits' own preference in spiritual traditions, for instance); it is emphatically NOT meaningless nor is it a mask for individualism pretending to eremitism.  For related discussions please check out: Ecclesial and Normative Vocations, or Eremitical Life: Ecclesiality vs Individualistic Devotional ActsNew Post-Nomial Initials for Diocesan Hermits and similar posts.

I sincerely hope this has been helpful. While much is repetitive I think some recently-broken new ground (cf, On Canon 603 and Herding Cats) was covered more explicitly in regard to the commonalities implied by the designation Er Dio. By the way, not to worry; your questions were not upsetting in the least. Occasionally a post (and its author!!!) will benefit from a different approach; this was definitely one of those. Thanks for your patience.

01 February 2015

If Today You Hear God's Voice . . .

Every day the Divine Office begins with an invitatory psalm. In other words it begins with an invitation to pray, to open ourselves to the effective voice and Word of God. One of the verses of psalm 95, one of the standard invitatory psalms reads, "Today, Listen to the voice of the Lord: Do not grow stubborn as your fathers did in the wilderness. . ." There is a very clear sense that the voice of God is there to be heard. Our part in the prayer God wills to accomplish in us is that we commit to allowing our own hearts to remain open and obedient, that we not allow them to "go astray" lest we not "enter into the rest of God".

At Eucharist today we sang a song I tend to like a lot. It is a version of psalm 95 and the refrain goes, "If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts." But today it struck me as a terrible bit of catechesis. I found myself thinking, "That should really say, 'WHEN today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts!'" I suppose I was feeling a bit cynical because I know our tendency to hear the "if" in this sentence as though it means, "if, as is remotely possible" you hear God's voice today. . .. We are so used to thinking that God only speaks to the elite and that that only happens in unusual, even bizarre ways, that the notion that God's voice is an "ordinary" everyday, everyplace kind of event; the refrain "IF today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts" sounds like something we can blow off as hardly compelling or urgent, much less as a certainty!

I wonder how often we consider that if we adopt that way of thinking about God's presence and activity in our world we have already hardened our hearts? We have already closed ourselves to the God who reveals himself definitively and exhaustively in the human Jesus. We have already dismissed the God who penetrates the ordinary with his presence and power to transform it all into an extraordinary sacrament of his love.

The invitatory is obviously supposed to encourage us: "Encourage each other daily while it is still today (Hebrews 3:13) and certainly the refrain, "If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts" does that. But I believe a better translation and certainly something my own Camaldolese Benedictine heart resonates with is the alternate, "WHEN today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts!!" God's speaking himself within and around us in every "ordinary" bit of reality is not a remote possibility. It is the surest thing in our lives!