29 July 2018

Parable of the Sower/Soils: Becoming Hearers of the Word

 On Friday we heard the parable of the sower/soils, at least the latter or "analogy portion" of the parable where Jesus explains the story's meaning. We all know it well; seed is sown broadcast-style over a wide swath of ground. Some falls on the path, some on rocky ground, some of thorny ground, and some on rich ground. Jesus makes analogies of the act of broadcasting seed on each of these types of ground. When seed falls on the path it represents the hearer of the Word who is without understanding and the Word sown in his/her heart is stolen away by "the Evil One"; when seed falls on rocky ground it represents the person who receives the Word with joy and grace, but who is "without root" (or fails to allow the Word to take root within her) and falls away from life in and from the Word. When seed falls on thorny ground we are given a picture of the person who hears the Word, allows it to take root, but then allows anxiety and a yearning for other forms of riches to choke the life of the word out; and finally Jesus portrays the person in whom the Word takes root and bears an enormously rich harvest, 30, 60, 100 fold.

In each image Jesus defines the human person as a hearer of the Word of God. Moreover he points out that the nature of one's personhood is a reflection of the priority, attention, and care given to this Word and to the human heart which receives it. To understand the parable is to allow oneself to "stand under" the promise and challenge of the Word of God --- to allow oneself to be literally inspired by it --- shaped, consoled, healed, and impelled by the Word of Love and mercy it always is. Parables are not understood in the way a mathematical or other problem might be; they are not understood even in the way some texts are. We do not understand them when we analyze them and determine what they say; we understand them when we enter into the story and become part of it --- when we allow it to make a new sense of our lives while calling and empowering us to embrace this with our whole heart and mind.

Several images came to mind when reflecting on this reading. For instance, I remembered a time several years ago my pastor asked the adults present in a weekday Mass to name their favorite Scripture story or share their favorite Scripture verse with students from our school who were attending Mass with us that day. Many of us quoted a verse that was personally significant. One after the other, verse after verse, people revealed themselves as "hearers of the Word" and alluded to the deep story of their own lives in relationship with God in Christ which was, to some extent, captured or mirrored in the verse they shared. Religious do this with the motto they choose for their rings, for instance. My own is, "God's power is perfected in weakness." It is the short version of Paul's, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is perfected in weakness." Almost every moment or mood of my life as well as every dream and goal which shape my life and vocation is captured in this verse from 2 Corinthians.

My director/delegate recounts two Scriptures which have served similarly in her own life. At profession she heard, "I have raised you up to show my power through you"; when she began a retreat ministry which allowed her to practice PRH, a methodical approach to personal healing and growth, the first liturgy at the retreat center used a passage from Deuteronomy 31. Sister Marietta found herself personally addressed in the line where Moses commissions Joshua: "You must put them in possession of their heritage." In this context heritage meant that deep Self, that sacred well of potentiality which is both the eternal gift of God and our own truest reality. It is the Word of God spoken within us, the sacred "name" God calls us to embody as no one else can or will.  Throughout our lives, whether through choices we make or circumstances that befall us, our ability to attend to, embrace, and embody this heritage can be wounded and crippled. As a result our hearts will contain tamped down pathways, rocky and thorn-choked ground as well as deep layers of rich soil. But the injury done over the years can also be healed and some forms of pastoral ministry and the work associated with it as well as prayer, lectio divina, etc can greatly assist in this. Through these we can become the truly free persons we are called to be, unique articulations of the Word of God.

As I reflected on the parable this last week and thought on what it would mean to become the rich soil in which the Word of God comes to fruition I remembered the last scene from Ray Bradbury's short novel, Fahrenheit 451. In this dystopia where lives are empty and suicide is common, books are forbidden. Firemen no longer put out house fires; they locate houses in which owners have hidden books and douse them with kerosene, books and all, and set them ablaze. Sometimes they burn the owners as well. Montag, a fireman, steals some books and fails to turn them in. One of these is a Bible. Eventually Montag himself becomes the target of the government and the fire department comes to burn his house and the books hidden there; Montag is to be killed by lethal injection. But he escapes and runs to the forests outside the city. There he meets communities of human beings who have also escaped the empty, fruitless lives so common in that time.

Each member of these communities has given themselves over to a work of literature, and in the last scene we see an image of persons embodying a particular literary opus and "handing on" these works to others who will follow them in a similar embodiment. The work involved may be a book or chapter of a book, a passage or classic poem. If one wants to "read" Dante, or a play of Shakespeare, or the Gospel of Mark, for instance, one is sent to a particular person who will recite it for them -- as many times as one needs. Montag finds his own life of struggle, searching, loss and gain, reflected in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." As in Fahrenheit 451, or the other examples cited above, the parable of the sower/soils challenges each of us to allow the Word of God to shape and condition us completely or exhaustively. It asks each of us to become an embodiment of that same Word. We are not merely to listen to or recite a piece of Scripture, but to give ourselves over to the Word of God and in some way to become its living presence in our world. May God bring to completion the work (He) has begun in each of us!

22 July 2018

The Servant Song

This video is several years old but it matched my prayer last night; also, I like to hear James and Cyprian (OSB Cam) singing together so I thought I would share. May we each find the grace to serve and allow ourselves to be served.

20 July 2018

Hermit Going to the Dogs?! A Bit of "Sabbath" Rest

Just sharing a rare picture of myself (the one in the cowl!). I had the service this morning and our business manager had brought her dogs to work; we stopped and a parishioner got a picture before we went in to pray. These dogs are HUGE! The one I am petting in this picture is deaf but what a love. A beautiful morning at St Perpetua's!!

The readings today are about the power of prayer and the need to learn the deeper, greater lesson of Sabbath rest in and with Christ in place of a life of slavish subjection to laws and rules. I am hoping to put up the reflection I gave this morning -- as soon as I have the time to type it up. In the meantime I put up a reprise of another post because it touches on the topic of mercy and the linkage of that to hospitality. The picture to the right is of our chapel altar.

On Being Called to Both Solitude and Hospitality (Reprise)

Last Monday's gospel lection was, I believe, one of the pivotal texts which explain and ground the hermit's esteem for and paradoxical sense of having a call to both solitude and hospitality. It also serves as an illustration of every Christian's need to ground ministry in prayer including solitary prayer and to allow prayer to overflow in active ministry which is a gift of self to all. The text was Matthew's story where Jesus, upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist, retires to the desert to be alone with God. He is pursued by hungry crowds --- hungry on so many levels; he is moved by pity for their needs and ministers to them. Eventually his disciples approach, remind him of the coming darkness and ask Jesus to "dismiss" the crowds so they may return to the village to obtain food for supper. Jesus says there is no need to dismiss them and asks his disciples to bring the scant provisions they have on hand to him. What follows is a Eucharistic meal. Christ feeds the crowds with bread and fishes he multiplies, but he also very clearly feeds them with himself --- abundantly; he pours himself out in this way and gives the gift of himself and the fruits of his relationship with God even when his own need for solitude (time with his Abba) may have been primary.

While Jesus' grief may have been a significant part of his turn to solitude (the texts don't actually indicate this) the evangelist clearly wants us to see this time as another instance in which Jesus' own call to minister --- to be emptied of self, to be broken open and to pour himself out for others as an expression of his unique relationship with his Father --- is discerned and acted out in the world without hesitation. For hermits for whom the demands of solitude and hospitality are inextricably wed, this lection is both encouraging and quite challenging; though they must both be observed and cannot easily be teased apart, in this lection hospitality (or active ministry) assumes apparent priority over solitude. What I think we must see, however, is that Jesus' solitary suffering (grief, loneliness) and relationship with his Father (prayer) together bring him to a compassion which is the basis of his entire ministry. It is the foundation of his complete gift of self to and for the world given without conditions or limits while it also defines the very character of this ministry. Matthew says Jesus is moved by pity for the needs of these others. At the heart of everything Jesus is and does is a compassionate, other-centered drive to mercy -- a mercy which is from and of God.

Solitude Empowers Our Paradoxical Gift of Self::

Authentic solitude empowers a kind of presence, an openness to others and their needs which our own needs do not impede much less dictate. In other words it empowers an other-centeredness which welcomes on their own terms those who come to us seeking "a word". Eremitical solitude is the context for listening and thus welcoming with one's heart. It empowers this and, at least for a time, allows one to set one's own needs and concerns aside in order to listen carefully to the mind and heart of the other who has sought us out. It is only when one has really heard these others that one can respond in a way which is truly inspired. More, really hearing the other IS the inspired response. In the literature of the Desert Fathers and Mothers hermits visited their elders in search of "a Word". What they were in search of though is not some abstract bit of eremitical wisdom, not necessarily what is most important to the elder, for instance, or the insight or principle s/he most treasures or is known for; instead they seek an answer to the questions or yearnings of their own hearts and the elder draws on his or her own experience to provide just the right "Word". "The Word" is a symbol of the seeker being truly heard.

But here is where is gets a little tricky too. Solitude prepares one to give oneself in an openness which is capable of embracing and holding the needs and even the very self of the other --- and quite often this embracing or holding (as noted with hearing above) IS the very thing the person seeking one out really needs. It is incredibly paradoxical that a hermit's solitude (time alone with God for the sake of others) prepares and even calls for hospitality --- especially such a radical hospitality --- but that is the truth which hermits have seen from the very first moment they sought God in the wilderness. When, for instance, we spend time in quiet prayer we open ourselves to God in a way which allows him free reign (and free rein!). In my own prayer I empty myself of discrete expectations, specific desires, wishes, and even hopes, and simply give over my heart and mind to God to dwell in (to know!) and to touch in whatever way God wills. This means he will plumb the depths of every thought, desire, wish, yearning, impulse, and hope I have, every potentiality, every fear and defense, every openness to life or obstacle to it. I pour out my mind and heart to God by emptying myself of these as things I ordinarily grasp so that God himself can explore and embrace them even more exhaustively with his love and mercy. I let go of these individual realities so that God may grasp and transform me. And so it is with hospitality.

When someone seeks me out they are rarely really looking for the "diocesan hermit" or the "theologian" or even the "spiritual director" --- though all of these dimensions of myself may be of help in one way and another and may also be the ostensible reason someone comes to me. Most fundamentally though they are looking for the person who may also BE these things. What I also mean in saying this is that they are not primarily seeking me out for MY sake --- so that I may BE a diocesan hermit or theologian or spiritual director, etc. They are seeking me out so that THEY may BE themselves. They are seeking a place, a sacred space created not only by the hermitage's silence but more especially by a heart and mind that are open to them and to all they need, yearn and hope for. They are seeking me out in the hope that I can truly set myself aside for the time being and make them "at home."  And some hermits or directors or other ministers may forget this; it is a tragic error when they do.

To the extent I can set myself aside so that those who seek me out may be at home, to the extent my time in solitude has prepared me rightly, to the extent I can become transparent to God rather than being about "being a hermit" or a "contemplative", or merely giving "spiritual advice" or instructing the person ABOUT God, to this extent they will be fed and nourished, held, healed, and freshly commissioned to transform the world with God's love far beyond anything I might be capable of empowering myself in any of my usual "roles" or "competencies". That is the hospitality hermits and contemplatives offer others: the hospitality of selflessness and an open heart and mind which are all transparent to God and are formed and nourished in eremitical solitude. Only then will our own competencies and specific gifts be really helpful and the specific "Words" we might be able to say to the person be truly helpful.

Monday's Gospel Text Again:

So Jesus went apart to spend time with his Abba and people sought him out; Jesus, moved with pity, ministered to them. These two impulses, to solitude and to hospitality are inextricably related in Jesus' life and in the life of contemporary hermits --- just as they are in the great commandment. Are there dangers to be avoided, confusions and misunderstandings which are common and must be corrected or avoided? Yes, absolutely --- and it is important for hermits to live disciplined lives while reflecting on and sometimes even writing about these. But solitude and hospitality are two sides of the same coin and we never have one without the other. Nor can one hand another person only one side of a coin. It is the whole coin or it is nothing at all.  Recently I read a blog post which said essentially: [[ If the folks who turn to me, even those who are concerned with how I myself am doing, don't want to hear a message from a hermit about Christianity or the spiritual insights I have gleaned from my mystical experiences, then let them leave me alone!]]

Additional comments gave me a sense that the blogger believed the people turning to Jesus were doing so for petty (merely "temporal") reasons and interrupting Jesus' prayer and solitude for a bit of trivial "conversation". In all of this I was reminded of some soup kitchens where people in real need and hungry on so many levels were  promised a meagre bowl of soup and sandwich only if they listened to a bad preacher with his pre-packaged spiel ABOUT (his version of) Jesus. And I wondered if those ministering to the folks in the soup kitchen realized what those folks really needed was a decent meal in which they encountered God in Christ as someone who shared their table and was truly vulnerable to them. Was there a minister present asking to eat with or have a cup of coffee with them in order to really be WITH and hear THEM? To make neighbors of them? To really love them as a revelation of God? Because of the soup kitchen's focus on pre-packaged messages ABOUT Jesus -- or the blogger's focus on her insights and spiritual "gifts"? I sincerely doubt it.

But the truth is if we are truly hermits (or contemplatives or Christians of whatever stripe or role) then, relatively rare though these encounters may be, it is in meeting us as persons healed and enlivened by a love which makes us truly open and vulnerable that another will meet and hear God in us, not in lectures, or "edifying accounts of mystical experiences" or a litany of spiritual principles and lessons gleaned in a selfish solitude. We meet God in the silence of solitude so that others may meet God in and through us. Even more, we meet God in the silence of solitude so that we may ALSO clearly recognize and reveal God in the other who needs us to do this. It is not the easy way; it is personally costly and thus it is neither bloodless nor without risk, but it is the way of Jesus, and the way of both monastic and eremitical solitude and hospitality.

14 July 2018

O'Donohue, A Morning Offering

 A couple of readers have asked for the complete reference in the piece I wrote yesterday. It's a bit soon for another Contemplative Moment so I am just going to put the piece and related information up here. The book is To bless the Space Between Us by John O'Donohue. The "blessing" those 8 lines from the last post were taken from was called, "A Morning Offering". Here is the entire piece:

I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.
All that is eternal in me
Welcomes the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.
I place on the altar of dawn;
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Waves of desire I am shore to
And all beauty drawn to the eye.
May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But to do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

13 July 2018

"The Word you are to speak will be given to you"

The Gospel for today is Matt 10:16-23. In it Jesus addresses Apostles being sent on mission set on destroying them; he gives them instructions on how to be effective in what they do, neither being swallowed up by the world they enter with the Gospel of the Kingdom nor offering a kind of domesticated Christianity without --- death notwithstanding --- the power to really change things. This is exactly the same ethic we see from Jesus again and again throughout the scriptures: he traps (or "catches" and stops) those trying to trap him in their own reality and then offers them something new and better in the present moment, all without aggression or hostility. In the language of today's Gospel Jesus acts with the shrewdness of a serpent and the gentleness --- or innocence and simplicity --- of a dove. For those thinking that Christianity offers us a kind of bloodless piety incapable of challenging or otherwise dealing with the world, a piety which makes doormats of disciples the examples Matt gives through the rest of the chapter belies that (cf other posts under the label "gentle as doves . . ." for the real meaning of turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give him your tunic too!).

If we pay attention to the tremendous inner drama involved within each disciple in order for Jesus' instructions or commission to be realized in a world which is seriously dangerous to Christians, we will see a little more clearly what today's Gospel asks for from us in the midst of a turbulent world --- and what the mercy of God promises as well. It is, after all, despite the vivid images of brother vs brother and Father vs Son, the inner drama of conversion and transformation that is the real story in today's Gospel.

All of this was brought home to me on Wednesday. I prayed in the morning as usual but after quiet prayer I opened a book by John O'Donohue and prayed his "Morning Offering". I had been doing a lot of personal work with my director, and I had been reflecting on bondage to fear (the result of past trauma), and on contemplative presence.  O'Donohue's "blessing"  (O'Donohue says "Morning Offering" is not a poem but a blessing) was something I took with me then as I travelled on the train to hand therapy in El Cerrito; I had just read the following again as I disembarked to make my way to the appointment:

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

I moved to the elevator which would take me to the concourse level of the station and found myself waiting with a care-worn man with a mountain bike. He was older, salt and pepper hair which was also bright blue in the front; he looked like he had been through more than a little in his life and I gave a second thought and even a third to getting on a small and interminably slow elevator alone with him. Then, as we boarded the car two able-bodied men, physically imposing, pushed into the car behind us. Oh boy.

I decided simply, "I will put my fear behind me," and as I did I felt a kind of peace come within and fill me. In a second thought I decided, "I will just be myself and, whatever the situation is, maybe my presence will condition or change it some (not the habit --- which can make one a target --- but my personal presence!)." In any case, I knew I would be fine. The man with the bike greeted me first, "Hi Sister." I responded, "Hi, how goes it?" to which he quickly, even defensively, replied: "In comparison to what?" I thought for a second, (No comparisons here! Help him live in the present moment) and answered, "Just today. How are you?" My answer stopped him; he seemed surprised. Then, a slow shy smile crept over his face, and he said, "Good! I am really good. I have my faith in God!" Quickly he expanded his comment: "'Once things were really bad and a friend asked me to "Name just one positive thing, just one positive thing.' I told him, I have my faith in God. That's so important!"

 I agreed. and said so
I realized as we stood there and he told his story of faith and friendship, suffering and salvation, that my own vision was affected; I began to see someone else standing in front of me than a down and out man I might need to worry about. His own story had replaced the fearful one I had "told myself" about him. Perhaps this process began the moment I put fear behind me. A few seconds later the doors of the elevator car opened and we each went our own way. The two men in the car with us also went on and whether the encounter on the car affected them much I knew the man with the bike had been changed some by it. He had gotten in touch with a precious, empowering piece of his own story and shared it; he implicitly acknowledged the gift my own response had been in its likeness to his friend's demand to name "just one positive thing"; he had allowed himself to touch the treasure of love and friendship he carries within himself even when the darkness threatens to overwhelm; he had dwelt in the present moment with me and his (our) God, and he had been a gift to me in assisting me to do the same. This was the more significant inner drama the Spirit had involved us in.

All kinds of things can prevent us from living in the present moment: past traumata and the fear of repetition or just the triggering of painful memories, busyness and a sense of self-importance, disappointments that make risking ourselves or trusting difficult, the inability to truly entertain a meaningful dream in a way which lets us move forward in the present, the inability to trust in the grace of God that holds us securely no matter what, etc, etc. But Jesus sends us out, commissions us to be his presence in the world, to be shrewd as serpents and gentle as doves; he asks us to be wholly at the service of the Gospel of God and those to whom we are sent. He asks us to dwell in the present moment, to put fear behind us and trust that we will be given what we are to say. He asks us to be wholly present in Him and to the other. When we do that witness is no problem; ''the word we are to speak (the word we are called to be in fact) will be given to us," and the world will be transformed for the good. 

04 July 2018

On Contemplative Prayer and Living

[[Dear Sister, hi there! Do you think of yourself as a contemplative? I wondered if there is a way to justify living as a contemplative. I grew up in a Protestant family and was taught to distrust contemplative prayer and maybe contemplative living too. This had something to do with distrusting prayer rooted in an inner and unverifiable mass of feelings. Too subjective I guess. Later I became a Catholic and more and more came to appreciate the accent it has on active ministry. But my pastor also talks about how important it is to cultivate a contemplative way of living and praying. He reads your blog by the way and suggested I look at it; he also said you might answer any questions I had. imagine my surprise to find you had written a piece called "A Contemplative Moment: How I become Myself"! So I was wondering how you can justify not working and being a contemplative. Can you answer this for me? Thank you.]]

Welcome to this blog! I realize you don't know me and I also understand something of where you are coming from when you say that you learned to distrust contemplative prayer and life. Despite what Catholics say "officially" I suspect many of them really don't trust contemplative life and think contemplative prayer itself is for an elitist few. Some Protestant ecclesial groups tend, as you say, to distrust the subjectivity of contemplative prayer. Some speak outright about the devil tricking folks to believe they are communing with God when really they are, at best, only navel gazing.

If you check under labels for my posts you will find a number dedicated to the heart. The way we conceive of the human heart is an important part of why we consider contemplative prayer a critical piece of Christian spirituality. For me and for other Christians the human heart is the center of the human being and the place "where God bears witness to Godself''. This idea or description of the human heart recognizes that the most central, sacred, and inalienable part of ourselves is an event rooted in the continuing gift/speech of God. We must learn to listen to and with our hearts and that is an essentially contemplative  thing. Our culture esteems rationality, thinking, busyness, but is not too comfortable with matters of the heart in this sense. Thus it takes real work to learn to listen to one's heart, and more, to listen with one's heart. Quiet or contemplative prayer is really about this. It allows us to truly be present to and for another --- something our world needs desparately.

I am reminded of a poem by Wendell Berry. Berry captures a sense of the work of contemplation and contemplative living. It is counterintuitive and contrary to our usual Enlightenment ways of approaching reality. Berry writes in Standing by Words:

The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
So, what I can say to you now is that contemplative prayer and contemplative living are vastly different things than most people know or have experienced. I suppose I would be surprised that these are not distrusted by some, especially by those who cannot trust subjectivity, paradox, or who overestimate external authority. However, contemplatives tend to take our stand in discernment as Jesus described it: by their fruits you shall know them. That said, the folks I know who are contemplative value truth, are loving and compassionate, and are incredibly committed to personal integrity. Their way is non-violent and respectful of others and the whole of creation. They work quite hard pouring out their lives for others and exploring an inner landscape most may not even imagine exists. While contemplative living may be relatively rare today this does not mean such lives are elitist; no, the truth is all are called to this kind of living and prayer. It is a focused way of living, attentive, and care-full. There is nothing strange or unworthy of trust about it. It is, quite simply, authentically human.
In saying all of this please be aware I am not writing a justification of contemplation or contemplative living. I don't think I need to do that. Instead, I believe folks who distrust these things need to re-examine their objections. Eremitical life is fraught with stereotypes and sometimes authentic hermits suffer when otherwise intelligent folks hold such stereotypes. I guess the same is true with regard to contemplative prayer and life. Stereotypes get in the way of real understanding. Fortunately, your questions indicate you are not allowing that to occur here.

03 July 2018

A Contemplative Moment: Now I Become Myself

Now I Become Myself
May Sarton, Collected Poems 1930-1993
Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
'Hurry, you will be dead before --'
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
Mark my word, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as a ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
Grows in me and becomes the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!