Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Pruning

 

From Jesus’ parable of the Vine and the Branches, one thing should remain very clear: the Father as Vinedresser sooner or later is going to cut into all the branches—the withered ones to cut them away and burn them, the fertile ones to prune them so that they bear still more fruit. In other words, none of us, Jesus’ disciples, is going to escape this necessary and often painful process of purification in view of a more abundant harvest. True love always bears fruit because love is for giving away, and true love is the only thing God ultimately cares about.

I don’t suppose it feels very good to be a branch and to be cut into, for whatever purpose! And yet God’s love for us must often take precisely this form, performing on us a painful operation in order to heal, purify and sanctify us, so that through us the fruits of God’s love may then be borne into our hungry world.

We are sentient, soul-endowed branches on Christ the Vine. As such we are not fated to be either sterile or fertile irreversibly. We can actually choose whether we are going to be fruitless or bear much fruit. If this were not so, would Jesus be telling us this parable today? It seems to me it is nothing but a generous invitation for us to become fruitful as a result of cultivating a most intimate and synergetic union with himself. Our fruitfulness depends on the extent of our surrender to divine grace, which is continually trying to surge up within us like the life-bearing juices of a vine.

Detail of an initial from an ancient Cistercian manuscript. Today's homily by Father Simeon.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

She Remembers

 

I remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known in any age that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your powerful intercession, was ever left unaided. Inspired with this same childlike confidence, I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you I come, before you, I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word made flesh, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.

n May Mary's month and in every month this ancient prayer to Mary called the Memorare is a great consolation. Mary is our protector and a model for all our efforts at prayer and faithfulness.

Our Constitutions remind us, "By fidelity to their monastic way of life, which has its own hidden mode of apostolic fruitfulness, monks perform a service for God's people and the whole human race. Each community of the Order and all the monks are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother, and Symbol of the Church in the order of faith, love, and perfect union with Christ." 

Trusting in Our Lady's care, we pray for the people of Ukraine and the grieving families in Buffalo. Too much pain. Mary's heart opens to console all who are in need. 
Detail of painting by Caravaggio.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Practicing the Resurrection

 

Today Jesus reveals to us the heart of the New Covenant in his blood: "I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so also should you love one another." This passage of John’s Gospel, brief as it is, packs a whole new world of meaning, transformation, and hope. It offers us the legacy—which is both a gift and a task—that Jesus leaves to his disciples. Agápe is Jesus’ legacy to us: loving as God loves. The Lord is communicating what he considers indispensable for his disciples in the future. As is always the case when the end of life approaches, he is disposing of his inheritance. The act of transmitting something precious has to do with death and fills the moment with solemnity. But Jesus is not simply handing over an inert something, like money or property. He is bequeathing to us the form of his life, a life characterized by the kind of love that is the most powerful antidote against death.

Expressed in the form of a command (Love one another!), the love that Jesus asks his disciples to practice has a Paschal form in the sense that it calls for us, his disciples, to exit from ourselves in order to receive in ourselves the form of Christ, and, as Cyril of Alexandria says, “the form and figure of Christ in us is love”. To live love as Jesus lived it is to participate in the energies of the Risen One, to pass from death to life. It is to profess our Easter faith in our every daily encounter. The love lived by Jesus is the innermost power of his Resurrection. Therefore, Jesus points the disciples to the way of love as the way to make the Resurrection a constant practice. To love unconditionally and without hesitation is the infallible way to live the radical newness of Christianity. The way of concrete love is the existential proclamation in daily life that death does not have the last word.

Behold, I make all things new: the meaning of this affirmation by the One who sits upon the throne of glory is revealed in Jesus’ Resurrection. The Resurrection is the vantage point from which to look at everything in a radically new way. Since Jesus’ Resurrection, nothing in the lives of humans and in history has changed from how things were before. Historical tragedies and personal dramas have not ended, and humans stubbornly show their persistence in the errors, vices, and follies of all previous times. But the Resurrection allows us to look at all reality from a fresh point of view, and to seize whatever happens as an opportunity to do something truly new within ourselves and in the world around us. The Resurrection does not so much teach us to expect new and different things to occur outside ourselves: that would be to exempt us from all responsibility. Rather, the Resurrection instills in us the responsibility to live the often painful and distressing realities of everyday life in a new way. It leads us to look in a new and different way at the same old narratives and the same old human existences.

You may have missed the very beginning of our text, which provides the essential context for understanding Jesus’ New Commandment in all its radical newness. Our passage begins with the words When Judas had left them… Jesus is celebrating the Last Supper with the apostles, and the verse before this one says: After receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out. And it was night. And then: When Judas had left them, Jesus said… It is the point of view of the Resurrection, that is, of the concrete practice of love, that enables Jesus to look at Judas’ betrayal as an opportunity for loving, as a chance Jesus is given to practice love. Jesus does not make Judas better, does not change him, does not convert him. He does not even try to bring Judas back into the fold with words of persuasion, exhortation, threats of exclusion. Instead, Jesus welcomes what is concretely happening before him and turns it into an opportunity to live out love and concretely manifest God’s love. For Jesus, Judas’ betrayal is an opportunity to love even those who make themselves his enemies. In this way, he is proclaiming by his deeds and attitude that God’s love is for everyone, not just for some. God’s love is not only for the lovable but also for the unlovable, those who don’t deserve love because they have forfeited it through betrayal and infidelity.

This gospel closely relates Judas’ exit from the heart of the community to Jesus’ glorification. Immediately after Judas leaves, Jesus strangely exclaims: "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him." The act of betrayal could have been denounced and blamed, judged, and condemned. It could have been used as grounds for Judas’ formal expulsion from the apostolic community. Instead, Jesus chooses to see it as an element within the Son’s relationship with the Father and thus as a sign of the Son’s and the Father’s glorification. Jesus refers everything back to the Father’s plan of redemption and never allows private feelings to stand in the way of such clarity of purpose. It is through the Father’s eyes that Jesus sees even his own betrayal and death, something impossible in purely human terms. The question that emerges from this and challenges our reactions, our ways of reasoning and behaving, even as faithful, church-going Christians, is this: What use do we make of situations of conflict or injustice? How do we react to the difficulties a person poses to us through unjust and hurtful behavior? Often our first reaction is self-defense, which is more than legitimate and probably even required on many occasions if not always. However, here Jesus shows us a different behavior.

To understand Jesus’ attitude, we must change the point of view from which we view reality and others. Judas’ gesture of betrayal is an opportunity for Jesus to ask himself how he can continue to love Judas even in that situation. Jesus is glorified by the way he decides (yes, decides!) to love Judas to the end. And if Jesus’ elevation on the cross is the sign of his glorification by the Father, and the cross is the place where Jesus reveals God most fully, then this glorification takes place already now, in the decision by which Jesus chooses not to oppose Judas’ wickedness. Jesus is showing us, his own disciples, that absolutely everything can be lived as the Gospel teaches, that is, under the sign of love—even the evil that people do. 

It is clear, therefore, that the hour of Jesus’ glorification is not ushered in by Judas by his act of betrayal, but by the love of Jesus who loved his own to the end. Jesus forgives, that is, he continues to love faithfully those who stop loving him, those who betray him, those who lie to him. And so he demonstrates through his own manner of existing in the world that love is stronger than death, that to love is the logical practice of the Risen Life, and this paradoxically at the very moment when his unconditional loving will lead him to his death. Jesus’ words, "Now is the Son of Man glorified," sound like a cry of victory, and the victory consists in the glorious fact that evil has not stifled loving. Disappointment and bitterness at his friend’s betrayal did not prevent Jesus from unilaterally persevering in loving. 

This victory of Jesus over the evil of others, without this evil tainting him or drawing him into the coils of its perverse logic: this is Resurrection! At this moment Jesus is about to leave his friends. He has a lucid awareness of the bleak future immediately before him and his followers. In order not to forsake his own, Jesus leaves them a legacy: it consists of the suggestion, the warning, and the commandment that love is the only way to practice Resurrection. By engaging in active agápe as their ordinary way of life, Jesus’ disciples will show that they, as his true Body, are the living extension of Jesus’ redeeming presence in the world throughout history.  

As towering examples of this truth let us remember in conclusion three of the ten persons who were declared saints in Rome just this morning by the Holy Father: our own, St Charles de Foucauld, of aristocratic origin, former monk of Neiges, who chose to spend his life in utter simplicity and poverty among the Tuareg of the Sahara Desert and was murdered for it; St Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite friar who refused to carry out Nazi ordinances and perished at Dachau for it; and St Lazarus Devasahayam, an 18th-century Indian layman who not only had the boldness to convert to Christianity but then proceeded to denounce the Hindu caste system as unworthy of human beings, and was executed for it. This is what the Paschal Mystery of Christ looks like when it is lived out in the concrete circumstances of this world with all its injustice and prejudice. This is what it means to practice the Resurrection in our lives: to love unto the end as Jesus did.  No wonder Paul and Barnabas had to “strengthen the spirits of the disciples [at Antioch], and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying: ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’”. Saints Charles, Titus, and Lazarus: pray for us!

Today's homily by Father Simeon.

Friday, May 13, 2022

At Fatima


The apparitions of Our Lady exist in a very delicate, mysterious but always lovingly attentive atmosphere. Even as she pleads for penance and prayer at Fatima, Mary has not come to reprimand. Rather her concern is for all of us, her children lost, and often inured to our sinfulness. At Fatima and always, Mary’s compassionate care far exceeds our expectations.

In 1917 three shepherd children from a village in Portugal are rapt in awe at her lovely presence and heed her requests. Let us follow them, as we remember our sins and beg her Son’s forgiveness.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Saint Damien de Veuster of Moloka'i

So fully does Damien of Moloka'i take on the mind and heart of Christ, so devoted is he to the lepers, that soon, because of his fearless ministry, he will become a leper himself. In Saint Damien’s total self-gift, we have a true icon of Jesus, Jesus who constantly gives himself away to us in love and self-forgetfulness. It is what he did on the cross, it is what he does each day in the Eucharist. He draws us into the life of God; we are "spliced" into the very life of the Trinity, into the self-forgetfulness that God is.

Jesus wants to be our food, for he knows he is indispensable to us. “My Flesh is true food,” he tells us. “And my Blood is true drink. Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him.” Jesus becomes bread and wine so that he can be dissolved in us, and surrender himself to us completely.

Life in the monastery is meant to accomplish the very same self-forgetfulness in the monks. Like Jesus in his passion, like Damien in the leper colony of Moloka'i, we are trying to learn how to give ourselves away with ease, without reserve or fear.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Shepherd Us

 

The 23rd Psalm is the ambient music surrounding this morning’s Gospel. Words we know so well: The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose; near restful waters, he leads me to revive my drooping spirit. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for he is with me… This cherished image, perhaps banalized by overexposure in song and art, nonetheless shines out as an enduring description of who God is. The ineffable One whose name could not be spoken by the people of Israel, would be fittingly, repeatedly described as Shepherd.

Jesus appropriates this imagery for himself, boldly, lovingly, “signaling his consciousness of his Messianic role.”1 This is the Father’s will for him. Earlier in the chapter from John that includes today’s Gospel, Jesus has announced, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Because he understands his vocation as beloved Son, he senses that this reality is coming true in him. Israel had been promised repeatedly that a Messiah would come, a Good Shepherd at last, who would guard and protect and console them, gather all the tribes, all the nations, Jews and Gentiles alike. In Christ Jesus, the Lord, visions and longings cherished by the prophets are fulfilled and enfleshed.

Jesus is the One who will leave ninety-nine sheep to rush after one stray until he finds it. He is the One who looks out upon a weary crowd and sees a flock of sheep without a shepherd, feeling their weariness most deeply in his very guts. He is the One who will feed a huge crowd on a hillside, inviting them to recline on the green grass, because he is the good shepherd who gives us repose in green pastures.

“My sheep were scattered over the whole earth, with no one to look after them or to search for them,” says Ezekiel. “But I myself will look after and tend my sheep.” This is Jesus’ truth, he has come to rescue the lost, feed the hungry, and be compassion for all who are in need. And it was precisely when we were lost and helpless and could not find our way back to God, that he loved us more than ever and came after us, “while we were still sinners.” And this morning he assures us that there is no taking us out of his very beautiful, wounded hand. We have been given to Jesus by his Father. Held by God.

As we look at the characteristics of this very good shepherd, it becomes clear that Jesus fittingly uses this motif because we so often act like dumb sheep - dependent and vulnerable creatures who huddle together for safety and are often prone to wandering. Yet they will respond readily to a voice and a word they recognize. So it is that Jesus tells us this morning, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” We his sheep are listeners, called to attentiveness. And as we grow closer to the Lord, we come to know his voice - direct, clear but never coercive, most often perhaps a mere whisper.

So, it dawned on me not long ago that as I begin to pray or try to pray, I must admit that I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to pray. All I hope and know is that God is seeking me. Called to a life of incessant prayer, we’re probably much better off understanding this as our vocation to an incessant lostness. Incessant lostness. Lostness means everything. And we always go to God as beggars. “Help” is always our first and best prayer.

After college with few job prospects available, I often got gigs as a substitute teacher, sometimes at my old parochial school. One day the first-grade sister who would be absent left me instructions: in the morning, she said, I should begin by playing the record she would set on the little turntable in the classroom. So, after the sign of the cross and a prayer, I lowered the needle to the record. It was Carey Landry singing out, “Hi God, how are you today?” On and on it went, as the children sang along. Amazing. Now even at 22 and poorly catechized, the concept seemed a bit out of whack to me. Everyone wants intimacy with God, but we need a Savior, not a buddy.

Jesus our Savior, our Shepherd, has indeed called us his friends. But something far more breathtaking is being offered to us. In and through Christ Jesus, we are being swept into the reality of the God’s own “mutual love and indwelling,”2 invited into “a union with Jesus which will plunge (us) into the depths of God’s very life, the life Jesus shares with the Father”3 in the Spirit.

If God wants to chase after those who wander off, feed the hungry, and console the weary, I must realize where I am, who I am, and who is seeking me, and let myself be found, let myself be found, simply that. Unless I realize how lost, hungry, needy, and unfinished I am, I’ll be stranded in the stratosphere orbiting on my own planet or else hiding in the underbrush like Adam pretending, “I’m good; no need to search for me. Everything will be fine.” This just won’t work.

Jesus is like the father in the story of the lost son, he abandons all dignity and decorum, as he rushes to us, he does not cling to his equality with God, but runs, leaps over hills in search of us, over and over. And if we are brave enough, wise enough not to elude him, he will take us to himself and bring us home to God. One like us in all but our sinning, wounded out of love for us, has come for us. And his wounding is our rescue from fear and death. His wounding is our rescue. His passion death and resurrection our freedom and peace. The pierced Lamb has become the Good Shepherd, and he is perfectly equipped for the part, for he is as vulnerable as the sheep he cares for.

And as on the first Easter day, again this morning the Lord Jesus sneaks in on us, says, “Peace” and offers us his own body and blood for our Supper. As he gives us this gift of himself, he “beckons us to respond with our own self-gift.”If we are overpowered by the mystery of his love, by the unquestionable reality of the mystery of a God who is relentless compassion and mercy, all the better.5  We have been found.

1 See NT Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 538., Sacra Pagina: John, Francis Moloney, p. 479., 3 See Written That You May Believe, Sandra Schneiders, p. 15., 4 See John Baldovin, Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation., 5 Adapted from Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, 23. 

Image by Bradi Barth. Homily by one of the monks.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Now In May

Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.
For He whom you did merit to bear, alleluia.
Has risen, as He said, alleluia.
Pray for us to God, alleluia.
Small flowers, violets, bluets, and pussycat paws are blooming in the lawns and meadows of the Abbey. These simple, low-growing flowers remind us of Our Blessed Lady and her Son in their humility.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins responds:

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature's motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

 

The beauty and exuberance of springtime, profusion of blossoms, chanting of birds, all remind us of Our Lady’s joy as she carried Our Lord in her womb. May is Mary's month.