Wednesday, February 26, 2020

On Ash Wednesday

"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your father in secret.” I imagine that most of us would rather curl up and die than to pray at a street corner so as to be seen by others. Let alone, have a trumpet fanfare accompaniment. Even so, the possibility of prayer being a performance, contaminated by self-consciousness, is an ever-present danger in subtle and pervasive ways. It can involve wanting to look good before others. Or it can involve, more insidiously to my mind, wanting to look good to ourselves - staving off neurotic guilt, being pleased with ourselves and our prayer ‘performance’. Jesus is clear and unambiguous about this. No matter how subtly, even subconsciously, it happens, when our prayer is in service of our appearance to others or to ourselves, then that’s the reward we get - we look good….and that’s it! There really is no such thing as reward when it comes to prayer!

True prayer is always open to and receptive to the gift of transformation. It always leads us beyond the limits of our self-consciousness and self-absorption. It’s always vulnerable---pushing us from the solid and secure ground of the shore, where we feel safe. True prayer doesn’t keep one eye on what it looks like or what is going on or what isn’t going on. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, after all. The attentiveness of true prayer is always single-minded, one-pointed, undivided. Its horizon is always God alone. “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door (and I would add - don’t look behind the door,  and don’t look in the mirror) and pray to your Father in secret.” “In secret.” Hidden. Beyond anything we can imagine or, much less, manipulate.

If this is what true prayer is all about, it seems almost like an impossibility. Personally, I know how intrinsically self-conscious I can be when it comes to prayer, to leaving myself behind, to pushing off from the shore. Who is the self that is doing the leaving, and who is the self that is being left behind? Sometimes I feel like a dog chasing its tail. The difficulty, as I see it, is that we can’t let go of self-consciousness by an act of the will. We can’t decide to be undivided. No matter how hard we want to get out of the way, to hand ourselves over to God, there always remains a ‘me’ trying to hand myself over, whom I just can’t seem to get behind! I guess St. Paul really did hit the nail on the head when he wrote “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words…”

Lent is a special time for prayer, for consciously coming into the presence of God; for letting go and making space for God to be God for us. A time for consenting, again and again, to be displaced so that God’s Spirit can pray within us. A time to be and to live undividedly towards God and so to release ourselves and others from the countless reciprocities of blame and bitterness in all their various shades. A time to grow in being increasingly content to be handed over, again and again, with no self-protection to the sheer loving goodness of God our Father.

Photographs by Brother Brian. Reflection by Father Damian.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

"Fat Tuesday"

Mardi Gras in the monastery brings our “farewell” to the Alleluia at this evening’s Vespers, as we chant an elaborate Alleluia at the conclusion of the office. Then we rush (albeit with quiet monk-like decorum) to the monastic refectory for a festive supper of Brother Patrick's homemade pizza, followed by ice cream and sweets. Then there’s clean-up and finally Compline, and the last time Our Lady’s window is illumined during our chanting of the Salve Regina until Easter Sunday. The sanctuary is then prepared for the Mass on Ash Wednesday, and the cross over the altar veiled in purple for the holy Forty Days ahead.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Connectedness


God is love. We remember some years ago chatting with a wizened old missionary, who had worked for years in Belize. On the road constantly in his dilapidated jeep; numerous Masses at different mission stations all day on a Sunday and often having to transport sick Mayan children to the hospital in the middle of the night. He smiled gently and said, “You know there's one thing Paul didn’t say about love - it’s also often quite inconvenient!”

What could we add from our own experience? Love is self-forgetful; it is always toward the other. Love by its nature longs to express itself; it’s not neat and tidy; it cannot be contained. What is more love longs to be loved in return. Love is not self-sufficient but in need of the other, always toward. When I love I am vulnerable, easily hurt, easily elated. Love includes, it gathers, it blurs away differences. It shows no partiality but is convinced of our absolute connectedness as human persons made in God's own image. True loving is thus total and complete. This is what Jesus is trying to get at when he tells us today to be perfect as his Father is perfect - no one gets left out.

God has fallen in love with his creation, and there’s nothing left for Him to do but to continue to give everything. And that's just what God does in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Jesus God gives Godself completely to us always and especially in the Eucharist. In Christ the Father says to us, “All I have is yours.”  “All I have is yours,” is another name for Jesus.

On the cross God’s reckless, measureless love is made perfectly clear. He can forgive because he knows we are all connected, absolutely. Because he could not bear to have us oppressed by sin and pain and death. And Love has the last word, as Jesus is raised up.

When we lost and could not find the way home, God loved us more than ever and sent us his Jesus. He became lost on our behalf, to show us the way home to God in our connectedness. Jesus squandered his most precious life trusting in the Father’s promised mercy. He rose and returned to His Father and has taken us with Him. We must rejoice for we all were lost together and have been found by God in Christ forever. In the wounded and risen Christ, God rushes toward us to bring us home, embraces us and buries his beautiful face in the dirty crook of our necks.

Photograph by Brother Brian.


Friday, February 21, 2020

Following

Jesus summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me. Mark 8


The invitation of Jesus to deny oneself always seems rather daunting. And the root meaning of the Greek expression implies a radical turning away from something.  Truly there can only be one good reason, one perfect reason to turn away from myself - Jesus. Once I become fascinated by the beauty, goodness and truth of who He is and what He wants for us, how could I not turn away from my too familiar mediocrity and attraction to anything less? 

Small wonder that one of the favorite prayers of Saint Thérèse was - "Draw me," words taken from the Song of Songs - "Your name is a flowing perfume...Draw me after you! Let us run!" With Thérèse let us run after the Lord, forgetful of self, our eyes fixed on Him, drawn willingly into the mystery of joyfully carrying our own cross behind Him, our Lord and Master.


Andrea del Verrocchio, Christ and Saint Thomas, detail, bronze, 1483, Orsanmichele, Florence.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Jesus and a Blind Man

When Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethsaida,
people brought to him a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.
Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on the man and asked,
“Do you see anything?”
Looking up the man replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.”
Then he laid hands on the man’s eyes a second time and he saw clearly;
his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly.
Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.” Mark 8


Jesus takes the blind man away by himself and anoints his eyes with his own spittle. Jesus is not wonder-worker or magician but God with us - God's compassion enfleshed and accessible. He engages and wants to listen. The man's full healing takes place in his ongoing relationship with Jesus. Let us also go to him; he is attentive. 

Ancient Cistercian manuscript illumination of Christ in majesty.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Hope


“What eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him…”

I am emboldened by St. Paul, who, when referring to what God has prepared, says, “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” We have the Spirit of God, so let us follow the Spirit’s lead and allow our hope to reach in behind the veil and touch this mystery and be touched by it. Hope is a spiritual power given to us by God as a gift that enables us to desire the kingdom of heaven. Hope enables us to trust in Jesus’ promises, not on our own strength but on the grace of the Holy Spirit. The virtue of hope is aimed at the good things that God has prepared for us.

We get a hint of what God has prepared for us when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” God has prepared for us a life of fulfillment – everything brought to completion, no loose ends, no unfinished business, indeed, no regrets to sadden us. Of course, this only follows after much purification, but in heaven we will understand that saying “…in all things God works for good for those who love him…” We will see that God can and does cause good to emerge from evil itself, even the evil we have done, and the evil we have suffered. And in heaven we will marvel at how God brought this fulfillment about – through the last breath and words of his Son: “It is finished…”

Jesus gives us another hint of what awaits us when he speaks about anger. He contrasts it with what God has really prepared for us: communion. The kingdom of heaven is a place of communion where we will all be of one mind and one heart: no anger, no arguing, no jockeying for position, no insisting on our own way. The only vying for position we will see is the vying to be the first to show honor to the other, the greatest exalting the glory of the lowest, and the lowest thanking God for the gift of the greatest. What God has prepared for us is a celebration – each bringing his or her gift to the eternal altar – not the blood of bulls and goats, but the gift of self, of one’s weaknesses and strengths, to set beside the absolute gift of the Lamb who was slain for us.

Jesus reveals one other aspect of what God has prepared for us – harmony in diversity. His teaching about adultery and divorce is especially poignant here, because God intends marriage to be a sign and sacrament of the harmony of heaven: two unique images of God, a man and a woman, united in the sacrifice of love, overcoming the forces of the world that would estrange and undermine harmony. Now obviously, all marriages are not harmonious, but in heaven we will the see the harmony that God can bring about through the mutual sacrifice of husband and wife. Each cooperates in the salvation of the other: a husband loving his wife as his own body and handing himself over for her so that she might be holy and without blemish; and a wife loving her husband and revealing to him his vocation to perfect imitation of the Lord Jesus. In this harmony and complementarity we will see the image of Christ Jesus and his Church – the mutual gift of self that leaves the uniqueness intact but manifests the union that cannot be broken.

Hope reaches out to this glory which eye cannot yet see, ear cannot fully hear, and the human heart can barely grasp. In our hope we touch the mysteries of heaven, and in the Eucharist we receive a foretaste – of fulfillment, of communion, and of harmony in diversity – made present under the sign and sacrament of bread and wine. All of this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.

Photograph by Brother Brian. Excerpts from Sunday's homily by Father Vincent.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Cornered

As we hear Matthew’s Gospel today, it's clear Jesus is raising the bar, calling us to more, fine-tuning the Law to fever pitch. There is to be no name-calling, we’re not allowed to call anyone an airhead, a blockhead (that is what raqa means after all). None of that kind of language, any of those subtle, snide hurtful things. Tiny as they may be, Jesus reminds us, they are deadly, even murderous. And as Jesus calibrates and adjusts, ups the ante on discipleship, we may wonder then who can make the cut?

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, 
and there recall that your brother 
has anything against you, 
leave your gift there at the altar, 
go first and be reconciled with your brother…

Each time I hear these words I imagine that if we took Jesus literally, we’d have an awful long wait before any gift got brought to the altar. Perhaps we’d all be on the phone or texting or perhaps at the airport or driving somewhere to clear up all the broken relationships, all the messes we’ve been part of. How dare I approach the altar remembering such a backlog of hurts which I’ve caused?

My sisters and brothers, it’s all a set-up. It’s impossible; we can’t do it. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Impossible again. We’re trapped. That’s it exactly; Jesus is cornering us. “Then who can be saved, Lord?” we might ask. For us alone, it is absolutely impossible, we must rely on him, totally, fall back into him, into the warm arms of his mercy. He alone can show us the way to forgiveness and reconciliation, because he is the Way. He alone can re-form our hearts so that they will brim over with mercy and compassion.

Jesus expects so much of us, because God is worth it, the kingdom is worth it. And once we understand how immeasurably the Father’s loves us, we will be empowered and impelled to go and do likewise.

Our father Saint Bernard will put it this way. You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. My answer: the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of the love due to him is immeasurable love. Isn’t this obvious? What is his claim to our love? What could be greater than this - that he gave himself for us unworthy as we are? And being God, what better gift could he offer than himself? So, it follows, if you want to know God’s right to our love, it’s very simple - he first loved us.

All is response to God's loving us first. And it’s all about losing ourselves for him, in him, and ultimately becoming transparent to him, transparent to the love, compassion and mercy that Jesus is.

Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Meditation by one of our monks.