Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Father William's Funeral

It is amazing to think of all the different aspects of the Christian life that Fr. William explored and expounded during his lifetime: contemplative prayer, the meaning of Scripture, the communion that is monastic life. But there are two other aspects that are also important, both for Fr. William and for us: being a child of God and sharing in the kingship of Christ as we heard in today’s readings. They might seem like an odd combination, childhood and kingship, but they are essential to the Christian life. Let us see how they apply to Fr. William and to us?

            In the first reading, we heard those remarkable words of St. John: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.” Fr. William had a childlike streak in him, a little mischievous at times, a little stubborn at times, but with a desire to experience what a child experiences, namely, using the words he used to end his e-mails, to be happy, to be free, to be loving, to be loved. But there is something more astonishing about being a child of God. St. John puts it this way: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed…when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” This is our privilege as children: we will be allowed to reach in behind the veil and see God as he is.

            The other aspect of the Christian life is sharing in the kingship of Christ. St. John had said that we shall see God as he is, but the Gospel shows us exactly what we are looking for. It is in the crucifixion of Jesus that we see God as he is: God bearing out of love all the suffering of his children; God bearing the insults of bystanders and criminals to win them over; God showing abundant mercy even to a thief, who, like a repentant child has won over the heart of his father and is allowed to steal heaven. Here we see God as he is: a king, but one that the soldiers jeer at, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” This is the paradox of Christ’s kingship that we must share, the scandal and the glory of the Lord’s cross, and it is not easy.

            Now you may wonder why I am dwelling on this sharing in the kingship of Christ. But I’m sure you remember the story of how Fr. William was especially marked out for kingship. When Dom Thomas appointed him to supervise the young professed, he was asked, “And what would you like to be called? Fr. William immediately responded, “I’ve always wanted the title of king.” And so it happened. Henceforth, the Junior Professed when passing by would greet him with, “O King, live forever!” But I cannot help but think that this kingship had a deeper meaning. When Fr. William returned from his various surgeries, in my eyes he began to resemble more and more the king on the cross. And when the end came, standing before the Lord, I like to think that Fr. William could recognize him from his own experience of suffering, and could cry out, “O true king, live forever.” But the deeper mystery might have been our Lord’s response, “O King, you live forever, for you have lived in me.”

         These two elements of the Christian life are not easy: accepting our status as children of God means accepting our weakness, and accepting our share in Christ’s kingship means accepting our share in the cross of Christ. But despite all the challenges, I think Fr. William would assure us that it is all worth it. He would probably quote one of his favorite authors: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” May Fr. William rest in peace. 

Dom Vincent's homily for Father William's Funeral.

Christ Jesus

 

This arresting image of Christ is a favorite of many of us and reveals El Greco's indebtedness to the icon painters of his native Greece. But while icons have brilliant gold backgrounds signifying timelessness and eternity, in this painting Christ is shown against a background of daubed and scumbled muddy browns. Thus it is that El Greco depicts Christ as absolutely of the earth, one of us. At the same time, his diamond-shaped nimbus, his right hand raised in blessing, and his left resting in dominion over the brown orb of Earth reveal that he is truly divine.

Truly human, truly divine, Christ Jesus is with us, truly with us in all things, always and everywhere.

The Savior, El Greco (and workshop), 1608-1614, oil on canvas, 72 cm x 55 cm, The Prado, Madrid.

Monday, February 22, 2021

At Her Heart


The church is…a living reality.  She lives along the course of time by transforming herself, like any living being, yet her nature remains the same.  At her heart is Christ.

Lines by Servant of God Romano Guardini.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Tested

 

Jesus is just back from the Jordan River, where he has received John’s baptism. God only knows why. He certainly did not have anything to repent of. Why was he there? Perhaps it is that he could do no less. He had to be there, with his people - with us - in all that embarrasses and burdens us, our regrets and our failures, all our soggy truth. Jesus has immersed himself in all of it. Only the passion of his love can explain his desire for baptism or any other one of his actions for that matter. Jesus perfectly expresses this determination of God to “share unreservedly”1 in our distress, to be with us in everything. Never distance or separateness but immersion and identification with us, so that we might know ourselves holy and beloved like him, through him. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

My mother often spoke of my grandmother, sitting at the kitchen table reading the soldiers’ obituaries in the newspaper night after night during the Second World War, reading and sobbing. My mother would say, “Mama, you don’t even know who these boys are.” Grandma’s response, “Yes, but they are some mothers’ sons.” Identification and compassion. The brilliant logic of love.

So it is that Jesus is “driven” - literally pushed out - by the Spirit out to the wilderness to further immerse himself in our reality. And we find him this morning weakened by fasting and terribly lonely with only wild beasts as company. In this most vulnerable condition, he is tested by the evil one, tempted to give it all up and misuse his power. Satan desperately wants Christ Jesus to deny the self-forgetful love that he enfleshes, the love that will lead to his self-emptying even unto an excruciating death on the cross. This is tempting for Jesus, as we know from his later struggle in Gethsemane, but the Father’s will is always irresistible for him.

Today’s account from the Gospel of Mark is a conflation or even an abridgment of the longer temptation stories in the other gospels. And here again, the battle lines are set. It’s been building for thirty or so years; the evil one is fed up. Satan is itching for a fight. “Just show them who you really are. Just be divine. Why pretend you’re powerless? Why bother? C’mon, show us your stuff. Just be God; leave me to take care of the mess down here, and you get back to heaven.” The incarnation drives Satan crazy, for he knows it is his undoing - God and our flesh forever one. If only God would just stay in heaven if only Christ would leave the earth as Satan’s domain. If only God would deny this humanity – the incessant towardness of his love for us, enfleshed forever in Christ Jesus our Lord. If only….

It is the cross that will be his final answer to Satan. For on the cross, God will let himself be murdered for our freedom from all accusations against us, and death will die in him. With quiet trust and obedience to the Father, Jesus will contend with evil in weakness and vulnerability.2 And confront Satan not with a divine lightning bolt “but with his frail human nature, empowered by the Spirit.”The accuser doesn’t have a chance, knows it and he’s frightened to death.

And this morning we witness Jesus’ rejection of self-sufficiency; he is grounded in relationality; he belongs to the Father, and so to us, to whom the Father has sent him. His will is not his own; he has come to do the will of the One who sent him. And his temptation by the accuser is to be other than He is, God with us, God for us, God’s Beloved Son. Our temptations are perhaps a zillion variations on a similar theme - to be other than who we are - dearly beloved children of God.

Why do I continue to feel that relentless desire to have it my way, to resist and rebel? Why shouldn’t I. Jesus has somehow experienced it all and looked it straight in the eye - that demoralizing pull toward what entices, even as I realize it’s not right – that narrow place where we are tempted to be other than our truest selves, to live a lie and do the opposite. It is there that I see my heart is divided, pulled in opposite directions; I see that I am a sham. But that small embarrassing corner is a place where we can encounter him. We might want to ask, “Jesus what are you doing here?” His response, “Where else would I be?”

Jesus has come to sympathize with our weaknesses, tested in every way we are, yet without sin.3 He is very close to us in temptation. He cannot bear to have us go through it alone. And if we remember what it was like to have a friend simply sit by our side in illness or adversity, or come to offer us help when we were exhausted and say simply, “Please, tell me what I can do to help?” If we can remember how that transformed everything, then we get a tiny glimpse of what Jesus’ solidarity with us truly means. Identification and compassion.

Ultimately there is a hard grace offered to us in all of our temptations – the invitation to arrive at this place of utter helplessness and depend completely on Christ’s power working through our weakness. But we must be willing to reject the stubborn “misconception that we can be truly human without overcoming ourselves, without the suffering of renunciation and the hardship” of loss of self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, we may have been misled into believing that we could avoid “the patient endurance required by (this) endless tension” between what we should be and what we truly are.4

Like Jesus, we live with beasts, our own inner demons, but we too have angels ministering to us, if we dare notice. We are day in day out persecuted, beguiled, and tempted but never, never abandoned for we carry about in ourselves the dying of Jesus, so that his resurrection may also be revealed in us. This is our hard and beautiful destiny, our baptismal truth. We are in Christ. He is himself the Ark in whom we are being carried home safely to the bosom of our Father. He who is our refuge in all temptation is tempted today and is sovereign and victorious to reveal to us our power as members of his Body. We are majestic even in our fragility and our vulnerability because our flesh is his flesh. The Holy Communion we receive will make explicit once more this truth of our commingling with him.

1 Olivier ClĂ©ment, The Roots of Christian Mysticism.

2 Romano Guardini, The Lord.

3 Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.

4 Pope Benedict XVI.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255 - c.1319), The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, 1308-1311, tempera on poplar panel (cradled), 17 x 18 1/8 in., The Frick Collection, New York. 

This morning's homily for the First Sunday of Lent.

 


Friday, February 19, 2021

Lent

Lent, the springtime of the Church situates us between two gardens - the garden of Eden, that lush middle Eastern paradise where the first Adam lost his innocence and the garden of the Resurrection on Easter morning where the new Adam wounded and resurrected will walk in peace having restored our lost innocence. In between like Christ Jesus, we will spend forty days in the desert, the place where wild beasts and demons are most at home, the place of trial and self-knowledge, where with Jesus we discover who we really are, what we really desire - better still, Who it is we really desire.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

On Ash Wednesday

            We have been talking recently about the great good of unity in the community. Lent adds another layer to this unity; it calls for unity even as we shed our extra baggage and walk with the Lord to Jerusalem—no coppers in our belts or extra tunics. Complacency has to go, because the poor Christ has a baptism to be baptized with, and we are called to join him. Coincidentally, the prophet Joel had to shake the people of Jerusalem out of their complacency—in his case, the imminent arrival of a famine in the land. It was no longer business as usual. It seems to me that the Lord has chosen this Lent to summon us out of any complacency we may have, faced as we are with so many challenges—Covid-19, political upheaval, death in our midst—we need our communal unity to press on to Jerusalem.

            Joel’s words are like a trumpet blast for us: “…proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber…let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, and say, “Spare, O Lord, your people…” This call to the Church touches all the people of God from the eldest to the youngest. It touches us in a similar way: the seniors among us with their years of monastic experience; the newly arrived who are like infants at the breast, imbibing the wisdom of our forefathers; even those enjoying the embrace of the bridegroom—“His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me…”—are called to rouse themselves; and finally, the priests of the community whose task is to call on the Lord’s mercy on behalf of the community, as they minister the divine mysteries. We must all travel light, for the journey to Jerusalem and to the Father is arduous.

            The whole movement of Lent is, in fact, toward the Father. The Lord wants us to choose the one thing necessary, that is, the Father’s will, as he did, in “one spirit with him,” focused on what really matters, devoting ourselves as a community “…to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” But even more, he wants us to choose that good zeal St. Benedict spoke of: “being the first to show respect for the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior…” not pursuing what we judge better for ourselves, but instead what we judge better for another. Let us sprinkle this zeal upon the other sacrifices we offer this Lent, that good zeal which creates one heart, one mind, and one voice.

            Lent is a communal activity. It is another layer of our unity as a community. For in our embrace of the Lord’s deprivations, we will find the one thing necessary—becoming one spirit with him and with one another on the journey to the Father. May the Holy Spirit bring this about.

Photograph by Brother Brian. Dom Vincent's homily for this Ash Wednesday.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Mardi Gras

 

Shrove Tuesday 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 head to the refectory for homemade pizza, followed by ice cream and sweets. Then there’s clean-up followed by Compline, and the last time we can chant the Salve Regina with Our Lady’s window illumined until Easter Sunday. The sanctuary is then prepared for the Ash Wednesday Mass and the cross over the altar veiled in purple for the holy Forty Days ahead.