Friday, June 11, 2021

His Heart

 

Paul’s desire for the people of Ephesus is that they come to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. The Father and the Son and the Spirit most of all want to see this prayer of Paul’s realized, not only then, but in each of us today. The Three Persons are the ones who have placed this desire in Paul’s heart. They are the ones who have driven Paul to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ.

The mystery of today’s feast is that the supreme place where this love, the heart of God, is disclosed is from the cross, in Jesus’ wounded side. To know the depths of the heart of God and the incomprehensible love that resides there we are to look upon him whom we have pierced, gaze upon the wounded side of Christ.  This wound is not the same as Christ’s other wounds in that it is the symbol of the heart of God laid bare, rent open, precisely for our gaze, that in it we might see the extent of God’s love, which calls out to us to respond, be converted and be transformed in him.

In the first reading from Hosea, God himself relates through the prophet the history of his love and care for his people in the most tender terms. “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.” He taught Ephraim to walk and took them in his arms. He drew them with human cords, with bands of love, he fostered them like those who raise an infant to their cheeks and bent down to feed them. But there is nothing on the side of the people that corresponds to this constant love of God. Israel even runs away, but on his part, God is not ashamed even to run after him. “The more I called them, the further they went from my face” he says in the second verse, which is not included in today’s reading. (11.2). He says, “they did not know that I care for them.”

Israel causes God to suffer: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred”. Here we come up against the mystery of a suffering God; mustn’t God be above all suffering, isn’t suffering something that belongs to  this world? St. Bernard answers this dilemma in an elegantly pithy phrase: “Impassibile est Deus, God is impassible, sed non incompassibilis”, but not uncompassionate. “It is his nature show mercy and pardon.” (SC 26.5)

Although he was free to do so, and would have lost nothing of the fullness of the Godhead if he had, God did not choose to remain safely enclosed in the community of the three divine Persons, but instead took the risk and ventured forth with the gift of creation, ultimately bringing forth man, a creature in his own image, who is free, capable of love, with the capacity therefore also of accepting or rejecting his offer of love, of saying yes or no. God undertook not only the risk of love but also the risk of suffering, for these are  inseparable, as we know.

As Origen said “The Father is not without empathy (impassibilis), not beyond being moved. When he is implored, he has compassion and feels the suffering. He endures things on account of his love, and [because of it] he is transported to the side of those with whom he cannot be on account of his exaltedness.” (Origen, Hom. in Ezech., 6.6)

Origen says of the Son, “he came down to earth out of compassion with humanity. He underwent our sufferings before he underwent the cross and before he took our flesh upon him, for if he had not already suffered, he would not have entered on the course of human life. First he suffered, then he came down and became visible. What was that suffering that he went through for us? It was the suffering (pathos) of love. And the Father himself, the God of the universe…does he not also suffer in a certain sense? Or do you not know that when he involves himself in human affairs in the shape of providence, that he suffers the suffering of humanity with it?

Joseph Ratzinger comments on this passage that “it was…Origen who formulated the normative hermeneutic on the theme of the suffering God: whenever you hear of God’s passions and sufferings, says Origen, you must always relate these to love. God, says Ratzinger, is a sufferer only because he is first a lover; the theme of the suffering God follows from the theme of the loving God and continually points to it. The decisive step that the Christian concept of God takes beyond that of the ancients is the realization that God is love.”

The mystery of the wound is the mystery of divine love. So let us gaze upon this love. As St. Bonaventure says: “Let us through the visible wound, gaze at love’s invisible wound!”

And the path to this God of love is love. And what greater guides into the mystery of this love do we have than the Lord’s blessed Mother and his beloved disciple, who, united in their new relation as Mother and son, by the Lord’s own gift, stood together under the Cross and were witnesses of the wound.  

Whatever John may have experienced during the lifetime of Jesus, no matter what he might have grasped up to that point of the mysteries of baptism and the Eucharist, and of the whole of the life of Jesus, was only a beginning compared to what has been opened up by the mystery of the wounded side. John believes. And from within this belief, everything he has encountered and grasped so far is now burst open in all directions. But wherever the wound leads him he always finds love at its source and end. And it is only love that understands love. Here we find ourselves at heart of one of the principal insights of our Cistercian mysticism. That love itself is a kind of knowledge. It is its own justification and meaning, and whoever lives in love searches for no other reason than love. Love desires nothing but to take a stand of pure belief, because it is only from within that simple faith that human love is fully open to the disclosure of divine love, where the love of the disciple encounters the love of the God through the wound and becomes fruitful in the fruitfulness of God.

Mary stands there as the Mother of Sorrows and the Mother of us all, as the one to whom it has been granted to participate in the Lord’s suffering and cross in an intimacy and fullness beyond that of any other creature. Her heart, too, has been pierced, and in this piercing her motherhood is brought to full fruitfulness. Through her suffering she has been prepared by the Lord to stand with him as a genuine partner in all the mysteries of his fruitfulness and be a mother to all. In their union of hearts, he can lead people to her and she can lead people to him.

By the Lord’s own gift, John stands there as the son of this mother and as such a complete brother to the Lord.  In all her purity and simplicity, in her constant state of being beyond all sin, Mary would have been utterly open and transparent with her new son John about all the mysteries of her relationship with her son Jesus.  John has all of the Blessed Mother’s fruitfulness at his disposal. It is his mission to be the guardian of this fruitfulness and of all the mysteries that the Lord has disclosed. The heart of John is to be one with the heart of Jesus and one with the heart of his mother Mary. He is to keep his eyes on the fruitfulness of the open heart of Jesus on the cross, from whose already dead body flowed the living water and the living blood.

When in our lectio we pray his Gospel, his letters, and the Apocalypse, he is a sure guide into the heart of God and of his blessed Mother. Fruitful prayer, lectio, require a movement out of ourselves into the heart of God, through his wound, corresponding to the movement of God out of himself into our wounded human nature. We have to let him in, just as he has let us in. Like he became naked, so must we be naked to him. As he endured the pierce of the lance so must we. As he did not retreat from love from fear of suffering neither should we. And finally, as he has shown mercy so should we. As we celebrate this day dedicated to his sacred heart, let us ask him for this grace

The Sacred Heart, by Odilon Redon. Homily by Father Timothy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

On this Memorial of Saint Ephrem

One of the first to introduce song into the Church’s public worship, in the fourth century Saint Ephrem took the melodies of the heretics and composed beautiful hymns to teach sacred doctrine. Thus is he called “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” such a lovely nickname.

Christ Jesus our Lord has come to fulfill all promises of the ancient Law. The messenger of a new covenant, the poet of the kingdom, He shows us the way into the heart of God.

Jesus would have us sing and praise the truth of God’s mercy and compassion. And all day long, like Jesus and Ephrem, we will have the opportunity to make a hymn of praise out of our drudgery and ordinariness.

Photograph by Brother Brian.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Corpus Christi

Lately I have become more aware of the fragility of life. Maybe that’s what happens when one becomes an abbot. But any of us can look at the newspapers and feel the disarray: mass killings; the breakdown of family and political life; the gradual loss of vigor in the aging and dying process, including our own. There are broken bodies everywhere, both physical and social, and our community is not immune to the reality. Oddly enough, however, I think today’s feast is a perfect fit for the situation. The broken body and poured out blood of Christ is right at home with all this fragility, and it is the perfect remedy.

Why the perfect remedy? Because this feast celebrates the unbreakable covenant God has made with his people. The body and blood of Christ is our way into the sanctuary, that is, into a familiar and constant nearness to God. We pass through the veil, which is the flesh of Christ, in order to rest in the presence of God. When Moses gathered the people together on Mount Sinai, the covenantal sacrifices he offered were meant to prepare them for this intimate closeness to God. That covenant was a foreshadowing of the permanent covenant that we celebrate today, a covenant that leaves out nothing broken.

When Christ came into this world of fragility, he said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me…As it is written of me in the scroll, ‘Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’” His body and his will have become the covenantal means by which God would deal with all the fragility of life. He bound himself to all the brokenness in the world. He said to his disciples, “Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see that I have.” His body is our guarantee of God’s mercy. It is not some kind of virtual reality out there in cyberspace. “Take. Eat. This is my body.” With these words, we, weak as we are, are drawn up into his body, both fragile as seen on the cross, and indestructible as seen in his resurrection.

The paradox, even scandal, for so many is that this mixture of fragility and transcendence comes to us through such a fragile vessel: the Church. An apparently fragile body of believers and doubters becomes the sign of God’s everlasting covenant, where the body of Christ forever resides and feeds us. We cannot remove all the brokenness around us and within us and in our Church. But we can take and eat and trust that God will bring us through this veil into the inner sanctuary where the fragile takes on immortality, forever.

Recent photographs by Brother Brian. This morning's homily by Dom Vincent.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Dyings

 

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 
2 Cor. 4

Paul's words tell us what it is like to live always in hope. Simply falling backwards into Christ’s compassionate embrace in our desperation is always disconcerting but an exquisite refuge and relief. As Paul tells us elsewhere, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Christ Jesus will never forsake us. And our daily dyings, daily defeats, disappointments, and near despair are endless opportunities to trust and rely on Him, "so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh." Each of us then becomes a finely detailed icon of the crucified and risen Jesus. Surrendering in hope to the contradictions that our lives present day by day, moment by moment, we can say with Paul, "I live now not I, but Christ lives in me."

Photograph by Brother Brian.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Wedded Together

This morning it seems it’s time once again for that favorite first century Palestinian game show: Stump the Rabbi. The scribes and Sadducees are great at it. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, their question was: “Should we pay taxes or not?” This morning it’s: “Well if she had seven husbands, whose wife will she be?” I am reminded of sixth grade at my parochial school where we often played: Stump the Nun. It went something like this: “Sister, suppose you were walking to church, and you began biting your fingernails. Could you go to Communion, or did you break the fast?” “Gary, are fingernails food?” “No, Sister.” “Thank you, dear. Be seated. Boys and girls, take out your geography books.” Or how about this one? “Sister, suppose you were at a restaurant, and you ordered a hamburger, and just as you were about to bite into it, you remembered it was a Friday, in Lent! Should you eat it or not?” “Of course, it would be a worse sin to waste food. By all means, you should eat the burger.” Sr. Elinor Gertrude was sharp. And like her sixth graders, the Sadducees this morning are no match for Jesus. He cuts through their foolishness like a hot knife through butter.

If only the Sadducees realized the gift of God and who it was who was speaking with them. They focus on an outlandish “what-if” scenario - the preposterous possibility of six of the “brother-in-law” marriages prescribed in the Book of Deuteronomy. But Jesus draws them and us into a more astounding revelation. Marriage in its beauty, intimacy, and commitment is appropriate to this present age, but it will come to an end with this present age. (See Anchor Bible) But the reality of eternal life, this endless, intimate relatedness with God in the Kingdom, will never end. 

For Jesus one thing is true - we live for God, and those who live for God are truly alive forever. (See Alois Stoger) Resurrection is real. “Those who are deemed worthy,” says Jesus, “will never really die at all but be raised up, for God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. And all are alive to him.” At death, our lives will be changed definitively but not ended. Jesus promises us transcendence, unending mystery. He points to the discontinuity between our present earthly bodies and the glorified resurrected body. For life after the resurrection will not be a continuation of our earthly life. It is a lack of faith, but even more “an impoverished imagination,” which insists on a preoccupation with things of earth rather than those of heaven. We must live in faith and wonder.

But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, fragile, will rise to everlasting life? Why? What for? And what exactly does rising mean? Death is the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. And we believe that, in his power and love, God will grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus' Resurrection. The resurrection of the body will occur because of God’s great love and reverence for our bodies, our flesh - not just a husk for an immortal soul, but sacred. God has taken our flesh to himself in Christ. Heaven and earth have been wedded together in Him.

But even as I believe, I want to know. What will it be like to be resurrected? Maybe it’s a dumb question. Don’t you wonder though? You know one of the loveliest depictions of heaven is that given us by the Renaissance painter, Fra Angelico. He portrays a gathering of the resurrected, each one hand in hand with an angel dancing a kind of a minuet in a verdant, enclosed garden. It’s charming enough, but... I don’t know about you, but it just doesn’t seem to hit the spot. Do you want to dance for the rest of eternity? I never liked dancing. It just doesn’t do it for me.

The Gospel accounts of the resurrected Jesus paint a much more dynamic and gutsy reality and give us real glimpses of what resurrected life is like. Jesus is alive alright, but forever marked with the holes and wounds of his suffering; he is transformed, transcendent, luminous, and yet wholly available and wonderfully interactive with all his friends. He defies all barriers of time and space and continually seeks communion, connectedness, indeed intimacy with those whom he loves. They recognize him, recognize his body, but somehow, they know he’s different, completely Other.

And what does he do once he’s together with those he loves? You know, most often he eats with them. Whether it is at Emmaus or in the upper room or on the beach, he breaks bread with them, feeds them, or even asks to be fed by them. “Have you got anything here to eat?” He often tells them not to be afraid. And one day walking through a garden, he is mistaken for a gardener. “Mary,” he calls to one heartbroken disciple.  And when we hear her called by name, we hear each one of our names called, known in the deepest depths of our hearts by Christ. Perhaps this is why he says to her, “Do not touch me.” She and we who truly love him do not need to touch him, for his resurrection accomplishes our total union with God; in the resurrection, we are completely intertwined, intermingled with God in Christ. We are with him, in him, body and soul, and we will be forever.

Baptized into Christ, resurrection is our destiny, our reality. We believe that God will raise us up as he raised Jesus. God has taken on our flesh and raised it to eternal life in Christ, and we have been made divine. God has fallen madly in love with flesh and blood, our flesh and blood, and made it God’s body. Best of all, most mysteriously of all, it is Jesus himself who is the resurrection and the life. The resurrection is not an event but a person. It is he in whom we live and move and have our being. He shows how to live for God always; for he is continually drawing us with himself, to the Father in the Spirit. We will be raised up through him, with him, in him. Endless communion with God will be ours, body and soul, with each other, with all our loved ones, indeed with all creation forever because of him. The Holy Communion he feeds us with is a foretaste of our destiny and his desire for us.

Photograph of the Abbey cemetery by Brother Brian. Meditation by one of our monks.

 

 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Saint Justin Martyr

 

Well trained in Greek philosophy, Saint Justin encountered Christian Revelation and was converted to Christianity in 132. Filled with ardor he soon began preaching with great conviction. In Rome, he was denounced as a subversive and condemned to death by beheading. Before his martyrdom Justin was asked by the Roman prefect, "Do you think that by dying you will enter heaven and be rewarded by God?" Justin answered, "I do not think. I know.”


Monday, May 31, 2021

With Utmost Haste

 

Mary set out in those days
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth. 
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy SpiritLuke 1

Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, the distance is about a four-day journey on foot. Mary is in haste out of joy and wonder. It is a joy and wonder that will issue in praise of the dawn of universal salvation. And when the child in Mary's womb comes near to the infant John in Elizabeth's womb, Elizabeth cries out in praise and prophecy, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary has set out and traveled in haste, all because love and joy have put a liveliness in her step. 

This phrase that describes how Mary goes to visit Elizabeth is the very phrase used by Saint Benedict in chapter 43 of his Rule to describe how a monk on hearing the signal for an hour of the Work of God will go to the church. He will “immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost haste, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity.” The love of God must so animate the hearts of Benedict's monks that they move with a liveliness, an urgency, joy, and wonder like Mary’s.  Lovers do not walk towards each other, they run. So the monks go with utmost haste to praise the Lord at the Work of God.

The Visitation by Giotto.  Meditation by Father Luke.