Sunday, March 26, 2023

From Death to Life

 

The transition from death to life is the theme of today’s readings. In particular, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a prelude to the Easter event whose celebration is now at hand. Jesus loves Lazarus into rising from death! In our readings three dimensions run through the dynamics of death and resurrection. Ezekiel speaks of the death of hope. Paul glimpses the situation of a person locked up in what he calls “the flesh”: it is the condition of one who has betrayed her relational vocation, her being called to love. This is the death of love. Finally, the Gospel passage is faith-centered and is an initiation to faith in Christ who in his person is the Resurrection and the Life. The dialogue between Jesus and Martha is centered on believing: “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Do you believe this?” asks the Lord; and Martha replies: “Yes, Lord, I believe”.

{For the Bible, death is not exclusively biological but is a much more complex reality, one that creeps into so many areas of human life. The Ezekiel passage speaks of the death of a people, of a community, and this in the form of the death of its hope. Here the transition from death to life will be the return from Babylon of the deported and morally dead children of Israel. Ezekiel states that the death of a people begins with the death of hope, that is, with the loss of a future. Here we see hope as a virtue, hope not as a feeling but as a responsibility, as the work of opening up the future, of giving meaning to our life, the capacity for promise, creativity, for imagining what is possible, the courage to begin something new. And here also we discover the historical possibility of the resurrection of a human group, of a community, thanks to the courage of an initiative and a renewal in which something dies and loses its previous form, but only for the sake of a possible rebirth that is not a mere repetition of the past, but something wholly new.}

{In Paul’s text, death is spiritual. It is the interior condition of persons who lock themselves into a self-referential life, a life under the dominion of the “flesh”, by which Paul means the tyranny of the ego. Here the transition from death to life will consist in the rediscovery of relationship and openness to others in Christ, the activating in oneself of the life-giving death of Christ into which we have been immersed in baptism. For Paul, the person who lives in selfish self-sufficiency makes of his heart a grave. But the Spirit of resurrection Christ exhales into us bursts open the impenetrability of death and brings our dead soul out of her grave. Christ’s Spirit can penetrate individualistic dungeons and, by taking up its dwelling in the human heart, can immerse us in new life.}

The gospel is about physical death, in fact the death of a beloved friend of Jesus. In the death of someone to whom we are bound by love, something of ourselves dies, possibilities of further shared experience die, our very being is maimed. And we intuit it is only love, the quality of the bond that unites us to that person, that can build a bridge between death and life. Only through love can we make sense of our mortal life. We infer from the Gospel that fear of death draws us into defensive attitudes so as to protect ourselves from suffering. But such self-protection actually deadens our life. We may suffer more but we are also more alive when we remain open. By asking for our faith, Jesus suggests that we, too, can enter into his own attitude of trust even in the face of death. “Father”, he exclaims, “I knew that you always listen to me”. This shows an attitude that, while accepting death and suffering for the one who has died, also brings life out of death. Faith is the locus of resurrection. Jesus’ own faith in the Father teaches us how to believe. He states: “I said this for the people around me, that they might believe.”

An ancient homily proclaims: “Having seen the divine work of the Lord Jesus, let us no longer doubt the resurrection! Let Lazarus be to you like a mirror: contemplate yourself in him, and believe in new life” (Pseudo-Hippolytus). But if faith is the locus of resurrection, love is its power: Jesus “loved Lazarus very much”, the text says, and this love became visible in Jesus’ weeping for his friend. Love integrates death into life and finds the meaning of life in the fact that life is always a gift of God that is freely given but that must also be embraced wholeheartedly and thoroughly activated. And this, too, is part of the practice of resurrection that we can embody and give to one another. To have faith in Jesus who is the Resurrection and the Life is to make love a place where death is put at the service of life.

In the end, our fundamental problem is not how death can be avoided, but how to grasp the truth that, in death, God’s glory—which is nothing other than God’s love—can be manifested. Only a love that embraces the tragic nature of death leads to the passage from death to life. Jesus believes in love even when he comes face to face with a dead body. And the command Jesus gives to those present after calling Lazarus out of the tomb, is “Unbind him and let him go!” Lazarus is already moving, so the command must be for the benefit of the bystanders. The point is that those around Lazarus must let him go, because love does not hold the beloved back. The more love loves, the more it sets the beloved free. Jesus is teaching us here how to love. He is not bringing the dead Lazarus back to life for him to live in isolation, only for himself. Jesus is teaching us all how to love with freedom. To love is to set the beloved free. This episode shows us how even death cannot hold back love. The transition of the beloved Lazarus from death to life by Jesus’ intervention anticipates what Jesus will himself do shortly afterwards when, “having loved his own, he loved them to the end”. He willingly handed himself over to a death which cannot hold him back because the power of God’s love loosens the bonds of the underworld.

Photograph by Brother Brian. Today's homily by Father Simeon.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Annunciation


Tomorrow is the Fifth Sunday of Lent, exactly two weeks from Easter. The readings and prayers will begin to point more directly toward the events of Holy Week. Today, the Feast of the Annunciation calls us to shift our focus for a moment to the encounter of the angel with Mary in Nazareth. This is a grace, because this encounter has much to teach us as we take up the final ascent to the celebration of the Paschal mystery.

The first word spoken to Mary in the Bible is “Hail.” The Greek is chaire, which literally means “rejoice”. Of all the things that the angel has to communicate, this is the first: “Rejoice.” In my opinion, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this word.

There is much exegetical evidence that Luke intended his listeners to hear in this word a reference to the great prophecies of Zephaniah and Zechariah announced to the remnant faithful of Israel:

Shout for joy, daughter Zion! sing joyfully, Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. (Zep 3:14-15)

Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold: your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, Humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey…he will proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zec 9:9-10)

As daughter Zion, these words are being fulfilled in her, in her the messianic age is being inaugurated. Mary will have to undergo many trials but the command to rejoice in this knowledge is to accompany her throughout. Not always on the level of feeling, but as a disposition of faith that will give her the trusting plasticity to allow God the freedom to shape her “yes” according to his needs. In this obedience, the sword that will pierce her son’s heart will pierce hers also. Because of it, she will be perfectly conformed to his perfect sacrifice, and to his resurrection joy as well. Through her obedience she will be virgin, mother, and bride, and be prepared for the role of our spiritual mother who will accompany us as we are, as St. Bernard puts it, reformed, transformed and conformed to Christ her Son.

As daughter Zion, Mary’s mission is deeply rooted in the tradition of God’s holy people. Her soul and God’s daughter Zion, Israel, are one. In her Israel passes over into the Church. Likewise, God’s unique word to us is always wholly ecclesial. It is through the Church that we too are called to rejoice, and it is through the Church that we are to be conformed to the suffering of Christ in his perfect sacrifice. Therefore, in these coming days we will encounter the fullness of Christ insofar as are to place ourselves wholly at the disposal of his self-communication in our celebration of his passion, death and resurrection.

In his next word, the angel does not call Mary “Mary” but “full of grace”. “Full of grace” points us to the fact that Mary’s whole life has been a preparation for this moment. Here, at the visit of the angel, Mary draws from the whole of this preparation. Likewise, our Lenten preparations and our participation in the events of Holy Week cannot be isolated from the rest of our life in God. They have their place in a larger context in which God has been at work in our lives, offering us grace that has been forming our character, our capacity for listening, for digesting and responding to his Word, most especially as given in the beginning in the sacrament of baptism in which we were cleansed from the stain of original sin. Like Mary, we draw upon the whole of this divine work as we prepare to enter into the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

Next, the angel tells her “The Lord is with you.” These or similar words are given many times throughout the Old Testament to people whom God is calling to a great mission, one in which the future of Israel is dependent on how well they will play their role. God, for example, tells Isaac when he had to leave his land and go to Beersheba, “I am with you” and assured him that he will be blessed with a multitude of descendants, as he promised his father Abraham. (Gen 26:24). When Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau, God promises him that one day he will return to his own land and assures him “I am with you.” He gives the same assurance to Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David and Jeremiah. Each of them is about to be stretched like never before and will need to rely on God like never before. You are not alone, God tells them, he removes their fear and gives them the strength they will need.

Mary is addressed within in this tradition of the great patriarchs and prophets of Israel and knows that something big is about to be asked of her, although she doesn’t yet know what it is. Likewise, Each of us has been entrusted with a mission that is uniquely our own, with a task no one else can fulfill in the same way, which will be played out in a particular way in this sacred time. How we play our role has a real effect in the community, the Church, and among our families and friends, in accordance with our call’s hidden apostolic fruitfulness. Like Mary, our vocation calls us to a great responsibility, but also like her, the Lord says to us “I am with you.”

Despite being “greatly troubled” at the angel’s greeting, Mary doesn’t allow her initial emotional reaction to rule her, she doesn’t turn away, but holds firm and enters into an interior dialogue with the Word, “pondering what this greeting might be.” Likewise, we will encounter much that is “greatly troubling” in the weeks ahead, which will confront us with a choice: we can turn away and interiorly flee like the disciples, or we can look to Mary and be led like her by her son to the foot of the Cross. As our model and spiritual mother may she help us to stand firm.

Piermatteo d'Amelia (about 1450 - 1508), The Annunciation, about 1487, tempera on panel, 40 5/16 x 45 3/16 in., The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Today's homily by Father Timothy.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Think

Think of the Son of God, how he 
Died on the tree our souls to save, 

Think of the nails that pierced him through, 

Think of him too, in lowly grave. 

 

Think of the spear the soldier bore, 

Think how it tore holy side. 

Think of the bitter gall for drink, 

Think of it, think, for us he died. 

 

Think upon Christ who gave his blood, 

Poured in a flood our souls to win, 

Think of the mingled tide that gushed 

Forth at the thrust to wash our sin.


Detail of a polychromed bronze corpus, after a model by Michelangelo. Lines from a Gaelic hymn at Friday Lauds.


Thursday, March 23, 2023

Accompaniment

 
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet, and it sings, 
have you noticed, with its whole body, 
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move, maybe, 
the lake far away, where once he walked on a blue pavement, 
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not keep that vigil, how they must have wept, so utterly human, knowing this too must be a part of the story.

In watching and prayer during these latter days of Lent, we accompany the Lord in his agony and suffering. But even more, we come to understand that he is accompanying us in all the sorrows of contradictions of our lives.

Mary Oliver, "Gethsemani" from her collection of poems, Thirst

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Fire at Our Lady of the Valley



On 21 March 1950, the Feast of Saint Benedict, the monastery of Our Lady of the Valley in Lonsdale, Rhode Island was ravaged by a devastating fire. The original wing was destroyed; the church was rendered structurally unsound and would have to be demolished. The community of 140 monks was homeless.



Well before the fire the monks had been searching for a new location that would insure their solitude and economic stability since the population in the area around the monastery had increased considerably. And by 1949 the community had purchased a large agricultural property, Alta Crest Farms in Spencer, Massachusetts. The 1950 fire merely accelerated the community's projected move. In God's providence, the end of one story became the seed for a new one. 




Monday, March 20, 2023

Saint Joseph

We celebrate Saint Joseph today because, in his story, we see our story.

At first sight, there seems to be little material for a meditation on Joseph, for what do we know of him, apart from his name and a few events that occurred in Our Lord’s childhood? He is remembered for his attention to the angelic voices that spoke in his sleep, for his prompt and generous obedience to what was demanded of him, for his manual labor in one of the most modest and fatiguing occupations of his day (which earned Jesus the reputation of being “the son of the carpenter”), and for his care of Mary and Jesus in Nazareth. There is practically nothing else known of him, so it might well be said that he lived an unknown life, the life of a simple artisan, with no sign of personal greatness.

As is often pointed out, the Gospel does not record a single word from him; his language is silence. In considering Saint Joseph as a “man of silence,” Pope Francis once said: “The Gospels report none of his spoken words, yet they present Joseph as a model of attentive hearing of God’s word and acting upon it. Indeed, Joseph’s silence was the sign of a contemplative heart, confirming Saint Augustine’s observation that, ‘when the word of God increases, human words fail’ (Sermon 288).”

For ourselves, we see in the Gospel portrait of Saint Joseph how true it is that depth of heart grows with silence, with silence that is not mutism but leaves space for wisdom, reflection, and the Holy Spirit. That is essential to our life as Cistercian monks. We can learn from Joseph to cultivate this kind of silence, namely, that space of interiority in our daily lives in which we give the Spirit the opportunity to regenerate us, to console us, to correct us. We hear a lot about “silence” and count it among the principal monastic values of our Order. According to our Constitutions: “Silence assures solitude for the monk in community. It fosters mindfulness of God and fraternal communion. It opens the mind to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and favors attentiveness of heart and solitary prayer to God.”

But of course, we must do more than idealize the “silent Joseph.” We must do more than pay lip service to silence, or simply “observe” the practice of silence as the Rule of St. Benedict and our Constitutions prescribe. We need to intentionally cultivate spaces for silence in which another Word can emerge, that is, Jesus, the Word—we need to cultivate spaces for silence in which “the ears of our heart” can listen to the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Often it is not easy to recognize that Voice among the thousand voices of worries, temptations, desires, and hopes that also dwell within us. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal observed in his Pens√©es that “much human unhappiness arises from one single fact: that human beings cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” Though not easy, fostering contemplative silence is a sure path to authentic self-knowledge and spiritual growth, which in turn is expressed in effective charity and praise of God, and gives birth to gratitude. The precondition for this, however, is humility.

 St. Joseph’s quiet humility can inspire each one of us to make room in our hearts for Christ, and thus to discern the Father’s will and deepest desire for our lives. The patron of our monastery is an icon of attentive and responsive silence. Following his example in all of its ordinariness and obscurity, we can rediscover (with no drama) the value of words that edify, encourage, console, and support—and decisions that are respectful, caring, and loving towards all those whom God in his Providence puts into our lives.

 Saint Joseph was the “type” of the message of that Gospel Jesus was to announce once he left the little workshop at Nazareth and began his mission as prophet and teacher. Specifically, Saint Joseph is the model of those humble ones whom Christianity raises to great destinies, and he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ there is no need to do “great things”; it is enough to have the common, simple, human virtues that are authentic in supporting a life of supernatural faith and trust in God, and compassionate love for one another. Like Abraham before him, Saint Joseph “believed, hoping against hope.” He put his trust in God’s promises and did everything that God asked him to do, with courage and humility. He lived virtually unknown, like so many of us. The life of Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows today can play an incalculable role in salvation history.

 What does he mean for our troubled times? The Gospel this morning recounts how the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and directed him to make the most important decision of his life. Following the tradition of the great man who is the Joseph of Genesis, who saved his people in Egypt, Saint Joseph also could make good come from what seemed bad. He lived in the silence of discernment and faithfulness, and so became a witness to the meaning of his name—“God will increase, add.” There is always more with God, and Joseph’s action brought us “more,” moving the revelation of the Incarnation forward. He was always a willing participant in the action of God, even when he did not understand what it was all about. The same can be true of each one of us.

Finally, the most important detail we have about Joseph is not that he was a dreamer; it was that Joseph was a righteous man, a just man.  A just person puts his or her relationship with God before all else in life and cares for people as God would care for them.  In the Scriptures, someone who is “just” reflects God’s compassion. In this respect, we could say that Joseph’s righteousness gave way to God’s righteousness. He believed what an angel told him in a dream, and out of compassion he took Mary home with him to be his wife. That simple, that profound.

On this feast day of our abbey, dedicated to Our Lady of Saint Joseph, let us believe with renewed conviction that we are put on this earth and called to this community for a reason. We are loved by God and wanted by God. And he gives each of us a role in building up his family on earth — beginning with this monastic community, but that also means his Church and his kingdom. We carry out our hidden mission, just as Joseph did, by serving Jesus (and one another) in the ordinary work of our everyday lives and in contemplative hearts that let his Word emerge anew. In his story, we see our story. 

Fragment of a wooden carving of Saint  Joseph in one of the corners of the Abbey. This morning's homily by Father Dominic.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Laetare Sunday

 

St. Paul sounds the trumpet today: Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! Blindness of the eyes is a symbol of the death of the soul, of our inability to receive into our being the fullness of illumination God wants to communicate to us, that we may come to share in his own splendor and glory, that we may come to understand in depth the wonders of God’s most intimate life and so enter into divine joy. And Paul further admonishes us: At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light! If Christ has awakened us with his light, we must walk as children nourished by light and not deny his gift. Our behavior must be transformed by this illumination that changes the manner of our relationship with others. We must strain with every fiber of our being to give admission the light Christ gives us and actively allow it to do its transformative work in us, just as the sunlight makes plants grow and blossom. Our hearts must gladly cooperate with the light.

The first reading stresses: Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart. Samuel has to learn by trial and error how to discern among Jesse’s seven sons which one is the Lord’s chosen. Paul advises: Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. The chief fruit of interior enlightenment by Christ is that we develop the gift of discernment it communicates. Illumination of the heart is not a single moment of piercing joy. Like Samuel, and later the disciples, we must learn slowly to see and judge things as God sees and judges them, and not according to our own innate prejudices and com-pulsions of temperament. Seeing justly, discerning the truth, is an act that goes hand in hand with Christ-like love.

In this Gospel episode, we normally concentrate on Jesus’ power and willingness to heal a man who is blind from birth, as an illustration of the Sacrament of Baptism and its spiritual effects. This text is an important part of the catechesis of those to be baptized at the Paschal Vigil, and hence its place in the late Lenten liturgy. But the interior dynamics of this narrative reach further, teaching us how the grace of Baptism takes root and develops in our mature lives as hopeful disciples.

Everything revolves around Jesus’ gaze. He looks upon the blind man very differently from his disciples. These, reducing and boxing the man, ask: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? But Jesus liberates him by making his plight a vehicle of divine light: Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. The plot then unfolds quickly, leading the healed blind man finally to discern Jesus’ true identity and profess faith in him: ‘Who is [the Son of Man], Lord, that I may believe?’ — ‘The one speaking with you is he.’ — ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him. The opening of the eyes of the body has led to the opening of the eyes of the soul, resulting in faith and adoration. The healed man here represents the fullness of human nature as re-created by Christ. The other players (the disciples, the Pharisees) close themselves off from such discernment and remain in spiritual blindness. This gospel is really about how the human heart must gradually learn to see what appears before it with the eyes of Christ. If we cannot discern the royal, anointed status of our fellow humans—the divine life within them— neither will we be able to discern the divine Christ in Jesus. Jesus looks on the man with love and such looking communicates to him the power of sight. We can only truly see God and others when we know ourselves to be fully seen, that is, to be unconditionally loved.

How can we learn to see as Jesus sees? The text says: Jesus saw a man blind from birth. What Jesus sees above all is an √°nthropon, a man. He does not primarily see a sick man, mind you, but simply a man. The disciples, however, sadly do not see a man, but a case. They see only abstract blindness. Not only do they not see a concrete human being but, in a sense, not even a blind man, but only the problem that blindness poses in the world as a dysfunction to be explained away from a distance. They do not interact at all with the man; rather, they talk about him in front of him, as is often done with children or the sick. They turn him into an object by ignoring his full human presence. Jesus’ manner of discernment, by contrast, begins by seeing before him a whole man, despite his infirmity: not a category; not a theological case study; and not a legal issue of culpability (‘who has sinned?’), but simply a man—painfully human, vulnerable, in need of compassion and human tenderness, and himself capable of offering faith, friendship and love.

In order to live this gospel, let us see clearly in conclusion that discernment always begins ascetically, with us working on ourselves and engaging a desire for personal purification so as to free our hearts from prejudices that prevent us from seeing reality. The gaze of Jesus should be our constant model of how to relate to others. Jesus looks at persons in a way that instills confidence. Jesus shows he believes in the man and heals him by speaking to him and touching him intimately. Jesus’ direct, compassionate gaze generates new life, while the disciples’ scowling, the averted gaze is judgmental and closes off the possibility of deeper communion. Our Lord sees the man’s suffering and this draws him even closer to him. Samuel anoints David as king with oil. But Jesus anoints the man with a healing paste he concocts by mingling his own saliva with the dust of the ground. Imagine the sacramental power of the divine DNA in Jesus’ humanity commingled with earthly dust and applied to the eyes by Jesus the High Priest! In this gospel scene Jesus enacts the benefits of the Incarnation, the saving effects of the Word’s becoming man. We’ve already heard the powerful call of grace: Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! So let us respond energetically to the one who assures us: You are the light of the world! and anoints us with his own Blood at this altar. 

Photograph of Abbey stained glass by Bri\other Daniel. Homily by Father Simeon.