Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Time of Jesus

They said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."

Since Easter, we have been accompanied by the bodily presence of the Resurrected Lord. We have been present with Mary Magdalen when she went in the early morning to the tomb, and when he later appeared to her as she wept, we have been alongside Peter and John as they ran to the empty tomb and examined the burial cloths, we have walked with Lord on the way to Emmaus, and listened as he opened the mysteries of the Scriptures, we have seen him appear through closed doors, reveal himself in the breaking of bread, expose his wounded side to the doubtful Thomas, and so on. In all this we have looked on as this rhythm of manifestation and concealment, hiddenness and appearance unfolded; unpredictable, yet executed in astonishing, absolute, and sovereign freedom. Today we see the risen Christ appear in bodily form to the disciples for the last time and, for the last time, vanish from their sight. As the disciples looked on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took them from their sight, as read in Luke. Now he has been taken up into heaven and has taken his seat at the right hand of God. The disciples worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

We rejoice today with them because we know that at Jesus’ Ascension absolutely nothing of the concreteness of the resurrection appearances has been lost, his presence is now hidden, but no less intimate, and, most importantly, it has been universalized. Whereas his resurrection appearances were limited by time and space, the glorified and ascended Christ is now able to hand himself over wholly and entirely to everyone anywhere and at any time. As the two men dressed in white said to the apostles: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going up into heaven”.  He remains united with the world, not only through the partaking of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist but also by his power of acting in the world, particularly in the members of his body.  The apostles are to be his witnesses of this good news “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” “And behold, Jesus says, “I am with you always, until the end of the age." 

In Christ, our humanity has been glorified, raised up, and seated at the right hand of the Father, “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion” In Him, the soul is wholly filled with divine understanding and conformed to the divine will, and the body is wholly submitted to the soul, as its willing servant. Of course, this glory is not something that the Lord has accomplished in order to hold on to for himself; he wants it to be ours, not only in the world to come but even now, insofar as life in this world allows. He wants us to share now in this glory out of love for us but, even more so, out of love for his Father.

When his hour had come, and his passion was about to begin, Jesus prayed, “Father…glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him… Father, I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do; and now Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world began. The Son glorifies the Father by our glorification; by giving back to the Father everything that the Father has given him. Each gives the other a gift as perfect as his divinity allows. The Father gives the Son man, the image of his image, his Son; the Son gives man back, as a glorified human nature eternally, unchangeable, and inseparably united to his Divine Nature. This mutual gift is their greatest joy and today we celebrate its completion in the Ascension. Of course, their joy is not complete until we join them. Even though we remain here below in our very much earthly humanity, pulled about by various desires and subject to temptations of all sorts, our glorified humanity in the glorified and ascended God-man already dwells in heaven in perfect unity with the eternal beatitude of the Father. Even now we are called to participate in this great mystery through Christ’s body, the Church.

Our task is to make this gift bodily present. For this, we look to Jesus as our model, for he not only holds out the gift to us but shows us the way to receive it, by his very existence, in everything he does. As God’s Son Jesus comes forth from the Father and returns to the Father. He is the uninterrupted reception of everything that he is, of his very self, from the Father. In receiving himself from the Father he also receives the Father’s will, to which he freely gives his yes as one with his own will.

This unity of will with the Father is something Jesus insists on in a whole variety of ways throughout the gospel, particularly in John. Jesus says, ““I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me”. Jesus does nothing of himself: a son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees his father doing; for what he does, his son will do also, "I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.  He doesn’t speak on his own authority: I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak”. This negative limitation is wholly at the service of the positive: doing the will of his Father; and this has its ground in his mission, in their common decision that he should come to us, reveal the Father’s love, and return us to him; restored, whole and glorified.

As Son begotten of the Father it is his essence to receive everything from another, from the Father; as the perfect unity of what he is and what he does, his whole existence is receptivity: openness to the will of the Father, and fulfillment of that will. It belongs to his nature to be always at the Father’s disposal. For Jesus real-time is God’s time. Unlike us, who are subject to sin and the claims of unruly desires, for Jesus there is no time outside of God’s time: work, prayer, leisure, rest are all in God’s time. To such an extent that any time that would not be God’s time would be outside of God and not time at all.  

Our life, if it is to be fruitful, must also participate in this real-time of Jesus: which, like his, must be an existence that is fundamentally receptive. This is not passivity; it requires the full and active engagement of all our powers. Jesus did not receive his mission once and for all, but at every moment; for us, too, the Holy Spirit comes to us as every moment with grace that is ever fresh, ever new, always specific, unique, and adapted to the circumstances that greet us in our day, leading and guiding us as the commissioned Spirit of Truth along the way of the Father’s will.

It seems to me that there are two main poles that we want to avoid if we are not to fall out of this real-time, and therefore outside of God. In both cases, we use time to carve out our own existence. In one, the daily monastic rhythm of work and prayer with its accompanying structure becomes an unwelcome, alienating, and cumbersome burden to set ourselves against in a state of perpetual struggle. In the other, it becomes something to perfect, master, and conquer, like a mountain peak on which we would plant our flag when we get to the top. In both cases, we have displaced God and inserted ourselves at the center. We then find our efforts, victims of our Father the vinedresser’s pruning knife, carefully snipped away from the vine to be cast into the fire to be burned.

We are called instead to lift up our hearts. As Paul says, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  From the beginning, God planned to give mankind all good things, but from the beginning we have made of ourselves an obstacle, impatiently grasping after this good ourselves, in our own way, in our own time, according to our own lights. To receive the extraordinary goods that are being held out to us, as God sees fit, in his own time, we need to undergo being reconfigured to the meekness of the Lamb, who came from above but spent his life as one led. As St. Bernard exhorts his monks, “Let us follow the Lamb, brethren, wherever he goes". Let us follow him in his suffering, let us follow him in his rising, let us follow him more joyously in his ascension into heaven.”

And finally, as we prepare in these days for the coming of the Spirit let us heed the counsel of the Letter to the Hebrews and rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader, and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. 

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


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

His Ascension

 

As we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, we are reminded again that our faith is a dark mystery. If Jesus reminds us “It is better for you that I go,” it is because his absence will allow a fuller, richer, more mysterious experience of his presence through the Holy Spirit. 

Imagine someone you love and really care for insisting, “It is better for you that I go.” How can this be? With the disciples, we gaze upwards in wonder at the wounded and resurrected Jesus who promises, “Fear not. I am with you always.” 

Ascension in an Initial V
Niccolò di Ser Sozzo (Sienese, active 1348– died 1363)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Familiar


It is for others to serve God, it for you to cling to him; it is for others to believe in God, know him, love him and revere him; it is for you to taste him, understand him, know him well, enjoy him. 

With these words, our Cistercian Father, William of St. Thierry, reminds us of our call to deep familiarity with God in contemplation.

Photograph by Brother Brian.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Sixth Sunday of Easter


Every year during Eastertide, we listen to excerpts from the Last Supper Discourse, about four chapters long in the second half of the Gospel of John. Sections like today's Gospel: “Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love...
You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. 
I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.

Jesus draws us into the very heart of his relationship with his Father. I listen, but I lose my bearings. There is surely a beauty to the language but also a circularity. I get confused. I want to say to Jesus, “Wait. What do you mean?” It’s just the wrong question. Asking what it means would be beside the point - like standing at the Grand Canyon and saying, “Wait, I don’t get it, what does it mean?” Or asking a person who is doing an unexpected kindness for you, “What exactly do you mean?” Or interrupting someone who’s kissing you very tenderly, “Excuse me, what do you mean by that?”

We are embedded in God, as beloved as Jesus is; the relationship is ours. Simple, astounding. We are invited to let ourselves be swept into the reality of mutual love that unites Father and Son. (See Francis Moloney) And it’s happening, we’re in it. Non-resistance is crucial; it’s like driving on ice, you don’t put on the brakes; drive into the skid, the flow, gently, attentively. God has lost himself in love for us. God is most truly Godself when he gives himself away.

The self-forgetful love and intimacy of Father and beloved Son are where we belong. Jesus begs his Father that we may be swept up into the reality of God’s own “mutual love and indwelling.”(Moloney) “That the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”

In Christ God reveals Godself as lost in love for his own creatures who tragically reject him. In his unending love, Jesus empowers us to be God’s children, siblings with him of the one Father, and even more his dear friends. In John’s Gospel friendship is the ultimate description of our relationship with God. (See Sandra Schneiders) “I no longer call you servants,” says Jesus, “rather now I call you friends, for I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Everything the Father has and is belongs to Jesus and he wants to give it all to us; this everything of God’s love and desire for us. 

We know that true friendship can really only happen between equals. And so friendship with God in Christ may seem like an exquisite, somewhat poetic, impossibility. It is impossible for us. We must depend on the Spirit to arrange things; we need the groaning of the Spirit to work out this relationship.

True friendship with God is accessible, possible because through the power of the Spirit. God has opened his heart to us, longing for our friendship. A God who is love would be inconceivable without the reality of the incompleteness that is love, the inner voice, the deep desire that says, “I cannot be me without you. You cannot be you without me.”(Jeremy Driscoll) This is the truth of who God is in the Trinity. In this mutual exchange, deferring to each other in love, Father, Son and Spirit utter these words to one another and to each of us. “I cannot be me without you.” 

Photograph by Brother Brian. Thoughts by one of the monks.


Saturday, May 8, 2021

Cistercian Martyrs

In March of 1996, Dom Christian de ChergĂ© and six monks from the Abbey of Tibhirine in Algeria were kidnapped and found dead two months later. This morning we celebrate our  Blessed Cistercian brothers. We are at once humbled and inspired by the passion of their perseverance, the passion of their self-offering.

But let us be clear. Even as he anticipated the possibility of his own death, Dom Christian feared that his dear Muslim friends would be blamed for his murder. He absolutely did not want this.

The only grace he eagerly awaited was at last in heaven to see, as God sees – to see the children of Islam all shining with the glory of Christ, all differences at last brought into communion and divine likeness by the joyful Gift of the Spirit. 

As each morning we receive Holy Communion, we pray for this same compassionate communion among all people, that the differences we so often cherish may be erased by a love beyond understanding. For our reluctance, let us beg God’s mercy.

Friday, May 7, 2021

How?


The love Jesus expects of us seems to be truly unmanageable. “This is my commandment,” he says, “love one another as I love you.”  How can I possibly love like that?

The seeming impossibility, the unmanageability of loving as God loves is exactly the point. We cannot possibly do it. Only the overshadowing of God’s Spirit can transform and stretch our hearts wide open.

Unfortunately, I too often resist the Spirit’s stretch.

Photograph by Brother Brian. Meditation by one of the monks.


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Mary's Month

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.

In 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."
Detail of painting by Caravaggio.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

True Vine

One of the spectacular ornaments of the Jerusalem Temple was a golden vine with clusters of grapes as tall as a man. The vine, the vineyard, was a favorite symbol in the Jewish Scriptures representing Israel. It was a symbol that would have an immediate and obvious meaning to those who first heard today’s Gospel, and it would color how they heard Jesus’ claim to be the true vine—they could easily take it as implying that Israel is a false vine, as Jeremiah once prophesized: “I planted you as a fruitful vine, entirely genuine (true). How have you become a wild vine, turned to bitterness?”

But whatever indirect polemicizing against the Synagogue the evangelist may intend, the reality Jesus is describing by using the imagery of vine and branches, and mentioning his Father to justify his claim, is that he is the source of real life to his disciples, a life that can come only from above and from the Father. When John uses the word “true” or “real” here, it is not in contrast to “false” or “unreal,” but is typical of the dualism running throughout the Fourth Gospel which distinguishes “what is below” from “what is above,” the contrast between the earthly and the heavenly. The point, then, is that Jesus is the vine in the sense in which only the Son of God can be the vine, not that Israel produced sour grapes.

The Son identifies himself with the vine; he himself has become the vine. He has let himself be planted in the earth. He has entered into the vine. The vine is no longer merely a creature (i.e. Israel) that God looks upon with love but could still uproot and reject, or allow to be plundered. No, in the Son, God himself has become the vine; he has forever identified himself, his very being, with the vine. The vine belongs once and for all to God, who himself lives in it. What this means for us, as Benedict XVI tells us in his book Jesus of Nazareth is that “the promise has become irrevocable, the unity indestructible—God has taken this great new step within history, and this constitutes the deepest content of the parable.”

What is also original here, and not found in the OT at all, is that the vine is presented as life-giving. Just as Jesus is the source of living water and is the bread from heaven that gives life, so he is the life-giving vine. Just as the branch gets its life from the vine, so the disciple gets life from Jesus.

It is interesting that until now in John’s Gospel, the metaphors that concern receiving Jesus’ gift of life have involved external actions: one has had to drink the water or eat the bread to have life. The imagery of the vine, in contrast, is more intimate, more immanent: one must remain in Jesus as a branch remains on a vine in order to have life, and this remaining on the vine is above all symbolic of love, fruitful love. Branches that decide to “go it alone,” to live without the life of the vine, will wither and die—good for nothing but fire. Here Jesus tells the disciples: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit because without me you can do nothing.”

But that confronts us with a fundamental yet crucial question: what does it mean to “abide in Christ”? How do we practice this? How do we “remain” in him? St. John tells us, “by keeping his commandments.” But perhaps it is as simple (and difficult) as this: we abide by letting go, yielding, giving our “yes” to God. We stop trying to be stand-alone, self-sufficient vines, and become content to be branches. We know from experience that this is, after all, the essence of contemplative prayer—a practice of handing ourselves over to a reality that is given, that we don’t invent or construct or have to make-believe.

This “letting go” is a matter of faith, and it’s frightening at first. Why? To believe in Christ is different from and more than believing about Christ, even that Jesus is the Son of God. To believe in him is to entrust ourselves to him, to build our life on him, not by holding onto him or ideas about him, but by letting ourselves be held by him. The difficulty for us is that until we have given ourselves, “let go,” given our “yes” to God, we don’t know for sure that we will be held. In other words, faith that is “an abiding in Christ” isn’t a matter of having certain propositions in my head, but discovering myself welcome and at home in a compassionate reality vastly bigger than me. This is not something we achieve but is a gift received. Nonetheless, we discover that the more we yield to, or make ourselves available to this reality, the more our whole life shares in its life and energy. And that’s what proves its truth. Faith is daring to entrust ourselves to a reality that is, in James Alison’s words, “massively prior to us.”

So, how do we ever do this? I would suggest that we dare this only when we desire it deeply enough—when our yearning to be fully real, our yearning for God, has ripened (through much “pruning”). We dare to really let go only when we have come to the end of all the ways we try to hang on to some piece of ourselves, some safety net, some part of our life not yielded to Christ. Although we’re not sure exactly what we are getting into, we let go when we know in our bones there’s nothing else for us to do, and we desire him. That day we say a real “yes.” The spiritual life is, at core, the practice of continuing to say “yes” at deeper and deeper levels of our being. But we can do this only because Christ first truly abides in us more than we can imagine, through the Holy Spirit he has given us. That brings me to a brief final thought. 

The startling new twist in this Gospel is not only that the Son himself now has become the vine, but this is precisely his method for remaining one with his own, with all the scattered children of God whom he has come to gather. The Good News this morning is that the vine signifies concretely Jesus’ inseparable oneness with us, who through him and with him are all “vine,” and whose calling is to “remain” in the vine—to remain one with him and in him through his gift of the Spirit. The fruit we as branches of the vine can and must bear with Christ is love—a love that accepts with him the mystery of the Cross and becomes a participation in his self-giving.

Today we are the “vine” adorning the Temple of His Body, with clusters of grapes taller than any one of us. 

Photograph by Brother Brian. This morning's homily by Father Dominic.