Thursday, September 30, 2021
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
Sunday, September 26, 2021
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna… Mark 9
Jesus’ radical, seemingly ridiculous exhortation to us is meant to catch us off-guard. Jesus is speaking kingdom language here, spoken in the kingdom, that place where nothing whatever is more important than doing the Father’s will. So, Jesus speaks these crazy words to us: “Cut off your hand, your foot, poke out your eye if they cause you to sin.”
And the invitation is to get beyond the words, beyond the obvious, to the heart of his message - God’s desire for our absolute holiness. Jesus is teaching us that whatever impedes love and compassion must be eliminated at its root. It must be yanked out, cut off. He sets the bar higher and higher, demands that we go beyond ourselves. He expects so much of us, too much of us, demands a very high standard of excellence of us his disciples - like the teacher or the coach we loved and simultaneously found absolutely infuriating, who always expected more, who had such confidence in our abilities, who knew we could do it. “I won’t accept shoddy work from you. Take it back; do it over. You can do better. I want more. I expect more of you.”
Our initial response may well be: “You’ve got the wrong party. Sorry. It’s too much. You want too much. My heart is too small. I can’t.” His response, “Of course you can’t. We can, I can do it through you, with you, in you. I can stretch your heart wider than you ever imagined.”
Some years ago, my friend, John, was dating a plastic surgeon, who was interning at Boston Children’s Hospital. I remember her telling us about her work with little children in the burn unit. When children are terribly burned, their skin has to be replaced. She told us how doctors harvest tiny oblong patches of skin from hidden places on a kid’s body, under legs and arms, then take these teeny pieces of skin and make a series of alternating cuts on opposite sides of the pieces, so that the little patches of fresh skin can then be stretched open like little accordions and placed in the scarred areas. New skin grows in the gaps. It seemed wild, wonderful, ingenious to me; something small becoming wider in no time. Healing by cutting and stretching.
Maybe that’s what Christ wants to do with our tattered hearts if we let him in. Frankly, I wonder how available I am to this stretch, this conversion of heart that Jesus so desires. It’s awesome work; certainly, somewhat painful. But he promises that healing, hope, wholeness, and love will be accomplished through our availability to his skillful touch and cut and stretch. Jesus says to us, in other words, “Trust me. You can afford it.” And the good news is - if your heart has been broken open, the more little holes and slashes and old wounds you’ve sustained, the more stretchable your heart will be, and the easier his work will be. He can then make our hearts like his own Sacred Heart burning with love and mercy. “Just as we resemble Adam the man of the earth, all dust, so too, we are like the man from heaven" - Jesus our Lord" whose heart is big as all outdoors.
Baptized into Christ, we are bound to live in covenantal relationship with him and with one another, and to hold to the conviction that peace and love and reconciliation and tender mercy are "not far away things to hope for, but things we can do together now." We are bound to believe and proclaim that love is shown in deeds now. All those small cuts - small choices to love and defer and restrain our tongues and our judgments do matter; our faithfulness in little things has consequences far beyond what we could hope or imagine - far beyond the walls of this monastic enclosure because “those who love more can do more.” Love does stretch hearts wide open. We believe this because Love himself has shown us; Love himself has given himself away for us, to us on the cross and on this Table over and over again. Love never fails, never runs out, because a little bit of love freely given multiplies like crazy, because our tiny hearts in Love’s skillful hands can be stretched far beyond what we can possibly imagine.
Detail of fresco by Masaccio. Reflections by one of our monks.
Saturday, September 25, 2021
Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheatsheaf, Christ the living Bread;
Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run. Amen.
Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Mary the Dawn, text by Paul Cross,1953 St. Pius X Hymnal.
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
The characteristic Cistercian habit is the white cowl which is given to the monk at his solemn profession. It is a sign of his consecration and of the unity of the whole Order. As he blesses the cowl during the rite of solemn profession the abbot prays to the Lord Jesus, "May its ample folds be for our brother a daily reminder of the freedom which he received in baptism. May its form of a cross remind him of the life he is to lead in following you, and may he be clothed entirely in your unutterable mercy."
The cowl is worn by the solemnly professed monks; the cloak is worn by novices and simply professed brothers. In the warmer months, we do not wear cowls or cloaks in church. But as mornings get chillier, we await the prior's announcement which appeared on the community bulletin board last evening: "Resume Cowls and Cloaks for Vigils, Lauds and Mass."
Sunday, September 19, 2021
he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.” Mark 9
In the Incarnation, God has come down to us, to imitate us, his own creation and so himself become imitable in his lowliness, littleness. In Christ Jesus, our Lord, the Father has placed a dear Child, his only Son, in our midst to teach what God is really like.
And If we are to be "imitators of God as his own dear children"- it is now possible because God in Christ first imitated his parents at Nazareth. God's Word learned to speak words from listening to Joseph and Mary. The Creative Word learned the trade of carpentry from Joseph.
When we hear Jesus say, "I can only do what I see the Father doing," could it be that he thinks of Joseph as well as his Father in heaven? And when his heart is on the point of breaking and he says: "Into your hands, I commend my spirit," could it be that he is doing what Joseph did with Mary at Nazareth, just what Mary did at her Annunciation - placing his life in God's hands. Indeed, Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, his little heart formed at Nazareth, Christ Jesus empowered by the Father's love, by the love of Joseph with Mary, hands himself over.
How God wants to be ordinary. Christ’s life reveals this so plainly. And in all the accounts of his healings, what he is doing best of all is returning these once sick and isolated folks back to the ordinary. Jesus’ healing restores them to family, kinsfolk, and friends. They are no longer isolated by their maladies. Think of the lepers, the deaf and blind and crippled. Jesus gives them back to ordinariness. The deaf man he cures will, at last, be able to hear a friend say hello, hear her laugh; hear a breeze blow through the trees. He will, at last, be able to speak clearly, tell someone a story; whisper I love you. He can simply blend in again. Jesus has given him back to ordinariness, blessed ordinariness. It is after all where he always comes to meet us. We know that.
God only wants to be ordinary and small. It is why Jesus has come, he is God with us, near us, in us. The ordinary is charged forever with his kind, incessant presence. God longs to be ordinary, not taken for granted, but here, always here with us. Why else would he choose to be a child, why else a carpenter and a wandering teacher? Why else allow himself to be done in by thugs and jealous bureaucrats? Why else choose to be hidden in a morsel of bread on our altar? In Christ Jesus, God Most High has come down to serve us and care for us and teach us to go and do likewise.
Photograph by Brother Brian.
Friday, September 17, 2021
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
Tuesday, September 14, 2021
Saint Paulinus of Nola will speak to the cross, "You have become for us a ladder for us to mount to heaven." And in an anonymous Easter homily inspired by Saint Hippolytus, the tree of the cross reverses the destruction wrought by the tree of Eden:
For me, this tree is a plant of eternal health. I feed on it; by its roots I am rooted; by its branches, I spread myself; I rejoice in its dew; the rustling of its leaves invigorates me...I freely enjoy its fruits which were destined for me from the beginning. It is my food when I am hungry, a fountain for me when I am thirsty; it is my clothing because its leaves are the spirit of life.
We exalt in the Cross of Christ, for this Cross is a royal throne upon which Love has triumphed and transformed our pain, misery, human fragility, and foolishness into a royal gateway to life and hope and immortality. Death no longer has the last word in our lives, the Love of the wounded and risen Lord Jesus does.
Sunday, September 12, 2021
This morning’s Gospel contains one of Jesus’ hardest sayings: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” This is one of those passages most of us could do without. We prefer passages like “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest,” or “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Those are comfortable, safe passages, words that provide some cushion in a sharp and often frightening world. But “deny yourself and take up your cross”?
When Jesus predicts his own death for the first time, Peter rebukes him. In Matthew’s version, Peter even explodes: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter has a way of saying what the rest of us are thinking, and here he is trying to dissuade Jesus from walking right into a trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed. Peter can’t imagine his wise, young teacher coming to such a quick and bloody end, especially an end that can be avoided. So he basically protests: “Why take a risk you do not have to take? Can’t you skip this trip to Jerusalem and find another way to save the world? There has to be another way!” And then, what a shock it must have been for the other disciples to hear Jesus call Peter “Satan” (he, the first disciple and rock upon which Jesus builds his church). Recall that in one of the earliest teachings recorded in the Gospels Jesus tells his followers, metanoiete, which could be literally rendered as “go beyond the mind that you have” or “change your way of thinking.” In the wake of Peter’s rebuke, Jesus says something very similar: “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
So what precisely is the difference between these two frames of reference? To think in the human way is to follow an instinct toward self-protection. To think in the divine way is to follow an instinct toward self-donation. The old mind flees from the cross, but the new mind seeks it out. Do we want to save our lives, or do we want to give them away? Everything that we say and do will be conditioned ultimately by the way in which we answer that fundamental question. The Gospel this morning tells us in a dramatic way that to follow Jesus, to have his mind, means to enter into his death, that is, to accept the essential poverty/emptiness of our human existence, for a purpose beyond ourselves—actually, for a quality life of depth and scope and heft otherwise unattainable.
Barbara Brown Taylor has an interesting take on this scene (found in all three Synoptic Gospels).
The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words in this passage is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not really living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved any more than fresh spring water can be put in a mason jar and kept in a kitchen cupboard. It will remain water, and if you ever open it up you can probably still drink it, but it will have lost its essence, its life, which is to be poured out, to be moving, living water, rushing downstream to share its wealth without ever looking back. Peter did not want Jesus’ life to be spilled, to be wasted. He wanted to save it, to preserve it, to find a safer, more comfortable way for Jesus to be Lord. But he missed the part: “and on the third day be raised”—that after the suffering and death there is life again, abundant life, life for Jesus and for all of us, life that can never be cut off.
Jesus tells us this morning, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Those will never be easy words to hear, but they are, in the final analysis, an invitation to follow him into life, both now and later on. We all know that there is a certain amount of pain involved in being human, and a good bit more involved in being fully human, fully alive. Jesus felt it all. His enemies counted on his fear of death to shut him up and shut him down, but they were wrong. He surely was afraid (we have only to think of his agony in Gethsemane and on the Cross until his last breath), but he did not let his fear stop him from giving himself over to the Father and to us. Self-donation, not self-protection. He lived only from and for his Father and saw himself only in this relationship. The Father’s will was the motive force of his life. He had nothing of his own, everything was received. And so it must be for us.
One final thought. When Jesus freely embraced his Cross, we know that he really took up all of our “crosses”—and in so doing gave us an example to follow. In other words, life in Christ is not a matter of only embracing our own cross freely, but especially the crosses of others. I was struck by this in reading the following observation by Caryll Houselander about Simon of Cyrene:
Simon of Cyrene saw only three criminals (of whom Christ was one) on the way to die. He could not know until he had taken up the stranger’s cross, that in it was the secret of his own salvation….We must be ready to carry the burden of anyone whom we meet on our way and who clearly needs help. Everyone is our ‘business,’ and Christ in everyone, potentially or actually, has a first claim on us, a claim that comes before all else. We are here on earth to help to carry the cross of Christ, the cross of the Christ hidden in other human beings, and to help in whatever way we can. We may, like Simon, have literally a strong arm to give, we may help to do hard work; we may have material goods to give; we may have time, which we desperately want for ourselves but which we can sacrifice for Christ. Or we may have only suffering. Suffering may well be the most precious coin of all. Suffering of body, suffering of mind, paid down willingly for Christ in others, enables him to carry his redeeming cross through the world to the end of time.
More often than not we may realize, uncomfortably, that we aren’t up to “losing our life” in order to gain it; that taking up our cross, let alone those of others, is beyond us, too risky. In moments of ingrained self-protection and fear of going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety, perhaps we can make St. Augustine’s prayer our own, as a first step in humble yet confident faith. He prays in the Confessions:
You will carry us from when we are little until our hairs grow gray. When our strength is from you, we are strong. When our strength is our own, we are weak. Life with you is the good life indeed. When we live apart from you, our life is a twisted life. Let us come home to you, Lord, lest we be lost. Life with you is a life in which nothing is lacking because you are life. We do not fear that there is no home to turn to. We may have turned away from it. But it remains. It did not fall because we fell away. Our home is your eternal life.
Photograph of Canadian geese in the Abbey fields by Brother Brian. Sunday's homily by Father Dominic.
Friday, September 10, 2021
The 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich recorded the following vision: “I understood Christ's passion as the greatest and overwhelming pain. And yet it was revealed to me in an instant, and then it quickly became a consolation. For our good Lord would not have us frightened by this ugly sight... but because of the tender love which our good Lord has for each of us, he comforts us readily and sweetly. And the meaning is this: It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. These words were revealed most tenderly, showing no kind of blame to me or anyone...”
No blame. Taught so well and so often that difficult was better - you know, no guts, no glory; no pain, no gain; taught that there is no easy grace - the readiness of Christ's forgiveness may embarrass us. Like Saint Peter when Jesus wants to wash his feet, the sense of Jesus' condescension can be disorienting. But his passion and resurrection are all about love and mercy not blaming. This is what Julian of Norwich will call in another passage Jesus' "courtesy." It is true we are unworthy; his love alone makes us worthy, and so all will truly be well.
Seeing the wounded Jesus, and at the same time acknowledging my own stubbornness and stupidity, which is to say my own woundedness, how could I ever withhold forgiveness, or judge another. If Jesus in his agony could forgive his persecutors, forgive that poor thief writhing on the cross next to him, if he could take back his loser apostles after his resurrection, if he is always so ready to mercy me, who am I ever to withhold forgiveness or nurse a grudge? “Peace,” he says to us, and he breathes on us. Too much has happened, but forgiveness is worth it, love is worth it.
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Sunday, September 5, 2021
Again he left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” - that is, “Be opened!” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and [the] mute speak.”
“Whose fault was it? Whose sin was it, his or his parents?” The eerie possibility was that, without even realizing it, he himself maybe even while still in his mama’s womb, had done something really horrible. Sickness, deafness, blindness were, after all, the direct consequence of sin; everybody knew that all decent Jews in Jesus’ day believed it. Sin leaves its mark; sin causes sickness. It had to be someone’s fault. Case closed. Dead-end. But Jesus comes to this dead-end and says, “No! I won’t have it. God won’t have it.” God in Christ reverses and restores, breaking through dead-ends with hope and the promise of a new way through. This is what Jesus wants, this constant in-breaking of compassion.
And so undoubtedly roused by the faith of the good people who bring this deaf and speech-impaired man to him, Jesus’ heart overflows with compassion. Quietly he takes the man off, away from the crowd. And breaking boundaries of good taste, discretion, and formality; well beyond the parameters of good hygiene and, what we might call today, proper ministerial protocol, Jesus boldly sticks his finger into the deaf man’s ears and then touches the man’s tongue with his own spittle. Jesus groans from the very depths of his heart his desire for the man’s freedom and healing. And he shouts out in Aramaic: “Ephpha’tha! Be opened! Open to me, my beloved. Let me hear your voice.” Healing occurs. Jesus’ vibrant touch; his warm saliva are sacraments of God’s healing. God’s own spittle restores fluency to a tongue once thick and speechless; God’s finger pokes its way into ears now deaf no longer. Jesus’ groaning to heaven expresses God’s impatience and frustration with all illness, all the unfreedom and isolation, and pain we know and experience.
Now physicians, parents of little ones, and even lovers or spouses would perhaps dare to touch so familiarly, so sensually; discarding all boundaries, putting their finger in ears and mouth. And so fittingly enough Jesus, who is for us Mother and Father and Bridegroom and kind Doctor, reaches out to this once deaf and babbling man, marking the radical in-breaking of God’s regenerative intimacy with us. Jesus breaks boundaries because God’s love is in fact boundless, we could even say, intrusive. Grace intrudes, overwhelms; amazing grace, complete gift, mercy in abundance expressed in the infinitely tender touch of Jesus. Jesus is God’s word in opposition to all sickness and evil and pain. Right down to his very fingertips,
Jesus enfleshes those words of the prophet Isaiah: "Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with divine recompense, he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped…then the tongue of the mute will sing." These words are fulfilled in him. The Kingdom is now here among us in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s happening. This is what Jesus so desires - this constant eruption of the Kingdom.
Clearly in all the accounts of his healings, what Jesus is doing best of all is returning those afflicted in any way back to the ordinary. Jesus’ healing restores them to family, kinsfolk, and friends. They are no longer isolated by their maladies.
Saturday, September 4, 2021
Once upon a time, there was a lovely, vibrant older woman named Julia who would often visit our monastery. She was a good friend of our monks. And one day I got to have a long chat with her. At one point in our conversation, she grew suddenly somber and began to tell me about her childhood. “We were so poor,” she said. “We really had nothing. It was the Depression. But we managed somehow. My mother was very resourceful.” Then this tiny, sacred tale emerged. “I had no toys of course, but each night when I was a little girl, I always had a doll to fall asleep with. It amazed me. My mother would tuck it into my folded arms, in the dim light, just as I was falling asleep, but somehow like magic it always disappeared by morning. I was mystified. Then one day when I was only about three, I was sitting on my mother’s lap leaning against her arm, and I smelled the doll; I mean I smelled her sweater. I recognized the touch and the feel and the smell. And I realized- the sweater was the doll. Each night my mother would knot and tie elastic bands around her old worn-out sweater, her only sweater, and make a doll, so I would have something to cuddle and fall asleep with. Then she would retrieve it just before I woke up so she could wear it again.”
A wonderful transformation accomplished by love in secret. A marvelous exchange as is the Incarnation - when our Creator became a creature himself. Imagine God’s longing to be hidden in our midst; God’s burning desire to be ordinary; imagine God’s heart ravished by the beauty of Mary’s nothingness. Think of God’s longing to know us from the inside out; God reaching out toward us, coming up with this way to touch and grow even closer to his own creatures.
It is as if all through the ages God Most High was searching, searching over mountains, through valleys, searching. Finally in the fullness of time God, now on tiptoe, wary of frightening us, in quiet, in shadow, peeks over a wall and sees a very spacious garden. God has come upon the perfect place for encounter, a fragrant garden full of tender blossoms, there is dew and quiet. And the place is a person; the garden’s name is Mary. Imagine God’s joy at the discovery; for God’s relationship with Mary will allow God to be Himself completely.