A "Yes" That Overcame All Fear
“Her willingness was her magnificence. This we know and marvel at when we recall how You first came to us,” (Upon A Luminous Night, Christine Rogers, p.9). Mary’s willingness was echoed in her ‘yes’…her ‘yes’, says the poem further on, “to a thing she only partly understood” (p.9). This ‘yes’, which was encircled with mystery, with fear, not knowing what it all would mean or ask…still she proclaimed her ‘yes’ and never turned back.
No wonder she is the icon of our ‘yes’. This Advent season asks each one of us to utter with our lives this ‘yes’ once again…‘yes’ to the promise that God will be born in the humbleness of human flesh…our flesh, our lives, no matter how imperfect, how much struggling we are going through. But, (there is always a but!) it all pivots around our saying again ‘yes’, ‘yes’ to the Spirit who is hovering over our lives right now. Even if we do not sense the Spirit hovering, God is present ready to breathe new life, ready to become more in our lives.
Holding the reality of Mary’s ‘yes’, I want to turn to some of the images put forth in the readings for this third Sunday of Advent: ‘strengthen the hands that are feeble’, ‘make firm the knees that are weak’, ‘be strong, fear not’; ‘be patient’, ‘make your hearts firm’. While we may feel weak, not strong enough, fearful, our ‘yes’ can root us beneath these fears and weaknesses…remembering the Spirit is overshadowing and waits our ‘yes’. Mary had her doubts but she sensed and felt something more and after some pondering gave her assent in these words: ‘Let it be done to me according to your word.’
In the annual Pax Christi Advent and Christmas reflections Sr. Anne-Louise Nadeau, for this Sunday of Advent, focuses on what she calls the “tyranny of fear”. She writes: “The common element that appears to limit the fullness of life is fear. Fear blinds our eyes to seeing our own possibilities, our own shadow side, our own goodness, and the goodness of others. Fear closes up our ears to the truth and distorts our humanness” (p.18). It is striking how much we hear in the Advent scriptures ‘Fear not your God is coming’. At Mary’s Annunciation after the angel’s greeting, she is ‘greatly troubled at what was said’ and then she ‘pondered’, she went deeper, stretching to understand what this all could mean. She went deeper than her fears and found faith, enough faith to face and accept the message that would change her life. The angel’s response to Mary as she pulls back and ponders is ‘Do not be afraid’. Fear in and of itself is not bad; it can be an opening into the life of God, into deeper listening and understanding about our existential situation and that of our world. The Holy Spirit is always hovering; we are not alone. But we have to be ready to meet our fears with faith. God will not disappoint. Her willingness, even with her fear of what all this could mean, even with so much that she did not understand, became her magnificence.
The Interior Space of Advent
“O dark dark dark…I said to my soul be still and let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God” (“East Coker”). As we reflect on these poetic and familiar words of T.S. Eliot I am sure they conjure up many things for each of us. As we begin Advent, could we pray the grace to let the darkness come upon us, remembering, feeling into with faith, that it is the darkness of God, that it is a darkness describing a pregnant time for us very personally, for us as a community, for our world? The soul: veiled in darkness, where there lies a seed of life planted by the Divine hand. Our faith experience proclaims that God wants Life, new life for humanity and creation. The liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas come at nature’s darkest time of the year. The darkness of Advent is not the darkness of death; it is pregnant with new possibility, new hope.
This new life, that is to be born, begins dark, small, hidden, deep within. We may ask what is the posture, the inner demeanor that will help us stay watchful and awake to these inner stirrings of God’s unfolding new life? Any contemplative practice is about cultivating awareness and attentiveness within and without. But Advent asks us to stretch even further for who wants to let ‘the dark come upon them’. We may resist this darkness at least initially until we can trust or sense that this darkness is about God’s Spirit hovering over our lives, like Mary at her Annunciation.
It is interesting to move from T.S. Eliot to John of the Cross. Eliot was influenced by the poetry of John of the Cross, especially his image of the ‘dark night of the soul’, as we can see in “East Cocker”, which I quoted above. Fr. Ian Matthew in his book, The Impact of God has this to say about “the right kind of emptiness” in the writings of John of the Cross: “The one thing needed now is some space, so that what is coming can come…for John, God is an approaching God, and our main job will be not to construct but to receive; the key word will be not so much ‘achievement’ as ‘space’. ‘Making space for God in order to receive’ (p.35). What Fr. Matthew says in reflecting on the spiritual experience of John of the Cross is so apt for Advent: ‘God is an approaching God’ and we are to be there to give ‘space’, interior space in order to ‘receive’. The emphasis is “not on our forging a way, but on our getting out of the way” (p.37). God is “lavish in bestowing himself ‘wherever he finds space’” (p.37). And God will not disappoint…
Here we are, at this first Sunday of Advent; here we are called to dwell within our heart’s depths, letting the darkness come upon us. Advent is preparation for the birth of Christ in the human soul once again. At Christmas we will celebrate the birth of Christ in history. But now the preparation is for this gift, for this new manifestation of Divine life, God’s gift of God’s very Self. We need this Divine birth, each one of us, and so does our Church and world. This birth within us and in our midst is about the birth of peace which only the Christ of God can give, it is about the budding forth of hope, mercy, forgiveness, love, inclusive love, a love that evil can not and will not overcome. Will we lend our flesh, give our ‘yes’, to letting Christ be born in us this Christmas? God is coming: do we have enough faith…just a mustard seed of faith is enough to move us to utter the words, ‘let it be done to me according to your Word’. Advent is about letting Christ’s life grow in us, root more in us, open our hearts more, expand and deepen our consciousness to be more like his.
Fr. Matthew writes that as John of the Cross allowed the symbol of night to speak to his heart, two words can be highlighted from John’s meditation: “blessedness and mystery. Night, that which comes and curtails control, is greeted as ‘sheer grace!’…a night of beatitude” (p.54). Letting the darkness come upon us curtailing our control, greeting the night as ‘sheer grace’: what powerful, stirring images. Attentive and watchful in the silent darkness, clearing the inner landscape, creating enough space for God’s new ‘gesture of love’: this is a way to describe the contemplative posture that I sense this first Sunday of Advent invites us to with its gospel call to ‘stay awake’ and the epistle of Romans, ‘now is the hour for you to awake from sleep’.
A Sacred Pause to Listen
The poet David Whyte has a book on ‘words’. He takes a word, presumably a word that has evoked something within him, and he writes a poetic prose reflection. It is as though he is doing lectio divina on each word that he reflects on. For example, here is how he begins his reflection on the word ‘confession’: Confession “is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed like a humiliation, become suddenly a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home” (Consolations, p.33). In his ‘lectio’ reflection Whyte opens this word up for us showing its fuller reality, its deeper meaning and how it leads us to our true home. We use words so easily and so quickly without too much thought on what they are communicating. We all know the Rule of St. Benedict begins with one word: ‘Listen’. Have we, though, taken this word enough into our consciousness to let it guide and instruct how we live, how we are in our prayer and daily interactions at any given moment? What if we would each take this one word ‘listen’ and write a prayer reflection on it as we begin our day? I wonder if this type of lectio on this ONE word would help our listening, deepen our listening, open our hearts just a little more to hear the Word, Christ.
‘Listen’…and then listen with the ‘ear of the heart’: this is the beginning of the Rule and this one word is like an arch, it spans the entire Rule. If we don’t grow into listening in the monastic way we will not ‘arrive’ (the last word in the Rule) at what we are all seeking: freedom, union with God, becoming one with the heart of Christ and his consciousness. In our retreat with Abbot Paul Mark he began one of his conferences with a quote from Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr, osb, who was writing about “sacred pauses”. To me the following quote from her expresses one very important dimension to ‘listening’. She writes: “Sacred is the pause that draws us into silence. Nourishing are the moments when we step away from busyness. Teach us the wisdom of pausing. Reveal to us the goodness of stopping to breathe” (Seven Sacred Pauses, p.82). How quick we are to respond in conversation with one another. How quick the thoughts come up when we sit in silence to pray. What about this sacred pause? What is this all about? The pause draws us into the silence of the heart….but for what? What do we hear? It seems to me that pausing interiorly enables us to hear the ‘small still voice of the Spirit’. At Jesus’ baptism the voice of God says: “listen to him”. Does the Divine voice compete with all our other voices? I don’t think so. I think it is ever-present…present in the pause. What would happen if we did pause, just long enough to hear the Divine voice speaking to us, reaching into our consciousness with its wisdom word, its word of life, its healing word? Today if you hear God’s voice harden not our hearts: this is the evocation of psalm 94….Always and today the Divine voice speaks.
The other aspect of ‘pausing’ before speaking is that it enables us to become aware of the emotional content that circulates around our words: sometimes our words are laced with hurt, anger, resentment. Other times our words are put forth to puff us up before others. The pause helps us to hear this stuff and then the Spirit can cut through it so that we can back off from it and meet the other with more authenticity and truth.
The fruit of contemplative prayer in daily life is to remind us of the ‘sacred pause’, a listening moment that helps us re-center, re-connect to the One who is our life and is the foundation of all that we are and do. There is no contemplation without listening. Imagine if we would practice, outside of prayer times, as we are being ‘busy’ with ‘many things’: ‘pausing’, pausing to listen, pausing to drop beneath our many words so that we hear the one Word which is Christ. Perhaps we would less react to one another. Perhaps we would learn something about how God becomes ‘all in all’ in simple ordinary lives, lives lived with such consciousness, dedication and hope. Perhaps our many words will become less and have a new quality about them, the quality of silence, a silence that is breathing God forth in and through our lives.
With the Eyes of Christ
How does Jesus see? How do we see? In an essay titled, Person to Person: Becoming Present by Barbara Newman she writes: “I do not think we can see with God’s eyes until, at least once, we have had the experience of being seen with them. If we are lucky, that happens in ordinary human love…But the ability to see everyone in such a way—not just our friends or people we admire, but everyone, from the screaming infant to the dangerous enemy—is both a discipline and a gift. Like every gift of the Holy Spirit, it is given freely. But…we first have to ask for it and show with our whole life how much we long for it” (Spiritus, 16.1, 2016, p.100). Do we long to see with God’s eyes? Do we continually ask for this gift, do we importune God in prayer for this daily grace?
How does Jesus see? How does he challenge us to see as he sees? One could do a lectio reading of the synoptic gospels just on these questions. How do we see? Imagine if we interface our seeing with Jesus’ way of seeing. How would this interfacing with the Incarnate One expand our horizons, purify the intentions of our heart, the eye of our heart? One could, as well, include in this lectioreading of the gospels the ‘not seeing’ of Jesus’ disciples and the tainted seeing (often with evil intent) of the Pharisees. Let us not forget the teaching of Cassian: the way, he says, is ‘purity of heart’ for it is the pure of heart that truly see, see God in all things and all persons.
Just to get a sense of how Jesus sees let’s look at a few random selections from the gospels. In a story from Mark’s gospel, we have Jesus going into the synagogue where there was a man who had a withered hand. Here in this story we have two different ways of seeing. First we have the Pharisees “who watchedJesus closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so they might accuse him” (3:2). Already the inner eye of the Pharisees is tainted: they are watching Jesus closely in order to trap him. Jesus sees the heart, he sees what these religious leaders are up to: “Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart” (3:5), Jesus proceeds to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. He looks around and sees: he is grieved at what he sees: he sees their hardness of heart, he sees their deceptive motives! And another story from Mark’s gospel of the rich man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus recites the commandments and the rich man responds: “Teacher all of these I have observed since my youth” (10:20). Jesus looks at him and loves him, then tells him the one thing he lacks. Jesus sees the man in his totality and out of a loving gaze challenges him by telling him what he lacks, what he still needs to do. A final story from Luke’s gospel of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (10:25-37): This passage also begins with the question: “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life”. Jesus replies with the great commandment of loving God with the whole of one’s being and one’s neighbor as oneself and the lawyer to justify himself asks ‘who is my neighbor’? Jesus then tells the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’. One of the poignant features of this story is ‘how one sees’: ‘A priest happened to be going down that road but when he saw the wounded man, he passed by on the opposite side (vs:31). Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side (vs:32). But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight’ (v:34). Seeing for the Samaritan evokes profound compassion. This compassion is what Jesus wants us to see and then to live. Jesus also wants us to be aware of our partial, selective seeing, or, of how we do see and then ignore what we see, or when our seeing is blurred or blinded by a hardened heart.
The Incarnation, Barbara Newman says, provides the lens God gives us to see, to see as Jesus sees. She continues: “Through this lens alone we truly see God and the world. So many other lenses obstruct our eyes, like grimy windows or distorting mirrors, that we are not even aware of them” (p.100). It is important to ponder: what are those ‘other lenses’ that ‘obstruct our eyes’ and thus cloud and mire our vision? No wonder St. Benedict will exhort us to keep daily custody of our hearts, the eye of our hearts!
Barbara Newman goes on to say that: “Only through the Incarnation do we truly see the world….To see with the eyes of Christ is to see both at once, the divine beauty and the complicated work-in-progress that each one of us is. To see in Christ also means to see other persons as images of Christ, possessing infinite depth and value” (p.101). So how can our ‘seeing’ in community become more Christ-like? One essential way is to step back, pause, reflect on how I am seeing in any given moment, a person or a situation, and bring that ‘seeing’ into prayer. To ponder in the silence of prayer, how would Jesus see this person, how would Jesus look upon this situation that I am facing: will this not begin to shift our seeing, to transform the eye of our heart? If we are to ‘show with the whole of our life’ that we long to see as Christ sees then we will run quickly to prayer, praying to see with the clarity, the truth, the inclusiveness, the compassion that Christ sees with.
Tools of Good Works
How do we build up community? How do we build up this body of Christ that we form? The body of Christ: this body of love, this body of forgiveness, this body of mercy…is this not what Jesus incarnated and now expects us to do the same? How do we build up this community? I ask this of myself and I ask it of each of you. The ‘body of Christ’ that we are proclaims our oneness in living and embodying the gospel way. And it means in the words of Bernard Lee, SM: that “we are already and always interrelated and interdependent individuals whose only choice is to redeem our relatedness by our love” (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, p.104).
I have a sense (and I have had this for some time) that we need to look at the quality of our relationships with one another. Every community needs to do this from time to time and every community needs on-going renewal in its relationships. Conflicts that we experience are a normal part of what it is to be human and a normal part of any community life. And so within this context I pose some questions: What has been or is at present a difficult experience with another sister? How have I moved with it? Have I gotten sufficient distance that I have received the grace to let it go? Or, have I grown in enough trust to take the step to go my sister and to reconcile with her? Have I done the self-knowledge work that has helped me be less defensive, more open to come to some new understanding and healing in the relationship? Have I sufficiently prayed about it?
How do we build up community? How do we truly become and be this body of Christ that we form? I excerpt the following from the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 4, The Tools of Good Works:
“First of all to love the Lord God with one’s whole heart, whole soul, whole strength. Then to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” And here are concrete ways of living this love:
“…to honor all and not do to another what one does not want done to oneself.”
“…to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”
The context of this love of Christ: “Not to carry out anger: not to store up wrath, awaiting a time of revenge, not to cling to deceit within the heart, not to give a false greeting of peace, not to turn away from love. Not to swear, lest you swear falsely: to bring forth truth from heart and mouth.”
“Not to return evil for evil. Not to cause injury, but rather to bear it patiently.”
“…Always to clearly acknowledge and take personal responsibility for the evil one does.”
“To keep custody at every hour over the actions of one’s life.”
“To instantly hurl the evil thoughts of one’s heart against Christ and to lay them open to one’s spiritual father, to keep custody of one’s mouth against depraved speech…”
“To prostrate frequently in prayer, to daily confess one’s past faults to God in prayer with tears and sighs, to amend these faults for the future.”
“To hate no one; not to have jealousy, not to act out of envy, not to love contention, to flee from conceit.”
“In the love of Christ to pray for enemies; to make peace with opponents before the setting of the sun.”
“And never to despair of the mercy of God.”
How am I, how are you living these tools? Do not these tools give us a concrete way of building up community, a community that is called to be a witness of God’s love and mercy, a community that is to witness to the active presence of God and God’s peace? Wherever there is this quality of relationships there is Christ, there is his peace. Every one of these tools that I read is about breaking open the heart from its hardened, stony ways…however, nothing will happen if we are not ready to take responsibility, responsibility for our own life and responsibility for the life of this community. At Noon Prayer yesterday we heard these words from Edith Stein: “Only the person who…no longer struggles to defend or assert herself, can be large enough for God’s boundless action” (source?). Jesus, with outstretched arms on the cross, totally giving of his whole Self so that the life and love of God will continue to spread everywhere. We are part of his body: what stops us from putting down our defenses and to go to our sister and to make peace before the setting of the sun?
Our world is armed with guns and violence. And what of our hearts? What would happen if we prayed like Dom Christian of Atlas who after the visit of the ‘terrorists’ on Christmas Eve in 1993 said: “After the visit I said to myself, those people, that person with whom I had such a terribly tense conversation, what prayer can I offer for him? I can’t ask God to kill him. But I can ask God to disarm him. Later on, I said to myself, do I have a right to ask God to disarm him if I don’t first ask God to disarm me and disarm us in community? This (now) is my daily prayer…” (A Heritage Too Big, vol. #2, p.27). And what if this would be our daily prayer: ‘Disarm me, disarm my heart O God, disarm us in community’. If we prayed this daily and put our attention on living from this disarmed posture, how would it change the quality of our relationships? A disarmed heart, the disarmed heart of a community radiates the face of Christ and is a living body of Christ’s love and forgiveness.
On Trinitarian Life
Today, Holy Trinity Sunday, bringing before us the all-encompassing mystery of God, a mystery that lives and sustains our world, humanity and creation. Last week for Pentecost Sunday I mentioned that one obstacle of the journey into the inner world, an obstacle which we all face, is that we can get too self-preoccupied, too caught up in ourselves…and still, with this happening as it will, it is essential to go deeper for there we find not only our true Self but we find also the God whom we are seeking. In The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality there is a profound essay on ‘Trinitarian Spirituality’. The authors lay out the connection between the Trinity and the spiritual life where they call attention “to the many dimensions of the human person and of the God-world relation, not just the ‘interior’ dimension or the ‘inner life’ of the person” (p.980). I think that if we understand what is at the heart of Trinitarian spirituality it will serve as a counterpoint to when there is too much focus on ‘me’ and my individual journey.
One definition of Trinitarian spirituality in this essay is the following: “Spirituality considered from a Trinitarian perspective is not anything other than Christian life in the Spirit: being conformed to the person of Christ and being united in communion with God and with others” (p.968). To repeat what is said here: Christian life is life lived in the Spirit; and this practically means we conform ourselves to the person of Christ…meaning to have our lives lived in a similar way to his…we strive to love as he loved, to see from his perspective and consciousness, to have the same ‘attitude’ as Christ. To live in this way is how we become united with God and with one another.
The following text I believe gives a clear understanding of the doctrine that grounds Trinitarian spirituality: “The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that it belongs to God’s very nature to be committed to humanity and its history, that God’s covenant with us is irrevocable, that God’s face is immutably turned towards us in love, that God’s presence to us is utterly reliable and constant” (p.969). We behold, we witness these amazing affirmations about God’s very nature in Jesus. Jesus mediates to us through his person that God’s essential nature is commitment to humanity and its history, that God’s covenant with us will never be broken, that the face of God is always turned towards us in love, and that God’s presence to us is constant…even when don’t experience or sense it.
If this is God’s very nature, if this is how God is towards us, what does it say about how we are to be and to act in turn as followers of God’s Son? Augustine believed “that the structure of the individual human soul was a mirror image (vestige) of the Trinity. By knowing oneself, one would know God” (p.970). However this reality is not to be separated from “the communitarian dimensions of the Christian life” (p.970). Trinitarian spirituality emphasizes person, relationship and communion (p.970). While the human soul is a mirror image of the Trinity as Augustine so profoundly expresses it, this means that we are meant for communion, for relationship: “Since human beings are created in the image of an inherently relational God, human beings are not created as selves in isolation, but they are who they are, through and for others. This is the central mystery disclosed in the economy of salvation in the incarnate Word” (p.971). The implication of this text is that whatever grace we receive in prayer, whatever the fruit of self-knowledge, whatever deepening interiorly in our individual conversion work, whatever the process of our ‘individuation’ work, it needs to turn outward, to be reflected in our relationships one to another, to be shown in selfless service, to be given back in self-donation. To me what stretches the mind and heart is the reality that the Divine nature is relational…God is not an island unto God’s own Self and nor are we! The relationship within the Trinity, the relationship that IS the Trinity is stamped upon our hearts. God is always coming towards us seeking relationship and this relationship we have with God interiorly turns us outwardly in communion with one another and all of creation.
To show the breadth and depth of mystery of the triune God I quote the following: “The triune God is the paradigm of all human relationships. The divine Persons exist in a relationship of diversity, equality, mutuality, uniqueness, and interdependence. Theological reflection on the mystery of the triune God…is critical of modes of relationship built on domination/submission, power/powerlessness, or activity/passivity. Since the relational pattern of divine life is the norm of human life, relationships that respect difference, nurture reciprocity, and cultivate authentic complementarity are iconic of divine life” (p.980). Can we become a community rooted in the triune God, living in relationship where we honor and respect diversity, equality, uniqueness, where we are aware that we are interdependent, that my life does impact all other lives, where mutuality is cultivated, rather than ‘my way’ or else ‘no way’. Our society today, our world community today is in such need of Trinitarian life, of this quality of relationship.
Finally a prayer from William of St. Thierry:
You, the Beginning, to whom we are returning,
the Pattern we are following,
the grace by which we are reconciled,
You we worship and bless!
To you be glory for ever!
Amen. (On Contemplating God, p.64)
Transformation in the Spirit
In the second reading from first Corinthians for this feast of Pentecost we hear: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Co 12:7). We each are given a ‘manifestation of the Spirit’ an “We were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Co 12:13b) and we participate in the one, same Spirit. This unifies the body of Christ that we form.d it is for a benefit, a benefit not just for ourselves but, as we form one body, it is a benefit for the larger community as well, the immediate community here at Redwoods and the larger community of the Church and the world.
In John’s gospel for the feast of Pentecost Jesus breathed his Spirit upon his disciples, he breathes his Spirit now upon you, upon me…Really sisters and brother what excuse do we have for not embodying and exercising this power given to each of us, to bring forth peace, God’s healing, and reconciling love? In many ways all our excuses come down to ego stuff. Sure our wounds are real, however, what keeps us imprisoned within them? This Spirit can use our very wounds for life, for love, for deeds of selfless service, for creativity, for wisdom. Jesus enters the upper room where the doors are locked: nothing can keep the Spirit out…This power from on high, this gift of God is present…it is everywhere: What is it then that makes us reduce, diminish our lives and that of one another? How come we stay stuck in our fears and negativity, in our controlling ways rather than giving ourselves over to receiving God’s Spirit, to being led and transformed by the Spirit, the Spirit that hovers over our hearts and hovers over the horizon of this community?
In his book, Prayer In The Cave of the Heart, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio writes: “The Spirit that is in us is not meant to stay put—it is power…that is meant to flow through us, course through our veins, and pour out of us in love and service” (p.25). These words of Fr. Cyprian state the reality so clearly: God’s Spirit ‘is not meant to stay put’ or dormant; it permeates our lives and is waiting for our response, our willingness to give our flesh, to be this on-going vessel of God’s life. Obviously we need prayer, contemplative prayer, which in Fr. Cyprian’s words “is our means of accessing that power, that Spirit that has been poured into us, accessing it as Jesus did when he went out to deserted places” (p.25) to pray. And once we ‘access’ or get in touch with it, wonderful things can happen in and through our weak, vulnerable, human flesh.
In speaking of the inward journey Fr. Cyprian uses an expression from Anthony Bloom ‘it is a journey through my own self’ (p.37). “Through the Self”: what precisely does this mean and how is it related to living our life through, with, in the Spirit? As we focus on the inner journey we can get caught in “self-preoccupation”, too much focus on ‘me’. Thus in Fr. Cyprians’ words: “We are going through ourselves to get beyond ourselves. The journey is through our own experience, through our own souls, through our griefs, joys and pains—but it is through them, in the belief that there is something on the other side of them if we don’t get caught up in them, in the belief that our deepest selves lie hidden, as St. Paul says, ‘with Christ in God’” (p.36). I wonder if this is not the key to where we often get stuck and miss so many opportunities for the Spirit to be manifested in our lives. We remain too caught up in ourselves, too identified with ‘my’ hurts, ‘my’ likes and dislikes, ‘my’ whatever rather than going deeper with the faith and knowing that the Spirit can transform and change our attitudes and create us anew, making us more Christ like in our consciousness and service.
Pope Francis in his homily for Pentecost this year notes that “the Spirit is at work in individuals and communities”…“the Spirit,” he says, “makes them capable of recipere Deum (receiving God), capax Dei(with capacity for God)…” So this is our capability…we are endowed with the capacity for God, the capacity to receive Divine life, to be renewed and guided by the Spirit in an on-going way. How does this capacity get stymied? Here is what Pope Francis says: “The world needs men and women who are not closed in on themselves, but filled with the Holy Spirit….There are many ways one can close oneself off to the Holy Spirit: by selfishness for one’s own gain; by rigid legalism…; by neglect of what Jesus taught; by living the Christian life not as a service to others but in pursuit of personal interests; and in so many other ways.” Could we each notice and reflect in the coming week how we get too closed in on ourselves, how our selfishness and self-preoccupation closes us to the workings of the Spirit? This capacity for God, this capacity to receive the Spirit is always intact…we don’t lose it. ‘Going through ourselves in order to get beyond ourselves’ will lead us into the open, fresh, hope-filled space, healing space of the Spirit. We may, in the end, just find ourselves happier, freer, more united to God and one another…we may just find the One who we are following, who is breathing forth his ‘peace’, teaching us how to forgive and to love, to be vessels of God’s life.
Our Shepherd and the Monastic Vocation
Always on the fourth Sunday of Easter we have the theme of shepherd: the Risen One who embodies the qualities of shepherd. The gospel readings for each cycle A, B, and C are taken from chapter 10 of St. John’s gospel. For us 21st century persons we don’t readily constellate towards the image of ‘shepherd’. During the time of Jesus, ‘shepherd’ was an experiential image, one that related to the living context of his hearers, and thus one in which the hearers of this gospel could easily relate to and enter into.
If we go deeper into the image of ‘shepherd’, its underlying poetry, its meaning and nuances, we can feel and understand the importance of it for our lives, and for discipleship. Imagine that we have this reality living in us all the time: Just feel into the images from Psalm 22: with God as my shepherd, I am filled….‘there is nothing else I shall want’. I am given repose in ‘fresh, green pastures’; led to ‘restful waters where my soul is revived, restored’; guided and led along the ‘right path’ true to the Divine name; walking ‘in the valley of darkness no evil is feared’ because I am not alone, the Presence is there to comfort and assure. This shepherding reality is what lives in each one of us. In Psalm 22 it is very easy to see the face of the Risen Christ, of the One who has breathed his Spirit upon and within us.
In the gospel of today the disciples hear the Shepherd’s voice…they hear and follow…and the Shepherd already knows them even before they hear his voice. And here is the promise of the God of unrequited Love: “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, shepherding them rightly” (Ez 34:16). This is the Divine reality embodied in Christ that never leaves us…we live and move and have our being in this God-Life.
Aelred of Rievaulx writing in the twelfth century pens a Pastoral Prayer directed to the ‘Good Shepherd’ Christ. He evidently is feeling the need for support, for the shepherding of Christ to guide and sustain him in his ministry as Abbot of his large community. What is striking in his prayer is that after a very brief crying out to the Lord, he immediately turns to an ‘act of contrition’. In other words, he first goes inward. He looks honestly at what is within his own heart: his evil inclinations and his sins. He then writes: “My whole heart renders thanks and praise to you with all its might for all these benefits. But I am no less in your debt for all the evil things I have not done. For, most assuredly, whatever evil thing I have not done, it was your guiding hand that made me abstain from doing it; since either you did take away the means thereto, or else you did correct my inclination, or gave me the power to resist” (p.106-107). Then, he includes those ‘sinful’ things he has done and needs forgiveness. This is saying to me how important is the process of conversion as we live out our vocation.
We all are called, no matter how old, no matter what our work is, no matter whether we are monastics or doing some more ‘active’ ministry, to embody these same qualities of Shepherd that Jesus so radically lived for us and for the life of the world.
Today is the ‘53rd World Day of Prayer For Vocations. Pope Francis in his message for this day wrote: “Conversion and vocation are two sides of the same coin, and continually remain interconnected throughout the whole of the missionary disciple’s life.” We continually need to turn and return to the Divine Shepherd for support, for courage to be shepherded in our need and for the grace to live and witness this same shepherding in our daily lives. Having ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ combined with prayer for vocations in the Church is a beautiful connection or correspondence. To live our vocation totally and to the end is to embody the essential qualities of the Divine Shepherd. Francis then adds this: “The vocational journey is undertaken together with the brothers and sisters whom the Lord has given to us: it is a con-vocation. The ecclesial dynamism of the call is an antidote to indifference and to individualism. It establishes the communion in which indifference is vanquished by love, because it demands that we go beyond ourselves and place our lives at the service of God’s plan, embracing the historical circumstances of his holy people.” Living our vocation is a journey done together not alone, not in isolation from one another. This ‘con-vocation’, meaning it is a journey ‘undertaken together’, is the medicine leading us beyond our selfish selves, the medicine for indifference and individualism. Living our vocation, not counting the cost, is laying down our lives for one another and for the world. It is reflective of what the ‘Good Shepherd’, Christ, has done and continually does in our lives, and through our lives as we open ourselves to being led and guided, open to the flow of grace.
The images of ‘tending’ life, of ‘caring’ for the life entrusted to each of us, the risk, the giving of all that we are, the love we are called to embody and that stretches us each step of the way, all these qualities and more give us content to what it means to follow Jesus, to let the ‘Good Shepherd’ be manifested in how we live our lives. Are we ready, each day, ‘to lay down our lives’ for one another, for the on-going life of this community, for the on-going life of our world?
There is no Resurrection without the Cross - Reflections for the 2nd Sunday of Easter
“How do you know that Christ is risen in your individual life? In the life of any kind of faith community to which you belong? In your life with other people? In your prayer? Can it be in weakness, failure, confusion, messy and ambivalent situations, weariness and emptiness of spirit?” (p.8-9). These questions are posed by Sr. Maria Boulding in her book, her final book before she died of cancer, titled Gateway To Resurrection. Here is this amazing woman of Stanbrook Abbey, a monastic and theologian who translated St. Augustine’s Confessions and his exposition on the psalms posing these questions to us, questions that bring our head into our heart. Her experiential and theological response to her own questions is that the Easter mystery is precisely experienced in ‘weakness, in failure, in confusion, messy, ambivalent situations, weariness, emptiness of spirit’. Christ transforms, Christ rises right in these very human places of suffering. There is no resurrection without the cross….the cross is the backdrop of the resurrection; resurrected life emerges out of the cross.
What, then, does this tell us about ‘faith’, about our ‘believing’? I know that when- ever I am faced with suffering situations, situations of turmoil or darkness that I immediately want to escape from it, and my faith begins to weaken, the waves of doubt begin to move in, questions of doubt prick at my mustard seed of faith. And this is ok! It is so striking that we have on this Second Sunday of Easter this gospel passage of Jesus appearing to the disciples with his wounds in the upper room… Jesus’ first words are ‘Peace be with you’ and what immediately follows is that he shows the disciples his hands and side…he shows his wounds. All this is saying, is it not, that Christ’s peace, resurrected life and love are not separate from suffering. As a collective body, this time, the disciples recognize Jesus and he repeats again the words: ‘Peace be with you’. Thomas is a helpful figure for us as we wrestle with believing…he is seeking some kind of proof or certainty and faith in this context will always elude him. He refuses to believe the witness of his community insisting that he must see for himself…perhaps he is learning how to see…perhaps is learning how to recognize the Divine not on his terms but on God’s terms…And Thomas says he will only believe if he can touch the Divine wounds!
The wounds are reminder of what ushers forth the resurrection….out of his wounds come forth the spring of living water….if we interface this with our own lives we see that we are stamped with this paradigm. No matter what our wounds are they are the place where Christ rises with healing love, with new life…In Christ these wounds are transformed into a new creation. Failure, frailty in the words of Maria Boulding “is the place where the paschal mystery happens….where Christ’s Easter is experienced as power” (p.18-19).
Sandra Schneiders in her book on the gospel of John, Written That You May Believe, notes that the author stays away from using the noun ‘faith’ or ‘belief’. What he does use over and over is the verb ‘believe’ and he uses this verb with varying grammatical constructions (p.52). In one construction, which is used thirty-six times, the literal translation from the Greek is to ‘believe into’. We would normally translate this as ‘believe in’. ‘Believe into’: one can feel right away what this translation is doing: it is drawing us into the Divine mystery, ‘to believe into’ leads us ‘to live into’. ‘To believe into’ invites us to lean into, to live into the life of the Risen One who is always coming towards us in love and mercy. In using this construction, Schneiders says “the evangelist tries to capture the progressive entrance of the believer into the life of Jesus” (p.52). We are those ‘who have not seen yet believe’, those who are living into, led by faith in the risen life, in the One who embodies the Love that is stronger than death. The Risen One comes in different forms of grace…his Spirit is everywhere and ready to rise up in those vulnerable places of our hearts, of our communities, of our world.
To conclude: Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, wrote a series of essays titled “Monasticism and the New Evangelization”. Essentially he is putting the resurrection front and center of any talk of evangelization. For monastics he writes: “Monks need to be people who clearly live and witness to the fact that the Jesus who was is also the Jesus who is. Jesus isbecause he is risen from the dead” (American Benedictine Review, December, 2014, p.404). Our ordinary lives are to radiate the resurrected life, this life that pulsates within everything and that is not separate from the cross.
And Fr. Jeremy writes: “What ultimately preserves the world—that is, saves it—is precisely the fact that every piece of it shall have once been the particular place in terms of which the final message can be continually uttered: ‘He is not here, he is risen’” (p.410). And this risen life now burns in our hearts and calls us to witness in our believing, to be this word of evangelization: that Love has been victorious over death…that what saves our world is that Christ’s Spirit is now everywhere, enveloping us with mercy, creating life out of suffering and death.
A Love that Knows No Bounds
An encounter with love – this is the theme I like to suggest for these days of Holy Week. Pope Francis right at the beginning of his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, invites us to an ‘encounter with Christ.’ He writes: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day” (p.1). This encounter with Christ is an encounter with love. And, it is an encounter initiated by God. What does it mean to be open to letting Christ encounter us? What would such an encounter feel like? What would it do to my present consciousness? Would my perceptual horizons be expanded or changed? How concretely would such an encounter impact my life? And Pope Francis is asking that we would do this “unfailingly each day”.
The two rituals at the center of the Holy Thursday liturgy tease out a sense of what this daily encounter would mean for our lives: Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and the Eucharist. An encounter with love: there is all the emotional content we bring to this word ‘love’…and this is fine…still it is so much more. God’s love is the most powerful force in our world: for it has the power to transform, the power to create change, the power to meet the force of evil and change it for the good. This encounter is not one that is controlling or dominating. Rather, it is a heart to heart encounter. God’s love, which is constitutive of this encounter, never dominates or controls. The gospels offer many examples: to the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life: ‘Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him’ and then said ‘Go and sell all you own, come, follow me’. In the encounter with the woman who was caught in adultery: ‘Has anyone condemned you woman?’ ‘No one sir.’ ‘Neither do I condemn you.’ And this to his disciples: ‘I no longer call you servants but friends.’
In the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ last symbolic and literal offering of his self is the Eucharistic meal. In John’s gospel it is the washing of the feet of his disciples. In the washing of the feet what is Jesus communicating? There are layers of meaning but one I think is this: Peter initially says to Jesus, ‘no Lord you will not wash my feet’. Jesus is firm in his response back to Peter; ‘you will have no share in my inheritance’ if I do not wash your feet…Jesus bends down in loving service, this whole ritual is about an encounter of love…it is a new way of understanding an exercise of authority and service, one to another…no one is above any other person…this power of love restores dignity to each person, it opens each one to see that they are capax dei, capacity for God, capacity to become Christ-like.
In the Eucharist Jesus offers his very self totally for everyone….this self-offering, this self-gift transcends friends and enemies…it is an offering for both, friend and foe. And we disciples, rooted in Christ, we are to do the same...the force, the transforming power behind it all is the Spirit…the Spirit of Love….a love force or power that darkness can NOT overcome.
Imagine a daily encounter with God’s Word of Life, an encounter with the One who is the fullness of God’s Love. Br. Christophe writes, from his journal Born From the Gaze of God, words from his encounter with Divine Love: “Christianity is the great adventure for through it one is called by an infinite love that is, by a love that does not cease to ask and to give” (p.16). ‘Being called by infinite love’: it will indeed ask something of us, and as well it will give us something. Next, these words written just days before Br. Christophe and his brothers were kidnapped: “‘Love one another as I have loved you,’ Jesus says in the Eucharist. He unveils the positive contents of the old commandments, by filling them with Love. Only dying to myself will allow me to enter into this new dimension and commune in the work of the Cross. Abba, not what I want, but what You want” (p.209). It is true that this encounter with Divine Love stretches our boundaries, calls us always beyond our selves, beyond what we think we are able or capable of being and doing. Jesus loved to the end: this daily encounter builds up our faith, it builds up our inner strength and gives us the grace to do the same…it gives us just enough for each day ‘to walk as Jesus walked’.
These days of Holy Week bring into the foreground the face of God’s love in Christ. As we live this Holy Week together, witnessing how Jesus loved to the end, let us not shrink back in fear, and pray the grace to go beyond ourselves, to die to ourselves in order to embody this surrendered, redeeming, resurrected love.
I conclude with this journal entry from Br. Christophe. It describes an encounter where he is seeking to hold on to the non-violent love, the mercy that Jesus embodies: “Today you tell me not to resist the wicked, not on his own ground (violence, lies, hatred). On the contrary, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. Do not renounce your dignity, your highest and most vulnerable truth: your face (Lord) engages me in this battle. You stronger Love: ‘I am with you’” (p.177).