First Sunday of Advent 2017 - Awakening the Spark Within Us

‘Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not’?  This is how Advent opens with the first reading from Isaiah (63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7).  Left to our selves we wander from the ways of God, our hearts become hardened almost unnoticed because we are living without much awareness of what is happening inside, within the heart.  Once we become aware and notice more, we may feel moved to cry out, ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down’…or simply, ‘Oh that you would come to change my heart’.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh
The reading continues with this plea:  ‘Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!’  And then this finale which has all the elements of a song of longing – ‘You O Lord are our father’: meaning, you are our Source, you are our Creator: we are the clay, which is a humble posture of acknowledgement and awareness of who can shape us anew – we are the clay and you, our Creator, the potter.  Finally the Isaiah reading concludes with this existential reminder: ‘We are all the work of your hands’.

So here dear sisters we have our entrance into Advent…does more even need to be said?  Jean Daniélou wrote: “To talk about Advent implies that someone or something is coming or will come.  The liturgical time of Advent is a waiting for divine action, a waiting for God’s gesture toward us” (Prayer, p.32).  And how are we to wait?  The gospel tells us to be awake, watchful.   I wonder if the beginning of Advent awakens a little spark within us.   Have you noticed a small, quiet stirring, a movement of anticipation that we each need to stay close to?  Already just the word ‘Advent’ stirs our hope, our longing.  This stirring already knows before we even do (!) that more of God is coming into our lives…God will not disappoint!  But let us remember it begins small: in ways that we can easily miss, so we are to attend with the ‘ear of the heart’, listen for those silent movements of the Spirit…we are being over-shadowed by the One who seeks us, who seeks to grace us with new life, with His life.

Pope Francis, in his 2014 homily for the First Sunday of Advent, offers insight into how we are to wait and be watchful.  He says that this eschatological gospel is not trying to frighten us but is “‘to open our horizons’ to further dimensions, giving meaning even to everyday occurrences.  This perspective is also an invitation to ‘sobriety, to not be dominated by the things of this world’ but rather to keep them in their proper place”.  Is this not why the beginning of Advent calls us to turn inward, to be vigilant and watchful?  This new moment of God’s manifestation is for each one of us.  It is so important for us to receive this gift of new life, for how are we to incarnate Christ’s life if we do not first become receptive vessels, like Mary, of this newness wanting to birth forth? 

We all need change; any true change in our lives must have its root within otherwise it lacks the solid rock on which our house is to be built.  This is what this Divine birth can and will bring to each one of us.  Pope Francis says in the same homily: “‘We are called to enlarge the horizons of our hearts, to be surprised by the life that is presented each day with its newness.  In order to do this we need to learn to not depend on our own securities, our own established plans.’”  To be bearers of the Divine gift means we can only receive this grace if our posture is open and attentive, open that is to changing our ways, even a small movement of change makes us ready bearers of this new life that is to be ‘given to us and for us’.  During this short Advent season, let us ponder:  in what way or ways do the boundaries of my heart need to be enlarged?  What small change do I need to be ready to receive God’s new gesture of grace?  Just the honest intention of praying for change brings the Coming One close, very close indeed.

A prayer:  Oh you the Potter, you who shape and form us into a vessel worthy and humble enough to bear your life, come enlarge my heart, soften its hard edges, prepare it for your new ‘gesture’ of love.  Grant me a living faith that knows you will not disappoint me in my desire.  Amen.

Sr Kathy DeVico, Abbess


Sunday Homily: Love of God, Love of the Stranger, and Love of Self

30stSUNDAY in ORDINARY TIME – A       October 29, 2017     br. Daniël
[Ex 22:20-26;  1Thess1:5c-10;  Mt 22:34-40]

   Jesus is involved in a series of debates with the Jewish religious leaders. As soon as the Pharisees learn that Jesus has silenced the Sadducees, one of them comes up with a new question: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ As a good Jew, Jesus begins by quoting the most fundamental one: ‘Love God with all your capacities, heart, soul and mind’. However, Jesus immediately attaches to this the commandment of love for the neighbor, as being one and the same with the commandment of love for God. Indeed, it is impossible to love God without loving the neighbor.
     The Evangelist Mark has a parallel text in which this story has an interesting epilogue. The same Pharisee who – according to Matthew – tries to put Jesus to the test, gets so deeply impressed by Jesus’ answer that he exclaims: ‘Exactly Master, you have said it very well!’ And Jesus, seeing that his interlocutor has opened his heart, replies: ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’.
     Not all Jewish Pharisees were as bad as our traditional picture suggests. Besides, in the Rabbinic tradition vivid debates with sophisticated questions about the Torah were quite normal. Usually, the intentions were not bad. The purpose was: challenging one another to penetrate into the unfathomable depth of the Sacred Text. However, this traditional game assumes an evil character when some are questioning Jesus just to find a pretext for sueing him and having him put to death. In such a case, religion becomes an aggressive hypocrisy aiming at destruction because of mere power. Nevertheless, we should correct the traditional picture of ‘the Pharisee’: in Mark we see that the dialogue is held in an atmosphere of mutual respect beyond separating boundaries.
     This brings us to the theme of respect, also concerning what seems to be strange in different religions and cultures. In the first reading we heard the commandment of respect towards the stranger, ‘for you were once strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt’. Without denying our Christian roots, love for the neighbor requires to open our hearts also for strangers. Not always easy, especially today, as our Christian faith is rapidly losing its influence upon society and other religions are playing a more important role, especially the Islam.
     However, Xenophobia is not the answer. Also the Islam, originally, is a tolerant religion, just like Christianity, in spite of all violence happening in its name. In the Koran, in fact, the second Soera says: ‘Those who adhere to the Jewish faith, as well as the Christians who believe in God and in the Last Day, who are acting by virtue, will have their reward from their Lord; they will have nothing to fear and will not be saddened’. And a little further, the same Koran even refers to the Covenant of God with the Israelites: ‘You shall serve God only. Be good for your parents, your relatives, the orphans and the needy’. Thus, two Islamitic passages that come very close to our readings of today: respect for the stranger and justice to those who cannot defend themselves.        

     But today’s Gospel also invites us to remain close to ourselves. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. We need a healthy amount of self-love to be able to love others. We should not just open our hearts for others and strangers without being in touch with our innermost self. ‘Know yourself’. A humble self-acceptance, as a fruit of sincere search for God, is a condition to make love possible for our neighbor. Love for God, our Creator, and love for the neighbor are the two sides of one and the same medal. A heart can be open for strangers only to the extent to which it is at home with itself. May this be for us the basis of an authentic religion, coming from a heart that includes all people – notwithstanding their origins – as children of one and the same God.

Formal Reception of Sr Gertrude into the Cistercian (OCSO) Order

Today on this Solemnity of All Saints we have many things to be grateful for and to ponder.  We celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of this monastery and honor our two sisters, Godelieve and Veronique, who were part of the beginning of this monastery and continue to be faithful witnesses through their monastic calling, an inspiration for all of us.  And today also is an important moment for Redwoods as you Sr. Gertrude begin your probationary period….not a small step but one clearly of faith and of following the Divine calling in your life.

All Saints:  we honor today not the known saints but all the unknown ones, unknown yet they have paved a way before us….and what is this way?  They were human, just like us….they were seekers and they aspired to serve God…to serve God in and through their humanity, their broken humanity…just like us.  In my view sainthood is no extraordinary thing, although perhaps we could say it is ‘exceptional’.  Exceptional in this sense:  it is living one’s call to the end, offering each day the gift of one’s self, ready to take up one’s cross, carrying it with joy and not being pulled down by it or resentful of the personal baggage one is asked to bear and carry into life!  These unknown saints were faithful in carrying their cross, they were open to conversion…open to learning, learning especially how to love, like Christ, no matter their existential circumstances.  I use the word ‘exceptional’ because it parallels the message of Jesus: “Enter by the narrow gate for it is a narrow way that leads to life and few follow it”.  Let me stress this: the narrow way need not be exceptional, meaning only for a few, because with God all things are possible.  And ALL the saints today are bringing this message to us.

Sr Kathy with Sr Gertrude at today's ritual. 

Now dear Gertrude:  I offer first this text from Therese of Liseaux: 
“Leaning with nothing to lean on
Without light and in darkness
I go burning with love.
Of Love, I have had experience
Of the good, of the bad that it finds in me
It knows how to benefit (what power)
It changes my soul into itself”  (A Life of Love, p.208).
Both the good and the bad that Love finds in us…it knows how to benefit!   Love uses whatever it finds in us, even the stuff that we label ‘bad’, that needs healing and transformation.  All this Love uses and changes our soul into itself.  What hope this is for all of us!  To lean on nothing takes me back to Abbot Gerard’s conference at the General Chapter…leaning on nothing but Christ’s love….leaning on nothing paradoxically reveals the glory of God….And, it builds within us, over time, an inner strength capable to go forward, not afraid but assured that one is held by the power of God, which is God’s love….there is NO power greater than Love….this is evidenced in Jesus, through his death and resurrection…it is this Love that raised him from the dead, this Love that has brought his presence so close to us to sustain us on our pilgrimage.

Gertrude, you shared with me a text from Br. Christophe’s journal that was especially speaking to you during your retreat.  The context of Christophe’s words is that the brothers were gathered at chapter in the evening and discussing an appeal from the bishops to form small groups in times of trial, and Christophe poses the question ‘Who is available’? (Born From the Gaze of God, p.116).  Then his prayer reflection turns deep into these words: “I re-read Ruth’s promise to Naomi, and I would love to be able to live it in truth, in poverty: ‘Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God’.  To follow God: here” (p.116).  These words are powerful and very direct.  They express a commitment, they could well be part of a profession formula!  They are total in their offering: ‘Wherever you go I will go….wherever you live I will live…to follow God here…Gertrude, it is my sense that you are ready and willing to make this offering today as you respond to the flow of grace calling you!

We heard at First Vespers last evening the magnificent text from St. Symeon the New Theologian who tells us that these unknown saints form a single chain, a chain united by faith, works and love and this chain, so strong, it quickly can not be broken.  Is this not what this solemnity invites us to, to be part of this living chain of witnesses?  So let us not run away from this way of life, which needs be narrow, for only then can it expand into the sweetness of love, into the freedom of spirit to which our God calls each one of us.  Amen.

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Prayer as Listening

Recently we received some conferences on prayer in the monastic tradition by Fr. Daniel Hombergen OCSO.  I was moved by Fr. Daniel’s reflections of Enzo Bianchi’s book, Why Pray, How to Pray especially the chapters On the subjects of The Initiative God takes in relationship,“ and “The germinating of authentic prayer where there is listening.”  Fr. Daniel differentiates two movements with our relationship to God.The first is the strong initiative taken by God in searching for humanity, calling us, questioning us, as well as asking us to listen and receive what God has shared with humankind from Genesis to Revelation.  The God who “first loved us” (1 Jn. 4 :19) speaks. God begins the dialogue with His people.  Enzo Bianchi states, “God has turned Himself towards human beings in order to enter into relationship with them, in order to open up dialogue with them which is directed toward communion” ( Why Pray? How to  Pray, p.24). “God reveals Himself as Word and makes of Israel a people who listen, even before making them a people of faith, unveiling to them their vocation: the call to listen” (p.25).

After God’s self- revelation throughout history human beings respond in faith, blessing, laudes, thanksgiving, adoration, supplication and the confession of one’s own sins (Why Pray, How to Pray, p.22-23). This second movement,  being incomplete, is the human person’s response to God, directed at love for God and the neighbor. This movement can be a distortion if our human attempt at prayer is limited to our own effort and if we believe we can pray solely by ourselves. “If human prayer, as the desire for God, presents an ascending movement of words toward heaven, listening on the other hand, is characterized by a descending movement, by a descent of the Word of God towards the human being; the one who truly prays, from Abraham  onwards (Gen. 12:1) is the one who listens, who opens his ears to God” ( Why Pray? How to Pray, p.25).

Authentic prayer germinates where there is listening; it is integral as it precedes our capacity to reply. We hear this most poignantly in the gospel readings for the feast of the Transfiguration, namely; “Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him’ ( Mk. 9:7, Mt. 17:2, Lk.9 :35).  “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” ( 1 Sam. 3 :9). This is the first act of prayer, which, unfortunately, we are tempted to reverse into “Listen, Lord, because your servant is speaking” (Why Pray? How to Pray, p. 26). Enzo Bianchi re-states, “Listening is already praying and should have absolute priority, as it acknowledges God as the One who takes initiative for our encounter with him” (p.26).  An example of a response to active listening in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 3 :9.  God asked Solomon what he wanted, the young Solomon replied, a “heart capable of listening,” not a docile heart.”  It pleased the Lord that Solomon asked for this (1Kings 3 :10).  St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans also says, “faith comes from listening.”

Enzo Bianchi cautions, “when one searches for formulas and gestures to give shape to prayer in which an individual is particularly in search of assurance  and satisfaction, prayer can degenerate into an expression of spiritual arrogance, a substitute for really performing God’s will" (Why Pray? How to Pray, p.27).  By being aware and attentive to the Word of God, namely listening, we will hear the Lord speaking ( Dt. 4 : 32-33 ) and loving ( Dt.7 : 7-8) for our God truly loves us!  Jesus when asked what the first commandment was replied, “Listen” knowing very well that it is from the capacity to listen that the capacity to know and love God and neighbor flow ( Mk. 12 : 29-31).  Enzo Bianchi notes then that the movement of Christian prayer is delineated:  from listening to faith, from faith to knowledge of God and from  knowledge to love, the ultimate response to God’s gratuitous love for us (p.27).

We, for our part, struggle to pray because in our lives we encounter the 8 vices or thoughts of gluttony, fornication, avarice, melancholy, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride of which both Cassian and Evagrius write about in the Conferences and Praktikos respectively.  To counter these negative thoughts, we have the example of Christ the Incarnate Word, namely, to cry out to our “Abba”, your will be done, not mine, and have mercy on me a sinner as we hear the tax collector say in Scripture. We are powerless over these vices in our lives and it is only by God’s grace and mercy that our thoughts may be purified by reaching out to our “Abba.” Hopefully our little mustard seed of faith in God and renunciation of the ways of the world will help us to convert distracting struggles into occasions of prayer so a greater self-knowledge and a pure heart can be created in our being.

Sr Ann-Marie, OCSO
As our listening deepens and matures we enter into the mystery of dialogue between the three persons of the Trinity. This communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is fed by reciprocal listening, as some of the Words of Jesus demonstrate: “I have made known to you everything I have learned (heard) from my Father” ( Jn. 15:15).  “When the Spirit of Truth comes…, he will not be speaking as from himself, but will say only what he has learned (heard)” ( Jn. 16:13).  “Father, thank you for hearing my prayer” ( Jn. 11 : 41) ( Why Pray, How to Pray,p.28).

The Father’s gift of Jesus to us provides an excellent model on how to be a daughter/son  by listening, in order to do the will of God, even in the times of suffering and struggles.  We know that love overcomes as we remember the Paschal Mystery, and that the Holy Spirit is given as gift to reassure us that God’s presence is always with us. The mystery of Love is incomprehensible, however let us foster a deep listening in our lives as we daily come to Christ in prayer and are nourished with his wisdom and love.


Celebrating the Humility of St Bernard of Clairvaux

What would be a way to celebrate St. Bernard today in this 21st century?  Perhaps one way is to ponder:  what would he strive to be in the sight of God and what would he call his brother monks to be?  Or, what did Bernard so often refer to in his teaching, which forms the essential framework of his monastic theology?  It can be described, I believe, in one word: love, charity.  For Bernard, St. Benedict’s ‘school of the Lord’s service’, became the ‘schola caritatis’, the school of charity, the school of love.  He taught about this school of love in many different ways and it pervades all of his writings. 

“You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul…” (The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, John Sommerfeldt, p.89-90).  Without humility our love for our neighbor is weak and empathy is not possible.  Imagine: “Empathy is possible only to someone who is truly humble” (p.93).  Humility embraces the truth of our selves; it recognizes our own weaknesses.  When through the eye of the heart we see the failings of another, the first movement must be to return to our selves, this movement is already the beginning of a humble posture, for then we are better able to recognize that we have this same failing as well.  It is only when we have this connection first to our selves that can we reach out to the other in true compassion.  I wonder: can there be authentic love of one another without humility?  The truth of our selves first puts us on humble ground, then mercy, compassion freely flow to our neighbor.  Then we can truly be empathetic for the other.  Bernard underscores this in these words: “Look well first to your self, brother, sister, so you may know how to be compassionate with your neighbor” (p.93).

Holding this relation of humility and love of our neighbor, here is another nuance, in the words of John Sommerfeldt:  “The experience of one’s true self in love enables one to experience others in love” (p. 104).  And from Bernard in the Song of Songs: “…If you are to experience your neighbor as she is, you will actually experience her only as you do your self, for she is what you are” (p.104).  ‘She or he is what you are’:  again this is saying we are not so different from the sister or brother we are criticizing.  What would it feel like if we saw our sister or brother as we are?  The plain fact is that we are not living from our true self nor living from a humble posture when get caught in our negative criticisms and fail to exercise loving kindness toward our sister.  Bernard’s medicine is that experiencing our true self in love opens us to experience others in love. 

And finally, Bernard says, in this most radical statement, from the same passage in the Song of Songs: “The love that is open does not permit the refusal of some feeling, however small, to any person, even to one’s greatest enemy” (p.104-105).  ‘The love that is open’:  what makes our love ‘open’ and not closed in on itself?  I go back to Dom Thomas in the retreat he gave us: the abasement of Christ…that total self-emptying, kenosis, which enables love to flow live a stream, like a river…healing us and our neighbor.  Jesus on the cross with outstretched arms: he is totally open: on the cross is God’s love open to all, every person, even those who attacked him and put him on the cross.  And what of us?  Those daily ‘martyrdoms of the heart’, an ancient monastic metaphor that describes an essential dimension of the monastic ascesis.  Can we with the sisters and brothers we live with each day and the persons who cross the threshold of this monastery, can we say that our love is open, both individually and as a community?

This daily ascesis will be before each one of us as we face the usual irritations, reactions, one to another, the hurts and misunderstandings, our individual ways of controlling and pushing our own agenda and so on.  Will our love be open?  Will our love be open to help us find our true self rooted in a humble heart?  Will we take the first step back into our selves before responding in a conflict?  Will we trust enough the God who is always with us, whose Spirit is ready to breathe life and healing forth into a heart whose windows are open?  Let’s keep the window of our heart open, let’s keep our love open, always the first movement inward, to re-find our true self and then the movement outward toward our neighbor exercising the transforming power of God’s love, loving our sister as we have been first loved.

Christianity:a love that does not cease to ask and to give

In February we had conferences on John Ruusbroeck, the Flemish mystic of the late 13th / 14th century.  I was struck by a question that was posed to us during the course of the week.  I thought and felt then, that this question could provide a fruitful entrance into Jesus’ passion and resurrection, and even lead us into a ‘renewed encounter with Christ’, to use the expression of Pope Francis, as we interface Jesus’ life with our own.  The question is this: ‘What happens when we open ourselves to love without condition?’  We can imagine that this could have been a question, perhaps expressed in different words, which Jesus addressed to his followers.

I feel this question is an important one to ponder given all that is happening in our world and the invitation of Pope Francis to a ‘renewed encounter with Christ’.   To walk with Jesus, to let this question pulsate within our heart and soul, will lead us into the paschal mystery, and will reveal what Christian discipleship is all about.  The sacramental life of the Church on Holy Thursday is, in many ways, at its richest and deepest.  In the Eucharist we witness and participate in an embodied love as Jesus offers his life in the words:  “This is my body, this is my blood given for you.”  And then again in the washing of the feet, which in the gospel of John is another type of ‘Eucharist’.   The words of the evangelist sum up this profound ritual: ‘He loved them to the end’.

Br. Christophe, in his journal titled Born From the Gaze of God, wrote: “Christianity is the great adventure for through it one is called by an infinite love that is, by a love that does not  Called by an infinite love that asks something of us; called by an infinite love that never ceases to give us something, always.  The love we receive, as we take it into our lives naturally leads us to want to do something with it…to give to others and in this way we are giving back to God.  It is an amazing exchange of love: of God’s covenant, ‘My love will never leave you’ and of our ‘yes’ to follow and to live from the impulses of the Spirit, allowing God, as Mary did, to work through our lives: ‘Let it be done to me according to your word’.
cease to ask and to give” (p.16).

Loving without condition:  if not in small ways we will never do it in larger ways…Keep in mind during these days, Jesus’ journey with his disciples: the figure of Peter who betrays him, who often does not understand, though, still step by step he changes…James and John as they argue about who is the greatest…the rich young man, a would-be disciple, who Jesus looked at and loved and then asked him to follow: who could not quite take the leap and turns away…Such human stuff that we all know and all fall into…and yet this call of infinite love remains: whoever would follow: take up your cross and come…and how often we hear Jesus say, ‘Do not be afraid’…we are afraid…we do not know where we are being led or what we are being led into…still we have the One who goes before us…

Loving without condition involves ‘kenosis’:  a kenotic opening of heart, mind, and body.   Without kenosis, without this self-emptying process, whatever we do ends up being more about us than about God.  To lose this self-centered, non-clinging, controlling ego, opens us up to the immensity of God’s love, to freedom.  With each kenotic opening, where we ‘lose our lives’, we are lifted up as God’s love pours forth gracing us with a renewed heart and mind, giving us the capacity to serve and to be stewards of God’s mysteries, not counting the cost.

Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book, The Wisdom Jesus, wrote: “In Jesus everything hangs together around a single center of gravity, and you need to know what this center is before you can sense the subtle but cohesive power of the path he is laying out.  What name might we give to this center?  The apostle Paul suggests the word kenosis… ‘to let go,’ ‘to empty oneself…’” (p.63).  And later she writes on this same theme: “The act of self-giving is simultaneously an act of self-communication; it allows something that was coiled and latent to manifest outwardly” (p.68).  This is the humble power of kenosis: it unleashes God’s transforming love not only within our lives, surely as well, in our communities, our Church, our world.

The Eucharist and the washing of the feet: sacramental rituals that reveal and proclaim one message: He loved without condition.  Last year for my Holy Thursday talk I emphasized that both these rituals, happen within the context of community.  Several days ago I received a letter, which included these words of Dom Helder Camara:  “When we are dreaming alone, it is only a dream.  When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality”.  We gather during these days as one community.  As we live into the discipleship call ‘to love without condition’, let us dream together of peace for our world:  a peace that begins with us as we follow Jesus, and live his embodied love, in the daily happenings of our lives and in the larger ways that this call of infinite love will continue to ask of each of us. 
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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.

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