The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Monday, October 15, 2018

Transparency


Have you ever wondered what the world, and our lives in it, would be like if Adam and Eve had admitted to eating the forbidden fruit? If they hadn’t hidden from God and then, once confronted, blamed everyone else instead? What if they had simply come humbly before God, acknowledged their sin, and sincerely apologized?

I’ve often wondered about that while reflecting on the account of the Fall in the Book of Genesis. Certainly, the world—and we in it—would still be in a fallen state. The disobedience of our first parents disrupted the harmonious relationship they had at first enjoyed with God, one another, and with all of creation. We would still be in need, certainly, of redemption possible only in a Savior, Jesus Christ. Humanity would still be broken.

However, I can’t help but speculate if perhaps we wouldn’t be as broken as we are today, if Adam and Eve had immediately confessed and repented of their wrongdoing. If they had been transparent enough to stand naked before God’s merciful gaze, warts and all. Perhaps, if they had done that, the punishment for the sin we inherited wouldn’t have been quite as harsh and difficult as we experience it today.

Perhaps. But that is not what happened, obviously. To refresh our memories, let’s revisit the passage from Genesis (3:7-13) which picks up immediately after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God by eating of the forbidden fruit:

.. and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

In these six verses from ancient history, it’s not difficult at all to see the state of modern-day humanity. First, Adam and Eve try to hide from God. When they are called out, they are fearful—not because they have sinned, but because they are exposed. When asked directly if they had disobeyed God, the man does not take any responsibility, blaming everyone but himself—even God. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit…” Not my fault, he says. She gave it to me. Besides, she wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you. That’s basically what he says! When God turns to question the woman, she also does not take any responsibility. I was tricked into it by the serpent, she says. Not my fault.

There is no accountability in this scene, no transparency before God and one another. Our relationships with God, creation, and one another have not been the same since. Besides the initial and long-lasting rejection of God through human pride, reverberating along the same fault lines are also cover-up, deceit, denial, and finger-pointing.

As Adam and Eve demonstrated, this lack of accountability or transparency, this blame-shifting, is fundamental to our human brokenness, and it is present all around us in today’s world. We see it every day in the news, in politics, in the self-righteous rage that often seems to fuel Twitter and other social media platforms. Sometimes, it seems that everyone is pretending to be someone they’re not, doing things they themselves condemn, protecting themselves at all costs, or blaming everybody but themselves. Unfortunately, and perhaps most shamefully, we also see this behavior among leaders in the Church, harming and scandalizing those whom they are commanded by Christ to inspire, guide, and assist.

No human being, no institution is immune from this tendency. We are all confronted with the constant challenge of resisting it by intentionally leading humble, transparent lives in which we hold ourselves accountable to God and one another, relying on divine grace and mercy. God is constantly calling out to each one of us: “Where are you?”

Our natural tendency as a result of Adam and Eve’s original sin is to hide from God, to deny any culpability, and to place the blame anywhere but on ourselves. What we too often witness in the world around us every day is the scene related by Jesus in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Gospel of Luke (18:9-14):

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

Keep in mind here the historical context. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were learned religious leaders—the ones the Jewish faithful looked to for guidance and instruction. They were generally considered righteous people. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were known sinners—greedy, dishonest people who could not be trusted. Yet Jesus tells us that the tax collector in this parable is the transparent one, because he humbles himself before God. He acknowledges who he is, and his need for God’s grace and mercy. The Pharisee in the story, however, is portrayed as non-transparent. Like Adam and Eve, he hides his true self from God by denying any sinfulness of his own, instead pointing a finger at the tax collector. He is a self-righteous hypocrite, a term Jesus often uses to describe the Pharisees.

The Greek word for “hypocrite” means an actor, someone playing a part or pretending to be what one is not. Hypocrites are people who say one thing to present themselves in the best possible light, but actually do something quite different. They are not the people they appear to be. They are hiding behind a false front or mask. Often, they lead double lives.

We see hypocritical behavior all around us today—as we’ve said, it is present every day in the news, in politics, in social media, and regrettably, in the Church. There seems to be very little personal accountability today—in either a religious or strictly moral sense.

However, lest we judge others too harshly, let us take to heart another of Jesus’ teachings—namely, that we should concentrate on removing the wooden beam from our own eye before attempting to remove the splinter from another’s (cf. Matthew 7:1-5).

While we may not be in the headlines, and are (hopefully) not engaging in criminal behavior, the fact is that in one way or another, to one degree or another, we all struggle daily with genuine transparency in our ordinary lives.

How often do we truly allow ourselves to be held accountable for our failings and shortcomings without denying or minimizing them, or without projecting the blame onto someone or something else? In our day-to-day lives, do we speak and act with genuine sincerity, humility, and honesty—or do we put on some type of mask in order to “save face,” as the saying goes? Do we present our true selves—weak and vulnerable as they may be—in response to God’s constant call to each one of us: “Where are you?” Or, do we hide—from God and one another? Are we the same person—acting in the same way—regardless of whether we are with others or alone?

Author and journalist Judith Valente, in her book How to Live, illustrates one instance of what non-transparency may look like with an anecdote from her own life. She writes: “I am one of those people who go around trying to camouflage a host of insecurities with various emotional face powders. I must be pretty good at it. People often comment after they get to know me that they found me intimidating at first. This is laughable to me, since I am a breathing, walking pack of anxieties” (p. 146).

She relates how this “false self” of hers—the intimidating one—sometimes gets the best of her when she feels that one those deep-seated insecurities has been provoked. Once, she says, while working for the Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau, she boarded a city bus and casually flashed her monthly rider’s pass (p.55-57). Apparently, the driver did not see it. As she took her seat near the front of the bus, she began reading a book, and the driver said, “Hey Miss, you didn’t pay your fare.”

At first, she thought he was speaking to somebody else, so she just kept reading.

“Hey you,” the driver said, glaring at her in the rear-view mirror.

“Are you speaking to me?” she asked.

“Yeah, you,” he said.

She told him that she had shown her pass, and suggested that perhaps he didn’t see it because he was wearing sunglasses.

“No, you didn’t,” he insisted. As he continued to rant at her for attempting to ride without paying the fare, she sat fuming, believing him to be disrespecting her. She would not, she thought, give him the satisfaction of getting up and displaying her pass again, because in her mind at that moment, that would be acknowledging she hadn’t shown it in the first place.

Finally, she angrily rose and got off the bus, saying to the driver loud enough for all to hear: “If you knew who you were talking to, sir, you wouldn’t be so rude.”

In her book, she writes that she didn’t know what she meant by that, and realized afterward that it was a ridiculous and inappropriate thing to say from a Christian perspective. But in that moment, her wounded sense of pride had gotten the better of her.

It didn’t take long for someone to bring her down to earth. As she got off the bus, one of the passengers yelled out, “Hey, lady. If you’re such a big shot, how come you’re riding the bus?”

Humiliated, she realizes now that the moment was one of grace. It showed her who she often pretends to be because of her deep-seated insecurities, and who she really is. She writes: “A little humility on my part would have gone a long way that day.”

Her recollection of this incident has served as a helpful reminder in her life as she strives to be transparent before God and others—the person she is really called to be in Christ. And she acknowledges she’s not there yet—which, in itself, is an act of humility and transparency.

Perhaps you are able to recall similar lessons in your own life. It is important to examine ourselves regularly, to constantly question our motives, and to reflect upon what really lies at the root of our acting, speaking, or feeling a certain way— so that our false selves may gradually be stripped away and our true selves emerge more fully in the light of Christ. The goal is to be authentic. In the end, that is all God really asks of us, but it takes our cooperation with his grace.

This is precisely what Jesus is talking about in the gospels when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24; cf. Matt 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-35).

Reflecting upon this, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote: “In order to become one’s true self, the false self must die … [This involves] a deepening of the new life, a continuous rebirth, in which the exterior and superficial life of the ego is discarded like an old snakeskin, and the mysterious, invisible self of the Spirit becomes more present and more active.” (The New Man, Love and Living)
Again, God is continually saying to each of us, “Where are you? The real you—the person I created you to be. I know who you are. Don’t hide from me. Don’t be afraid. The truth will set you free” (cf. John 8:32).

When we respond to this call, and are truly authentic and transparent, we allow God and others to see us as we really are—just as the tax collector in Jesus’ parable. We don’t appear or pretend to be someone we’re not. We take responsibility for our actions, whatever the consequences, and learn from such experiences. We are honest with God, with ourselves, and with others in appropriate fashion. We acknowledge our faults, seek forgiveness, and if necessary, make restitution. With the humility and mercy that only God can provide, we forgive others their faults and transgressions—for Jesus tells us that it is only by that measure that we ourselves will be forgiven by God. And, because we all have blind spots that will remain with us to our dying day, we pray in the words of Psalm 19: “[Lord], who can detect all his errors? From hidden faults acquit me.”

This journey toward transparency, obviously, is not completed overnight. It may literally take a lifetime. However, it is one we all need to embark upon. But how, exactly? What practical steps does one take?

This is an area where Benedictine spirituality can be particularly helpful, and has been for centuries. The Rule of St. Benedict is filled with practical guidelines for striving to live a life of transparency, humility, and accountability before God and others. Moreover, it is rooted in the earlier monastic tradition of the Desert Elders, who encouraged their followers to reveal their thoughts, struggles, and failings. Doing so, they insisted, exposes malevolent forces to the light of Christ, who robs them of their power over us so that God’s grace can take hold.

For example, in Chapter 4 (:50) of the Rule, Benedict tells his monks: “As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father.”

Benedict is not talking about sacramental confession here. Obviously, that is also good and absolutely necessary to the Christian spiritual life—it is through the sacrament that we seek pardon for our sins, obtain absolution, and reconcile with God and the Church.

However, what Benedict is referring to is more akin to spiritual direction, wherein one freely and openly reveals his or her innermost thoughts and spiritual struggles—which may or may not involve the actual commission of sin. It goes deeper than sacramental confession, and is helpful as a tool to complement the sacrament. Ideally, one participates in both.

The Church requires all Catholics to go to confession at least once a year, and to do so before receiving Holy Communion if one is aware of having committed a mortal sin. In the monastery at Saint Meinrad, all monks are also required to meet regularly with a spiritual director. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI said all Christians should have a spiritual director in order to avoid self-deception, realize the limits of their own understanding, and grow in their relationship with Christ. So, this is something we can all do—whether a monk or not.

In the absence of a spiritual director, the next best thing would be to have at least one person in your life with whom you can—and will—share everything you are feeling, thinking, or going through—whether it’s a spouse or a best friend. This needs to be someone with whom you can be completely honest, and from whom you will accept honest feedback and constructive criticism.

Another practice from the Rule of St. Benedict that aids in the journey toward transparency is one that you may have witnessed during visits to the Archabbey Church at Saint Meinrad. Have you seen a monk kneel in front of the ambo (or lectern) after Vespers, or one of the other offices, as the rest of the monks process out of the church? Doing so, the monk is acknowledging before everyone that he made a mistake or disrupted the ordinary flow of the office in some way—such as a cantor’s intoning the wrong antiphon. This practice is addressed in Chapter 45 of the Rule, where St. Benedict writes: “Should anyone make a mistake in a psalm, responsory, refrain or reading, he must make satisfaction there before all.”

This is not a punishment, but rather a practical way of being transparent while living in community. It is a way of acknowledging to everyone: “Sorry, I messed up.” Then, the entire matter is forgotten.

We have other such practices in the monastery which are not as public. In Chapter 46, St. Benedict says that anyone who commits a fault during work or other community exercises—by breaking something, for example, or speaking during periods of silence, or missing Morning Office by oversleeping—should “come before the abbot and community of his own accord, admit his fault and make satisfaction.” We normally call this “saying culpa.” Practically speaking, it would be difficult to do this before the entire community every time someone committed some type of fault (otherwise, that’s all we would be doing all day long!). Instead, what we typically do is go to the Prior and admit our fault. He then usually gives a small penance, or offers some counsel if it is a more serious offense.

In addition, several times a year at Saint Meinrad, we monks hold what is called a “Chapter of Faults.” During this meeting, the entire community gathers in the Chapter Room, and one by one, we each acknowledge before everyone some chronic fault we know that we struggle with, and which we realize annoys or inconveniences others. It’s usually something of which everyone else in the room is already aware. It’s simply each monk’s way of saying, “I know I do this, and that it irritates some of you. I’m sorry. Please pray for me.”

It should be noted that in each of these cases, we’re not talking about serious sins or revealing matters of the conscience that should only be addressed during spiritual direction, confession, or in a private conversation. What is being acknowledged in these instances is some specific, public behavior which openly affects others in a community setting. For example, during the Chapter of Faults, a monk may say something like, “For my impatience and for my tardiness at Office, I ask you to pray for me.” Then the rest of the community responds: “Lord, have mercy.”

All of these practices are ways of prayerfully striving for transparency in the monastery, allowing ourselves to be held accountable by others in the community, and exercising true humility. They are tools to help us in our monastic journey, which is rooted in conversion of life.

It behooves all Christians to apply the same principles in their own circumstances—whether married or single, in family life, in one’s parish, workplace, school, or other relational settings. It is quite counter-cultural, and is often not easy (especially at first), but it is amazing what kind of positive effect it can have on any community when just one person openly acknowledges a public fault or failing, and apologizes for it. It is simply a way of saying: “Sorry, that’s on me.”

Think how about how rare (unfortunately) that is today, when the inclination is so often to act like Adam and Eve—denying any responsibility and blaming someone or something else.

Again, we’re talking here about specific, public behavior here—not serious sins or matters of conscience. Still, whether it’s a relatively minor offense or a serious sin, the important thing is that there is a need—in the appropriate time, manner, and place—to acknowledge our faults and failings, apologize, and, if necessary, make restitution. Hiding our transgressions, denying responsibility, or shifting the blame only creates further disharmony and leads us away from God.

Undergirding this entire effort to be more transparent, of course, is prayer. Without God we can do nothing. Ultimately, it is God upon whom we rely, and even prayer is never our own doing. It is a response to God’s calling out to us as he did to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”

Let us pray always for the humility that allows us to answer that call, to honestly stand before God with a knowledge and appreciation for ourselves as we really are—weak and sinful human beings in dire need of the mercy that God, in his superabundant love for all persons, is only too willing to bestow (cf. Cloud of Unknowing).

In my opinion, Psalm 138 is the perfect prayer for one seeking to be more transparent before God and others. The psalm is fairly lengthy, but it begins with these familiar verses:

O Lord, you search me and you know me,
you know my resting and my rising,
you discern my purpose from afar.

And it ends with these lines:

O search me, God, and know my heart,
O test me and know my thoughts.
See that I follow not the wrong path
and lead me in the path of life eternal.

In terms of public prayer, there may be nothing as straightforward as the Confiteor, which we monks say every night after the examination of conscience during Compline. To me, it’s a beautiful witness when the faithful pray those words together and mean every single one of them. It’s a public act of transparency, just as the tax collector in Jesus’ parable demonstrated. So, let us pray:

I confess
to almighty God and to you,
my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault,
through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
May almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us our sins,
bring us to everlasting life.
Amen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Finding rest in prayer



Do you often feel as if you are too busy to pray? In other words, there simply does not seem to be enough time?

(And by pray, I mean apart from public prayer—alone with God, on a regular, daily basis.)

Don’t be embarrassed. It’s a common enough occurrence—even among monks!

A fairly high percentage of those who come to me for spiritual direction are very busy people. They are not only active Christians, but have a good deal of responsibility as deacons, or DREs, youth ministers, or school principals. A few have been monks. And many of the others, of course, have families who also demand a good deal of their time and energy. These people are probably not unlike yourself in some respects. They are good people, doing the best they can, doing very good work (a little stressed out, perhaps. Aren’t we all, right?)

Almost invariably, when they come to see me, they begin the session by recounting their recent successes, or failures, or challenges, when it comes to their work or ministries. Later on, some go deeper, but I think it’s interesting that so many of us begin there—with our work—when discussing our lives. For some, unfortunately, it also ends there. They are simply too busy to pray, they say. Outside of their work, ministries, families and friends, their public worship and parish activities, they are seemingly unable to find the time on a regular basis to simply be alone with God in prayer.

I propose that—especially in this fast-moving, smart phone-fixated, Twitter-rampaging world—that such an outlook is a recipe for burnout, spiritual and otherwise. As Christians, we cannot survive for long dwelling on the surface of life, reacting each moment to whatever is in front of us. We need to regularly pause and plunge beneath the surface, drawing on the divine life-breath of peace, courage, and wisdom that should undergird our faith and sustain us when we resurface. Without doing this, we not only endanger our own spiritual well-being, but also, quite possibly, that of those to whom we minister and care for. We cannot give what we do not possess, right?

Cyprian Smith, an English Benedictine at Ampleforth, has written about this common but faulty perception that one is too busy to pray in his book The Path of Life
Prayer is the most important single element in a monk’s life. His vocation is primarily to prayer, rather than to any other form of activity, however good. At first sight, we may be tempted to think that this is the point at with the monk’s path diverges most sharply from that of the ordinary Christian. How many Christians, living outside the monastery, consider prayer to be the most important thing they do? How many see it as being what their lives are really all about? Will they not rather say to themselves, consciously or unconsciously: “Oh, all that is for monks. I have no time for that; I have too much to do.”
 
In fact, however, the monk’s life is less different from that of the ordinary Christian on this point than is generally supposed. Wherever Christian life is genuine and deep, prayer is at the heart of it. That is as true outside the monastery as it is within in it. If we often forget this, that is because we tend to see Christian life as being essentially concerned with “doing good” or, even worse, with “not doing any harm.” This is a great mistake. Our life as Christians is not about doing anything, but about being something.”

This something is namely being mediators, sharing in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as his mystical Body in this world, establishing peace and reconciliation where there had been disharmony and enmity, so that God may be all in all (cf. Ephesians 2:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:28).

We cannot be mediators who center and reconcile the world as the Body of Christ, Smith goes on to say, unless we are ourselves centered on God in our individual hearts. This is what prayer is—rooting ourselves in God alone. Unfortunately, however, we often tend to reflect our activity- and productivity-based culture by approaching prayer—if we engage in it at all—as simply a means to an end, as merely a tool to achieve something of greater value in our estimation.

Smith goes on to write: 
Many people, consciously or otherwise, think that their work and their other various activities are what matters in life, and that prayer merely provides the energy needed to pursue these activities. Work is the end, prayer the means. But this is quite wrong. Our prayer is the most important thing we do, and our work, if truly unselfish and spiritual, flows out of it and back into it. … We enter into prayer simply for the sake of praying, simply for the relationship with God which it establishes.

Genuine prayer, then, no matter what form it takes or how “effective” or “ineffective” it may seem, is simply opening our hearts to God, surrendering to God, as Christ did on the cross for our sake. As Christians, prayer must be at the center of our entire lives.

With this in mind, let’s take another look at the Gospel reading from this past Sunday, the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 6:30-34):
The apostles gathered together with Jesus
and reported all they had done and taught. 
He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while. 
People were coming and going in great numbers,
and they had no opportunity even to eat. 
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.
People saw them leaving
and many came to know about it.
They hastened there on foot from all the towns
and arrived at the place before them 
When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.

There are a lot of things we could focus on here. For some context, you might recall that a little earlier in the same chapter (Mark 6:7-13), Jesus sent out the apostles in pairs and gave them authority over unclean spirits. For the first time, they were out on their own spreading the Gospel, and Mark tells us they preached repentance, drove out demons, and cured the sick. Additionally, before sending them out, Jesus told them to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick”—no food, no money, no extra clothes. They were to rely solely on God’s providence.

So, in Sunday’s Gospel, they have just returned from their journey. They are excited—and understandably so. They had been doing God’s work! Full of apostolic zeal, they report to Jesus “all they had done and taught.” But Mark’s text also tells us that the apostles were so consumed with this activity, with all the people coming to them, that they even neglected their meals. They were disregarding their own needs—something no human being can sustain for very long.

Although we’re not told so explicitly, there likely was some pride involved on the part of the apostles. Just think if you suddenly had the authority to expel demons and cure sick—how powerful that would make you feel! Their mission had been a huge success! “Jesus, look at what we did!” Perhaps they had forgotten the source of that power – and why they were doing those things. That would be only human.

Notice how Jesus responds. He doesn’t congratulate them, as they (or we) might expect. Instead, he says, perhaps with a little smile on his face: “Come into the desert with me.” Jesus knows the importance of prayer and what his mission is really all about. Numerous times, we are told throughout the gospels, he leaves everyone and everything behind to go off alone to some deserted or lonely place to pray. His relationship with the Father was paramount.

So, in this scene from Mark’s Gospel, he is inviting his apostles to do the same—to re-center themselves in God the Father—to make time for prayer in the midst of all their activity. “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” It’s important and necessary. As you might recall, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told a flustered Martha: “You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

So, gently, perhaps playfully, Jesus is reminding his followers to keep their focus on God rather than on their own efforts, important as the work might be in building God’s Kingdom. In John’s Gospel, he tells his disciples: “I am the vine, you are the branches. …Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book Seek That Which is Above, commented on this passage from Mark:
Whereas the apostles are positively beside themselves and, full of zeal and self-importance, neglect their meals, Jesus brings them down from the clouds: “Enjoy a little rest for a while!” One can sense his quiet humor, his friendly irony, as he brings them down to earth. 
 … Any kind of hectic activity, even in religious affairs, is utterly alien to the New Testament picture of man. We always overestimate ourselves when we imagine we are completely indispensable and that the world or the Church depends on our frantic activity. Often it will be an act of real humility and creaturely honesty to stop what we are doing, to acknowledge our limits, to take time to draw breath and rest—as the creature man is designed to do. 
 … I want to suggest that we revise our catalogue of virtues, as it has developed in the Western world, where activity alone is regarded as valid and where the attitudes of beholding, wonder, recollection and quiet are of no account, or at least are felt to need some justification. … It is necessary for us to leave our busy world behind from time to time and go in search of the breath of creation, in order that we may meet God and thus find ourselves.

As with the apostles in Mark’s account, Jesus’ first concern is not with the success of our work. Rather, he is primarily concerned with the well-being of all his followers, and our relationship with the Father through him. For our own good, he is giving us permission to pray as he did—to enter at least partially into that creative rest which God alone provides, and which we will experience in its totality in the Promised Land of heaven. As the prophet Isaiah beautifully said, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (30:15).

OK, you may be thinking to yourself: “But if you read the rest of the passage from Mark, they don’t get to rest. The people follow them! What about that?”

Fair enough. But, again, consider the context. After Jesus says, “Come away and rest,” and the apostles get in a boat to go away, the people do indeed notice, and rush on ahead of them. Then Mark tells us that when Jesus “disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

The Gospel reading this past Sunday ends there, but we know what happens next. If you continue reading that section of Mark Chapter 6, Jesus ends up feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. All ate and were satisfied. And there were 12 baskets full of leftovers!

The Eucharistic imagery here is obvious. (This coming Sunday’s Gospel and those in the weeks that follow will linger on this mystery through the perspective of John Chapter 6.) However, something else strikes me. Who actually does the teaching and feeding here? Is it the apostles? No, it’s Jesus. Despite all the apostles had taught and done previously, here they are confronted with the reality of their limitations. When the scene is still developing, Jesus tells them to give the people some food themselves (again, I can just picture him smiling). And I can imagine the look on the apostles’ faces. They basically respond: “Impossible!” Then, Jesus steps in, using what little they are able to gather, and works a miracle. Here, faced with the prospect of feeding 5,000 people, the apostles realize they can do nothing, or very little, on their own.

There’s really a lesson in humility here for all of us—it is God who works wonders, and we can only experience them if we acknowledge that we can’t work them. We need God.

We need God, and so we pray. It’s why we must take the time to pray each and every day. And this means not only putting aside all our busyness for a while, but also letting go of all our preoccupations, preconceived notions, and our expectations. We must simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, and redeemed us—the God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of this need of ours to humbly “stand alone before God in our nothingness … completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of his grace, his mercy, and the light of faith.” This “brings us in direct contact with the source of all joy and all life. Prayer, then, means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him. It is much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our deepest concerns. We wish to lose ourselves, and rest in his love, and rest in him. We wish to hear his word and respond to it with our whole being.”

So, no matter how busy we may find ourselves, let us pray always—retreating to that inner room of our hearts, and resting a while in God’s presence. He will never fail to lead us where we need to go or to feed us what we need to live. 
If the Lord does not build the house,
in vain do its builders labor;
If the Lord does not watch over the city,
in vain does the watchman keep vigil.
In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat:
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.
Psalm 127

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Holy Week meditation

Eleventh Station of the Cross
by Fr. Donald Walpole, O.S.B.

Disjointed are all my bones. This is the English translation of the Latin inscription above—a line from Psalm 21. Here, paradoxically, are two realities enfolded into one vital and undeniably great mystery (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16).

First, the disjointed Body of Christ, in all our human brokenness and disfigurement, is powerlessly fastened to the wood of the cross. Our humiliating enslavement to Sin and Death is on full display in the Son of God, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness (cf. Philippians 2:7).

Perhaps we focus too much on our own personal, individual failures without considering the fact that we are also enslaved by the dominion of Sin and Death, rendering us both victim and unwitting accomplice. Here is disjointed humanity in all its ugliness: poverty and greed, abuse, addiction, disease, discrimination, indifference, conflict, and so forth. In one way or another, these are things that oppress and paralyze us. Yet, we also perpetuate them unknowingly in myriad and complex ways. As the martyred Prior of Our Lady of Atlas in Algeria wrote before his kidnapping and death by terrorists in 1996, “I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly.”

Liberation from this fallen state is not humanly possible. So, this first reality is joined to another, more powerful, yet hidden, mystery that continues to unfold within the Body of Christ. The Son of God overcomes the enslaving power of Sin and Death by taking it upon himself.

Paradoxically, in the words of St. Augustine, he defeats “death by undergoing death himself, sin by identifying himself with sin.” By allowing himself to be fastened to the cross, Christ gives us his life, so that we may be saved by becoming his Body, offered up for the entire world. In the end, Sin and Death, by the supreme dominion of the Holy Trinity, are left powerless, nailed to the cross—while Christ’s tomb remains empty.

Let us pray:
Father of Mercy, forgive us. We know not what we do. From hidden faults forgive us. Deliver us from all evil, that all our disjointed bones may exult in the resurrected Body of your Son, Jesus Christ, who was lifted up from the earth in order to draw everyone to himself (cf. Luke 23:34; Psalm 18:13; Matthew 6:13; Psalm 50:10; John 12:32). 
Amen

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Light and Life



In today’s first reading at Mass (Isaiah 49:8-15; Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent), the prophet promises God’s people that they have not been forgotten. He assures them that—despite all apparent indications to the contrary—God regards them with the tender affection of a mother; he will save them, protect and provide for them, lead and comfort them. They have not been forsaken.

“In a time of favor,” Isaiah foretells, God will say to the prisoners, “Come out!” To those in darkness, “Show yourselves!”

In the most immediate and literal sense, God kept this promise. The Babylonian exiles to whom the prophet was speaking were freed and allowed to return to Jerusalem.

However, God’s tender affection did not end then and there. Isaiah’s words are true in a much more timeless, figurative sense. They apply to us today just as much as they did to the ancient Israelites.

In today’s Gospel reading (John 5:17-30), Jesus echoes the prophet’s words: “The hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. … The hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out.”

Later in the same Gospel (John 11), Jesus demonstrates that he was not kidding around. In raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, he fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy once again by shouting: “Lazarus, come out!” And when the dead man stumbles out of his tomb, wrapped up in burial cloths, Jesus tells the astonished crowed, “Untie him and let him go.”

More is going on here than a simple prefiguring of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his promise that his disciples will share in that resurrection (though that is certainly part of it). Resurrection and new life are not only things we await while enduring the trials of this life – some kind of future prize. They also are available to us here and now – just as they were to the Babylonian exiles and to Lazarus. As Jesus says in John 10, “I came so that they [all of us] might have life and have it more abundantly.”

In one way or another, we are all imprisoned in darkness or entombed by life-stripping circumstances, attitudes, or habits. To each one of us, Jesus calls: “Sue…Gary…Richard…Alicia…Theresa…Terrelle…Michael…Candace……Come out!”

This Lenten season, here are some good questions to ask ourselves: “Do I hear his voice? Am I willing to step out of the darkness and into the light—into life? Can I not only respond to the voice of Jesus calling, but also allow others to untie me and let me go—so that I, in turn, may then do the same for the other Lazaruses of this world?”

As St. Paul writes (2 Corinthians 6:2), “Now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mending what is broken


The season of Lent, writes Ann Cavera, is a time for rediscovering the lost art of mending what has been broken. These days, there is much in need of mending -- in those around us, and within ourselves. It is necessarily a slow, painstaking, and counter-cultural process. But well worth the effort. Read her entire reflection on Saint Meinrad Archabbey's Echoes from the Bell Tower blog by clicking here. It is worth prayerfully considering this Lent -- and beyond.

Monday, December 25, 2017