The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Monday, February 29, 2016

Our unpredictable God

Have you ever seen a burning bush? Think about it.

NOTE: The following is the homily delivered by Fr. Harry Hagan, O.S.B., in the Archabbey Church for the Third Sunday of Lent.


The first reading [Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15] contains one of the most well-known scenes in the Old Testament. It sticks in people’s minds, and though they may not know the Bible very well, still they know this scene: Moses and the burning bush.

Pasturing his sheep, Moses sees a strange phenomenon—a bush that burns, but is not consumed. He turns aside to this strange thing, but almost immediately he hears God say:
                        Remove the sandals from your feet, 
                        for the place where you stand is holy ground.

The Hebrew word “holy”—qadosh—means separated out and belonging only to God.

The scene captures the classic marks of an experience of God described by Rudolf Otto in his famous book The Idea of the Holy. Otto says that these experiences are marked by mysterium, tremendum et fascinans. Mysterium is, of course, mysterious, beyond the ordinary and predictable. It includes the completely good, but it points to more that lies beyond the conceptual and explainable.

As for the word tremendum, the English can be a bit misleading. The Latin word comes from the verb tremo—to tremble, to shake, and therefore to be afraid. So, the gerundive tremendum means fearful, terrible, dreadful. There is something frightening about the Holy because it is beyond our control and reminds us that we are creatures. The Holy brings an overwhelming sense of awe.

Finally, the Holy is fascinans—fascinating, enchanting, attractive. Though the Holy may be tremendum, we are still drawn to it; it is fascinans.

In the reading from Exodus, the Lord appears to Moses “in fire flaming out of a bush.”

Fire may well be the quintessential image of the Holy, for it is itself truly mysterium, tremendum et fascinans. Even if you understand the chemistry of combustion, the experience of the flames points you beyond what we can know. The fire is dangerous and can easily get out of control, and yet we love to stare into a fire. It is fascinating.

This year we are not in our monastery, and we have no fireplace for a fire. Other years, you would come through the calefactory early in the morning and see people sitting in the darkness looking at the fire. Mysterium, tremendum et fascinans.

After getting Moses’ attention, the Lord calls and commissions him to go to Pharaoh, but Moses, even though he has had this theophany, objects. In the biblical text, Moses says: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses does not think much of himself.
However God answers: “I will be with you.”

Moses objects that he does not know the name of God, and so God reveals the divine name: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה         -- “I am who am.”

The early Church, with its understanding of Greek philosophy, saw in this name a statement about God’s fullness of being. God is the source of all being.

I do not want to undermine that; still, the Hebrew offers more possibilities. Unlike Greek, which is very precise, Hebrew suggests. You could translate אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה:

            I am whoever I am.     (And so don’t worry about it.)
or         I am whoever I will be.            (And so you may not see me coming.)
or         I will be who I will be.       (Do not put me into a box.)

Moses' objections do not end here. They extend into the next chapter. He is afraid the Israelites will not believe him, and so the Lord gives him miracles to work. Then, he says he cannot talk, but by then the divine patience is at an end. God gives him Aaron to speak, but also tells him to get on with it.

In my prophets class, we have been reading about hermeneutics, which is the Greek word for interpretation. We have finally worked our way up to Hans Georg Gadamer. He argues that texts invite us into a dialogue, and in that give-and-take, we find ourselves asking questions, and also find the text posing questions to us. Most importantly, Gadamer insists that we remain open to the challenge posed by the text, for in this give-and-take, according to Gadamer, the text will offer us a door into the truth if we have the courage to open it.

So what questions does the story of Moses and the burning bush raise? Perhaps one of the first might be: “Where have we seen the burning bush for ourselves?” or “Where could we see the burning bush again?”

Maybe you would object that you have never seen a burning bush, never had a theophany. But is that true?

Are theophanies just for people in the Bible or should we—you and me—look for them? If God can be whoever he will be, then we should not expect to see a burning bush, exactly. Still, is it possible for you or me to have an experience of the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans?

Surely, the Bible and the tradition say, “Yes!”—we can have that experience. So, what might be a burning bush for us? Where do I find anything that is mysterium, tremendum et fascinans?

For many people, this basic experience of the Holy comes in relationships. If you ever talk to people who are falling in love—really falling in love—they can tell you about mysterium, tremendum et fascinans.

If that is true, then we might ask whether marriage is a burning bush? I have talked to enough married people to say the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. Still, sometimes “Yes!” and the marriage, the spouse, become a burning bush.

If you talk to a seminarian or a young monk or a graduate theology student, they will tell you about becoming more and more convinced that they had to go to the seminary or monastery or this school. Like Moses, they may have come kicking and screaming, and they may not be sure just yet how it is going to end, but still they had to come, because somehow they had experienced the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans.

The experience of God does not dispel all of our problems; as with Moses, the theophany may bring infinite complications.

Is monastic life a burning bush? Sometimes there is more heat than light. Still, according to Saint Benedict, the monastic life is a search for God, a search for the burning bush. This is true for monastic life because it is true for the Christian life. As Christians, we are searching for God, searching for the burning bush. Interestingly, St. Benedict does not say that the goal is finding God. The ongoing search—Gadamer’s dialogue, the constant looking—becomes in its own way a burning bush, an experience of the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans.

It is Lent. It is the time for seeing visions. The first Sunday of Lent, we heard of Jesus in the desert, and last week was the Transfiguration. It is the time for theophany. Moreover, we are moving toward the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, and his Cross is itself surely a burning bush—for, to those who believe in Christ, death brings a vision of the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans. During this past week, the monastery experienced again this burning bush as we celebrated the passing of Abbot Alan, who, as Fr. John so poignantly said, was a man taken with the severe love of God.

Look for a vision of God this Lent—a vision of the One who said: “I am who am,” “I am who I will be,” “I will be whoever I will be.” Who knows what this burning bush may look like? Who knows how this unpredictable God may appear? Still, be ready to recognize this God made manifest in Christ, for indeed, this unpredictable God shall appear mysterium, tremendum et fascinans.

--Fr. Harry Hagan, O.S.B.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Pondering the Word (No. 3)

In today's Gospel reading at Mass (Luke 16:19-31), we hear about the rich man who was indifferent to the poor man Lazarus. Most of us are guilty of this at one time or another, to one degree or another. On a global scale, where "the good life" of so many seems to feed off the plight of the poor, surely we must acknowledge that something is terribly, terribly wrong. Justice demands that we all work together toward correcting that imbalance.

As important as relieving the physical sufferings of poor is, however, it doesn't end there. So many people are poor in so many ways--not just economically, but emotionally, spiritually, etc. And we don't have to travel to a Third World country to find them. They are right at our doorstep--in our homes, families, neighborhoods, parishes, workplaces, and communities. What is striking about today's Gospel reading is the phrase: "And lying at [the rich man's] door was a poor man named Lazarus." This is someone the rich man knew. He could not help but encounter him each day as he came and went. The poor man even has a name--Lazarus. The rich man not only declined to share his abundance with Lazarus. Most importantly, he failed to acknowledge him as a human being--created in God's image just like himself. He refused Lazarus his human dignity by ignoring him.

Michael Casey, O.C.S.O, writes in his book Seventy-Four Tools for Good Living that "the poor are always with us: those who seem to have little talent for anything, those with poor social skills, those burdened with mental or emotional disorders, those whose virtue and commitment seem slight. These are the poor in our midst. We are called on, not only to tolerate their weaknesses of body and behavior--as it were, to secure our own virtuousness--but even more to do what we can to make their lives happier and more wholesome."

So, in this wider context, let us ask ourselves: "Who are the poor lying at my door, and how may I help improve their lot?"

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Pondering the Word (No. 2)

"If today you hear his voice..."
Psalm 95:7

"Hear the word of the Lord ... ," begins today's first reading at Mass (Isaiah 1:10, 16-20). "Listen to the instructions of our God..."

"Listen carefully, my child, to the master's instructions," writes St. Benedict in the very first sentence of his Rule for monks. "And  attend to them with the ear of your heart." (This saying is depicted in the image above, a window from the Chapter Room at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. The Latin inscription is Ausculta: "Listen.")

"Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear," Jesus says many times throughout the Gospels.

Are you listening with the ear of the heart? What is God saying to you? Whatever that word may be, are you prepared to welcome it and put it into practice in your daily life?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Pondering the Word (No. 1)

NOTE: Over the last year or so, I've thought about the possibility of posting occasional mini-reflections on the day's Mass readings or other suitable material. What I have in mind is something relatively short and simple, rooted in my own prayer and meditation, and offered up for anyone who may find it helpful in his/her own prayer and meditation. Lent seems as good a time as any to begin. I don't intend to post daily or to hold to any set schedule (at least for now). Rather, I will post when the Spirit seems to especially move me. I imagine the postings to be no more than a few sentences, or a couple paragraphs at the most. The goal is to truly make the Word flesh in daily life. Many posts may be reflections in the form of questions. Simply food for thought along the "Path of Life" upon which we are all journeying. We'll see how it goes. Here is the first:

In today's Gospel (Matthew 6:7-15), Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by offering them (and us) the Lord's Prayer, or the "Our Father." It is a prayer with which all Christians and many non-Christians are familiar. In the monastery here, we monks pray it together five times each day (and likely several more times in private). Sometimes I wonder if we're a little too familiar with it -- merely mouthing the words without paying attention to their meaning or with any intention of putting them into practice. A couple times (usually while praying the Rosary) I have actually caught myself saying "my will be done" instead of "thy will be done." A slip of the tongue, perhaps. Yet, I wonder: Am I really seeking God and God's will? Or, am I seeking only what I believe God can do for me while doing what I want?

Thankfully, in the first reading (Isaiah 55:10-11), we have God's assurance (fulfilled in Christ) that his Word "shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." May my will be one with Christ's, and may his will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Choosing the wise path

Just as Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness (cf. Luke 4:1-13), each of one of us is tempted on a daily basis to choose the ways of the world over the ways of God. What are the ways of the world? Primarily, “worldly wisdom” teaches that health and wealth, success, and influence (or power) are the ultimate values in life. We want to be disease- and injury-free, prosperous, triumphant, and in control of not only our own destinies, but often those of other people and events as well.

It is neither wrong nor evil to have or experience such things. What really matters is to what extent these gifts are valued by us, how they’re obtained, and how they are put to use. Each of these things, depending on our interior motivations and attachments, can be either the means of honoring God or foolishly forsaking him by making them idols.

The truly wise one, according to our Christian faith, is the one who recognizes that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). This is not a cowering, servile fear. It is grateful recognition of God as the Giver of all good gifts, and ourselves as his stewards and ambassadors responding in love to his divine goodness.

Choosing the wisdom of God also is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but an ongoing struggle to discern and act rightly. As Scripture scholar and author Barbara Bowe pointed out in her book Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, “In the daily rhythms of life each one must choose between the ways of the wise and the ways of the foolish. In choosing the wise path, we choose the path of life.”

These choices are laid out in front of us every day in myriad ways. Each day, we must make constant choices as to whether to serve oneself or serve others out of love for Christ. Strengthened by that love, let us answer the temptation to act according to the world’s ways with the same words Jesus spoke to combat the devil in the wilderness: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Excerpted from Grace in the Wilderness:
by Br. Francis Wagner, O.S.B., Abbey Press, 2013

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lenten mercy

What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast ... may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.

There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not ... The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.
--St. Leo the Great

More about the Jubilee of Mercy logo

The logo and the motto together provide a fitting summary of what the Jubilee Year is all about. The motto Merciful Like the Father (taken from the Gospel of Luke, 6:36) serves as an invitation to follow the merciful example of the Father who asks us not to judge or condemn but to forgive and to give love and forgiveness without measure (cf. Lk 6:37-38). The logo – the work of Jesuit Father Marko I. Rupnik – presents a small summa theologiae of the theme of mercy. In fact, it represents an image quite important to the early Church: that of the Son having taken upon his shoulders the lost soul demonstrating that it is the love of Christ that brings to completion the mystery of his incarnation culminating in redemption.

The logo has been designed in such a way so as to express the profound way in which the Good Shepherd touches the flesh of humanity and does so with a love with the power to change one’s life. One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ. Every person discovers in Christ, the new Adam, one’s own humanity and the future that lies ahead, contemplating, in his gaze, the love of the Father.

The scene is captured within the so called mandorla (the shape of an almond), a figure quite important in early and medieval iconography, for it calls to mind the two natures of Christ, divine and human. The three concentric ovals, with colors progressively lighter as we move outward, suggest the movement of Christ who carries humanity out of the night of sin and death. Conversely, the depth of the darker color suggests the impenetrability of the love of the Father who forgives all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

How do deal with difficult people

What NOT to do in the Year of Mercy (or any other time).

We all must deal with difficult people from time to time, or even regularly. They're in our families, workplaces, parishes and congregations. They're everywhere--even in monasteries! And, if we are humble enough to be honest, we'll admit that we each encounter one in the mirror every day. All of us are at least occasionally difficult, often due to factors such as stress, fatigue, or ingrained behavior patterns of which we're not even aware. There is a saying that circulates in the monastery from time to time, a reminder of each and every person's brokenness and need for mercy: "On the day you die, at least one person will be relieved." That is true, I believe, for us all.

However, it is also true that there are certain people among us who are chronically, notoriously, and especially difficult. And we have no choice but to find a way to live, work, or otherwise deal with them on a regular basis. Just how do we go about that? We're all pretty good at desiring mercy for ourselves, but it's much more difficult to extend it to others--especially when they seem so undeserving and like, well, total jerks.

The photo above depicts how we often feel about such a person, someone with whom we've simply had it up to here. And it's fine to feel that way. But don't act on that feeling! Either in actions or words. There's too much of that in the world already--either righteous or unrighteous anger begetting more anger and violence. As Scripture says, "Be angry, but do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26).

Instead, in this Year of Mercy promulgated by Pope Francis, let us take our cue from Jesus. He certainly had his share of difficult people with which to contend. Flip through the gospels, and you'll note that it wasn't just the Pharisees who proved a constant source of aggravation. The apostles and even his own relatives and friends could be quite difficult at times. In fact, the instances are quite numerous.

But how did Jesus respond? For this, I invite you to reflect on a wonderfully insightful -- yet short and concise -- article on the subject written by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, titled "5 Ways Jesus Dealt with Difficult People." You can read it here. 

I suggest that what the author outlines would be an excellent Lenten exercise of extending Christlike mercy in ways that are very concrete and possibly life-transforming for all involved. I may incorporate them into my own Lenten observance.

Jesus shows us how to deal with difficult people. As a human being, he surely felt at times like whacking someone upside the head, screaming obscenities, or quietly seething while plotting revenge. But he didn't. As Son of God, he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (42), who wrote:
He will not cry out, nor shout, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice.
What's more, he didn't run away and hide from all the difficult people, even when they badly mistreated him. Rather, he tried, firmly but gently, to engage all people he encountered--simply because he knew that all need healing. He is the Good Shepherd, who says, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). He came to save, not destroy. He came to embody mercy.

As Pope Francis writes in his Lenten message this year: "God shows himself ever rich in mercy, ever ready to treat his people with deep tenderness and compassion ... Here is a true love story, in which God plays the role of the betrayed father and husband ... This love story culminates in the incarnation of God's Son. In Christ, the Father pours forth his boundless mercy even to make him 'mercy incarnate.' ... God's mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn." (To read Pope Francis' entire message for Lent, click here.)

Jesus, embodying mercy, engages others in all their obstinacy, brokenness, and difficulty. As Sr. Theresa Aletheia illustrates with specific passages from Scripture, he asks challenging questions, he stands his ground, he knows when to walk away, he does not "people-please," and he is flexible. What he does not do is retaliate or close himself off from others. He simply invites--but never forces--others to see the genuine love and concern he has for them. And once someone who is chronically, notoriously, and especially difficult comes to accept and believe in God's love for him or her, despite all acknowledged faults, then mercy has captured another heart. And there are a few instances of such conversions depicted in the gospels.

As Christ's Body, we are called each day to extend the same kind of mercy--even to the most difficult among us. Especially to the most difficult among us. The invitation goes both ways. It comes from the Holy Spirit, and promises life to all difficult persons. And remember, we're all difficult from time. This wonderful gift comes from a God who loves us so much that he literally reduces himself to the point that he literally places himself in our difficult human hands.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Bearing the Flame

Today’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord, while understated, is one of my favorites during the liturgical year. Recalling Joseph and Mary’s presentation of the child Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth while pointing toward the light of the Resurrection, the Living God manifests himself to the eyes of the faithful Simeon. Likewise, Christ comes to meet his faithful people today in the temple of the heart through the Holy Spirit conferred at baptism. Welcoming him in joyful prayer, praise, and perseverance, the life of Christ radiates out to the world.

We began our celebration at Mass this morning with the blessing and lighting of candles, which we then carried as we processed through the church (one reason the feast has the name Candlemas). The Gospel read during Mass for the feast, of course, is Luke 2:22-40, which contains the Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon (Luke 2:29-31), which we chant every night at Compline (one of the reasons that office is probably my favorite):

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace:
your word has been fulfilled:

My own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.

One reason this feast is special to me personally is because it was on this day (10 years ago, now!) that after a long period of prayer and discernment, I worked up the courage to tell my employers at The Blade newspaper in Toledo, Ohio, that I was seriously looking at leaving and taking up the monastic way of life (many were shocked!). It was an important step—but probably more so for me than for The Blade. On that day in 2006, commending myself to the Mother of God, I signaled in concrete form my intentions not only to my employer, but more importantly, to myself. Unless I did that, I probably wasn’t going anywhere. Though at that time I didn't know I was coming to Saint Meinrad, and still had a house, etc., seven months later I was here.

May each of us, in responding to God’s particular call for our lives, be encountered and enflamed by Christ, who is the Light of the World!