The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christian dignity

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no man free from sin, came to free us all. …

Christian, consider your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.
-- St. Leo the Great


People of hope

"The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light."

Isaiah 9:1

Associated Press

This Advent season -- besieged as we are with a relentless, ravaging, yet invisible virus that has somehow turned many people against one another, along with political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and social unrest -- I have been thinking a lot about Christian hope. As we draw near to the wonderful Light of Christmas amid the darkness that surrounds us -- and that threatens to remain with us for weeks, months, or years to come -- this is a worthy topic of meditation for us all. Perhaps the only one.

What does it mean to have Christian hope -- to be a people of hope amid the powerful forces of darkness?

To begin with, we must recall both the origin and goal of our hope -- the Gospel, or "Good News." St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans that "in hope we were saved" (8:24). The basis of this hope is that God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, and that what he has promised, he will do through Christ -- and has done, and is continuing to do through him. That is what Advent is about -- recalling Jesus' first coming among us 2,000 years ago, looking toward and preparing for his second coming at the end of time, and welcoming his presence here and now through the Holy Spirit. "I am with you always, to the end of the age," Jesus told his followers (and us) before he ascended into heaven.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the anchor of our souls. Boaters and fishermen can relate to the work of pulling up anchor from the watery depths below. For us Christians, that image is reversed. Jesus, our Anchor of Hope in heaven, draws us after him. The Letter to the Hebrews applies this image, saying, "We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered" (6:19-20). 

That is our assurance, and if we truly have faith, then we must trust that God accomplishes all that he wills -- amid and even through all the storms and struggles of life. We are on a journey toward our true eternal home, one that is not of this world and yet springs forth from it through the Incarnation of Christ and his Mystical Body (comprised of each one of us). Like the ancient Israelites, we are a pilgrim people driven by hope toward our homeland. Eternal Life awaits us, and yet what we do and say here and now shapes our path forward (or backward!) in relation to that goal.

Our hope is in the Lord our God. He is our light and our help. With this in mind, whom shall we fear? (cf. Psalms 27, 146).

Recently, Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, O.S.B., wrote an Advent letter to all Benedictine men and women worldwide (the current Abbot Primate, stationed in Rome, is an American, and was elected by abbots around the world to lead the Benedictine Confederation, which consists of all the Benedictine congregations and monasteries in the Catholic Church). This letter was read in our refectory during dinner this past week. While much of the letter provides updates on everyday matters of interest to the Benedictine Order, Abbot Gregory begins by stating that "these days of Advent usher us into a time of hope, a hope that can only be fully grounded in the Lord's love and care, guidance and wisdom, strength, vitality, and promise of Emmanuel, God-with-us."

He expands on this message of hope with a reflection I think is worth sharing because it applies to all people of faith. The following is an extended excerpt from the letter:

The pandemic has made many people look to the end times, to a season of suffering, a time of uncertainty about the future, and to the ways in which our world, our governments, our Church … will move forward. One thing about the Book of Revelation is that it takes into account two things: a time of endurance and perseverance in troubled times, and also a genuine hope of God’s action in the midst of all of this. … God’s rule continues, despite human folly or natural disaster. In the end, God’s goodness will manifest itself, showing a rule that is just and a command that is geared toward renewal and restoration.

In coming to the final chapters of the Book of Revelation there is an expression that we have heard many times yet may now see it in a new way. The author writes, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away … Then I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will always be with them as their God’ … Then the One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev 21:1, 3, 5).

In pondering these verses from the Book of Revelation, the question came to me, “Is God taking this natural disaster and creating something new, good, and even wonderful for us? Will we come to see this new earth that the Scriptures are speaking of? Will we see a new earth, in which God will take the chaos of our present situation, and as the All Holy One did at the beginning of time, give us a new creation, a new earth, a world remade in the harmony, order, and goodness of God?”

We can find examples of this in the Scriptures, where something unfortunate, even bad, by the grace of God takes on a new life, a new direction, a new focus. For example, in Genesis 45, we read the story of the patriarch Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers, jealous of him. But then comes the moment when, faced with his brothers in the court of Pharaoh, he tells them that God has taken their betrayal of him and turned it into something good—for the service of a people in need. Joseph saw, with eyes of spiritual wisdom, that God had taken something malicious and sinful, and brought it to a positive and blessed end.

We can also think of the creation story in Genesis 1, where a mass of chaos is turned into a world of harmony, beauty, and order and given to a human family to be the stewards of this great gift (Gen 1:28-31). Where there had been nothing but disarray, God brought order through a spoken word, “Let there be … and there was” (Gen 1:3, 6-7, 9, 11).

And then there is the ultimate act of renewal where jealousy, hatred, fear, betrayal, and wickedness is redeemed by the saving death of Jesus Christ on the cross, bringing about the forgiveness and reconciliation of the world, and promising us nothing less than eternal life. Because of all this, we need to be a people of hope.

… Pope Francis reminded us of something essential … as he gave the world his Urbi et Orbi blessing. Drawing from the Gospel according to Mark 4, he used the image of the apostles together in a boat, frightened on a tempestuous and dark sea, and wondering how Jesus could be asleep at this moment of their need. The Pope reminded us of our worldwide and common experience, and how closely we are connected through this experience, stripped of our self-sufficiency, and knowing that our only way forward is through a dependence upon God’s power which cannot be controlled by human forces.

As we are moving forward with the promise of vaccines that will be coming in the next [weeks and months], we are also beginning to see the new earth that God is creating. It is an earth that keeps us keenly aware of our interdependence upon one another, the fragility of human life, the need to be obedient to regulations that affect the lives of others, the need to be generous and careful with what has been given us, a readiness to share what we have with others, to seek the harmony and order in which the world was first created, and the absolute need for silence and prayer to listen to God’s voice that we might respond in faith.

… Brothers and sisters, despite the pain and suffering of this pandemic, God has been with us in ways we cannot always see. God’s grace rarely comes in the ways we expect. Being attentive to the signs of the times, we will see our way forward into the future with hope and trust in the ways that God is leading us forward. May these final days of Advent lead us to a glorious celebration of the Lord’s Birth, because we have hoped, and yes, we have seen God’s guiding and loving hand among us.

Certainly, neither Abbot Gregory nor I wish to diminish the pain and suffering experienced by so many people in this world, especially during this last year. It is real, and it hurts -- for everyone who is afflicted, in so many ways. Being besieged by difficulties -- sometimes severe trials -- does not indicate a lack of faith (just as good fortune does not indicate an abundance of faith). It is simply (and sadly) a fact of human existence in our broken world. No one escapes such struggles, though they vary in form from person to person.

But it also is true that whatever comes our way has something to teach us. When good things happen to us, they should be received in humility and with gratitude. And, in turn, this should prompt some measure of praise of God and generosity toward others -- sharing the good. And when bad things happen, we need to hold even more tightly to the rope of faith that extends to our Anchor of Hope in heaven, Jesus Christ. We need to recall the good we have experienced in the past, and trust that whatever happens, God will bring us through the present into the future. Even amid a pandemic, political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and social unrest -- even amid what is malicious and sinful -- God is creating something new, something good. He has not abandoned us. As St. Paul says, "all things work together for good for those who love God" (8:28).

Of course, there is more to endurance and perseverance than simply holding on for one's own dear life. As people of hope, we must share the good we have received -- in good times and in bad, whether it is convenient or inconvenient. And that includes sharing the Good News in various ways to build up the faith, hope, and love of our Christian brothers and sisters, and all God's children throughout the world. It means tying ourselves to them when they cannot hold onto that rope extending into heaven, where our Anchor awaits.

If you look -- yes, even amid the seemingly overwhelming darkness -- you will see such examples of the good being shared, of hope being built up, of people generously and selflessly supporting one another. They are all around us everyday, in between all the troubling headlines.

In the first reading for the Christmas Mass During the Night, the prophet Isaiah tells us, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." As people of hope, we have seen that Light, the promise of Christ our head. As his mystical Body, by the grace given us through the Incarnation, and with the Holy Spirit, let us spread that Light far and wide until we witness God's "new creation, a new earth, a world remade in the harmony, order and goodness of God."

"You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others,
so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."

Matthew 5:14-16

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Lady of Guadalupe, Pray for Us

God of power and mercy
you blessed the Americas at Tepeyac
with the presence of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.
May her prayers help all men and women
to accept each other as brothers and sisters.
Through your justice present in our hearts
may your peace reign in the world. Amen.


Friday, July 17, 2020

A Word for our times -- and all times

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ... And be thankful. --Colossians 3:12-15

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Good news and bad

Most of us probably are paying a little more attention to the news these days than we ordinarily might. Probably a lot more. I know I am. We want to know what’s going on, what to expect. We seek answers. While we need to stay informed during times such as these, over-exposure to the headlines can be harmful. Too much focus on bad news can be overwhelming, distort our perception of reality, and induce anxiety that can ruin one’s mental, spiritual, and physical well-being. It’s difficult to find a healthy balance.

As most of you know, I worked in the newspaper business 17 years before coming to the monastery in 2006. First, I was a beat reporter for a few years, then later a news editor and managing editor at a small Ohio daily. Finally, from 1999 to 2006, I was the wire editor at a metropolitan daily. So, paying attention to the news is kind of ingrained within me. It was my job for many years, especially those last seven years as wire editor.

Minute by minute, I had to monitor world, national and state news issued by at least seven major wire services (along with several websites), remain in constant communication with editors, and edit the stories we published. Add to this excitement two nightly deadlines and a sometimes-difficult work environment, and you have a recipe for stress and anxiety. I’m surprised I didn’t have a stroke.

Even when I was not at work, I felt obligated to keep on top of everything, so that I wasn’t racing to catch up when I got to the newsroom. So, even at home, I usually had CNN on TV.

In some ways, the current crisis reminds me of both the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2001. During those two periods, the usual daily newsroom tension was injected with steroids – first during the unresolved presidential contest of 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and then during the horror and aftermath of September 11, 2001. If you recall, after the 2000 election, we didn’t know who had won for more than a month. Each day during that period, there seemed to be another dramatic turn. Then, after the shock of 9-11, there were rescue efforts, investigations, the implementation of heightened security, and retaliation and an international manhunt.

I had to be on top of it all 24/7, it seemed. I did my job reasonably well, but my mental and physical health took a severe pounding. At the time, I had no spiritual life. Mostly, I coped by drinking.

Fast forward to the present. I am still inclined to keep a close eye on what is happening. But I am no longer compelled (outwardly, at least) to “stay on top of it all.” It’s not my job any longer. Still, old habits can be hard to break, so I must be mindful of that. It helps to look for the inspirational stories out there – compassionate people helping neighbors in need, Italians defying isolation and death by singing together from their balconies. However, it is necessary for me to tune it all out occasionally—and listen to music, take a walk, read a good book or watch a light-hearted movie, share a funny story with a fellow monk, or check in by phone with a family member or friend. All these have become for me ways to flatten the anxiety curve, so that it does not spike out of control. (No baseball makes the task more difficult—but not impossible!)

However, the most important difference between now and then for me is my spiritual life. Though certainly not practiced perfectly, it is a life of faith rooted in the monastic way of life to which I have vowed myself. Scripture, prayer, and this monastery are rocks I did not have to stand upon 20 years ago. I am thankful for that.

Even so, faith during difficult times must be more than a coping mechanism, right? It must be the path by which we strive to find meaning -– and the path by which our response to circumstances is shaped. Faith is how we join ourselves to a wider human narrative of redemption.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." We in the monastery have not yet suffered because of the pandemic. We’ve been inconvenienced; our normal lives have been disrupted. But we aren’t gasping for air in a crowded hospital corridor. We are not doctors and nurses doggedly working around the clock to care for the ill at the risk of our own health. We haven’t lost jobs that provide for our families. Those people are suffering. What is God shouting to them in their pain? I don’t know … Maybe he shouts to all of us through them.

Certainly, it is true that God invites us all to ask ourselves: “What is God saying to us in this? What is he saying to me? What role should we – do I – have in the current crisis? What should be my response? Am I reminding myself daily, as St. Benedict urges, that I am going to die, while looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing?”

I don’t have answers. But I think we are being divinely prompted to ask the questions. In the light of faith, that is good news—even though it arises from a virus. The grace of faith seeks out and recalls the good in all circumstances. And as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “all things work together for good for those who love God” (8:28). For evidence of that, we need look no further than to our crucified Savior.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The gentle wisdom of Francis de Sales

"Truth which is not charitable
proceeds from a charity
which is not true."

Thursday, January 2, 2020

A prayer for the new year

Steer the ship of my life, Lord, to your quiet harbor, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict. Show me the course I should take. Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can see the right direction in which I should go. And give me the strength and courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger in your name we shall find comfort and peace.

-- St. Basil of Caesarea