The Monastic Preacher

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

The Roman Catholic Monastery of the Holy Cross was founded in 1989 and became a Benedictine house of the Subiaco Congregation in 2000. We follow a traditional contemplative life, chanting Psalms seven times a day and singing Gregorian chant at the Eucharist. We do this in a distinctive way by living our monastic life on the South Side of Chicago. Prior Peter, the author of this blog, was appointed Prior in August of 2004.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Third Sunday in Lent Year A - Dom Peter

The past decade or so, perhaps dating back to an episode of Sienfeld, there has a new trend in Christmas gift-giving. It is called ‘regifting’—the idea being that if you receive a gift that you don’t like, you can hang onto it and give it to someone else next Christmas. That is, you can ‘regift’ it. Our own federal government has caught the spirit in the form of the coming ‘economic stimulus’, though here they commit one of the five biggest regifting No-no’s: don’t ever give a gift back to the same person who gave it to you!

Actually the idea of passing gifts around is not new. Many cultures, particularly tribal ones, use this method as part of the formation of alliances and consolidation of power. In other cultures, especially in monarchies, the accession to power includes the king or queen distributing gifts to the people. We see King David do this is the story of him dancing with abandon before the ark. He slaughters an ox and a fatling every six paces, and then once the ark has arrived in Jerusalem, he distributes the meat to all the people, along with bread and raisin cakes. The distribution of the sanctified Body and Blood of Christ this morning to the assembled Church has a similar connotation to it.

But to what does Our Lord refer when he tells the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God,” she would have asked Him for living water? What is this gift of God? I wonder if it would be too much of a stretch to construe this phrase ‘gift of God’ with an objective rather than a subjective genitive. That is to say: what if the gift is not simply what God gives, but as in the phrase ‘a gift of flowers’, the gift of God is…God. St. Paul teaches us that there are many gifts but one Spirit. Jesus, who is the One Who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, will say to the crowds in Chapter seven of John’s gospel, “Whoever believes in Me,…Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” John goes on to tell us that He was speaking of the Spirit, though the Spirit had not yet been given. The Spirit was finally given when Jesus Christ broke the bonds of death and ascending on high, as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “He led captivity captive, and he gave gifts to all.”

Today’s gospel has traditionally been used for the catechesis of newcomers to the faith who were preparing to receive the gift of God in baptism at the Easter Vigil. Perhaps we can hear it best if we cast ourselves in the role of the catechumen, and try to hear Jesus’ words afresh, in preparation for the renewal of our baptismal graces at Easter, at Jesus’ triumph over death and coronation as the true King enthroned on high. To do this, we must put ourselves in the place of the remarkable woman at the well, the woman of Samaria.

When she hears that there is a kind of water that wells up eternally within, so that those who drink of it do not thirst, her response is, “Sir, Kyrie, please give me this water, so that I don’t have to come to this darn well every day.” There is a certain plaintiveness to her request. She is there at midday, the time of day that another Mediterranean native, St. Benedict, recommends for resting and not being out-of-doors. She is there at this uncomfortably hot time of day because then no one will see her, a woman whose choices in life have left her an outsider, a concubine who has known five husbands before her present significant other. The very obligation to provide the necessities of life is a painful daily reminder of her shame and disgrace in the eyes of the others of her town. It was shocking enough when the disciples saw that Jesus was speaking alone to a woman, and worse that she was from the heathen Samaritans. What if they had known of her dicey background?

Jesus saw something else in this woman of course, as our God always does in each of us. Our God comes to the rescue of sinners, the lonely and outcast, the destitute and hurting, and He always comes not merely to save, but with a mission for us. Tradition remembers this woman as Photina or Svetlana, equal to the Apostles. Something about her, perhaps the very fact that she was far removed from the levers of power in her world, made her receptive to Jesus’ message. Her conviction that Jesus is the Messiah allows her to win over the very villagers whose company she had been avoiding. She becomes, like Mary Magdalene, the model for the Apostles, sent by Our Lord to share the Good News: if you knew the gift of God, you would ask, and I would give you living water, my very life, the Holy Spirit, communion with the God who loves you.

Do we know the gift of God? Are we, who have received the Holy Spirit, alive to the Divine Life within us and within those Christians around us? How would our lives change if we really knew the gift of God? How might we learn to love the Church more and to love Her members more, the Church whose very soul is the Holy Spirit, flowing from the heart of our loving Savior on the Cross? How might we learn to listen to one another?

If we struggle to know this gift of God, is it because we are comfortable? Because we are afraid to expose our hidden hurt and shame to God’s healing embrace? Do we spend all of our time hewing out cisterns of our own, cisterns that hold no water, thinking up ‘economic (and other) stimuli’, all the while forgetting the gift of God already in our hearts? Do we search for meaning and happiness by avoiding others who remind us of our woundedness, either by their talents or by their own poverty?

My sisters and brothers in Christ, our Lord is seeking us out in our pain and weakness. Let us in simplicity say with the Samaritan woman, “Lord, give us this gift of the Holy Spirit, that we may no more thirst!”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Twenty-Eight Sunday in OT - Dom Peter

This past month, my mother and her siblings had to help move my ninety-one-year-old grandmother into assisted living. She is one of the most energetic people I have ever known, a tough German, and so this transition has been especially poignant. Moreover, she has been praying for years now (and she is famous for her intensity in prayer) that God would allow her to die in her home. Last year, my oldest uncle asked her if it wouldn’t be better to pray that God’s will be done and for the grace to accept it. She thought about it for a moment and then responded with her characteristic Teutonic honesty, “I can’t trust Him!”

Many people come to the monastery to learn how to pray. Often times, people have learned to pray as children, have memorized all kinds of prayer, which is good, but are longing for some kind of genuine conversation with God. Other times, people are quite comfortable sending up petitions of various sorts, but are not sure how to interpret whether God is answering and so become discouraged and perplexed; they begin to wonder if God is really listening or if they maybe aren’t cut out for prayer.

In his ninth Conference, the monk John Cassian develops a tradition from the early church on prayer. This tradition goes back to a passage from Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made.” Cassian interprets supplications to mean confession of sin and begging pardon. “Prayers” are then considered to be vows and good resolutions made to God. Intercessions are what they sound like, as are thanksgivings. Today’s gospel gives us a good lesson in prayer: intercessions come easy, thanksgivings are easily gone. Just as I suspect that a desire for prayer is just as lively today as it was in the time of the Apostles, I suspect that the neglect of thanksgiving is just as prominent. Is the bewilderment we face in prayer connected to a lack of thanksgiving?

Today’s story is, like so many of the stories in the gospels, much more complex on close inspection than it appears on first reading. Are we sure that the ‘other nine’ did not give thanks to God, maybe on their way to see the priest, maybe with a votive sacrifice of some sort? This is a question that has cropped up for me in this passage since I was a child. Is Jesus then saying that He is God? Or how about the final word from the Lord that the Samaritan’s faith has saved him? Are the others not saved? Why is only this man said to be ‘saved by faith’? Did not the others take Jesus’ word on faith to go to the priests? Would they have gone off if they only thought that they would be turned away again? What exactly did these others do wrong?

St. Luke’s gospel sometimes gives the impression of stringing together random incidents, but generally rewards closer study of adjacent texts. So last Sunday, we had this other curious incident. The Apostles ask Jesus, “Increase our faith!” What a fine, direct prayer. Should we not all be asking this when our prayer falters? And yet, Jesus does not answer to the effect that this desire for an increase of faith is somehow meritorious and then grant their request. In fact, He seems to scold the disciples, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” He then gives this puzzling example of the unworthy servant doing only what he was told.

Yet, here we seem to be getting closer to an answer. The ten lepers did ‘what they were told’; they went off to show themselves to the priests. Well, actually, the one who receives praise today hasn’t yet completed the task given to him by the Lord. Is there some connection between the fact that he is a Samaritan and the fact that he alone turned back? Perhaps he didn’t have as far to go to see a priest, since they are on the border of Samaria already, whereas Jews probably would have needed to get to Jerusalem. He had time to swing around and head back toward Jesus. Or perhaps since he took the chance of hanging out with Jews and approaching a Jewish rabbi, he wasn’t expecting his request to be heard and so was more overjoyed at recognizing the miracle. Is this the meaning behind “Your faith has healed you?” Have the others figured on the reward based on obedience to the Law by contrast?

We should, of course, not be too quick to contrast faith and obedience. I suggested earlier that obedience is often an act of faith. But there is a formal side to obedience and a material side, as Jews and Christians alike have always known. “God loves a cheerful giver,” while the person who “fasts twice a week [and] gives tithes of all that he gets,” is not thereby justified if he expects his reward. There is always this danger to the Law, which is meant to bring us to God: that we will turn it into something by which we try to prove to ourselves and to others that we are succeeding in the contest of self-generated holiness.

At the monastery, we have been receiving an increasing number of mailings from all sorts of initiatives for vocations to the priesthood and to religious life. I’m all for increased numbers of priests and religious—if they are genuinely called to that life by God. But often times, these sorts of initiatives strike me as efforts to manufacture success out of increased effort, even effort in the area of prayer. The idea goes that if we offer so many novenas and spend so many hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, then God has to do what we think he ought to and reward us with more priests. At the end of this, how often do we thank God for the priests that we already have and even more, for the good being done in all the Body of Christ by the laity as well as by the clergy and consecrated persons?

Similarly, how often do we fret over details when things don’t go the way we want in other areas of life? We so often today hear things like, “Someone ought to fix that; heads ought to roll; we need to find competent bishops/presidential candidates/people to run the CTA, ad nauseum. Or on a more personal level, we interpret areas of our lives that we find unacceptable as evidence that we are doing something wrong, that we need to try harder. I suspect that we suffer more profoundly by the anxiety over having to figure out what God wants so as to make life easier. Maybe we can do everything right and still suffer; certainly it happened to someone I know. Do we take these concerns to God and then remember to thank Him for the incomparable salvation that we already have received? I condemn myself first of all in saying this, so I hope that my offering this reflection is not thereby too much diminished, because it is the truth. We are never going to present ourselves perfected to God by our own obedience. On the other hand, God has already saved us, healed us, forgiven us in Jesus Christ. We gather today to celebrate the Eucharist, that is, thanksgiving. Let us not forget that this Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. If we are a people of faith and thanksgiving, we can be healed and saved wherever we are.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

On Humility (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Peter)

Apart from the chastity practiced by Christians, there is hardly a more controversial Christian virtue than humility. This has always been the case, but is probably more so today, for reasons that will give shortly. Before diagnosing the situation, let us first hear from one of the great modern opponents of Christian humility, Freiderich Nietzsche. In about 1885, he wrote, in Beyond Good and Evil: “Christianity has been the most calamitous kind of arrogance yet.” This is because the virtue of humility and the care and concern for the poor enjoined by our Lord, according to the German philologist, “break the strong…cast suspicions on the joy in beauty, bend everything haughty, manly, conquering, domineering, all the instincts characteristic of the highest and best-turned-out type of ‘man’ into unsureness, agony of conscience, [and] self-destruction.” Now some of this language is so strong as to sound like a parody even of principled opposition to the Church. But we should not dismiss it too quickly.

So I pose a question: Do we Christians in fact do this? Do we, by embracing humility lay the ground work for the destruction of what is best in humanity? Unfortunately, I must answer that many of us do indeed. The good news is that this is more a consequence of our living in the modern world than of being Christian. To explain what I mean by this, let me turn to another insightful commentator on the modern West, the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut. His short story Harrison Bergeron, begins, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” In the story, anyone above average is burdened with a government-issued handicap. The parents of Harrison are watching television, and there they see ballerinas “burdened with sash-weights…and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.”

This would indeed be the problem that Nietzsche diagnosed: a preference for the weak and condemnation of the strong, but is it motivated by a desire for humility, or by envy? In this case, the problem lies not in the Christian virtue of humility, but in aspects of the modern ideologies of democracy and socialism.

So if we are to be truly humble as Christians, it should not be after the form of those who treat the gifts of life as bad because God distributed them in a way not to our liking. Phrased as such, this is clearly presumption and not humility. But it is a danger in the modern Church, precisely because it is a danger in our society. Even in monasteries, a man can work for years at a craft at a high level and receive no encouragement from his brothers. I glimpsed this while visiting another monastery. I happened to be seated across from a monk who is a scholar of Gregorian chant. Seizing the opportunity, I asked him some questions, but when he attempted a reply, a monk sitting to my right made noises indicating that such rarified discussion was out of bounds, as if it were more virtuous to discuss the divorce of some celebrity (which is where such conversations often stray). By insisting that we reduce the conversation to the lowest common denominator, the brother was, in my opinion, contributing little to the humility of the chant scholar, but instead taking the first place at table of democratic righteousness.

In the opening prayer of today’s Mass, the Church’s liturgy invited us to ask God to bring to perfection the gifts He has given. How can we perfect our gifts if we are trying to shame each other into pretending that we don’t have any? That sometimes special talents bring about pride is not disputed, but the idea that only excellence causes pride is an insult to the Creator. It was through the devil’s envy that death entered the world, and it is possible to be proud in any station of life, just as it is possible to be the Son of God Himself and be meek and humble of heart.

Humility, of course, holds a central place in the Rule of St. Benedict. The Chapter on Humility towers over every other chapter and has been the subject of whole book-length commentaries. There are two particularly excruciating steps to this ladder, both of which require a pitched spiritual battle in the heart. In the fourth step, we read that under “difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, [the monk’s] heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking to escape.” The way of the world is to locate the problem outside ourselves and, when we are in a good mood, pronounce ourselves superior to it by offering sage advice, and when we are irritated to lash out against difficult and unjust situations. While understandable, this will stunt our growth in humility because a ready judgment freezes us into our own limited perspective, whereas patience gradually opens us to God’s solutions. Let me complete this observation by noting that there can hardly be quiet in the heart if there is not quiet in one’s life. Thus perpetual busyness is also an escape from the hard work of humility. Workaholism and fussiness substitute our own energy for God’s wisdom.

If that all sounds difficult and inhumane, how about step seven? In this we are exhorted “not only to admit with [the] tongue,” but also be convinced in our hearts that we are inferior to all and of less value. Surely this is the kind of groveling that drew Nietzsche’s ire. Let us first recognize what sort of thing this humility is not, and then embrace it for what it is, a celebration of human solidarity.

What St. Benedict is not endorsing is fawning flattery. St. Basil the Great taught that it is not humility to take the lowest place if we do this in disobedience. Put in another more up-to-date light, I had a teacher who once said, “If God gives you a Stradivarius violin, it’s a sin to use it to flip burgers.” Sometimes we make this mistake by replacing appreciation of others with that peculiar modern pseudo-virtue “Niceness.” People who want to sell you something useless can be very nice in the usual sense of exuding a facile kindness and painless friendliness, but the goal is not communion with the other person, but acquisition of their money.

This opens the door for a true appreciation of humility as leading to communion and not self-degrading isolation. The good zeal required of a monk involves being the first to show respect—real respect again, not a showy gift of attention that aggrandizes the giver, but honest to goodness respect. Real humility requires doing what we judge better for others. How can we truly assess what will benefit another if we do not take the time to know and appreciate that brother? If we not only fail to show the ‘greatest patience [in supporting a brother’s] weaknesses of body or behavior,’ but even actively criticize his strengths in the name of fairness and equality?

On the other hand, when I honor my brother, his gifts become mine. When we are in communion with one another, we all share in the goods that God has given. Every human life, in fact, is a gift from God, and by learning to be attentive to my brother, especially the needy, the breadth of God’s generosity increases by leaps and bounds. And the greater God becomes in our lives, the lesser we become. We see God’s glory reflected in each person we meet, created in God’s image, and we can honestly come to a place where we simply take the lowest place, with the poor and the lame, awaiting with joyful hope the resurrection of the righteous and the triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and power forever. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time--Dom Peter

Every family has its injury stories. We’ve all had those conversations where we begin to relate all of the funny accidents suffered by our brothers and sisters when we were kids. In my family, my oldest sister was by far the most accident-prone, but one injury I suffered always made the highlight reel. I was playing basketball in the seventh grade championship tournament. In the opening minutes, we ran a play in which I was supposed to look to pass the ball to a teammate under the basket. I underestimated the size of the defender and tried to toss the ball over him to my teammate. The fellow on the opposing team swatted the ball back to me. Now needing to improvise, since I had messed up the play, I started toward the basket myself. This same defender leaped up in the air to try and block my shot, and as he came down his top teeth came crashing down on my head.

What was funny about the injury was what followed. The poor fellow fell to the ground holding his mouth, and everyone gathered around him, though it turned out that he had nothing wrong; he had just met a hard head. Meanwhile, my coach screamed at me to come over to the bench, where he proceeded to forcefully remind me of the efficacy of the bounce pass; that is, until he saw blood spurting from my head. He started screaming, and everyone left the poor guy on the ground and ran to me. An ice pack was produced and plopped on my head and I was rushed, in uniform, to the emergency room. By the time I got there the wound, which only appeared great because it was to the head, had healed over. I waited for some four hours as serious injuries were treated first. My coach even came by and apologized for yelling at me. When I finally saw a doctor, he gave the good news and the bad. Good news: you only need one stitch. Bad news, you’ve suffered a human bite. We need to reopen the wound, disinfect it and then give you a tetanus shot. All of this, while hardly grievous suffering, certainly caused more pain that the initial wound. Worst of all, my basketball team lost.

This story comes to mind whenever I hear our Lord’s teaching today, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth?” Some commentators puzzle over this saying, seeing that it seems to contradict the fact that at the birth of Jesus, angels sing, “Peace on earth.” We can just as easily say, “Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.” From one perspective, I had already healed before I saw the doctor that night in the emergency room. From another perspective, I was in far greater danger by this premature healing than I would be by reopening the wound and causing greater pain. IN this light, we can say that sometimes, under the banner of compassion, we allow injustice to go on or even allow those we love to go on hurting themselves. We can pride ourselves on being more patient and understanding than others when in fact we are enablers and co-dependents. On the other hand, this also does not mean that every well-meaning rebuke we offer to those who irritate us is spreading the fire of Jesus’ word. How do we recognize the peace that the world gives and the peace that only the Father can give?

Peace, both in the Hebrew language, shalom, as well as in the Greek of today’s gospel, eirēne, connotes not merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice and harmony between persons. The peace that Jesus brings is characteristic of the harmony of the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom opposes the kingdoms of this world, but most particularly the vast web woven over all nations that has turned values upside down. Pope Paul VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” To this, I as a monk might add, “If you want justice, work for purity of heart.” That is to say, we should begin by recognizing that we are part of the problem. The problem of conflict is not simply “out there.” The false peace of the world is a projection of the détente that we have made with our inner dividedness. To achieve purity of heart, we must acquiesce to the project of repentance and conversion urged on us by the gospel.

When we embark on this struggle against the inner demons that each of us harbor, we discover that before we can realize the kingdom of God even in the one place where we exercise the most control of our lives, in our hearts, we must be willing to be divided, aware that our good motives are typically bound up with bad, and that good intentions father forth malicious actions. We must take the word of God into our hearts, where it can change us.If we do not take this step, our interpretations of the events around us will always be clouded by these suspect motives and actions; the peace we find will be the world’s peace and the fire we spread will be merely destructive and not purifying. Conversely, if we truly become pure in heart, one with Jesus Christ, then we can expect to receive the baptism that he received, and the anguish that accompanies it. But we will do so with the confidence in the Father that our Lord showed in going to the cross, confidence that God’s Kingdom will come, whether we hasten it or not. Let us pray that through the grace of the sacrament we receive today that we will indeed hasten, and not hinder, the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Brendan

In 1707 the English satirical poet Alexander Pope wrote a long poem in heroic couplets called “Essay on Criticism” which attempted to define the rules governing poetry. The poem is almost as long as one of the Harry Potter books though only marginally less interesting. If J.K. Rowling had written her novels in heroic couplets a la Pope we’d probably all find ourselves rooting for Lord Voledmort.

I would go so far as to say that the poem is eminently forgettable were it not for the fact that in it Pope coined a phrase that would go on to become a Johnny Mercer song and a big hit for Frank Sinatra who sang it with exquisite poignancy on an album called Nice and Easy recorded in 1960: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.

In the popular imagination this saying cautions against involvement in questionable situations or becoming entangled in someone else’s unsolvable problems. And it comes to mind in this portion of Luke’s Gospel. But it will take me a minute to explain why.

A man comes to Jesus and says: “Teacher tell my brother to give me my share of the inheritance.” There are two odd things about this request. First, he calls Jesus teacher. Usually in the gospels whenever someone addresses Jesus as “teacher” it is an indication that this person does not have a clue about the true identity of Jesus Christ.

The second thing is the way the request is phrased, or more to the point, the way it is not phrased: He does not say “Rabbi, my brother and I are quarreling over our inheritance, will you help us arbitrate this dispute?” Instead, he tries to pressure the Lord Jesus to carry out his own desires by telling him to command his brother to give him his rights.

Maybe this is why Jesus, who is usually more than willing to help others in their need, refuses to get involved in a dispute and so, pointedly—and uncharacteristically-- ignores the man’s request. Instead, he tells a parable about a rich fool and his bigger grain barns.
The parable never looses its impact because rich fools go on forever. They are fools, not because they are rich, but because they are greedy. That is why, beneath this parable, lurks a verse from Psalm 48: In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beasts that are destroyed.

How does it happen that we lack wisdom in our riches? My grandmother once made a wry comment about a neighbor whose death had provoked a family quarrel over who was getting what. She said: “people would fight over a pair of dirty socks.” She could not have known how prophetic she was. When she died in 1983 she left behind the only two things of any value that she really had, a lazy boy recliner rocker and a Christmas club account at a local bank in the amount of $96.00.

A cousin dropped by to claim the lazy boy within a few hours of her death. One of my brothers and an aunt fought over the money. Accusations were made and harsh words were spoken. In the end they didn’t speak to each other for eight years. The price of their mutual silence comes out to about $12.00 per year. But can you really put a price on family loyalty? Obviously two people in my family did.

Homilies that address the question of money and wealth usually provoke restlessness on the part of the listeners. People fume that the clergy are always talking about money because, like politicians perpetually campaigning for office, they have a vested interest in the generosity of others. But I am not running for office nor am I interested in persuading you to higher levels of personal stewardship. The gospel is addressing attitudes that lie behind wealth and money: because although someone may be rich, their life does not consist in what they possess.
At the same time we cannot use the Gospel to portray the Lord Jesus as 1st century paleo-Marxist rabble-rouser issuing condemnations of the bourgeois capitalist elite on behalf of the downtrodden proletariat.

Christ is not for the poor and against the rich: neither does he condemn possessions and riches. In the end he is saying something far more subtle, and for that reason, far more disturbing to the ears of those living in a consumerist culture glutted with luxuries: a greater abundance of goods, or a higher level of consumption, does not mean a greater abundance in the quality of life.

The real problem is not our net worth. The problem comes in trying to answer the only question that really matters in assessing the quality of any human life: who or what am I living for? I suspect that even Paris Hilton knows the answer to that question.

Rich fools build barns to store their grain, rich families build huge mansions to house their shrinking families. Their children, who have everything they want, complain that life is boring so they smoke dope, medicate themselves with mood enhancers or drink themselves senseless (not necessarily in that order) in order to escape from the burdens of their meaningless existence.

In the meantime, we are bombarded by the media and their marketing strategists with the deceptive message that this life is all there is or at least the only one worth living for; that peace, joy and happiness are achieved by the avoidance of pain and suffering and the fulfillment of our desires for wealth, fame, and pleasure and that self-sacrifice, suffering and death are the ultimate evils to be avoided at any cost.

And if this were not enough to shake our Christian faith, there are preachers who do not hesitate to present these same secular distortions in the guise of Christian principles based on the Bible. Who turn the Gospel into a cargo cult by teaching that if there is anything God hates it is suffering and that he’ll take it all away if we just pray hard enough: that the reward of faith is prosperity and riches.

In one of his other, less famous poems, Alexander Pope made a wry comment that would probably have had Christ nodding his head in approval:

Satan now is wiser than of yore,
and tempts by making rich, not making poor.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Martha and Mary - 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

by Dom Peter

When Cardinal George was here about seven weeks ago, he recounted an anecdote from the time he was a young priest. He was looking for ways to increase discussion in a committee, and when he asked for advice from an older priest, it was suggested that he start talking about Martha and Mary. So I beg your indulgence this morning as I attempt to say something fresh on this somewhat controversial story, and not only that, but I need to do so seven weeks after my cardinal archbishop has preached on the same story seven weeks earlier.

The controversy stems from an interpretation of the story that, while having its roots in the reading of the Church Fathers, was not really standardized until the high and late Middle Ages. Mary was taken allegorically to be a symbol of the ‘contemplative life’, lived by monks and nuns in cloisters, dead to the world, attentive only to the voice of the Lord. Martha, who in this interpretation doesn’t come off very well, figures in the allegory as a type of the ‘active life’ lived by the laity and secular clergy as well as by the newer orders, first the Franciscans and Dominicans and then somewhat later the orders of hospital sisters, servants of the poor, and so on. The active life was seen to be less impressive and perhaps less meritorious than the contemplative which, after all, would seem to be the better portion chosen by Mary.

In more recent times, especially through the fruits of Vatican II, we have a much livelier sense today perhaps of the Church as the Body of Christ in which every member is called to holiness, not merely those graced with the charism of contemplative life. The goal ‘that we may present everyone perfect in Christ’, to use St. Paul’s phrase in the second reading, really means everyone; perfection is attainable even outside the cloister. There are varieties of service but the same Lord. Both Martha and Mary are engaged with Jesus Christ, but in their different ways. When the Lord chides Martha, He does not say, “Martha, you should stop being busy with many things and come and sit here with Mary.”

In preparing this morning’s homily, I was struck by two hints, one from the lectionary and the other from the Benedictine calendar, that open up the richness of this episode. The first obviously is the first reading. Abraham, newly circumcised, bear in mind, and a spry ninety-nine years old to boot, bounds about in haste to show hospitality to his mysterious guests. Oddly, in this capacity, Abraham is considered by monks to be a model for themselves. Saint Benedict wrote that guests are never lacking in a monastery. He does not therefore go on to say that all precaution should be taken so that they might not interrupt the contemplative life. Rather guests should be received as Christ.

Furthermore, in the Roman calendar, parishes normally celebrate the memory of St. Martha on July 29. We might expect, if there be a difference in the Benedictine calendar, that we monks would instead celebrate St. Mary’s day on the same date. Instead, we find Ss. Mary, Martha and Lazarus, hosts of the Lord. The virtue of hospitality is truly that essential to the life of a monk.

That said, we must return to this challenging teaching of Jesus Christ: Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. St. John Cassian, speaking through the Egyptian Abba Moses, writes, “We take the view that the other virtues, although we consider them necessary and useful and good, are to be accounted secondary because they are all practiced for the purpose of obtaining this one thing. For when the Lord said: ‘You are concerned and troubled about many things, but [only one is necessary],’ he placed the highest good not in carrying out some work, however praiseworthy, but in the truly simple and unified contemplation of him.”

What we see in Cassian is the older distinction between the active and contemplative life. In this older understanding, they are stages of life to be practiced by every Christian. The active life, called the ‘practical life’ as far back as the priest Origen in the early third century, is the life of renunciation to which all Christians are called. In our baptisms, we renounced the Devil and all his works, evil and all its pomp. This initial renunciation at baptism did not automatically remove from us the inclination toward the vices, however: we must rather take up spiritual weapons in order to root out from ourselves immorality, licentiousness, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. As we gradually replace these vices with the opposed virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, we grow more and more in the likeness of Christ, Christ lives in us and no longer we ourselves.

Wait a minute, what happened to Martha and Mary?

Just this: just as Mary could not have had the leisure to sit at the feet of Jesus without Martha’s help, so Martha could not see the true goal of her own work without Mary’s help. We can read this if we want as a tiny image of the Church, in which we monks rivet ourselves as best we can to a mystical gaze toward God, not for ourselves but for the sake of being a target for every Christian, and in which we monks cannot properly survive without the important work that goes on in the world. We can also read Martha and Mary as a sign of what must take place in every Christian heart. We do not do our work to make the world a better place, or to feel good about ourselves. These effects make actually happen and are in themselves not wrong, but if we lose sight of prayer, if we lose sight of God, what are we? We can do all kinds of service, all kinds of mortifications, we can give our bodies over to be burned: if all the while we are grumbling and envious of others, what point is there?

In fairness, I cannot end without saying something of the dangers of the choice made by Mary. Contemplation of God is indeed something that will not be taken away, since good works will not be necessary in heaven, but contemplation of God will be, nevertheless, we are all in the world, and the active life is necessary for us all. Martha and Mary have the distinction of appearing not only in Luke’s gospel, but in John’s as well. In chapter 11, their brother Lazarus dies and Jesus makes his journey to Bethany where He intends to raise Lazarus. Both sisters are bewildered and even hurt by the fact that Jesus did not come in time to heal Lazarus. But only Martha seeks out the Lord, running to him as he arrives at Bethany. Is it possible that Mary is angry at the Lord for disrupting her contemplative ideal and therefore withdrawing from Him? So there is a universal call to holiness, but there is also a universal temptation to turn away from God. Each of us, in our own roles as members of the Church has an edifying role to play for the whole, so long as we order our every action toward our true heavenly goal: purity of heart for the sake of God’s Kingdom. All glory and honor to our Lord Jesus Christ who has instituted this Kingdom and who invites each of us to partake in it even in this life. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, may each of us work like Martha, pray like Mary and love like the Lord Jesus.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Dom Peter

Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI issued the long-awaited motu proprio that grants a more widespread permission for priests to use the 1962 Missal when celebrating Mass. Contrary to published reports, the document does not restore Latin or turn the priest around. In fact, Latin has never ceased to be the language of the liturgy and the celebration of the Mass with the priest facing the people, while almost universal, is only one option in the revised rite.

The hope of the Holy Father is that more widespread use of the old rite will help us to see the revised in clearer continuity with the whole historical development of the Mass, and help to reaffirm the teaching that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church in all ages, not merely our own.

I grew up in the wake of the more sweeping reforms, many of which were intended to give more authenticity to the liturgy by making it more emotionally immediate and exciting. These efforts had the problematic but largely unseen downside of making our faith something of the moment, something dependent on the emotions. It is not easy to drum up the right emotions of a whole group of people at the same time. How many people stopped going to church because their own emotional needs were being ignored while the rest of the community seemed to be having such a good time? Those who have stuck it out run the risk of being thought of as grouches and cranks for not joining in the newest hit offertory song.

This morning’s Gospel ends where the First Reading begins, with the command to ‘rejoice’. Taken unreflectively by the talented and naturally happy sort of person, this means that I need to be happy, even exuberant, and I and you need to be exuberant now.

A closer reading of these two texts gives a different sort of picture of what rejoicing is all about for the Christian. Are we to say simply, ‘all things considered, life is really good’ and paper over suffering? By no means. The prophet Isaiah is surveying the devastating wreckage of the holy city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Thousands had been slaughtered, the city burned, the temple looted, the best and brightest blinded and carried off into exile. How can the prophet survey that and tell the people to rejoice?

Isaiah doesn’t say, “Look on the bright side!” Instead, he prophesies: Whatever riches had been carried off from Jerusalem will be restored ten fold from the wealth of the nations, and the Lord himself will console and comfort his people.

Notice that all of these verbs are in the future tense. As Saint Paul puts it, we rejoice in hope and therefore are patient in present trials.

Jesus goes so far as to correct the improper rejoicing of His disciples. They came back pretty fired up, not unlike a good charismatic revival meeting. “Even the demons are subject to us because of your name!” The Lord tells them, “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

Our rejoicing is because we have God’s assurance that heaven is in our future, and not because if we try hard enough to be cheerful, we can succeed in bringing heaven to earth in the present.

This can only be the case if our rejoicing is not on the raw level of emotion, but on the deep level of conviction and decision, of the mind and of the will. It is rational to hope: whatever suffering there is, God will put an end to it forever, and we will come to pass eternity in a place where there is no suffering or pain. Now that is something to rejoice over.

Does this bring us back to the criticism leveled at the pre-Vatican church, that it is closed off from the concerns of the world? By finding our joy in the life to come, are we sacrificing joy here and now and denying the good things of God’s creation in this life? As disciples of the man who sent his disciples to cure the sick and who was criticized in his lifetime for being a glutton and drunkard, this is obviously not the case. However, since our passions tend to be unruly and unpredictable, we can be fooled in good times into thinking that the well-fed are blessed rather than the hungry, that the happy and jolly are blessed and not those who mourn. In times of plenty, remember want, as the Proverb says.

But whose names are written in heaven? If you are baptized, then God has chosen you to be His son or daughter. Your name is written in heaven.

That said, we should learn to read the Gospels not as stories of things that happened long ago to some other persons chosen by God, but as the activity of Jesus Christ in the Church and in my life. The Lord has gathered us here at the banquet of heaven not to cut us off from those who are suffering and in need of the Good News, but precisely to appoint us as His new ambassadors of hope. The question for us as we depart from the Mass today is, “Will I bring to others the Good News of the Kingdom of God, or will I bring myself?” I will inevitably have only myself if I do not make time in my life to nurture the life of Christ within me. I will hardly have time to pray and flame this life into fire if I am constantly scrambling around trying to ‘feel good’, worried about my money bag, sandals and what to eat. Let us rather travel with the lightness of a purified spirit. An unshakeable hope in God will spread the peace of the Gospel more surely than any scheme to rid the world of evil by our human efforts, and hope for heaven more than forced rejoicing on earth. Whichever rite we use, we should celebrate the Mass so as to point ourselves toward our true hope, Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and adoration forever. Amen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Easter Vigil: Dom Peter

There is a theological debate going on in certain Catholic circles right now. You might shudder at the prospect of hearing me talk about ‘theology’: it is late after all. However, this particular controversy seems to touch on the possibility of hearing the Good News in our present day and ago. The debate centers on the disturbing teaching of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss theologian who died three days before he was to receive the red hat of a Cardinal from the hand of Pope John Paul II, an admirer.

Balthasar’s dangerous idea is that the abandonment of Jesus on the Cross by God the Father was total, that Jesus suffered the consequences of sin that real sinners suffer: death accompanied by the loss of hope. The dissenters to this idea hold that Jesus could not have suffered in this total way.

At the center of this debate, as I see it, is the question of whether we worship a credible God. We have just been through a century of suffering, death and cruelty on a scale never before encountered in human history, and this has been accompanied by a new idea in human thought: real, radical atheism, a self-conscious rejection of God. It seems to me that Jesus would have to suffer the desolation of modernity in some sense if He is to ask us, the members of His Body, to do the same. If there is something new in von Balthasar’s theology, perhaps it is because we are faced with a new crisis in anthropology.

The newness of our situation is perhaps simply a willed ignorance of the many trials and travails of humankind in the past. In our constantly changing new-and-improved world, it is easy to forget that in the thousands of years in history that have gone before us, women and men have struggled as we have to live lives worthy of the God whom we are told is All-Holy. We are blessed this evening to have the opportunity to have heard chapters of the long story of God’s history with His chosen people. A modern American would think, if the Jews were simply making up the story about God, that they would have been tempted either to make themselves look a little better or, given the many sufferings that they have endured, to have given up on God at some point.

This is a point to keep in mind when we view our situation in the Church today. Certainly events of the past several years have served to discredit the Church in many ways. We in the Church suffer for this; I take walks in Roman collar, and mothers cross to the other side of the street. Many of us, perhaps most of us, resist this suffering. We distance ourselves from it, blaming bishops, priests, theologians, feminists, atheists, Masons, the Sexual Revolution, the Supreme Court, the internet, and the pope. Someone should do something about this disgraceful state of affairs.

But I ask: this rejection of suffering and the pointing of fingers, is this the gospel?
Let’s take this to a more personal level. We all try to get around suffering if we can. Our society has a taboo against suffering: it is impolite. A suffering life is a life that lacks in quality and perhaps, for the sake of decency, should be ended. Even unhealthy unborn persons, if we anticipate that they might suffer, are spared suffering and put to death instead. People who are in a bad mood don’t get much sympathy, “What’s his problem?” We are supposed to buck up and, importantly, not impose our troubles on anybody else. Precisely where the suffering need human solidarity, our world turns its back. Even people who claim to care about the suffering often prefer to care about those far away, overlooking the suffering of those in front of them, thereby adding to it.

Is this the gospel?

During the forty days of Lent, we made resolutions to try and live more nearly the way God asks us to live. This effort at conversion ought to have opened us up, not to our strengths, but our weakness, our inability to do what God asks, our failures as human beings to love as we want to be loved, to be free and not subject to sordid addictions to food, alcohol, sex, or drugs. Many give up on the whole conversion experience because of the hell it puts us through. Indeed, we experience the hell that we have chosen for ourselves. Again, our culture tells us to flee from that realization that we are choosing hell for ourselves. Those of a certain age had a saying for this strategy: Turn on an tune out!

Hold that thought!

“He suffered, died and was buried.” We profess that Jesus, far from shying away from real suffering, embraced it. Not because He was Clint Eastwood or Indiana Jones, but because He loves us. The creed goes on, or at least did in less polite days, to affirm that “He descended into hell.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that we do not know if anyone in particular goes to hell after death; we can’t even say that Judas is there. However, we do know one Person who has been there and back: Jesus the Christ. Whether He entered hell crashing the gates and throwing down demons with pitchforks, or whether He simply went to this place of torment to be raised up by God the Father, what does not change is the fact that out of love for weak and failing men and women, Jesus went to hell. Hell is a state of being, and I just got done saying that all of us in some way choose it, or perhaps are simply subject to it. When we experience our own versions of hell, do we think about the fact that our Savior has been there and now has the keys and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against Him? Our Lord ‘became man’. He didn’t just imitate being a man: he desired to experience the whole of human existence, including the sense of alienation from God, the product of our weakness, failure and sin. If we experienced this Lent, some of that weakness, failure and sin, well, blessed are we because Christ is waiting there to save us. Christ saves us where we need saving, not where we are self-sufficient.
Here is the Good News according to St. Paul: we were baptized into Christ’s death, and buried with him, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we might not simply wait to be raised, but that we might begin to live ‘in newness of life’. Can we experience this resurrection and a life of blessedness without experiencing death and hell? Surely we are not asking to be spared what Christ undertook for us any more than we should fear, out of a misplaced and unhistorical respect for God, to imagine Jesus be spared any of the sufferings of which we are capable.
This is the Good News: who of you are suffering tonight? Our Risen Lord Jesus is calling to you, and He says, “Fear not! I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades. Believe in me and live!”

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Brendan

January 28, 2007

Three weeks ago I received some good natured razzing after mass for my homily on the “da Vinci Code”. In matters of preaching I take a measure of comfort from today’s Gospel: even the Lord Jesus had his critics. At least none of mine have attempted to throw me off the bell tower.

Given the sad state of preaching in the Church today it may surprise you to know that homiletics is actually taught in theology as a required course before ordination. I took one of those courses at Washington Theological Union in the later half of the last century. And while I have long forgotten the name of the instructor I have always remembered his 4 short rules for effective preaching: stand up, speak up, shut up, sit down.

Standing up and sitting down are the easy parts, it’s what happens between speak up and shut up that’s crucial. This is because the goal of a homily is not to inform but to transform. Unfortunately, this guarantees that every homilist will inevitably defeats his listener’s expectations. Because if we had to choose between inform and transform it would be inform nine times out of ten. Transform implies change and change never comes easy.

Here’s an example of what I am talking about: There was a young priest ordained for a rural diocese in Kentucky. For his first assignment the bishop sent him to a parish where he was the assistant of an old and venerable Monsignor. The first Sunday the new priest preached on the evils of drinking. The old monsignor said to him “take care Father, a third of the parish works for a bourbon distillery”. The next Sunday the newly ordained preached on the evils of gambling. Again came the warning: “take care Father, one third of the parishioners raise race horses”. The third Sunday he preached on the evils of smoking and again came the advice “take care, one third the parish raises tobacco.” On the fourth Sunday, the young priest preached on the evils of fishing within the territorial waters of a foreign nation.

Those charged with responsibility for preaching the word and those burdened with having to listen to it on any given Sunday morning might recognize the sharp truth hidden behind the humor: it is easier, and so more tempting, to entertain and inform on a Sunday morning because we all resist transformation.

In the years before I entered the monastery I worked in Minnesota among God’s frozen chosen as they liked to call themselves. I had to preach at mass four or five times every weekend. I faithfully followed Fr. What’s-his-name’s rules for effective preaching and inevitably heard people say to me: “thanks for the message. It was short and sweet and to the point”. This was music to my ears for the first few years of priesthood, but then I began yearn for the day when someone said: your homily really brought me up short. Now I’ll have to go home and re-evaluate all my priorities and start living like a follower of Christ.

In these late winter Sunday’s before the arrival of Lent, the Lectionary moves, episode by episode, through the Gospel of Luke. These stories can seem odd to us. They are often difficult to understand because they come out of a culture and a time alien to our own. But they are passionate and powerful attempts to describe the length to which our God will go to befriend the human race.

In the time provided all that a homilist can hope to do is to trigger the religious imagination that lies dormant in most of us. It lies dormant not merely because we are preoccupied by the tasks of daily life but because we have unconditionally surrendered our imaginations under the assault of popular culture. So now the media does our thinking for us, provides us with the images that define who we are or stokes our desires for things we want but don’t actually need, and force feeds us predigested sound bites from the “talking heads” that become our opinions and ideas. In the end this robs us of the ability to think outside the cultural comfort zone.

This has its spiritual and theological consequences when it comes to living our Catholic faith. Someone writes a book claiming that the Vatican has engaged in two thousand year old conspiracy to hid the truth that the real Jesus was just an ordinary man. The book becomes a phenomenal best seller and people, like my 16 year nephew who read it, begin to imagine that the Church is nothing more than a web of lies and distortions. They forget that the book is a novel which, if my research is correct, is still shelved under fiction in better bookstores everywhere.

This also has its spiritual and theological consequences when it comes to celebrating liturgy on Sunday morning: we may be full of information about God but often are powerless to imagine the kind of life he has called us to live or that this life is in any sense different from the popular culture around us.

This is perhaps what the Lord Jesus is attempting to do when he preaches to the people of his own hometown. Like 21st Century America, 1st Century Palestine had its own cultural stresses. No Jew could have been unaware that Israel was an occupied land paying taxes to Imperial Rome. Herod, in a spirit of realpolitik, fixed the Roman eagle above the main gate of the temple as a reminder to one and all that the pagans were really running the show. The rabbinic students who tore that eagle down in their zeal for the Torah were hunted down by Herod’s police, dragged in chains to Jericho where Herod was wintering and burned alive in his presence.

The prior mentioned last Sunday that Nazareth was just five miles across the valley from the Greek speaking city of Sepporis the site of the revolt led by Judas the Galilean who proclaimed himself messiah in 6 ad. When the Romans took the city they crucified 6,000 men along the road that lead to the town.

Across the valley the people of a little village named Nazareth doubtless stood and watched the spectacle playing out before them. Among the eyes witnessing the power of Imperial Rome must have been those of a young Jewish boy named Jeshua ben Josef. He would have been about 12 years old.

This is why it is an electric moment when Jesus takes the scroll and reads from the Isaiah a passage in which the prophet foresees the day when Israel will no longer be oppressed by pagan nations and God himself will come to Zion. It is clear that no one sitting in that room could have possibly imagined that the prophetic text had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the son of a carpenter. Which illustrates an important principle they don’t teach in homiletics classes: that it’s hard to preach to people who knew you when you were in diapers.

What the citizens of Nazareth did understand however was that Jesus was using the coded language of a text sacred to Judaism to proclaim himself the messiah. Visions of Sephoris with its six thousand crucified must have danced through they’re heads. Was this another Judas the Galillean? The incident shows the poverty of their religious imagination just as it shows the power of their communal memory for state terror in the form of mass executions.
All the gospels speak about this incident but they locate it later in the ministry of Jesus. Luke moved it to the beginning of the public ministry because it foreshadows what is to come. His rejection by the people of his own hometown, the people he grew up with who knew him is a portrait in miniature of the rejection that he will meet at his crucifixion.

R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet wrote about this passage from Luke in one of his poems:
A preacher’s temptation
Is the voice persuading
He is his own message.
So the emphasis on the other
Proved to them he blasphemed.
This stripling, this Nazarene
Nobody the mirror
Of God! They hurled their scorn’s
Stones and the cracks accentuated
The sky’s edge. There was scant time.
He withdrew into the wilderness of the
Spirit. The true fast
Was abstention from language.
Thomas was an Anglican priest and speaks out of his experience when he says that a preacher’s temptation is the voice persuading he is his own message. He titled the poem “Incarnations”. The only person of whom it can be said that he was his own message was Jesus Christ. When God the Logos became incarnate as a Nazarene nobody the medium, the human flesh of Jesus Christ, became the message: Jesus is the mirror of God for anyone who has the religious imagination to see it. He is also the mirror image of who we are, though that may take more imagination for us to comprehend.

Scripture scholars sometimes express frustration that in the environs of Nazareth there is no great hill from which Jesus might have been thrown off by his inhospitable listeners. But it you will find that hill much later in Luke’s story, on a Friday in April, just outside Jerusalem.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Peter

In the dining room of the home where I spent most of my childhood, there was a framed needlepoint decoration. On it was stitched the verse: “Cleaning and scrubbing can wait ‘til tomorrow, for babies grow up we learn to our sorrow.” We are a short three weeks from celebrating Jesus’ birth, and here he is today, all grown up, a local boy made good.

Jesus’ homecoming reminds me a bit of the first few times a young man or woman returns from college or from the service. There is great anticipation: the young person is missed in the town, among friends and family. There is also some trepidation: will he have changed? Well, of course he will. Jesus has been off with John the Baptist, perhaps imbibing new and radical teachings. We don’t know much about the inhabitants of Nazareth. The town stood only five miles distant from the major Galilean center of Sepphoris, a place where Greek was no doubt spoken and much trade went on. So citizens of Nazareth could hardly be complete rustics. Nevertheless, for a local carpenter suddenly to give up his trade and take up with the distant John the Baptist (he was over fifty miles south), would surely raise some eyebrows. So one can imagine the interest in what Jesus would say when it was now his turn to give a teaching on the haftorah, the reading from the prophet Isaiah. I felt a bit of this when I went home the week after my ordination: all of a sudden the kid that everyone remembers playing Little League is back from the monastery and preaching. What will he say?

What Jesus says continues the Epiphany or manifestation theme of the past few weeks. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” refers us back most immediately to Jesus’ baptism, a unique event in the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus returns not a disciple of John, but as the one ‘mightier’ who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If anyone picks up here that Jesus is suggesting that he is the Messiah, there might well be some misgivings: the city of Sepphoris which I just mentioned had sided with Judas the Galilean ‘at the time of the census’, that revolt mentioned by Gamaliel the Elder in the Acts of the Apostles. The result of this messianic uprising was the total destruction of Sepphoris. The city as it stood during Jesus’ adulthood was one rebuilt by Herod the Great.

So we can understand something of the apprehension that Jesus’ words might have caused. However, that is to foreshadow next week’s gospel, and Br. Brendan has been accusing me of stealing his homilies of late, so I will focus on the words of Christ today.

Let me ask you: how do feel when you hear Jesus saying in your hearing this morning, “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind?” If we have something in common with the people of Nazareth, we probably are of two minds. Maybe today it sounds like good news and tomorrow sounds impossible. Our response depends in large part upon whether we see ourselves truly as poor, captives and blind.

I recall an excellent homily I heard about ten years ago on the passage where St. Paul exhorts Timothy to be ‘strong, loving and wise’. The homilist spoke for most of us when he said that there is a great (and dangerous) desire to see oneself and to be seen by others as ‘strong, loving and wise’. But here is our problem. Jesus does not come to announce glad tidings to the strong, liberty to the loving and sight to the wise. So take your pick: appear strong, loving and wise and be self-sufficient, not needing a Savior, maybe welcoming Jesus as a fellow friend and wise man; or learn to see yourself as loved by God, saved by the Incarnation of the Son of God who loves you, but understand that you are poor, captive and blind.

In the monastic refectory, we are almost halfway through a book called Befriending the Stranger by Jean Vanier. Vanier is famous for his work with the mentally and physically handicapped. His deep insight from his long experience is that we cannot love the weak, the hurt and the incapable unless we are able to expose for ourselves our own inner weakness, woundedness and incapacity. I would like to suggest that the great challenge for Christians today is to learn to serve the poor and the lonely in one another. There is something self-legitimating in caring for the physically poor, and in no way do I wish to suggest that it is easy or unnecessary.

The problem, as I see it, is that our individualistic mindset suggests that everyone, given the right opportunities and education, will and should make good. In the monastery, for example, we are all supposed to be good men. What do I do when my brother does something wrong again and again, even after I point it out to him and to the superior? Am I willing to love him with his flaws, or do I say, “Why doesn’t he fix that?” Or what do I make of the brother who is sullen and removed? Am I willing to love him, too? Or do I say, ‘well, what’s the bee in his bonnet?’ Even more difficult, am I willing to be loved by my brother if it means being, not strong, loving and wise in his eyes, but weak, poor and even blind?

This all sounds heavy and maybe a bit histrionic: St. Paul gives us a more positive perspective on all of this when he writes to the Corinthians, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’.” Rather, the eye should rejoice in its inability to do what the hand can do, for it is through this inability that the eye comes to need the hand and the body comes to take shape. Love, then, is learning to say, “I need you” to our fellow human beings. Not in co-dependency, mind you, but in the Body of Christ. All the parts of the body must be linked to the head: a hand and an eye can’t become all-dependent on one another: that would make for a gruesome body. Rather we rejoice in being united one to another in Christ.

Again, Christ throws out the challenge: will you welcome the Good News if it means having to say, “I need you,” even to our enemies? Vanier is helpful again here: what if the enemy, what if what we hate in the world is what is weak, captive and blind in ourselves? Can we turn to that place of emptiness and poverty inside and say, “I need you?”

We are in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II noted that Jesus chose the Apostles not because they were strong but because they were weak, especially Peter, whom our Lord treated especially hard. Catholics face a temptation to feel self-sufficient: we have the fullness of the Faith we are told, and in a very narrow Magisterial sense, this is what we must somehow affirm. However, today’s liturgy suggests that we should approach ecumenism from a position not of strength, but of weakness, poverty, even blindness. Can we say to the Orthodox or to Protestants, “I have no need of you?” “By no means!” Can we instead learn to listen and to trust in such a way that we can discover our need for full communion in the Body of Christ and through this discovery acknowledge our weakness and incapacity to bring this communion about?

If we can, if the Holy Spirit grant us the courage to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, if we can love the poor and the captive within ourselves, then perhaps we will be among those who welcome the proclamation of Jesus Christ, “a year acceptable to the Lord.” To our One Lord Jesus Christ be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Peter

Alright, time for a Latin review. What are the four principal parts of the Latin verb meaning ‘to bear, carry or bring’? Ready? Go! “fero, ferre, tuli, latus.” Correct! Ten points extra credit. For those of you who haven’t gotten that far in Latin, let me explain that this is a very common verb, but also highly irregular. In the letter to the Hebrews, we hear about Jesus making offerings for sins. This English word ‘offering’ is derived from the Latin ob-fero which means to bear, carry or bring to someone for some purpose. The reason we listed the various forms of the verb earlier is that we see that the word ‘offering’ has in fact the same derivation as the word ‘oblation’. The difference is that one is active and the other passive. I offer an offering, I am called to be an oblate. Jesus is a model for us in that He is both. He offers and is offered, He is an oblation. In fact, he offers Himself, and is offered by Himself.

Today, we celebrate the oblation of Rosalie Katherine Trovato and the renewal of oblation of most of the oblates of our community. Personally, I don’t know the history of oblates and why that particular name was chosen. In a sense, all monks are oblations. The rites involved in the profession of solemn vows make this very clear, from the placing of the written charter on the altar, to the recitation of the Suscipe, in which the monk asks God to receive him. In making this step, the monk is responding to a call from God, a free choice on God’s part. The monk is elect: chosen for a specific gift of self. He imitates Christ by making this gift a radical gift of self which includes a symbolic dying: a prostration while covered with a funeral pall. This death imitates Christ’s death on the cross, with one difference. Of course the monk does not ascend a cross to make this offering. Rather, he promises to consent to the purifying power of perseverance in patience. Patience is yet another good Latin word: suffering [incidentally, another word derived from the Latin fero: here, to bear underneath]. His entire life will now take the form of the cross. Dare we say that the monk is on the cross all the time?

Oblates make an analogous offering of their lives. In doing so, they promise to conform their lives to the cross by the mediating influence of the Rule of Saint Benedict and the example of a specific community. Summing up the spirituality of the Rule is not easy, but this morning, I will summarize a few points from the gospel that I believe are central.

First of all: vigilance. The quintessential monastic office is Vigils. The monk is a watchman, straining with the eyes of his heart to catch first sight of the coming of Jesus Christ in glory. We know not the time or the hour, so we must be clothed and ready to go at all times. A monk must not be frivolous. Frivolity, however, is not the only danger. Often, our own convictions are our worst enemy. We form a picture of how the world should work and then try to fit it into that pattern. This can blind us to what is actually taking place. This often happens when we say, ‘things would be better if…’ We usually then make lists of things that other people should change. If the Lord could come at any time, however, why the worry about supposed fixes? Why not quiet oneself and watch instead? You will find the Lord nearer than you had thought.

This watching presupposes other virtues, namely obedience and faith. Let me treat faith first. No one, not even the Son, knows the time or the hour. Let us not dwell, unfortunately, on the implications of this statement for Christology. Let us rather see that even Jesus Christ had to do His Father’s will in faith. For us in the Benedictine path, this means learning not to intervene too quickly, but to listen; not to propose answers from our own hunches or feelings, but to trust; not to react but to respond. Here is our offering: that we consent to being offered in whatever circumstances given to us.

In this way we imitate Christ perfectly. His offering was not simply at one time on the Cross. Rather, the Cross was the perfect fulfillment of an entire life of faith and obedience. Indeed, the word translated in the second reading as ‘forever’, is actually closer in sense to ‘continually’. Jesus’ one offering is continual: so our lives should be a continual offering in faith. We can’t say, ‘because I don’t know what God wants, I can’t offer myself.’ Nor can we say, ‘I don’t feel fervent today, so I can’t make an offering of myself; I can’t pray.’ In both of these circumstances, we are invited to take a stance of humility. A lack of certainty in particular circumstances should be a spur to a greater certainty in God’s Providence.

Finally, this offering is done in obedience. I would like to suggest that it is only through obedience that we can make sense of God’s choices. The angels will come to gather the elect. This sounds elitist. If God chooses me and seems not to choose others, am I within my rights to refuse with the aim of trying to bring others along? I have two responses for this sort of argument.

The first is that Jesus Himself was criticized in this way. Why did He do such a wasteful thing as die on the Cross when He could have ended hunger once and for all by changing stones into bread; He could have bought peace for the world (at least so it seems) by consenting to working wonders for all to see. If I am sounding diabolical in these suggestions, good—that’s my point. It is only through the Cross that peace comes.

More nitty-gritty is the fact that God chooses different roles for different persons. Christ Himself was chosen to be the one mediator between God and human kind. Each of us is called to fulfill a certain function now within His body and within the workings of Providence. This is perhaps why solemn vows and oblation don’t rise to the level of sacrament: they are a deepening of the offering that all of the baptized are invited to make of their lives. As a monk or an oblate or a layperson, each of us is chosen by God for a certain task. It is by cooperation with God’s choices that we do the most good in bringing about peace. Refusing to cooperate with God’s election on the grounds that we know better the way to happiness is questionable indeed. So we must stick to our particular roles in the church. Oblates are not monks, nor are monks oblates. Let us listen carefully to discern God’s choices for us, and then pray for the courage to follow them.

Now the Church calls forward our oblates to renew their promise to follow God’s role for them in the Church.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

All Saints 2006 - Dom Peter

[Rev 7: 2-4, 9-14
1 John 3: 1-3
Matt 5: 1-12a]

For the past several years, the monks have made a real effort at gardening. As we’ve grown larger as a community, we’ve become more and more proficient. This year, we have finished most of the harvest, and that included about two hundred pounds of potatoes, rows and rows of squash, tomatoes and all kinds of other products. I love this time of year for a number of reasons, but part of it surely is the joy of the harvest. In the midst of this plenty, we must of course remember to give thanks to God, who gives the growth, and to be generous with what we have, since this pleases God.

Life is mysterious: we can help life along, but we humans are utterly unable to make non-living things alive. We rely rather on God’s mysterious gift of vitality. We study life, to increase our crops, to grow new varieties of vegetables and so on, but it all depends finally on God.

At Mount Sinai, God Himself got personally involved with the life cycle of the seasons, at least with regard to the people of Israel. The Canaanites, who lived in the Holy Land before Israel, worshipped fertility gods to increase their crops, but these were harmful idols, not the Living God of Abraham. To protect the people against this temptation, God instructed Moses to bring the Israelites together three times a year: at sowing, at first-fruits and at the harvest. These three festive celebrations became Passover, Pentecost and the Festival of Booths. Passover and Pentecost are associated with two foundational events in the life of Israel: the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Law on Sinai. The Feast of Booths, originally connected with the march through the desert (since they slept in tents), came to be associated with two other events, the first being the rebuilding of the temple of God after the Babylonian Exile: the high priest Joshua and Zerubabbel (the heir to the throne) offered the first sacrifices in the new temple on this feast. The second historical event was the re-consecration of the temple after its defilement by the Greeks. During the second century before Christ, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes set up a statue of Zeus in the temple and defiled it during the Festival of Booths. After a fierce war of two years, the Jews, led by the Maccabee brothers, were able to drive the Greeks out and to offer sacrifice again for the very same festival.

The book of Leviticus instructs those celebrating booths to carry palm branches in honor of God. This is what we see the souls of the just doing in heaven in today’s first reading: carrying palm branches and celebrating the Festival of Booths. The celebration of the march in the desert, the harvest and the renewed temple has been reinterpreted again: now the souls are following the Lamb, whereas before they had followed the pillar of cloud. They are going to their true home, rather than an earthly Holy Land. And they are going to celebrate the consecration of the new temple of God, which is all the saints joined in the Body of Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. God has purified this temple once and for all by the blood of Jesus Christ our Savior, and so the souls are clothed in white to symbolize the final and decisive defeat of Satan and of sin and death. This is the true ‘harvest of souls’. We see in our lives in Christ, we follow the plan of the seasons, as well as the history of Israel. In baptism, our Passover, we are planted: like a seed dying in the earth, we die to sin and rise to Christ. In our confirmation, we receive the Holy Spirit as at Pentecost: we sprout up with the first fruits of new life, beginning to mature into fullness. But while we still are on this earth, we do not yet attain to full maturity. That must wait for our final Passover, our final participation in the Paschal mystery, our own suffering and death in the body.

We often fear death, we fear suffering. Today, we celebrate the triumph of all those who have gone before us marked with the seal of faith. We see that to reach our final happiness, our full joy, we must consent to endure what John calls “the time of great distress.” We have certainly been warned: but today, the celebration of All Saints, we should take heart! We should take heart and rejoice in all those who have made it through this harvesting and now enjoy blessedness, happiness, peace and friendship with all men and with God. The promise of the gospel is not vain: the hope that we feel, the hunger and thirst for justice, fellowship and love is already being satisfied in the lives of the saints. And what a harvest it is: a great multitude which no one can count! Surely among these are persons like ourselves: on earth they struggled with doubt, they struggled with fear and with a variety of sins, both public and hidden. Yet in Christ, they are triumphant in the end. Let us be encouraged by the help given to the saints and by the prayers that they now make on our behalf. Let us today renew our desire for holiness, purity of heart, for meekness and mercy. See what love the Father has bestowed on us! Let us praise Him together in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ to Whom be glory and honor forever. Amen.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Peter

In the current issue of Time magazine, Professor Richard Dawkins ventures out of his academic specialty of evolutionary biology into the theological fray with the statement:

If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.

This does not recommened Prof. Dawkins' theological library to me. In fact, most theologians I’ve known or read would take issue with this sweeping generalization. Saint Anselm, for whom God was by definition greater than anything imaginable, might debate Prof. Dawkins on philosophical principle, as would Evagrius, who insisted that we must renounce all images we have of God, who (again by definition) is greater than anything we can imagine. Gregory of Nyssa’s writing are littered with terms for God like ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘ineffable’. I could go on, but you get the point.

So science and theology actually seem to agree on what God is like, that is, if God exists. Thankfully, in this gathering, we can assume that God exists, and so take up this definition. God is greater than anything we can imagine. Any attempted definition of God needs to take the form of non-definition, since definition means literally ‘drawing limits’, from the Latin finis: end or border.

Making peace with this reality about God is a first step in solving many of our human preoccupations. Let us take as an example Jesus’ observation about the poor widow. She gave more than the others because she gave everything she had to live on. On one hand, this is a nice, pious statement. Yet for those of us who have had to pay mortgages and remodeling expenses, is there not a nagging voice somewhere inside saying, “Well and good, Lord, but you can’t maintain a temple on a few widow’s pennies.”

That the apostles didn’t quite appreciate what Jesus was teaching is evident by the next episode in Mark’s gospel. “As they were leaving the temple,” Mark writes, “one of his disciples said him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’” At this, of course, Jesus begins to prophesy the destruction of the temple building.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews teaches us that Jesus entered the temple, the sanctuary, but not the one made by human hands. What kind of dwelling can we build God? Answer: we cannot build Him any suitable dwelling place. How can we reasonably build something that would limit the unlimited God whom we worship? God dwells in heaven, the sanctuary into which Jesus Christ ascended when He offered His great sacrifice on our behalf. We should note that most of us, in addition to un-defining God, need to do the same with heaven. Too often people reject what they believe heaven is without remembering that it is beyond our comprehension, just as God is beyond our comprehension.

However, God can and does communicate with us, and out of a kind consideration for our limits, he limits Himself because He loves humankind and loves to be with us. So He gave Moses a pattern for the temple, a kind of projection of God’s majesty into a human plane, almost like a projection of a three-dimensional view into a two-dimensional painting. Yet like a portrait artist who prefers the beauty of his painting to that of his models, we have a tendency to prefer a tame and domesticated God to the God of Abraham. A beautiful church makes us feel good! That’s not so bad, but are we experiencing God or aesthetics?

Why did the widow then make any gift at all? Wouldn’t she be better off keeping that money? Perhaps if she had let the rich make all the contributions, she could have kept her pennies and invested them and not be poor today. But the question then would be: would she have been worshipping God?

Perhaps she could just worship God in spirit, as Jesus says that God wants us to. Then again, Paul taught us to glorify God in our bodies. We can surely do both if we put our bodies at the service of our spirits, much as God has put the visible temple or church building at the service of the invisible. The point of the widow’s mite is that her giving, painful and difficult as it was, trained her to give true spiritual worship, whereas the best the scribes could do was to recite lengthy prayers as a pretext. If we let the body go its way and try to worship in a merely spiritual way, how do we understand the very real and bodily suffering of Christ as He entered into the true sanctuary? Like Christ, the widow gave the entirety of her life—the word Bios in Greek literally means that she gave her whole life. Can we say that we do the same when we give only the life of our souls as if they were not connected with the life of our bodies?

We should conclude by noting that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven bodily and comes to us today in the Eucharist in a body. The Body of Christ is the means by which we enter into communion with the incomprehensible who is God. This is an astounding piece of evidence of God’s love for us humble creatures, not to mention His tendency to confound all of our expectations. This happens to be the sticking point for Professor Dawkins. He says, “I don’t see…Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of…grandeur.” Clearly God is more incomprehensible to some than they can comprehend.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Peter

At the end of the eleventh chapter of the book of Leviticus, God says to the people of Israel through Moses: “You…shall be holy, for I am holy.” The Hebrew word qadosh, “holy” connotes being ‘cut off’, different from the profane. God in effect, in making His covenant with Israel says, “if you desire life with Me, and this is true life, you must become worthy of Me: you must become different than the world, because I am other than the world.”

Significantly, this exhortation takes place in the midst of the kashrut or Kosher laws. There are many ways in which Israel is to be different from the surrounding Canaanites and other peoples, but the most obvious way is by refraining from eating certain foods. The foods that God permits the Israelites to eat also must be prepared in a certain way. In chapter seventeen, God says to Moses, “You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood.”

One can imagine, then, the scandal occasioned by Jesus when He says “to the crowds,” “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” This teaching gives some currency to C.S. Lewis’ argument that Jesus is either God or insane. We have the advantage of knowing Jesus Christ risen from the dead; we know that all authority has been given Him and so this testimony is perhaps easier for us to absorb. Or is it?

From time to time one reads about polls that claim alarming numbers of Catholics denying the Real Presence or at least not understanding it. One must always exercise caution in interpreting polls; I’m half Polish, so I should know. However, some struggle to grasp the presence of Christ in the Eucharist should not surprise us. The teaching has been a source of difficulty for believers from the very beginning. How can we deepen our faith in this mystery and enliven others’?

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” Here we have life with God in a deeper and more intimate way than ever envisioned even in the marriage covenant given at Mount Sinai. “The life of every creature is its blood.” In this teaching of the Lord on Sinai, we see that all life belongs to God, but we also see the problem of sin in the world of creatures. The food that sustains our bodies is good. Eating is good, especially eating together. It is a visible and visceral reminder of our connectedness to the earth, to other creatures, and to each other. The downside of this is that creatures are perishable. The life of creatures has a limit. If we limit our horizons to the enjoyment of bread, we are apt to lose sight of the fact that we do not live on bread alone.

On the other hand, as the Council of Nicea taught, the Son of God is not a creature. The drink that He gives is not perishable but imparts eternal life. This is why, overruling the prohibitions of the old Law, Jesus can offer us His blood to drink. His life is also in the blood, but it is not the life of a creature, but the life of Blessed Trinity Himself.

With this as background, we return to the question: how to enliven our faith in the Eucharist, to desire communion with God and to receive it in this humble sacrament of bread and wine? We might ask an ancillary question: Why did God choose food as the privileged means of Christ’s continuing presence and of the gift of life? Surely this suggest that our attitude toward food and toward creation to which we are linked by our bodies must somehow be connected to the choice of bread and wine for the material of the source and summit of our faith.

This in turn suggests that if our faith in the Blessed Sacrament is somehow waning, we should examine our attitude toward creation. There are two temptations: to overvalue creation or to undervalue it. To overvalue it, to serve the creature rather than the Creator (Blessed be He), is tempting because the world is full of good things delightful to the eye. But this is to choose mortality rather than immortality. Not much of a bargain if you ask me, unless by some confused reasoning we think that the God who created the earth ki tov, very good, will somehow make heaven less good. There is also the temptation to equate God with creation, the mistake of pantheists or nature-worshippers. This makes God less than All-powerful and probably less than good as well.

However, we must also not become Manicheans and undervalue or denigrate this creation. Do we really do this today? I think that we do, when we eat meals on the run, treat bodies like machines or sculptures, abuse the earth for short-term conveniences and the like. We can also do this for alleged religious reasons, such is the temptation of Puritanism. This seems to me less of a temptation today, but it is worth noting, if only to make the Church’s stance clearer. Perhaps the clearest problem we have in this area is accepting the Incarnation, the idea that God would create the universe and the human person not merely as an amusement to be discarded when no longer interesting, but as a place within which He could dwell intimately with His creatures.

How do we balance a true appreciation for creation with a longing for everlasting life in union with the Blessed Trinity? Saint Paul gives us the answer in the Epistle to the Ephesians. “[Give] thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” Do you have no choice but to eat quickly at McDonald’s? Give thanks. Do you have to cancel a trip this year because gas is scarce? Give thanks. Give thanks for those whom you love, and give thanks for those who show you your inability to love. Give thanks for good food and for lousy food. Give thanks for the sun and for the rain. Give thanks for this world and for the promise of a better world. This, after all, is the true meaning of the Eucharist: thanksgiving to God in Jesus Christ, to whom be power and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Assumption - Dom Brendan

When I was a child and we had a Holy Day of Obligation like today our parish priest would inevitably begin his sermon by saying: Today is the Feast of the Assumption and how happy we are to be here. My father would groan quietly and slide down in the pew for what he knew would be a 40 minute sermon on the joys of coming to Church in the middle of the week. Obviously he was not happy to be there, half baked Catholic that he was. But his sentiments did not seem to be shared by the other in my parish: the Church on a day like today would have standing room only at all three masses.

In 1958 a parish priest could assume that most people would be happy to treat a weekday as a Sunday and interrupt their day to come to church to celebrate the Liturgy in honor of the Mother of God. I doubt if any priest today would make that assumption, if you’ll forgive the pun.

So why are we doing it? Certainly, we are honoring the memory of the Mother of the Lord. But we cannot forget that we’re doing so out of a set of specific historical circumstances that most of us have first hand knowledge of.

Historically speaking there has been a Feast of the Assumption since the 7th or 8th Century, but it was Pius XII who proclaimed the Assumption a dogma of the faith in 1950. However this was viewed at the time, his decision has been criticized in the last 25 years by voices inside and outside the Church.

But the fact that the Pope proclaimed the Assumption a dogma and the timing of it, November 1, 1950 cannot have been insignificant given the extraordinary assault on the human body witnessed in what another Pope has called "The Century of Tears".

Ten million killed in World War I, 600,000 alone in one battle, the Battle of the Somme (there were 58,000 causalities in the first hour of that battle). And that figure is dwarfed by the 60 million dead in the battles and death factories of WWII.

We have no time to talk about the 40 million dead in the Stalinist purges of the 30’s and 40’s, the 100 million dead in the Maoist purges of the 50’s and 60’s, the millions killed by Pol Pot in Cambodia, or the slaughter of over 1.3 million Tutsi’s in Ruanda. And I have only skimmed the surface: we should not forget the 28 million abortions in this country alone since Roe v. Wade. A century of unimaginable atrocities, and a century that gave us new verb to describe what human beings are capable of: genocide.

In the face of this assault on the human body, Pius XII understood that in defining the dogma of the Assumption the Church was at the same time making an assertion about the nobility, dignity and worth of the bodies and souls of every human being.

It is not the teaching of the Church that the Mother of God escaped the common fate reserved to all human beings. It is the Church's teaching that at the end of her life she was taken into heaven body and soul in anticipation of the general resurrection on the last day. She is, as it were, the first fruits of Christ's Resurrection from the Dead just as she was his first disciple.

That is a bold and extraordinary claim for the Church to make about a fellow human being who was and is a woman and a mother. An extradordinary claim to make about the human body in an age that both exalts and denegrates bodilness in every advertisement, tv show, movie and magazine.

But it is also an extraordinarily hopeful and optimistic assertion about the lives and deaths of every human being in an age rank with pessimisim nihilism, and dispair. To say that Mary lives, body and soul in heaven means that Christianity does not promise a salvation of the soul alone in which all that has been precious and valuable to us in this world will vanish like a pageant that has been staged for a single occasion and then has no further meaning.

It means that God knows and loves the entire person that we are now, body and soul, flesh and spirit. Immortality or eternal life is not a "state" we will enjoy in heaven or fail to enjoy in hell after our death, it is something that is present, in this body of ours thoughout the journey we call life. Present in and through what we experience, feel, suffer, think, know, love and fail to love.

Our eternity is based on God's love for us. And anyone whom God loves never ceases to be. It is not just a shadow of ourselves that continues in being, rather in God and because of God we ourselves, with all that we are and all that is most ourselves, are preserved forever in an act of creative love.

So it is for the Mother of God. So it is for the great throng of the dead throughout human history and so it will be for us. And so it will be for you and me.

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Dom Brendan

My grandmother had an all purpose aphorism which she used liberally when I was growing up: “sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child”. I did not discover until years later that she was quoting a passage from that most complex of all Shakespeare’s play’s King Lear: a play about parents, children and gratitude among other things,.

It’s unlikely my grandmother knew she was quoting Shakespeare. She was not a highly educated woman: she had to leave grade school to help raise her 11 brothers and sisters when her father died. Nor was she a great lover of books: her reading material was generally limited to the “Readers Digest”, “St. Anthony Messenger” and the occasional Ellery Queen mystery story.

She grew up in great poverty and knew the hardship of the depression and the war years. And perhaps, because of this, knew a thing or two about being grateful.

And while she was not educated, one of the things she did know was that children are not naturally grateful. They have to be taught. Of course children are quick learners because they are such good observers though they are not necessarily good interpreters of what they see. They imitate the behaviors they observe around them often without knowing what they mean.

For example: One of the stories trotted out on those occasions when my family gets together has to do with the fact that as a little child I swore like a sailor. Apparently at a certain point it became so bad that my mother finally went to the parish priest, Msgr. Scheringer, to get some help on how to break me of the habit. As the story goes Msgr. Scheringer patiently listened to my mother describe the problem and then asked her one simple question: “Where did he learn it?”

A child learns to be grateful by observing the adults around them performing the important little rites of daily life that often begin with “thank you” or “I’m sorry”. These are simple phrases that are the basis of any real communal life because they are acts of recognition that we are not self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-contained. Someone whose focus is exclusively on him or her self are all to willing to abandon others.

Already at the beginning Genesis we hear the divine judgment on this kind of self-idolatry: “It is not good for man to be alone”. In this context, sin is a form of impersonalism: the failure to be attentive, responsible, compassionate, faithful and grateful.

The opposite of gratitude is resentfulness. Resentfulness, as St. Benedict recognized, is a powerful agent in destroying community because it too needs to be shared. And if the vehicle for sharing gratitude is saying “thank you” the vehicle for sharing resentment is murmuring.

Resentment and murmuring provide the background for this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of John. Actually, we should be hearing Mark today because Year B in the Lectionary cycle is the Year of Mark. But because his Gospel is so short the Church inserts portions of chapter 6 of John, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, over a span of 5 weeks in late summer.

Today’s passage gives a good example of John’s theology at work.
The Jewish people, having come into the desert, are hungry and thirsty. They cry out for food and are given “bread from heaven” but no sooner do they eat their fill than, in a complete lack of gratitude for what they have received, begin to murmur against God.

I’m speaking about the Gospel of course but I could also be describing the events of Exodus 16 the famous story of the manna from heaven. John’s Gospel follows Exodus closely here because the evangelist is deliberately and insistently inviting the Christian community to think of their journey in faith in a way similar way to the one described in Exodus: the life of a Christian is a Passover from slavery into freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land and from death into life. If Moses was the means through which Israel of old is saved, then Jesus is the means through which the new Israel finds salvation: and more, he himself is the true heavenly bread, the true paschal lamb, the true and long awaited messiah.

This is fully revealed in the multiplication of the loaves. But like the Israelites of old this sign, however wondrous, is not enough. And the people begin to murmur against Jesus just as they did against Moses. The words of Psalm 78 which we sing at Vigils on Wednesday simultaneously describes both events:
They tested God in their hearts
By demanding the food they craved
They spoke against God saying,
Can he provide a table in the wilderness?
Can he give us bread or provide meat for his people?
Behind these texts lies that most toxic of human inclinations, ingratitude. The lack of which is but a symptom of those quintessential American qualities of self-fulfillment and self-reliance that tempt us to do everything out of our own resources. Why? because neither God nor others can be trusted to provide for us.

But in the end Self-reliance and Self-fulfillment, like all forms of idolatry, are merely an illusion: no human can do what God does just as no human and fulfill what God alone fulfills. And this is precisely what Jesus is pointing out to his listeners in John 6. We cannot engineer our own salvation: only He can give life because he himself is the author of life. Human life is, from start to finish, a gift and we are responsible to the Giver of the gift for what we make of it. But we will make nothing of this Gift if we do not recognize the fundamental truth that “sharper than a serpents tooth is an ungrateful child”.

When all is said and done the Gospel is posing a simple question: who is God? I, myself or someone to whom I must surrender myself without conditions, qualifications or reservations at every level of my being?