breaking the infernal circle

Posted By on Feb 27, 2018

‘Be merciful as your heavnly Father is merciful.’ There are so many variations of this saying that we hear at the beginning of the Gospel today (Lk 6:36-38), but perhaps they all fall together in Jesus. The Book of Deuteronomy asks us to be blameless–tamin; in Leviticus instead it’s qedosim–‘Be holy as I am holy.’ Matthew’s Gospel uses teleios, usually translated “perfect”––‘Be perfect as I am perfect.’ Of course for the Greek to be perfect means being conformed to the divine ideal, to be like God. And that’s where the Gospel of Luke comes in. What’s God like? What is the divine ideal? Just before this in Chapter 6 of his Gospel, Luke ties his version of the saying in to the difficult teaching about loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute you. That section ends with Jesus saying, ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’ That’s what it means to be perfect––it means to be merciful! That is what conforms to the divine ideal! That’s what it means to be like God, who rains on the just and the unjust. ‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.’ The rest of the passage spells out what that means practically: don’t judge; don’t condemn; forgive others. We might think our telos, our ultimate goal, our perfection, is union with God, or a stilled mind (or great abs), or saying our mantra for a half an hour without interruption. But Jesus tells us that our telos, our perfection and ultimate goal is to be merciful as God is merciful. That is the proof of our perfection. The fulfillment of the law is mercy. The Jewish Scriptures still allow praying for the defeat of our enemy, but we Christians are not allowed to do that anymore. (This is one of the reasons we have had such debates over using an integral psalter liturgically.) The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote that Jesus “first died for the victims and then died for the executioners,” and in so doing he revealed not just a new kind of justice, but a new justice, one that “breaks the Infernal circle of hatred and vengeance, and creates from both the victims and the executioners a new human race endowed with a new humanity.” That’s what we are called to do and to be in this violent world. We’re supposed to be the ones who finally break the Infernal circle of hatred and vengeance, and that applies to our petty little squabbles as well as in grand gestures. Saint Benedict thought this was a pretty important teaching for monks, too. In chapter 13 he instructs...

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We have yet another feast right here in the beginning of Lent, Peter Damian of Fonte Avellana on February 22. One author wrote concerning St. Peter Damian that, “His energy and spirit, his learning and achievements mark Peter Damian as one of the outstanding personalities of the 11th century, if not the entire Middle Ages.” We, of course, claim him as one of the greatest saints of our Camaldolese congregation, mainly because he was the biographer of Romuald. He was a major proponent of the eremitical life, though he himself spent very little time as a hermit.[i] The congregation that he headed was in large part cenobitic as well. But he is also known in the rest of the Church for his work in greater ecclesial reform. He was much sought after for advice by a series of popes, and eventually named bishop of Ostia and then a Cardinal. That’s when his efforts at reform in the greater church were particularly strenuous. He got involved in protecting the rights of the church against secular corruption; the secular clergy and the episcopacy were especially weighed down simony, nepotism and general moral laxness. I couldn’t help but wonder: what is it that fires the heart of a reformer? If it’s just someone who has a personal agenda, the reform is going to go nowhere. St. Francis of Assisi wouldn’t have lasted; Romuald wouldn’t have lasted; the Trappists wouldn’t have lasted if their reform was only their personal agendas at work. Like Saint Peter Damian, the true reformer’s zeal is always rooted in personal conversion, and the reform grows from out of that. It’s an organic thing. If we try to orchestrate it, it’s destined to fail. Francis heard the call: “Rebuild my church.” But that was based on him rebuilding Francis first. This is the lesson we have to learn from Peter Damian––not to go out and reform, but to go in and reform. His first movement was there––to the inner journey, to the inner work, to the monastic conversatio. The thing is, if we do this work of conversatio, we never know where the Spirit is going to take us, what the Spirit is going to do with us when we have been molded into what Spirit wants us to be. We might be sent to evangelize! We might be sent to our deaths! We might get asked to paint our faces in clown make-up and sell balloons in downtown Monterey. And we might be called not to do anything but stay home in our cell and sit waiting, patiently, content with the grace of God. But that’s not our business....

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repairer of the breach

Posted By on Feb 17, 2018

I was struck again by the reading from the prophet Isaiah that we heard at Mass today, Isaiah 58, a reading I go back to very often. We heard the longer version of it at Vigils on Ash Wednesday. God says through the prophet, perhaps a little sardonically, (if I may paraphrase…) you complain that I do not respond to your fasting? Well, the problem is you serve your own interests on your fast days! Your fasting is all about you! I don’t want you just to bow your head like a bulrush and lie in sackcloth and ashes. You do all that and yet your relationships are still bad. I want you to do justice; I want you to take care of the naked, the hungry, and the homeless––not to mention your own kith and kin! Then he uses three images: if you do this your light shall break forth like the dawn, you shall be like a spring of water, and, the one that really struck me, you shall be called a repairer of the breach.[i] If you do these things as your fast something’s going to come out of you––energy like light, creativity like a spring of water, and healing like a repairer of the breach. Like so many Catholic kids growing up, I always thought of Lent only in terms of what I was “giving up for Lent.” It’s only as an adult that I learned that Lent, as we heard in the Gospel today,[ii] is actually about three practices: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving or mercy. “Prayer knocks, fasting obtains and mercy receives,” is the famous adage of Peter Chrysologus. In the Sermon on the Mount, the one that Jesus mentions first is actually righteous deeds, almsgiving, charity, doing something positive, serving your community, acts of charity and kindness, just as Isaiah is demanding. It’s not just about me! It’s about the whole Body. So, as beautiful as the well-known Chapter on the observance of Lent is in St. Benedict’s Rule for Monks,[iii] at first I was a little disappointed with it, because Benedict only mentions private prayer and abstinence from food or drink (in addition to needless talking and idle jesting). Though there are many other places in the Rule where Benedict encourages charity, especially in his exhortations to mutual obedience and humility, he doesn’t specifically mention it in the context of Lent. But what we have to remember is that the ancients took the penitential side of Lent even more seriously than we do; and they took penance in general much weightier than we do. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries there was...

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unclean! unclean!

Posted By on Feb 11, 2018

These are the last lines of the first poem from Ann Sexton’s famous collection, An Awful Rowing Toward God, the poem called simply “Rowing.” Hopefully they will make sense at the end. I am rowing, I am rowing, though the wind pushes me back and I know that that island will not be perfect, it will have the flaws of life, the absurdities of the dinner table, but there will be a door and I will open it and I will get rid of the rat inside of me, the gnawing pestilential rat. God will take it with his two hands and embrace it. In the 1st reading today from the Book of Leviticus we hear what lepers are supposed to do––mess up their hair, tear their clothes to shreds and announce before themselves, “Unclean! Unclean!” When I heard that reading read again this morning, I thought to myself, I wonder how many times we actually do this to ourselves, at least metaphorically, act in such a way as to let everyone around us know that we think we are unclean, unworthy––maybe before they do it to us! Not to mention how many times do we do it to others as well, cast them out of the tribe. We get our idea of holiness from our image of who we think God is. We hear three times in the Book of Leviticus the command to be qedosim––‘Be holy as I am holy.’[i] That begs the question, what’s God like? How is God holy? For the ancient Jewish mentality, at least by the time of Moses and the Law, holiness was usually associated with separateness. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had walked around with God in the cool of the evening breeze; but by the time of Moses God is in the fierce darkness, wholly other. That separateness of course is first of all a separation from sin; so we get the Ten Commandments and all the corollaries that followed on them. But there was also being separate from other nations and especially from the gods of other nations. Hence too there were also all the rules for ritual purity as we heard in the reading from Leviticus today about avoiding lepers.[ii] There is also something going on in the evolution of human consciousness in that long ago era, what we call the 1st Axial Period, a certain separation from created things and from the earth itself, because to be like God is to be “other,” to be heavenly, or at least angelic. The philosopher Ken Wilber says whereas for the primal peoples sin would have been...

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