servants and messengers


Posted By on Sep 29, 2018

Apparently it was the 7th century Syrian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius who first came up with the rankings of the angelic hosts, in his writing called the Celestial Hierarchies. It’s interesting that the same person who came up with one of the earliest seminal writings on the apophatic tradition––the via negativa, beyond all name and form, also gave us so much on kataphatic spirituality, the way of image and symbol, name and form. According to Dionysius the orders of the angelic host are made up of three ranks of three choirs: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones; Dominions, Virtues and Powers; Principalities, Archangels and Angels. This is the order that gets picked up by the Scholastics and stays in the tradition. The word ‘angel’ doesn’t actually describe what these creatures are; it describes what they do. As Saint Augustine wrote: “‘Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel.’” Their office, their job, you might say, is to be a servant and messenger of God. “With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God,” St. Augustine says.[1] Only the last two ranks of those heavenly choirs––the archangels and angels––have an immediate mission to human beings, and so, as far as I understand it, those are the only ones that are specifically angels. And of those two we are celebrating only one today: the archangels. (We will celebrate the guardian angels a few days from now.) Angels appear often in scripture, both the Old and New Testament. They are the ones who closed the earthly paradise; they appeared to Abraham under the terebinths of Mamre and protected Lot; they saved Hagar and her Ishmael (the Quran names this angel as Gabriel); one of them stopped Abraham’s hand when he was about to sacrifice Isaac; Raphael appears as the great healer in the Book of Tobit. And finally the Angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself.[2] And of course then we have the great Michael and his angels defending us in battle, as portrayed in the reading from the Book of Revelation today.[3] The other notable thing about angels is that, in spite of the biblical images presented to us, according to the strictest tradition, they are different from the human soul because they are never destined to be united with a human body or to have any kind of a physical form. That’s why we usually refer to them as ‘spirits.’ And that’s where it gets interesting to me. We use the...

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disturbing beauty


Posted By on Sep 23, 2018

I don’t think I suffer from this as much at 60 years old as I did when I was in my 20s and 30s. But back then, when I was working as a musician, every now and then when I would run into someone who was a better guitarist than I was, or hear someone who was a better singer or songwriter, I would walk away with a kind of bitter taste in my mouth, not quite knowing why, or what to name the feeling. There can be something really disturbing about beauty. Things that are too beautiful, people who are too good or too talented––they can be really irritating to be around. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. Someone who is more talented than we are, someone who is smarter than we are, better at sports, better looking, can be really disturbing in an odd kind of way. Why is that? If we’re not really secure, it could make us feel “less than.” And even if we are secure it can challenge our complacency and our having settled for less, settled for mediocrity in our own lives. We actually sometimes don’t want things to be too good. That’s why after we build up celebrities we sort of love it when they fall, and almost feel a sense of relief: “I knew he was too good to be true!” It’s what we do with that unsettling movement, that irritation, that disturbance, that counts. One reaction is to want to destroy the thing of beauty, to tear it down because it is a mockery of us, of our mediocrity or even, at the worst, sometimes the ugly parts of ourselves. That’s what we see going on in this reading that we heard today from the book of Wisdom, which we also hear toward the end of Lent almost as an immediate preparation for Jesus’ passion and death: Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions . . . He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.[i] Jesus was simply too beautiful. Merely to see him was a hardship for some people. I love the line in the play Amadeus when the playwright has the composer Salieri, who is insanely jealous of Mozart, say to the priest who has come to hear his confession: “Your merciful...

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john chrysostom and worldliness


Posted By on Sep 21, 2018

We celebrated a fascinating saint from the second half of the 4th century on September 13, St. John Chrysostom. We’ve been spending a lot of time in that era of the church lately in classes about early monasticism with our postulants. John Chrysostom was someone who was caught up in the controversy around Origen and Origenism, mainly because he was defending a group of monks called “The Tall Brothers” who were heavily influenced by Origen and then in turn introduced Origen to Evagrius of Pontus. John Chrysostom is not remembered as a monk himself, but he did spend some years living as a hermit, and practiced a severe asceticism. As a matter of fact, he had to leave the solitary life because he had damaged his physical health so much by his asceticism, causing permanent damage to his stomach and kidneys. He went on to be ordained deacon, then presbyter, then archbishop of Constantinople. He was mainly known, of course, for his eloquent preaching, from which he gets the name chrysos-stoma––the “golden mouth.”[1] John Chrysostom, unlike Origen, shied away from the symbolic, allegorical interpretation of scripture. He was quite keen on the moral meaning, practical application, especially the call to simplicity and charity. He himself continued to live ascetically even as an archbishop and was a fierce critic of excess as well as a fierce advocate for the poor, which was quite irritating to powerful people around him, including the Empress. He was not afraid to speak truth to power! He ended his life in exile, though it’s not clear exactly why he was exiled––but this may have had something to do with it. He was not afraid to call the powerful to conversion. Our Fr. Bruno used to say about this era in the church, “When bishops were theologians and theologians were mystics.” I always marvel how the folks of this era were so much closer to the heart of the gospel, as well as closer to the ground in general. This is why we go back to the patristic era, but more importantly why we go back to the gospels. One example, was John Chrysostom’s fantastic Eucharistic theology. This is from his homilies on the Gospel of Matthew: Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Then do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him where he is cold and ill clad. The one who said, “This is my body” is the same one who said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did for...

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the hymn to love


Posted By on Sep 21, 2018

Wednesday, 24th Week of Ordinary Time Br. David Steindl-Rast told us a story about attending the Parliament of World Religions in 1993. He of course was one of the representatives of Christianity, and if I got the story right, at the last minute the organizers asked that the representatives of each of the religions would come up with a reading from their tradition to proclaim to the entire assembly. David was scrambling to think of something quickly and he came up with the reading we heard today, from the 13th chapter of Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, his great hymn to love. I guess I have heard this reading so many hundreds of times that it’s easy to lose its significance and beauty. But imagine if you had never heard it read before, or didn’t know anything about Christianity, and heard this for the first time as a representation of what Christianity is about. Br. David said there were gasps as he read it, and when he finished the assembly broke into applause. The veracity of this text is self-evident; and it’s universal appeal as well. To really understand what St. Paul is pointing out, we have to remember the context of this particular passage, beautiful as it is. As we heard at the end of chapter 12 of the letter (remembering that these chapter divisions are arbitrary––Paul didn’t write in chapters), Paul was writing about the various gifts of the Body of Christ: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, assistance, leadership, and various kinds of tongues. Now my Jesuit spiritual director always insists that there is a hierarchy embedded there––the lowest being tongues, leadership and healing, the highest being apostles, prophets, teachers. And then Paul says, “And I will show you a more excellent way . . . ” He’s continuing the hierarchy. This is more excellent (I’m not sure that is good English) than even apostleship, deeds of power, teaching, healing or tongues––love. There is an old adage of St. Augustine, from his Homily on 1 John––“Love and do what you will.” This has to be taken with the same caveat as “Follow your bliss.” What we think is our bliss at 16 or 25 or even 40 years old may not actually be bliss at all. It usually takes a whole lot of purification to find what real happiness is, the makarios of the Beatitudes––poverty of spirit, mourning, peacemaking, etc. In the same way, what we think of as love when we’re 16 or 25 or even 40, may not actually have been love at all, but something more like attraction and desire. In the same...

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the primacy of love


Posted By on Sep 8, 2018

for Fr. Robert Hale, OSB Cam. 8 September 2018 A friend of mine who lost his mother recently sent me this poem that he had read at her funeral. I thought it was also a fitting introduction to this celebration of the life of our beloved Robert. It’s from a 12th century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher named Judah Halevi.   ‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch. A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be ― to be, and oh, to lose. A thing for fools, this, and a holy thing, a holy thing to love. For your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me: to remember this brings painful joy, ‘Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing to love what death has touched.[i] Isaiah asked me about a week ago what I was going to preach on for Robert’s funeral. And I said, “The primacy of love.” And Isaiah said, “Of course.” Of course! Anyone who knew Robert as a Camaldolese monk would also know that this was his theme. In the chapter he wrote for the book on Camaldolese spirituality, Robert said that “Koinonia/love constitute the very substance of our heritage, whether in the hermitage or in the monastery, and … reveal to us the way to the kingdom itself.”[ii] He was of that generation, along with his dear friend Andrew, who was raised under the loving gaze of Don Benedetto Calati, who served as our Prior General from 1975 until 1987, and this was Benedetto’s favorite theme as well. Don Benedetto was a great scholar of the monastic tradition, so much so that he was asked to found the Monastic Institute at Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine University in Rome. But for all his erudition and education, Benedetto did not brook any idealization or romanticizing of the monastic life, especially of the eremitical life; and he was a fierce relativizer even of the sacred Rule of Benedict. Monks were no more made for the Rule than people were made for the Sabbath, said Benedetto. Like the ancients taught that we start with the Book of Proverbs and then finally move on to the Song of Songs in our spiritual growth, Benedetto said the same about the Rule: it was like the Book of Proverbs, a brief rule for beginners, but it too needs to move on to, and end in, the Song of Songs. It needs to lead us to the primacy of love. Here’s how Benedetto describes it: When one speaks of the “primacy of love,” you should not understand this...

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cast out into the deep


Posted By on Sep 6, 2018

In the Twelve Step Program, the first Step is admitting that you are powerless over your particular addiction; and the 12th Step is carrying the message of the Program to other addicts who still suffer. But there’s a phenomenon that speaks of people who are “two-steppers,” who go right from the 1st Step to the 12th. One version of it is someone who admits he or she is powerless––and then tells everybody about it. But the usual way I’ve heard it described is people who take Step One––accepting that they are powerless over their addiction––and then jump directly to trying to help others, but without having done the in-between steps where the hard work lies. In other words they try to pass along something they themselves haven’t really gotten yet. It’s a rather common phenomenon in religion too, and it seems it has been from ancient times. There’s a story from the desert fathers about Abba Theodore. A brother was speaking about matters of which he had no experience. And Abba Theodore said to him, “You’ve not yet found a ship to sail in, not put your luggage aboard, not put out to sea, and you’re already acting as if you were in the city which you mean to reach. First you must make some attempt to do the things you are discussing, then you can talk about them with understanding.” This is a criticism I heard in India often too. This one time when I was staying up in Rishikesh I heard several serious spiritual practitioners admonish against someone teaching before they themselves were ready, pointing out how oftentimes Christians are so focused on the exterior, missionary and apostolic work, to the expense of real spiritual transformation, that there is a tendency to “give it before we live it.” The saying that I heard was, “In the land of the blind a one-eyed Jack becomes the King.” What was rather humorous about that was that the folks who told this to me didn’t know that I was actually writing a book on prayer and meditation at the time. I wanted to blurt out, “It wasn’t my idea! Someone asked me to do it!” I ended that book by writing to my audience, “Not that you, kind reader, are blind, though I may only be a one-eyed Jack.” It is one of the insidious temptations we face, especially people who really desire to be leaders or to be seen as leaders, talking about things of the Spirit that we have not yet lived. If you think about it, the Lord Jesus didn’t do anything that we know of until...

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