This is our titular feast day since New Camaldoli was dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We celebrate it as a liturgical solemnity. There is a beautiful line in the opening prayer: “… that we may be a worthy temple of his glory.” That is a beautiful prayer for a monk, for a monastery, but really for any believer––that we may be worthy temples of God’s glory. Yet that is what we are! That is what we need to realize, that we are already temples of God’s glory. On this feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary we might want to focus primarily on Mary’s purity, though this is more in keeping with the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the mysterious concept of prevenient grace. We might be tempted to focus on Mary’s heart being a fertile garden for the Word to be planted, so that the Word has made a home in her heart, so deeply rooted that it breaks into bloom as the boy-child Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh. That might be more in keeping with the Feast of the Annunciation. We might also be drawn to reflect on Mary’s pierced heart, the image that is so popular in devotional renderings––as Simeon tells her, “Sorrow will pierce your soul, too”––but that is more the theme of Our Lady of Sorrows. Instead, the Church offers us this interesting reading, the story of the finding in the Temple from the infancy narratives in the Gospel of Luke, which points us to something different altogether. This is not intuitively the first gospel reading that comes to mind when we think of Mary, especially when we think of her “Immaculate Heart” (though her heart does get mentioned right at the end of this narrative: And Mary treasured all these things in her heart…). None of the characters in this story come off looking particularly good. Jesus seems a little naughty (as Michael Fish would say) and has run off; and Mary and Joseph seem a little negligent having lost track of their twelve-year old and are worried. When they do all find each other their main form of dialogue seems to be questions to each other, questions that are rather sharp and pointed. It’s similar to the exchange at the wedding feast at Cana when Jesus says to Mary, ‘Woman, what business is that of mine?’ Here instead Jesus says to the two of them, ‘Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?’ You have to wonder how Joseph must have felt about that, cast off to the side again. And then there is Mary, looking at this...

Read More

joining the dance


Posted By on May 27, 2018

The 14th century German mystic Johannes Tauler once wrote that there are many wonderful things that could be said on the subject of the Trinity, even though it is impossible to explain “how the essential and transcendent unity can issue in distinctions.” (I’m glad he said that, because if he can’t figure it out I don’t know how I’m going to!) At any rate, he taught, “it is much better to have experience of the Trinity than to talk about it.” How do we do that, experience the Trinity? We should learn to “find the Trinity in ourselves,” he said; and we should realize how we are in a real way formed according to its image. [And] If we want to experience this we must turn inward, away from the activities of our faculties, both exterior and interior, away from all imaginations and all the notions we have acquired from outside ourselves, and sink and lose ourselves in the depths.” [i] Our Fr. Bruno had this marvelous teaching about the four movements or poles within Christianity. He called these four movements the Silence, the Word, the Music, and the Dance. The first three of them correspond to the first three persons of the Trinity: the 1st Person, who we normally think of exclusively with the inspired metaphor as “Father,” is first of all the Silence; the 2nd person who we know as Jesus is first and foremost, even scripturally, the Word; and the 3rd Person of course is the Spirit, but Bruno calls this pole the Music. One of the reasons I find this very helpful is that people who are not Christian––and some people who are Christian too––have a hard time accessing the images of Father and Son, especially. (I think Spirit is a little easier.) But also Christians may get stuck in the most obvious meanings as well and never understand these Persons at their root, let alone the energies that they represent because they never turn away from all the imaginations and all the notions they have acquired from outside themselves. For example, there are people who have experienced the 1st Person of the Trinity who don’t use the word “Father,” Jesus’ name for his God, the 1st Person of the Trinity. But Bruno says this first Person is equally well represented by the Silence, the fathomless abyss of the godhead. It’s not the aspect we speak about the most in mainstream Christianity, but of course this is the aspect dear to the heart of contemplatives––the silence of God. John of the Cross’ famous saying for instance: “The Father spoke one word, which was his son,...

Read More

the ground we share


Posted By on May 16, 2018

When I read the line from Saint Paul in his farewell speech to the presbyters of the church of Ephesus––‘… keep in mind the words of the Lord … “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ [i]––I thought, “Hmmm… that’s beautiful.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute. Jesus never said that.” I’d like to think we are getting a peek into ancient history here, from the dawn of Christianity, the time before the gospels were even thought about being written down. We have no evidence that Paul had actually ever heard Jesus preach, even though they were contemporaries. So how did Paul know that Jesus said that? Had Paul been told that this was something that Jesus had said? It’s actually a citation from the Book of Sirach, one of the Deuterocanonical books: Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive and closed when it is time to give.[ii] Most of the Deuterocanonical books are assumed to have been written in Greek, but a fragment of this particular book of Sirach was found in the late 19th century in a synagogue storeroom in Cairo, in Hebrew. As far as folks can figure out, the grandson of Ben Sirach translated it from Hebrew into Greek for the Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora living there around 200 years before Jesus’ birth, and it is that version that made it into the Christian canon as Ecclesiasticus. And Paul has learned that this was a favorite maxim of Jesus who might have heard it from his father or in the synagogue. Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive and closed when it is time to give. Or It is more blessed to give than to receive. I wrote a song some years ago based on the title of a book by David Stiendl-Rast called “The Ground We Share.” I wrote it about my trip to Jerusalem, reflecting on how Jerusalem is a city that’s precious and holy to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. That’s the literal ground, the city of Jerusalem. But that word ‘ground’ has all kinds of other resonances for me. First of all there is the ground of our being human, the ground of our common humanity. Part of the reason I’m aching over this situation in Israel right now is from having been there. I can feel it in my body.  What a powerful spiritual experience it was to lean my head against the Western Wall! So I can sympathize with the Jewish people’s love for Jerusalem. On the other hand, we were also in the occupied territories, and the kids who...

Read More

recognize, preserve, promote


Posted By on May 7, 2018

This story from the Acts of the Apostles today[i], about Peter realizing that the Spirit had descended upon the Gentiles and wondering aloud how baptism could be withheld from them, reminded me of two other stories. One we heard recently, also from the Acts of the Apostles, about Philip baptizing the eunuch.[ii] But it also called to mind to me the story in the Book of Numbers, when Moses appoints 70 elders to become prophets. Two men were outside the camp––Eldad and Medad––but the spirit rested on them, too, and they also started prophesying in the camp. When Joshua complained to Moses about it, Moses said, ‘Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!’[iii] As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, ‘The wind blows where it chooses … So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’[iv] It also reminded me of an experience I had some years ago. I was in Alaska in 2005. I have a friend who lives there and has worked as a catechist among the native Yup’ik people for decades now. He had brought me there to do some workshops on liturgical music. I was going from town to town, village to village sometimes on snow machine and sometimes by bush plane. At one of the stops I was taken to the village community center in the evening. It was mobbed with people there to watch and participate in Eskimo dancing––called yurak. This involved men playing frame drums called cauyaq (“jow-yuk”) and singing, chanting really, telling stories. At the same time there were women and younger guys doing a series of synchronized arm and head movements, movements that also told old stories. I loved the music; it was very hypnotic and mantric. And I wondered why this music hadn’t been used for their liturgical music. When I asked about this, I was told that the missionaries decided that their music was too pagan and that it had to be routed out. So the native music got replaced with European hymns translated into Yup’ic and then, later, some of the same stuff we were using in the lower 48, not all of it of very high quality (our fault, not theirs). This was quite a first hand lesson in how sometimes missionary activity wedded itself to what I came to think of as de-culturation as opposed to inculturation. We often wiped out native ways under the guise of evangelization, not recognizing until too late sometimes, as some of the documents of Vatican II articulated it, the “native genius.” The local bishop in Alaska had officially apologized for this some years before, but the...

Read More

The feast of St. Joseph the Worker is an odd one. It’s only listed as an optional memorial, but not only does it have its own opening prayer, it has proper prayers for all three presidential prayers, proper readings and even its own preface. My hunch is that there are some places in the world, particularly Communist countries, where this commemoration is raised to a higher level, because it wasn’t only to foster deeper devotion to St. Joseph among Catholics that Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955: it was also in response to the May Day celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists. This year it has particular poignancy since this Saturday is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. There are three different Vatican documents that get mentioned often in relation to this feast. The first of course is Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, literally entitled “On the New Things,” subtitled “On the Rights and Duties of Workers,” from 1893. The industrial revolution and political change was sweeping Europe and the world at that time. Incidentally, and not unimportantly, Rerum Novarum was written 42 years after Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and addressed very much the same problem––the exploitation of workers, the relations between workers and their employers, and unbridled capitalism––though with very different solutions. Then 60 years later another document comes along, Gaudium et Spes from the 2nd Vatican Council, a selection of which is read for the Office of Readings for this day. Gaudium et Spes insists that human activity, both individual and collective––our “great struggle in which human beings in the course of the ages have sought to improve the conditions of human living––is in keeping with God’s purpose.” This is the sentence that really struck me: “The Christian message does not deflect people from building up of the world, or encourage them to neglect the good of the human race, but rather places on them a stricter obligation to work for these objectives.” In other words, our mission in life is not simply to make sure we get to heaven individually; as Christians we also have the obligation and responsibility as individuals and communities to improve life on earth for each other and for all people. And then finally, the other document mentioned often in relation to this feast is Laborens Exercens of Pope St. John Paul II, which was written to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.[i] In the back of John Paul II’s mind of course is his own country’s struggle against Communism and his close tie to Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement. In...

Read More

the word and the bread


Posted By on Apr 20, 2018

I love the story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from the Acts of the Apostles for several reasons. The first is this: did anyone wonder what an Ethiopian eunuch was doing on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, reading the prophet Isaiah? Here’s my explanation of it… Remember Solomon had an affair with the Queen of Sheba, and legend is that she went home pregnant with Solomon’s child. Some people think that the ancient country of Sheba is modern day Yemen. But most scholars think, and Ethiopians claim, that it was actually a part of Ethiopia, and that some form of the faith of the Hebrews was brought there by the Queen of Sheba. (This, by the way, is the claim of the Rastafarian religion, from which comes reggae music, and their devotion to Emperor Haile Sellasie of Ethiopia who they called the “Lion of Judah” because he was considered to be a descendant of Solomon. He even wore what was known as Solomon’s ring. Many folks do not know that the reggae music of Jamaica often quotes the psalms, and God is referred to as “Jah” which comes from the tetragrammaton YHWH. I used to refer to Rastafarians as “black Hebrews.” But I digress…) There was even until modern times a whole diaspora of Jews in both the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, which are separated from each other only by the Gulf of Aden. And so perhaps here we have this Ethiopian eunuch from the court of a descendant of the Queen of Sheba (I like to think of him as an early Rastafarian maybe listening to Bob Marley in his ear buds in his chariot) visiting to the homeland of his faith, reading the Prophet Isaiah. And he stumbles onto just the very thing that seems to keep coming up so much this Easter season––the suffering servant, and what that meant about the Messiah, why that was pointing to the Christ. And so Philip has a chance to open his mind to understand the Scriptures in the same way that the unrecognized Risen Jesus had done for the disciples on the road to Emmaus and for the apostles gathered in the upper room.[1] The other reason I like this reading––this is a story I can only tell now years after it happened: there was a young man that came through here on his bicycle some years ago and I wound up spending a lot of time talking to him. He was not a Christian (his parents might have been non-practicing Buddhists), but during his bike trip across the country...

Read More

sacrificial love


Posted By on Apr 16, 2018

We walked into an ongoing story here in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today (6:8-15). After hearing about the apostles’ decision to appoint deacons to “wait on tables”––meaning to attend to the corporal works of mercy––now we hear specifically about Stephen, the first deacon and also the first martyr. It is helpful to recall that these three things are so closely tied to each other so as to almost not be three different things: service, Eucharist, and martyrdom, like Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, “consecrating” the bread and wine, and then giving himself over to death. Service is a kind of martyrdom. Service is also the way we become Eucharist (by being broken open and passed out) as well as our entrance ticket to the feast (First wash somebody’s feet and then come and eat.) Martyrdom, handing our lives over, is a kind of Eucharistic offering, like the John the Baptist’s head being offered on a platter and St. Ignatius being ground like wheat in the lion’s jaws. And so we’re back to Holy Week. Stephen becomes an icon of the icon. I especially want to highlight that Eucharistic element of that, because we are also beginning to listen to chapter 6 of the Gospel of John today, which includes the “Bread of Life” discourse. Acts says, concerning the people with whom Stephen was debating, that they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke, and I want to say that they could not withstand it because they could not understand the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke. And so, as my Jewish yoga teacher said once about Jesus, “I finally understand this guy: you either have to follow him––or kill him!” And so it will be with Stephen. They have to get rid of him; he’s just too beautiful. Acts says his face was shining “like an angel”! There is a wisdom in here, the wisdom of agape, the wisdom of Eucharist, the wisdom of martyrdom, that simply doesn’t make sense to the ordinary way of thinking, the way of power and dominance––like Jesus before Pilate. As a deacon, Stephen himself was serving the people what Jesus calls in today’s gospel the bread that endures for eternal life; as a matter of fact he himself is becoming that bread of that endures for eternal life, offering himself up. Br. Timothy and I were talking about this this morning: what will we want to have accomplished with our lives in the end––reputation, a new road (!), buildings, books, CDs? Food that perishes! Or will we have been a part of...

Read More

I was at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley on Mercy Sunday to celebrate the beginning of Br. Bede’s term as local prior there. This was my homily for that occasion. There are two themes that jump out at me from today’s readings, both of which seem apropos to the celebration today of the beginning of this new era and new leadership here at Incarnation. The first is drawn from the reading from the Acts of the Apostles that starts out with that delicious phrase, The community of believers were of one heart and mind. That is the best description of a community as I can imagine. I often use the image of the energy and the vessel. Romuald and the Camaldolese charism and tradition are the energy for our spiritual life, our monastic life. It tends to be a little on the solitary side, especially at New Camaldoli since it is a hermitage. But I have found the Camaldolese in general tend to be very focused on their individual spiritual journeys, tend to be singular warriors. I think this is what many of our oblates are attracted to, especially those who find themselves rather singular and solitary in the their spiritual lives in the world. That being said, it is the Rule of Benedict and the Benedictine tradition that provides us with a vessel for the energy. It holds it, protects it and keeps it from flying apart. Of course that also means that it is community life itself, those who we live with and share life with, and who keep us together and supported, our ecclesia, our koinonia, our cenobium. But it’s not just rules about the communal life that the RB gives us: it’s the spirit of the communal life, probably most eloquently chapters 71 and 72. Don Benedetto Calati taught that we should start with those two chapters and go backwards. Saint Benedict makes such a big point throughout the Rule about humility and obedience, as if they go together and together form the basis for all monastic life, the cardinal virtues of the monk. But obedience isn’t just obedience to the abbot or to the Rule: Benedict names chapter 71 Ut oboedientes sibi sunt invicem––“That they may obey one another”! He says that, “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers.” And then, in the next chapter, he quotes Romans 12:10, They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, adding “supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body and behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience...

Read More

God’s will is our delight


Posted By on Apr 9, 2018

(for the Solemnity of the Assumption) The Solemnity of the Annunciation is normally celebrated on March 25; it was transferred this year because Holy Week. But the date is still significant. In the early centuries of Christianity, before our own holy days got fixed, the 25th of March was celebrated as the spring equinox, and Christians, who loved to take over these “pagan” holidays, came to celebrate it instead sometimes as the first day of creation, at times as the day of Jesus’ birth and/or conception, even as the day of his death. When Christmas finally became fixed at December 25th, someone did the math and March 25th, nine months to the day before Christmas, came to be celebrated as the day Gabriel announced to Mary, and she accepted, and the Word became flesh in the fertile garden of her depths. Since then the Church has had a hard time deciding if this is a feast of Our Lady or a feast of the Lord. I like to think of it as the day when we celebrate that Mary said yes to the Angel, Christ the Word said yes to the Father, and the Father said yes to humanity! But what this feast really makes me reflect on is the will, human will. Instead of focusing on the historical details of Virgin-birth and the Nativity, for this feast the Church asks us to focus on the fact that the Word took flesh because God’s will became Mary’s will, a so she became a perfect dwelling for the Word; and even more that Jesus’ whole life was about God’s will being done through and in him. We hear three times in the official liturgy today––the proper entrance antiphon, the responsorial psalm, Ps. 40, and quoted in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘Behold I have come to do your will, O God.’ I sometimes think of this as the Christian mantra, the only prayer really worth saying, like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, or in the middle of the prayer he taught us––‘Thy will be done.’ And so it’s about Jesus and Mary turning their wills over, offering the interior sacrifice of abandonment. (How often we run into saints and mystics who have left us their prayer of self-offering, their prayer of abandonment.) ‘Behold I have come to do your will, O God.’ And underneath it all this celebration is also about God’s will: God who has chosen to get messy and be involved in our history, and be, as we heard in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, Emmanu-el––God-with-us. And, the author of Hebrews says, it...

Read More

joseph’s blessing


Posted By on Mar 19, 2018

(for the Solemnity of St. Joseph) There was an interesting article in the New York Times last month by the comedian, writer, and actor Michael Ian Black, entitled “The Boys Are Not Alright.” [i] He starts by saying that, “If you want to emasculate a guy friend, when you’re at a restaurant, ask him everything that he’s going to order, and then when the waitress comes … order for him.” I suppose this applies to human beings in general but men especially hate to be robbed of their sense of agency, to be able to make up their minds and make choices for themselves. And yet, in the stories we hear about Joseph in the gospels, that is what Joseph gets robbed of, or gives away! Jesus reminds him that he is not his real father, he gets chased out of his homeland and, worst of all, his wife is pregnant by someone else. At some point in the spiritual life this is what happens though––we give away our agency to the benevolent Power Greater than ourselves, to God and entrust ourselves to his mercy. A few years back I gave a homily about Saint Joseph based on a phrase from the German therapist Alice Miller. In her famous book The Drama of the Gifted Child, she taught that a child needs a “usable self-object” (in other words, a parent) that can survive its own destruction. Healthy parents and mentors need to be secure enough to let their children rebel, to allow the child to be angry, to not-like something, to separate from them without it being a negative reflection back on the parent or mentor. Not that I am expecting anyone to remember that homily (or I would just give it again!), but I want to look at that theme again in regard to Saint Joseph. At the risk of being chauvinistic, whenever I think of Joseph I always think too of specifically male spirituality. We unashamedly call Joseph the “just man” because he was the father figure for Jesus. Why I think that is maybe even more poignant in 2018 is because suddenly folks have started to notice, after the last school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that what these atrocities have in common is that they are being committed by young men, and for the most part by middle class young white males––not by those we normally first think of––black kids in the ghetto, illegal immigrants, or Muslim terrorists. In that same article I mentioned earlier, Michael Ian Black writes that, “America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us.” And Black thinks that’s because “Too many boys...

Read More

the pool of healing waters


Posted By on Mar 15, 2018

(How embarrassing: someone pointed out to me I had conflated the pool of Siloam with the pool of Beth-za-tha in the title. Fixed now. CC) Of course heading into Easter, when the catechumens are to be baptized and the rest of us are to renew our baptismal vows, whenever we hear something about water we ought to pay attention. That is especially so today, when we hear about it in both the readings and the responsorial psalm.[i] This phrase from the prophet Ezekiel––I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple––is one we sing a lot for the sprinkling rite during Eastertide, as a matter of fact it is supposed to be sung during the renewal of the baptismal promises at the Easter vigil. But we are supposed to be remembering a few other texts while we sing it too. First of all, just two days before we will have heard the Passion of Our Lord from the Gospel of John during which John tells us that one of the soldiers thrust a lance into [Jesus’] side and immediately blood and water flowed out. That in turn is supposed to remind us of earlier in the Gospel of John when Jesus had declared ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again,’ about which the evangelist tells us He was speaking about the temple of his body.[ii] In Jesus, the Temple has been relocated. It’s no longer a building; it’s a body, the body of Jesus. And here we have a foreshadowing of that: this poor man who had been ill for thirty-eight years and has not been able to get himself to the pool, now doesn’t have to go to the pool of Beth-za-tha (or Bethesda). Beth-za-tha has come to him! The real pool, the stream of life-giving water, is in Jesus, the stream of life-giving water, which is, of course, again as John tells us in chapter 7, none other than the Holy Spirit. But remember too that in that context Jesus is not speaking about himself but about all who believe in him, that ‘from out of the believer’s heart would flow streams of life-giving water.’ The temple gets relocated again with our baptism. As Paul exhorts his readers in Corinth: Do you not know that you are God’s temple by the Holy Spirit the dwells within you?[iii] Now we carry that healing pool, that life-giving water, the Spirit of Jesus, within us. The lectionary ends this section of the Gospel of John a little early. There are two more verses to this section of chapter 5[iv] that tell us...

Read More

(Thomas — 3SunLent-A, John 4:5-42) As we began today’s liturgy, I mentioned that for today we have chosen to hear the readings of the “A” cycle in the Sunday lectionary, with its strong symbolism of water, pointing to baptism. A long gospel reading does not require a long homily, but let us just see if the reading as a whole, or any phrases within it, can enhance our understanding of life in general and of our personal lives. First, this gospel story is about a meeting of two persons, with no one else present. The Samaritan woman stands before Jesus, sola cum solo, “alone with the alone,” and in this case, she does not know him, while he clearly knows her. The time of day is noon. Sunup is the usual hour when women go to fetch water, because they need it for cooking and early chores. So there must be something wrong with this woman, a reason for which she avoids her sisters. And the reason comes out in the conversation with Jesus — she has been married five tines and now is living with a man who won’t or can’t marry her. Jesus is sitting by the well. He is tired. The tiredness of Jesus reminds me of a great 13th-century hymn called the Dies Irae — “Day of Wrath”, written by Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan. The hymn is addressed to Jesus, in the “I-Thou” language of the Bible. In it there is a line that says, “Quaerens me sedisti lassus.” Let’s go through the Latin. Quaerens: You were searching, seeking — for what? For me: Quaerens me. And then: Sedisti, You sat down. And finally: lassus: tired — Jesus, you were tired, but not tired of seeking me. You kept walking until you could go no farther, and you had to sit down. On his ascent of Mount Calvary, Jesus got very tired: he was carrying his cross, and he fell three times under the weight of it. When he got to the top, they nailed him to the cross. As he hung there, he pulled himself up to breathe, and he gasped, “I am thirsty!” To the woman who came to fetch water Jesus says: “Give me a drink.” But the woman warns Jesus that he is in trouble. First, he is alone with a woman who is not of his family. Second, she is a Samaritan, a people excommunicated by the Jewish authorities. Third, when she gives him some water from her own jar, she renders him ritually impure. Jesus takes the cup of water from her hands, and promises her a different kind of water,...

Read More

overcoming tempatation


Posted By on Mar 6, 2018

(Thomas, 1SunLent-B, Mark 1:12-15) On the ordinary Sundays of the year — like last Sunday, for instance — we bless water and sprinkle it on the assembly, a sacramental that reminds us of our baptism. We do not do this during Lent, because the whole liturgical season is baptismal. The lenten readings and prayers often speak to those who are preparing for the sacraments of Christian initiation. From the First Testament we hear stories that the Church understands as prophecies of the waters that make us members of the mystical body of Christ — for example, today’s first and second readings tell the story of Noah and the Flood. The reading from Genesis gives us words that God spoke to Noah, after the flood had ceased and those in the Ark were saved. The First Letter of Peter teaches us that this “salvation through water” is accomplished for us in the sacrament of baptism. The Sundays in all liturgical seasons offer three cycles of readings. This is true of Lent, but with one special characteristic: The gospel themes for the first two Sundays of Lent are the same for all three cycles. The first Sunday narrates the temptation of Jesus in the desert, as given in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Today we heard Mark’s brief account. The gospel readings for the second Sunday of Lent tell us of the Transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain in Galilee. There, three of the disciples saw Jesus transformed, and they heard God’s voice, revealing Jesus as God’s beloved Son. But when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he was alone. Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus was tempted, and that after the temptation, angels came and served him. The fact that he was tempted reveals his full humanity and what is called his passibility — more about this in a moment. Matthew and Luke tell us more of the story: they narrate three specific kinds of temptation. Where did these stories come from? Peter was not there in the wilderness, nor James nor John. Maybe Jesus himself told them that Satan challenged the Son of Man to change stones into bread. Or we could say that Matthew and Luke themselves were tempted, and because of this they understood what Jesus suffered in the desert. Next Sunday we will see Jesus bathed in divine splendor on Mount Tabor, but this Sunday we see his humanity, exactly like ours in everything but sin. He was tempted; we are tempted. He did not sin, but sometimes we give way under temptation and we do sin. But sin is not our nature, and if we live according...

Read More

(Fr. Robert, 3/5/18) In the Gospel, Jesus laments that “no prophet is accepted in his native place.” Indeed, he is in his Nazareth, and the people want to kill him! It has always been risky being a prophet. In the Old Testament there are some seventeen books of prophets, which constitute a very significant portion of the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, the Gospels Mark, Luke and John begin with the towering prophet, John the Baptist, who directly prepares the way for Jesus. The priests in the Old Testament, and the New, presided over the cult of the temple, and offered instruction regarding the law. They were essential to the institutional side of Israel’s religion. But the prophets offered another, very important kind of ministry. They were regularly in conflict with the priests, but not always. For the prophets attended carefully to messages from God, coming to them personally, in the now, about today and tomorrow regarding Israel, or the King, or indeed the priests. And kings and priests and people regularly did not accept their prophetic messages. Jesus identified himself with this prophetic heritage. And in fact the people of the synagogue of his hometown were furious with him and sought to kill him. And of course the high priests and crowds later on did hand him over to Pilate to be killed, in the horrendous manner of crucifixion. The Letter to the Hebrews represents Christ as High Priest, but according to the mysterious, pre-Levitical priesthood of Melchizedek. But Christ is also prophet; in fact, for us Christians he is the Prophet, fulfilling the prophets. Isaiah’s sublime suffering servant passages, for instance, were fulfilled in Jesus, who himself suffered for and supported the poor, the oppressed, the anawim, as did the prophets before him. Unlike the priests, he associated with the poor, with women, with Samaritans, with lepers, tax collectors, etc. And he did prophesy about the upcoming destruction of the temple, for instance, and decisively about his own suffering and death, and resurrection—the heart of the Paschal proclamation. We Christians are baptized into Christ. And since Christ is the High priest, thus we all share in the priesthood of all believers. And since Christ is the Prophet, each of us, by virtue of our baptism, are called to listen to God’s voice within, and, if called, to proclaim it to others. This gets tricky, however, because there are the false prophets all the way through the prophetic ages, to our own time. We are all called, therefore, to very carefully “discern the spirits,” to see if they are of God, and hopefully with the help...

Read More

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...

Read More

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....

Read More

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...

Read More

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...

Read More

I was raised in the ambience of all kinds of suspicion of Saint Paul: that he was the one who “invented” Christianity, that he was a misogynist and an enabler of slavery, that he was sexually frustrated, that there is a little too much Paul there and not enough Jesus. But I have always tended to support the underdog; I wrote my very first paper “defending” Paul when I was18 years old. (It was against the charge of misogyny and being a slavery sympathizer, by the way; which is not to say that he wasn’t either of them but just that that is not what was being conveyed in his kerygma.) What that has been replaced with over the past couple of decades is recognizing St. Paul as a mystic. Mind you, I know enough about mysticism to know that someone can have a genuine enlightenment experience, a mystical experience––and still be unenlightened on social issues, and still not get the facts right. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he or she could also be a mystic. And for me the main focus of St. Paul’s mysticism is his sense of the Body of Christ, and it stems back to this experience on the road to Damascus. The poem called “St. Stephen” by Malcolm Gutie is addressed to Stephen but this part is about Saul/Paul: When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter, He had to pass through that Damascus gate Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter As Christ, alive in you, forgot his hate, And showed him the same light you saw from heaven And taught him, through his blindness, how to see; Christ did not ask, ‘Why are you stoning Stephen?’ But, ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’[1] I remember the first time I heard it said explicitly in a homiletics class, and it never stops striking me deeply: when the Risen Christ appears to Saul, he doesn’t ask Saul why he’s persecuting Stephen, or why he’s persecuting “my followers” or persecuting “my church,” but why are you persecuting me. ‘Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.’[2] Is it the intuition of that carries over into Paul’s marvelous teaching in the Letter to the Corinthians chapter 12 with his great description of the Body and all its parts, and even more subtly and more movingly in the Letter to the Colossians when he speaks of making up what is lacking in the sufferings of the body of Christ? For Paul “body” is not a metaphor––the Body of Christ; it is an organic reality, it is...

Read More

The two readings that we were offered for the Feast of Saint Anthony of the Desert today were perfect, though I wished I could have switched them. The Gospel (Mt 19:16-26) was the story of the rich young man, possibly the very gospel that Anthony heard that sparked his conversion. And the reading from Ephesians (6:10-13) was all about our spiritual weapons against the powers of darkness, recalling Anthony’s successful battles with the demons. But there is something else that I found in my notes that I was focused on all day. This and all that follows is from some notes I just have marked “after a conversation with Columba Stewart.”[i]   Why the desert is so important is because the desert landscape is an image of what we want for our hearts, our minds––an uncluttered view through clear air. A calm clear heart allows for a clear eye.   The one theme of Antony’s that is arguably the most important and perennial for the monastic tradition is self-knowledge, or what Columba Stewart calls “radical honesty about the self.” A teaching that Anthony frequently repeats is that “the knowledge of ourselves is the necessary and only step by which we can ascend to the knowledge and love of God.” The necessary and only path to love of God: pretty strong words! In a famous passage recorded by Athanasius, Anthony lays it out this way: St. Paul says don’t let the sun go down on your anger; Anthony says don’t let the sun go down on any sin. And the best way to avoid this is to “Examine yourself and test yourself. Recount to yourself daily not only your actions of the day but also the stirrings of the soul,” the secret thoughts of the heart, which can then become a breeding-ground for sin. Anthony of course is also famous for his bouts of battling with the demons. But even this is really here a metaphor for his work of self-scrutiny. The demons can be understood as much internal as external, those subtle psychological temptations to which we are most susceptible. Here again is the importance of self-scrutiny as an essential and continuing part of progress in virtue. Besides the little instruction he gets from a few elders in his early days, basically Anthony’s hard work of self-knowledge is done alone. Athanasius records that Anthony’s only abba is an angel who is a sort of mirror image of himself. Perhaps this is where Anthony gets the idea later to tell his disciples that, when they examine themselves, even when they are alone they should pretend as if they were laying themselves bare...

Read More