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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augustine and the molten core


Posted By on Aug 29, 2018

There could scarcely be a thinker in church history more influential than Saint Augustine. Certainly he was the greatest influence on medieval theology, quoted almost as much as Scripture in the Summa Theologiae. He is the foundation for many of the thinkers of the Reformation, too, especially, mostly because of his doctrine on grace. Even today, there are by far more excerpts from the writings of St Augustine in the Roman Office of Readings than any other source. What I mostly focus on though is his amazing conversion experience, a sort of ambush of grace that enabled him to do what he could not do for himself. Some say that Augustine had a great mystical experience of interiority at his conversion but then he never mentions it again. And so he gets dismissed for his over-emphasis on grace and his own tendencies to struggle with Pelagianism and Manicheism; and the mystical experience that is the intuition behind all of his teaching and the impetus behind his amazing output, gets covered over. Fr. Martin Laird, our retreat master six years ago and an Augustinian who wrote two fine books on contemplative prayer, and our Fr. Aelred Squire, among others would say that it is usually people who haven’t really read Augustine who think that about him. I have a visual image of this in my mind: that there is this core, the core of the conversion, that’s like the molten lava at the heart of a volcano, and that’s the reason why one comes to the spiritual life in general––because of that experience. And then there are all these layers that surround that core, and those layers may be the theology that is trying to express the meaning of the experience, or the philosophy that is trying to articulate the implications of all this concerning the meaning of life and the cues for building a just society based on this experience, and even the rituals that are trying to pass on and foster the experience for others. And those layers might get a little harder and harder the more you get to the surface, the farther you are removed from the core and the original experience, until you reach the crusty surface. And perhaps that’s all some people ever experience of Saint Augustine that crusty surface. That may be due to their own failings as human beings, or maybe it’s just the natural tendency of human beings, like Jesus’ screeds against the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, that we have been hearing these past three days from the Gospel of Matthew. The warning shot across the bow for us then is...

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when self is forgotten


Posted By on Aug 20, 2018

There could hardly be someone with more zeal for the monastic life than Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today. He was born in 1090, and entered the Abbey of Citeaux when he was only 23 years old, only 15 years after its founding. He also brought 30 of his relatives and friends with him. And then at the age of 25––two years later––he took twelve monks from Citeaux and founded a new house at Clairvaux of which he was named abbot. But besides his influence on monasticism, it is his teaching on mysticism that strikes me the most. Bernard was convinced that mystical pleasures were not just about eternal life, not just to read about, but were to be experienced now through the contemplative life. This year the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux coincides with Matthew’s version of the story of the rich young man.[i] There could be no finer example of the call to spiritual poverty than this story of the man who went away sad, because he had many possessions. Of course we immediately think of material possessions––fine clothes, a nice house, plenty of good things to eat, maybe a servant or two. But what are the subtler things that we possess, that we hold on to? Our opinions, our view of the way we think the world ought to operate––the really poor in spirit are those who can also hold on loosely to those things as well. And maybe the ultimate possession we hold on to is our very “self,” our sense of self, our I-ness, our ego. Remember, Jesus asks us to deny our very selves. At lunch last Saturday I was at table with two of the brothers who were talking about this very thing––spiritual poverty and the sense of self, the death of self and the loss of self. One of them quoted that beautiful line from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians which has become a bit of a mantra for me––I have been crucified with Christ and I, no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me[ii]––and then he said a line almost verbatim to how I heard it and learned it from a Sufi saying: “When self is forgotten and God is remembered.” That of course is the language of love and love always implies relationship. It reminded me of that great Sufi story: the Lover goes to the home of the Beloved and knocks on the door. A call comes from within, “Who is it?” And the Lover calls out, “It’s me!” “Go away!” And this is repeated day after day––“Who is it?” “It’s me!”...

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guests and hosts


Posted By on Jul 29, 2018

Memorial of Martha, Mary and Lazarus 60th Anniversary of the Founding of New Camaldoli On the liturgical calendar for the rest of the Church, this feast is listed only as the feast of Martha, but the Benedictine order celebrates this as the feast of her siblings as well––Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. And more specifically yet, for us here, of course, it’s a special feast, because it’s the day we were officially recognized as a religious institution in the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno in 1958. Our Camaldolese liturgical calendar, which comes out of Italy, lists these three as amici ed ospiti del Signore. Ospite is an interesting word in Italian. In common language it is usually translated as “guest,” but in the dictionary its first meaning is actually “host.” How can someone be a guest and a host at the same time? Maybe that’s what happens in the closest of friendships, the line between host and guest, teacher and student, even master and disciple, sometimes disappears. If you think of it, Jesus at the celebration of every liturgy is both our guest and our host: we make room for Jesus in our midst, in our hearts and in our lives, and God provides a feast at the Table of the Word and Sacrament. In looking at this family that we celebrate today, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, one gets the feeling we are catching a glimpse of Jesus’ own private life. Outside of the apostles and his mother, these are his most intimate relationships. It’s nice to think that Jesus had a place he could go, where he was just among friends, some people who knew what kind of foods he liked and what kind of sandals he wore. Maybe their house was that one place where he could go where he didn’t have to be on stage, where he didn’t have to be rabbi, or “good teacher,” or “Lord.” He was just “our friend Jesus.” I also like to think of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, these three people who loved Jesus, as representing three different aspects of love. (Hence especially the reading from 1 John that we are offered for this day.[i]) Mary is the easiest to understand. Though this Mary is often conflated with the figures of Mary Magdalene and the woman caught in adultery, there is no proof of that. But there is something similar about the energy of their relationships with Jesus. I think we could even think of her being in love with Jesus––that doesn’t diminish Jesus’ divinity in any way––even as they say one falls in love with one’s guru or teacher. Mary is at least...

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For Br. Gabriel Kirby, OSB Cam. 21 April, 1930–18 July, 2018 Our Bishop Rich Garcia passed away recently; I was at his funeral last Thursday. A priest friend of his gave a homily, warning us that it was going to be just as much a eulogy as a homily. It was very touching, filled with memories. Not knowing Bishop Rich that well, I couldn’t relate to a lot of it, but there was one thing this priest said that I tried to commit to memory right away. He said, about his friend the bishop, “We accompanied him as far as we could, right up to the edge of life as we know it…” As soon as he said, that I immediately thought of Hezekiah’s Canticle from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that we sing for Lauds in the Office of the Dead, particularly in relationship to our journey with Gabriel these last days. The antiphon we sing for that canticle is, At the threshold of death rescue me, O Lord![i] And I put those two phrases together: the edge of life and the threshold of death… Many of you will know that Gabriel really thought that God could and might rescue him, right up until the moment of death, and heal him 100 percent. He told me that specifically, as I’m sure he told many others as well, “even my eyes and my teeth!” he said. As some of you also know, Gabriel’s active dying process went on extraordinarily long, especially the last six days when he could no longer eat or drink and was lying in bed, for the most part unconscious but not necessarily unaware; I had the impression that he was sort of coming and going. Aside from being so moved by the tender care he got from Raniero, Jana, and Jim[ii]––every few hours turning him and speaking to him––, it was especially difficult to watch that poor little body lie there struggling to breathe. Why both that line of the priest and the line from Hezekiah struck me is because we not only accompanied him as far as we could to the edge of life, it felt like we went even farther, to the very threshold of death with him, as far as we could. As a matter of fact, Gabriel made us go farther than we normally go with someone to the edge of life as we know it, drew us in with him to the threshold of death. Maybe I should rephrase that: he didn’t make us go there, but that’s what we did because that’s what we do for each other...

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rejecting the saving word


Posted By on Jul 18, 2018

There is a theory about history called the Axial Period and along with it Axial consciousness. It postulates that about five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Common Era, a great leap in the evolution of consciousness took place all over the planet in several spots at the same time. This was a period when the great religions of the world took roughly the shape they were to have going forward. Among other things what is happening in human consciousness is that the magical-mythical mind and magical-mythical thinking are giving way to the rational mind. It’s also the beginning of understanding personal moral responsibility rather than simply reciting formulas and incantations to appease the gods. It’s also the beginning of charting an individual spiritual path, as opposed to a tribal one. (This is when monasticism is born, incidentally, specifically out of Buddhism, monasticism being the prime example of the individual, individualized, spiritual path, intentionally separating from family and progeny.) The religious traditions that usually get mentioned are: Hinduism––this is when the Upanishads of India burst out of the Vedas; the birth of Buddhism which leaves Hinduism behind completely; the birth of Taoism in China; the rise of Greek philosophy. And most relevant to us, perhaps, this is the era of prophecy in Israel, an evolution in the consciousness of the Chosen People as well, moving from just appeasing God with sacrifices to actually being moral people. As I heard a rabbi say once, “To be moral, you must do moral things.” There is no better example of this new consciousness in Israel––personal moral responsibility over magical formulas––than Isaiah. The middle of the Book of Isaiah is filled with consolation; but the beginning of it is not so nice. All of the areas mentioned above are being addressed early on in Isaiah––the magical-mythical thinking, personal moral responsibility, as well as the connection with the collective. God says, ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts. …Your new moon and your appointed festivals my soul hates.’ As the Book of Deuteronomy had already taught, instead‘Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart…’: ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’[1] What does Christianity add to this Axial consciousness five or six hundred years later? For one thing it tries to ensure that this trajectory stays incarnate––but that is a whole other topic! More importantly in this context, Jesus can be seen as a continuation, even the apogee, of the prophetic tradition of Israel. Twice Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea chapter 6 in the Gospel of Matthew––as...

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who do you think you are?


Posted By on Jul 10, 2018

This was my homily and closing conference for our 7th Annual Camaldolese Retreat for Oblates and Friends at St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista July 6-8, 2018. There is a wonderful long quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela, because he used it in his inauguration speech in 1994. It actually comes from Marianne Williamson, from her book Return to Love.[1] There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. This is something that should be on a poster in every child’s room as they are growing up. This week we heard the story from the Gospel of Mark[2] about Jesus coming back to his hometown. His disciples followed him there, and he taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath: … and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!’ This next line we might not be ready for: And they took offense at him!? It’s where we get the classic phrase when Jesus says, ‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own native place. There are similar stories throughout the gospels. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew we hear that the people were astounded that such authority could be given to human beings. And earlier in the same gospel, when Jesus was in the country of the Gadarenes, there were two demoniacs, and Jesus cured them by sending the demons into a herd of swine. And when the people of the town heard about it, they came out and begged him to leave.[3] Again, not quite ready for that reaction… What makes this particular scene in the Gospel of Mark even worse is that Jesus is in his hometown, Nazareth of Galilee. They were scandalised by him in his native place. A first lesson to draw from this story is that part of the scandal of the Gospel is precisely in just how near God comes to us, in our homes, in our very nature. Part of the scandal of the Gospel is that such authority, such wisdom and power can have been given to a human being. That’s why Jesus is called...

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we hold these truths


Posted By on Jul 5, 2018

When I was a kid, not only did I learn most of the Scripture I know from listening to music; it seems as if I learned almost everything from listening to music. We all had to memorize the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence in school: When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. And so, to “declare the causes which impelled them to the separation,” they wrote this amazing document. What’s already interesting to me is the mention of God and natural law: “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…” But it’s the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence that I really loved. My Mom had an album by a group called The 5th Dimension, and there was a song on that album that was basically the second paragraph of the Declaration set to music (called “Declaration,” oddly enough), and I memorized it. Now, 50 years later, I don’t remember the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, but I still remember the second one well enough to sing it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident––that all people are created equal …” (I know: I am changing that for inclusive language. It actually says “all men.” But that’s part of my point…) It is self-evident––obvious, not open to debate––that all people are created equal and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That’s the foundation of our country, the principle that all people are equal. The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God––the Creator––have endowed all human beings with rights that shall not be taken away, unalienable rights: the right to life, the right to liberty, and even the right to pursue happiness. And this is the whole reason governments are instituted, to ensure these rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted . . . deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” That of course is why...

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wake to your power


Posted By on Jul 1, 2018

This particular gospel passage (Mk 5:21-43) contains a near perfect literary device––a story within a story. There is the story of the woman with the hemorrhage but, on each side of it, it is sandwiched in by the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter. The lectionary actually gives us the option this Sunday of only reading the story of the woman with the hemorrhage, but this seemed like too perfect of a narrative to pass up. And I think it is significant whenever women show up in the gospels––and here we have two! Looking at the middle first, the story of the unnamed woman with the hemorrhage… The thing that sticks out glaringly in this scene is the fact that this woman is ritually unclean! According to Jewish custom, her sickness made her impure, and therefore she is prohibited from entering the temple, banned from participating in any of the religious feasts. She was the same as a leper––through no fault of her own, through nothing she had done wrong, just by virtue of being alive with this particular reaction in her body. That’s like keeping sick people out of the hospital. But not only was she impure, anyone she touched would be considered impure too––the whole teeming mass of people in the crowd that she was elbowing her way through with such determination. And specifically Jesus––who she touched on purpose! She made Jesus ritually impure! He doesn’t seem too squeamish about that, which is no surprise given what we know about him. Ah, but this is not the old temple; this is the new temple, as John tells us––the body of Jesus is the new temple, and this temple, Jesus’ body, is specifically meant to be touched, even, maybe especially, by those who were outcasts. The physicality of all this is very important. On the negative side the almost obsession with ritual purity, of not coming into contact with anything supposedly impure, of the strictest religious people of the time. It reminds one of the caste system in India too, and the dalits-the so-called untouchables. But on the positive side, the ancients believed that, just as impurity could spread from one body to another, so too healing flowed right out of the body of the healer to the sick person. This carries over right into the Christian tradition in the laying on of hands––the belief that there is real power transmitted and at work, the power of the Spirit. Even the fact that mere contact with the fringe of Jesus’ garment causes the power to flow, and the fact that Jesus feels even that, is significant here....

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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...

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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,...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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