sacramentum et exemplum

Posted By on Apr 13, 2017

(cyprian, Holy Thursday) When the Church Fathers refer to the washing of the feet, they refer to it as both a sacramentum and an exemplum––as both a sacrament and an example. A sacrament in the same way that Jesus’ whole life was a sacrament, God coming to us and purifying us, making us clean, not because of anything that we have done, but by pure grace, a total gift that cannot be earned, but only received. But the washing of the feet is also an exemplum, an example, in that every sacrament comes with a moral obligation to it: if we receive a sacrament we commit ourselves to a way of life. We can’t earn it, but if we receive it we have to embody it: ‘I have given you an example so that what I have done you also must do.’ A sacrament is a commitment to a way of life, in this case, a life of self-sacrifice to the will of the Father and to each other in service. I’ve been reading The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse’s final novel. It’s about a man named Joseph Knecht, who is raised in a monastic type environment of an order for the intellectual elite in some remote land in a distant future. He is eventually inducted into the order and finally made the Master of the Game, the Magister Ludi. Spoiler alert: he eventually leaves the order, mainly because he thinks that true life is found not in “…taking pleasurable strolls in the garden of culture” which “tends somewhat toward smugness and self-praise”­­––but in service. Interestingly enough, their order, the Castalians, is often contrasted with the Benedictine Order, which Hesse in this novel at least, holds up as a paradigm, the opposite of the Castalian Order, because the Benedictine monks, personified by a wise old scholar named Fr. Jacobus, know their place in history. They understand “responsible action controlled by dispassionate reflection” and have “consciousness of the social responsibility.” I, however, actually thought that the hero’s critiques of his own Castalian order were good warning shots across the bow for monks of all kinds too. Even in our protected world of contemplative life, we can never forget that the way of Jesus Christ is the way of the seed falling in the ground and dying so as to yield a rich harvest, the way of the salt that dissolves into the food, the way of the yeast in the dough, and, as St. Benedict reminds over and over again, the way of humility and obedience. I thought that this one passage that Joseph hears as he is inducted into...

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There’s a detail of the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem that we don’t necessarily catch, but that I find significant: the crowd that is accompanying Jesus is not made up of inhabitants of Jerusalem, that place of political intrigue and religious power. Instead this is the rag-tag band of misfits that have followed Jesus to Jerusalem, and it is they who are announcing to that place of worldly power that a new king has come, and a new kind of king, with a new kind of authority, rather than mere power. There are other details too that we don’t catch unless we read a little further into the text of Matthew, which reinforce this theme. Right after this entry into the Holy City, Jesus cleanses the temple, driving out the buyers and sellers. And then right after that the blind and the lame come to him. And then the children start crying out, echoing the song of the crowd at his entrance into Jerusalem, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ So Jesus comes in in a parade that sort of mocks the Roman emperor’s entrance, he drives out the moneychangers, he skips over the religious authorities––and then replaces them all with the outsiders, the poor, and the children. This is all in keeping with Jesus’ message throughout his life, the littleness, the humility, the powerlessness and the poverty before God that is necessary to pass through the eye of the needle. This isn’t a socio-political revolution; it’s a spiritual one, a religious one. By anchoring the story in that quote from Zechariah––‘Behold, your king shall come to you humbly, riding on a donkey[i]––Matthew does away with any kind of political zealotry and draws a sharp contrast to worldly power. As Pope Benedict wrote about this event, “Jesus is not building on violence; he is not instigating a military revolt against Rome. His power is of another kind: it is in God’s poverty, God’s peace, that he identifies the only power that can redeem.” As a matter of fact Jesus “is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and a king of simplicity, a king of the poor.”[ii] Pope Benedict ties all this in with the beatitudes: Jesus tells us through all this that “The earth ultimately belongs to the meek, to the peaceful.”[iii] We along with all those outside of the centers of power, in solidarity with the blind and the lame, along with the children––let’s proclaim this king today, and welcome him into our hearts, into our lives and our community, this king who destroys the weapons of war, the king of...

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Several of you have asked to see a copy of this and so, with don Alessandro’s permission, I am posting here his letter convoking our General Chapter at Camaldoli this September. We had several discussions of this letter in chapter here at the Hermitage, and parts of this letter will also be reprinted in our next newsletter as it is salient to its theme. This is my favorite line: “To live the highest in the deepest in communion”––which I suggested to Alessandro could be the sub-theme. THE PRIOR GENERAL The Holy Hermitage and Monastery of Camaldoli January 18th, 2017 Dear Priors, Vice-priors and Brothers, We have now begun the last year of the current six-year term (October 2011–October 2017), and so we must prepare for the next General Chapter. Such preparation includes not only the institutional events (visitations, election of delegates, etc.), but also an examination of the fraternal life within our communities and a serious reflection on the significance of our monastic life and our spiritual quest. As for the institutional acts, I have arranged for the anticipated canonical visitations to the communities of our monastic Congregation with the General Council, and we are preparing the draft program for the Chapter itself. The assembling of the General Chapter I invite you to read the articles of the Constitutions which address the nature of the General Chapter, its tasks, the convoking, the participants by right, and the election of delegates of the sui juris houses as well as the universal delegates (Const. 194-227). Above all I would like to call attention to the two principal elements that characterize the convoking of the General Chapter: it is the supreme authority and power of the Congregation, and it must preserve and cherish the common good of all communities; it must guarantee fidelity to the original spirit of the Congregation, while strengthening its spiritual vitality. Problems of recent years The problems we have confronted several times at General Chapters in the last years are not new: the decrease of vocations in our communities, monastic initiation and formation, the increasing age of many confreres, the multiplication of commitments, the accelerating pace of our personal and communal time, fraternal relations, the ministry of hospitality, the issue of the economic situation in several houses, etc., and many other issues. The bottom line: roots and significance But I sincerely believe that we must not lose sight of the basic issue. In it are interwoven two essential elements: on the one hand, the roots of our Camaldolese monastic vocation in the specific spirituality of St. Romuald, keeping in mind the thousand-year history of our Congregation; and, on the...

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the golden calf

Posted By on Mar 30, 2017

(cyprian) This image of the golden calf that we heard in today’s reading (Ex 32:7-14) is intriguing. While Moses is not only having the Law dictated to him but also having his most intimate mystical encounters with the Lord––remember, just before this in Exodus 19 and 24, Moses encounters God in the cloud and in the thick darkness––the Israelites have pretty quickly forgotten the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, brought them out of slavery into freedom, fed them manna in the wilderness, and made water flow out from the rock[i], and they’ve set up this false god instead, who is more accessible, if gaudy, looking for some short term gain. Idolatry is a pretty serious sin in our tradition. Remember what’s next: Moses talks God out of wreaking any serious punishment on the people, but he himself burns the calf, grinds it into powder, scatters the powder on the water and makes them drink it, and then––if the writer is to be taken literally––tells the sons of Levi to go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp and kill your brother, your friend and your neighbor.[ii] Paul and Peter both bring it up again too in the New Testament, on par with sorcery, carousing, and drunkenness as well as associated with things like jealousy, strife, dissension and anger (Gal 5:20; 1 Pt 4:3). In the Letter to the Colossians he says greed is actually the same as idolatry. How many golden calfs do we have in our lives? Our idolatry may not be as gaudy or obvious as the Israelites’. It could be as simple as Augustine’s idea of disordered love: cherishing popularity more than integrity; clinging to our own comfort over the common good; falling back on the status quo rather than facing the challenge of the new life and new spirit that the Spirit offers. I heard someone else bring this example up once: perhaps we have experienced a moment of real love or even pure holy eros––but then we settle for lust. Maybe we have had moments of real bliss in our prayer and meditation, but then we get bored and restless (that nasty noonday devil, acedia) and drift off into killing time, filling the day with distractions. Maybe we could think back to our own initial fervor, that moment of conversion; but, as in some marriages, after some years it can all get a little humdrum and drab, and we start fantasizing about something (or someone!) more exciting––a golden calf of some sort. I was reminded of this from the letters of Abhishiktananda: Only one thing is real,...

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God’s work of art

Posted By on Mar 26, 2017

cyprian, 4th Sunday of Lent I would hazard to say that most of us here at some point have gone through some kind of conversion experience in our lives, maybe several times––an experience of a power-greater-than-ourselves, a turning point in our lives, a moment when we decided to give our lives over to God, or a moment when we dedicated our lives to the spiritual path, a moment when we come to realize that nothing else is going to satisfy us but “this.” And as Christians that conversion entails coming to understand that experience through Jesus, with Jesus, in Jesus, falling in love with the way of Jesus, a conviction when hearing or reading the Gospel, knowing in our heart of hearts that this way of Jesus, the way of servant-hood and kenosis has the ring of truth to it like no other way. And so, “I have decided to follow Jesus!” For the first Christians, the moment of conversion and the experience of baptism were inseparable. But I don’t think that’s true for most of us––especially us poor “cradle Catholics.” (It’s so un-hip to be a “cradle Catholic” these days!) We don’t usually think of Baptism as that moment of conversion. Most of us were baptized “as little red-faced humanoids” with no real conscious decision involved in it, no real movement of our hearts. So for us a conversion experience is often more of a deepening or, even better, a realization and an actualization of that unconscious baptismal commitment. Hence the season of Lent each year comes as an opportunity to realize and actualize that baptismal commitment for those of us who were baptized but never really converted. Even less do we tend to think of baptism as an “enlightenment experience.” Actually this is not a word––“enlightenment”––that I grew up with as a Christian. Whenever I heard it, it was usually associated with Asian mysticism. But, again, in early Christianity baptism was referred to as a photismos, which is usually translated as “illumination” or “enlightenment,” and it was experienced as a whole new way of seeing the world. For someone coming to believe in Christ, that enlightenment may most obviously be recognizing and acknowledging that Jesus is Lord, like the story of the man born blind that we heard today (Jn 9:1-41)––but that’s only the beginning! The experience of Jesus’ Paschal mystery is an enlightenment experience that changes everything––how we see ourselves, how we see others, and even how we see the world around us. That’s why the story of David is so interesting here today. I always try to overlook the fact that David was a ruddy...

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unless a grain of wheat

Posted By on Mar 17, 2017

(cyprian, for Emmanuel) There is one memory I have of Brother Emmanuel that will always be my favorite. It was one morning after Vigils––I think I was still a novice––and he and I were walking back down to the chapel together on the way to Lauds as we did most days. (Even as a young monk it did not seem to me to be a bad thing to break the Grand Silence when it came to Emmanuel. If he wanted to talk you just listen.) The moon was just setting in the sky as the sun was coming up. We had two dogs named Buddy and Scooter who adored Emmanuel, but for some reason only Scooter was with him that day. And Emmanuel looks up at that moon and then turns to Scooter and says, “Look at that moon, Scooter! I’m gonna put it in a box and show it to Buddy.” I want to say at that moment I was instantly enlightened, or at least I suspected that I was in the presence of a master of some sort, maybe a Christian shaman. The thing is, I could imagine him actually doing just that, putting that moon into a box and showing it to Buddy. If I were to write an icon of Emmanuel it would be of him holding a shoebox with the moon in it, showing it to a dog. St. Paul in both his letters to the Galatians and the Colossians warns against being enslaved to what he refers to as “the elemental spirits of the universe,”[i] and we certainly know as Christians that we are not supposed to worship them. But, on the other hand if St. Paul is writing about them, these elemental spirits of the universe, then we can safely assume that there actually are such things––elemental spirits, some kind of intelligence or even a rudimentary consciousness about natural created things. Certainly St. Thomas Aquinas thought that even animals and plants have some share in the soul or psyche. (And, oh, Emmanuel was so delighted about the fact that Pope Francis suggested that there might be dogs in heaven! I think he was dreaming of Buddy and Scooter greeting him with their tongues hanging out and their tails wagging, ready for a ride in the bucket of the skip loader.) And neither our scriptures nor the teaching of the church ever say that we don’t commune with these spirits, live in harmony with this intelligence and these elements. Now I realize that this sounds like a very New Age-y argument, but doesn’t Jesus himself command the sea and wind––and they obey him![ii]...

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