It was my turn to preach and preside at Mass yesterday morning here at Camaldoli at General Chapter. It’s the first time I’ve presided at Camaldoli and I was trying to do it bi-lingual, so I had a lot of prep work. It was October 5th, so I started out by saying that liturgically we find ourselves between the feast of St. Francis (October 4) and the feast of St. Bruno, the founding father of the Carthusians (October 6), something I had never noticed before. And that seems to me to be a pretty good place for a Camaldolese. In our history we have experienced both the longing for solitude like St. Bruno, as well as missionary zeal, evangelical zeal, even the zeal for martyrdom like il Poverello. For the most part we find ourselves in the middle of these tw poles, a place of tension, but a tension that gives great creativity. The Gospel was Jesus sending the seventy-two out to proclaim the good news, but what really struck my attention was the first reading for the Book of Nehemiah. It seemed perfect for the occasion and made it seem all the more necessary to translate the homily into Italian, as you shall see in a moment. This little story captures not only an integral moment in the history of the Jewish people; it also points to the very heart of our liturgical approach to Scripture. This scene takes place shortly after the return from exile, when they are rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. This is a people that has only faint knowledge of the actual covenant, and has probably never read nor even heard the Law of Moses. Ezra the scribe brings forth the Book of the Law that has been re-discovered, and he reads it to the assembled people. The problem is, it is written in a language that they no longer speak! So first of all he has to translate it into their vernacular. And then Nehemiah and the Levites need to explain to them what it means. And the people are overcome with emotion at hearing these words explained to them for the first time. At first they weep, but the Levites tell them, No, this is a day to rejoice, to eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks (and allot portions for those who have nothing). And they did so––because they understood the words, the Scripture says. But they could not have understood the words unless Ezra had both read it and translated it, and they could not have understood the words unless Nehemiah and the Levites had explained it. There is an...

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I used to have a really bad problem with sleep, where I would wake up after only an hour or two and then not be able to get back to sleep. Luckily the local NPR station used to play the BBC from 10 PM until 4 AM, because that was the only thing that could lull me back to sleep. There was something about the sound of that BBC style voice that was so comforting! But I think it was partly also due to the fact that they were always talking about people, situations and places that I didn’t know anything about, so I would get a little bored and just zone out. It wasn’t until after my first visit to England that I actually really listened to the BBC and saw their newscasts on TV and really started paying attention. And the thing that struck me was again how most of the things they were reporting were about people and situations that I was only vaguely familiar with and places that I often couldn’t even locate on the map. However, that’s when I had the realization that the problem was me––and how insular and parochial American news usually is! If it’s not about New York or Chicago or somewhere in California or even Columbus, Ohio I used to just turn off: “What does that have to do with me?” Part of the immense benefit of traveling around the world in ministry for ten years was how much it broadened my worldview. Now the BBC makes sense, and it’s one of the things you can count on anywhere in the world. The reason I bring that up is because this is one of those gifts that Ignatius brings to us, to our community, and to our prayer. So often I’ve noticed that while we’re praying for our own needs and intentions, Ignatius is offering prayers for the people of Mogadishu (which is the capital of Somalia, by the way, a little country south of Ethiopia on the east coast of Africa on the Indian Ocean), or for the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma, or for the ethnic cleansing going on in Nigeria where the Muslims are being sheltereded in a seminary and defended by the local bishop. Besides this wider optic of the world that Ignatius got not growing up in Columbus, Ohio, his years working for social services in London have given him a heart that is especially sensitive to the little ones, the outcasts, the persecuted. Ignatius and I were negotiating back and forth via email about what date to celebrate his solemn vows, and he suggested September...

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adaptive challenges


Posted By on Sep 15, 2017

  (This was my homily for September 11th.) There was a beautiful but enigmatic line in the first reading for Mass on September 11th this year, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians: In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.[i] After all these years I still am not sure what that means, but on a day such as the one when we remember again, as we do each year, the terrorist attacks of 2001, I can feel it in my own body. I have returned so many times to this wonderful workshop that I attended on monastic leadership a few years back, and I was reminded of one more theme from it as we commemorate the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001. And that theme is the difference between a technical solution and an adaptive challenge. A technical solution is what you need when something is broken. If the plumbing is blocked, you call in a plumber. If the electricity goes down, you call an electrician. The Internet goes down, call the IT guy, etc., etc. On the other hand sometimes a situation occurs where a technical solution is not really going to be a solution to a problem but only be a stopgap, a quick fix, a Band Aid. Those are adaptive challenges, when we have to say, “Maybe this is not supposed to be fixed. Maybe something needs to die so that something new can be born. Maybe something else is trying to evolve. Maybe we have to change. Maybe we’re never going back to the way things were. Maybe there is a new normal.” Adaptive challenges require innovation and new learning. They also involve loss and grief, and require a shift of heart and soul. The questions we ask are, “Who has to learn what? Who has to lose what?” And it’s a problem when we try to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge, trying to fix something that can’t––and maybe shouldn’t be––fixed. I think what we have discovered in re-discovering ancient medicine, homeopathic, Ayurvedic, and Chinese herbal medicine, for instance, is that we in the West at some point came to think of medicine and health too as technical solutions rather than adaptive challenges. Illnesses there will always be, but how many health problems could be solved by a change of lifestyle rather than pills, needles and knives? But instead we usually go to the doctor and say, “Just fix me!” And one of the other examples given of this is war itself. War is usually a technical solution,...

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a peg in a sure spot


Posted By on Aug 27, 2017

‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.’ I want to start and pretty much stay with the narrowest interpretation of today’s gospel (Mt 16:13-20), the one that the Catholic Church leans on, that is, that this gospel is mainly about the primacy of Peter, and therefore the primacy of the office that Peter’s successors enjoy. I have heard the interpretation that it is actually Peter’s faith that is the rock, not Peter himself, and maybe there is something to that too. But instead of either defending or deconstructing Peter’s primacy, I’m just going to assume it, but hopefully contextualize it a little bit. I was really attracted by the phrase used in the reading from Isaiah coupled with this text (Is 22:19-23)[i]: through the mouth of the prophet the Lord God says of Eliakim son of Hilkiah (in a rather complicated diatribe against some guy named Shebna, the master of the palace) that he will dismiss him (Shebna) from his office, and instead make Eliakim ‘like a peg in a sure spot.’ What a marvelous description this is of someone. It made me think of my Dad. He was always like a peg in a sure spot. No matter what was going on in the world around us, my Dad was always steady. What has so impressed me about the last few popes is not how they have exalted themselves, but the ways in which they diminished themselves. This is true especially in terms of our relationship with the other communions that are closest to ours, that have a sense of apostolic succession and are liturgical sacramental traditions––the Orthodox Communion and the Anglican Communion––but with whom we have some serious contention about the primacy of Peter. There are several stories told at San Gregorio. Having been the place from which Saint Gregory the Great sent Augustine off to evangelize the Angles, it’s also a place for many Anglican-Roman encounters. And of course our Don Innocenzo, who has been there for decades, has had a long history of involvement with the Orthodox church. I was told that when Pope Paul VI met the Archbishop of Canterbury there, the pope gave the archbishop his episcopal ring. Now, popes (like presidents and other heads of state, like Jesus and other great teachers) know that every little nod or wink carries great significance. For a pope to give an episcopal ring to an Anglican archbishop––this was no small gesture. Most people took this as a public recognition of the apostolic succession of his episcopacy. And when John Paul II met the Archbishop of Canterbury at San Gregorio, he...

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gaining eternal life


Posted By on Aug 22, 2017

The saint that we celebrate today, Pope Saint Pius X, gets kind of mixed reviews, to say the least. He is known for his stubbornness and stiffness, and especially for his anti-modernist stance and draconian tactics. (He had a league of secret informants!) The Society of St. Pius X, named after him, seems to appeal to this darker side. They are the traditionalist group founded by Marcel Lefebvre in opposition to Vatican II. They’ve been separated from Rome for decades now and have just recently released a statement that makes it appear as if they’ve abandoned all efforts to reunite with Rome. (I think it’s safe to say they abhor Pope Francis’ pontificate. But––we are all such mixed bags!––in his lifetime, Pope Pius X was also known for his pastoral sense. He was the only pope in the 20th century to give a Sunday homily every week. He brought about great liturgical reforms, he encouraged frequent communion. The thing I found most endearing about him was that in his lifetime he was also known for a strong sense of compassion and his love for the poor. After an earthquake in Messina in 1908 he filled the Apostolic Palace with refugees, something you could imagine Pope Francis doing. He often referred to his own humble origins, and is quoted as saying, “I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.” That serendipitously ties in with the gospel reading we heard today, Matthew’s telling of the story of the rich young man.[i] There were two things that struck me reflecting on it this time. The first is something that I just read in Fr. Bruno’s essay on “Monastic Wisdom” from The Privilege of Love, how St. Athanasius, in his famous Life of Antony (of the Desert), recounts how Antony’s vocation to the monastic life was catalyzed by the successive hearing of two gospel texts at the Sunday liturgy. And the first one was this one, the story of the rich young man: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ And the second was like it, from Matthew 6:34, ‘So do not worry about tomorrow…’ Hearing these two scripture texts—just hearing them!––was enough to cause this great conversion. Later in his life when Antony himself was pressed by some other monks for guidance, he said, based on his own experience, simply, “The Scriptures are really sufficient for our instruction…” (Mind you, later on he would also say, “My book, O philosophers, is the book of nature,” but those are kindly sisters, aren’t they,...

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(This is the homily I offered for the closing Mass of our Camaldolese Retreat for Oblates and Friends at St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista.) A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Mt 15:22-28) Following on the gospel I now want to tell you another fable, the fable of Eros and Psyche. I was introduced to this fable through the work of the great Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman in his seminal essay “The Myth of Analysis.” Hillman suggests in that essay that this ancient fable “Eros and Psyche” would make a better foundational myth for the journey of psychoanalysis than either the Oedipus Complex of Freud or the Hero’s Journey of Carl Jung.[i] The fable of Eros and Psyche is from a 2nd century novel called Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass) by the Roman writer Apuleius Although that’s the only extended version of the story, the figures of Eros and Psyche also appear earlier in Greek artas early as the 4th century BCE. But it was also picked up and rediscovered during the Renaissance and retold in poetry and drama, and especially widely depicted in painting and sculpture. (In modern times C. S. Lewis told his own version of this story in the book Till We Have Faces.)[ii] To recap the fable of Apuleius: Psyche is the third daughter of a king. She is so beautiful that she rivals the beauty of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. When people actually start worshipping Psyche instead of her, Aphrodite gets angry and sends her son Eros (or Cupid) to shoot Psyche with one of his arrows that will make her fall in love with the first creatureshe sees, hoping that she will fall in love with a monster. Butwhen Eros goes to her, he himself is quite taken with her beauty and so takes her in a secret marriage. It’s secret because he doesn’t want...

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