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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