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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