Homilies - March 2014
Select a homily to read:
Eighth Sunday of the Year: March 2, 2014 by Fr. Gabriel
Eighth Sunday of the Year (at CUA): March 2, 2014 by Abbot James
Ash Wednesday: March 5, 2014 by Abbot James
Lenten Conference - Monks and the New Evangelization: March 6, 2014 by Abbot James
Lenten Day of Recollection for Monastic Community: March 8, 2014 by Abbot James
Lenten Day of Recollection for Abbey School Alumni and Spouses: March 8, 2014 by Abbot James
First Sunday of Lent: March 9, 2014 by Fr. Joseph
Second Sunday of Lent: March 16, 2014 by Fr. Christopher
St. Joseph's Day: March 19, 2014 by Fr. Joseph
St. Benedict (for Abbey School): March 21, 2014 by Abbot James
- March 2, 2014
- Year A
- by Fr. Gabriel
Jesus’ words about the birds of the air and lilies of the field have beautiful simplicity but are awfully hard to put into practice. I feel uniquely qualified to speak about them. Some years ago, during a rough patch, psychological testing concluded I had chronic anxiety syndrome. That sounds bad and would be maybe embarrassing, if many of us did not “have” something. The syndrome explained so many things. It explains why I find this section of the sermon on the mount so unsympathetic and impractical. To say, “don’t worry,” is like saying don’t pick the scab when the knee itches underneath. We know it won’t help, the knee will take longer to heal, but we pick the scab anyway. So it is with worry: it won’t help the situation, it won’t do the worrier any good, but we worry anyway. Such a potent and universal experience is worth exploring.
When I was nine, my mother needed a thyroid operation. I was sure I knew what that meant. Anxiety is a possibility that becomes a certainty: what might go wrong will go wrong. The hospital only allowed visitors over age twelve. I imagined what was happening inside. But there were deeper feelings. My father was too busy with work to do the cooking. So he bought some take-out chicken, which would normally have been a treat. He came home and warmed it up. The oven made it charred and dry. I didn’t complain; he was doing his best. I did not even think of the bad cooking we might have if my mother did not get well. I choked it down, looking at my mother’s empty chair, and I guess my father was doing the same. In anxiety you feel isolated, even if someone at the table has the same feeling. The grief is private.
But it has light moments. At age twenty-five, I was about to be ordained to the Protestant ministry (this is pre-history). I was already staying in the parsonage. Across the fields was the white steeple under which the ordination was to be held. The night before I lay in bed with great excitement. I had prepared carefully. Many friends and well-wishers would be there. Then I thought (a dangerous thing to do), this will be a large crowd for an old building. The worship-space is on the second floor. It would not take a Samson pushing pillars on the lower level to make the upstairs floor collapse. Think of all those people! Think of the vibration the organ and singing would make! What if a mighty wind came through the windows while we sat there? Death, destruction, disaster: who could sleep with such a possibility ahead? It sounds ridiculous in daylight. But I have found that logical argument seldom convinces the worrier.
Last example: my mother again. (If this is too much mother-material blame the first reading.) She was not a worrier. This became evident in my teenage years. When my friends were given curfews and warnings, I had none. There were no extra rules; there were hardly any to begin with. My mother believed that if a child felt secure and happy in the first five years, the next twenty would take care of themselves. When I went out for the evening, she went to bed and went to sleep; she did not wait up. When I got in, I let her know; she did not seem to notice the clock.
This changed somewhat in old age. My parents were still living independently; my mother was ninety-two. I was visiting from the abbey. I went to see a friend several hours away. I said I would be back the next day for supper. Supper in my parents’ house had been at 5:00 for fifty years. There were highway repairs that made the traffic crawl; I had no cellphone. I arrived at 5:20. The kind-hearted busybody from next door was with my mother in the kitchen, not exactly holding her hand, but joking to keep her spirits up. There was not a word of reproof; there never was. It was the look of fear and struggle on my mother’s face that cut me to the heart. Sometimes your loved one’s anxiety is harder to bear than your own.
I share these stories not to negate the example of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. But I do want to qualify a bit. Anxiety and faith are often set in opposition, as polar antagonists. If you have faith, you won’t have anxiety; if you doubt, you cannot believe. I am not so sure about either of these truisms. I suspect that belief and doubt coexist in the subterranean soup of our souls. As waves ebb and flow, so, at various times, anxiety or faith, doubt or certainty, rises to the surface of our awareness. In the heart or head, or wherever the emotional center is, there exists, in everyone, both anxiety and trust, the hope for a good outcome and fear about a painful one. You cannot weigh up these quantities to get a healthy quotient--it’s not like measuring your cholesterol level. You can’t determine, I have more trust than fear, so I am safe.
We are not entirely safe: disasters do happen. 9/11, Newtown, Trayvon Martin. Only a zombie would say there is nothing to worry about. Simplistic qualifications might be made: don’t worry too much don’t worry about yourself, pray more. Does such advice work, can anyone really use it?
The idea of usefulness brings the idea that anxiety may be something to put to use in the spiritual life. Things we can’t avoid or fight may be given us to use and to figure out. Anxiety might be something we learn from, it might be an avenue of self-discovery.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus does not simply command or prohibit, “so I tell you, do not be anxious.” He also asks questions. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Are you not of more value than the birds of the air or the lilies of the field?” These questions do not call for simple objective answers of yes or no. Rather they invite us to find out what we can, even from “bad” things like anxiety, about value and life, which, Jesus reminds us, is more than existence. In my experience, I learned from difficult things-- my mother’s surgery, my father’s burnt chicken, the neighbor giving comfort, my mother’s panicked face—what is really precious. What did I learn from the church floor that did not collapse? I’m still working on that one.
Fr. Gabriel Myers
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- March 2, 2014
- Year A
- by Abbot James
The following homily was given at the Caldwell Community at Catholic University of America.
There are all sorts of ways in which passages from Scripture challenge us. Sometimes it's main a matter of wondering what is even meant. On a recent weekday, we heard Jesus saying in Mark's Gospel, "Have salt in yourselves and you will be at peace with one another." Commentators are by no means in agreement what it even means to say, "Have salt in yourselves." We just don't know the original context of that saying.
Today's Gospel presents a different kind of challenge. We may well relish the beautiful image of a meadow full of colorful wildflowers, the traditional "lilies of the field." For me, it brings back wonderful memories of once coming upon a huge field of blue lupine in the distance, at first so far away that I thought it was a shimmering mountain lake. Only when I got closer was it clear that it was a field of these magnificent flowers gently swaying in the breeze. But relishing Jesus' imagery is one thing; what to make of his teaching is another. For those of us who live reasonably comfortable lives, confident that there will be a roof over our heads tonight, that the furnace will almost certainly be working, and that there is plenty of food available in the fridge or freezer, it may not be difficult to combine that kind of confidence with a conviction that God does indeed love us and that we can trust God even more than we can trust the various pieces of machinery in our house or apartment. But we are also aware--all too much aware--of how other people have been undergoing very different experiences. In recent days, weeks, and months we have seen terrible photos in the paper or on TV of people undergoing almost unimaginable hardship and suffering: refugees fleeing Syria with hardly anything more than the clothes on their backs; militias slaughtering people in the Central African Republic just because the others belong to a different religion; mothers grieving their grown sons killed in the fighting in Venezuela. Even in our own relatively well-off country, dozens of people have frozen to death this winter in the upper Midwest. The list seems endless. What would it mean for persons suffering such things to be told they need not worry about what they are to eat or drink or wear when, for example, they may have already gone for days with little or nothing to eat and may have no clothes except what they are wearing, and that these may be in tatters?
The only way to reconcile such harsh facts with Jesus' teaching about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field is to recognize that no single Bible verse or passage ought be read entirely on its own, without reference to other significant parts of Scripture. If we keep in mind Jesus' own example in the garden of Gethsemani, it is clear that he himself was at times anxious as he prayed fervently that the looming cup of suffering be taken away from him. But the really crucial point of that account is that he immediately added, "Yet not my will but yours be done." This is what it means, in terms of today's Gospel, to "seek first the kingdom of God." It doesn't mean not caring at all for other concerns, whether it be matters of food, clothing, or threats to one's very life or the lives of those whom we love. Those Venezuelan mothers were altogether right to grieve their slain children, and we are altogether right when we do what we can to come to the aid of the homeless or of victims of crime or of natural disasters, whether these be persons in our own city or typhoon victims halfway around the world in the Philippines.
With regard to those who suffered so much from Typhoon Haiyan last November, it was inspiring for me to read the other day some words by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of my hometown of Louisville. As the current head of the U.S. bishops conference, he recently traveled to the Philippines to survey the work of Catholic Relief Services and other charitable organizations. Here is part of what he wrote:
People in the United States and around the world who have given to typhoon relief efforts don’t get to see the good that their generosity promotes. It was humbling to feel the gratitude of the Filipino people and to see the warmth and emotion in their faces as they greeted us. CRS works with partner Caritas organizations from around the world, and the local church takes the lead in terms of discerning needs and responding. Together they work on a scale that makes a crucial difference in the lives of individuals and communities.
Four million people were displaced by the typhoon, and CRS has helped repair or build 20,000 shelters. They’ve brought clean water and sanitation services to thousands of displaced people. Farmers and others left jobless by the storm are able to support their families through livelihood recovery programs, clearing debris, planting crops and building homes. Catholics in the United States should know their generosity enables essential work of the Gospel, serving those in need without any thought of repayment.1
It is good to hear such words as we prepare to enter the season of Lent, a time when we normally are more generous in giving aid to others than at other times of the year. Our Gospel reading concluded with the words, "Sufficient for the day is its own evil." Everyone can surely understand and agree with that. May we do whatever we can to alleviate the evils of which we are aware each day.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, "What I Learned in the Philippines," Catholic News USA, Feb. 28, 2014. www.cathnewsusa.com (accessed March 1, 2014).
- March 2, 2014
- Year A
- by Abbot James
It's no secret that among the many issues that divide our country these days is that of firearms. Many hoped that in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre there would be more stringent laws enacted, but so far that has come to naught. More generally, we sometimes hear people recommending that children, especially boys, not be given toy guns to play with or that they not play violent video games, on the theory that such games will incline them toward harmful, aggressive behavior as they grow up. Whatever side one takes in this debate, we have to recognize that images of battle and warfare are prominent metaphors in many religious traditions, including our own. The Collect for this Mass of Ash Wednesday begins with the following words: "Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up the battle against spiritual evil, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint." In that single sentence, there are militant references to "campaign," "battle," and "weapons." St. Benedict is also wont to use such language. Already the second sentence of the Prologue to his Rule says that the monk should be "armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord," and a few lines later our holy legislator writes that "we must ... prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to [the Lord's] instructions."
Even if someone might feel a bit uncomfortable with the military imagery of the Bible, the Holy Rule, and so much else in Christian literature, all of us must at least admit that such language does bring home in a very forceful way the seriousness and difficulty of being a follower of Christ. This is not a calling for softies. As we go through life, we inevitably suffer various wounds on what might be called the battleground of life, many of these wounds being self-inflicted. This is why Pope Francis was quite correct when he spoke of the Church as being a kind of field hospital, even as today's Prayer after Communion asks that our Lenten practices may be for us "a healing remedy." And if at other times in the course of the year we may have become somewhat casual about fulfilling the very real demands of our call to discipleship, St. Benedict is again realistic and to the point when, in his chapter on the observance of Lent, he admits that since few have the strength to live anything like a Lenten observance throughout the entire year, then we ought at least "wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times" (RB 49.3).
What this might entail for any of us will surely vary from person to person, for just as St. Paul tells us in First Corinthians that there is a variety of gifts (1 Cor 12:4), so too we must say that there is a variety of weaknesses. I want to suggest that here at the beginning of Lent it would be salutary for each one of us to ponder carefully what seems to be his or her primary weakness and to work on that in particular during these precious forty days. For one it might be envy, for another pride or vainglory or lust or gluttony or any other of what John Cassian, that great monastic forerunner of Benedict, called "the eight principal thoughts."
Such focus on one principal failing or sin could itself be understood with the help of martial imagery: rather than taking what might be called a somewhat haphazard shotgun approach, hoping vaguely to strike the target with one or another pellet, we aim rifle-like at one particular weakness, trusting always in the ever-present offer of God's help to help us strike the target or meet the goal. Indeed, in a few moments we will pray that God will bless "with the abundance of his grace" the ashes that will be placed on our foreheads, knowing that the real recipient of the grace will not be the inert ashes but the living beings on whom they will be placed to the accompaniment of the words, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel."
May this repentance for past sins and failings be sincere, and may we never forget that this "believing in the Gospel" is not primarily a matter of the mind but of living and acting in a certain way. Long ago Pope St. Leo the Great said in a Lenten homily: "What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast ... may be fulfilled not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin." And he went on to say: "There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving, which embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion.... The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace." May we be truly zealous in showing that mercy to others during this holy season and thereby become ever more open to the healing mercy of God as we continue this "campaign of Christian service,... this battle against spiritual evil."
Abbot James Wiseman
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- March 6, 2014
- Year A
- by Abbot James
The following is a talk given by Abbot James
In chapter 49 of his Rule, St. Benedict talks primarily of ways in which a monk can deny himself something or other during Lent. This is altogether in accord with the traditional notion of "giving up something for Lent." I'm not at all averse to doing something along these lines, but I'm going to focus in this conference on something still more basic, rooted in the notion that Lent could be above all a good time to reflect on our basic calling not only as monks but as Christians. In doing so, I'll rely on some things I heard at the recent annual meeting of the North American abbots at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. The two major speakers were Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, the first president of the newly formed Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, and Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, a monk of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon who teaches in their seminary one semester each year and then at Sant'Anselmo in Rome the following semester. He also made available to us the text of an address that the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave at the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in 2012, when the theme was precisely the new evangelization.
The term "new evangelization" was used frequently by Pope John Paul II, but the notion, if not the exact phrase, could be traced back to Pope Paul VI's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, where he said: "We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize" (n. 14). What Pope Paul meant by "the vast and profound changes of present day society" referred in large part to the fact that the faith needed to be reawakened in parts of the world, especially Europe, that were traditionally Christian but now so affected by the forces of secularization as to be in need of renewed evangelization. But whether one is talking about "the new evangelization" in areas traditionally Christian or the missio ad gentes directed to peoples who have as yet heard little or nothing of the Gospel, the calling of every member of the Church is to proclaim the salvation won for humanity by Christ. This calling, this vocation, is an intrinsic dimension of our faith. The words of Jesus at the end of Matthew's Gospel--"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations"--were not directed solely to a small group of his earliest disciples but are addressed also to us today.
Christians live out this vocation in multiple ways. Some of the more obvious would be the kind of work Frank Sheed did as a street-corner preacher in both England and our country in the last century, or the foreign missionaries of groups like Maryknoll or the Columban Fathers who have indeed gone to the ends of the earth, proclaiming the Good News to peoples who knew nothing of Christ. Even within the Benedictine Confederation there is one group, the St. Ottilien Congregation, who are often called "missionary Benedictines" because their founder envisioned sending monks to countries in Africa and Asia precisely with the view to spreading the Gospel. But where does a community like ours here at St. Anselm's Abbey fit into this scheme?
One might say that at least the religion courses in our school provide an opening for some explicit evangelization, but Fr. Jeremy Driscoll was much more to the point when he said that a monastery itself is "the word of evangelization in a particular way," and not only because monasteries typically attract visitors and guests. It's what Archbishop Rowan Williams meant in his address to the synod when he said: "Those who know little and care less about the institutions and hierarchies of the Church these days are often attracted and challenged by lives that exhibit something of [a contemplative encounter with God]. It is the new and renewed religious communities that most effectively reach out to those who have never known belief or who have abandoned it as empty and stale. When the Christian history of our age is written--especially, though not only, as regards Europe and North America--we shall see how central and vital was the witness of places like [the monasteries of] Taizé [in France] or Bose [in Italy], but also of more traditional communities that have become focal points for the exploration of a humanity broader and deeper than social habit encourages" (n. 12).
This attraction is certainly not primarily to what the monks do in such communities but who they are: persons renewed and continually converted by the contemplative dimension of their life. Some years ago a Jewish scholar of religion named Jacob Needleman wrote a controversial book titled Lost Christianity, in which he argued that the words of the Gospel are addressed to human beings who do not yet exist, persons called to a transformation of their entire self, their feelings, thoughts, and imaginings, persons who have become new in communion with God and their fellow humans through Jesus Christ. More than anything else, this means people renewed in what Archbishop Williams called an "endless growth towards love" (n. 6), or what Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare movement, meant when she wrote that the closer people get to God, "the closer they get to the hearts of their brothers and sisters."
This is what St. Benedict is talking about especially in chapter 72 of his Rule, and not only in the verses that speak explicitly of love, as when he speaks of showing "the pure love of brothers" to their fellow monks or "unfeigned and humble love" to their abbot. It's also included in his phrase about "earnestly competing in obedience to one another." The practical meaning of this was brought out recently in very specific ways in a fine article by Abbot Jerome Kodell of Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas. The key paragraph, coming toward the end of the piece, goes as follows:
… My relationship to God is determined by the way I live with and treat those whom God in his providence has brought into my life. Incarnation is about reality, not romanticism or idealism. Those who are seeking God in their daily prayer and work are not angels, but people with ordinary flaws: the monk who forgets to return what he borrows, the one who tracks mud on a clean floor, the one who forgets liturgical assignments, the one who is never on time, the one who never signs up to help but is first in the food line. Somehow God in his providence has brought this motley group together for an eternal purpose, and how the brothers … treat one another now will determine their eternal destiny.1
What Abbot Jerome said there about the way we are to relate to one another can and should be complemented by something that Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger said some years ago while he was still archbishop of Paris. He was addressing a group of Benedictines at a conference on "Monastic Community and European Community." Toward the end of his talk he spoke of how the fraternal charity that should prevail within a monastic community should also extend to those who visit, for this is a primary way in which monks can evangelize. Indeed, here in our own monastery education and hospitality are the two major ways in which we can be of service to others. Of the second way, hospitality, Cardinal Lustiger spoke in a way that dovetails very well what Abbot Jerome wrote about mutual obedience. He said:
You [monks] must … live a true charity capable of being welcoming. You notice, I'm putting fraternal charity in parallel with present-day hospitality, not only towards petty thieves and wandering beggars, but towards all those considered of no account, all those mentally or emotionally damaged. Our pitiless society creates marginal people. And this is an aspect of charity which you must live out in exemplary fashion and in your own way.2
Even as I hope that our abbey will become more and more a spiritual resource for leaders in the government and business community, we must never overlook what St. Benedict says near the beginning of his chapter on the reception of guests, that "proper honor must be shown to all" (RB 53.2). There ought, of course, be some reasonable degree of separation between the guests and the monastic community, something that should become more manageable if and when we do some further construction in the relevant parts of our buildings, but we must carefully resist the temptation to be particularly welcoming only to persons of some wealth or social prestige.
To conclude on a very practical point, just as Archbishop Williams spoke of our Christian calling to be free of the acquisitive habits fostered by what he termed "the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture … encourage us to inhabit" (n. 8), let us be mindful that one way we do this each Lent is to go through our rooms and make available to the poor all the unnecessary clothing and other items that have accumulated there over the preceding twelve months. I don't know how many other monasteries have the practice of a Lenten poverty bill, but I trust it is one that we will never abandon. Its main value, in my opinion, is not to have the abbot look it over for anything that might seem superfluous but for each monk to make that kind of decision himself when drawing up his list and then to place in the boxes on the second-floor corridor items that he no longer uses and that would be of real help to the needy. A few weeks ago I was reading with Brs. Isaiah, Samuel, and Bernard some autobiographical accounts by Benedictine monks and nuns in the book Touched by God. A monk of Glenstal in Ireland wrote the final chapter in the book, and in describing what first attracted him to that monastery he said it was precisely the simplicity and freedom from clutter. Here's how he put it: "The first time I saw a monastic cell, I said instinctively: 'This is for me.' Perhaps ten-foot square, bare boards for a floor, it was furnished with an iron bedstead, table and chair, a prie-dieu, a washstand,… two shelves for books, three for clothes, and a crucifix its only ornament. Even [today], I hate clutter. In that respect, at least, I travel light."3 That is surely too spartan, but this ideal of simplicity is something each one should keep before his eyes in filling out his poverty bill, which I ask to be turned in to me one month from today, Saturday, April 5. You may, if you wish, also add something about any special practices you will be undertaking during this Lenten season. May it be for all of us what St. Benedict says it should be, a time of joyfully looking forward to the celebration of holy Easter.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Jerome Kodell, OSB, "Mutual Obedience: My Brother's Need is the Voice of God," The American Benedictine Review 64:3 (December 2013), 410-11.
2 Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, "Monastic Communities in Today's Europe," The Downside Review, no. 461 (October 2012): 9.
3 Andrew Nugent, OSB, "An Away Match," in Touched by God: Ten Monastic Journeys, ed. Laurentia Johns, OSB (London and New York: Burns & Oates, 2008), 219.
- March 8, 2014
- Year A
- by Abbot James
The following is a talk given by Abbot James
“By patient endurance you will win life for yourselves”
Patience as a Central Christian Virtue
When many of us were growing up, one of the most dynamic cities in the country was Detroit, the center of the American automobile industry, the city which gave us the saying, "As goes General Motors, so goes the nation." And yet in July of last year, Detroit became the most populous city in the country ever to file for bankruptcy. There is no single reason for its decline, for both management and the unions were at fault. One astute observer of the situation, Stephan Richter, the editor-in-chief of a daily online magazine about the global economy, has pointed out that both sides shared a "shortsighted focus on extracting the maximum amount of compensation from companies, even in the face of the underlying businesses' failing strength." The necessary skills base was allowed to fall behind that of workers in other parts of the world, and reversing this, Richter writes, "is not a short-term project. It [will require] decades of concerted effort on many fronts … including collaboration among companies, government, trade associations, colleges and universities." He went on to say that "this kind of common purpose, however, is not something that American society, with its ethos of individualism and personal independence, seems capable of undertaking. Doing the right thing for the long haul is typically put off for a later time, if it ever happens. That such a 'strategy' is self-defeating ought to be obvious. Sadly, it is not—not in an instant gratification world."1
That last phrase, "an instant gratification world," calls to mind what M. Scott Peck wrote near the beginning of his very influential book The Road Less Traveled, namely, that one of the greatest signs of maturity is the capacity to practice delayed gratification, that is, patiently to put off what might be most pleasant and attend instead to what is more important, even if more demanding. All of this has ramifications not just for the national economy but also for the conduct of our own life and work, which is what I want to focus on this morning. My main point is that it is generally misguided to yearn for or expect quick results, whether from ourselves or others, and that in the long run, patiently doing what Richter calls "the right thing for the long haul" is more productive.
Let me begin these reflections by referring to a key statement of Jesus and then to a comment on that statement by an ancient author from my own monastic tradition, for I am convinced that even persons who do not live in monasteries can find in this tradition much wisdom that is applicable to anyone who wants to live a full and fulfilling life. I will then refer to some more recent Christian authors who wrote some important things about patience, including Pope Francis, and will then turn to a very different religious tradition, Buddhism, to hear some of the wise teaching available there. Finally, I'll look at the value of patient waiting even apart from a spiritual or religious context, for patience is just as important in such activities as viewing a work of art or dealing with persons whom we are trying to help but whose progress may be slower than we would like.
As many of you know, there are passages in the Gospels that give Jesus' advice to his followers on how to deal with persecution. For example, in the twenty-first chapter of Luke's Gospel, after saying that many of his followers will be handed over even by friends and relatives to stand trial before kings and governors and that some of them will be put to death, he urges that they nevertheless should not be dismayed, for, he says, "by patient endurance you will win life for yourselves" (Lk 21:19).
As you would expect, this teaching was commented upon numerous times in all the centuries that have followed. Back in the fifth century there was a man named Nilus who founded a monastery in what is modern-day Turkey. Commenting on that verse from Luke's Gospel in one of the more than thousand letters that he wrote in the course of his life, Nilus had this to say:
In time of trial it is of great profit to us patiently to endure for God's sake, for the Lord says: "By patient endurance you will win life for yourselves." He did not say by your fasting, or your solitude and silence, or your singing of psalms, although all of these are helpful in saving your soul. But he said: "By patient endurance ..."
[Similarly, Nilus went on to say,] the Apostle Paul writes: "With patient endurance we run the race of faith set before us" (Heb 12:1). For what has more power than [this] virtue? What more firmness or strength than patient endurance?... This is the queen of virtues, the foundation of virtue, a haven of tranquility.... It makes those who practice it stronger than steel.2
When Nilus referred there to a work by St. Paul he was, strictly speaking, incorrect, for that quotation about patiently running the race of faith is found in the Letter to the Hebrews, which is certainly not one of St. Paul's own letters. However, of the genuine Pauline letters we should note something important in that passage in praise of love that is so often used as one of the readings at wedding ceremonies. It is from the thirteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and the first two verses of that well-known passage go like this: "Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, not pompous. It is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury" (1 Cor. 13:4-5). I consider it quite significant that of all the traits that the Apostle ascribes to love, the very first is patience. This means, among other things, that we cannot expect others to conform to our own expectations. For one thing, our expectations of how others should speak or act may be biased, but even if we correctly see in others traits that tend to make them unlikable or unlovable, we must allow for the possibility that they will gradually change for the better, not least with our own encouragement. Just as importantly, we have to be patient with ourselves. If and when we find ourselves failing in the practice of love or any other virtue, that's not a time to get down on ourselves but rather a time to recognize that full and complete conversion is regularly the work of years. This is not a recommendation of complacency or laziness, but a simple recognition of a point made by the nineteenth-century British writer Frederick Faber, who was a contemporary and acquaintance of Blessed John Henry Newman, even though they did not always see things eye-to-eye. In one of his finest passages of spiritual advice, Faber wrote:
God is slow and we are precipitate. It is because we are for but a time, and He has been from eternity. Thus grace for the most part acts slowly, and mortification is as long as leveling a mountain, and prayer as the growth of an old oak. God works by little and little, and sweetly and strongly He compasses his ends, but with a slowness which tries our faith because it is so great a mystery.3
The same kind of teaching appeared in the work of William Bernard Ullathorne, another of Faber's contemporaries and a man who, like me, was a Benedictine monk. We recently had as table reading here at the abbey a fascinating memoir about the first half of his life, giving the account of his ascent from being a cabin boy on sailing ships to being named archbishop of Birmingham, England. In addition to that work, Ullathorne also wrote two very thoughtful books about basic Christian virtues. One was on what you might expect, for, being a Benedictine, he knew very well the centrality of humility in the Rule of St. Benedict. His book about humility is titled The Groundwork of the Christian Virtues. The other was titled Christian Patience: The Strength and Discipline of the Soul. Early on in that book, Ullathorne makes the key point that "every new restraint we put upon the hurry and impetuosity of our excitable nature is a reduction to order, a weakness removed, a further subjection of nature to grace, a step in the way of peace, that makes us less unlike to God."4 Some pages later he insists that the primary rule for acquiring patience is to realize that "the first manifestation of all temptation is impatience."5
That claim may sound surprising, and I expect that it is one that very few people have ever thought about, but there is much to be said in support of it. After all, when we are tempted to do something wrong, even though we have at least a vague sense that we ought not proceed but that we should ponder more carefully what acting on the temptation really entails and how much we will eventually regret doing it, if we avoid such reflection and instead follow the inclination at once, that really is a manifestation of impatience.
There is also a Benedictine monk of our own day who has written some fine reflections about the importance of patience. He is Brother Victor D'Avila-Latourrette, of Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery in Millbrook, New York. Some weeks ago we had a reading from him at Evening Prayer that had the genuine flavor of perennial monastic wisdom, not least because Br. Victor referred at one point to the early monks and nuns of the Egyptian desert. Here is part of what he had to say:
So much in the spiritual life consists in having the patience to wait for whatever designs God has for our individual lives. God wishes to be included in our personal lives, to be an integral part of them. But to grow into awareness of how close God really is to each of us demands time, patience, and perseverance. While God is never in a rush to act, we, on the contrary, are impatient and restless. We wish to see things accomplished immediately, including our own spiritual growth.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers teach us that to begin to grow in the spiritual life, we must first learn to slow down and wait, remembering that it is not so much our own activities that count, but the work that God is doing in us. True enough, waiting is not always an easy task. But waiting can become a time of spiritual grace, furthering the growth of God's life in us. While waiting patiently for the Lord, we allow his light to enter the darkness of our hearts, those deep recesses of our innermost being, transforming us more and more into his image and likeness.
To conclude this part of my talk, this survey of a few Christian authors who have spoken of the importance of patience, let me turn to our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, who in so many ways has initiated a new spirit and vibrancy in the Church but whose teaching is nevertheless firmly grounded in the best of our centuries-old tradition. One of his most important writings thus far was titled Evangelii Gaudium, "The Joy of the Gospel," promulgated toward the end of last year.i Familiar as he is with contemporary life, Pope Francis wrote that "in the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional" (§62). Because of this mindset, he lamented that "it has become very difficult today to find trained parish catechists willing to persevere in their work for some years" (§81), while some priests and other ministers fall prey to a tense and burdensome fatigue because "they lack the patience to allow processes to mature; they want everything to fall from heaven.... They are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life. Today's obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross" (§82).
It is not only Christian authors like Nilus of Ancyra, Frederick Faber, Archbishop Ullathorne, Br. Victor, and Pope Francis who have taught the importance and value of patience, for this is a practical truth that belongs to what we might call "the wisdom of the ages" and so has been taught by spiritual masters in other traditions as well. Since those of us who are Catholics have been urged since Vatican II not only to tolerate but also to actually promote the positive values found in other religious traditions, I think it is worth hearing something about the value of patient waiting in the teaching of a quite remarkable Buddhist who died in Sri Lanka in 1994 at the very advanced age of 93. His name was Nyanaponika Thera, which means something like "the venerable one who is inclined toward wisdom." His best-known work was titled The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. In that book he says a lot about the value—indeed, the crucial importance—of what I am calling patient waiting. Here's a brief summary of his teaching:
What Nyanaponika means by "the heart" of Buddhist meditation is something quite specific—mindfulness—which he discusses under several aspects, of which the first, and the one most relevant here, is what he calls "bare attention," a matter of clearly recognizing what is going on in our mind at any given time. The immense practical value of this is that it really can help prevent us from pursuing rash courses of action. In his words, "Very often a single moment of mindfulness or wise reflection would have prevented a far-reaching sequence of misery or guilt. By pausing before action, in an habitual attitude of Bare Attention, one will be able to seize that decisive but brief moment when [the] mind has not yet settled upon a definite course of action or a definite attitude, but is still open to receive skilful directions…. Bare Attention slows down, or even stops, the transition from thought to action, allowing more time for coming to a mature decision. Such slowing down is of vital importance as long as unprofitable, harmful or evil words and deeds possess an all too strong spontaneity of occurrence … without giving to the 'inner brakes' of wisdom, self-control and common sense a chance to operate."7
In hearing these words, each of us may be led to reflect back on things we have once said or done but now regret, and on how the wrongful action could have been avoided if we had patiently taken the time to reflect more carefully on the long-term ramifications of what we were inclined to do, and if we had perhaps first, in all humility and honesty, sought the advice of some trusted friend or counselor.
If at times we have not acted thus but have rushed ahead impatiently, it would be helpful to recall something from the monastic rule that we follow here at St. Anselm's, the Rule of St. Benedict. As you may well know, this is a rather short document, dating from the middle of the sixth century but clearly having stood the test of time. In fact, it was Benedictine monks who preserved much of ancient literature, both Christian and pagan, in those dark centuries following the fall of the Roman empire, and today there are thousands of Benedictine monks and nuns who follow that Rule, not to mention even more laypersons who are known as Oblates and who seek to put into practice the spiritual teaching of St. Benedict in their own way of life. Preceding the 73 short chapters of the Rule is a beautiful prologue in which Benedict writes about the importance of acknowledging our various sins and failings and yet not becoming despondent over these, for he assures us that we can confidently trust in the Lord who, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, patiently awaits our return. In one of the most striking parts of the prologue, Benedict writes: "The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action … his holy teachings. Therefore our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds. As the Apostle says: 'Do you not know that the patience of God [patientia Dei] is leading you to repent? And indeed the Lord assures us in his love: 'I do not wish the death of the sinner, but that he turn back to me and live'" (Prol. 35-38).
So far, I have been discussing patience mostly from what you might call a religious or spiritual perspective, but I hasten to add that patience is a virtue valuable in many different kinds of activity. One of the most remarkable articles I have read recently was in a magazine that in a sense comes to the abbey by mistake. We once had a man living with us for a while as he studied over at Catholic University. Because he had earlier done some studies at Harvard, he received the alumni magazine of that university, and the magazine still comes to the abbey even though the man has long since moved away and said that he no longer had any need for such mail to be forwarded to him. In the November - December issue last year, Jennifer Roberts, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard, wrote a piece titled "The Power of Patience."8 Early on in that article she said she had given her students an assignment to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and spend three hours simply looking at a particular painting by John Singleton Copley, a work known as Boy with a Squirrel, and write down any observations, questions and speculations that arose from their observation. She said that the time span of three hours was deliberately chosen to seem excessive, but when she had done it herself before assigning it to others, she was amazed at how much she discovered. After about ten minutes she discovered that the shape of the boy's ear precisely echoed the ruff along the squirrel's belly, apparently indicating that the painter was making some kind of connection between the animal and the human body and the sensory capacities of each. Twenty minutes had passed before she noticed that the boy's fingers holding a chain exactly spanned the diameter of the water glass below. It took 45 minutes before she realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain were "perfect copies of the shape of the boy's ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on."9 This might well make some of you want to go down to the National Gallery of Art and try something similar when viewing a painting by some great artist.
But Professor Roberts' main point was that this lesson about the power of patience goes far beyond art history, for she said "it serves as a master lesson in the value of critical attention, patient investigation, and skepticism about immediate surface appearances," and this led her to argue that there are "few skills that are more important in academic or civic life in the twenty-first century."10 Her overall conclusion was that if the virtue of patience was originally understood as something rather passive, as the ability to forbear or suffer unpleasant situations, today it is better understood as something active, allowing us to take control over the fast-paced tempo of contemporary life that would otherwise control us.
One specific way in which we often succumb to this fast-paced tempo is by multitasking, which can refer to performing two or more tasks simultaneously (such as driving a car and speaking on a cell phone) or rapidly switching back and forth from one thing to another or even performing a number of tasks in rapid succession. This can, of course, allow a person to conclude that you can get a lot more done that way, but Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has studied multitasking as part of his research, has warned: “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”11 Similarly, the psychologist David Meyer at the University of Michigan concluded that productivity may be reduced by as much as 40 percent by the mental blocks created when people do it. Of course, the situation matters a great deal. The negative costs of texting a friend while watching a football game on TV are not going to cause any major problems, but a second or two of lost attention could mean life or death for someone driving down an interstate highway while trying to find a good radio station or talking on the phone. One of the great lessons constantly taught by Zen masters is that the most human and humane way to live is to do one thing at a time, giving that one's full attention and doing it as attentively as possible. This is also a much more pleasant way to live.
There is one other specific value of patience that I would like to bring up, namely, dealing with our own faults and failings. I am not speaking here of full-blown addictions, where persons regularly need the help of some specialized treatment center, ongoing participation in a twelve-step program, and the like. But short of that, there are many areas where we must honestly admit that we fall short. Sometimes one hears a person say that no matter how many times he or she confesses such and such a sin, there almost always seems to be some relapse. We all want to be fully integrated persons, whether it be in regard to eating habits, controlling anger, living chastely according to one's state in life, and so forth. Progress may at times seem so slow as to lead to discouragement, and this is where the virtue of patience is so important. We simply have to acknowledge that the kind of integration or integrity we want will normally not come about all at once. We rightly hope for progress without needless delay, but we must accept the fact that this kind of integration is "a slowly developing grace over the course of [one's] life."12 Or it may be that a parent is understandably disturbed by the errant behavior of a son or daughter which doesn't seem to be improving no matter how many admonitions one has given. I am certainly not saying that in such cases one shouldn't challenge oneself or another person to live in a more wholesome way, or that one should blithely accept lapses as though they don't matter at all, but it does mean recognizing that the challenge is normally one for the long haul. In the literature of the early monks of the Egyptian desert, there is an anecdote that recounts a question someone put to one of those monks: "What do you do all day long?" to which he replied: "We fall and we get up, we fall and we get up." As long as one keeps getting up, as long as one sincerely cooperates with the best advice available, there is every reason to hope that the ultimate outcome will be good, no matter how much patience is called for. We honor St. Monica because she never gave up on her son Augustine, even when he seemed farthest out of reach. We can learn a great deal from her example in the way we deal with others, even as each of us must have patience with our own failings and shortcomings, never being content to stand still but always willing to try to take two steps forward whenever we finding ourselves falling one step back. There is surely no better season for doing so than this holy season of Lent.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Stephen Richter, "What Really Ails Detroit," New York Times, August 16, 2013.
2 Nilus of Ancyra, Letters III:35, in Journey with the Fathers: Commentaries on the Sunday Gospels, Year C, ed. Edith Barnecut, O.S.B. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1994), 134.
3 Frderick Faber, "Patience," being chapter 9 of Growth in Holiness (Baltimore: John Murphy Co., n.d.), 145.
4 Bishop [William Bernard] Ullathorne, Christian Patience: The Strength and Discipline of the Soul (London: Burns & Oates, 1886), 51.
5 Ibid., 107.
6 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, in Origins 43, no. 27 (Dec. 5, 2013). This issue of Origins contained the first half of this Apostolic Exhortation.
7 Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, 39-40.
8 Jennifer L. Roberts, "The Power of Patience," Harvard Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2013, 40-43.
9 Ibid., 42.
11 Quoted by Christine Rosen, "The Myth of Multitasking," The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, Spring 2011, http://faculty.winthrop.edu/ininera/CRTW-Spring_2011/TheMythofMultitasking_Rosen.pdf (accessed Feb. 8, 2014).
12 Fr. Brett A. Brannen, To Save A Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood (Valdosta, GA: Vianney Vocations, 2012), 223.
- March 8, 2014
- Year A
- by Abbot James
The following is a talk given by Abbot James
I am the farthest thing from an archeologist, but I do have a certain fascination for the work that such men and women do. The wife of one of my very first students has long been engaged in important excavations in the Holy Land, and a classmate of that same student has done remarkable scholarly work studying ancient inscriptions in Roman North Africa. In my amateurish way, I once read about a piece of limestone that was found among the ruins of the Roman colonial town of Timgad, located in modern-day Algeria. The stone had been broken into two pieces, found rather far from one another, and even they had some fragments missing, but when the two parts were put back together, the Latin words carved there by Christians of the fourth or fifth century could for the most part be deciphered. It was a prayer to Christ for healing, the key words being these: "I beseech you, Lord Christ, the only physician, come to the aid of those who are holy and of those who are doing penance."1
That way of addressing Christ surely goes back to the final words of the Gospel we just heard, where Jesus says, "Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners" (Lk. 5:32). But it was not just some unknown Christian in ancient North Africa who spoke of Christ as a physician. In that same part of the world, and at roughly the same time, St. Augustine of Hippo rather often used such language in his sermons and commentaries. Among his most important works are his reflections on all 150 Psalms, and in one of these, on Psalm 17, Augustine said: "May a physician come to heal our ills. A physician? Which one? Our Lord Jesus Christ… He is in every respect the physician for our wounds…. He is in every respect our physician."
There are many such passages, not only in Augustine but in other Fathers of the Church, and there is a hint of this even in the monastic Rule of St. Benedict. To be sure, Benedict does not explicitly speak of Christ as a physician, but he clearly teaches that the abbot, as Christ's representative in the monastery, must care for those who are spiritually sick. In chapter 27 of his Rule, he actually quotes the verse we heard in today's Gospel, even as he also recognizes that perhaps the abbot himself is not always the one who can best help the monk who has gone astray. Benedict writes: "The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers, because 'it is not the healthy who need a physicians, but the sick.' Therefore he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in … mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and 'console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.' Rather, as the Apostle also says, 'Let love for him be reaffirmed,' and let all pray for him" (RB 27.1-4).
Benedict is there talking about some brother who has been especially troublesome and so for a while had to be ostracized or isolated from the rest of the community, but if we're honest we'd have to admit that in one way or another all of us are at times wayward, and there is surely no better time to examine our lives and seek improvement than during this season of Lent. Here at the abbey we sing a special hymn during Lent at the beginning of the service called Compline, that is, Night Prayer, and its very first line is an acknowledgement of having strayed from God, at least to some extent, during the course of the day. The hymn goes like this:
O Father, bring us back again
who on this day have strayed from you,
that, sheltered by your loving hand,
our nightly prayer we may renew.
Give us untroubled heart and mind,
so flooded with your tranquil light,
that nothing evil there may hide
to take away our peace tonight.
We thank you, Father, source of light,
with Christ your Son and Spirit blest,
who give the marvel of new day,
and, with the evening star, give rest.
The sentiments in that hymn are very much in accord with what St. Benedict says in the chapter of his Rule about the observance of Lent, where he writes: "We urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times" (RB 49.2-3). What he says there about a monastic community in particular is surely applicable to every Christian, whatever his or her state in life. For us Catholics, one way of washing away those negligences is through the sacrament of reconciliation, but it is also important to keep in mind that the Eucharist itself is a source of forgiveness, redemption, and healing. Consider just these few lines from the first of the Eucharistic Prayers: "Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise … for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true." Or think of the words all of us say just before Communion: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." Healed of what? Why, of sin! And who could doubt that the Lord is always ready to say that word of forgiveness and healing? Way back in ninth-century Ireland there was composed a beautiful prayer full of such confidence, addressing Christ Jesus specifically as our healer. You may have heard it set to music and sung by John Michael Talbot. If you haven't, I suggest you go to YouTube and listen to it. At the very least, ponder the words which I will here recite as the conclusion of this homily:
Healer of my soul
Heal me at even'
Heal me at morning
Heal me at noon
Healer of my soul
Keeper of my soul
On rough course faring
Help and safeguard my means this night
Keeper of my soul
I am tired, astray, and stumbling
Heal my soul from the snare of sin
Healer of my soul
Heal me at even'
Heal me at morning
Heal me at noon Healer of my soul
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, s.v. "Médecins," n. XXII.
- March 9, 2014
- Year A
- by Fr. Joseph
Although today is the first Sunday of Lent, a season of penance, the Scripture passages don’t mention penance. Of course, we should have had that message on Ash Wednesday, when we received the ashes. How many of you did? At any rate, today’s Scripture passages, even though they do not speak of penance, are very apt for instructing us about Lent. They should be fairly familiar to us. We all know, of course, about Adam and Eve and the fall in the Garden of Eden.
But the whole story is not included in today’s reading; it starts by telling about the formation of the first man, about all the trees, singles out two of them for mention, the “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Whoever arranged the lectionary readings seems to expect us to know about the prohibition of eating from the “Tree of Knowledge.” Also, the reading omits a really important point: Ch. 2 ends “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.”
Ch. 3 introduces the serpent, “the most cunning of all the animals.” We should all remember that the text is presenting us symbolic language rather than being strictly historical. Otherwise, we would expect the woman to yell, “Hey, Adam, come, see this talking snake!” Instead, she calmly enters into dialogue with it. The serpent weakens her confidence in the goodness of God, “You certainly will not die! God knows your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” But when they gave into the temptation, the only thing they learned was that they were naked; their innocence was gone.
Our lectionary reading ends there, but it is important to read on in Scripture. When God asks Adam, “Why did you do this?” the man gallantly blames his wife: “The woman you put at my side, she …” So one of the first effects of sin was to drive a wedge in the human community--the forerunner of a great many wedges—between couples, between family members, between races, between nations—ultimately the reason for our wars. Punishments are visited upon the couple, the most important being expulsion from the Garden; this means they are excluded from access to the “Tree of Life,” intended to keep at bay their mortality, which now, however, will overtake them. Yet before casting them out, God “made for the man and his wife garments of skin, with which he clothed them,” to replace their fig leaves. In this way God shows His continuing love and care for them.
Today’s three reading hang together and support one another very well. In the second reading St. Paul connects to the theme of the Genesis passage and explains it this way: “through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned”: “all have sinned,” that is to say, “we all share in Adam’s sin because we have all ratified it through our personal sins.” A little further on Paul connects to our gospel reading: “For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of one, the many will be made righteous.”
The gospel ties in with this because it is all about the obedience of the “one man,” namely, Jesus. It blows our mind that Jesus was tempted by Satan, but it was part of His human condition. As the author of Hebrews puts it, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, but without sin.” But the account of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert is probably also to be understood as symbolic language; it tells us in a dramatized way about temptations Jesus actually encountered in His public ministry, situations in which He was tempted to use His power for wonderful signs, to prove He was the Messiah, without going the way of suffering intended by His Father. Would this be a real temptation for Jesus? Think of Gethsemane, where He prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; take this cup away from me.”
An example of what I mean: when the Jews said to Jesus, “give us this bread always,” they were not asking for bread alone, but for a sign that He was what He claimed to be; if He complied He would be accepted as Messiah, but without the suffering He was destined to undergo. Again, on the occasion when Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah, he tried to persuade Jesus not to say (or think) He had to suffer and die: this would be a temptation similar to the first: “How to Become Messiah without Tears.” On that occasion Jesus addresses Peter in almost the same terms as He did the Devil in the desert: “Get behind me, Satan.” On the cross the chief priests taunted Jesus: “Let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God’.” Just as Satan in the wilderness had tempted Him to prove Himself the Son of God, saying, “If you are the Son of God” do this, that, or the other thing. In each case, Jesus proved He was the Son of God, not by yielding to the easy course, but by being obedient to His Father. So the second reading tells us, “Through the obedience of one, the many were made righteous.”
So we’ve got it made, right? We’ve been made righteous! Not so fast! It’s not as though nothing is expected of us. If we are children of God, we, like the Son of God, must display obedience. Well, obedience to what? One of the commandments is “You shall not steal.” If you’re in a large department store and unobserved, are you tempted to make off with that expensive purse or with that iPad? How many of you are kleptomaniacs? (Raise hand) I didn’t think so. But there are lots of other commandments. It has truly been said, “If you overcome just one vice each year, you’ll soon be perfect.” I understood it this way when Abbot James exhorted us on Ash Wednesday to begin by “taking aim” at one particular failing. We might start by removing some of the wedges that separate the human community.
But St. James has advice more comprehensive: “If anyone does not fall short in speech,” he says, “he is a perfect man.” (I think it works for women, too.) So this is a shortcut to becoming perfect. But it isn’t easy. Many years ago when my sister was entertaining a group of ladies from the neighborhood, my brother-in-law, in collusion with a confederate, set up a tape recorder. He surreptitiously turned it on, wandered into the room, and innocently asked, “What do you girls think of that redhead who just moved into the block?” then wandered away. Later he came back and played for them what had been recorded. There was great embarrassment all around.
It ain’t really funny! St. James says: “The tongue is a fire. It exists among our members as world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire.” Strong language! Maybe we can make it our goal in Lent to control our tongues. (You say you’d rather fast?) If we do control our tongues, St. James says, we’ll be perfect. That’s a big order, but perhaps a measure of how hard it is. We can’t guarantee perfection, but let’s remember there’s that other way, i.e., of overcoming one vice each year. Perhaps a slower, but perhaps a surer way of gaining perfection. But if we begin by trying to control our tongues, we can be working toward perfection in both ways. A good aim for Lent.
Fr. Joseph Jensen
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- March 16, 2014
- Year A
- by Fr. Christopher
Gospel: Matthew 17: 1 – 8 The Transfiguration
As far as the east is from the west, so far in time is the call of Abram from the transfiguration of Jesus, Son David, Son of Abraham. And as far as the heavens are high above the earth so far are we in time from that Mount Tabor revelation of Jesus’ divine glory. What can those events in salvation history millennia ago mean for us as we enter the second week of Lent in the year of grace 2014?
Let’s start with Abram, renamed Abraham by God. Actually it starts with God. God had a plan for the salvation of mankind, calling us, as we heard from Paul’s letter to Timothy, ‘to a holy life …bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began.’ God chose Abraham, a wandering Aramaean, to be the father of nations, generation after generations, century after centuries down to what Paul called the fullness of time. God made great promises to Abraham: I will make your name great, make you a father of a great nation, a source of blessings to many. But God also asks a big sacrifice: Leave family and homeland and set out on a journey to a place I will show. Trusting that God would go with him, guide him on the journey and keep his promises, it says ‘Abraham went as the Lord directed him’.
Fast forward a couple thousand years. When the fullness of time came, God asked his Son to set out on an extraordinary journey that he might become the Savior of that stiff-necked, wayward people with whom he had made a covenant. The prophecies that preceded his coming were somewhat contradictory. Would he become the heir to the throne of David, ruling over a peaceful kingdom with all its boundaries secure and enemies subdued? Or would he become the suffering servant, who, Son though he was, would have to empty himself and take the form of a slave, be born in the likeness of men, accepting even death on a cross. Whatever fate awaited him, he was a Son, who when asked to go work in the vineyard, said ‘yes’ and went off and did it.
Fast forward two thousand years more. We claim, at least we strive to be, children of Abraham according to mode of Isaac, the child of promise. We claim, at least strive to be, adopted children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, our Savior. To validate those claims requires that we trek along a path, following in the footsteps of the obedient Son. He fulfilled the role of the suffering servant. We need to put on that mind of Christ as we pilgrimage toward the promise of life on high with him in resurrected glory. What that is really going to be like we can hardly imagine. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.”
What is required of us to complete the journey successfully? In the opening prayer for the Mass we addressed it to the God who commanded – a strong word - “Listen to my beloved Son”. We asked that he be pleased to nourish us inwardly with his Word, making our spiritual sight pure. And what for? So that we may rejoice to behold God’s glory.
God’s Word is effective, sharper than any two-edged sword. If we let it into our minds to penetrate down into our hearts, it has a transforming power to set us free from succumbing to the lies of Satan, from prideful delusions, from fear of death and judgment. God’s Spirit can act through the Word to change our stony hearts into fleshly ones, making them compassionate and merciful, patient and humble, like our Savior’s. Word means primarily the inspired scriptures but is also amplified by commentaries, the teachings of the magisterium, the doctors of the church and good spiritual writers. Lent is the season to make time for prospecting in that treasury of heritage for the nuggets of wisdom and everlasting truth they contain.
There is a short section in the Prologue that I think sums up nicely the message from today’s collect prayer and scriptures. In it Benedict wrote: “With our loins girded with faith and the observance of good works, let us set out on his journeys with the guidance of the Gospel, so that we may be worthy to see the one who has called us into his kingdom.”
Firstly it is God’s initiative, “the one who has called us into his kingdom”, and who asks us to “set out on his journeys.” Yes, his journeys, not our journeys, not something we might choose for ourselves. He gives us the destination; namely, the kingdom where we will see the glory of the one who is calling us. The Lenten journey is no tourist’s leisurely sightsee. It must be done with loins girded with faith and the observance of good works. So, we should want to be among those called. Faith and good deeds should be our walking sticks, while the guidance of the Gospel shows us the way. That is another way of saying, Listen to my Son.
May this holy season of Lent help us all advance along that trail up the mountains of self-sacrifice, going out of our comfort zones by showing genuine care and concern for the good of others, both temporal and eternal, avoiding Satan’s snares, knowing we are under the protection of God’s angels. Then we may rightly anticipate the celebration of Easter with joy and spiritual longing. If we make the way for God’s grace to move us from darkness of doubt to the light of truth, from vengeance to forgiveness, from anger to reconciliation, from a do-it-yourself attitude to gracious acceptance of God’s gift, from pride to humility, we can hope to arrive at the banquet hall of the God’s kingdom in his favor.
To the God who has called us, shown us the way, and prepared a destiny beyond compare, to the Holy Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be honor, praise, thanksgiving, obedience, and glory, now and forever. AMEN
Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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- March 19, 2014
- Year A
- by Fr. Joseph
Here I was yesterday, March 18th, and I was clueless as to what to say in my homily today. I was reluctant to call on St. Joseph yet again. However, I can struggle fruitlessly only so long, so I called for help. I didn't have to tell him what I wanted. He began with, “I suppose you have SOME idea of where you’d like to start?” “Well, I’ve been thinking, you died before Jesus began His public ministry, didn’t you?” “That’s correct.” “But in heaven you were certainly aware of all Mary was going through and would have wanted to help.” “Certainly.” “Weren’t there times when you were able to do something for her help and comfort? I mean, I’ve heard of any number of saints who seem to have had daily converse with—well, you and other saints. Certainly they were not more privileged than Mary.” “It’s not a question of privilege or even of sanctity. The saints you speak of probably needed that extra help or it contributed to the work they were called to do. But Mary’s way was the way of faith. After Gabriel’s visit there were no more angels in her life. Later angelic messages in those days came to me, not to her. The only divine message she received was that of Simeon: ‘You yourself a sword shall pierce.’
“But weren’t there times when you just ached to be near her, just to ease the pain of all she had to go through.” “Of course, and much of the time I was near her, but she was not conscious of my presence.” “Was there any time in particular that you remember?” St. Joseph breathed a long sigh. “Yes,” he said, “it was during Jesus’ passion.” I said, “Whoa! Doesn’t sound as though this would be the kind of homily I would normally give.” “That’s right. Well, that’s your problem, not mine,” and he got up to go; I know he wasn’t being callous—it was just a way of saying it wasn’t negotiable. So I said, “Please! I’m sure it will be fine.” “Besides,” he said “there have been complaints from Above”—he paused and raised his eyes heavenward –“that your St. Joseph homilies haven’t been sufficiently solemn for a solemnity. Furthermore, this is Lent”
“Well, to continue the story: Mary knew from all the disputes and confrontations with the chief priest and Pharisees, that Jesus would be arrested that evening, as in fact He was. She didn’t have any information until the morning. She learned from servants of the High Priest that He had been taken first to Annas, then to Caiphas, and finally to Pilate. She was able to join the crowd in Pilate’s courtyard and was crushed when the mob repudiated Jesus, when they chose Barabbas rather than Jesus, and finally called for His crucifixion. So Jesus was handed over to the Roman soldiers to be scourged and be made sport of. What went on in the hours the soldiers had him Mary could not know, but when He reemerged carrying His cross it was not hard to guess because of the blood which soaked through from scourging. And there was that dreadful crown of thorns on His head to torture and humiliate Him,
“In the meantime, a large crowd had gathered. You may know nothing of a lynch mentality; there isn’t much lynching in your society these days. But for some people there is a certain cruel attraction that draws them to an execution and causes them to execrate a condemned person, even one they may know nothing about; the whole crowd jeers, throws garbage and worse at him. They cheer when the executioner’s axe falls, or when the trap of one being hanged is sprung. And so it was with Jesus when He came forth carrying His cross. Poor Mary! There no way of describing the anguish in her heart when she saw such opprobrium visited on Jesus. For no reason; many there had witnessed His healings, heard His teaching, and His wonderful deeds.
“In the crowd there was one young man—a teenager, really—who took particular pleasure in pelting Jesus with stones. You might have thought he was preparing to be a major league pitcher, practicing his fast ball. For a while he was lost in the crowd, but when they arrived at Golgotha and the cross set up, there he was again. His shots were painful to Jesus and close up could be deadly. God gave me some insight into his soul; I understood that his mother had died just recently, very young and unexpectedly; he was angry and taking his anger out on Jesus. On this one special occasion of Mary’s need, I begged for leave to communicate. It was given power to impress my message directly on her heart, but it had to be very brief. A Latin phrase came to my mind which seemed to suit exactly. The words I impressed on Mary’s heart were “Monstra te esse matrem” “show yourself to be a mother.”
Mary approached him and said, “Why are you doing this?” He said to her, “What business is it of yours” she looked at him and said, “I’m His mother.” That made him a little shame-faced. Mary went on, “What’s your name?” “None of your business!” but then, noting the kindness in her voice, he said “Jonathan.” Mary went on, “Jonathan, I don’t think your mother would be proud of you for what you’re doing.” Then his face crumbled and he said, “My mother’s dead”; he could barely get the words out and then he broke down completely. Mary said, “I’m so sorry!” She put her arms around him, and when he responded with a show of gratitude, she said, “I’ll be your mother.”
It took a while for him to gain control of himself. But now he looked up at Jesus in a different way. He asked Mary, “Who is he?” Mary said, “Who is He? You can read the title Pilate put on the cross. He cured sick people, He raised dead people, He fed 5,000 in the desert. He taught us to love one another, He taught forgiveness, He taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.” “That’s not what I was taught: it should be ‘an eye for an eye.’” “Do you see those men in priestly robes mocking and taunting Him?” Mary asked, “That’s what they taught, but His teaching was so much more beautiful than theirs that they feared to lose their authority and hated Him for it. He forgives you for what you’ve been doing to Him.” He looked up, and Jesus nodded to him in confirmation. And just a moment later Jesus extended the forgiveness to all, saying, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” From that moment Jonathan turned his heart to Jesus. Now he saw a man standing next to Mary, whom she introduced as “John, His most beloved disciple.” Jesus, now obviously at His end said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son.” Jonathan realized He was giving her as mother to all who love and believe in Him—and so Jonathan knew she was now his mother in a new way.
Joseph now concluded, “Jonathan stayed with Mary, became a member of the Jerusalem community, cared for her and protected her. Mary told him about me, our life with Jesus, and how at the end she felt my presence and my impressing on her heart those words which led her to appeal to him, “Monstra te esse matre. “Show yourself to be a mother.” And that she has never ceased to do.
Fr. Joseph Jensen
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- March 21, 2014
- Year A
- by Abbot James
The following talk was given at a mass at the Abbey School
For many centuries, March 21 was the feast day of St. Benedict throughout the entire Church, but with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council about fifty years ago the feast was transferred in the Church's universal calendar to July 11, the traditional date when relics of the saint were transferred from Italy to a monastery in northern France. This had the advantage of moving the feast out of Lent, a solemn season not usually associated with much festivity. Happily, the Church authorities allowed us Benedictines to retain the traditional date of March 21, which enables us to celebrate it with our entire school community, something that would not be possible in July. This year, that date happens to fall on a Friday, the very end of our school's Benedictine Heritage Week, which makes it appropriate for me to say something about Benedictine life in general as well as how it relates to what we try to do in our school.
If you were paying close attention to the readings, you will have noticed that in one way or another they all have something to say about teaching, about knowledge, about wisdom. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the teacher par excellence, even suggesting that the term "teacher" might best be applied to him alone, although we know from other passages in the New Testament that various early followers of Jesus were also--and rightly--called teachers. (Among other things, this shows that we ought never single out any one verse as though it were the last word on a subject.) Indeed, in our second reading St. Paul tells his disciple Timothy: "What you heard from me through many witnesses, entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well" (2 Tim. 2:2). But the reading this afternoon that in some ways has the most relevance for Benedictine life is the first reading, from the book of Sirach, which says that "whoever fears the Lord … will come to wisdom" and that this wisdom, like a mother, will "nourish him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of learning to drink" (Sir. 15:1,3).
The reason I find this so relevant to Benedictine life is that monasticism has often, and with the rest of reasons, been called "a wisdom tradition." Now words can be defined in various ways, and some people probably don't make a sharp distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Careful users of the language, however, will point out that wisdom is really a matter of what one does with the knowledge at one's disposal. It's akin to good sense, a sense of judgment, a preeminent ability to reach intelligent conclusions on the sound foundation of experience, training, and maturity. In short, it allows us to lead lives in such a way as to reach a desired and worthy goal. If you read St. Benedict's Rule carefully, you will see that for him--and I hope for us as well--that goal is often referred to in terms of service: service of God and service to all those persons among whom we live. But if wisdom is not simply identical with knowledge, there is nevertheless a relationship, for without the kinds of knowledge that are imparted in a school like ours, you will not have the ability to serve your community, your nation, your fellow human beings in an effective way.
It is surely an instinctive sense of this that leads young men and women all over the world to crave a good education, above all in societies where this is not something you can take for granted. One of the most touching movies I've ever seen was directed by an Iranian woman who was then still in her late teens. Called Buddha Collapsed out of Shame, the movie was about a young Afghan girl, only six or seven years old, who lived in a part of that country where the Taliban had blown up some ancient Buddhist statues. Her one, all-consuming desire was to learn to read, even though her family was so poor that they didn't have a single printed book, and when the little girl finally obtained a simple notebook, the only writing instrument she could find was her mother's lipstick. The obstacles she met with as she walked to a fairly distant school and tried to get accepted into an outdoor class were terrible, leaving one with a keen sense of how much getting a good education can mean to a person.
That story was fictional, and I have no way of knowing if children in that part of Afghanistan still have so hard a time getting an education, but the continued existence of the Taliban may well make it so. It certainly has been a huge problem in neighboring Pakistan, where hundreds of schools have actually been blown up in recent years. We recently had as table reading at the monastery the book I Am Malala, written by the young woman who was nearly killed by a Taliban sympathizer because of her advocacy of education for girls. What's significant is that she has been campaigning for this not merely as something good in itself, though she would surely agree that we all have an innate desire to learn. No, Malala knows that it is only through education that we will be able to serve others in a noble and effective way. Once she recovered from her nearly fatal wound, she was invited to address the United Nations, and there in New York, before hundreds of representatives of most of the nations on earth, her speech included these words: "Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world."1
Someone like that can rightly get any of us thinking about how we are leading our own lives and to what extent we are taking advantage of the educational opportunities available to us. St. Benedict speaks of a monastery as being "a school for the Lord's service." He does, to be sure, begin the Prologue to his Rule in words that seem to imply that everyone in the monastery except the abbot is only a learner, but there are other parts of the Rule that clearly indicate that all the monks, including the abbot, are to learn from one another, since, as he says in chapter three, it may well be the youngest member of the community who has some special insight or recommendation to contribute on a given subject. I trust that those of us who teach in our school are willing to keep learning, both from our own ongoing study and from our students, but it is surely especially incumbent on you students to really be attentive and desirous of learning from your teachers. I know I do not speak only for myself in saying that we on the faculty work hard to present a solid foundation in whatever field we give instruction, and I hope that if perhaps some of you students are not always as attentive or respectful or docile as you might be, these reflections of mine will help you ponder what it is you are here for and how many huge advantages you have over children in many parts of the world who may not have even an indoor classroom or reliable electrical equipment of any sort, not even proper lighting.
Yes, wisdom--the ability to lead your life in a way that will enable you intelligently to reach worthwhile and noble goals--may be judged superior to knowledge alone, for knowledge by itself can be used for nefarious ends. But the wisdom of which we heard in the reading from the Book of Sirach will not be very productive without the solid foundation that you gain from the study of the natural and social sciences, mathematics and computer science, English and foreign languages, fine arts, and theology. I am well aware that there is more to a school than the academic program, and as I look back on my own high-school days I have fond memories of my participation in its sports program, the school newspaper, and the debate team. But at the heart of it all was what went on in the classroom, as well as in my own room at home as I prepared lessons for the next day's class. If you faithfully and perseveringly apply yourselves to the opportunities open to you here, you will unquestionably be laying the foundation for a fulfilled and fulfilling life. May we all strive together toward that end.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (New York: Little Brown and Co., 2013), 310.