Homilies - February 2015

Select a homily to read:
Fourth Sunday of the Year: February 1, 2015 by Fr. Philip Simo
Fourth Sunday of the Year: February 1, 2015 by Abbot James (at CUA)
Fifth Sunday of the Year: February 8, 2015 by Fr. Boniface Von Nell
Sixth Sunday of the Year: February 15, 2015 by Fr. Jan Dolny
Thanksgiving Mass in Honor of the 50th Jubilee Year of Ordination: February 14, 2015 by Fr. Michael Hall
Ash Wednesday: February 18, 2015 by Abbot James
Talk: Lenten Conference: February 19, 2015 by Abbot James
First Sunday of Lent: February 22, 2015 by Abbot James

Fourth Sunday of the Year

  • February 1, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Philip

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Fr. Philip Simo
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Fourth Sunday of the Year (at CUA)

  • February 1, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James

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When I selected this date for my once-a-semester celebration of the Eucharist with you, I had not yet looked at the readings. When I did—especially the second reading (1 Cor 7:32-35)—my first reaction was to regret my choice, but I actually came to be pleased with it because I appreciated the challenge. The way this passage from First Corinthians begins is confusing. St. Paul first says that he wants all of his readers to be free of anxieties. He goes on to say that the unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord, while the married man is anxious about the things of the world—especially about how he may please his wife—and such a man is divided. Well, is Paul saying that he wants even the unmarried man to be free of his anxiety about the things of God? A few commentators think so, but since Paul claims that only the married man is divided—presumably divided between serving the Lord on the one hand and his wife on the other—it is more likely that Paul finds only the anxieties of the married person to be regrettable. This also seems to be in accord with what he had writes some verses earlier: that he wishes everyone would be as he is, unmarried, though he admits that this is unrealistic and not even willed by God.

In any case, this teaching surely had its influence on some later, very influential Christian thinkers like St. Augustine of Hippo, who taught that marriage was a state tolerated by God for the benefit of the human race through the procreation of children, but that sexual intercourse was so bound up with concupiscence that it could hardly be engaged in at all without some measure of sin. Somewhat more affirmatively, St. Thomas Aquinas did, in theory, find positive value in the joys of marriage, but he felt that, in practice, intercourse could hardly be devoid of some sinfulness because the intensity of its physical pleasure deprives one momentarily of the use of the highest human faculty, reason. A modern appreciation of the positive value of sexual love in marriage seems to have found its first solid base in the eighteenth century in the writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori, for whom the purpose of obtaining pleasure was a legitimate reason for marrying, though even then only as an accidental end.1

Only in the twentieth century did attitudes really begin to change, first in the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand in the 1920s, later in the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church in the modern world, where we find such positive statements as the following: “Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power…. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner that is truly human, these acts promote the mutual self-giving by which the spouses enrich each other.”

That sounds wonderful, but is it too good to be true? One of the ground-breaking books affirming its truth was titled The Freedom of Sexual Love, published in the late 1960s by a Catholic couple named Joseph and Lois Bird. Their book was quite likely influenced by that Vatican II document and would probably not have been written some years earlier. Their own experience as husband and wife convinced them that their intimate sexual union was for them something both physical and spiritual, a way of turning not only to each other but to God. They admitted, however, that this would not necessarily be the experience of the newly married. In their words, “Discovering the experience of Christ in the sexual union is a reward which is found not in a blinding flash of insight, but through gradual awareness, paralleling the growth of husband and wife toward the goal of mutual sanctity. It is the marriage, the total relationship, which must mature.”2 But when that maturity is present, a woman might be able to echo the words of one wife quoted in the book, who said: “At the moment of climax, when I feel my husband flow into me, it’s like a tremendous infusion of grace.”3 Clearly this reflects a healthy and laudable sense of oneness, not the division that St. Paul seems to have considered inevitable in what he said about the anxieties of the married man or woman.

It is also surely true—and those of you who are married could no doubt vouch for the fact—that the number of years a couple has been married is not at all necessarily a gauge of ever-increasing maturity. However, even when things have gone wrong, to the very point of threatening the ongoing existence of the marriage, there is always the possibility of turning things around. In a magazine that we received at the abbey a few months ago there was a truly inspiring article by a couple named Jim and Nancy Rizzi, now married for fifty years but not without some really serious struggles along the way. The husband wrote: “I entered marriage with a lot of expectations … but life never turns out how we imagine it!... I started chasing after something difficult to attain and ultimately unfulfilling—accumulating wealth. Nancy and I settled into a routine; we were a married couple but living as though we had our separate lives.” His wife agreed, saying: “Over time we lost our priority of having God at the center of our marriage. The attitudes of our culture were affecting us, so we each started living for ourselves, running on parallel tracks.”

Obviously, theirs was a marriage in danger of falling apart. Their turning point was a Marriage Encounter weekend, which taught them a lot about communication—communication with each other and with the Lord. They began to take time to stop and talk to each other each day, to say simple prayers with each other, to ask for forgiveness when one of them had offended the other, to recognize that genuine love is not a feeling but a decision. As Nancy said, “We know now that the marriage vows are a reality beyond the words you say on your wedding day. It wasn’t until we went through trying times that the vows became flesh and called us to a deeper commitment.” Her final words to couples were these: “Choose to love, to keep working, to keep letting go of negativity and see the goodness of the other. Ultimately, you will find joy.4

Whether married or celibate, may all of us keep letting go of negativity, keep looking for the goodness in those with whom we live and work, and so come to experience something of the joy that our loving God wishes for every one of us.


Abbot James Wiseman
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1 This rapid survey is based on Msgr. J.D. Conway, Foreword to Joseph W. and Lois F. Bird, The Freedom of Sexual Love (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 10-14.
2 Joseph and Lois Bird, 151.
3 Ibid., 148.
4 “Nancy and Jim: A Look at Marriage with New Eyes,” Imprint: A Publication of the Sisters of New Life (Winter 2014), n. p.


Fifth Sunday of the Year

Suffering, especially the undeserved suffering of the innocent is one of the most distressing problems that face human beings. There are no simplistic and definite answers. For many, it brings them to a denial of God. For a believer, it is more difficult, as it has to do directly with God.1

Suffering touches each one of us; it is part of the human condition: sickness, loss, and death. Then there are the even more horrific examples: the suffering caused by natural disasters and the intrigues of evil human beings which result in such atrocities as the holocaust or those perpetrated by ISIS today. We all have had to come to grips with the question that Job asks when confronted by our suffering, the sufferings of our loved ones and in the world in general. Where is a just and merciful God in all this?

Job, a rich and just man, is overwhelmed by one catastrophe after another. God has allowed Satan (the “tempter”, not yet the devil) to test Job, an upright man, faithful to God. Job, unaware of the agreement, loses his children, all his possessions; he is stricken with a hideous disease and reduced to being a beggar. Friends visit Job and are quick to give the usual explanation: “Either God has punished you for your sins, or he has unjustly abandoned you. Job protests his innocence to his friends and is stung by God’s silence in the face of his incomprehensible suffering.2

In the progress of the book, Job and his friends find no answer to the mystery. At the end, God reveals himself, the God to whom Job had pleaded his case. In this theophany, God does not take the trouble to defend himself, but affirms his wisdom as against the wisdom of human beings: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know “(Job 38:4-5). The world is full of the mystery of God’s wisdom, in spite of its paradoxes.3

The Book of Job does not offer a way to understand suffering and evil but a way to live with it. The experience of Job is that one can live with suffering and evil only when God is made manifest to us by an insight into the reality and mystery of God.i

God has manifested himself to us too: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1). The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. He entered space and time and suffering. He came like a lover seeking above all intimacy, presence and togetherness with us. Job was satisfied even though the God who appeared to him gave him absolutely no answer to all his questions. In Jesus God did the most important thing and gave the most important gift: himself. It is a lover’s gift. Out of our tears, our waiting, our aloneness, our weeping, and our cry, he came, right into that cry.5

He is there with us. That is what matters. Are we broken? He is broken with us. Are we rejected? He was “despised and rejected of men.” Do we weep? Do we ever say, “Oh, no, not again! I can’t take it anymore!” “He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Is our love betrayed? He too loved and was betrayed by the ones he loved. Does it seem sometimes as if life has passed us by? He too was passed over by the world. His way of suffering-love is rejected; his own followers often the most guilty. 6

He descends into all our hells, even the hell of the death camps. He descends into the darkness of insanity, He finds or makes light even in the darkness of the mind. By his death and resurrection he has smashed open the darkest door of all, the one leading to the realm of death. It is not merely that he rose from the dead, but that he changed the meaning of death, and therefore of all the little deaths of suffering that precede death and make up part of it.7

He came, he became one of us, he is here with us still. If he does not heal all our broken bones and whatever breaks us, he comes into them and is broken with us. And he shows us that we can use our very brokenness to heal others. Since we are members of his body, united to him, we too can be broken with and for others for their healing. All our sufferings can therefore be transformed into his work. We are really his body. That is why Paul says: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church” (Col 1:24).8

God’s answer to suffering happened not only 2000 years ago, but continues to happen in our own lives. All our suffering can become part of his work, the greatest work ever done, the work of salvation, of helping to win the kingdom of eternal joy for others. This can be done only if we believe. Faith is not just a mental assent within us; it is a cooperation with him. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone…opens the door, I will come in and eat with him” (Rev 3:20). To believe, according to John’s gospel, is to receive what God has already done. Our part is to receive God’s work and let it work itself out in and through our lives, including our tears. We offer it up and God really takes it, transforms it, and uses it in ways so powerful we would be astounded if we but knew them now.9

Suffering is Christ’s invitation to follow him. Christ went to the cross and we are invited to follow him to the same cross. Not because it is the cross, but because it is his. Suffering is not the setting that explains the cross; the cross is the setting that explains suffering. True love is willing to suffer. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that whenever he looked at a crucifix, Christ’s five wounds appeared to him as lips saying, “I love you.”10

Because of the resurrection, when all our tears are wiped away, incredibly, we will look back at them and laugh, not in derision but in joy. We do a little of that even now when a great crisis has passed. It looks very different when we look back from when we saw it as future or present. The great St. Teresa of Avila who could always be counted on for just the right word said that from heaven the most miserable earthly life will look like one bad night spent in an inconvenient hotel. And may that God bring us all together into that everlasting life where God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:2, 4).

Abbot James Wiseman
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1Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, v.5, Ordinary Time, Year B (Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 1993) 43
2 Roland J. Faley, Footprints on the Mountain (N.Y., Paulist Press, 1994) 141
3 John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee, Bruce, 1965) 441
4 McKenzie, 442
5 http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/suffering.htm 1,2
6 http//www.peterkreeft.com//topics/suffering.htm 2
7 http//www.peterkreeft.com//topics/suffering.htm 2,3
8 http//www.peterkreeft.com//topics/suffering.htm 3
9 http//www.peterkreeft.com//topics/suffering.httm 4
10 http//www.peterkreeft.com//topics/suffering.httm 4

Sixth Sunday of the Year

  • February 15, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Jan Dolny

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Fr. Jan Dolny
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Thanksgiving Mass in Honor of the 50th Jubilee Year of Ordination

  • February 14, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Michael Hall

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Fr. Michael Hall
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Ash Wednesday

In just a few minutes, and for some of us for the fortieth, fiftieth, sixtieth, or seventieth time, we will have ashes placed on our foreheads in the form of a cross. As this is done, the Missal gives the celebrant a choice of which words to say: either “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” My guess is that the first is by far the most frequently chosen, and perhaps this year it would be especially appropriate inasmuch as 2015, like every third year before it, has on most Sundays readings from the Gospel of Mark, in whose gospel the very first words of Jesus are these: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Yes, “repent.” The entire season of Lent is preeminently a time for repentance, for a change of heart and mind that is meant to help us better prepare for the great feast of Easter six and a half weeks from now.

This morning, however, I have chosen the second set of words, themselves appropriate every Lent because it is only through dying that we can come to the goal of every Christian life—resurrection through the power of the risen Christ to the joy of an eternal Easter. This is surely among the reasons why St. Benedict, as one of the tools of good works in the fourth chapter of his Rule, says that we should keep death daily before our eyes, even as he ends his prologue with similar words, saying that if we observe God’s teaching “in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” Those of us who have lived at St. Anselm’s for some decades know from experience the value of such words, for some of our brothers have been taken away in death without any clear expectation that it was so near. When Fr. Thomas Fahy got out of bed on the morning of October 6, 2008, he certainly didn’t foresee the automobile accident that would take his life before nightfall that very day, and when Fr. Patrick Granfield arose on Easter Monday last year, he surely did not suspect that that would be his last full day on earth. We trust that these brothers of ours were nevertheless ready when their hour came, for such readiness has always been a hallmark of a genuine Christian.

When one considers the almost oppressive fear of death that afflicts some people, it is all the more impressive to note how radically different was the attitude of someone like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She often said that there is no need to fear death, since, in her words, “death is something beautiful: it means going home,” going home to God. She likewise loved to recount the wonderful contentment of the thousands of persons whose earthly lives ended in her Homes for the Dying. One such man told her: “I have lived like an animal in the street but I am going to die like an angel—loved and cared for.”1

Others who care for the sick have noted how the conviction that one is destined for a heavenly homeland has enabled even young children to make definite and appropriate decisions about their medical care. Sr. Margaret Sheffield, while working among terminally ill children at a hospital in Alaska, tells of a twelve-year-old girl, Karen, who was dying of leukemia and who one day unexpectedly announced to the doctor who had just given her an injection:

That’s the very last time you are going to prick me. From now on I will not let you put another needle in me. I’m so tired of all this. It won’t ever do a bit of good. All I want now is to go to heaven. I’m just waiting. Why does God make me wait so long? I’m all ready to go.2

Sheffield reports that the girl then entered into the most peaceful period of her three-year struggle with the disease. All aggressive treatment was terminated and replaced with the simple administration of pain medication. Karen was alert and comfortable for the following three days, said all her “good byes” and, surrounded by her family, slipped into a coma and shortly thereafter expired. Without necessarily being well-versed in all the scriptural terminology of heavenly dwelling places, she had firmly grasped the reality of Christian faith and in so doing was enabled to die a grace-filled death.

This morning we cannot help but think of others who just last Sunday met death in a terribly violent but simultaneously exemplary, faith-filled way. I refer to the twenty-one Coptic Christians who were so brutally murdered—beheaded—on a beach in Libya by fanatic Islamic extremists. They died with words on their lips that we trust will be precursors of ours at the time of our deaths, words such as “Jesus, help me” or “my Lord, Jesus.” Sadly, they are only relatively few of the thousands and thousands of Christians who have been suffering exile, torture, or death at the hands of such brutal men in that part of the world in recent times. For us, they may seem far removed, persons with names that we may not even know how properly to pronounce—Abanub Ayad Atiya, Maged Solaimain Shehata, Yusuf Shukry Yunan—but each of them and the other eighteen were beloved sons, husbands, fathers of persons left behind in their Egyptian village, men who are tearfully mourned even though they may rightly be seen as martyrs, more to be prayed to than prayed for.

We ourselves may not be able to give immediate help to their grieving families, but at the very least we can commit ourselves to living this Lent in a way that will make us better prepared than ever for the death that inevitably awaits each one of us. The ashes that will soon be placed on our foreheads will be washed away by evening, but may the mark of the cross remain in our minds and in our hearts throughout these forty days, witnessing not only to our faith in our saving God and to our hope one day to be united with God in heavenly bliss but also to the love that Christ says is to be extended even to our enemies. As we pray to these Coptic martyrs, may we also pray for their killers and, as Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani reminded us in his fine talk here last Thursday night, pray as well for all those in the Muslim world who are giving interpretations of the Qur’an far different from the hateful, twisted message of ISIS and similar groups. Jesus, help us. Jesus, help them.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Mother Teresa of Calcutta, My Life for the Poor, ed José Luis González-Balado and Janet N. Playfoot (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 89-90.
2 Margaret Sheffield, “Conversations with Dying Children,” Spiritual Life 33 (1987):33.

Talk: Lenten Conference

  • February 19, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James

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This will not be a Lenten talk in any traditional sense of the term. However, it will focus on some important aspects of monastic life at this particular monastery at this particular time. Let me begin by recounting something that one of the superiors said in informal conversation at the recent meeting in Cullman, Alabama. This was a sister who is prioress of a relatively small community in a rural part of the country, and she told me that she and the other sisters are very seriously considering a move to an urban area, apparently in the hope that they might thereby become more visible and attract more vocations. By some traditional standards, that might sound like a wrongheaded move. After all, the early monks back in the third and fourth century intentionally fled the cities for the solitude of deserted areas, giving rise to a phrase that captures the change they wrought and that became the title of a rather well-known book about early monasticism: The Desert a City. I also recall several decades ago that Rembert Weakland, when he was abbot primate and visiting here from Rome, gave us a talk about urban monasticism, certainly mentioning its values but also implying that the very existence of a monastery like ours or Newark Abbey might have to be justified in light of the fact that most monasteries in history have been located in more isolated areas (even though towns often grew up around them).

Now there are obviously many ways in which we could improve our own way of life, above all through what we often call “ongoing conversion”—trying to take on every more closely the mind of Christ, as St. Paul says at the beginning of the second chapter of the letter to the Philippians. Just as obviously, there are some ways in which the city around us offers temptations to laxity that would not be so evident if we were located in an area as relatively remote as, say, Christ in the Desert or Valyermo or Weston Priory. But there is also a sense in which we could rightly be said to have the best of both worlds if only we take advantage of all that our location offers us. First-time visitors regularly remark on the relative quiet of our property, despite the occasional sirens of ambulances and fire trucks and the noise of motorcycles on South Dakota Avenue. Some of our guests even use the word “oasis” of our property. And however busy we can become at times, I expect that the hectic pace followed by some businessmen or lawmakers downtown is normally not reflected in our own lives. There is a real value in the balanced round of prayer, work, rest and recreation, and if sometimes it can be a chore to put aside what one is doing in order to come here to our church for Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours, on the whole this should be seen as a blessing. I mentioned the other evening at recreation that I met Fr. Ed Markley down at St. Bernard a few weeks ago. He recalled a lot of incidents from his three years here, and one thing that he said he never forgot is what another student guest, Hugh Feiss, said to him one evening at the end of recreation when the buzzer for Compline sounded. Ed said, “Well, I guess we have to go to choir now,” to which Hugh replied, very seriously and not at all jokingly, “You mean, we get to go to choir now.” Even if we may not always feel that way, to pray in common with one’s brethren several times a day really is a privilege that most people don’t have.

If that is among the blessings of the more secluded aspects of our life, we should also keep in mind the genuine blessings that come from living in a world-class city like Washington. As a somewhat minor example, I think we’d all agree that exactly a week ago Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani gave us a very informative and inspiring talk about his work in trying to bring about understanding among people of different religions as well as working to overcome extremism among his fellow Muslims. If we were located somewhere in the midst of the Great Plains, there’d be little chance to hear someone like that without a lot of difficulty, including expensive travel, whereas this man’s office is right here in Northeast Washington, just a fifteen-minute drive away. So, too, near the end of March a former colleague of mine from CUA who is one of the world’s leading authorities on an important social and educational movement led by a prominent Turkish scholar and preacher will come speak to us about that, again something that is easily possible because we are just a few minutes away from the campus where Professor Valkenberg teaches. And then there are all of Washington’s magnificent museums that people travel hundreds and thousands of miles to visit but that are right at our fingertips, many of them with free admission either every day or at least on some days each month. As I’ve said before in one or another homily, Pope Benedict once wrote that the two things in Christianity most apt to attract others are the saints and Christian art, and of the latter there is an abundance not only on permanent exhibit at places like the National Gallery but also in occasional exhibitions such as the wonderful show Picturing Mary that some of us saw last month at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

It would be easy to go on and on, but my main point is one that was summed up several decades ago in Pope Paul VI’s important encyclical Populorum Progressio. Despite the fact that some narrow-minded spiritual writers have at times scorned the monuments of human culture, Pope Paul was clear that since we are not pure spirits, we should never neglect those areas of human life that he called “the growth of knowledge [and] the acquisition of culture.” It is also a privilege for those of us who teach in our school to be able to open up such treasures to our students in all the different fields of study that are available to them: literature, languages, the fine arts, the social and natural sciences, math, theology, and any that I might be overlooking. To be sure, as Pope Paul said in that same encyclical, the supreme values are those covered by the theological virtues—the faith, hope, and love that have God as their direct and immediate end—but any life that focused only on those would surely be truncated.

As I said at the beginning, this doesn’t sound like a traditional Lenten conference. St. Benedict rightly says in chapter 49 of his Rule that there are certain things one should deny oneself during this season, but it would not be wrong to add that there are also some things that one might add: not only somewhat more prayer and spiritual reading than at other times, but also somewhat more of those values that Pope Paul included under the rubric “acquisition of culture.” We are undoubtedly blessed by the riches around us, and if we can partake of them in a balanced way, we will surely grow toward the full humanity that God wishes for every one of his sons and daughters. That so many people in the world are deprived of the very possibility of so partaking is tragic: I think of the tens of thousands of refugees living in tents, suffering from terrible diseases and from threats of unspeakable violence, and we should do whatever we reasonably can to assist them, even as we gratefully recognize that the blessings that we enjoy are undeserved and could indeed be taken away in ways unforeseen. And since we cannot possibly know if what we now have will last, we should make our own the prayerful words of Dag Hammarsköld with which I will conclude: “For all that has been — thanks. For all that will be — yes.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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First Sunday of Lent

Lent has many themes: repentance, simplicity, discipleship, the meaning of suffering. Another might be movement. Going from one place to another, travel, journey, pilgrimage. We can picture this geographically: the Israelites leave Egypt. They move and muddle haphazardly through the wilderness for forty years until they enter the promised land. Or we can think about the great arc of salvation history: our first parents making the prototypical mistake representing our failures; the tragedy being corrected by Jesus as New Adam; his achievement allowing humans to move cosmically towards the new Jerusalem.

Or we can consider our own journey through life. We can evaluate how closely our lives conform to the humility and happiness of Jesus. We could map them to see how linear or circular or stagnant they seem. We can consider how we deal with new experience. Do we welcome it and use it constructively—as Jesus did in his arduous forty-day testing in the wilderness? Or, do we differ from his straightforward wrestling with his demons? Do we evade, avoid, and look for an escape route? Do we refuse the material that God is offering us to work with?

These are hard questions. They are summed up by the title of a great mural painted by Paul Gaugin. He entitled it, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” These are profound and engaging questions to consider in the season of Lent. They are the questions Jesus must have dealt with for himself in his temptation period. Two of them, interestingly, come straight from the Bible. I wonder whether Gaugin knew this—he doesn’t seem like much of a Bible reader. Or did they just pop into his head from the great reservoir of human experience.

“Where have you come from? Where are you going?” The questions are asked by an angel in the obscure scriptural side-story of Hagar. She is the servant girl to Sarah, who encourages Hagar to bear Abraham’s child. But when the baby comes, Sarah resents Hagar and Ishmael. This is totally unfair, since Sarah came up with the idea initially. Hagar is cast out, and finds herself and the baby in the desert about to perish. God’s messenger appears, either internally or externally. He asks, “Where have you come from? Where are you going?” Hagar answers, “I am running away,” and (she might have added) am perfectly justified in doing so. The voice convinces her that this is not the solution; it is counter-productive and self-defeating. She must humble herself to go back. There she will learn the survival skills necessary for Ishmael to grow up and fulfill a heroic destiny. Thus Hagar in an odd way exemplifies the difficulties and successes of following God’s will. She shows how to navigate through when things seem unfair and difficult. We long for more details. Just as we are tantalized by the brevity of Jesus’ temptation story. Both stories push us to find out for ourselves how to overcome the obstacles that arise.

Paul Gaugin overcame his obstacles by leaving the comfort and familiarity of middle-class France. He went as far as Tahiti to find new artistic inspiration. There he found paradise, in the colors, the simplicity, the beautiful women. Van Gogh was severely disappointed by Gaugin staying in Tahiti, when the two of them had planned to work together in France. Was his choice escapist or adventurous, avoidant or receptive? There are so many open questions about the mystery of a life. His great mural shows the questions, without giving final answers.

Where have we come from? There is a baby on one side of the mural, sleeping and blissfully unaware. He suggests that in order to grow, we have to wake up and feel the pain.

What are we? In the middle of the mural we see several life-giving activities. Two women walk arm-in-arm absorbed in earnest conversation. They are balanced by a solitary figure on the other side, walking alone but not isolated: she is a contemplative. In the middle a boy stretches as high as he can to pluck a mango from the tree. Does this represent forbidden fruit, or is it a healthy spiritual yearning which reaches for the ultimate? This seems more likely, as he immediately shares the juicy fruit with his little sister sitting nearby; he doesn’t keep it for himself.

Where are we going? On the far side of the canvas an old woman is turning gray and rigid; the life-force is leaving her body. She is not alone; a loving granddaughter keeps vigil beside her. Although this seems to show the futility of life ending, Gaugin tantalizes us with some cryptic suggestions. Behind the woman is an indigenous idol. Gaugin shows this as a representation of divine mystery. Nearby is a white bird which we might recognize as Spirit, or flight, or joy. And the whole mural is set in a tropical paradise. What does this say about the world we live in, and the world we hope for?

In Lent we hear many stories, about our spiritual ancestors and our savior Jesus Christ. We remember Moses, leading his people out of slavery and into the promised land. We ponder Jesus’ temptation, his transfiguration, his ministry, his suffering. We see his determined, intentional movement toward the cross. We learn that he did all this to enter our experience and transform it.

Lent, like life, is not an end in itself; it is an opportunity. It offers time to root and deepen; it pushes us toward the place we are meant to find. It offers the excitement and possibility of discovery. It allows us to ask questions, and test out answers. We can learn by making mistakes.

I can’t tell you what Lent should be for you. It is so many things. It is highly personal, uniquely individual, though we travel by the side of others. But I can remind you that, even in pain and difficulty, Lent moves you toward Easter. There we find that resurrection comes out of death. There we find Jesus’ hand. Though his hand often seems absent, in actuality it is stretched out to greet, welcome, and help us step up to the next level.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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