Homilies - May 2015
Select a homily to read:
Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 3, 2015 by Fr. Joseph Jensen
Talk: Symposium on Immigration: May 7, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 10, 2015 by Fr. Christopher Wyvill
Ascension of the Lord: May 17, 2015 by Fr. Christopher Wyvill (at St. Matthew's Cathedral)
Talk: God and Prayer: May 21, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Pentecost Sunday: May 24, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
The Most Holy Trinity: May 31, 2015 by Fr. Philip Simo
The gospels show that Jesus loved to teach in parables. Matthew even says, "All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke nothing to them except in parables." In John, however, Jesus usually speaks in allegory and the word "parable" doesn=t appear. A parable is a simple story which contains a message. According to Aristotle, a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. As an example, Luke has a parable of the Good Shepherd. A man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray (beginning); he goes in search of it and finds it and brings it home (middle); he calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him (end).
John also has a passage on the Good Shepherd, as we heard last Sunday, but that is an allegory, not a parable. Allegory is defined as a prolonged metaphor in which a series of actions are symbolic of other actions, while characters are often personifications.
Jesus, in last Sunday's gospel, doesn't tell a story; He paints a picture. Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," so we are not left to guess who Good Shepherd represents. Each of the elements has a symbolic meaning: gate, the sheepfold, hearing the voice, the other sheep, the one sheepfold.
In today's gospel, like last Sunday's of the Good Shepherd, what Jesus says of the vine does not tell a story but paints a picture. The symbolic meaning of each element is fairly clear and needs little explanation. Again Jesus identifies Himself as the "true vine," so we know at once what the vine symbolizes; His Father, He tells us, is the "vinedresser." Each of us is a branch. The lectionary translation has "he prunes," that is, "trims," for the farmer's action. "To prune" is, indeed, the proper term for what one does to make the vine more fruitful, but the Greek here actually has Jesus saying "he cleanses." Jesus says, "you are already cleansed," and this makes us think of the foot washing at the last supper, when Jesus pronounces His disciples to be clean (all except Judas). (The lectionary's phrase "you are pruned" is neither accurate nor does it make good sense here.)
It is easy to grasp that each branch is sustained by and draws nourishment from the vine, so we understand the conclusion, "without me you can do nothing." Likewise, it is not difficult to assign a meaning to the branches cut off and withered and cast into the fire to burn.
It seems to me that this allegory has much in common with Jesus' "Bread of Life" discourse in chapter 6 of John's gospel. Both express the same truth, but in different ways, one symbolically, the other in more concrete terms; but both suggest nourishment from Jesus; He says that unless the branch remains united to the vine, it will have no nourishment ("without me you can do nothing"), so likewise "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you." In chapter 6 He says further, "whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him"; today, as the true vine, He says, "Remain in me, as I remain in you."
The allegory of the vine can help us understand and appreciate the Eucharist and the Mass. Our dependence on Jesus and His grace is constant, just as the health of branch on the vine is constant. Jesus' union with us through Mass and Eucharist is not momentary, only during the action itself, for He says, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him."
Twice in today's gospel Jesus makes reference to bearing much fruit: first, He says that in order to bear much fruit the disciple must remain in Him; and at the end Jesus says that the Father is glorified by the disciple bearing much fruit. But the allegory does not make clear is what Jesus means when He speaks of "bearing much fruit." We can note that right after Jesus says: "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you to go and bear fruit that will remain." And immediately, "This I command you: love one another." I think the close sequence of "bearing fruit" and "loving one another" suggests a connection. Jesus has given us His new commandment, and nine times in the Johannine literature it is repeated: "love one another," sometimes with the addition, "as I have loved you." However, there is another place in John where there is reference to "bearing much fruit." Referring to His passion and death, He says, "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." Jesus' suffering and death are the supreme example of unselfish love, and He indicates something of the sort of love we must have in order "to bear much fruit." "Love" is not simply a feeling, an emotion but something concrete, a willingness to help others even with some cost to oneself.
There is a story I have used in a homily once before, but it is meaningful and relevant here; it is worth telling again. When John was very old and had to be carried in the arms of his disciples, we are told, his message was always, "Little children, love one another." His disciples, tired of hearing the same thing over and over again, asked why he always said that. The reply was, "It was His commandment; and if you do that, nothing else is needed."
Fr. Joseph Jensen
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- May 7, 2015
- Year B
- by Abbot James
In this year that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, I’m going to begin this homily with a brief history lesson. The Catholic Church recognizes a total of only 21 ecumenical councils, beginning with the First Council of Nicea in the year 325, and I expect most historians would say that the five most influential councils were that one at Nicea, Chalcedon about a century later, the Fourth Lateran Council during the high Middle Ages, the Council of Trent at the time of the Protestant Reformation, and Vatican II. But guess what! You could make a strong case that the most important council of all did not even make that list of 21. It’s the one we heard about in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a continuation of yesterday’s first reading. It is usually called the Council of Jerusalem, a gathering of the early leaders of the church, all of them born Jews, in order to confront the issue of what obligations would be imposed on Gentile converts. As you heard yesterday if you attended Mass then, after their missionary journey through Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas arrived in Antioch of Syria and joyfully proclaimed how the Lord had opened the “door of faith” to the Gentiles, but some Christians there were very upset that Paul was not requiring these new converts to observe all the precepts of the Mosaic Law, such as circumcision and a plethora of dietary regulations. The controversy was so heated that Paul and Barnabas were sent down to Jerusalem to get the matter settled.
That’s where today’s reading began, with the words: “After much debate had taken place, Peter got up” and spoke. Although he and Paul later had some disagreement back in Antioch, here at the Council of Jerusalem they were of one mind. In Peter’s words, “Why are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of [these new] disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” When Peter finished speaking, the controversy was settled when James proposed a compromise: Gentile converts would not have to observe the entire Mosaic law, but only certain provisions of it. This was crucial for the entire later history of the Church, for if those who had been insisting on much more had had their way, what we call the “catholic” or “universal” church might well have remained just a minor movement within Judaism. The great theologian Karl Rahner was therefore surely correct when he once wrote that this Council of Jerusalem was arguably the most important one in the history of the Church.
Now you might be wondering whether this “history lesson” has anything much to say to us today. I think it does, and not least with respect to the topic of our morning’s symposium, for here, too, we are faced with a very contentious issue that provokes as much heated debate as that which once took place in Antioch and Jerusalem. I don’t at all pretend that there are simply two sides to the issue, for there is a whole spectrum of positions possible, with all sorts of nuances and qualifications. Moreover, as one of today’s participants recently brought to my attention, current data indicate that we may well be overlooking the immigration issues that matter the most today, such as the fact that two years ago China replaced Mexico as the country sending the most immigrants here, that the influx of young and unaccompanied minors from Central America has declined dramatically over the past year, and that there are now more Mexicans returning to their native land than are coming into the U.S., according to data from both countries.1 Nevertheless, there remain millions of undocumented or illegal immigrants in the United States, and this does raise lingering and thorny questions. For simplicity’s sake, let me illustrate two stances that point in rather different directions.
If you are familiar with monastic life, you know that our final prayer service each day is called Compline, which we regularly begin with a short reading. This year we have been using a little book with readings for each day of the year. Some of them are by well-known persons like Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Henri Nouwen, but there is also an interesting one by a man about whom I know nothing more than his name, Miguel de la Torre, and what he here says about himself.:
If I could say anything to the American people, what I would say is that we are coming because of the poverty that we are forced to live in and that we just want to try to reach that dream, the dream of being able to work and provide for our families. Each one of us that you find in the desert has left behind a family that we loved. Many of us end up lost in the desert, and some of us die. Our families will never hear from us again or know what has happened to us. We who are called wetbacks are just coming to work, so please have some compassion for us when we are risking our lives in the desert. I have twenty [companions] and all of us work hard on the farm. They work the land just as I do. Look at my hands. You can see the calluses on them from working the land. My hands are proof that what I am saying is true.2
Accounts like that, especially the man’s request for understanding and compassion, have led many to do whatever they can to assist immigrants in such ways as getting permission to remain in this country if they can show they would be at severe risk for their very life if deported. But beyond the specific case of refugees who have a clear right to seek asylum, there are those like Miguel de la Torre who are often helped to find a place to live, employment, and the like. Those who assist the Miguels of the world are guided by such teachings as those found in the document titled Strangers No More, issued jointly by the Mexican and American bishops a dozen years ago. At one point, those bishops wrote: “Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary” (no. 38). And then in the conclusion of the entire document, the bishops said: “In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere. As a sacrament of unity and thus a sign and a binding force for the whole human race, the Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized and accepted as brothers and sisters. It is the task of the various dioceses actively to ensure that these people, who are obliged to live outside the safety net of civil society, may find a sense of brotherhood in the Christian community. Solidarity means taking responsibility for those in trouble” (no. 103).
There are, however, others who emphasize a rather different side of this picture. They point out that those who have entered this country surreptitiously, whether by climbing over a fence in the Arizona desert or crossing the Rio Grande in South Texas under cover of darkness, are knowingly breaking the law and must take responsibility for their illegal behavior if apprehended. For example, a woman named Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and co-author of a book titled The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan than Today’s, said the following in a speech she gave this past February in Naples, Florida:
… We must reassert the primacy of the rule of law. At the very least, this means rehabilitating deportation and ceasing to normalize illegal immigration with our huge array of sanctuary policies….
…People who come into the country illegally or overstay their visas do so knowingly. They assume the risk of illegal status; it is not our moral responsibility to wipe it away….
Immigration is not a service we provide to the rest of the world. Yes, we are a nation of immigrants and will continue to be one. No other country welcomes as many newcomers. But rewarding [or simply turning a blind eye to] illegal immigration does an injustice to the many legal immigrants who played by the rules to get here. We owe it to them and to ourselves to adhere to the law.3
I think these few quotations help give a sense of why the issue of migration or immigration is so contentious. But that question of how to treat Gentile converts in the early Church was also difficult. What helped solve that problem was a spirit of compromise: neither side got entirely what it wanted, but the decision reached at the Council of Jerusalem proved acceptable and salutary. Those of us gathered here may not have the level of authority held by those so-called “pillars” of the early Church, but we do have a voice as concerned citizens. Indeed, there are a number of voices gathered here for this symposium, certainly representing different points of view. May those who speak do so both forthrightly and charitably, and may we listen to one another with open minds. If so, we will conclude our morning’s symposium both better informed and with wider political and intellectual horizons than when we began.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Gerald F. Seib, “Immigration Debate Caught in a Time Warp,” Wall Street Journal, Mary 4, 2015.
2 Miguel A. de la Torre, “From a Recent Migrant Who Crossed the Border,” in A Maryknoll Book of Inspiration: Readings for Every Day of the Year, ed. Michael Leach and Doris Goodnouigh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 180.
3 Heather MacDonald, “Practical Thoughts on Immigration,” Imprimis: A Publication of Hillsdale College, 44, no. 2 (Feb. 2015).
In a morning office reading this past week we heard St. Augustine conclude his sermon with the well-known statement, Love and do what you will. Love makes the world go around. Love stories abound in world literature, drama, cinema and real life. Think of Abelard and Eloise, Romeo and Juliet, Armand and Camille in LA TRAVIATA, Oliver and Jenny in Segal’s LOVE STORY, or Tony and Maria in Bernstein’s WESTSIDE STORY. I am sure you could name a hundred others.
Why are we moved to tears or cheers when we read, hear or see these stories dramatized? They are stories of triumphs and tragedies, separation and reunion, infidelity and faithfulness. betrayal and forgiveness. Fairy tales often ended with, ‘They lived happily ever after.’ How rare that is human lifetime. Circumstances beyond our control can cause a permanent separation of loved ones, and the death of one or both has the final say. Or does it? The bride in the Song of Songs says, 'Stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion…. Deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods sweep it away. Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love, he would be roundly mocked.'
In the scriptures these last days of the Easter Season, Jesus and John are telling us about the greatest love story there is. This one is not just between man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, me and my pet. God is truth, beauty and goodness. Above all, God is love. Love originates in God and is diffusive of itself into all his works. If we are made in God’s image, then we are made for love. By willingly becoming one like us, Jesus, the Son of God, demonstrated how love is lived to perfection. While we were still dead in our sins, the Son of God died for us, laying down his life for his enemies, to turn us into his friends. One of our hymns express it beautifully:
"My song is of love unknown, my Savior’s love to me, love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be. O who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die? Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine: never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine. This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend."
Jesus tells us, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Then he adds that as I have loved you, you must love one another. Jesus took on our humanity and died for us on the cross in obedience to the Father’s will. St. Paul says we should respond to God’s love so demonstrated for us with an obedient love in imitation of his Son. Love is not some romantic dreamy, rose-colored view of life. We prove we love God by two ways as we heard from John, one, by keeping his commandments, and two, by loving our brothers and sisters, even those who disrespect us or persecute us.
To assist us in doing what seems impossible to fallen human nature, Jesus in his glorified humanity and the Father have poured their own Spirit into our hearts to empower us to love in God-like ways. With that divine aid we are given works to do. Jesus said I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.
What are these fruits we are to bear that will last?
Micah said it simply: "You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God."
That is fleshed out in the sermon on the Mount, elsewhere in the gospel and in the lives of the saints with this::
1. Render to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. God first of all deserves our homage, rightful worship and obedience.
2. Strive to live at peace with everyone.
3. Speak the truth in love, even in tough love.
4. Forgive offenses and seek forgiveness when having offended another.
5. Be welcoming to the immigrant, the refugee, and to the stranger who may be an angel.
6. Have compassion on the poor, the sick, and the lonely.
7. Like St. Peter in Cornelius’ house, be open to where the Spirit is alive in those of other persuasions.
8. Put on the mind of St. Teresa of Calcutta and look for the face of Jesus in the poorest of the poor. That is our homework and a formidable project. God is patient while he waits for us to grow in the imitation of Christ. It is possible as St. Benedict say at the conclusion of the Prologue to the Rule:
As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. But there is a condition: Never swerving from his instructions, …but faithfully observing his teaching … until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. AMEN.
Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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- May 21, 2015
- Year B
- by Fr. Christopher
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. HOMECOMING ACCOLADES. “God mounts his throne with shouts of joy; the Lord, with trumpet blasts!” But first he wanted to take care of those he left behind. The disciples had doubts and hesitations believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. So it was in God’s plan that the resurrection appearances would convince them of it and that our faith might be confirmed by their witness. Then Jesus ceased appearing to them. He ascended into heaven to clothe with his heavenly glory the humanity he had assumed when he emptied himself, took the form of a slave being born in the likeness of men. Who can imagine the grand festival the Father had prepare for an obedient son coming home.
Not just resuscitated, in his risen body Jesus was free of the limits of space and time. So why did he stop making those appearances? He could have appeared everywhere at any time in every age to all his followers, generation after generation, to confirm their belief that he is alive. We can be comforted by doubting Thomas. Jesus said to him: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.
We have to remember that our way of knowing Jesus is very different from apostles and disciples. They accompanied Jesus in his public ministry, knowing and experiencing him as being fully human. Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph and Mary, could be recognized like any of us by the uniqueness of the features of his face, his gestures, the way he walked, his fingerprints, and that voice. My flock hears my voice, he said, and they follow me. The apostles had rare glimpses of his divine powers. The human body he assumed veiled his divine nature.
No one coming after apostles could have that same experience of Jesus as they did. In fact, that could have been one of the reasons he said it was expedient for them that he go away. I must go to my Father and your Father. They had to be pushed as it were to a grander vision of who he really is: Son of God made man. They were like Mary Magdalene in the garden looking for his body. When he call her name, Mary, she grasped his feet. He told her, Do not to cling to me. Yes, he was the same Jesus whose feet she had bathed, and whose words enraptured her. But things were different with him now. The apostles needed to hear that too. They may have felt safe and specially blessed when he appeared with his greetings of ‘Peace be with you;’ when they could recognize him in the breaking of bread or cooking fish on the beach. If we had been there we would likely have wished with them, Stay with us, Lord.
He had told them he was going away to prepare places in the Father’s house for them and that he would come back to take them with him. He promised them that he would not leave them orphans during the little while he was away. That little while is already two thousand years and no one knows how much longer it will be before he returns clothed in glory as Lord of all creation and judge of the living and the dead. During that little while before his return he gave his disciples an assignment: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation.”
We are assigned the same task. To aid us he kept his promise not to leave us orphans by sending us his own divine Spirit to dwell in us. Jesus himself is with us in other ways too, enumerated in the Document on the Church at Vatican II. When two or three are gathered in my name, I am with you, he said. He is present in this assembly of his faithful, in the words of the holy scriptures especially when publicly proclaimed. For “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence and the Word was God.”
Above all it is in this Eucharistic celebration that he is present in the priest and the consecrated bread and wine. The priest says Jesus’ very words over those fruits of earth and vine and work of human hands: “This is my body…. this is my blood” and Jesus is truly here when the Holy Spirit is invoked to make them into his body and blood. It is true that both the humanity and divinity of Jesus are veiled in the Sacred Sacrament. We believe he is here because he said those words and he is the Truth. There is another presence of Jesus that we are also challenged to believe. Mother Teresa of Calcutta could see him in the poorest of the poor. Remember his words: “What you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.” That is something for us to remember when we leave here and go out into the streets and byways of the world.
For now we are many more than two or three gathered in Jesus’ name. The Word has been proclaimed to us, so now let us prepare to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Then eating his body and drinking his blood at communion we will receive a pledge of eternal life with him. Jesus said, If anyone eats this bread, he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. We prayed in the opening prayer, that where he our head has gone, we members of his body hope to follow. To him with the Father and Holy Spirit be praise, honor, glory and ready obedience now and forever. AMEN
Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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- May 21, 2015
- Year B
- by Abbot James
This will be my last conference of the semester, for soon a number of us will be away for a few weeks, either visiting family and friends or attending conferences or going on a pilgrimage. Such reasons for being away would not have been envisaged by St. Benedict, but I do hope that the days or weeks any of us spend away from the monastery this summer will lead us to return with mind, body, and spirit significantly renewed, ready and even eager to resume whatever kinds of work await us after our community retreat in mid-August. What Benedict did expect, of course, even during those presumably rare and short trips on which monks of his day were sent on matters of monastic business, was that they remember they remained monks and that their first allegiance was to God. As he writes in chapter 50 of his Rule, “those who have been sent on a journey are not to omit the prescribed hours but are to observe them as best they can, not neglecting their measure of service.”
For us, this means not only these “prescribed hours” of the Divine Office but also regular time for personal prayer and lectio, which can so easily get overlooked outside the atmosphere and structured horarium of the monastery. It is above all in regard to personal prayer to an utterly transcendent God that I want to speak this evening. I’ll begin with something that John Cassian recounts at the beginning of his tenth conference. He tells of how Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria, in his annual letter to the monks declaring the date on which Easter was to be observed, one year included a lengthy refutation of the error of the so-called Anthropomorphites, those who took literally those words of Scripture that speak of God as having hands, arms, eyes, and ears just as humans do. Many of the monks refused to accept the bishop’s letter, above all an elderly and holy monk named Sarapion. When a deacon of great learning arrived in Egypt from Cappadocia to visit the monks in Scetis, he gave a long speech explaining how all the leaders of the churches understood anthropomorphic passages spiritually or metaphorically, not literally or crudely. He concluded with the words: “That immeasurable, incomprehensible, invisible majesty cannot be limited by a human frame or likeness. His nature is incorporeal, uncompounded, and simple, and cannot be seen by human eyes or adequately conceived by the human mind.” As he finished and all the monks stood up to pray, old Sarapion felt mentally bewildered, for he could no longer have before his mind’s eye the anthropomorphic image of God that had always accompanied and supported his prayer. Throwing himself on the ground, he cried: “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me … and I know not whom to adore or to address.”
That story might seem merely quaint and irrelevant, for it may well be that none of us have prayed as did Sarapion, at least not since leaving childhood behind. I do believe, however, that we might not give full weight to what Bishop Theophilus and other bishops and theologians have been saying down the centuries. We may readily give lip service to such statements as that God cannot be seen with bodily eyes and that the divine reality is beyond the power of the human mind to grasp fully, but really to live this out, to take this teaching with the utmost seriousness, in a way that reaches to the root of our being, is something else. To help illustrate what I mean, let me turn to two of the most influential medieval philosopher-theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.
Thomas, of course, is a canonized saint and a doctor of the church. Scotus has not attained that status, but he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993 and has had many followers since his death in 1308. However much these two thinkers had in common, there was one very basic point on which they differed.1 Scotus taught what is called “the univocity of being,” meaning that existence is the most abstract concept we have, applicable to everything that exists, including God, whereas St. Thomas insisted on the analogical nature of being, indeed to such an extent that he taught that there is no genus, not even the genus of being, to which God belongs along with creatures.2 God is therefore not a being, is not at all in the same genus as humans, who are a species within the overarching genus of being. God would more properly be called the principle or source of being and is, in that sense, beyond being. Even though there are surely still Scotists among philosophers and theologians today, on this particular issue I myself have no doubt that Aquinas makes far better sense.
As the philosopher and historian Brad Gregory writes, God can be “wholly present to everything in the natural world precisely and only because he [is] altogether inconceivable in spatial categories,” just as God can be “fully present to all events and every moment in time precisely and only because he [is] altogether inconceivable in temporal categories.”3 Accordingly, all legitimate religious language about God as God has to be metaphorical, for in relationship to the nature of language this is correlative to God’s incomprehensibility. We might well therefore “expect religious language to be loaded with metaphorical, poetic, evocative imagery, some of it running in divergent directions. None of it could rightly be taken to describe God adequately or directly,"4 something that we must keep in mind when coming across all the descriptions of God’s actions in Scripture and other holy books.
I myself find this teaching liberating, but I can’t deny that it might have, at least to some extent, an effect on one’s prayer similar to that experienced by the old monk Sarapion. However, it certainly did not have a negative effect on what Cassian himself had to say about prayer, for he goes on in that tenth conference to give what has become a classic exposition of contemplative prayer. Like all the Fathers of the Church, a sense of God’s incomprehensibility was for Cassian altogether consonant with profound prayer. Perhaps the best example is Augustine’s Confessions, a work that is literally addressed to God and reads like one long prayer. Or again, consider that sixth-century writer known as Dionysius the Areopagite. The Fathers in general, and Dionysius in particular, “are not describing or defining God … but instead are speaking to God in prayer. This language of praise is not descriptive, but performative. Its ‘saying’ is actually a ‘doing.’ It does not attempt to define the divine but celebrates God and exposes itself to God in prayer. Such a speaking enables it to be open to the divine (similar to what happens [to us when] in front of an icon) and to be transformed by God addressing us.”5
This confronts us with perhaps the most basic question conceivable in terms of religious belief: Will we entrust ourselves to God even while humbly acknowledging that God is radically transcendent and beyond human comprehension? To entrust oneself in this way is to go against a basic tenet of much contemporary thought: that all meaning originates with humans alone or, as some ancient philosophers already held, that “man is the measure of all things.” All this does, I think, rather severely downgrade the significance of certain kinds of academic theology—and I say this having practiced that craft for many years. But it is surely significant that the one who we believe gives us the best access to the reality of God—our Lord Jesus Christ—taught more by stories than by abstract doctrines and that he insisted that a blessed life depends primarily on how one treats those he called “the least of his brothers and sisters.” Although that Gospel phrase refers literally only to one’s fellow disciples, the Church has surely been right to expand our understanding of the passage to include all peoples, as did Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount when he asked us to love even our enemies and to pray for any who persecute us. That brilliant French writer Simone Weil, even though she felt unable to enter the Church, understood this teaching better than most Christians when she wrote that a
sense of human misery is a precondition of justice and love. Anyone who does not realize to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subject every human spirit cannot regard as fellow-creatures nor love as one loves oneself those whom chance has separated by an abyss. The variety of constraints pressing upon humanity give rise to the illusion of several distinct species that cannot communicate. Only one who has measured the dominion of force and knows how not to respect it is capable of love and justice.6
This means, among other things, that the human misery we see in the photographs of refugees in countries halfway around the world is a misery that we too share, and that it is not enough to remain at the level of what has been called “vague generality,” for that would be “to condemn Evil in the abstract while ‘enduring,’ both in theory and practice, the concrete evils from which our sisters and brothers, especially the children, daily suffer and die. By making faith ‘compatible with’ these evils, we [would] confirm the Marxist charge that religion is the opium of the people.”7 We must also accept the fact that in the endless shiftings of fortune, we might one day undergo such evils ourselves. It even means that those who are cruelly causing those refugees to flee, or murdering them before they can flee, also need our prayers—they perhaps all the more—just as we must recognize cruelty in the actions of some of our leaders past and present and, yes, in some of our own actions as well. At the very least, all of these persons should be taken up into our own prayer, both what we pray here in our church and in whatever places we find ourselves at times during the coming summer months.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 The following comparison between Aquinas and Scotus is drawn from a fine article by Brad S. Gregory, “No Room for God? History, Science, Metaphysics, and the Study of Religion,” History and Theory 47 (December 2008), 495-519.
2 Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1. q.3. a.5.
3 Brad Gregory, 503.
4 Ibid., 504.
5 Christina M. Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2013), 111.
6 Simone Weil, “The Iliad or The Poem of Force,” in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), 192.
7 Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1998), 185, quoted by Geschwandtner, 227.
If you had to name places in this country that might be called especially dangerous to life, I’m pretty sure that the Southern Plains would rank high on the list. These very days there is monumental flooding in parts of Oklahoma and northern Texas, while just a few weeks ago there was an outbreak of those ferocious storms that have led that area to be known by the ominous name “Tornado Alley.” Survivors of such storms regularly comment that the approaching twister sounded just like a freight train coming right at them, filling them with fear. We might well imagine that what we heard in our reading about the first Christian Pentecost—that “there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind [that] filled the entire house in which [the disciples] were”—at first brought fear into their own hearts. But the fear was quickly transformed into courage when, as St. Luke writes, they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit” and began boldly proclaiming the Gospel to the people of all different nationalities who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate what was, after all, originally a Jewish feast, occurring fifty days after Passover: the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. That powerful wind, one of the most common signs of divine power from the very beginning of the book of Genesis, when it swept over the waters at creation, manifested itself that day in Jerusalem by the disciples speaking of what Luke calls “the mighty acts of God.” From there, the Twelve spread out through the entire Mediterranean region and perhaps even as far as India and Spain, and were soon to have their ministry joined by others, above all by St. Paul. It is his teaching about the Spirit that I want to emphasize this morning.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we heard as our second reading is a powerful contrast between two diametrically opposed ways of life, which he designates as Spirit and flesh. The latter does not refer literally to the flesh that encloses our bones but rather to unredeemed life, self-centered life, life that not only goes against God’s will but also causes all sorts of division in society, for these “works of the flesh” include such things as hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, dissensions, and factions. All such behavior weakens not only the body of Christ that is the Church but also our life in civil society. Over against such behavior—and Paul lists a total of fifteen of these “works of the flesh”—there is a list of nine that build up rather than tear down, that unify rather than separate. Interestingly, Paul does not call them “works of the Spirit” (in contrast to “works of the flesh”) and does not even use the plural of the word “fruit,” for all nine are mutually supporting aspects of the one “fruit of the Spirit.” If you are ever intent on memorizing any part of Scripture, I really think these verses would be a good place to start, for Paul’s list is a marvelous summary of what should characterize the life of each one of us: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (My wording there slightly diverges in a couple places from the translation in our Lectionary, but Scripture scholars point out that a number of Paul’s Greek terms are open to several closely related meanings.) I’d like to say a bit about each, not in the exact order that we have in Paul, and often illustrated by the life and actions of a particular person.
First, then, joy. When I was a novice here some years ago, I found on the top floor of the monastery a holy card that had on it a phrase attributed to the French writer Leon Bloy: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” This should not sound surprising. After all, this is what Jesus promised to his followers when he said to the disciples at the Last Supper: “I have told you [all] this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). What is joy but, as one dictionary definition puts it, “the emotion evoked by well-being or success”? Now there are all sorts of ways in which a person may succeed in something, but surely the most important is what we see already in the early Christians. Here’s the way one historian of religions describes what happened in the early Church: “The people who first heard Jesus’ disciples proclaiming the Good News were as impressed by what they saw as by what they heard. They saw lives that had been transformed—men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living. They evinced a tranquility, simplicity, and cheerfulness that their hearers had nowhere else encountered. Here were people who seemed to be making a success of the enterprise everyone would like to succeed in—that of life itself.”1
Such joy will mark our lives as well to the extent that we live according to the model that Jesus gave us, and the same is true of what comes next in Paul’s list: peace. With that term Paul surely included peace in society at large, but in the first place he probably meant a sense of quiet, firm tranquility no matter what trials an individual person may face. A wonderful example from our own era is illustrated by something that happened in El Salvador yesterday, when hundreds of thousands of people were present at the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while offering Mass in March, 1980 because of the powerful way he had been preaching against the government-sponsored oppression suffered by so many Salvadorans. He had already received many death threats and so was well aware of how he might die, but he was utterly at peace with that prospect. Just two weeks before his assassination, he said in an interview: “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility…. Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality…. A bishop will die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish."2 It would be hard to find a better example of genuine Christian peace in the face of what was in itself a terrible threat.
Paul next lists patient endurance. We so often want quick results from whatever we try to do, but the old adage that “haste makes waste” is in fact apparent from the experience of any of us. Pope Francis dealt with this problem very frankly in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelium Gaudii.3 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, he said, "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 [people] to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross" (§82). There is so much wisdom there. May we all take it to heart.
Paul’s fifth sign of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is kindness. Here he was almost certainly thinking of the kindness we should show to one another, but I’d like to extend this a bit by recounting something I once heard from a Zen Buddhist priest. He said there was a hermit who lived not far from the Japanese city of Kobe. Shortly after the end of World War II, a university student was staying for a time at that hermitage in order to pursue his studies in a peaceful atmosphere. One day, the student was picking up frogs in the small pond near the hermitage and placing them in a covered pail when the hermit monk happened by and asked what he was doing. The young man answered, “Well, these frogs are so noisy that they disturb my study, so I am going to put them on the other side of the mountain.” The monk replied, “Well, be sure not to forget that you will be staying here for only a few years. This is the frogs’ home for their whole life.” We often may not think much of the importance of kindness to animals, but great saints like Francis of Assisi were well aware of our kinship with all creation and readily addressed animals by such terms as Brother Wolf and Sister Dove. Such kinship has become all the clearer in our own time because we know we share so much DNA with other living things. A great mystic once summed up his entire life’s teaching, which included many beautiful treatises, with the single phrase: “Be kind. Be kind.” This, too, should mark our lives.
After kindness Paul wrote a Greek word that is sometimes translated as “generosity,” as in our Lectionary, but literally the word simply means “goodness,” and I really think that would be the better translation. I say that mainly because if we tried to sum up in one word what it was that Jesus himself did throughout his life on earth, we could not do better than what St. Peter said in his speech to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his whole household, as recounted in the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. In St. Luke’s words, Peter told them “what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts. 10:37-38). This, indeed, is what led the early Christians to recognize Jesus’ divinity, which is, after all, not self-evident. As one scholar put it, “They found themselves thinking that if divine goodness were [ever] to manifest itself in human form, this is how it would behave.”4 May something of such basic goodness be manifest in our own lives as well.
Next in Paul’s list is a word that could be translated as either “faith” or “faithfulness.” The latter is what our Lectionary has, and this time I agree with the translatkon. If you reflect on the point, we humans are the only creatures on earth who can make promises and so be faced with the choice of whether or not to be faithful to them. I was recently reading something by a former abbot of our English Benedictine Congregation. He wrote: “We must always be on pilgrimage, on the move. So many monks, so many married people, get bogged down, bored with themselves and with life. They no longer feel the same about themselves (their vocation, their marriage, their job, their community) as they did in their twenties, and this can be unsettling. [The abbot then wrote:] A junior monk [that is, one in temporary vows] said to me the other day, ‘If I take solemn vows, how do I know that in ten years’ time I won’t be bored, or find that I have grown into someone so different to what I am now that I will go off and get married?’ The short answer is: No one knows. And this is what a vocation should be: a journey into the unknown, with God.”5 To be faithful to our promises through thick and thin, trusting in the help of God and of our family and friends, is one of the glories of Christian life. We don’t have to know everything in advance because this impossible anyway, but we can always trust that what Paul calls “faithfulness” is indeed possible.
Gentleness, named next, may conjure up rather saccharine images of Jesus as a rather weak and spineless person, but in fact it takes great strength to be gentle toward those over whom one has great authority. St. Benedict in his Rule is very insistent, for example, that the abbot of a monastery, like Jacob in the Old Testament, never drive his flock too hard: always giving the strong something to strive for, but never to the extent of driving the weaker away, feeling that they do not have the strength or ability to persevere. That sensitivity to the abilities of others is crucial in any group, whether it be a nuclear family, a religious community, or a whole society.
Last in Paul’s list is self-control. The importance of this has been pointed out not only by religious writers but by perceptive psychologists and psychiatrists as well. That well-known book by Dr. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, has some wonderful lines about the importance of delayed gratification, the ability to avoid giving in to all of our whims and desires, the ability to keep our eyes on what matters most in the long run. There is nothing sadder than to see people who lack this trait, who want everything to go their way and go that way right now. May the Holy Spirit enable us to have a proper control on all our desires, ordering all the others to the one thing necessary. As St. Augustine wrote in one of the best-known lines from his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” For those going off to college next year, this point is crucial. You will certainly have some classmates who don’t understand this, who think that freedom can be found in such things as binge drinking and lascivious behavior. Don’t be taken in by such sham. Be true to what is best in you. Be your own man, not a follower of a wayward crowd.
You may have noticed that I have not yet said anything about the very first sign of the Spirit’s fruit: love. But one must always save the best, the most important, till last. Paul was so on target elsewhere when he wrote that love is the fulfillment of the law, just as Jesus said that his one new commandment is “Love one another as I have loved you.” This led great saints like Thérèse of Lisieux to be especially loving and compassionate toward persons in her religious community who were, humanly speaking, very uncongenial and unattractive, but she took Jesus’ words seriously and carried them out in the power of the Holy Spirit. The best theologians have always spoken of the Spirit as the bond of love between Father and Son, but the Holy Spirit is also the bond that unites us to one another. May our lives bear the Spirit’s good fruit whose seed was planted in us at the very time of our baptism.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 331.
2 Oscar Romero, quoted in Modern Spiritual Masters, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 74-75.
3 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, in Origins 43, no. 27 (Dec. 5, 2013). This issue of Origins contained the first half of this Apostolic Exhortation.
4 Smith, 324.
5 Dominic Gaisford, “Cast Your Bread on the Waters,” in A Touch of God, ed. Maria Boulding (Still River, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982), 175.
- May 31, 2015
- Year B
- by Fr. Philip
A transcript is not yet available for this homily. Please listen here.
Fr. Philip Simo
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