Sunday, October 28, 2007

the ego deified

Yield and overcome;
bend and be straight;
empty and be full;
wear out and be new;
have little and gain;
have much and be confused.
Tao te Ching #22

Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
Those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Lk 18:14

(reflections on the Pharisee and the Tax Collector Lk 18:9-14)

I must admit to you that my idea about this story came from a high school student, something which neither the kid’s teacher (who passed it on to me) nor I had ever noticed before. The story says that the “Pharisee spoke this prayer to himself.” He spoke the prayer to himself. He was praying to himself, he wasn’t praying to God.

There is a beautiful passage from a book called The Wound of Love by an anonymous Carthusian monk that I have carried around for years. He wrote that in one sense only the atheist can truly believe in God; meaning, he thought that for all of us God has to die at a certain moment. And then he goes on to list the God that must die:

the God who stands alongside the cosmos as some ‘thing’ else,
the God who stands alongside my neighbor as someone else;
the God of whom it suffices to know the general moral rules
in order to do his will;
the God infinitely above creatures' pains
in a transcendence beyond reach;
the God-judge, who punishes in accord with
a justice conceived along human lines;
the God who blocks the spontaneity of life and love.

But the one that sticks in my craw is this: he says that the God of our imagination must die too, the God of our projections and desires must die because that God is quite often nothing other than our own ego deified. And that is this man––he was saying this prayer to himself, saying this prayer to his own Ego projected onto a large screen.

It baffles me how often people have a religious conversion experience and suddenly become belligerent and confident and cocksure of how the Universe operates and exactly how every one in it is supposed to behave, and who’s in and who’s out. There is another reaction people have when they come face to face with the divine, an inner movement more similar to the monks of the desert or St Francis of Assisi, that is something akin to the experience of love, when we love someone or when someone loves us, when we experience the outpouring of pure gratuitous unconditional love. At times being love doesn’t make us feel good at all, but instead makes us see ourselves with all our warts and imperfections. As St John of the Cross teaches, God’s light is so bright it is like darkness to us. Like turning the light on in an otherwise dark room¬––¬suddenly all the dusty dark corners are lit up. We know who we are, we know where we have come from, we know the hardness of our own hearts, our petty gripes and compulsions. Perhaps for a moment we might even think we are unworthy of the love, we might think, “If you really knew me, would you still love me?” That experience in turn can lead two different reactions. We could run from it. “Oh please, don’t look at me anymore, turn the light off, don’t make me reveal anything else about myself,” and we can hide back in our little comfortable nest of self-protection, behind our mask. Or we can do what this tax collector does––we can recognize, acknowledge, and mourn what we have become. Of course we hopefully don’t stop there either. That mourning hopefully leads to repentance, conversion, “turning around,” getting on to the road that leads to us becoming who we are meant to be.

The eyes of love do not lie; they challenge, but they do not lie. These are God’s eyes, eyes that weep for us, that long for us, that pull us forward to participate in the Divine nature. They are mirrors, show us exactly who we are, in all our fragile beauty and in all our beautiful fragility. And that is what humility really is––truth, reality. We don’t have to trump anything else up to be humble, what we call “false humility.” Just knowing who we are and who we could be, who we are and who we could have been, is enough to humble us and can be that which spurs us forward.

But this is also a great place to be, this initial moment of mourning, so let’s not dart off too soon. It’s the moment we get to at each Eucharist when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Because this is the moment when we are like Jesus, who emptied himself. Where would Jesus be in this story? Jesus would be there in the back row with the tax collector, not deeming equality with God something to be grasped at.

So like Jesus, we empty ourselves. First of all we empty ourselves of our projections and our desires, our plans and agendas, our ego deified. Don’t worry: as soon as we are that empty, God fills us again. As soon as we say, “I am not worthy,” God and those who really love us say, “Yes, you are. When will you come to see you like I do, and know you like I do, and love you like I do?” As the Carthusian monk continued, when that other God dies,

it makes room for a God who is
totally beyond our grasp
and nevertheless strangely close to us and familiar;
when that God dies, it makes room for a God
who bears a human face––that of Jesus, my brother;
when that other God dies, it makes “room for a God who is love
in a way that defies all our human notions of justice;
a God who is generosity, overflowing life,
gratuitousness, unpredictable liberty…”

Perhaps all of our theological speculation, not to mention our inter-religious dialogue, needs to be based on this kind of humility too, recognizing the ineffable mystery of who God really is. It’s not that we don’t know God at all, but I think we know God more by the little things than the big ones. We especially know God in the breaking of the bread which is not just the sacred elements but everywhere the Incarnation happens, especially, as John’s Gospel shows us, in service––when we wash each other’s feet and lay our lives down for one another, whenever two or three are gathered, and whenever equality and inclusivity triumph over hierarchy and exclusion, when mercy triumphs over our petty systems of justice, all of which the breaking of the bread is meant to symbolize. We know God when we are like God for each other, and “love in a way that defies all our human notions of justice, generosity, overflowing life, gratuitousness, unpredictable liberty…”

Monday, October 22, 2007

SANGHA TALK: desert monasticism 2: antony the great (outline)

(This is the second of a series of talks I am giving on the desert monasticism, aiming toward a focus on Evagrius, and Anselm Gruen's book, "Heaven Begins Within")

ANTONY the GREAT: The prototype of the monk
• His biography Vita Atonii is written by the great Alexandrian theologian and bishop Athansaius who had met Antony himself
• Is considered one of the most important works of early Christianity, certainly for the spread of monasticism, but also as an explication of orthodox teaching (polemics against Arianism are contained in it) and Christian anthropology, as we shall see.

La Vita Antonii
1. At the age of twenty (c. 270)––he is an orphan. Athanasius seems to be at pains to let his know that he is unlearned, illiterate. Keep this in mind.
• He hears the Gospel proclaimed: “If you would be perfect, go sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and come and follow me.” He obeys, but keeps a little money from the sale of family goods for care of his sister, but shortly after hears another Gospel read, “take no thought about tomorrow”; puts his sister in a Parthenon––a house of virgins, gives the rest away and moves into a pigsty or cowshed at the bottom of the garden of the family home.
• At this stage he himself is a devotee; he gets advice from another old devotee in the area, probably keeps to the full round of liturgical worship and listening to Scripture read (so much that he is said to memorize it); works with his hands––making ropes, mats, baskets, sandals, the kind of things his successors in the desert will do
• Athanasius does not call him a monk at this time
2. He then withdraws to live in the tombs near the village, to be even more strenuous in the ascetical work that is uniquely his: battling the demons (more on that later): once he has cast the temptations (demons) out his own mind, the demons begin to attack him from without––like Jesus in the wilderness 40 days.
3. At age 35 he retires into the desert completely;
• his old ascetic master refuses to go with him, this was not done yet in that day
• spends next phase living in a deserted fort on the confines of the desert; bread is brought to him twice a year
• after twenty years his friends break down the gate and he comes forth: “as from some inmost shrine, inititae into the mysteries and God-borne”
• his friends marvel to his that his body has neither grown fat from lack of exercise nor deteriorated from fasting and fighting with demons
• he is “all balanced, as one governed by reason and standing in his natural condition”
• in Athnasius’ Life of Antony this is when the bulk of the book takes place, a long discourse on the monastic vocation and battling demons/temptations
• it is here that Athanasius uses the words monk and monastery––monachos and mone; later they come to mean someone who lives in community and the community itself; but originally the strict etymological sense is a solitary and a solitary cell.
• Note: the flowering of desert monasticism in Egypt, as I said, is going to take place after the persecution ended and the Edict of Milan (313), but Antony is a frontrunner
4. As persecution arises in Alexandria, Antony leaves his monastery and lends support and encouragement to the “confessors,” those who are being persecuted for the faith, but he is not persecuted himself and so retires back to the desert;
• the persecution ends and suddenly he is flooded with visitors, which he does not want.
• He meets a band of Saracens (Arabs) wandering through the desert and goes with them until he finds a new place to be in seclusion, which he calls his “Interior Mountain,” somewhere between the Nile and the Red Sea
• “he traveled with them three days and three nights and came to a very high hill… Anthony, as though moved by God, fell in love with the place…”
• “lovers of the place”: Francis Kline, referring to Trappists, but to monks in general
• Evagrius (in the Practica ad Anatolium) reports him saying, “My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.”
• The Arabs bring him food from time to time, his disciples come ‘round once in a while, but he does not want to be dependent: he sows his own grain, and he persuades animals not to disturb his garden or his peace (VA, 50)
• Some suggest that he was actually a boskos––a wanderer and grazer in the wilderness.

Lessons learned: anthropology
1. Main thing: the words used to describe Antony coming out of the tombs are very important: he is healthy and psychically sound: the words in Greek––kata physin
a. This is an argument against dualism; soon on in the monastic tradition there will be much polemic against the body, influenced by the neo-Platonists: Porphory says of Plotinus that he was “a man ashamed of being in his body.” But here Antony’s life of asceticism and virtue have led him to physical vigor as well as psychological balance.
b. This is a theme that abides in the eastern Christina tradition, a return to our natural condition––there will be the saying, “In the desert a garden,” meaning a return to Paradise, the Garden of Eden. And so you see, also the relationship with animals has been restored.
2. The other word in Greek is telios––Antony has become perfect. This is a Gospel term, a Pauline term, but also a term familiar to Greeks especially those “initiaties” familiar with the secret rites of the Eleusinian mysteries.
a. Antony has become a real initiate into the divine mysteries.

Many will flock to Antony for his advice; and many more will flock to the desert to imitate him, especially after Athanasius’ Vita comes out, like the influence of Merton’s Seven Story Mountain.

The one theme of Antony’s that I think is important and enduring for the tradition has to do with this battling of the demons, but really at the root of it is Self-knowledge:
• “Have fun storming the castle!” We must understand that this is ascetical solitude, not just being alone because of being an introvert, solitude that is a fast, a tapas. And the major ascetical work of solitude is self-knowledge.
• A maxim that Anthony frequently repeats is that “the knowledge of ourselves is the necessary and only step by which we can ascend to the knowledge and love of God.”
• going to remain in the desert tradition as the essential work of the desert solitaries, the basis of monastic asceticism, the practice of the desert fathers––self-scrutiny, self-knowledge or what Columba Stewart calls “radical honesty about the self.” For Anthony and the desert fathers this is the essential first step toward any other wisdom.
• In the famous passage recorded by Athanasius, Anthony lays it out this way: St Peter says don’t let the sun go down on your anger––Anthony says don’t let the sun go down on any sin of ours;
• … and the best way to avoid this is to “Examine yourself and test yourself. Daily let each one recount to himself not only his actions of the day but also the stirrings of the souls,” the secret thoughts of the heart, the breeding ground for sin.
• Anthony is of course famous for his bouts of battling with the demons. Even this is really here a metaphor for his work of self-scrutiny. The demons themselves are very subtle, and suggestive of just those psychological temptations to which individual monks are most susceptible, pointing out the importance of self-scrutiny as an essential and continuing part of progress in virtue. Going to be important when we get to Evagrius.
• Anthony has to go it alone. Besides the little instruction he gets from a few elders in his early days basically his hard work of self-knowledge is done alone, Athanasius records that his only Abba is an angel who is a sort of mirror image of himself. Perhaps this is where Anthony gets the idea later to tell his disciples that when they examine themselves even then they should pretend as if they were laying themselves bare to another:
• “...we record our thoughts as if reporting them each other. Let this record replace the eyes of our fellow ascetics, so that, blushing as much to write as to be seen, we might never be absorbed by evil things.”
• Important: It is by laying the thoughts bare that we are able to avoid the actions themselves.

This theme of the radical honesty about the self will pass on from Anthony and also the means by which one works toward this honesty.
• The principal element of the process among the desert fathers was the offering of the secret’s of one’s heart to another person for discernment, especially in the relationship between the abba/amma and his disciple.
• The abba is not someone who is lofty and sits as a judge. The abba is another human being who has suffered the same weaknesses, has done his or her own self-examination and can speak from experience as another human being. The desert elder is certified by his or her own experience, having had the shock of seeing oneself as a sinner, which gave them the ability to tease the secrets of others’ hearts as encourager and witness, rather than as judge. Not even necessarily to give advice or commentary: it is often just the very experience of opening the heart that brings healing and insight.
• Has more in common with Twelve Step spirituality than confession
• Perhaps this is why Athanasius stresses so much Anthony’s lack of learning; he doesn’t have facility in speech and argument, but his training has served to return his soul to its original state and this gives him clear faith and plain reasoning that can even silence scholars and sages.

But more importantly, this theme will pass into the desert tradition from Anthony, this radical honesty about the self becomes the heart of the desert quest.
• These monks staked everything on the effort to destroy illusion and deception. All of their asceticism was really intended to help cut through the garbage of lives that are hooked on the deception, hooked on materialism, hooked on our false self, and stuck in all the games we play with ourselves.
• First there is breaking from the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption, and can lead to a ‘devouring conscience’ in the words of Abba Poemen. There’s an old recovery adage that says “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” The desert fathers would say a sin that is hidden begins to multiply: one becomes tapped in obsessive and compulsive patterns.
• Second, there is the connection with humility. Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me “Humility.”
• So for the desert fathers, the ability of a monk freely expose the secrets of the heart, and especially to open his heart to his abba/amma (or to any other) indicates a growth in humility. What one of us if we laid the secret thoughts of hearts bear would have any room for boasting, any room for grandiosity?
  • The link between these two things, manifestation of thoughts and humility, gives us a pretty good understanding of what monastic humility is all about: it is the quality of someone who has begun to see as God sees, and who has started with the self.
• And that humility leads also to compassion. Over and over again we read in the desert fathers exhortations against condemning others, and this is to start with Anthony as in the famous exhortation that Athanasius records:
  • “If you have not sinned, avoid boasting; instead, persist in the good, and don’t become careless nor condemnatory of a neighbor, nor declare yourself… leaving the judgment to the Lord let us treat each other with compassion, and let us bear one another’s burdens.”
• This humility then becomes the foundation for everything else the monk is to be about; it is also the bedrock of obedience.
• “A calm clear heart allows for a clear eye, and humility becomes the basis for contemplating the rest of creation and then the Creator.”
• “The desert itself gave them a landscape which mirrored what they sought for their own hearts: an uncluttered view through clear air.”

SANGHA TALK: desert monasticism 1: intro. to desert monks (outline)

(This is the first of a series of talks I am giving on the desert monasticism, aiming toward a focus on Evagrius, and Anselm Gruen's book, "Heaven Begins Within")


The roots of the Christian mystical tradition and the roots of the Christian monastic tradition are virtually the same
• Before we read Evagrius, I want to trace his lineage: Antony the Great, father of monasticism (c. 251-356); Origen (185-254), in some ways the first Christian mystical writer; Evagrius (c. 345-399), himself a desert monk and a student of the writings of Origen; John Cassian.
• Antony is the father of the desert tradition; Origen, though not a monastic, is a great thinker who is going to have an strong influence on Evagrius, but Origen will be condemned. So both Origen and Evagrius’ thought go underground and it surfaces among other places in a man named John Cassian whose Conferences and Institutes will carry the theology of these two in a hidden way,
• Also have a major influence on St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism: Benedict requests that John Cassian be read to the community each night. But notice that neither is John Cassian ever made a saint––same suspicion, of Origenist tendencies.
• I want to bring up one salient point from each of these traditions, Antony, Origen and John Cassian as we dig into Evagrius.

We’re going to mainly be talking about desert monasticism, which many consider to be the first Christian monks but to be fair…
• there was another strand of monasticism developing at this time, more urban in character:
• from the earliest days of Christianity there were some members of the church who were more committed than the majority, who wished to live a life of particular asceticism and commitment, even to the extent of renouncing marriage and family ties: the order of virgins and celibates; quite often living as solitaries, recluses, hermits even in cities––“urban hermits”
• these came to be known by various names especially such as devoti, the devout; the Greek word monachos is not used for them
• by the 3/4 century such devoti, although continuing to celebrate in the local church, also began to live in community rather than as individuals, and had begun to evolve strong liturgical characteristics of their own, especially in Syria

But now to the desert… Adelbert de Vogue:

"When the threat of bloody death ceased to hang over every christian head, the monk tried to give his whole life here blow the value of martyrdom. The break with the world no longer consisted in defying the law and confronting torture, but in leaving society and living for God alone far from [people]… Christ's appeal for continual prayer resounded with more force than ever. Thereafter, to pray without ceasing was no longer to be one of the Lord’s directives among others; it was to be the raison d'etre of lives freed from every temporal preoccupation…"

"In the fourth century, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia were the forcing ground for monasticism in its Christian expression; every form of monastic life was tied, every kind of experiment, every kind of extreme. Monasticism is of course older than Christianity, but this was the flowering of it in its Christian expression and in many ways it has never been surpassed… The great center was Egypt. By AD 400 Egypt was a land of hermits and monks." (ref., In the Heart of the Desert)

In Egypt in the 4th century there were three great monastic centers located south of Alexandria in the Libyan desert
• remember that lower Egypt is actually north of upper Egypt because the Nile flows north!

1. Middle Egypt was the land of hermits, strict literal solitaries, of whom Antony the Great, about whom we shall speak is the prototypical example.

2. Lower Egypt: Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis: groups of ascetics
• the most important is Scetis, located about 65 miles northwest of modern day Cairo
• this is the lavra or skete form of monasticism where several monks lived together, often as disciples of an abba
• It was a meeting place between the desert and the world where visitors could make contact with the traditions of the desert
• Douglas-Burton Christie (A Word in the Desert) was surprised to find out actually how close they were to the towns
• A more learned, Greek influenced type of monasticism grew up here.
• Evagrius of Pontus is the most famous son of this lineage

3. Upper Egypt/coenobites:
• These men lived in a less remote part of Egypt.
• main center was Tabennisi in the Thebaid.
• main figure here is Pachomius (290-347), who is credited with being the creator of organized monasticism
• was a young pagan that was led to Christ by the charity of some villagers giving food to destitute prisoners
• he also lived as a hermit under the authority of a master but then went on to …
• found cenobitic foundations around 320 at Tabennesi in the Nile Valley of the Thebaid, the area north of Thebes.
• not hermits grouped around a spiritual father, but communities of brothers united in work and prayer: cenobites as opposed to hermits

All chronicled most extensively in the Apophthegmata––the sayings of the desert Fathers and Mothers (though one must admit there were fewer mothers, at least fewer mothers recorded).

As I said, the eccentric flight of hermits into the desert is going to have its influence on these urban monks:
• Guiver: “considerably sharpened the whole picture, raising the business of commitment to a more dramatic and aggressively challenging plane."
• besides leaving behind an incredible wisdom tradition, the desert monks brought a new and surprisingly radical commitment to prayer, taking very literally St Paul's admonition to pray constantly
• the Egyptian type of monasticism (the desert fathers) will spread to Europe, finding particularly sympathetic soil among the British and the Irish Celts (who tended to be rather dour and very disciplinarian), but in the end will fade out without any direct heirs
• it is the devoti who would become the model for western monks in the future, even though heavily impregnated with ideals and to some extent practices of the Egyptian monks, because as soon as these devoti (what we are calling “urban monasticism”) began to distance themselves from their parish base, they came to discover some of the virtues of the Egyptian way of prayer
• it is then in this type of monasticism¬¬––the urban devoti influenced by the desert monks of Egypt––that a hybrid develops, with a mixture of "cathedral" style (because they are originally attached to cathedrals and participating in cathedral "offices" with their accompanying practices) with monastic style, and it's going to set the parameters for the future of monastic worship and lifestyle
• Mainly this is going to happen through John Cassian

I think we can safely say that the wisdom of the desert monks was one of those things that got buried, forgotten like so many other elements of our wisdom tradition, for centuries. Happily, with the revival of so many other things in the past few generation, the recovery of sources and fonts, there has been a great revival in the study of the desert fathers.
• Buried except for in at least one place where it was incarnated at least, if not talked about much: the Camaldolese reform: Romuald was heavily influenced by eastern monasticism and the hermit tradition that was burgeoning again all over Italy and when he started founding houses they were imitations of the lavra, communities of hermits around a main church
• But also you see, in his Brief Rule, the mention of watching your thoughts––watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watches for fish–¬– which we will see is a direct lineage of the desert tradition.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

prayer and violence

Surely those who see all creatures in themselves
and themselves in all creatures
know no sorrow.
How can the wise, knowing the unity of life,
seeing all creatures in themselves,
be deluded or sorrowful?
Isha Upanishad

I was so troubled by the readings I had to preach on today (Ex 17; Lk 18:1-8). The first was that story of the people of Israel at war with the Amalekites. They had the better of the battle as long as Moses held his arms up, and so he did with the help of Aaron and Hur on each side holding him up. And so Joshua was able to “mow down Amalek and his people”! The Gospel is beautiful, but I think all of it could give us the wrong idea––that if we just pray hard enough God will help us wipe out our enemies, which is obviously contrary to the Gospel, and/or we will always get our way in court, which simply doesn’t happen, as a matter of fact St Paul tells us “why not let yourself be cheated!”

I decided that if I could have lunch with the Pope one of the things I would ask him would be to please take this Moses story out of the lectionary completely. But since “all Scripture is inspired,” and has something to teach us, what this combination of readings is really about, which the lectionary only clumsily conveys, is contained in the first line of the Gospel: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” That’s what our readings are about today––the need to pray constantly.

There has been quite a lot of controversy over the use of the Hebrew Scriptures and especially the psalms at various times in the history of Christianity, even to this day, because they speak so often of condemning, cursing and destroying our enemies, and paint a picture of God destroying armies and peoples, and wiping out countries who did nothing more wrong than be in the way of the Chosen People, which, again, is obviously contrary to the Gospel and the teaching of Jesus who handed himself over to his enemies and then prayed for them on the cross. What writers did in the patristic era of the church is re-interpret the violence in the psalms in another way––and St Benedict, the father of western monasticism, also writes of it––that the enemies that we speak of now are the enemies are not outside of is, but inside of our own selves––the evil thoughts that lead to evil actions.

Here Christianity and Islam agree. If I understand it correctly, this is what the Islamic concept jihad is really about. There is a story told about Mohammad who had once dispatched a contingent of the army to the battlefront, and when they returned he said to them:

‘Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have yet to perform the greater jihad.’ When asked, ‘What is the greater jihad?’ the Prophet replied: ‘The jihad of the self.’ (Al-Majilisi, Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 19, p. 182, Hadith no. 31)

In Arabic this is known as jihad al-nafs, the “struggle against the self,” the struggle against evil ideas, desires and the powers of lust, anger, the struggle insatiable imagination, placing them all under the dictates of reason and faith in obedience to God's command, and finally, purging all evil ideas and influences from one’s soul. In the Christian tradition we call this “purity of heart,“ one of the main themes of the monastic tradition. And this struggle is considered to be much more difficult than fighting on the battlefield, the struggle to understand God’s will by removing kheb-pride, defeating haughtiness and arrogance so that we can submit to God’s will, because it is only by conquering pride and having purity of heart that we can understand God’s will!

It is only after conquering this battle of the self that the jihad rises to the level of social responsibility, jihad of the tongue, to be able to speak the truth even when it is against one's own interest––the level of the prophets. Then comes the third level, the jihad of the hand. This is where it definitely can become very political, because every person has a right, a duty and a social responsibility, even a divine responsibility, to protect self, property and religious values. But still remember, I do not think that it is possible for us to really understand the will of God unless we achieve this jihad al-nafs-conquering the self.

This theme is common in other religious traditions of the world as well. Jainism for instance teaches refer to their ascetics as warriors who are battling their “own belligerent instincts and warding off the bad effects of the aggression” because they think that violence is the characteristic of unenlightened people. They believe that ascetics win as much glory for themselves and their families by their life of ahimsa–non-violence as do soldiers on the battlefield. The Jain community is even referred to as a gana, meaning a “troop,” a troop of spiritual warriors. “To become a Jina required the valor, determination, and ruthlessness toward oneself that was the mark of the true hero.” (Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation, p. 287)

What does this have to do with prayer? Well, interesting enough these were the two main themes of the ancient monks: first, battling the self, that is demons, passions, inordinate attachments, what we might call today addictions and compulsions, the jihad al-nafs; and second to pray without ceasing. We cannot remove the addictions and compulsions that lurk in us without the spiritual help provided by prayer; we replace those inordinate passions with something else––prayer, which leads us to the font of life and healing within us. In the desert monastic tradition, these two things always went together, knowledge of self (sometimes called “battling the demons”) and unceasing prayer, so as to achieve the purity of heart that we all need in order to line ourselves up with the will of God.

Prayer does not increase our ability to mow down our enemies at all, nor does it guarantee that we will always succeed in getting our rights. Prayer teaches us to pray for our enemies, and it is very difficult to commit any violence of thought, word or deed against someone you are praying for. What prayer actually leads us to is discovering our unity with other beings. There is a beautiful quote from John of Kronstadt of the eastern orthodox tradition, that by cleaving to God in prayer, I become one spirit with God, and I unite with myself those for whom I pray, for the Holy Spirit acting in me, also acts at the same time in them. Prayer leads us to discover our unity with all other beings. As the Isa Upanishad teaches,

Surely those who see all creatures in themselves
and themselves in all creatures
know no sorrow.
How can the wise, knowing the unity of life,
seeing all creatures in themselves,
be deluded or sorrowful?

So instead of praying for our rights, or for victory over our enemies, let’s just pray––for purity of heart so that we would know God’s will; for our enemies as Jesus commanded, and for all those in need so that we would discover our spiritual unity with them; pray to have conscious contact with the Spirit who gives us the power to live upright and holy lives. And if we grow weary in our prayer, let’s hope that the prayers of those around us, our community, our church, would carry us for a while as Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms, and let’s pray that we could be that for each other as well.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

the play of the gospel

(We Baptized the daughter of my dear friends John and Marie Marheineke last night, Evangeline Lila. It was a wonderful raucous event––Evie screamed all the way through the Baptism itself––and we had great fun. Below is my homily, some reflections on her name.)

From the day I found out about this baby’s name, my mind started playing with it. Evangeline Lila. “Evangeline” of course is a form of the Greek euangelistes, which is the root of “evangelist,” what the gospel writers were called. But it literally means someone who is “a bearer of good news.” You may not be aware of the meaning of the name Lila. Whether John and Marie intended it or not, the English name is a form of the Sanskrit word lila. I have a favorite definition of that word that I use all the time when I teach. Lila is

…the joyous exercise of spontaneity involved in the art of creation.’
Lila is the freedom of movement, as in the rush of water from a fountain.
Lila represents an exuberance in creation,
undertaken by God for sheer delight,
which is the reason why there is something rather than nothing.

Each of those phrases means something to me.

I wonder if there could be a better description for conjugal procreative love than “the joyous exercise of spontaneity involved in the art of creation.” But then to transfer that meaning onto God’s presence and action in the world! The ‘joyous exercise of spontaneity involved in the art of creation.’ Not capriciousness, mind you, but prodigality. Sheer gratuitousness. I remember I was told that in one African country the catechism began by asking the question, “Why did God create you?” and the answer given was, “Because He thought you’d like it.” Lila represents this exuberance in creation, undertaken by God for sheer delight, and that’s why there is something rather than nothing. Why there is Evie, Luci, Abby, and Mika instead of nothing. Why there is all of creation and you and me and rosebushes instead of nothing.

But even more, I love this phrase the “freedom of movement, as in the rush of water from a fountain,” which obviously is a propos to our Baptismal duties today. Because this is what has become for me the very center of the Gospel––and that, by way, is what Evangline Lila’s name has come to mean to me: literally, “a playful bearer of good news,” but to me her name means “the play of the Gospel,” the joyful, exuberant play of the Gospel. Why did Jesus come into the world? Because God so loved the world! Why did Jesus come into the world? So that his joy would be in us, and that our joy would complete! Why did Jesus come into the world? That we may have life, and life to its fullest! That we might be co-creators and experience the joyous exercise of spontaneity involved in the art of creation, that we might be a part of the exuberance in creation. That we might know joy, exuberance, freedom of movement and delight. That’s what I mean by the “play of the Gospel.” Why did Jesus come into the world? Because he thought you’d like it!

Today we celebrate the love of God being poured into Evangeline Lila’s heart by the Spirit living in her. But from here on out we are charged to make sure that she knows and never forgets the freedom and responsibility involved in being a child of God, freedom of movement, as in the rush of water from a fountain. How oddly similar that is to Jesus’ own words about the spring of living water that should flow from out of our hearts, the Holy Spirit. You see, the love poured into our hearts is only one part of the movement, the first part. Then it is also meant to pour back out as well––in creativity, in participation in the divine nature, as St Peter says; in love and service, the washing of feet, as Jesus shows. That will be the exuberant Eucharistic movement, which we will already look forward to and mention in the rite of Baptism. All this will be her sharing in the gratuitous joyous exuberant art of creation undertaken by God for sheer delight.

So, Evangeline Lila: you are a playful bearer of good news; may you know the joy of the Gospel of Jesus, and be a joyful bearer of it to the world as well.

Monday, October 1, 2007

falling in love with lady poverty

When he was on pilgrimage to Rome,
Francis put off his fine garments out of love of poverty,
Clothed himself with the garments of a certain poor man,
And joyfully sat among the poor in the vestibule before the church of St Peter,
Where there were many poor,
considering himself one of them.
Celano, Second Life, IV, 142

(I was asked to preach for Mass on the feast of St Francis of Assisi at St Francis High School in local Watsonville. It got me thinking about my youth, and here's what I have to say to them...)

I have loved St Francis of Assisi ever since I was not much older than you. As a matter of fact, my senior year in high school when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life I decided that instead of going into seminary to become a “normal priest” as my parents hoped or going into music to try and be a rock and roll star as they expected, I decided upon graduation that I would move in with this community of radical Franciscans in uptown Chicago. I had had some kind of a conversion experience and decided that I wanted to give my self to God in some kind of a radical way. The only way I could describe it is that I sort of fell in love with God, and when I met this community I sort of fell in love with the life they were living and that was it––there was no changing my mind. It was a very simple life; we lived in two run down apartments in a very poor neighborhood. I can almost still smell various bodily odors in the stairwells where street people slept and did all kinds of wild things. We had a beautiful prayer life together––I often credit that community with teaching me how to pray. I was in college at the time but early in the morning before class old Br. Dominic and I would roam through the alleys in two beat up old Volvos, rummaging for newspaper and bottles for recycling; or we would go to the local bakeries for day old bread or to vegetable stands and get their old produce that we would pass out to our neighbors. (Early dumpster divers, I guess.) And we also did a little work repairing the houses of people who couldn’t afford to have them fixed up. And very month we would give away whatever money we had earned that month and start all over again.

But the thing I remember the most and makes me laugh now, is how my friend Michael and I were in competition to see who could live the most simply. I had given away practically everything I had. I had just graduated high school, so it wasn’t that much, mostly records and books and clothes. I was proudly living with just the minimum of clothing I thought necessary. Well, Michael, who had been a year ahead of me in high school, only had one pair of pants and one shirt, plus his shoes and winter coat, and two sets of undergarments that he would wash out every night; and he had only one book (the Bible) and his journals. I thought I was living simply in my tiny bedroom, but he lived in a converted pantry with just enough room to spread a thin mattress out on the floor to sleep and the silverware drawer for his desk. So I decided at one point I had to keep up with him and gave away more of my clothes ‘til I was down to two pairs of jeans and my old suit, and only a pair of army boots. The climax of my austerity came when I gave my gloves away to a homeless woman. Mind you, this was January in Chicago, and I was riding the elevated train to school each morning a block away from Lake Michigan, and it just happened to be the coldest winter in Chicago in recorded history. I was lucky not to have gotten frostbite until someone convinced me that it was not against poverty to get another pair of gloves.

I look back on those days and I think––We were nuts! But no, we were trying to imitate St. Francis, who was in turn trying to imitate the poverty of Jesus. You see, Francis didn’t live that kind of simplicity for its own sake. There was a reason for it, and it was something similar to what I was going through myself, though on a much more profound level. He did it all for love. It was like he was in love with Jesus, in love with God.

Maybe you are too young to understand this now––or maybe not––but hopefully someday you will experience and understand it. There is something all-consuming about love. When we love somebody (and something), we feel willing to give everything else away for the sake of that love; it becomes the most important thing in our life. This applies to all kinds of things: think of the discipline and self-denial that so many great athletes, artists, scientists, musicians, or writers put themselves through, all for the sake of that which they love. But it is especially true with other people: we feel we would do anything for that other person, anything to be near the Beloved, anything for the sake of that relationship. That’s why we say in the marriage vows, “forsaking all others.” (Even that’s a kind of poverty, a renunciation of sorts.) And this marvelous thing happens when we love someone: we start to take on some of the characteristics of that other, we want to be like them, we want to live in their world and we love the things that they love. And I think the same thing applies to God. There are moments in some peoples’ lives when a sudden glimpse of Ultimate Reality or an experience of the Divine causes such a desire for spiritual truth and the spiritual life that they forsake all else for it.

And Francis had a very unique relationship with God, and here is where it ties especially into his desire to live so poorly. First of all he loved Jesus so much that he became like Jesus. Some people actually thought he was another Christ! And then the more he became like Jesus, he really fell in love. He began to love who and what Jesus loved. Especially he was in love with someone he called Lady Poverty. Who is this Lady Poverty? First of all, [some think that she was an embodiment of his love for St. Clare, who was a young woman who later followed Francis by living a life of silence and prayer in a monastery that he founded for her. People think that he was in love with her; that’s why they are called the Poor Clares, just like our sisters up the road, they are images of Lady Poverty. And] you know the church is always portrayed as feminine too, and so Lady Poverty also symbolized for Francis the church itself. He was in love with the Church, the bride of Christ. But the other thing that is always portrayed as feminine in the Scriptures is Wisdom. The Hebrew Scriptures always speak of Wisdom as a woman by the side of God. So most of all, Francis was in love with this aspect of God, this feminine aspect of God––the Wisdom and power of God, and he was willing to forsake all others to be near her, to be filled with her sweetness.

So Francis’ love of poverty wasn’t for its own sake; it was for his love of God, and his love of Lady Poverty, for whom he was willing to forsake all others. His love of creation, animals and plants, and his love for the poor, for lepers, for the least among us, wasn’t for its own sake. When we love somebody we love and cherish the things that they love and the things that are a part of them, the things that they create. So he loved all of creation and other people because they were a part of God, something God created, an expression of God’s own self.

I guess what I wish for you on this feast of St Francis is that you too would fall in love, madly, deeply, passionately in love like St Francis did, with your dreams, with your talents, with other people, and ultimately with that Divine Source from which all those other things spring. The more we love God, the more we become like God––who was so in love with the world that he sent his only Son; and the more we love Jesus, the more we become like Jesus, who was so in love with the world that he had compassion on it, that he even wept over it on a number of occasions. That kind of love will ruin you, I warn you––lead you to all kinds of poverty––but it’s only that kind of love that can lead us to the mad, deep, passionate life like Francis had.