Sunday, December 23, 2012

incline the ear of your heart

Mary was chosen to bear Jesus because she kept her purity intact. Those who know understand that to be pure means to be completely adaptable, to flow with each moment, to be like a running stream cascading from the waters of life itself. The eternal messenger is always within, waiting to unfold the moment through the Word, and one day when Mary is recognized again, there will be a reappearance of the Christ, manifested in the outer world. Remember who Mary is.
Reshad Field, in the Essential Sufism

I was part of an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2011, mostly Jews and Christians, with one Sufi thrown in the mix. The whole idea was to visit each other’s sacred spots and to try to learn from each other about our various traditions. We spent the majority of the trip in the south, near Jerusalem, and then we went up north, visiting mostly the Christian spots. Our first stop up north was Nazareth, and on our first morning we all piled into the Basilica of the Annunciation. For being such a popular pilgrimage spot, it was a lot less touristy than I thought it would be, and it had very modern architecture. One of the features of the place is that there are plaques in honor of Mary all over the walls in the plaza and in the basilica itself from countries all over the world. When we were inside I happened to be walking with my friend Rabbi Paula, who was one of the co-leaders of the trip, and at one point we were standing in front of the plaque from Portugal that carried the title “Mary Ark of the Covenant.” And Rabbi Paula looked oddly at me and said, “What does that mean?” Obviously this is something very important to the Jewish tradition––and especially to a rabbi!––and here I was, having to explain to her how and why we had co-opted such a revered term for Mary. And so I launched into it as best I could, and if I recall, rather fast and furiously, the words just kind of tumbling out of my mouth, how I understood that we believe that there is an aspect of God that we call the Word, and that Word is the very principle of intelligence and intentionality in the universe; and as St. John explains it in his Gospel, that Word is not only with God, but that Word is God, like the Word that God spoke and all things came into being, as the Psalmist says, or the Wisdom that was at play at God’s side all the while. It’s what lies before all specific laws or dogmas, even before the Law as articulated in the Torah and the Ten Commandments––the covenant––, like the Tao that Lao Tzu says is before all virtues. And that Word is always being spoken to us, transmitted to us, but we can’t hear it in the sense of fully receive it. It’s in sighs to deep for words, as St Paul says, perhaps like the OM that hums beneath all created things. But we believe that Mary was a human being so pure, so receptive, that she was able to fully receive that Word, so much so that it became something in her; it took root like a seed in the garden of her womb; it took flesh in her, it became a baby, and she named that baby Jesus, in whom we believe the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily because he was that very Word made flesh. And so we believe that this is the new covenant, or better, the fulfillment of the covenant: this is what God had intended all along, for there to be no separation between heaven and earth, that we would share in divinity through, with and in the Word. And so Mary, pregnant with Jesus, is the ark of this new covenant, because she is carrying the Word-made-flesh inside her.

There was a guy on the trip who was a wonderful older man, a little less sophisticated than the rabbi, the minister, the monk, the Sufi and rest of the crowd, but totally fearless, and he was always saying things that were filled with a kind of childlike wonder. I didn’t know it but he was standing at my shoulder listening to my whole discourse, and when I had finished, and Paula and I were standing there nearly in tears over this moving moment, suddenly this guy busts out and says right into my ear, “You know I never thought of it like that. So this is kinda where the whole thing got started, huh?” And suddenly I thought to myself, You know, I actually had never thought of it that way before either. And I said, “Ya, you’re right. This is where it all got started, with Mary receiving the Word so deeply into her heart that it became something in her; actually it became someone in her body.”

In the Jewish tradition there is a type of literature called midrash, which is exegesis and commentary on scripture. Often its moral principles and theological concepts, but midrashim are also trying to explain the full meaning of the biblical law, and find the hidden or new meanings in scripture. Sometimes it almost seems as if some of the Christian scriptures started out as simply midrash on the Jewish scriptures. And we are one step removed: we’re trying to understand the Christian scriptures that are trying to understand the Jewish ones. And such is especially the case today. It’s as if Luke is doing midrash on 2 Samuel.

Our naming of Mary the new Ark of the Covenant is no accident. It’s not that very well hidden at all in Luke’s gospel. This Sunday we read the story of what we call the Visitation, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John, who will be the Baptizer. And Elizabeth says that At the moment the sound of you greeting met my ear, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Not only does Luke use the same Greek word––skirtan––“dance,” for what John the Baptist is doing in his mother’s womb as the Septuagint uses for what David does before the Ark, but the whole layout of the story is strikingly similar. It’s almost as if Luke is purposely using the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem as a literary framing device. So it is actually Luke who is telling us that this is the new law, the new covenant, and, as he does throughout the infancy narratives, telling us that this is the fulfillment, as Elizabeth says, of the promises of the Lord; and John is dancing before the ark that/who Mary is. So this could be seen as Luke’s midrash on 2 Samuel.

But there is also something interesting going on in the section we hear from the letter to the Hebrews today. The author to the letter to Hebrews quotes Ps 40, but actually misquotes it, or else purposely changes it. Psalm 40 says, Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but an open ear.  But here Hebrews says, Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me. So the ear has become a whole body, or the whole body has become like an open ear. I used to think that ‘body’ referred to Jesus’ body, and maybe it does, but it strikes me now that it could just as well refer to Mary’s body. Mary, whose whole body was a listening, a receptivity, an open ear––the ear of her body, the ear of her soul, as well as the ear of her heart, as St Benedict calls it, her spirit. This is why she could say, My whole being rejoices in God my savior. Her whole body was a vessel, not just her mind or her soul, nor some kind of disembodied spirit. This body of Mary is a living breathing blood-filled pulsing grounded vessel. Her sacrifice was her whole being, including her body. Maybe this is why Paul tells us, in imitation of Mary, to offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable, to God, your spiritual worship. The psalmist tells us, and the author to the letter to the Hebrews interprets for us: as fine as they are, ultimately God does not really want our ritual sacrifices and liturgical offerings, holocausts offered on the altar. What God really requires of us is what those sacrifices and offerings are supposed to symbolize. What Jesus’ ultimate prayer was, in the midst of the Our Father as well as in the garden of Gethsemane, is what God requires: Behold I have come to do your will. An open ear, a body offered up as a spiritual sacrifice, our whole being––body, soul and spirit available to be a vehicle, a vessel, an instrument. One of our monks the other day in our scripture study, what we call collatio, said this is what the yogis are trying to accomplish. I was quite pleased to hear someone else say that. Yes, that’s right: that’s what I think the yogis are trying to accomplish, that the whole person becomes a vessel of divinity.

This is the great turnaround, the extra step that most spiritual traditions are hesitant to take, all the way from classical Yoga through Christianity: that the body is not just a vehicle––though even that much has taken us a long time to accept, that the body is a vehicle. We tend to think in the spiritual life that we peel it off like a banana peel and throw if away (that phrase of Fr Tom Ryan that I like so much) so we can be ‘spiritual.’ But somehow this whole great story all the way from the Annunciation straight through to the Ascension is trying to convey something more to us yet: that not only is the body a worthy vehicle, an instrument, a hinge, as Tertullian would say––it is the field, it is that which gets transformed. My whole being.

And somehow this is the fulfillment of the promise that started out with the promise to Abraham. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, a little phrase that haunted Teilhard de Chardin, God will be all in all.  Jesus will say in reference to his own mother, Blessed are all those who hear the word of God and keep it. They/we each of us become arks of the covenant if we but stake our claim on this promise, that God will be all in all, if we offer even our bodies as spiritual sacrifices, though not something to be burned up and destroyed, but something to be transformed into a vessel and then transfigured, sharing in the promise of the resurrection, if we but offer ourselves up for that Word to take root in the ground of our very being. Isaac of Stella wrote that “every Christian is also believed to be bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, … at once virginal and fruitful.”

Saint Benedict says that the monk’s whole life should be a little Lent, but I always thought you could just as easily say that a monk’s whole life was a little Advent, watching and waiting, the vigil, the longing. I remember in a discussion I had once with a Buddhist monk, he said that for them the monk’s main practice was meditation––zazen in his tradition, emptying the mind and sitting. Actually they don’t even want to call it meditation in the Zen tradition; it’s shikantaza––“just sitting.” This is from the Shobogenzo of Dogen zen-ji (5–10):

One day Ejo asked, “What should we diligently practice in the monastery?”
Dogen instructed,
Shikantaza (Just sitting)! Whether you are upstairs or under a lofty building, sit in samadhi!”

Whereas, this monk said, the main practice of you Christian monks seems to be chanting the psalms. And I said, “No, I think our main practice is actually listening.” We even only chant the psalms so that we can hear them; we’re singing them to each other so that we can listen to them. Now, I am quite devoted to silent meditation as well, but I think that even that practice is about something more. As our master Romuald says, “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting.” So the listening presupposes a certain silence, but when we empty ourselves, we wait; while we meditate we listen, but ‘listening’ in the absolute broadest sense of the word, listening as a symbol of receptivity, like the receptivity of a fruitful virginal womb.  Hence, the first word of the Prologue to St Benedict’s Rule for monks is, Listen! But it’s a special kind of listening: he goes on, Incline the ears of your heart. It’s that same heart that Benedict tells us at the end of the Prologue to the Rule that we have to prepare along with our bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions (in other words, the Word); and then as we run on the path of God’s commandments (again, the Word), when they really take root in us those same hearts will overflow with the inexpressible delight of love. And I think it’s that inexpressible delight of love that is exactly the Word made flesh, the exuberance that is the dynamic behind creation, now happening in us.

I was happy to serendipitously run into the exact same sentiment in the writings of John Main the other day, specifically referring to the Christmas season.

For Benedict, the first quality we all require if we would respond to Christ and be open to his life in our hearts is the capacity to listen. The first word of the Rule is ‘Listen!’ And as you all know, this capacity is one of the great fruits of meditation, which teaches us that the condition of true listening is silence. We can only listen to the word spoken to us by another if we ourselves are silent of all words. (Silence and Stillness, Dec. 22)

So, silence ought to be the fundamental condition of our heart. We empty ourselves, and sit, waiting.

[1] OR, 40.

Friday, December 14, 2012

the pope's loafers

By virtue of the creation,
and, still more, of the incarnation,
nothing here below is profane
for those who know how to see.
                                    (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

We celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe the other day. I always say that she is “my favorite Mary.” I have a pushpin with her image on it pressed into the dashboard of my car. (There’s a song in there somewhere…) I suppose it’s from hanging around so many wonderful holy Mexican-Americans all my adult life, from my friendship with Pedro Rubalcava dating from the early ‘80s through school in Camarillo and living on the edge of Watsonville the past ten years. Nobody here at the monastery knew what pan dulce was. I told them you could get it at the gas station in Watsonville, and I often did.

I sang for Pope John Paul II in 1987, at my home parish in Phoenix, SS. Simon and Jude Cathedral. I had written some of the music for the event––it was a morning prayer service for clergy and religious. I remember that the place didn’t feel like it was our church anymore, with all the Secret Service guys running around, and TV cameras and lights, and we had been locked in the place for hours before the pope arrived. And then when he did arrive, it was amazing, electric, to be so close to this great man. I thought to myself he was the only person in the place who was comfortable. As a matter of fact it was one of the very few times in my life I have been nervous singing in front of a crowd––so nervous I couldn’t get the first notes out of my mouth. The pianist had to repeat the introduction! So we get through the whole service and the pope is about to leave, and I stand up to lead the closing hymn, I’ve got my arms in the air gesturing to the assembly, and suddenly the Pope is standing right in front of me with the bishop. He says, “I want to meet this beautiful musician.” And I, without thinking, just turned into an old fashioned Catholic; I immediately got down on one knee and kissed his ring. Then the strangest thing happened. I noticed that he was wearing a watch. And I thought, “What the heck does a pope need a watch for?” And then I noticed as I knelt down farther that he was wearing reddish-brown loafers, and I thought I wonder if he ever puts pennies in there? Of all the memories of that morning, that stays with me as the strongest––I was blown away by the fact that he wore a watch, and the he had penny loafers. That all this authority and influence had been invested in this man, and he was just a human being.

Another anecdote: there has been a lot of argumentation over the past years about the liturgy, as you know. And many folks are arguing that we need to make the liturgy more sacred, and one way to do that is to have more high altars, maybe bring back the communion rail, to make sure the priest is removed from the assembly and only people in cassock and surplice are up around the altar, and more candles and more rich vestments. The poor Holy Father right now seems to weighed down under layers of silk and finery and is practically hidden at St Peter’s by these six huge candlesticks and a large crucifix. And the argument that this is edifying for people, to see something so obviously holy. But I always think about my first experiences at Shantivanam, our ashram in South India, where we sit on the floor throughout the entire Eucharist, right near the simple puja stone and brass plate that is used for an altar, the priests and monks wearing only their khavi dhotis and shawls, in the simplest, humblest manner possible, and I gotta say, nothing could have felt more sacred to me than those first impressions of celebrating Mass there surrounded by coconut trees and cawing birds, and the sense of reverence of the people participating was unsurpassed. I feel much the same about our liturgies here, stripped down to a kind of Zen simplicity.

The reason I bring those things up is because I have this other strong memory of a talk I once when I was in seminary given by a woman who was a great lover of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She explained to us that of course there were people who doubt the authenticity of the whole apparition and even of the existence of Juan Diego, as is to be expected. But scientists have never been able to explain how that image appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, which was made of cloth made from cactus fiber; and artists can’t figure out how those particular pigments in the skin tone could have been mixed in that day and age. But then she dropped a little bomb: she told us that a lot of what we see on the tilma was actually added on later. They’ve done infrared studies to prove it, and then there is just the flaking of the paints on everything outside of the main image. The original image seems to be just the rose colored robes, the blue mantle with the cintura of a pregnant native maiden, and the hands and the face. But all the other stuff––the moon and the tassel, and then the gold and the black line decorations, the angel, the orange coloring of the sunburst, and then the stars and even the white fresco background­––were added by human hands, some of it probably as late as the 17th century. All of that gives a more Spanish Gothic feeling to the painting. Actually through infrared study it seems as if even the hands were modified and the face was enhanced, to make them look a little more European, whereas the original skin tone is kind of an Indian-olive.

Then I consequently did a whole bunch of reading about it all myself, and even the most traditional Catholic sources agree that there were additions to the original image. Even though they are nowhere near as elegant as the original image, some people think that the additions add a human element that is kind of charming and edifying, that they accentuate the beauty of the original elegance, like “God and human beings working together.”

That’s valid, but I had a different response to that piece of knowledge. It’s almost as if the image didn’t look conventionally holy enough, just a picture of a pregnant native young woman in plain clothes. So they had to add the angel and the moon, all the gold and extra colors. Who would ever believe that this was holy without all that Gothic stuff?

But somehow that’s the point. The marvelous thing about the Incarnation, which we are about to celebrate, is just how close God comes, a god in dirty diapers. When I said that in my homily, one of the young guys who is here for his initial observership snorted with laughter, and he brought it up several times later in the day. I didn’t mean it to sound shocking, but it really is, I guess. Still, that’s it! Don’t they say something like that about Jesus all the time? Who is this guy? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Didn’t we see you in your dirty diapers? The gospels tell us that They were amazed that God could give such power to a human being. That is some of the gift of Mary: it seems as if whenever God becomes too distant and masculine and far away, and ironically even when Jesus, who was supposed to bring God so close to us, gets pushed too far away, along comes Mary to bring the compassion of God close again, like a nurturing mother would. But then we push her away too. It wasn’t enough for her to be a young pregnant peasant woman dressed in a simple tunic. People wanted to make sure she looked holy. As if there were nothing holy about Pope John Paul II’s red loafers and watch; as if sitting on the floor in south India weren’t as holy as a high altar at St Peter’s Basilica. In the midst of you is one you do not know. The wonderful, frightening, mysterious marvelous thing about God is how close God is, and how holy is everything around us––the ground we stand on.

There was and is a lot of nervousness about John Paul II’s emphasis on referring to Mary by such things as Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix. It seems to some as if she is being deified, divinized. I’m not so bothered by it. I love seeing a feminine presence so close to the throne of the godhead. But, isn’t divinization the point anyway? The Eastern Christian tradition emphasizes this more than we do––the end of the Christian life is divinization, but we say it right out too: May we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity. What I want to emphasize along with that, though, is never to forget that she is also one of us, she is also a pregnant native young woman. If we could stretch our theological arms that wide as to hold both of those things together, Mary’s lowliness and her divinization, then we would be able to grasp something of the fullness of the Christian mystery. We don’t have to add anything on to her, nor on to reality, in order to catch a glimpse of real holiness. As Teilhard wrote, "By virtue of the creation and, still more, of the incarnation, nothing here below if profane for those who know how to see."

three mountains

 (I'm living pretty much full time back with the community at Big Sur now, traveling a lot less. Though I usually only attend to this blog when I am on the road, I am teaching and preaching a lot down here, so every now and then if something really seems interesting I'll try to add it here.

Amid ten thousand streams up among
thousands of clouds, a man of idleness

wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs.

In the whirl of springs and autumns,
to inhabit this calm, no tangles of dust:

it’s sheer joy depending on nothing,
still as an autumn river’s quiet water.
                                                         Han Shan

Last week Wednesday was the feast of Saint Sabas. I had to preach. I didn’t know anything about him, and since it was Advent I could have skipped talking about him completely, but when I was with the Poor Clares the day before I saw an article on him in the little book they had left out for me to read up on Saint Barbara, who they were celebrating that day. And something in Sabas’ story caught my attention. Similar to Romuald, it was after a family feud about some property he got disgusted with the world and ran off to join a monastery. This is 5th century Palestine, by the way. At still a very young age (18?), he then went to join another monastery under a great master named Euthymius, but then when Euthymius died Sabas took off again, this time to live in a cave on a mountain, at the foot of which lay a brook. As often happens, a group of disciples formed around him, enough to coax him out of his cave and off of his mountain, and he founded a monastery. He acquiesced to being ordained a priest as well and was named the patriarch of all the monks of Palestine.

I was struck by all those little details––the mountain, the cave, the brook.

The reason why it struck me especially was that the scriptures that we read for the Wednesday of the 1st week of Advent (which was his feast day) also mentioned mountains––Isaiah 25:  On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich foods and choice wines…; and then Jesus climbing a mountain near the Sea of Galilee in Matthew 15, and the crowds followed him, and he healed and fed them. So we had three mountains: Sabas’ mountain of solitude, Isaiah’s mountain of prophetic vision, and Jesus’ mountain of healing and feeding.

It’s notable how often the mountain, like the desert or other forms of solitude, appears as a significant locus for people on a spiritual quest, from Moses and Elijah, the Taoist and Buddhist hermit mountain poets of China, Muhammad on Mount Hira, the sadhus trekking to Mount Kailasha in the Himalayas. And here we have St. Sabas in that lineage as well. Our friend Chris Lorenc is a lover of the mountain poets of ancient China, and he’s given me two collections of them. That I quoted above was from Han Shan––“Stone House”:

Amid ten thousand streams up among
thousands of clouds, a man of idleness

wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs…

Sounds beautiful! You can almost feel your blood pressure go down as you read it!

But, I wonder, is this the end? Or is this the beginning?

Sometimes this mountain becomes the place of vision, as it appears so many times in the prophecy of Isaiah, the mountain of the Lord’s house that shall be raised above the hills: the mountain to which every nation shall come streaming; where swords will be beat into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, and the boots of tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for fire; the mountain where anyone from any nation who calls the name of God comes, the mountain where God says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” So, perhaps the mountain of solitude can become the mountain of vision.

But then in Jesus it takes one more step as well. Either we see him coming down Mount Tabor, after appearing with the other mountain dwellers, Moses and Elijah, and healing someone as his first act after his Transfiguration. Or else we have him in Matthew 15, calling everybody else up there with them––not just the pure and elite, but the lame and the blind, the deformed and the mute, too––; and not just feeding them the rarified pure air of the lofty visions and prophecies, but instead coming down to earth by bringing his teaching down to earth, and feeding them actual edible food, loaves and fishes. Solitude and vision has given birth to compassion. There is a Tibetan saying that after the monk’s solitary retreat he “comes back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands.” That could refer to the trip from my cell to the refectory as much as great missionary work. It was that way for Sabas, whose solitude eventually gave birth to community, as it was for Benedict, as it was for Romuald, whose solitudes gave birth to communities of mutual love, schools of the Lord’s service, movements. They were all leery of what John Cassian called the pax perniciosa–the pernicious peace (ouch!); they heeded St. Basil’s warning when he asked, “Whose feet are you going to wash, hermit?”

So, maybe the mountain of what the yoga tradition calls kaivalya––which my Sanskrit dictionary defines as “aloofness, aloneness, isolation… the state of liberation”––has to give birth to the mountain of vision, an inclusive vision that is not anti-world; and then that mountain of prophetic vision needs to give way to the mountain of compassion so that it becomes incarnate, in imitation of Jesus. It would be well for us to reflect on our mountains, the personal mountain that we’re climbing as well as our communal mountain, and hope that our mountains of solitude and liberation will give birth to wider vision, and our vision would resolve itself in compassion.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

evolution meandering

(If anyone is paying attention, you will have noticed that I wrote in the following entry that I wasn't going to post this until after the voting, and then went ahead and posted it anyway while I was testing out if I could access Blogspot from here. Well, I doubt that I changed the course of history much, but here the finished re-vamped version of the same entry.)

To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face, one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And one who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet all humility, that those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.
(M. K. Gandhi, My Experiments With Truth)

I'm in Oxfordshire, UK, currently, at the retreat house called the Abbey where I have been several times before. Lucky for me, the retreat I was supposed to lead got canceled so I am free as a bird until I leave for Norwich to continue my work on Thursday.

I actually had to leave a day early (thanks to amazing Michaela's long hours on the phone and her in with the travel angels) to beat Superstorm Sandy. I had a good stay up in the northwest near Manchester, guests of a very progressive Anglican priest at a very inclusive parish, where I wound up doing three nights of events instead of two, since I was early. Thursday was a talk called “Going Deeper into Awakened Consciousness.” As I told Clive, my host, that is a title I would never have come up with, but I liked it. Friday was a concert; but before either, Clive asked me to spend an evening with his regular Tuesday night group, who gather and explore all kinds of alternative spiritualities. That was fun too. I just kind of talked at random about my life and work and answered questions and sang a few songs. Clive is very interested in the work of progressive thinkers--from those of Ken Wilber's ilk through to Matthew Fox, who was the last guest speaker to visit this place (and stay in the same room I did)--and is quite well read. I found myself pilfering books from his reading pile and pouring through them as fast as possible while fighting off the jet lag.

While in the area I also spent a day hanging around cold and rainy Manchester city itself, mostly in bookstores and at the infamous University of Manchester, the birthplace of liberalism, capitalism and free trade. I also took the train into Liverpool for part of the day Friday. It was only an hour away by train. It was a beautiful city, not at all what I expected, right on the river Mersey (“A fairy crossed the Mersey...”), with a great walking area downtown near the docks, lots of museums and exhibits, including the Cavern Club where the Beatles and several other acts got started, and of course “The Beatles Story” museum/exhibit, which was very entertaining, but didn't offer much new to the story. Though I must say I am constantly more and more amazed that the whole phenomenon that was the Beatles all took place in a relatively short period of time, less than a decade really, that so deeply impacted popular culture, changed pop music forever both in terms of its social conscience and depth as well as its creativity and use of technology.

Saturday I did a day retreat for the World Community for Christian Meditation up in Leeds, on the campus of Leeds Trinity University, which went really well and was well received. Then yesterday the long train ride down here. I'll be doing a lot of trains this time—down to Norwich, then up to Edinburgh, and back down to London. At Norwich I am doing a two day retreat for another Christian meditation group (not WCCM) that seems to be very well organized, and the leader of which has obviously been reading my blog. The topics for the day: “Mind, Body and Non-dualism,” “Common Ground in the Awakened Traditions,” “The Within of Things,” “The Perennial Philosophy.” It's like an intensive mini-course! I'm told I'll be staying at the convent right at the shrine of Julian, which is touching.

But for now I am settled in here at this place I love so much, a 13th century manor house right up from the River Thames, all vegetarian cooking (that doesn't mean it's low fat...). It's a beautiful walk/run along the river into the town of Abingdon, which boasts of being the oldest inhabited town in England. Plus I've got a small but unbelievably cozy room above the kitchen, right next to the over-stuffed library, with a stone window seat ledge and en suite bathroom facilities (a real luxury in England). All I've got to do is sing tonight, so I've got time and space to stretch and read and pray and exercise. I've also got a new book to write by July and my dream was to find some time to write while here in the UK, so now, with the retreat canceled and a borrowed laptop, I've already started getting some work done. Hence, also a long delayed blog entry. (Better warn the brothers in Big Sur: I always write more and better in India or England, and compose better in Italy.)

I can't wait for this election to be over. I'll be hovering near the office here to check the Internet first thing in the morning. Polls close in the US at 8 AM UK, and as far as I know the networks are obliged to not call the election until they do. I voted early, but have been just about obsessed with it for weeks. And that's what got me thinking, about this election and the evolution of consciousness.

It is no surprise that I am a dyed in the wool “Kennedy Catholic,” as my folks used to say, a liberal Democrat of immigrant stock and union men, though I try very hard to be balanced and objective; nor does that not mean I am uncritical of my own party. The Democratic Party is no communion of saints, and the President does not get anywhere near a perfect report card.

I found this quote from Bertrand Russel in an article contained on some yellowed brittle pages from a 1959 NY Times Magazine that were folded up and stuffed between two books in the overflow of the library right outside my door.

Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that people say things that we don't like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuance of human life on this planet.
He says some pretty prescient and prophetic things in that interview, including the snippet quoted above. On page 40 of the same issue was an advertisement for wrinkle-resistant cottons by Dan River Mills. Over the heading “The Modern American Family,” there are four photographs, all which show an obviously Caucasian couple--in an old Western town, in the woods on picnic, at the pier, on a lazy river--with one child, in two a girl and in two a boy. (I suppose that was the beginning of the era of 1.5 children.) It was quaint, a snap shot of life in the late 1950s, when I was going on one year old. But I thought as I looked at it, “This is not what America looks like anymore.”

When I saw the headline the other day about Paul Ryan saying that President Obama's policies compromise “those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us a great and exceptional nation in the first place,” I got so angry I could have spit nails. And he singled out the Affordable Health Care Act (even if the President himself has adopted the term I refuse to call it “Obamacare”) was an example of that. This in spite of the fact that the American Catholic bishops have been calling for universal health care. This in spite of the fact that Rep. Ryan's own budget was denounced by the same bishops, the “Nuns of a Bus,” as well as the Jesuit scholars of Georgetown, as being morally unacceptable. There are reasons not to vote for Barack Obama for a second term, but this kind of argument is unconscionable. Does he mean taking care of the poor instead of protecting the rich is not a value of Western civilization? Or ensuring that everyone has health care? Or diplomacy, building bonds of friendship with hostile nations, especially (and this is no doubt the biggest fault as the right sees it) with Muslim nations, calling on the good people of Islam and supporting them over the terrorists? Or does he mean President Obama's concern for global warming, about which Gov. Romney made a joke at the Republican Convention, but was the deciding factor, after Hurricane Sandy, for Mayor Bloomberg to back him? Is not good stewardship of our planet home a value of Western civilization too? Then maybe Western civilization needs to catch up with the Bible. Could not the argument be made that these are Judeo-Christian biblically based values? Ones that Rep. Ryan and his co-partisans are largely either ignoring or trying to debunk. Or is he defining biblical values solely by sexual and gender issues, so-called “family values”? Biblical justice, from the time of the Hebrew prophets straight through the Gospels and the Letter of Saint James, has a lot more to say about injustice and care for the poor, not to mention religious hypocrisy, than it does about sexual and gender issues.

Or did Rep. Ryan mean the philosophy of Ayn Rand, laissez-faire economics, free market capitalism? Are those Judeo-Christian as well as Western? The last two popes have been just as strong in the criticism of capitalism as they have been of every other economic system. And, I know this is a lot to ask, when will we start recognizing the values not just of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but, as the president has done, also of Islam, that other of the Abrahamic faiths and prophetic traditions, which historically has had a lot to say about caring for the least among us before it got hijacked by extremists and fundamentalists.

I honestly think what Rep. Ryan, who was addressing Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition at the time, really meant was (in code), “He's not one of us...” They have accused President Obama of not being really an American, of being a socialist, of being a Muslim, and even of being gay. (As if there were anything intrinsically wrong with being any of those three.) As I say, (and I post this after the voting is over) there are reasons not to vote for President Obama, but picking and choosing which value out of the host of biblical values is not a sound argument. Even worse, its slanderous, not very much in keeping with what I know to be the values of the prophetic traditions.

I am doing so much reading these days about the evolution of consciousness and culture, especially this wonderful new book called Evolutionaries by Carter Phipps. He quotes Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen, that “Evolution meanders more than it progresses,” and yet the whole book is a paean to the fact that, as hard as it is to believe, it does progress. As I like to say, time and history, for the prophetic traditions especially, are not an illusion or a trap to be escaped. Time and history are sacraments. They are our means; we believe we are going somewhere—toward the reign of God. As Phipps writes, perhaps from a more secular-scientific point of view, “Somewhere amid the crisis of the moment, the stage is being set for great leaps forward.” The basic evolutionary pattern can be seen, and part of that pattern is interconnectivity and relationship, from the cellular level all the way up to nation states.

We cannot really hope to have global peace without first hoping for some kind of decently functioning global political and economic institutions... the more we are engaged in win-win relationships with others, the more likely we are to see ourselves being 'in the same boat'; and extend our circle of care and concern—to see our self-interest as connected to and coordinated with the self-interest of the larger community. In this sense, we can ascertain a certain level of moral progress in history simply in the fact that these 'circles of concern' have extended from clans to tribes to city-states to nations... (pp. 31-32)

As Dr. King said a half a century ago, as President Obama often quotes, it still seems as if the long arc of history does indeed lean toward justice. Whoever wins this election, may God's will be done--on earth as it is in heaven.a

Monday, August 13, 2012

bread for the journey

Once Hasan al-Basri, accompanied by several people, was on the way to Mecca. They came to a well. They were all thirsty but had no rope to pull a bucket of water. Hasan said, “I am going to pray. While I am praying you will see the water rise. Drink freely and quench your thirst.”
            So it happened. But when one man, after drinking, filled his water bag for future use, the water sank to its original level. When asked the reason for the strange occurrence, Hasan replied, “It was due to your lack of faith to depend solely on God.” 
(Attar, in “The Essential Sufi”)

On the third Sunday that we hear from the Bread of Life discourse from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, the church seems to invite us to meditate specifically on the connection between Eucharist and eternal life. Jesus says that the bread he gives is that which one may eat and never die, and whoever eats this bread will live forever. What makes the Eucharist the bread of eternal life?  What is the connection between this bread and eternal life?

First of all, we always have to remember that this Eucharist that we share is not just bread and wine; it becomes body and blood; and not just body and blood but broken body and spilled blood!  And not just broken body and spilled blood but the resurrected, glorified body of the Risen Lord. We’ve become so accustomed to images of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary in association with the Eucharist that we could easily forget that this is not the body of the dead Jesus; this is resurrection bread! In this bread that we eat is the power of resurrection, the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Secondly, we remember Paul’s famous words in second Timothy: it is only if we have died with Christ that we shall live with him; it is only if we hold out ‘til the end that we will reign with him. There is a certain whole lot of dying we must do to fully access this power of resurrection that is present in the Eucharist.

I’m even more fascinated by the image that the church gives us in regards to the Eucharist in the first reading than in the Gospel, from 1 Kings chapter 19.  Last week we heard from the book of Exodus about those very ancestors who ate manna in the desert that Jesus is speaking about in the Gospel of John. They were so hungry that they were willing to give up and go back to Egypt, that place of cruel slavery, and it’s at that point of real hunger that the Lord feeds them. And we see someone here again today, falling into that same despair. Queen Jezebel is hunting Elijah down to kill him, and Elijah is praying for death. He falls asleep under a broom tree, and I wonder if this falling asleep isn’t itself a symbol of death, as if in falling asleep he somehow dies, and enters into a new realm, a different realm, maybe a dreamscape, where he is twice greeted by an angel who has brought him nourishment. It is surely from this reading that we get the tradition of calling the Eucharist “bread for the journey.” Elijah is heading to Horeb, the mountain where he will have his epiphany in the still small voice, and this food will be his strength for the 40 days and forty nights that it will take him to cross the desert to get there. You can’t help but see an allusion to the forty years of the Israelites in the desert and Jesus’ own forty days in the desert.  But like the Israelites in the desert, so too here with Elijah, the key is in the emptiness. When the Israelites were really hungry and ready to rely solely on God, when Elijah has been emptied of his own strength, when he has reached the limits of his own power, the crisis of limitations, God feeds him. 

What I am thinking is that perhaps we only truly appreciate the power of the Eucharist when we are that hungry, when we are that poor. I have this feeling that in the days to come it might just be the poor themselves who will lead the way, and with them those who know how to live close to the earth, and those who know how to live simply. It may be these who will be teaching the rest of us how to survive in the days ahead. All these things that we have stored up for ourselves, all the things that we have come to consider as our rights and our standard of living are suddenly going to seem like what they are to the rest of the world––luxury items that we have been gorging ourselves on.  By necessity we are going to have to learn to live simpler, and more gently on the earth, and learn to content ourselves with just enough to get by.  And then, when we are down to the basics, when we are empty and close enough to death, we will really learn what the Eucharist is––bread for the journey, just enough for the day.

There’s a quote by the liturgist and author Nathan Mitchell that I also never tire of reading and quoting.  You know in this day and age we Catholics have accented much more the meal aspect of the Eucharist over the sacrificial aspect.  This has its advantages and disadvantages. Nathan Mitchell says that one of the disadvantages is that “banquets suggest abundance, lavish excess of food and drink,” as though the Eucharist were “a luxury meal for wealthy gourmands.”  Of course this image is strongly appealing in an affluent culture of conspicuous consumption such as ours, “where a significant portion of our population is overweight and an equally significant portion drives humungous, gas-guzzling all-terrain SUVs to the mall or supermarket!” And yet, he reminds us, there are millions of people on our planet “who would give their last scrap of clothing for single cup of rice. In our world, a human being dies of hunger every 3.6 seconds, and 75 percent of them are kids under the age of five.” And so we have to face the fact that “there is an ethics, an economics of Eucharist that we are not free to ignore. If we come away from the table feeling fat, full, content, and satisfied––if we come away purring like cats, licking the last drop of cream from our whiskers––then we’ve missed the point. Because the point of the Eucharistic meal is not to leave the table sleek, sassy, and satisfied; the point is to leave hungry, troubled, dissatisfied. The point is to leave with a burr under the saddle, with a tickle in the throat, with a heart broken by the passion of God.”[1] We are supposed to come hungry, but we’re also supposed to leave a little lean, as well, with just enough food for the journey, just enough strength for the day, as the Israelites learned about the manna––if they kept it more than one day it rotted; it was only food for the journey; as Jesus tells us to take nothing extra with us on the road to spreading his word. Our daily bread––the bread we need, no more, no less.

There’s a beautiful choreography in the Roman Catholic liturgy, especially evidenced in a place like our chapel at New Camaldoli, where we get up after the Liturgy of the Word and process into another space, the rotunda, for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Our modern liturgical documents are at stress to point out the inextricable connection between the Word and the Sacrament, so much so that they speak of the two tables of the Word and the Eucharist. The thing is––the Word always demands a response. Now that we have heard the Word and been challenged by it, we are summoned to do something. The response asked of us is two-fold. First of all, to lay our lives on the altar in the form of bread and wine, which get lifted up and accepted and transubstantiated into the Body of Christ. And then, like to Eucharistic bread to be broken open and passed out; like the wine, crushed grasped and poured out.

My friend and colleague Rory Cooney wrote a beautiful provocative song some years ago, which began, “I am the bread of life. You and I are the bread of like.” I remember what a stink it caused especially among people who were suspicious of anything that sounded “unorthodox.” People thought it was terribly humanist, and somehow denied the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I thought of that song again the other day on the feast of St Lawrence, the deacon and martyr who had given his whole life over in service of the poor. After he was tortured on the grill, just before he died, he is reported to have said, “It is finished. Take and eat.” Yes, that’s it, it seems to me. Anything less would be denying the real presence of Christ in us.

The Eucharist is a sacrificial meal.  This Eucharist that we share is not just bread and wine, it becomes body and blood; and not just body and blood but broken body and spilled blood! Before we can reign with Jesus we must die with him, as he did. Not just on Calvary, but emptying ourselves in sometimes very small ways––service, patience, kindness, emptying ourselves often simply of our self-will, emptying ourselves completely, content with the grace of God.  Just as the bread gets broken here at the altar, just as the wine gets poured out, so as we walk out these doors, we, who have become the Body of Christ, have been given enough food for the journey, to go out there and be broken, and be poured out for the sake of those whom we love and those whom we don’t, to walk the forty days through the deserts of our lives ‘til we too see the face of God.

[1]Nathan Mitchell, “Remembering Assembly,” Pastoral Music, Oct-Nov 2000.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

you're not special

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. ... Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others… And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. (David McCullough)
A few weeks ago an English teacher named David McCullough delivered this commencement speech that went viral, titled “You’re Not Special.” His point was that praise must be earned not just handed to you; if everybody’s special then no body is special––that kind of thing. What was even more interesting to me than the speech itself was the reaction to it. You could just about hear people licking their chops with headlines such as “a commencement speech that eviscerated the self-esteem movement.” That’ll show these spoiled, entitled kids! Even Rush Limbaugh liked it! Mr. McCullough had some very memorable lines in it, one of them that I liked a lot was, “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” Of course in some way it’s the opposite of what Jesus says when he tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world, a city built on a hill,” but that’s another issue… 

I actually liked a lot of what he said, but I also thought it was a bit of an over-reaction, especially the response to it. I have spent my priestly ministry telling people the other side of the story––telling them how beautiful they are, and urging them and me to live up to their dignity, holding a mirror up to folks––which is what I think spiritual communities are supposed to do––and saying, “Look at yourself! See who you are! Live up to this! You are the image of God moving to likeness, called to share in the divinity of Christ, called to be participants in the divine nature!” 

In a sense, this is what Jesus experienced from his relatives and friends when he went back to Galilee. He had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” And now they were asking the question, “Who do you think you are?” They couldn’t believe that God would give such power to this kid whom they had seen grown up in dirty diapers, that such great power could be revealed in a human being. How could God come this close and be so ordinary?

Both of these things are operative though in our readings today, and in some way they are a subplot all through Jesus’ life and the spiritual life in general. My favorite image to describe this tension is from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians when he says we hold this treasure in earthen vessels to make it known that this extraordinary power comes not from us but from God. So we do hold an incredible treasure inside of us, but we hold it in a fragile, cracked vessel to remind us that it will blow us to pieces if we don’t deal with it with humility, and if we fail to recognize that this power is ours to share in, but it is not ours! And in case we forget, Paul gives us that great image that we hear today––we get these thorns in our flesh to remind us that on our own, without grace, we are nothing, just frail weak fallible hypocritical bumbling humanoid bipeds, but with the grace of God we are everything––prophets, priest, royalty.

And this is Jesus’ way; this is the key that holds those two things together. Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself––took the form of a slave. That’s the key to Jesus way. It’s in that selflessness, in that humility that we are emptied of our bloated false self––all our masks we wear and roles we play––emptied enough to be filled with the very fullness of God. And actually Mr McCullough agreed with that. He says:
And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.
That’s also the key: because everyone is. The self-esteem eviscerating headlines miss that line: because everyone is.

I guess what I want to add to the discussion is just this: We use religion so often to wag our fingers at each other and tell each other to behave but, contrary to what Mr. McCullough says about praise, grace is not something that can be earned, even by good behavior. That would actually be a heresy in our tradition; it’s called Pelagianism. Grace, like love, is a free gift; as David Mamet might say, “That’s why they call it ‘grace.’” It doesn’t start with us behaving correctly; it doesn’t start with us doing anything. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness, St. Paul says (2 Cor 12:9). It starts out with us being loved, the scriptures tell us, it starts out with us knowing who we are, knowing that we are beloved and cherished––and that is the strength to do something with our lives, and that gives us the strength to move, as Jesus did, beyond our selfishness to selflessness. We have to have a self to give our self away, but we have to have grace to become fully ourselves––that’s the real “God particle.”

Our  svadhyaya––the self-study through sacred reading, is like looking in a mirror; we find out who we are and we get food for the journey. So let’s hope we can someday know who we are, and recognize it in each other; and hope that that knowledge of who we are would give us the strength to do the dying, the emptying, the kenosis that we have to do to live up to our dignity, to lay our lives down for the sake of others, to be broken like Jesus and like the Eucharistic bread, crushed and poured out like the grapes and the wine, for the sake of the world. Then we will climb the mountain both to see the world, to love it as God so loved it, weep over it as Jesus did, and allow ourselves to be seen too––but to be seen for a very special specific reason, the reason Jesus gives: so that others may see us and our good works and give glory to God.

in peace you have received

“Arthur, you mustn’t feel that I am rude when I say this.  You must remember that I have been away in strange and desert places, sometimes quite alone, sometimes in a boat with nobody but God and the whistling sea.  Do you know, since I have been back with people, I have felt like I was going mad?  Not from the sea, but from the people around me.  A lot of the things which you say, even seem to me to be needless: strange noises: empty. You know what I mean. ‘How are you’–‘Do sit down’–‘What nice weather we are having!’ What does it matter?  People talk far too much. Where I have been, and where Galahad is, it is a waste of time to have ‘manners.’ Manners are only needed between people, to keep their empty affairs in working order. Manners maketh man, you know, not God. So you can understand how Galahad may have seemed inhuman and mannerless, and so on, to the people who were buzzing and clacking about him. He was far away in his spirit, living on desert islands, in silence, with eternity.” (Once and Future King, 460-461)

That passage is from the novel Once and Future King, which I loved very much. I’ve saved this passage for years. The book is a re-telling of the Arthurian myth and in this scene it’s Percival speaking, after he and Galahad have come back from the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s a sort of classic example of the Hero’s Journey. I remember meeting a Jungian analyst once, and I was telling her about some strong experiences I had been having of late, but how when I tried to convey them or share them it either all came out flat or folks would just kind of shrug and walk away. And she said to me something like; “You’ve got to be very careful whom you share your experiences with when you’re on the Hero’s Journey. If people aren’t ready to hear what you have to say, it will ruin it for you, rob you of the experience.”

Some other examples of this could be, for instance, after a retreat experience, that phenomenon of “coming down the mountain,” sometimes literally! Or maybe in the throes of a conversion experience, still caught up in the initial fervor and excitement, expecting people to catch on fire just by talking to you. I’ve got a young friend who has been on several months’ pilgrimage around Central and South America right now, and I sent him this passage too. Or maybe it could just apply to our enthusiasm for anything, our passion for social justice or environmental issues, or our love for the liturgy or yoga or meditation or interfaith dialogue! Our exuberance for life in general! How often does that get beaten out of us? And sometimes it could simply be our own experience of the tender compassion of our God that has gripped us, like the Good News that Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim on their Hero’s Journey. In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 10, he tells his disciples first look for someone worthy. And if they really are worthy, share it. If they’re not––no need to call down the fire from heaven on them; if that’s what they deserve, apparently God will see to it. It’s one of those rare instances where Jesus is all but calling down the fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah. Actually, the harsh compassion that we hear in the prophet Hosea 11 is better. (We read these two passages on the same day.) God says instead, My heart is overwhelmed with pity. I will not give vent to my blazing anger. No, we have to have the strength to detach from the results and the fruits and not take it personally; we’ve done our job and we walk on, guarding that treasure and looking for a heart worthy to receive it. We have to accept the fact, sadly but without recrimination, that sometimes people are simply not ready to hear what we have to say or receive what we have to give.

And yet, if we’re patient with the journey and let it gestate in us, it will not go to waste; it can become something in us. One of the characteristic features of Jesus was his gratitude, his exuberance, his joy and his awe, his appreciation of the mirabili Dei–the wonders of God, which he received freely and from which he gave freely. Blessed are you Lord, God of heaven and earth! he says. And that awe becomes in him gratitude, thanksgiving; and that thanksgiving in turn became in him power, the power to walk on water, to heal the sick, drive out demons, raise the dead, to turn bread and wine into his body and blood. That’s what we’re looking for––that Eucharistic alchemy to happen in us, that wonder and that gratitude and ultimately that energy to be at work in us, for our experience of the wonders of God, the wonders of all creation, and the wonder that God made us, to turn into gratitude, and that gratitude is like jet fuel, that gratitude turns into power. That’s the energy of Eucharist, and that becomes our participation in creation and building the reign of God, in ministry, in creativity, in prayer, in community, in a heart broken with compassion for our world.

Let’s hope that the treasure would take root in us, that the Word would dwell in us richly, that the peace of Christ would control our hearts and become something in us, become the energy of the Eucharist, the energy of participation and creation and that we would become bearers of the Good News with hearts broken with compassion for our world.

Monday, July 23, 2012

the second naiveté

The Self cannot be won by speaking,
nor by intelligence or much learning.
It can be won by the one whom it chooses.
To that one the Self reveals its own form.
Katha Upanishad II:23

I keep running into this phrase lately––“the second naiveté.” I’ve heard it mainly applied to scripture and myth. So, perhaps at an early age we read the Bible, for instance, believing every word and fact and detail to be literally true, no matter the discrepancies within accounts or things that just don’t match up. Then comes the stage of exegesis, literary critique and historical critical analysis, and we could fall into a totally cynical approach, figuring out just what words Jesus might have actually said, and deciding that this is all a bunch of silly fairy tales. And then the second naiveté hits, when we just start to enjoy the stories again and appreciate the truths that they convey. I think this happens in very tradition. I’ve heard it referred to Hindu and Buddhist texts as well. I don’t think it’s a return to being uneducated; it’s something beyond our sophisticated rational minds.

Maybe the same thing applies to our understanding of God. So as a little Catholic boy I sincerely thought of God as an old man with a long white beard, and his Son looked just like him except younger and a little thinner with a brown beard, and then there was this dove. Every religion has its version of this too, I suppose. And then I went through my iconoclastic stage, smashing idols and destroying images, my own and those of others! But later can come another phase, in which I don’t think we recapture those images and icons necessarily, but instead we grow to love the mystery, and grow comfortable not knowing the answers, and being comfortable with that. Perhaps that’s the apophatic stage, the via negativa, the way of holy darkness, which could either freak us out or it could initiate us into awe, wonder, worship, joy. I don’t think it’s a return to childhood, really, but it’s a new childhood, a new innocence, in which we don’t “regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”; where we don’t negate all that we have learned and gained, but we go beyond it, and with the help of all that we have gained we find a new sense of mystery and transcendence. Some people are lucky enough to remain innocent and childlike all their lives. Most of us are not that lucky––but we can hope for this place beyond our slick rational minds, beyond our cleverness. There are many things actually hidden from our cleverness that are revealed to our awe, hidden from our brilliance that are revealed to our trust.

So Jesus says in that beautiful passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. What you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children. It reminds me of the Tao te Ching, my favorite chapter 20. Taosim is perhaps the quintessential apophatic tradition. I think this passage describes well what St Paul calls the “fool for Christ,” and makes me think at what an absurd figure the monk can strike in this day and age. This my version of it, the one I adapted for the song “The Great Mother”:

Others are joyful and others can feast,
I alone do not know where I am,
a child not taught how to smile.
Others have everything, more than they need,
I alone have nothing at all––
I’m just a fool in confusion.
Others a brilliant and clear––
I alone still grope in the dark,
the insights of scholars escape me.
Others are clever and sharp;
I alone am stupid and dull.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
Everyone else has got something to do,
I alone and aimless and sad.
I am different, nourished by the Great Mother.

“The Great Mother” there refers to the first manifestation of this Tao that cannot be spoken of, but gives birth to “the 10,000 things.” I am different, it means, I stay close to the source.

Let’s look forward to this passage into the second naiveté today, so that what is hidden from our wisdom and learning may be revealed to us as we are nourished at the table of the Word and Sacrament.

the whole field

Now that you’ve loved
it’s the end of your love and the
start of your loving career.
You’ll not love another;
you’ve gone from your mother for real!
Stand to me now and make
sense of the things that you feel.
                                                Danny Black

I was asked to preside at a wedding this past weekend. I always think that it’s kind of funny in the Catholic tradition that a celibate man stands up in front of a young couple about to be married and gives them advice. As if! But as I was thinking about what to say, I occurred to me that there were a few lessons that I had learned from the monastic life that could apply to the married life, so short of advice I thought I could share some things I’ve learned from experience.

The first one is the main vow we monks take. It’s called conversatio morum. Literally it translates something like “conversion of ways.” Thomas Merton called it the “vow of conversation,” and I think it applies well to the married state, too. What it means is that we are always in conversation with our vocation, we are always asking our state in life, what should a monk do? what should a husband do? what should a mother do? But for a married couple I guess it always means that there is a vow of conversation between them as well; from now on out they are not making decisions just for themselves, but for their partner and eventually for their children, their family.

When I made solemn vows I picked the gospel reading from Matthew chapter 13 about the man who found the treasure buried in the field. But he didn’t just grab the treasure and run––he bought the whole field! For me that whole field is not just walking around in white robes or chanting the psalms or sitting in meditation. It means whatever is going on with my monastic community and congregation, as well as lots of personal ramifications of the choice of lifestyle that I have made. And for the married couple the “whole field” I guess means all that they each bring to the relationship, each of their families, each of their background, each of their career choices, and whatever the future holds. It’s like two ecosystems meeting; sometimes it could lead to an environmental disaster! It’s like two weather systems meeting; sometimes it feels like a perfect storm! Their love for each other is the treasure buried in the field, but they find out that they have to buy the whole field. It can come as a shock along the way when each of them starts to realize what that whole field entails, but that treasure buried in the middle of it somehow makes the whole field holy.

Another one of my favorite images of monasticism is what our former prior general Emanuele said to me once. I was speaking to him about monasticism as a container (this is part of a longer story, but I’ll spare you…) and he said to me, “But, Cyprian, monasticism isn’t a container; it’s an energy.” I disagree a little bit with that––I think it’s both a container and an energy––but still his point is important, and the same applies to marriage. Marriage can feel like a container, “settling down,” and to some extent that is true. But, first of all, the couples’ love for each other is the energy inside that container. Maybe the word “container” isn’t the best even; marriage holds the energy and focuses the energy, but it’s not supposed to suppress the energy. It’s important that that energy be always cared for and nourished. We use the word “procreative” for married love; that word means even more than having children. Love is creative, love gives birth to other things. That’s just what love does. It gives birth to community, to art and beauty, to justice and peace.

The last lesson is something I heard just the other day from an 86 year-old monk. We were talking about how it is so hard for young people to commit to monastic life, and I thought that this could apply again to any vocation, including especially the married life. He said that the problem with young and old is that they think of a vocation as an end. But really what we commit to is a journey. Our vows are the beginning of a journey, and we have no idea where the journey is going to take us!  It’s a marvelous unfolding frightening mystery. And that somehow ties in to the other three already mentioned. It is the energy of our vocation that takes and sustains us on that journey. And on that journey we vow to stay in conversation and constantly convert ourselves. In that journey we discover the rest of the field that we have bought along with the treasure that we found buried in it.

There’s a reason that a couple gets married in front of a bunch of people, partly because all those people gathered there are a part of that whole field! And also because those people are there to remind the couple, when and if things get tough, that they have committed to the whole field, to remind them that this is a journey they are on and to which they have committed themselves.

I have found that the energy of my monastic life has led me to live my life in a way I never would have imagined 20 years ago. It’s been an amazing journey, especially these past ten years up in Santa Cruz and on the road. And the same with the young families that I have been lucky enough to be surrounded with these years; they have taught me so much as I watched them wade through the surprises, disappointments and even great tragedies in their lives; as well as I have watched older couples walk beside them, sometimes just being gently present and supportive, at other times really holding their feet to the fire, reminding them of the commitment that they made to the whole field, to the journey, just as my elder brothers and sisters in religious life have both encouraged me and challenged me to stay with it.

I especially wish Danny and Katy happiness, courage and prosperity in the years ahead, as well as Claire and Nick, married just two weeks ago. And I am feeling enormous gratitude for all the young couples and their beautiful babies who have surrounded me these years with their joy and life and courage and hope for the world.

not to conquer but to serve

The joys and the hopes,
the griefs and the anxieties of people of this age,
especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,
these are the joys and hopes,
the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.
            Gaudium et Spes

I’ve been doing so much reading about the Second Vatican Council these days, partly because there is so much interest around it this year as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of its convening. I just finished a wonderful book called “What Happened at Vatican II” by John O’Malley, that my confrere Fr Bruno recommended, that for me read like a action novel! I know that a lot of things have been excused, and sometimes wrongly, in a stretching of this nebulous “spirit of Vatican II,” and yet I came away from that book thinking that there really was a spirit to it.

The Roman Catholic church doesn’t like to think of itself as ever changing, especially when it comes to dogma and doctrine, so instead three different words were used––aggiornamento, development, and resourcement. That first word in Italian means “updating.” This is what the saintly Pope John XXIII wanted for the church, and updating, to open the windows and let the Sprit blow some fresh air in, especially after 500 years of a very solid post-Reformation counter-Reformation stance, protecting against all enemies, especially theological ones. Where the “development” came in was, for example, not 100 years earlier popes were condemning ecumenical dialogue, religious freedom and what they called under the large banner of “modernism,” which included things like new academic disciplines directed at Scripture as well as any talk of evolution. All of those by 1965 were embraced and encouraged, and many of the theologians who were silenced in the years before––Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, Teilhard de Chardin––wound up having great influence on the final documents of the council. That was quite a development, and it left a small but vocal minority very unhappy, leading some even to go into schism, as in the case of Archbishop Marcel Lefevre. The resourcement, on the other hand, is a French word that basically meant skipping back, sometimes up 1,500 years, and returning to the sources, back to the apostolic times and the Patristic era, the earliest era of church teachings, and for religions orders and congregations it meant going back to the original inspiration of their founders and recovering their original charism, intent and hopefully fervor as well. That was all part of the spirit of Vatican II––updating, developing, and going back to the sources.

But there was something more, of which these three were just manifestations. Whereas the stance of the church at least for 500 years had been to circle the wagons and condemn anything that we didn’t agree with, there were no condemnations issued out of the Second Vatican Council. Instead, an unheard of theme got brought up over and over again––“dialogue with the world.” So much so that the Council fathers issued a document that was addressed not just to the church, but to the world! Gaudium et Spes––and it begins with those marvelous words:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of people of this age,
especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,
these are the joys and hopes,
the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.
Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.
For theirs is a community composed of human beings.
United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father
and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for everyone.
That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.
Hence this Council, now addresses itself without hesitation,
not only to the children of the Church
but to the whole of humanity!

This was the spirit of Vatican II: dialogue with the world––not antagonism against the world––not circling the wagons and protecting ourselves against the world––dialogue with the world. As a matter of fact in his opening address to the second session of the Vatican Council Pope Paul VI called on the church to change its attitude toward the modern world, in these words I have reflected on countless times:


O’Malley adds this list, that the vision of Catholicism was moving

…from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.

We heard these wonderful words about Jesus in the gospel today, that he was move with pity for the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd. One might think that they are only addressed to those who officially minister in the church. But that’s not how I understand it. By our Baptism we all share in this triple vocation of Christ who was prophet, priest and king––and king as Vatican II was at pains to define it––king as servant. It is notable that the documents of Vatican II never refer to the papacy as a monarchy; the pope too is simply the “servant of the servants of God.” We are supposed to “rule” the world by being its servant. Why? Because they are like sheep without a shepherd, Christ wants to be their shepherd, and we are the body of Christ.

We have no idea what will face us in the future––but the signs of the times show, and some great thinkers among us believe that, us that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could be heading toward some great ecological disaster, of worldwide financial collapse, or some horrible nuclear disaster––not to mention random acts of terrorism or horrendous senseless violence like we had this past week in Colorado. We are going to need each other, to be shepherds to each other. But even more, the world––which God loves so much––is going to need us as its shepherds: not to conquer it but to serve it; not to despise it, but to appreciate it; not to condemn it but, especially, to comfort it, in the name of Jesus who had compassion on the crowds; Jesus, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, who is our peace, who has broken down the dividing wall of enmity, who proclaimed peace to those who are far off and those who are near, through whom we have access in the Spirit to the Father.(cf. Eph 2:14-18)

21 july 2012