Dear Friends, Mid-July
As I drove from the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat to Assumption Abbey, I was pleasantly surprised by how green things have remained, in spite of rain-deprived southern Missouri. The monastic garden was in excellent shape. The Garth too had been recently weeded, and whether planted by monk or God, two Sun Flowers over eight feet tall grinned on the whole scene. The bulletin board indicated my assignments to be antiphon reader, refectory server, and Presiding Priest for two masses. For a number of years we have been singing from a 2005 paperback hymnal that has many of the golden-oldies such as “They will know we are Christians by our Love” and “Amazing Grace.” Since Alberic II arrived, he has been leading us back into older, less known, traditional hymnology. We have now assembled a loose-leaf collection. Our Compline is now totally Gregorian chant. This has involved practice sessions, as on Monday evening before Vespers we practiced the chants for the Feast of St. Benedict to be observed the following day. For that Solemnity we had a special meal of roast and pizza, with ice cream, wine, and conversation. There was no work. Fr. Jesu from Nazareth joined us for the liturgy and meal. Their community was saddened recently when a talented postulant decided against the hermit life. Fr. Michael has returned from several months in Vietnam, awaiting a visa to return for two years of “introduction.” Fr.Alberic II has reached the seven-month requirement for stability, awaiting a visa in order to return to Vietnam for several years’ “initiation.” Frs. Bruno and Ignatius have been cutting down several large ailing trees whose final demise might have damaging effect. Fr. Bruno has been given the responsibility of assigning labor. Fr. Basil has been going out to do several retreats on extended weekends for Vietnamese congregations. There seems to be an operating consensus that our Cistercian and Trappist traditions have reached a satisfying balance.
Our Mass readings recently from Genesis have been narrating the Saga of how Israel came to be God’s chosen people, by tracing her ancestry. Today (Wednesday) we learn of the terrible famine gripping Egypt, just as Joseph, who is now governor, had predicted -- and for which he has made wise preparations. And “the entire world,” we are told, is coming to Joseph to obtain rations to keep from starvation. Now Joseph’s brothers, who had sold him into slavery years before, came too for food. They did not recognize Joseph, but Joseph surely remembered them. And immediately he puts them into prison. Here we encounter a key theme in today’s writings -- the theme of MOTIVE. The very same acts can often be either evil or good, depending solely on the motive for why they are done. What we are being taught here is that Biblical ethics depend not so much on WHAT one does as it does on WHY one does it. Thus Joseph’s various actions with his brothers can be seen as cruel -- IF they are being done vindictively as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Or they can be seen as loving, as the end of our story discloses them to be -- for his motive is not only to bring his family to Egypt where he can care for them, but also to bring repentance and reconciliation with his brothers. What finally effects reunion are the tears of Joseph, for they disclose his motive as being an overflowing love for his brothers, irrespective of their evil motives. And in fact, while their selling Joseph into slavery was meant for evil, God’s loving motivation turned it into good for a starving world. So it was with Christ -- whose tears on the cross disclosed not anger against those who were killing him, but a supreme act of love for the whole world. It all depends on the motive. Likewise today’s Gospel is about Jesus calling his disciples by name to send them out on a recruitment campaign. Was this a good thing, or an exploitive act? It all depended on WHY. As the Gospel passage is given to us, it is incomplete for what is missing is Jesus’ motive. That motive appears in the prior verse where we are told that Jesus was moved by “COMPASSION... for the crowds were like sheep without a shepherd.” This brings us to the heart of the matter: what SHOULD be the motivation that renders our acts truly Christian? Unfortunately, many of our deeds that seem to be good are in fact not -- for their motive is tainted by being done for our personal benefit. There are even places in scripture where such motivation is suggested, as when in First Peter we are told to “set all your hopes on the gift to be conferred on you when Christ appears.” This is selfish. Likewise John sometimes speaks of doing good so that “our reward will be great in heaven.” This too is ego-centric. And sometimes, even among the saints, their motivation is to avoid punishment in an afterlife; or they love their enemies so as to gain the satisfaction of “heaping red-hot coals on their heads.” All such acts are a matter of “doing” in order to “get,” and while they might be a beginning, they are a far cry from being fully Christian. What is needed is an increasing maturation of our motivation. And so the next stage involves our “doing” being a response to what God has already done for us. This changes our motive from “getting” to “thankfulness.” This is an important change. And yet, as St. Bernard and other saints suggest, there is yet a final stage in this purification of our motivation. This happens when one’s self becomes removed from what we do. As we become authentic selves, there comes with it the desire to give that self away. The love that Christ taught is love for is own sake-- no longer in order to get anything, no longer motivated even by what we have received, but because love is THE way to live --spontaneous, habitual, for its own sake -- with any regard for the self being totally out of the equation. “I love,” said St. Bernard, “because I love.” St. Paul understood this when he said that if we have not love, we are nothing. Our goal is to become selfless, for this is to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. And even if we never attain it, at least may it be our goal.
One Wednesday night and Thursday early morning we had two bouts of welcomed rain; and on Friday morning the favor was repeated. Thanks be to God.
During Sunday’s mass I shared how strange it seems to me that Jesus spoke in parables rather than said straight out what he wished to communicate. In fact, as in today’s reading, the disciples needed private sessions for Jesus to explain in clear language his meaning. I believe I may have found a clue when one day I stumbled upon a record of a town named Sepphoris which was only four miles from Nazareth, where Jesus lived as a boy. It was a town that around the time of Jesus’ birth was leveled to ruins because its peasants had dared to protest against cruel taxation by the Romans. It seemed likely that Jesus at the age of 10 or 12, perhaps with his cousin John the Baptist, would have played among these ruins. Soon Herod began to rebuild Sepphoris for his own pleasure, adorning it in Greco-Roman splendor. Now since Nazareth was a tiny town of only 30-40 families, employment would have been difficult. So it is quite possible that Jesus’ father Joseph, as a carpenter, would have been recruited to help in the rebuilding of Sepphoris, either as forced labor or at pitiful wages. And it is even possible that Jesus himself worked there, especially when after the death of his father he would have become the primary family wage-earner. Now we need to grasp what such an experience must have forged indelibly into the mind of Jesus. First, when Sepphoris was being destroyed, the street were lined with crosses on which were crucified every peasant who dared to question Roman authority. Surely engraved into the mind of young Jesus would have been a keen awareness of the horrendous fate awaiting anyone whom the Romans even suspected of being a subversive. Second, this event would have provided a graphic image of the enormous inequality between the plight of the poor and the splendor being flaunted by the rich. It took Jesus some years to discern how these two images could be brought together in action. His discernment isHH
was to use parables for his message so that the peasants would be able to understand that he was indeed proposing a rival kingdom and a “revolutionary” way of life -- while the rich leaders would not be able to decipher his meaning. He used a quotation from Isaiah to explain secretly to his disciples that his reason for using parables was so that “they” will listen but not understand, look but not see. And who are the “they?” The rich, those in authority, the powerful -- they will see but not see, hear but not hear. This was true especially in using agricultural imagery. In this way, for example, the peasants could understood that by the analogy of Christ’s Word being like rain that falls on all, he was advocating an unacceptable equality. The end for which Jesus was sent into the world to “sow” was the message of a rival kingdom -- the “Reign” not of Caesar but of God. And those who would not be able to understand this equalitarian parable of the Sower would be the “bad soil,” those who have been claimed by the present evil kingdom. And those who may hear at first but give up because of the suffering involved -- these are the ones deafened by “worldly anxiety caused by the lure of money.” For Roman eyes, this would be “revolutionary” stuff, subversively dangerous -- and so this accounts for why Jesus spoke in parables that only the poor, hungry, and outcast were likely to understand. But, ironically, while Jesus used parables, his mother Mary declared quite clearly what her Son was to be about! In the Magnificat she speaks of “the One who scatters the proud in their conceit, casts down the mighty from their thrones, and sends the rich empty away,” while “lifting up the lowly and filling them with good things.” Today’s reading from Romans removes some of the hiddenness of Jesus’ message by broadening its application. The suffering poor on whom Jesus focused discloses for Paul the groaning of the whole world. What Jesus is about, Paul insists, is the subversive act of ushering in an alternative Kingdom of equality, justice and love, freeing us from the corruption of the competitive and violent empire that had crucified Christ. Nothing, he says, can compare to “the glory of this coming Kingdom.” Jesus told us to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth ...” The history of the Church has witnessed an increasingly expansive understanding of Jesus’ vision, so that today with Pope Francis’ book Laudatio Si we hear Christ’s call for “a complete transfiguration of the entire Cosmos and every creature within it.” The Pope ends this vision with the words of Jesus: “Behold I make all things new,” which Francis interprets as meaning a Kingdom in which “every creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give to those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” And he ends with a prayer: that the Lord will encourage us “in this struggle for justice, love, and peace.”
May each of us do our faithful bit? God bless us all. Fr. Paul