Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday of the third week of Lent

What has Ephraim to do with idols any more when it is I who hear his prayer and care for him? I am like a cypress ever green; all your fruitfulness comes from me.
                                                                                                                               Hosea 14

[Abba Apollo said] No one can endure the enemy’s clever attacks, nor quench, nor control the leaping fire natural to the body, unless God’s grace preserves us in our weakness. In all our prayers we should as for his mercy to save us, so that he may turn aside this scourge that is aimed even at you. For he makes a man to grieve, and then lifts him up to salvation; he strikes, and his hand heals; he humbles and exalts; he gives death and then life; he leads to hell and brings back from hell (1 Sam 2:6). So Apollo prayed again, and the hermit was set free from his inner war. Apollo urged him to ask God to give him a wise heart, in order to know how best to speak.

*          *          *

It is somewhat troubling to think that God strikes, humbles, gives death, and the like, even though Abba Apollo assures us that God also gives life and heals, and exalts. It is troubling, but less so when we are reminded that God was willing to undergo the same cycles of humility and exaltation, death and life, and the journey to hell and back again. There is nothing that we experience in the whole of our human life that God’s Word did not take upon himself in his own humanity. Our fruitfulness does indeed come from the one who has made the way for us from death to life.

I am reminded of Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches: we, the branches, cannot bear any fruit without being connected to, and nourished by, the vine. All the contrition and humility of Lent draws us closer to the vine. It is not that we accomplish anything merely by our self-denial, byt that we attend more closely to God, and simplify our lives to make that attention possible. What fruit our practice brings comes not from us, but from God.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wednesday of the third week in Lent

Take care, and be earnestly on your guard not to forget
    the things your own eyes have seen,
    nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children's children.
                                     Deuteronomy 4:9

Jesus said to his disciples, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."
                                    Matthew 5:17

Abba Agathon said, "Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a monk cannot make progress, even in a single virtue."

*     *     *    *

How on earth are we to keep the commandments? How does remembering help? What does Jesus do that fulfills the law and the prophets? The psalmist reminds us that the law is specially given to Israel: God has not given the law to any other nation. And God's promise to Abraham was that he and his descendants (innumerable as they were to be) would be a blessing to the nations. Israel's chosenness was to be for the restoration of the whole world. Memory helps by keeping God's people in view of God's promises as well as God's law, and of the purpose for which God called Abraham and the whole particular people of Israel. A people's identity (perhaps even more than an individual's) is bound to their memory, to their ability to narrate the story of God's wonderful works and God's saving acts.

Testimony does just that: the witnesses to the Gospel, both in Jesus and the apostles' days and in our own, serve an important function in preserving the memory of the people. In the earliest days of Christianity, many of those people testified with their lives and are numbered with the saints. The martyrs reveal the path of discipleship in a particular way. Following Christ means having always in mind the whole of his life: his life of love and ministry and preaching the gospel and healing, his agony and passion, his ignominious death on the cross, and his resurrection. Somehow, it is in following that we keep the commandments of God and so make progress in virtue.

Matthew's gospel suggests that this narrative, this life, death and resurrection story, tells us what it means to satisfy the law and to heed the prophets. For in this One all that God desired for Israel is fulfilled, so that Paul can say of Christ, "All the promises of God find their yes in him." God keeps his promises through Jesus. Lent is a time of imitatio Christi in which our focus is on the humility, the self-emptying of God in Christ; we obey the tradition and keep days of fasting and abstinence, we pray, we do works of charity, we give. We also, in the midst of all this, hope joyfully as we look forward to Easter. Having put the sinful self to death by our Lenten discipline, we look forward to rising with Christ on the judgement morning. We taste that joy at Easter as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ whom we follow, through suffering and even death, to be raised to life eternal. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Solemnity of the Anunciation

Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."
. . .
It is the solemnity of the Anunciation. So I went to Mass, and the readings for today have come to me not through my own reading and reflection, but in the context of the liturgy, and a homily. Part of me thinks it's cheating to begin from someone else's comments on the readings, and yet it is impossible not to do so.
'What if Mary had said no?' The priest reported the question; he didn't pose it. In fact, he suggested that the speculation about what might have been rested on a mistake about who God is and how God acts. "God doesn't need a plan B." True enough. And after Mass, my husband had an exchange with the priest that was about Mary's will and whether or not it was possible to for her to say no. Turns out the answer to that one depends on how you define words like 'possible' and 'necessary', though in the end I think they agreed.
The thing is, though, that "no one is ever told what might have been." This is neither St Thomas Aquinas nor St Augustine, the two thinkers involved in the discussion about Mary's will. It's CS Lewis, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy has just asked Aslan a 'what if' question. His answer has stayed with me for years, as I have stumbled along trying, and often not trying hard enough, to be a Christian. However often and however badly I fail in my endeavor, 'what if' questions after the fact are never fruitful.

God doesn't need a plan B. In eternity, there is no 'might have been' but an everlasting 'is', in which everything is in the present tense. From that point of view, wisdom can be seen as arranging all things delightfully, as it says in Wisdom 8: 1. From that point of view, all the crash-and-burn experiences of my life find their way into the tapestry of 'all things'-- arranged delightfully, worked together for the good (Romans 8: 28), having been wrought, however incomprehensibly, in God (John 3: 21).

So the invitatory psalm (Ps 94 [95]) invites us each day anew to 'listen to his voice' and to 'harden not [our] hearts'. It is today that matters, today that affords me the opportunity to do God's will. That is, more or less, what Aslan says next: anyone can find out what will happen. Let my ears and my heart be open, and my will freely to conform itself to his: and let it be done to me according to His word.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday of the third week in Lent

Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage. Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, "My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, 'Wash, and be clean'?"
2 Kings 5:12, 13
. . .

Exactly. Naaman expected something dramatic. If a miraculous cure is sought, the healing ought to amaze. But there isn't anything too exciting about taking a dip in the river.

This is a great story for me, for Lent--or anytime, really. A suitably astounding miracle (I'm thinking Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al) would go down well, especially if some intense engagement were required on my part. Extreme Christianity: ascetic achievement; big, bold miracles.

Nope. I think it is Abba Sisoes who, when asked for a word, says, 'go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.' Say your prayers, do the things you are supposed to do, and you will do well. It isn't the grand gesture, once-in-a-lifetime, but the little things done every day, that mark the path to holiness.

So says St Therese of Lisieux; so also said Mother Teresa. It's the little things. Being drawn to Benedictine spirituality, I tend to think in terms of the daily office: praying the appointed psalms at the appointed times. Work and pray, rest, repeat.

Simple. Not easy, but simple. And miraculous: this simple rhythm of work and prayer is possible only by grace.

Deo gratias.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saturday of the second week in Lent

Who is a god like you, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act
of the remnant of his possession?
He does not retain his anger forever,
Because he delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Micah 7: 18-19
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him
and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him
and kissed him.
Luke 15: 20
. . .
Here we are in Lent, 'still a long way off'; Easter is weeks away, and the penitential season stretches further ahead of us than behind. Lent has only just begun, it seems, and I have not been wholly faithful to the discipline I set for myself.
Yet even while we are yet a long way off, the Father sets out to meet us on the road. If the transfiguration shines some resurrection light in the midst of Lent, the parable of the prodigal son is an eruption of mercy in the midst of our examination of conscience. Before I have even recognized my sins fully, God is on the way to meet me in my contrition, to 'tread [my] iniquities underfoot.'
More could certainly be said about these texts, and about the prevenient grace of God (Calvin was right about that, but he certainly didn't discover it!); but the only thing that really needs to be said is: Deo gratias.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday of the second week in Lent

Judah said to his brothers, “What is to be gained by killing our brother and concealing his blood? Rather, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, instead of doing away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother and our own flesh. His brothers agreed. They sold Joseph to the Ishamaelites for twenty pieces of sliver.
                                                                        Genesis 37

 Abba John (the Dwarf) said, “Who sold Joseph?” A brother replied, “It was his brethren.” The old man said to him, “No, it was his humility which sold him, because he could have said, ‘I am their brother’ and have objected, but because he kept silence, he sold himself by his humility. It is also his humility which set him up as chief in Egypt.”

*       *       *

We know that Ruben’s plan to go back and rescue Joseph is foiled by Judah’s suggestion. What we cannot see at this point is how God’s purpose is brought to fulfillment in Joseph by this very action; Israel is saved (again) by a bit of treachery. The question might also be asked (therefore), “How was Israel preserved through the great drought?” By Joseph’s humility, perhaps.

Joseph’s “humility,” as Abba John calls it, flies in the face of contemporary attitudes about the self. We are not taught to allow such things to happen to us. Rather, we tend to learn to stand up for ourselves and, hopefully, for others; we are trained to advocate and agitate, to protest. Protesting is precisely what Joseph did not do. We don’t hear his thought, either. We know about his dreams; we know how dearly his father loved him. We know what Joseph’s brothers thought about him; we know nothing (at this point) of what Joesph thought about them. Did he expect foul play? Why didn’t he protest? Was he worried they would kill him? The author of Genesis does not let us into Joseph’s inner life at all during these events.

Turns out it is a good thing Joseph didn’t protest. The whole history of Israel would have unfolded differently if he had. Joseph’s story (so far) sets us a question: how willing are we to let go of our plans and even our freedom when that’s what God calls us to do?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday of the second week in Lent

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
    that sends out its roots by the stream,
And does not fear when heat comes,
    for its leaves remain green,
And is not anxious in the year of drought,
    for it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately corrupt;
who can understand it?
“I, the Lord, search the mind,
    and try the heart,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his doings.”
                                                   Jeremiah 17: 7-10

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.
                                                   Luke 17: 19-23

Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “The desire for possessions is dangerous and terrible, knowing no satiety; it drives the soul, which it controls, to the heights of evil. Therefore let us drive it away vigorously from the beginning. For once it has become master, it cannot be overcome.”

*           *          *

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt”—so Jeremiah reminds us, and in the next line also reminds us that there is One who really knows our heart and mind, who is not taken in by out deceit of ourselves and others. God searches the mind and tries the heart, and this is what we plead, with the psalmist (Ps 139: 23-24), for the Lord to do. To open our hearts to God is to trust in God’s grace and mercy. For we know that the Lord is likely to find some wicked way in us, we (if we are honest) cannot rid ourselves completely from “hidden faults.” Rather, we ask God to seek them out, because God knows us fully and sees through all our ruses; and, knowing that God will find our faults, we ask forgiveness.

So, whatever does that have to do with the desire for possessions? The rich man Jesus describes lives the life of one whose possessions and wealth are his strength. At first glance, maybe, the wealthy man might look like the “tree planted by water” that continues to bear fruit; as the psalmist (Psalm 1) says of one like this, “everything he does prospers.” The prosperous one must be God’s favorite; if God cared for Lazarus, why leave him to suffer? To that question there are no good answers. But as a parable, the story of Lazarus and the rich man tells us something about what Lazarus and the rich man have to offer each other. What the rich man can give (or could have, in life, given) to Lazarus is fairly obvious: the poor man requires basic care, especially food and probably medical attention. We are not used to thinking about what the utterly destitute have to offer, but Lazarus has something to give the purple-clad feaster (who is never named), and also to us: a way out. Lazarus offers a way out of the choke-hold the desire for possessions has on us, and awakens us out of our complacency. We may have convinced ourselves that we have what we need, and not much more. We may believe that we are giving all we can.

But then, there’s Lazarus, asking for a handout, desperate. There’s Lazarus, in need of help. There’s Lazarus, showing us the Crucified (who also, by the way, “died and was buried”). Lazarus reveals the distance between our prosperity and the poverty of the Word made flesh. Lazarus focuses the light of truth on the deceitful heart, God’s own searchlight. And our response to Lazarus makes plain the extent to which we have been blinded by the desire for possessions of which Abba Isidore speaks.

What, then, are we to do? Sometimes it seems that the best solution is to give it all away, perhaps to join a religious community. After all, the desert mothers and fathers extol the virtues of possessing nothing. For most of us, though, it is slightly more complicated than that. People (often our children) depend on us to care for them; we have woven ourselves into social and financial fabrics that cannot simply be unravelled. Our lives are bound up with the lives of others in such a way that makes giving it all away seem irresponsible rather than faithful. We have to find out where the desire for possessions threatens our soul, and we are not (Jeremiah has said) the best people for that job. Prayer and direction, openness to god and to others seems the only way to get free from the economic and social stranglehold. Who are we? Are we those who walk by Lazarus in our gate? Or do we live with our doors, our hearts and our hands open to those in need—and so also open to the Lord, the giver of all good things?

I believe; help my unbelief.