Saturday, April 26, 2014

Easter Saturday

Give thanks to the Lord,
 for he is good,
for his love has no end.

The Lord's right hand
 has triumphed;
his right hand raised me up.
I shall not die,
 I shall live
and recount his deeds.
                           Psalm 117

.       .      .

Some days this is the heart's cry: God has triumphed, and the soul rejoices. The evidence of God's goodness is obvious and close at hand. Even the senses seem to attest to God's goodness, as the psalmist elsewhere exclaims, 'Taste and see that the Lord is good!'

And then there are those other days. On those days, the objective truth of God's goodness remains. It is, after all, Easter week. The triumph of the Lord is--or should be--obvious and close. But, though even the heart knows the truth of God's victory and the extent of God's goodness, the joy and gladness do not seem to follow.

On those latter days--I admit that today is one of those--I am grateful for liturgical seasons and appointed feast days. Holy days of obligation are a gift to me, and the psalms set for Mass and for the daily office make way for me to give thanks to the God of heaven, the One who raised Christ Jesus from the dead.

I am not blessed with a constant experience of the joy of my salvation. Would that I were, that the happy praise of the Lord were always on my lips and in my heart. But I am low some days, downright glum. But that doesn't change anything about who God is, or how right and just it is to praise the Lord 'always and everywhere.' Tomorrow, I will join the rest of the congregation in the alleluias and amens, and happily so: for the company of the faithful supports me (however little they may be aware of it) simply by offering that praise and inviting me to join in. By their presence, they testify to the truth I know, that the Lord has called us all out of darkness and into his marvellous light.

For that, I am glad--truly and deeply glad--indeed.

Deo gratias.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Good Friday

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
                          (Isaiah 53: 4) kingship is not from this world.
                           (John 18.36)

Abba Hyperichus said, "The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually: but if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls God down from heaven to have mercy."

*            *           *

That's what today is about: he has "carried our sorrows."  On the cross, Jesus takes on all the sorrows of the fallen creation, of fallen human creatures. And Mark's gospel records Jesus' call from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" So cries the broken heart for the God who alone can heal. But Jesus' broken heart calls God down from heaven to have mercy on us all. His heart is the one heart that can break for the whole world and so heal the whole world.

When we are broken hearted over our own sins, when we feel that grief, we participate in Jesus' grief on the cross: he took our sorrows, our grief, and now we only experience it properly as we participate in him. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday of Holy Week

Though I thought that I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
Yet my reward is with the Lord: my recompense is with my God…

I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
                                                                        Isaiah 49: 3-6

A hermit was asked by a brother, “How do I find God? With fasts or labour, or vigils, or works of mercy?” He replied, “ you will find him in all those, and lso in discretion. I tell you many have been very stern with their bodies,  but have gained nother by it because they did it without discretion. Even if our mouths stink from fasting, and we have learnt all the Scriptures, and memorized the whole psalter, we may still lack what God wants, humility and love.”
                                                                        (DF 111)

.                .               .

Isn’t it the measure of humility to think we have not achieved anything? Isaiah reflects on precisely this predicament: ‘I thought that I had toiled in vain’; that all was for nought. But it is in the acknowledgement that all he can do is work ‘uselessly’ that he finds the truth: recompence is with God. Because it is God’s will that God’s salvation reach the ends of the earth, God makes something of out otherwise useless toil. So, as the hermit says, all the fasting and prayer avail us nothing without the marks of true participation in the Spirit—humility and love. And what a good and timely word for this, the last week in Lent. We have fasted and abstained, we have spent time in Scripture and in prayer, we have done works of mercy. But what do we gain by it all? Nothing, so long as we expect the work to get us somewhere. The object of all the Lenten discipline we choose to bear is nothing more or less than the deepening of humility and the widening of our love.

Humility and love should point us towards the cross, where Christ’s humility is displayed in the utmost submission, and his love is extended even in his suffering: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Humility and love: forgiving before the repentance, before the acknowledgement of sin. Jesus shows us pure forgiveness, which is the way of humility and love. And so I find myself coming around again to forgiveness, although it appears nowhere in the lectionary readings for today; it is nevertheless what the Lenten season is all about: humility and love.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday of the fifth week of Lent

In my distress I called upon the Lord,
and cried out to my God;
from his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
Psalm 18 [17]: 7
Jesus said… “…the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” Then they tried again to arrest him, but he escaped from their power.
John 10
. . .
This is, perhaps, the most difficult of all aspects of asceticism: calling on God in the face of temptation. We want to overcome it easily, on our own, or to give in. To look temptation in the face and say, as Jeremiah does, “the Lord is with me like a mighty champion,” and to call on God for help, is slightly less attractive as an option. We then can claim no special achievement, as Amma Sarah testifies: “It is not I who overcame [lust], but the Lord Jesus”—nor can we enjoy the pleasure of succumbing to the temptation, however fleeting.
No, it is decidedly unheroic, unromantic, simply to say “help!” and find ourselves, like the monk in one of the sayings of the desert fathers, on the road back to the monastery. There are no brave stories then for us to tell our sisters and brothers. We can say no more than the psalmist who writes, “In my distress, I called upon the Lord…and my cry to him reached his ears.”
In theory—that is, in the moments in which we are not beset by temptation, this appears to be the best way. Praise God alone, of course, because the victory belongs to God and not to us. We know that it is God who protects us, God who assures us in the valley of the shadow of death, God who makes our way blameless, God who makes us rise up on wings like eagles. All this we know and we celebrate it. That is, after all, what the Mass is about: the victory of God in Christ over sin and death, closing the unbridgeable gap between God and God’s created image, humanity. We know that we did not, cannot, achieve victory over sin.
But when it confronts us, in all the small ways it confronts us in our daily lives, we forget to turn to the One who made us, in whom we live and move and have out beings and say, perhaps, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ Help me to resist this sin; help me to cling to Jesus; help me to walk in those good works you have prepared for me. For the Lord is with us like a mighty champion; our persecutors will stumble; they will not triumph.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Saturday of the fourth week in Lent

A brother, being tempted by a demon, went to a hermit and said, “those two monks over there live together sinfully.” But the hermit knew that a demon was deceiving him. So he called the brothers to him. In the evening he put out a mat for them, and covered them with a single blanket, and said, “they are sons of God, and holy persons.” But he said to his disciple, “Shut this slandering brother up in a cell by himself; he is suffering from the passion of which he accuses them.” 

Nicodemus, on of [the members of the Pharisees] who had gone to [Jesus] earlier, said to them, “Does out law condemn a man before it first hears him, and finds out what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee also, are you? Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” Then each went to his own house. (John 7:  52-53)

.             .          .

There is an entire section of the topical collection of the sayings of the desert fathers devoted to ‘non-judgment’—and that is in addition to the groups of sayings on ‘nothing done for show’ and ‘humility.’ The desert ascetics—and the fathers have more to say about this than the mothers—insisted on humility as the defining characteristic of the monastic life. To accuse another brother or sister of a sin, and to complain of it to one’s superior, was a sure sign that something was lacking in the accuser rather than the accused. Certainly there are a great many cases of monks falling into sin and doing penance, but in those instances the monk is convicted of his sin, often by the humility and charity of his fellows, or of his superior.

It is much easier to be like the Pharisees, and rest easy in the certainty that we know where prophets come from, and we know not to trust someone who comes from some other quarter. Jesus’s authenticity as a prophet was ruled out before he was even given a hearing: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Apparently not: Galilee had never produced any prophet, and the Pharisees were sure that the Scripture said nothing about a prophet to come out of Galilee. Nicodemus, while hesitant, demonstrates a kind of openness and discernment that the desert ascetics would probably have welcomes. Listen and evaluate, he suggests; let’s not jump to conclusions without any evidence.

What we think we ‘know’ can be so deceptive—like the “slandering brother” in the saying, we are quicker to accuse than to confess. Lent offers us a chance to turn that critical gaze toward our own souls, and look carefully; to examine our consciences and see whether we ought to confess our own sins, rather than accuse our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday of the fourth week in Lent

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, 'Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
for no one has been known to return from Hades.'
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions...
Let us test him with insult and torture,
that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.
Wisdom 2: 1, 12, 19-20

The Lord is near to the broken hearted,
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 33 [34]:18
Hyperichus said, “The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually: but if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls down God from heaven to have mercy.
* * *
I have long believed that there is the seed of another kind of preferential option here: as Jesus said, he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And Psalm 51 (set for morning prayer today) reminds us that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; God will not despise a broken and contrite heart. The passage from wisdom connects the broken spirit with Jesus, as it prophesies the passion of Christ. His spirit and body were broken: he took on our sorrows and our infirmities. God knows our suffering.
It is interesting that in Psalm 34, the favored of the Lord are not, as in lots of other passages, the materially poor, but the “crushed in spirit.” The recognition of our spiritual poverty, which reveals the brokenness of our hearts, makes way for contrition and reorients our desire. When we are “crushed in spirit” we cannot avoid seeing our need for God. We come to understand that we cannot depend on ourselves for fullness in spirit or lightness of heart. But seeing this helps us to identify with Jesus as he identified with us: in suffering. In our brokenness and spiritual destitution, in our sorrow and desolation, we can cry out with our Saviour, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in sharing the prayer he prayed on the cross, we may share in the hope of the resurrection that was his.
The movement from desolation to hope is marked by the shift from our sorrow, which is the path to God, to a sense of joy in God’s presence. Only after calling out to God in utter desperation, do we learn to “delight [ourselves] in the Lord,” who will give us the desires of our heart. To be truly contrite, to experience without reserve the brokenness that is the meaning of sin, and which the separation from God entails, is to begin to long for the One who alone is worthy of our desire. The sorrow of Lenten discipline prepares us to receive joyfully the hope that Easter brings.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Thursday of the fourth week of Lent

The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a golden calf and worshipping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, 'This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.'"
Exodus 32
Jesus said, "How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another, and do not seek the praise that comes only from God?"
John 5
Someone brought a hermit who was a leper some money and said, "Take this to spend, for you are old and ill." He replied, "Are you going to take me away from Him who has fed me and given me what I need?" He would not accept it.
* * *
There is more here, in the passage from Exodus, then I have seen before. I have always thought of this episode in the history of Israel as a turning away from God, the true God. But they still recognise God's actions as being the mark of their God. God has forbidden the marking of idols--this is "the way...pointed out to them." And the temptation to make an idol always seems inscrutable to us. How will that possibly help?
I suppose the question is, what do the Israelites want from their idol? I am not a biblical scholar, but I suspect that the general answer "security" would answer the question. The Israelites have experienced the care of God. They know that God has brought them out of the land of Egypt. So they maintain that this One, the One who has accomplished these things ian the past is their God. So far, so good. But where is God now? And what is Moses up to on that mountain?
Waiting on God's next move is a difficult process, and it is in the times between those moments of security in God’s providential love that the tempation to fashion a golden calf strikes. We experience a need to know exactly what God will do; we look for some leverage, some way to influence God, so that God will intervene on our behalf—even if that intervention is as simple as one of those small, ordinary graces that reassure us of God’s presence with us.
The trouble is, God is not offered as an object to be known by us, nor is God a big vending machine. We can neither know God completely, so as to know God’s mind or predict God’s next move, nor can we calculate the necessary sum and offer to God the ‘price’ for the miracle we require, big or small. The golden calf, being an object presented for view, offered the Israelites a concrete measure of ‘presence’: Where’s God? Right here. Here is a God we can see, who can ‘hear’ us and ‘receive’ our worship. Idols of this kind are a known quantity: they require sacrifice and worship before they will respond to our petitions.
Idols give us something to do.
Waiting on God is hard. God seems absent, uncaring, or just too busy to bother with us. And yet we need God. As the Psalmist writes, “As the hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. / My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42.1). These are the words of a soul in exile, and we often experience the same sense of distance form God on our journey to the new Jerusalem. We want milestones, a map—a GPS, even. How much longer? We want to know, want to navigate, to know how long the wait will be. It’s the Psalmist’s next sentence: “When shall I come and behold the face of God?”
Lent is about the waiting. We know that Jesus has redeemed us, has made the way back to “the face of God” possible for us. And we struggle to believe it. To participate fully in the church’s observance of this penitential season, we concentrate on the waiting, we focus on the suffering that accompanies anticipation, and we hope, gain strength, for all the moments of exile along the way.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tuesday of the fourth week in Lent

Cease striving, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
                                           Psalm 46 [45]: 10-11

.        .        .

I admit that these two verses are not among those set for the reading of this psalm today at Mass. But they strike me as particularly apt for this point in Lent. "Cease striving," the psalmist says (many translations have "be still"). Yet I don't think about Lent as a time of rest. What place does rest have in a penitential season? Here I am, giving up and taking on (and not doing a stellar job of either, truth be told). Is the psalmist telling me to stop it?

Somehow I don't think so. I think, rather, that the psalmist is reminding me (in these two verses and those to be read in Mass today) that all the abstinence and action that make up my Lenten observance aim for this end precisely: rest in God. To give up something I enjoy has a double effect: a certain suffering that comes from a want left unsatisfied, and the possibility for refreshment from another source, from God. And what have I taken on, but more time for reflection, more frequent attendance at daily Mass? This is a recipe for resting in God for me.

Because that is, after all, what God desires of us. Cease striving, says the Lord: I am God, I will be God, and I will be exalted. You can sit back and enjoy my strength; you can rely on my saving help. We see our need for that strength and saving help better, perhaps, when our Lenten discipline makes us want. How much more ready, then, will we be to enjoy the good things that God gives us--and to recognise their source--come Easter?

Deo gratias.