Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Non-Violence of Perfume

(Lent is a great opportunity to grow our contemplative non-violent lives - even when we don't think we have one! I intend to use my blog to reflect on the invitation from God to live more deeply into a contemplative non-violent life which I want to respond to more and more. The plan is to write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent and during Holy Week. I invite you to follow if you wish. With each entry I will suggest one prayer practice and one action that I will engage in and offer to you as a possibility. Blessings for a holy Lent.)

This week, I have chosen to not write something unique for my blog as we explore the call to a contemplative non-violent Lent because I think I have said exactly what I want to say in my sermon for this past Sunday, which was preached at St. Andrew's Church in Beacon, New York. I encourage you to delve more deeply into the reading of Scripture - as the invitation to a Holy Lent asks of us - to study this particular piece of John's Gospel. It is filled with wonder.

Here's the sermon:

I have to admit that sometimes by this point in Lent – the fifth Sunday of the season, I start to glaze over just a bit and wish we could just jump ahead to the Triduum. I’m always very serious about Lent on Ash Wednesday and right through the first several weeks of the season. But really, does it have to drag on for six weeks?!
I suppose wiser people than I figured this all out a long time ago, and as sure as I am about to just wish it were all over, the readings for the fifth Sunday pop up and I find myself totally rejuvenated and raring to dig deeper into the Lenten journey.
And so it was that I encountered the first reading for today’s Eucharist. Here the Prophet Isaiah tells us that God says:

          Do not remember the former things,
                   or consider the things of old.
          I am about to do a new thing;
                   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I have to wonder if Jesus was not thinking of this passage from Isaiah when Judas got all bent out of shape about Mary’s taking the pound of expensive perfume and pouring it onto Jesus’ feet. I mean, Jesus really could have been thinking: “do you not perceive it?” or in contemporary parlance: “don’t you get it?”
After all, the reason they were all gathered was that they were having a dinner party with Lazarus – who had been dead just a few days before, but was now sitting at the table enjoying some of Martha’s cooking!
Imagine yourself in this situation: you’ve just had dinner with a man who only a few days ago was rotting away in a tomb and you're sitting at the same table with the man who raised him from the dead, and you are upset about the perfume being used! It is so typically human. Talk about not getting it!
What do I mean by that – well, John gives us a reason why he thinks Judas was upset. He says that Judas didn’t care about the poor but, rather, that Judas was a thief and wanted the money that the perfume would have garnered for himself. And there may be truth to that – maybe great truth.
But I also think that Judas’ anger was raised to the boiling point because Jesus was not fulfilling the role as Messiah that Judas expected him to fulfill. The perfume issue was just the excuse to explode. He had a specific vision of what the Messiah was going to do. Initially, Jesus seemed to fit the bill, but then, he seemed to veer from what Judas was certain had to be the truth.
You see, Judas was just the opposite side of the coin from the Romans. He, too, wanted to use unmitigated power to destroy the hold that the Empire had over the people. It is certainly understandable that Judas wanted freedom from the Romans, but what Jesus was offering was a much larger freedom. A freedom with no bounds.
For Judas, changing water into wine, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf were all well and good. And these sorts of miracles, I’m sure, certainly attracted him as well as the other disciples.
But raising a man from the dead was a game changer. What Jesus was offering was life for all, and what the Romans, the Pharisees, and it turns out, Judas wanted, was death - not their own death, but someone else’s. Because if they got that – the death of some other person or power - then they were certain that all would be well. You see all of these players wanted to use raw power to give themselves the good life so no one could ignore such a powerful symbol of order being turned on its head, especially those who had everything to lose.
And make no mistake, there were all kinds of people who had something to lose if Jesus really had the power to raise the dead. You would think that any human being would be thrilled with the proof that Jesus could raise people from the dead.  You would not have to be Jewish to think to yourself “wow – this gives my life a totally new meaning!” Jews and Romans alike should have been thrilled.
But some were not thrilled. Some, in fact, were down-right terrified. And that's because they had everything to lose. You see, the power brokers and their sycophants, in every society since the beginning of time, have held only the power of this world over everyone else. And that is the power of death.
Death, whether inflicted or accidental, due to murder or sickness, is the ultimate form of violence. And the specter of death hanging over us is the weapon used by the powers-that-be. This is the violence of death. And this violence of death is used by tyrants and petty tyrants the world over: From bullies found in the school-yard, to bullies who are terrorists, to bullies on the campaign trail. The threat of death keeps us in line and makes us buy into the system.
The threat of death makes us surrender to the cynical understanding of life as something that can be taken from us at any minute if we dare to step out of line, out of the system, and into a life of faith.
When we dare to believe that we should share our wealth with the poor; when we dare to believe that we should share our food with the hungry; when we dare to believe that the health care we feel entitled to should be available to all; it is then that we begin to whisper to each other: 'hush, if we dare to share our wealth or our food or our health care there won't be enough and they'll take it from us. We will die.”
The threat of death is the ultimate form of violence that is used by the powerful to keep us quiet. And that was no different in Jesus' day. So when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he set the Jewish leadership that had made an alliance with the Roman powers into an uproar. “If the people begin actually believing in this Jesus,” they said to themselves, “then we are dead. We will lose our power and the Romans will bully us into even further submission.”
But what they did not realize and what Judas did not realize was that this Messiah was giving us freedom from power being used over us and freedom from a need for that type of power. This Messiah was giving us “water in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert” as Isaiah said. In their inability to comprehend Jesus' demonstration of a new way, a non-violent way to resist, a way that buries death once and for all, they had already died. Their desperation for power made them blind to the gift of the Messiah, the gift of non-violence. And Judas was simply caught up in their way of cynicism. A cynicism that teaches us to believe that power must be met, and ultimately crushed, with even greater power.
But Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, who told Martha just before he raised Lazarus that he himself “was the resurrection and the life” and that those who believed in him, “even though they die, will live,” was proposing a new kind of Empire – known most commonly as the Kingdom of God. This Empire, this Kingdom, would not be like any we have known.
 No, this is a Kingdom in which we no longer need to believe that Caesar or the Sanhedrin, or the fear mongers on the campaign trail - those who see terrorists around every corner, or those who horde healthcare or food need to be obeyed. This is a Kingdom in which our leader is life itself, resurrection itself. It is a Kingdom in which the non-violence of everlasting life enters into our hearts through a celebration of life that is eternal.
If we believe in this new kind of kingdom, an empire that is not propped up with the violence of death, but with the gift of life, that means that our behavior changes. We are liberated from the power that bullies and tyrants have over us, and we are liberated from the cynicism that often accompanies a comfortable middle-class life. That cynicism that teaches us it is better to go along with the powers of this world, than to risk death.
And Mary, the one that history sees as the most contemplative one, understood this in a way that Judas never did. She had come to understand that in Jesus, God was making things new. That she no longer had to remember the former things – the way of death. She understood that she not only could use, but should use, the perfume meant to anoint the dead while Jesus was still alive. This was a beautiful way to symbolize non-violence. Because to be with Jesus is to celebrate life. It is to look into the face of death and say: no – I choose to live. I belong to the Kingdom of God. I say no to the power of death and yes to the path of non-violence. May it be so. AMEN.

May you have a Holy Lent.

Peace be upon you.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Loving Mercy

(Lent is a great opportunity to grow our contemplative non-violent lives - even when we don't think we have one! I intend to use my blog to reflect on the invitation from God to live more deeply into a contemplative non-violent life which I want to respond to more and more. The plan is to write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent and during Holy Week. I invite you to follow if you wish. With each entry I will suggest one prayer practice and one action that I will engage in and offer to you as a possibility. Blessings for a holy Lent.)

This Sunday, Lent III, we simply cannot ignore the Gospel lesson that is proclaimed at today's Eucharist. It is one of those lessons that is difficult to hear and sometimes leads others to give Christianity a bad rap. But I think it is one of the most important lessons to hear, especially during Lent, and reminds me of the admonition to repentance in the Invitation to a Holy Lent. So, let's start by reading the text (Luke 13:1-9) again:

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

So, Jesus is in a mood, right? Well, yes - but it is not the mood that people associate with the first half of the reading. That part where he seems to be sending loads of folks to hell. No, Jesus is the gardener. God is the gardener. What Jesus wants to give is the ultimate in loving mercy - another chance. Please, he seems to be saying, just one more chance to care for the fig tree, to place perhaps some better manure around it to give it that second, third, fourth chance. Just a little more love and I know it will be fruitful. This is, the essence of non-violence. Knowing that deep down we all have fruit to bear and that some simply need more time than others to produce. 

And that is what repentance is all about and is at the heart of a contemplative life. The idea of repentance is that we realize that something - or many things - is not right with our lives. We realize that we do not stand in right relationship with God, with others, perhaps even with ourselves. Repentance comes from that self-examination I wrote about two weeks ago, and is simply "to turn around" in order to face God again. 

You see, when we are somehow out of right relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, we have turned our faces away from God and all God requires is that we turn back again and face God. God is always waiting to give us another chance - to wait just a little bit longer for our fruit to bloom. And that opportunity begins when we look God in the face. That is the beginning or new beginning of relationship. We look God in the face because what God desires more than anything is a true relationship. We do not have relationships with people to whom we never look in the face. 

Now, if we wish to create for ourselves a living hell here in this life, or perhaps in the next, we can choose to simply never turn around. We can continue to face away from God and suffer the consequences -  not of God's wrath ..- but rather of our own exiling of ourselves from God's love. Hell is the absence of God's love. But it is never God who chooses to absent Godself from us, it is only we who sometimes do it.

But no matter how long we absent ourselves from God's love and no matter how extreme that absenting may have been, Jesus is still waiting by the fig tree with wide open, loving arms, ready to take us back - even help us to finish that turning around toward the face of God. Mercy is God's call to us. God continually cries out to us - Mercy, Mercy, Mercy - let me show you my Mercy. 

May it be so.

Suggestions for this week:

Prayer: A few weeks back we spoke of self-examination. Hopefully armed with whatever information you may have gleaned from prayer practice, let us ask God to help us continue to turn toward God, to ask for God's mercy and to help us to see where we might be in need of God's mercy.

Action: Practice the same kind of mercy that God offers you to just one person this week. A second, third or even fourth chance is a blessing of mercy that we all need from time to time.

Blessings for a Holy Lent.

Peace be upon you.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Prayer as a Basis for a Contemplative Non-Violent Lent

(Lent is a great opportunity to grow our contemplative non-violent lives - even when we don't think we have one! I intend to use my blog to reflect on the invitation from God to live more deeply into a contemplative non-violent life which I want to respond to more and more. The plan is to write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent and during Holy Week. I invite you to follow if you wish. With each entry I will suggest one prayer practice and one action that I will engage in and offer to you as a possibility. Blessings for a holy Lent.)

I'm a day late posting this week because I am traveling, this week in Nebraska. I led the clergy retreat for most of the week for the Diocese of Nebraska at the St. Benedict Center, a beautiful Roman Catholic retreat center in Schuyler, NE. Then I was privileged to preach at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha, and lead their adult forum. It's been busy! All of which reminded me that the Invitation to a Holy Lent which we began with on Ash Wednesday is ever more useful when it comes to living more deeply into a contemplative non-violent Lent, especially when we are so busy. In particular when it comes to the  suggestion for prayer. 

We all know that our lives are busy. For most of us, they are too busy - or at least we perceive them that way. Sometimes it seems that there is not enough time to even breathe. But breathe we must - and not just to stay alive physically, but to stay alive spiritually as well. Breathing is the starting point and ending point of contemplative prayer and therefore, it is the starting point and ending point of living a non-violent life. 

In his Rule for Monks, St.  Benedict taught us that we are to begin every good work with prayer. And that has proved to be great advice for this monk. Prayer is a wide topic that includes liturgical prayer, intercessory prayer, thanksgivings, prayer in common, prayer in solitude, Lectio Divina, rosaries, the Jesus Prayer - it goes on and on. But I'd like to focus on silent contemplative prayer as being a practice that might enrich our Lenten experience. 

If we are to seek a path of non-violence, we first must begin with ourselves. The first step in non-violence is not to join a some movement rather, the first step is to develop a contemplative approach to our lives. That is why St. Benedict's advice applies here. The work of non-violence is a very good work, and it should begin with prayer!

This first half of Lent I have been focusing these blog entries on personal practices (fasting, self-examination, and now, prayer). They all have wider implications as we will see later in Lent when we "turn our faces toward Jerusalem" and, therefore, to the world. But for now, I believe focusing on our own selves is the preparation we will need for Gethsemane, Calvary, the Empty Tomb, and beyond. 

Breathing is the basis of contemplative prayer. While this may sound like it is of the "new-age" it is, in fact, as old as prayer itself. Unfortunately, since the High Middle Ages, our forebears in the West turned prayer into a solely mental activity. but we are reclaiming the natural place of prayer which requires every bit of us - yes the mind, but also our bodies our emotions, our spirits, our souls. 

The activity of consciously marking our breath, of becoming awake and aware to it, is what connects all those parts of ourselves (mind, body, spirit) and calls us to unity within ourselves. The busyness that permeates our lives tends to dislocate all those aspects of our lives into many separate ones. This causes us much anxiety - usually on a subconscious level - and that builds stress within us. That stress often gets acted out as violence in one form or another, but most likely as violence committed against ourselves. 

This violence committed against ourselves takes many different forms - from self-hatred to engaging in activities which are dangerous to us (over drinking/drugging, over-eating/under eating, never exercising/too much exercising, etc., etc.). These acts and many others like them, are a form of violence which seems to be epidemic in our society and around the world. Violence practiced against ourselves only leads to violence practiced against others - even if only verbally. 

And so, we breathe. We take the time to consciously sit and mark out breath which will lead to other forms of deeper contemplative prayer. But without the act of consciously breathing - little else can happen in regard to contemplative prayer.This is the work of a contemplative non-violent life. The amazing thing about it is that we are already breathing 24/7 and so I am not asking you to add an activity to your already too busy lives. I am asking you to become awake to your breathing, conscious of the great gift that God has given us which is to share in the breath of God and open ourselves to that unity. It begins with a single breath. 

Prayer: If you do not already practice a form of conscious breathing, try one minute of that practice each day this week. If you do practice it - add one minute to however much time you engage the practice. 

Action: Notice your breathing throughout the day. Stop for just a moment when you are at your busiest at work or at home or when you are in the middle of an upsetting conversation or thought, and notice what you are doing. Is this a time in your day when you might want to more consciously breathe? Is this a moment when you might see a way to breathing more fully into non-violence?

Blessings to you for a Holy Lent.

Peace be upon you.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Self Examination in the Desert of our Lives

(Lent is a great opportunity to grow our contemplative non-violent lives - even when we don't think we have one! I intend to use my blog to reflect on the invitation from God to live more deeply into a contemplative non-violent life which I want to respond to more and more. The plan is to write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent and during Holy Week. I invite you to follow if you wish. With each entry I will suggest one prayer practice and one action that I will engage in and offer to you as a possibility. Blessings for a holy Lent.)

The first full week of Lent kicks off with Jesus taking a trip into the desert and the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent asks us to go along for the ride. Actually, the Good News that Luke (cf. 4:1-2) tells us is that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by that same Spirit in to the wilderness where he would be tempted by the devil for forty days.

Would that we were all so open to this form of self examination! You see, in order to live a contemplative non-violent life as daughters and sons of God we must be willing to face our demons and the place to do that is in the desert of our lives, the wilderness of our souls. 

St. Anthony of the Desert was one of the great proponents of non-violence. The idea of non-violence was not fully articulated during his lifetime (c.mid- 200's - c.mid-300's) or for many centuries later, but the spiritual work that he did in the Egyptian desert is work that everyone interested in a contemplative life of non-violent discipleship must engage in. Anthony, the father of Christian monasticism, is perhaps most famous for his twenty year long wrestling matches with his demons. 

Now in different eras of Christian thought, these demons have sometimes been imagined literally - hideous little monsters with horns and grotesque features. At other times, these demons have been imagined as psycho/spiritual issues to be worked through. Whatever the case, demons are real and we each have to confront our own demons if we wish to live a life of faithful discipleship.

Our demons come in many shapes and sizes. For some of us it is the same one over and over again. For others these demons come in various guises. The goal of demons - again, whether these are psycho/spiritual or actual manifestations, is to keep us separated from God. And so, in order to have a fuller relationship with God, we must examine ourselves to understand just what our own particular demons are. 

I believe this is why the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness.  Before he began his public ministry, Jesus had to confront the demons within him. That may be a difficult sentence for some to read, but Jesus - being fully human  - had to endure all that we humans endure. In studying Luke's Gospel account of the temptation of Jesus we can come to understand what at least three of Jesus' demons were.

The first demon Jesus had to face was the temptation to control his own fate. Having fasted for forty days, Luke tells us that Jesus was famished. The demon tempts Jesus to turn stone to bread. God has given Jesus enough to survive this fast and yet just as when the Hebrews, while wandering in the desert, did not trust that God would give them enough manna to survive, Jesus is tempted to "take control of his own life." But he resists. Jesus overcomes this demon by reminding himself that he does not live by bread alone but rather by loving faithfulness of God. It is God's blessing of his life that gives Jesus sustenance. 

Next, the demon tempts Jesus to power. The demon offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, if only he would worship the devil. But again, Jesus reminds himself that only God is to be worshiped and that no idol, no matter what it seems to offer is worth sacrificing our relationship with God. 

Finally, the demon tempts Jesus to the inflate his own ego. Throw yourself down, the demon says to Jesus, for Scripture says you will  not be harmed. But Jesus reminds himself that we are not to tempt the Lord our God. In other words, let God be God and remember the nature of the relationship. 

The Valley of Desolation in South Africa

We all have our own demons. They make take the form of a lack of self-worth or perhaps an inflated sense of worth. Perhaps they are an addiction, a fear, greed, lust, hopelessness, anger, a desire to commit violence against ourselves or others. The list is endless. But the work of confronting our demons is among the most important spiritual work we can do. The process deepens our contemplative life and allows for us to live more deeply into "being the change" we need to be to live a non-violent life of discipleship.

Sometimes going to a desert or a mountaintop or a retreat house can be a way of clearing our mind and our schedule to open us up to confronting these demons. But this is not necessary. In fact, we can begin to confront those demons over our morning coffee, on our commute to work, in the silence of the morning, or as we prepare to go to bed at night.  

So, here is one suggestion for prayer and a one suggestion for action for this first full week of Lent that I am going to commit to. I invite you to join me:

Prayer: This week, let's use our time of silence to reflect on one demon that we have not confronted or need to confront in a deeper way. Let's ask God to help us face that which may be preventing us from enjoying a fuller relationship with God. 

Action: Let's then take what we have discovered about ourselves and talk to someone about this issue who might be able to help us to deepen our relationship with God. This person or group might be a spiritual director, a therapist, a twelve-step group, a trusted friend. 

This is very difficult work and cannot possibly be completed in one week. But it only takes a minute to begin the process Confronting our demons is work that will extend beyond this first week of Lent, but there is no time like this moment to begin this work for it can lead to a flowering of our life and our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. 

Blessings for a holy Lent!

Peace be upon you. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Invitation to a Contemplative/Non-Violent Lent

(Lent is a great opportunity to grow our contemplative non-violent lives - even when we don't think we have one! I intend to use my blog to reflect on the invitation from God to live more deeply into a contemplative non-violent life which I want to respond to more and more. The plan is to write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent and during Holy Week. I invite you to follow if you wish. With each entry I will suggest one prayer practice and one action that I will engage in and offer to you as a possibility. Blessings for a holy Lent.)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Throughout the western Church many people in different denominations will find themselves in church and increasingly on street corners or at train stations and elsewhere, having a cross in the form of ashes drawn on their foreheads while these words (or something similar) are said: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Those of us who are in church a great deal notice that Ash Wednesday is one of the most well attended days of the year and I always find that quite moving. This is not a day of great joy, but neither is it a day of great doom and gloom. In fact, in many ways, I believe it is perhaps the most realistic day of the entire church year. We are told a certain fact when we present ourselves for ashes: we are dust and to dust we will return. In other words, at some point - we are all going to die.  And that seems an important fact that people wish to remind themselves of once a year.

But the real purpose of reminding ourselves of this fact is not to spend a great deal of time pondering our deaths, but rather to simply remind ourselves of this fact and get back to pondering how best to live. And once we've pondered that, then it's time to actually go on living, loving, praying, serving, laughing, crying, working, resting and finding new ways to embrace all that God has given us to embrace.

I particularly love the "Invitation to a Holy Lent" found in the Book of Common Prayer that we use in the Anglican world. In it, the Presider at the Ash Wednesday service invites us to a holy Lent and gives us ways to engage in just that. This invitation includes: self-examination and repentance; prayer; fasting; self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. With each blog entry in the earlier parts of Lent I will reflect on one of these invitations in no particular order. 

On Ash Wednesday, I cannot help to think about fasting. Some people like to engage in abstinence from meat. This is popular among many Christians on Ash Wednesday and throughout Fridays (and sometimes other days as well) during Lent. For others, who wish to go a step further, fasting from most or all food for the day is a practice that they find spiritually nourishing. 

I am going to engage in fasting, but the focus of my fasting will be on noise. The noise that comes from my own mouth, the noise that comes from others, the noise that comes from the internet and other electronic devices. Noise be gone!

The great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in Thoughts in Solitude had this to say on the subject:

When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate. 

A lack of interior solitude violently destroys who we are, what we are called to be, who are neighbors are, and who they are called to be. Merton, in the early 1960's was so alarmed at the noise of our in modern society (he died in 1968) that he raised a serious alarm. Can you imagine if he knew what our lives would become in the twenty-first century?  

When we have no silence either externally or internally, we begin to destroy peace. We are taught in the Letter of James (1:26) that:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

Worthless is a very strong word. So what was James getting at?  Further along in his letter, James (3:5-6, 8) writes:

The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire by hell...but no one can tame the tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

All wars, all violence, begin with words. Our tongues are so often out of control in our personal relationships, our work relationships, our church, national and international relationships. Too often when we spout off about the "other" we use words that are fear based, ignorance based, selfishly based. This is the fast I wish to engage - a fast from words that harm, frighten, belittle. Let peace begin with my silence. Let it begin with me. 

Now this should not be confused with not speaking out against injustice. Of course that is a major aspect of living a contemplative non-violent life. But that is also for another blog entry. For today and for the rest of this beginning of Lent, I will concentrate on increasing my own inner solitude by refraining from speaking ill of another and by growing the amount of time I spend in silence. 

By growing this contemplative practice - even if all we do is to add one minute per day of silence when we are not speaking, others are not speaking with us, and we are not engaged with electronic media - in other words, when we throw a little water on that fire that has set the forest ablaze - we will find ourselves held together just a little more by love. 

This was Merton's hope. It is mine as well. Non-violence begins with us and it begins with very small gestures and practices but with a very large hope.

So, this week's practice: 

Prayer: add some amount of time to expand our silence each  day (one minute, one hour...whatever seems realistic) while focusing on our breathing. 

Action: fast by bridling our tongues - when we want to make the sassy comment or the rude comment or the really angry comment take a deep breath instead and remember - you're fasting!

Peace be upon you. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

He Descended to the Dead
(this is a re-posting of my sermon from 2014)

Every morning at Matins, when we pray the Apostle's Creed, we pray the phrase, “He descended to the dead” as in “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.” And for such a bold but unexplained statement I find the way our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters understand theology a much more comfortable way to approach such a mystery. For the Orthodox, theology is, well, an art form. It is as much about icons, poetry, hymnody, liturgy and prayer, as it is about intellect and study. It's not that they don't engage in lots of study, they certainly do. But that's not the only thing they do to seek Christ, as we might say in our Benedictine tradition. And make no mistake, theology for the Orthodox is not so much an academic pursuit, but rather the very seeking of Christ.

Now many people have told me over the years that Holy Saturday is, for them, a day of emptiness. A few will say, a day of waiting or anticipation, but most of those who have spoken to me about it say that they experience Holy Saturday as a day that is empty. Akin, perhaps, to the day after a funeral of a loved one. And while I am not going to tell you how or what to feel today, I would like to suggest that there is another approach to Holy Saturday, an approach that is artful, prayerful, even mystical. But one that I think is available to all of us.

Within the Eastern tradition there are many approaches to the descent of Christ to the dead, or into hell as it is often termed. But it is the approach that Cyril of Alexandria takes, that most appeals to me. Cyril takes the view that Christ, after his death, descended to hell to preach to all those who were present there. And in so doing, as he says in his Paschal Homilies,Christ “destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits. He left the devil there abandoned and lonely.”

Now pre-Christian hell was conceived  not as we sometimes think about it as a place where unrepentant sinners go. Rather, it was a place for the dead. For anyone who has died. In their thinking, the Fathers of the Church were divided on what the spiritual consequences of being dead before the time of Christ were, but it is clear for them that all humanity descended to this nether world of captivity.

Now let's just take that it in for a moment. Christ, having just been murdered in a gruesome way, continues to experience what all humanity experiences by descending to the dead. He descended to hell to preach to the dead. Christ's plan for salvation is not only for those who were living during his earthly life or for those who would come in the future. No, Christ's plan for salvation is for all of humanity for all time. That includes, according to Cyril, not only the Righteous Jews, but also all pagans. Those two groups, for him, represented all of humanity at the time of Christ.

If we extrapolate out the modern understanding of what the totality of humanity consists of, that means that Christ was preaching to people who had been dead, in some cases, for millions of years. And the theological point that I think is important here is that Christ's plan for salvation is for all the living, all the dead, all those yet to be born. And Christ will stop at nothing to preach, reach, touch, save, love all of us. All of humanity. Every member of every religion, every race, every culture, every language group. Every captive. 

The Russian Orthodox monk and theologian Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, says that “Clearly, Cyril perceived the victory of Christ over hell and death as complete and definitive. According to Cyril, hell loses authority both over those who were in its power and those who are to become its prey in the future. Thus, the descent into Hades, a single and unique action, is perceived as a timeless event. The raised body of Christ becomes the guarantee of universal salvation, the beginning of leading human nature to ultimate deification.”

What humanity experiences on Holy Saturday is something outside ofchronos, chronological human time, and is better understood as being experienced in kairos, that is, a season for God to act in a time that humanity may not fully grasp. That experience of Holy Saturday is nothing less than the emptying of hell because Christ desires for humanity to turn from worshiping death toward worshiping Him, the very fountain of life.

However, though Christ has led captivity captive and brought salvation even to the nether world, the lure of death and hell are powerful. Even though Christ has emptied hell, he still searches among the dead, the lost, because so often we human beings seem to have some kind of proclivity to choose death rather than life, to make our own hells on earth. Just think about the last hundred years and the way in which humanity has created its own hell by continuing to turn from worshiping God in order to worship death: Death in the form of mustard gas, concentration camps, killing fields, lynch mobs, napalm, drones, nuclear weapons.

From the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, to the latest drone attack that occurred in Yemen this morning, humanity has chosen, time and again, in an unprecedented way over these last hundred years, to worship death and to create our own hells on earth, even though Christ left the devil “abandoned and lonely”. It has been a century of darkness and death.

This proclivity for darkness and death is almost beyond the explainable, yet even now, Christ will never give up on us. Just as he searched the darkest corners of hell to save every member of the human family, Christ still searches for us even as we modern humans have embraced an unprecedented worship of death. And that embrace is sadly shared by all of us. For most of us in this church, that embrace is shared primarily through ambivalence or complacency. But that complacency allows the purveyors of death to rule our lives whether we want to admit that or not. 

And so my invitation to all of you this Holy Saturday is to listen for Christ's preaching in those areas of your life in which you might have died. Has your zeal for peace died within you? Has the virtue of love for the least brother or sister died within you? Has your greatest patience with prayer or service to the poor died within you? Listen my sisters and brothers with the ear of your heart and know that Christ preaches to that which may have died within you this day. Christ never gives up on you! Not on any of you!

And knowing that – believing that – will then give us the strength we need to accompany Christ into all the darkest places that we human beings have created on earth. Those places where we as a people have died: in the slums we have established in order to neglect the poor; in the camps we've filled with refugees we'd rather fence in than liberate; in the limousines of gun manufacturers who are laughing all the way to the bank as our children are slaughtered in their classrooms; in the factories of death that our government calls nuclear weapons laboratories.

Let us go to those places and preach like Christ to the dead. Let us announce this Holy Saturday, that a new and different century is about to begin - a Century of Light and Life. A century in which we preach, reach, touch, save, love all of humanity. Let us proclaim that Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. That he descended to the dead. That on the third day he rose again and that he ascended to heaven. From where, this Holy Saturday, he sends us forth to preach to the dead. Holy Saturday empty? I'd ask you to consider a different approach in your prayer today. AMEN.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Holy Name/New Year

Last week, for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we were given a great gift of remarkably beautiful weather. They were perfect early summer days - warm, but not hot, no humidity, bright sunshine and beautiful blue skies. I was grateful to God for this weather because being from the Northern Hemisphere I am one of those people who love cold and snowy holidays. So I thought to myself, if I am going to be in the Southern Hemisphere for Christmas, I am so grateful these days are perfect examples of summer wonderfulness!

Then came the 26th and the 27th and the 28th and on and on - right up until this morning. A storm came in from the Indian Ocean (which we are very close to) and the mountains that we live in tend to "catch" the storm and hold it. In fact, they seem to have held on to this storm for dear life. Because we are at the top of these mountains the monastery gets caught up in the clouds which is quite a something to behold. It is not so much that we are rained upon here, as we are rained among. I'm not sure how else to put it. You do feel rain from above but also from the sides - and  not because of wind, but just because we are actually  in a cloud. It even seemed to me to be coming up at me from the ground.And this went on all week.

Well a monk with a bit of a poetic heart cannot ignore living within a kind of "cloud of unknowing" for almost the entire Octave of Christmas without writing something about the experience. It lead me to look back at one of my favorite poets, the great Japanese master of Haiku, Matsuo Basho.

Basho (1644-1694) lived one of those fascinating lives: raised to be a Samurai, when he came of age he left that life to join a Buddhist monastery and, after having lived the monastic life for awhile, left it to follow his true calling, that of poetry. He ended up leading the golden era of Haiku in Japan which was a poetic phenomenon perhaps unseen in any time before or since.

Basho traveled around Japan, gathering disciples while writing poetry and about poetry.  One of the many things which he wrote that has stuck with me  is: "Of all the men who have entered these mountains to live the reclusive life, most found solace in ancient poetry." And while I am not quite living a "reclusive life" Basho's comment from his "Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones" (n.b. all examples of Basho's writing in this blog entry are from "The Narrow Road to the Interior" translated by Sam Hamill and published by Shambhala Classics) seemed to hit home during my great immersion into these mountains and the clouds of the Indian Ocean.

In the same travelogue (Basho wrote several), the master writes: "I crossed Hakone Barrier in the rain, clouds hiding all the mountains:

Heavy falling mist -
Mount Fuji not visible,
but still intriguing.

Well, I love that. Basho seemed to be capturing from Japan in the 1690's my experience of South Africa in late 2014. Even when nothing is visible, when all is clouded with obscurity, and when the rain is falling not just on you, but even about and among you, the ancient poetry of our faith and of all those, like Basho, who sought after beauty, love and truth, is still intriguing and can still lead us to God who works in, it seems to me, mostly obscure ways. In fact, the more obscure it is the more intriguing it becomes.

This morning, for example, after nearly a week of living among the clouds, the sun began to emerge as we prayed Lauds for this feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Here in Grahamstown, we pray the Camaldolese Office as at New Camaldoli in Big Sur, California (www.contemplation.com). When we prayed the antiphon preceding Psalm 150 we sang: "From Jesse's stock a flow'r has sprung, alleluia!" which, in its simplicity was very moving to me.That flower, of course, is Jesus.

If you spend time with the Gospel readings of the Eucharistic Liturgies for the three high points of Christmas-tide, we hear on Christmas Eve, Jesus being introduced to the shepherds, the poorest and lowliest members of society at that time; then on Holy Name, Jesus is introduced by name at his circumcision to the wider Jewish community; and then on Epiphany, we will hear Jesus introduced to the Gentile community as represented by the Wise Men.  That simple idea of  a flower springing forth from Jesse's stock,  results in the Holy Name of Jesus being introduced to all of humanity in a very specific order: the poorest first, the faithful of Israel next, and then the remainder of humanity.

In and of itself, the order in which the name of Jesus was introduced to the world should give us cause for contemplation. The praying of the Holy Name of Jesus ("Lord Jesus Christ/Have mercy on us" repeated continuously often using a prayer rope)
has been a guiding light for monastics and many others for a very long time. The repetition of the name of Jesus itself is contemplative while the request for mercy for a world so broken by war, crime, domestic violence, poverty, hunger, homelessness, disease and hopelessness is a prayer that seems self-evident.

As we were singing Psalm 150 at Lauds, my contemplating Basho once again this week led me back to some of  his poems for the new year. He composed many haiku about the new year and was, of course, referring to the traditional New Year celebrated in many Asian countries at the beginning of spring. The antiphon with its flower springing forth from Jesse's stock reminded me of one of Basho's haiku which sounds to me like a contemplation of eternal life, at least as Basho might have understood that concept.

Seeing the new year's
first flowers, I'll live seventy-
five years longer

Beautiful blue skies and perfect summer weather have returned to these holy mountains outside of Grahamstown and beautiful flowers abound all over the property, But whether we are being immersed in the clouds with rain all around us, or are bathing in the sunlight of the perfect day, the Holy Name of Jesus is held out to us - as it has been for two millenia now - as the name which brings our life to flower.

It is not clear whether Basho would have ever even heard the name of Jesus. There were Christian missionaries in Japan at the time of his life, but there is no record to my knowledge of Basho having encountered any. What is clear to me is that all truth seekers, those who, in the Benedictine tradition we sometimes call the "seekers of Christ" share with all seekers of every faith  three things: (1)a longing to know God, by whatever name we call God; (2) a desire for a even just a glimpse into eternity, by however we construe that concept; and (3) a need to deepen our understanding of how climbing up and down the mountains of our lives, whether within the clouds or within the sunshine, leads us on that journey toward knowing. This is a wisdom journey and one that can unite all of humanity if we allow ourselves to be so wise.

It seems to me that contemplating the Holy Name of Jesus is a wonderful way to begin this New Year. In the Holy Name of Jesus is the first flower of the new year.  In it we find some aspect of the truth of God's love for all of humanity and all of God's creation. In that name, lies the mystery of the God.

May peace be upon you, your loved ones, and all of humanity in this new year.