Thursday, July 31, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - July 25-31

Well, I'm on the road again this weekend, and this time it's personal. I'm off very early tomorrow morning to drive to a wedding in Rhode Island of two of my directees, and won't be back until late Sunday evening.

So I'm posting the 'TWIMH' post this evening. This week has been on many levels much the same as the past weeks, lots of guests here, lots of enthusiasm and energy and interest. Mark Schlingerman, the director of our lay men's department, acknowledged at the Saturday evening open forum seminar that this year's group of guests have been remarkable in their insightful questions and engagement in both matters of faith and matters of social relevance.

The theme this week has been 'What is Life? Giving and Receiving Love'. Remember that the over-riding theme of the summer program has been 'You Will Show Me the Path of Life, The Fullness of Joy in Your Presence'. Fr. Pelton gave, from all accounts, a beautiful talk on Wednesday evening, reading a chapter from his book Circling the Sun, speaking briefly on the theme and then entertaining questions for the last half hour of his time. As always... lots of questions.

What else? Early harvests are coming in - we are drowning in snow peas and zucchinis. Green beans are not too far behind. The first cut of hay is done, and it has been a great year for it--plentiful rains early on, lots of warmth in the growing time, and sunny days for the harvesting. Hard to ask for better than that.

Four of us priests went to the local shrine of St. Ann in nearby Cormac, which has an annual pilgrimage around the feast of Sts. Ann and Joachim each year, to help with confessions and concelebrate with the bishop at the Mass. It is always a great grace to hear confessions at these pilgrimage sites on their feast days, as there is a particular movement of the Spirit at work there--every priest reading this will know what I mean. People pour out their hearts when they go to confession while on pilgrimage, and are so open to the work of God.

Hard to know what else to say about this week's events. Every day seems to be so very packed with people, work, and happenings, and yet it's all either hidden works of God, not to be shared on social media even if we knew them, or very much the ordinary life of this little lay apostolate. It's also getting a bit late at night, so I'll sign off for now, and will be back blogging, God-willing Monday morning.

Ignorant, Not Stupid

One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, "You have not understood it." Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, "How would you explain this saying?" And he replied, "I do not know." Then Abba Anthony said, "Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: 'I do not know."
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – I was joking on Facebook yesterday that I’m enjoying this series on the desert fathers so much (and, according to my traffic stats, my readers are enjoying it, too), that I’m finding it difficult to move on to anything else. I might have to change the name of the blog to Ten Thousand Monks.

These really are, as I keep saying, foundational stories for the spiritual life, and ones which have a startling relevance in our modern technological age. This one, for example. One of the features of our culture now is that it is a knowledge culture, and information age. Everyone has to know about things, and to admit ignorance of a subject or lack of understanding of a matter is a terrible loss of faith.

As an aside, I have never quite understood why it is such a grievous insult to call someone ‘ignorant’ but not so insulting to call them ‘stupid’. To me, ‘ignorant’ is not insulting at all. I am quite ignorant on a whole host of subjects—auto mechanics, real estate, hospital administration, to name just a few that have come up in conversations the last few days. Ignorant simply means ‘unknowing’, and how is that insulting? We can always learn new things, right?

‘Stupid’, on the other hand, is a nearly incurable illness, as far as I’m concerned, the incapacity to use the intellect one has been given to take on new knowledge, to reduce one’s natural ignorance. And there is nothing more stupid, then, than to pretend one knows about something that one does not in fact know, to be unable to say the four magic words that open up for us whole vistas of new knowledge and understanding, “I do not know.”

But this is a digression, sort of. But not really. The key thing in this story is that the monks are commenting on Scripture, and not just on any human matter. It is the Word of God that, above all, it is stupid beyond belief to pretend we understand. This is a perilous matter especially for us priests who are required, by the nature of our orders, to preach on the Gospel. Preaching has to begin from a place of deep humility, a firm conviction that ‘we do not know’ what this passage means, really.

If we begin anywhere else, thinking that because scripture scholar A said this about the passage and B said that and C, D, and E all agree on the other position, that we have ‘understood’ the passage, we have gone badly awry and have understood little to nothing of it. When it comes to God and the things of God, the fundamental and unshakable core of the Christian must be this ‘I do not know’, this deep awareness that there is always more to the matter, always a new level of depth, a new height of meaning, that we are bumbling little children trying to learn our ABCs, while the Word of God is the heights of poetry and wisdom literature and elevated discourse.

This is true, too, even of the dogmas and doctrines of our Catholic faith. Everyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on all those matters; I am a faithful Catholic who adheres to the truth of every word that is written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But we must never think that we understand the full meaning of these words. The defined dogmas of our faith are carefully constructed in their verbal formulations, not to explain the mystery of God, but to preserve the mystery of God. 

Quite often in our dogmatic and creedal statements, there is a sort of via negativa at work—we are not so much trying to nail down what we do believe as exclude false statements that we don’t. ‘Begotten, not made’, for example—the Son is not a creation of the Father, but is God from God begotten of the Father. This exludes the Arian heresy (which we were discussing at breakfast yesterday, MH being the kind of place where this topic comes up over the oatmeal). But what does it mean that the Son is begotten of the Father? I Do Not Know.

And because of our ignorance, our unknowing, we can spend our whole lives, and into eternity even, contemplating these mysteries, and constantly penetrating deeper into them, in some ways increasing our ignorance, but only because we continually know how much more there is to know that we do not yet know.

So in a sense we only understand a Scripture passage if our first response is to say ‘I do not know what it means.’ If you think you know, you don’t, and that is deep spiritual wisdom, practical and profoundly relevant in our day, from the deserts of 4th century Egypt.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: I-Choice

Just when I thought my book had disappeared into the wilderness of the publishing world, never to be seen again by me or anyone else, along comes this book review from Fr. Jonathan Blake, who I was in seminary with.

Read it, and then, if you haven't yet bought my book, buy it here. Thanks, Fr. Blake!

Spirituality for Dummies

When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by 'accidie' - lethargy - , and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, 'Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?' A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, "Do this and you will be saved." At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.

When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, "Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?" He heard a voice answering him, "Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'

Someone asked Abba Anthony, "What must one do in order to please God?" The old man replied, "Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved."
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – We have here some basic spiritual principles laid down by Abba Anthony, who was one of the first and the greatest of the fathers, one of the few of them who is a canonized saint on the universal calendar of the Roman church.

These three stories taken together clear up an awful lot about the spiritual life, it seems to me. They are like a kind of ‘spiritual life for dummies’, and aren’t we all a little dumb when it comes to these things?

‘Accidie’, usually rendered in English as acedia, is that horrible drag that comes upon all of us when spiritual life and spiritual effort just don’t seem worth bothering about, when it all just seems kind of pointless and useless. There are no lives entirely free of acedia; the greatest of saints battle with it, the worst of sinners are wholly lost in it, but everyone has it. And so the first lesson of these stories is the fundamental way of the Christian in the world, the monk in his cell, everyone.

Ora et labora—pray and work, work and pray. Attend to the tasks and duties of your state of life, and then say some prayers, and then work some more, and then say some more prayers. The monastic schedule, which of course is very rigorous in its long offices and not suitable in its details for lay life, is nonetheless a sort of pattern for all Christian spiritual life. We have to alternate prayer and work, work and prayer, and this is the way to live simply and humbly in the presence of God. It has been thus from the beginning, and has not changed in our times. We tend, we moderns, to be so sure that everything is different now and that these old stories don’t apply to us. They do, they always will.

And this prayer and work is what is meant by ‘keeping one’s attention on oneself’, the attitude recommended. It is not self-centeredness that is being recommended here, but basically minding one’s own spiritual business. This is a good bit of advice for us in the social media age, when it seems to be the norm to pry one’s nose into the details of everyone else’s spiritual and moral life without much regard at all for the privacy of conscience and the simple fact that we know very little indeed about the lives of other people, and particularly their innermost life with God.

I do an awful lot of spiritual direction, you know (it’s more or less my principal work in MH), and even when a person has spent hours and hours pouring out to me the most intimate details of their lives and hearts, I am verrrrrry slow to give counsel, to say that such and such a choice was wrong or that they should definitely go this way or that way or not. So I’m always a bit bemused when I see people on a Facebook thread or combox issuing rather sweeping statements about total strangers, based on next to nothing.

No, keep your mind on yourself and your own journey to God and be very slow to get involved in the spiritual affairs of another, and if they happen to invite you into their affairs, go in on your knees and with fear and trembling.

And the final story is such a good summary of spiritual wisdom—keep God before your eyes, take the Scriptures as a guide in all things, and be very slow to leave a place you are in. This latter may strike us as odd and ‘one of these things is not like the other’-ish. But the desert fathers knew very well the phenomenon of itchy feet and restlessness, and that human beings can easily think that if they just change things around, move here, move there, leave their spouse, leave their community, change their job… it will all be better.

It is a terrible spiritual trap, one that many are in these days, which causes us to waste years and even decades of life trying to make all the externals of our life just so, when what needs to happen is interior purification and transformation. Commitment to a vocation, to a marriage, a community, a way of life, stability in a single place and occupation is vital so that the real work of life, the growth into freedom and joy, can happen without distractions.

And that’s quite enough for one day—but you can see how these wild monks from the deserts of the Middle East have laid down the path of holiness for all Christians, and how the study of these men and women is vital for our own walking of that path in confidence and security.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Where's Your Head At?

There were two monks who committed a very serious sin when they went to the village to sell their wares. But they were wise enough not to let the devil trick them into discouragement and so they came back to the desert and went to the Abba to confess their sins. To ease them into their conversion, they were asked to go and live on their own for one month on bread and water, to pray and do penance.

When the time was over, Abba himself came over to reunite them with the disciples. However he was very surprised because one came out grim, downcast, pale while the other was radiant, buoyant and brisk. "What did you meditate upon?" Abba asked.

The sad monk answered : "I thought constantly on the punishment which I merit and the justice of God". The happy monk answered : "Well, I used to remind myself constantly of the mercy of God and the love which Jesus Christ had for the sinner."

Both of them were joyfully accepted back in the community but Abba remarked on the wisdom of the brother who kept his mind fixed on the compassion of God.
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – One humorous (to us) note about this story is that to ease (!) these two monks into their conversion, they were put on bread and water and solitary confinement for a month. That’s ‘easing’ in desert father world, I guess! I don’t think too many of us would be very impressed with being given that as a penance, even if we had murdered someone.

Of course that’s not the point of the story – in fact, that is pretty ordinary unremarkable stuff by the standards of the fathers, which itself bears some reflection. I’m not advocating priests commonly handing out hard, heavy penances to people, but we could give some thought to our own personal practice of penance in light of our sins and the sins of the world.

But the point, of course, is what we fix our mind on, and the difference that makes in our joy. Again, note that neither of these monks spent much time meditating on how they really weren’t such bad guys, and all this sin business is kind of stupid, and the Church needs to get with the times, and really, I’m a good person.

No, they both knew full well that they were sinners, they were messed up and had messed up, and neither of them was giving a lot of mental real estate to their own selves. That, too, is worth our considering, isn’t it? Quite often these days a lot of the pseudo-spirituality and pop psychology of our church culture is really self-aggrandizement dressed up in a pious cloak.

But really, the nub of the story is how we deal with our sins, how we deal with the fact that we really are on the outs with God and with our brothers and sisters in some fundamental way. One monk trembled in fear and anxiety over this, one monk rejoiced in the infinite mercy of God. Both are reconciled, but one is sad, the other joyous.

Of course, if you think of it, the one who is filled with fear and anxiety and sadness is, in his own way, falling into a subtle snare of pride, one of the trickier ones. To have an excessive and exaggerated sorrow over one’s sins can imply that I am grieved that someone as wonderful as myself should have possibly fallen into such a state. ‘How could I, I, have done this thing?’ And to be filled with fear and anxiety over God’s anger and God’s punishment can also have a little pride component, too. Somehow it’s on us to fix it, to earn God’s favor, to make ourselves not so displeasing to Him.

No, the monk who simply turns his mind and heart to the infinite and tender mercy of God, knowing full well that he is a sinner who needs that mercy, but constant marveling and rejoicing at the gift given, is both on the path of joy and on the path of true humility.

So, while the details of this story are rather far removed from the details of our life—I won’t be living in poustinia on bread and water for a month any time soon, alas—the heart of the story is utterly relevant and not removed at all from our lives. So let us spend this day keeping our minds fixed on God, and not the God of anger and punishment, but the God of Jesus Christ, the merciful Father of us all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

When I call, answer me O God of justice!
From anguish you released me; have mercy and hear me.
O men, how long will your hearts be closed,
Will you love what is futile and seek what is false?

It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves;
The Lord hears me whenever I call him.
Fear him; do not sin: ponder on your bed and be still.
Makes justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.

‘What can bring us happiness?’, many say.
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.
You have put into my heart a greater joy
Than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.
I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once
For you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4

Reflection – Monday Psalter time again. This one is offered, logically, as one of the psalms of Compline, the night office that is prayed before bedtime in the Liturgy of the Hours. All of the language of pondering God on your bed and lying down in peace and sleeping in safety is, of course, fitting sentiment for that hour of the day.

I believe the psalms are arranged biblically at least some of the time to have some relation to each other, and we certainly see here allusions to Psalms 1-3, a development of thought from the first three psalms we have read.

Psalm 1 with its classic ‘two ways’ dichotomy, the way of the righteous and wise and the way of the wicked and foolish, is here again. Here, again, we see that contrast—those who love what is false and futile versus those who seek the light of the face of God.

Psalm 2 introduced the note of conflict, of a war raging in the world against God, and the sovereignty of God and his anointed one. Psalm 3 placed us in the heart of that battle, besieged and beleaguered by enemies far more powerful than us, but with a deep assurance of God’s deliverance.

That deliverance was expressed by the image of lying down to sleep and waking to find God has won the victory. So Psalm 4 now is a sort of peaceful meditation on everything that has gone before—we see the two camps in the world, we see the utter futility and folly of the one opposed to God, we see that a fierce battle is raging, but we rest secure in God’s power to save, to deliver his people.

It seems to me that this is always the repeating pattern of life in this world, until we see God face to face in the next. We move from a decision of faith to walk in the path of the righteous and reject the way of sin; we encounter opposition, within and without, to that decision and find ourselves in a battle indeed. The Lord and his Anointed, his Christ, are in the battle with us, but we still find experience ourselves as deeply imperiled, outnumbered and outgunned.

And then… the moment of deliverance, so mysterious, so strangely hard to define or describe. It happens when we sleep. Let us never forget that sleep, while an image of trust and confidence in God, is also a biblical image of the mystical life, of the moment when God directly acts upon us without our knowledge or cooperation.

God acts to save us in a way that is ultimately a mystical grace, something entirely His and so entirely hidden from us. But from this salvation, this mysterious encounter and the movement from battle and peril to peace and quiet, we utter this psalm, Psalm 4, reflecting again on the wisdom of the choice we have made, the choice for God, but now knowing a little more of the cost of that choice and the joy and happiness that arises from it.

It is a very deep little psalm, very mystical, very much a reflection of profound spiritual experience and meditation. And so it helps us to get there, too, and this is a good example indeed of why praying the psalms is such a core element of our Christian prayer, both liturgical and personal.