Sunday, October 1, 2023

Dedication of the Monastic Church, October 1, 2023

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Randy Greve OHC
Dedication of the Monastic Church, October 1, 2023

1 Kings 8:22-30
1 Peter 2:1-5,9-10
Matthew 21:12-16


The Second Council of Nicaea, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which met in 787, is most remembered in that it established the theology of icons and their veneration.  After centuries of iconoclastic furor and destruction by political and church leaders, the church finally spoke definitively on the question of icons and holy objects.  The motivation for the destruction or banning of icons was based in a reading of the second commandment prohibiting “graven images”. The conviction of the iconoclasts was that the image itself evoked the adoration which belongs to the divine alone, therefore any image was by definition a “graven image” and in violation of the commandment.  The council approved and protected icons by making an important distinction.  The council said that the icon in itself was not a graven image because it was not made to be worshiped nor was the worship of the image supported by the Church.  An icon was not a golden-calf level of idol as if it was claiming to depict or contain the divine or to be worshiped as divine.  What the council asserted was that an image, properly understood, was a door or window through which the person praying before the image perceives and adores the heavenly personage who is depicted in it. 

Any sound theology of icons will be quick to repeat this point - that an icon is an image that is looked through, not looked upon.  It points to something beyond itself.  The icon presents us with the paradox that in the existence of the icon is the truth that the icon itself is not the object, but is meant to point to its subject.  As physical, sensory creatures, we need the image to point beyond the image.  We are dependent on some means, some mechanism as an intermediate link between our finitude and the infinite.  We need the icon to remind us that the icon is not the point.  Further still, the veneration of icons is partly about the person seen, but more fundamentally about the act of seeing itself.  When the icon teaches us how to see, we have changed our relationship to it from taking meaning to receiving insight.  They are templates that reveal how I am in the world, how I relate to my humanness and God’s self revelation.  This distinction between veneration and adoration, between seeing into and through the object and idolatry of the object, is profoundly helpful in our practice of inhabiting this house of prayer.  Indeed, we cannot find authentic peace and joy unless we hold this tension.

Each of the readings for today is about the nature of God’s communion with the material world and the means of our perception of that communion.  In the first reading recounting the dedication of the temple by Solomon, this ambivalence toward the notion of a holy place, a house for God, is named as a question that sits alongside the building.  After all the effort of raising this colossal structure, he says, “but will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.”  Maybe he should have thought about that before construction began!  And at the same time we can identify with the need for a material place and focus for worship that is set apart.  It will be over the next thousand years while the temple is standing, as prophets arise to interpret it, that the paradox of sacred space as both gift and danger will become the central question in Israel’s life.  The biblical epic preserves both the priestly tradition and the prophetic counter-voice.  The priestly narrative is concerned with right ritual piety, sacrifices and sabbaths, festivals and fasts, that preserve the memory of the exodus, the giving of the law, and the retelling and reenacting of these events of God’s salvation.  The holy of holies where resides the ark of the covenant, in the center of the temple, is regarded as the tangible presence of God on earth.  The prophets as counter-voice function as a social conscience toward how the ritual is viewed and lived.  They warn about the dangers of temple worship that degenerates into mere outer form and neglects an equal passion for justice and righteousness.  The goal is ritual and remembrance that informs and is transformed into faithful living toward the poor, the outcast, the foreigner.  The prophets say, essentially, “have the ritual, but the ritual itself is no substitute for faithful living.  Authentic liturgical remembrance always expresses itself in justice and compassion.”   In fact, they continue, outer piety can blind the heart to what God is most concerned about in human relationships, so watch out that you do not make the practices into idols of self-righteousness. 

It is into this prophetic tradition and perspective that Jesus enter and exorcizes the temple of the corrupt practices into which the ritual has slid.  The danger was real. Solomon’s caution was ignored. By now the temple does seek to contain God in patterns of power, exclusion, and legalistic judgmentalism.  The worst possible path of misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the icon-like nature of the temple has come to pass and robbery has replaced the central purpose and priority of prayer.  Taking on the prophetic mantle of the one who fully embodies remembrance and prayer becoming  justice and compassion, Jesus sees through the institutional processes designed to keep the temple going and names what is below the surface.  Our Lord sees the temple from the perspective of a window through the stones into the divine. It is this violation of the intent and veneration of its very nature that so angers him.  

The epistle reading from 1 Peter, reflecting on the Jesus tradition, borrows building imagery but redefines it to declare the human person the temple of divine presence. We ourselves are the living stones, a spiritual house, no longer focused on a building, but in Christ are indwelt in our flesh by the spirit of God as God’s own people. The icon, the object, the building are all reflecting back to us our true nature as image bearers.

I remember reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God when I was in my twenties and the confusion I felt when he said that for him there was no difference between the kitchen and the oratory.  In my young dualistic way of thinking, the kitchen was common and the church was the set apart sacred place of God’s presence - never the twain shall meet.  As I have gotten older, I can at least aspire to Brother Lawrence’s integration of perception of God’s presence everywhere.  When I talk to groups about the rule of St Benedict, the archetypal verse I always use is Benedict’s admonition to the cellarer to regard the pots and pans as the sacred vessels of the altar.  I don’t know if Brother Lawrence was aware of the ecumenical councils, but St Benedict is certainly foreshadowing and intuiting the reverence and veneration of created things and seeing all the world as infused with this wonder and care because all of it is sacred, every place is a place for worship. Amen.


Friday, September 29, 2023

Saint Michael and All Angels, September 29, 2023

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Josep Martinez-Cubero OHC
Saint Michael and All Angels, September 29, 2023

Genesis 28:10-17

Revelation 12:7-12

John 1:47-51


Oración al Angel de la Guarda
Angel de mi guarda
oh mi dulce compañía
no me desampares ni de
noche ni de día hasta que
me entregues en los brazos
de Jesús y de María. Con
tus alas me persigno y me
abrazo de la Cruz y en
mi corazón me llevo al
dulcísimo Jesús.

I used to pray that prayer to the Guardian Angel every night as a child growing up in Puerto Rico. The translation goes something like this:

Guardian Angel, my sweet companion, do not desert me during the night nor during the day, until you deliver me into the arms of Jesus and Mary. With your wings I make the sign of the cross and embrace it, and in my heart, I carry my sweet Jesus. ~Amen

The belief in guardian angels comes from various Gospel passages that tell us that one of the functions of angels is to guard and protect, especially the safety of “the little ones”. So, when I was a child I was taught that each of us has an angel appointed by God to accompany and protect us. I still believe it.

In an article for “Seasons”, a short-lived Dominican magazine in the sixties, Thomas Merton describes angels as “our…fellow servants in a world of freedom and of grace… [T]hey come to us as invisible messengers of [Christ’s] divine will, as mysterious protectors and friends in the spiritual order. Their presence around us, unimaginable, tender, solicitous and mighty, terrible as it is gentle, is more and more forgotten while the personal horizon of our spiritual vision shrinks and closes in upon ourselves.

The much advertised "death of God" - that "absence" which is one of the most significant features of our modern world - is no doubt due in large part to our incapacity to hear the voices of heavenly messengers. We have forgotten how to trust these strangers, and because of our suspicion we have denied them. Mistrust of the Lord begins therefore with mistrust of his messengers. And how easy it is to mistrust those invisible ones who speak more by sudden and significant silences than by clear and probative statements.

For the angels "prove" nothing, not even themselves. They efface themselves entirely in their messages. Yet it is by the silent power, the all-embracing clarity of their messages that we know them. God speaks to us in and through them, and in so doing he also speaks to us their identity, revealing in them strange and sacred personalities which bear witness to [God] in [God’s] utter hiddenness.”

Although it is difficult for the post-modern mind, with its rational sense of reality, to conceive of them, we all have either talked about or heard someone talk about angels. I personally have experienced times when I have been saved from some danger or have been spared the consequences of my own foolishness because God was there acting through some person I did not know and never saw again, or some force or energy I could not see or understand.

The idea of these mysterious beings was introduced to the Hebrew imagination (very likely from the Zoroastrian tradition) around the time of the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE), when it is generally believed the books of the Pentateuch were composed. So, there are many accounts in both, the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, of created beings other than humans who are sent to earth with different roles, functions and orders. They are usually identified by the word for “messenger”, in Hebrew malach, in Greek, angelos, from which the word "angel" derives. In the scriptures, angels have appeared to Abraham, Jacob, Lot, Daniel, Zechariah, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and to those at Jesus’ tomb on the morning of the Resurrection. Angels have spoken to prophets, closed the mouths of lions, forced a donkey off their path (remember that one?), appeared in dreams, guarded a garden, and killed off enemies of God’s people.

There are specific kinds of angels identified in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Cherubim (who apparently are not cute chubby babies!)– one of whom is placed with a flaming sword to guard the gateway to the Garden of Eden in chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. The Seraphim – whom Isaiah describes as having “six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew,” and who sing God’s praises at the heavenly throne. We know the names of the archangels who, while appearing as separate beings, have been understood in strands of the Jewish mystical tradition as the modes through which God, who is infinite, interacts with the finite world. So their names are attributes of God: Raphael literally means "God heals"; Gabriel means "the strength of God"; Uriel- "the Light of God"--and so on. It is mythology. It is beautiful. And it is true!

The lectionary today treats us to three familiar scripture stories about angels: the story of Jacob’s ladder; the story of the war in heaven in which Michael, leading the angels (the good ones!), beats the dragon, Satan, the deceiver of the whole world and his angels (the bad ones!); and finally, the gospel story of Jesus telling Nathanael that he will see something like Jacob’s ladder, “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

In the Genesis story, echoed in Saint John’s Gospel, Jacob’s dream shows us a liminal space, an edge that shades into another space. In Celtic spirituality it is called a “thin place”. In the three-tiered universe of the scriptures, the spiritual realm was up in the sky and the realm of evil and death was “down”. The significance of the angels ascending and descending is a way of describing a connection between the unseen, spiritual “above”, the realm of eternity, and the tangible world, the realm of time, space and matter. The ladder is Christ, through whom the angels connect the finite with the Infinite, linking and maintaining a continual exchange between realms. And this continual exchange between realms, which we actually access through prayer and contemplation, is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of our hearts and our world.

The story from Revelation reminds us that we are part of an eternal drama that is described in metaphorical language yet also says something concrete about our world and our lives. While there are angels continually climbing up and down the ladder, which is Christ, the dragon and his angels remind us that the higher we are the lower we can fall. The greater our gifts and talents, the greater the damage if we use them with the wrong intentions and without humility.

In his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, a phrase taken from the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker names four “better angels:”

•    Empathy, which “prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own”.
•    Self-control, which “allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses” and thus to regulate those impulses.
•    Moral sense, which “sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people”.
•    Reason, which “allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points”.

These are a sort of modern merging of the nine attributes St. Paul called the “fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) It is through these fruits and gifts that human conscience is informed, and conscience, as Thomas Merton said in his book “No Man Is an Island”, “is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.” So, as our beloved the late Brother Andrew Colquhoun once said, if you don’t believe in angels, then for Christ’s sake become one. Become a healer, and a proclaimer; become a warrior against hunger and hopelessness and evil; be a Light Bearer in the darkness around us. And remember to always “show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2) ¡Que así sea, en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Proper 20 A - September 24, 2023

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Bernard Delcourt OHC
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20 A, September 24, 2023
Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16


“Give us this day our daily bread.”

With this verse, each time we pray the Lord’s prayer we ask God to act as the affirmative action employer we have in today’s parable. We ask God to give us enough just to live today. We commit to depend on the mercy and grace of God.

In the Exodus story, God teaches God’s chosen people to learn to rely on him one day at a time. OK; two days at a time on the morning before the Sabbath. But that is two days at most. The manna even wastes away when you hold it longer.

God’s beloved people are trained by God not to hoard resources. They are to trust in God’s faithfulness to God’s children.

Jesus tells us that today’s parable resembles the kingdom of heaven. The landowner in this parable is adamant to find the very last person available to work in his vineyard. The harvest is plentiful and he needs all the laborers he can find, even at a late hour in the day.

The landowner considers that everyone deserves a living wage, even those who are late to the game. The wage agreed for with the first laborers he hires is a denarius.

It is nigh impossible to know exactly how much of an equivalent USD amount a denarius would be. But the consensus is that it was enough to live by for a day. Contemporary equivalent might be between 80 and 100 USD a day; nothing to get rich by, but enough to feed modestly a small family.

The second, third and fourth hires of the day (the 9 o’clock, noon and 3pm folks) are promised a pay of “whatever is right.” To most people of back then or of today, they would have expected a pay proportional to the part of the day that they actually worked (not the full day’s pay).

The five p.m. laborers are not even promised a pay at all but must have hoped for some remuneration. They probably didn’t expect much.

But when pay time comes around, everybody receives the same daily wage, a denarius, regardless of the amount of time they have actually toiled under the sun in the vineyard.

This is a landowner who affirms the right of all his workers to a living wage. It is in contradiction with society’s expectation of equal pay for equal work.

But what if you can’t find work till the eleventh hour of the day? The landowner does not put his workers in competition for a living wage. He makes no difference according to performance. This goes beyond justice for those who can get it. Instead, it demonstrates solidarity for all.

There are no winners and no losers in this vineyard. Although, those who worked hard the whole day would argue otherwise. Don’t they deserve more than the others?

But Jesus seems to say that in the kingdom of heaven, access to resources is not a question of merit but a question of need.

So, how do we let God’s kingdom of heaven break into our world? Where can we start to demonstrate solidarity for all, regardless of economic (or other) performance?

Primitive christian communities operated that way. Acts 2: 44-45 tells us “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” How can we live together ever closer to that ideal?

Monastic communities approximate this way of sharing resources. Individual monks are precluded from holding anything more in individual use than what is needed for their daily living. Even so, it is understood that the clothes I wear belong to my community. We often joke to another brother showing up with a new shirt: “that’s a nice shirt we have there, Brother!”

However, everything I need is provided for by my community: room and board, healthcare, transportation, leisure, eldercare. I need not hoard anything for my future needs.

But also, the institution of the monastery owns a great deal of things necessary for the community to function today and we even hold reserves for future healthcare and eldercare.

One could argue that those communal belongings are held by the grace of God. What we don’t provide much for as a community is the superfluous. And God forbid that we should indulge in the extravagant. Our vow of conversion to the monastic way of life encompasses the directive of living simply.

Legend has it (or is it historical) that our founder, James Otis Sargent Huntington, would gather whatever money we had from our communal bank account at the end of the month and go give it away to the poor.

We nowadays have a different understanding of prudential care of our community. We show care and forethought to the men who are in the community today and those, who by the grace of God, will join us in the future.

So, how can we encourage and enable initiatives that support the provision of enough for every one in our family, country, on our planet?

Some politicians have suggested enacting laws towards the provision of Universal Basic Income. It is also known as guaranteed income. The payments are unconditional and do not require a means test or work requirement. The payments are made independently of any other income. It is a concept well worth investigating.

But even less ambitious endeavors could bring us closer to the proper care for all regardless of competitive merit.

What about the massive increase of public transportation? What about affordable housing for all? What about affordable childcare and healthcare for all?

Next time, you are enjoying the right to vote, consider how your democratic entitlement supports the provision of enough to live well to everyone.

So today’s parable opens us up to what living in the kingdom of heaven might be like here today.

We might be called late into God’s vineyard, but we are all called to contribute in whatever ways we can.

We will all be provided for by God’s grace. We Christians are called to embody that grace and provide for those who lack resources.

We can advocate for ways our families, communities and our society at large provide enough out of pure solidarity.

We are not to compete for more than what is enough. We are called to enjoy God’s grace in our everyday life.

We don’t deserve God’s grace according to our own merits. We deserve God’s grace because God is infinitely merciful and loving.

All we enjoy is by God’s grace. All we can be thankful for is ours to enjoy because we are God’s beloved, each and every one of us.

Thank you, Beloved God, for your abiding love. Amen.