Sunday, July 26, 2020

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 12 A - July 26, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Rober Leo Sevensky, OHC

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 12 A - July 26,.2020

Today is the feast of St. Ann, mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. I grew up in a town with a large Catholic shrine to St. Ann which, during my childhood, attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims on her feast day, the culmination of the solemn novena or nine days of prayer in her honor. I was fascinated by the place and its devotional life and finally at one point late in my adolescence, I visited the shrine. At the back of the basilica there were desks where one could fill out a card listing various petitions: “St. Ann, pray for good health for X” or “St. Ann, pray for employment for so-and-so.” And there was also a category: “St. Ann, send me...” and there was a box for a Catholic boyfriend and another for a Catholic girlfriend. Given my adolescent condition, I simply couldn't resist. I checked off the appropriate box, dropped it into the slot, and was assured that it would be laid on St. Ann's altar so that, as they said in the novena prayer, she might recommend it to her daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who would lay it before the throne of Jesus who would bring it to “a happy issue.” And he did. Or perhaps St. Ann did. Or Mary. I'm not exactly sure how these things work. I do have to say, however, that they took their time. Nevertheless, I'm happy to say that they came through.

Was what I did then, as a 16-year old, prayer?

As I walk around here, I am always talking to myself audibly—it's true, my brothers tell me so—and I occasionally sigh and say out loud, “Oh God.” Or I echo my godmother and say in Polish: Matko Boska. Is that prayer?

Or when I sit outside and finally stop and look at the River for a few minutes or pause before the Blessed Sacrament or set up for another church service or mop the dining room floor. Prayer?

I have been around churches a long time, but I must admit that I have seldom heard a sermon about prayer. I've been encouraged to pray, of course, and occasionally there has been some brief explanation of the Lord's Prayer offered from the pulpit. But pretty much the topic was avoided. Perhaps the nuts and bolts of prayer are better left to retreat addresses or adult forums after coffee hour or inspirational tracts on sale in the narthex. But the cry of the disciples “Lord, teach us to pray” had pretty much not been a part of the homiletic tradition or even of the parochial tradition in my experience.

I don't think this should surprise any of us. Whatever prayer is, it is intimate and relational, touching on our vulnerabilities and neediness and desires and hopes. Prayer is fire, and like all fire, it must be treated with a certain respect.

Mindful of that old saw that says, “Those who can do; those who can't teach,” I feel a certain reluctance to speak at all about prayer, especially here, before you with whom I live and move and practice praying... practice being perhaps the operative word in this regard. But today's readings are critical for an understanding of at least some of the dynamics of prayer in our own lives and in the life of the world. And I am encouraged in this regard by our community faith sharing earlier this week. Nothing here will be new to any of you, of course, but I believe it needs to be heard again and again. Or at least, I need to say it again and again, over and over, if only to convince myself.

In our first reading from I Kings, we hear the story of Solomon's prayer for wisdom. The young king pleases God by asking for a wise and discerning mind to lead his people, and God grants his prayer. But we must not gloss over too quickly how this story begins. God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him: “What should I give you?” Or to put it another way, God asks Solomon: “What do you want?” This is not a rhetorical question. It is a question inviting each of us to take a good look at ourselves and see what it is that we really want right now. Not what we think we should want, or what we think God wants us to want, but what we actually do want, or at least what we imagine we want. And that is generally not quite as pretty or noble or as “spiritual” as Solomon's desire for a discerning mind. But then I'm not Solomon, nor are you.

As so often happens in the healing narratives of Jesus, the process begins with our Lord asking his conversation partner: What do you want me to do for you? Do you want to be healed? Do you want to see again? Do you want to be made whole? Do you want me to do something for someone you love...or perhaps for some you may feel a little ambivalent about? What is it that you desire?

There is a rich literature about the role of desire in the spiritual life. In a nutshell, it comes down to accepting that we must begin where we are, with our true desires or perceived wants or needs, however quotidian or petty they might appear. We begin there. And though we may begin there, most of the time we don't end up there. The naming of our desires and longings before the face of God and in the light of God's own dreams and desires for us and for all creation leads to a merging of horizons and a melding or a transformation—I'm tempted to say, transfiguration—of our desires. It is said that prayer changes things, and perhaps the first thing it changes is us. Prayer has the power to refine our hopes, widen our interests, kindle, or rekindle love, reorient our passions and open new vistas, however narrow, where the light may break through. “What should I give you?” Prayer begins there, with the question God asks of Solomon and of us all.

Our second reading is perhaps even more important to those who aspire to live a life of prayer. It contains of course those words from the 8th chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

We do not know how to pray. We really don't. Which doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't try, though the painful truth is that all our attempts, insofar as they are ours alone, will be imperfect and probably unsatisfying. But St. Paul tells us that we are in fact not alone, that the very Spirit of God is praying in and through us at the most fundamental level of our being, at that very center point of our existence that we call our soul. Right now. All the time.

What we can offer, maybe all that we can ever offer, is our intention and attention. First, we offer our intention to draw into deeper union with what English Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore enigmatically termed the I know not what, an experience that all people have, potentially if not actually, of being touched by an attraction toward the God who desires us into being and sustains us in existence. It is our responsive desire for union with the mystery which is at the source of all, which is the All. It is, in short, the foundational religious experience.[i]  And secondly, we can offer our awakened attention to what God is already doing in and through and around us right now. Intention and attention.  Beyond that, however, the rest is God's business, not ours.

I remember as a novice meditating at length on the words of Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died as he led them into the garden of Gethsemane: “Sit here while I pray.” (Mark 14:32). This was good advice not just to those first disciples, but also to me. Just sit here and let Jesus pray in and through me. That was for me a liberating word. But it's not an easy word, as most of us know. For it's the very simple sitting, which is to say pausing, stopping, noticing, that becomes the challenge. But that too is part of prayer, isn't it? And even that, in the end, is more about God's work in us than it is our work for God.

The late Sr. Wendy Beckett, the televised art nun, once wrote: “Prayer is the last thing we should feel discouraged about...[it's] the simplest thing out.” My first reaction on reading this was: “Well, maybe for her.” But I'm beginning to believe that she was right. Many people, good Christians and countless others, feel discouraged about prayer and praying, though they need not be. Neither do we. If we offer God the tiniest bit of our longing desire or our wandering attention or our dedicated action, small though it be—tiny as a mustard seed is tiny—God will work with us and through us, bringing it all to maturity, to that happy issue mentioned in the novena prayer. It may take time, maybe a long time—as my experience of St. Ann's intercession did so many years ago. Indeed, sometimes it takes a lifetime. But as one of my Jesuit professors used to ask: Quid hoc ad aeternitatem? What is that in the light of eternity? We have an eternity. And we've only just begun. And really, God is not in a hurry. Still, imagine what might happen if we seize this one present moment, this holy pregnant Now, filled as it is with never to be repeated opportunities and untold possibilities, and with interior desires and cultural longings and societal groanings ripe for transformation. This is the time for fervent prayer. It is always the time for fervent prayer. So then, friends, let us pray. Let us pray. Let us pray.


[i] Barry, William A., S.J.  Finding God in All Things.  Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1991. Pp. 34-37.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 11 A - July 19, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Rober James Magliula, OHC

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 11 A - July 19,.2020

Of all the gospel writers, Matthew is the one who warms to any parable that has to do with judgment. He wants clarity, where things are black or white, good or bad, blessed or cursed. It’s something he has in common with the early Christians to whom his Gospel is addressed.
There was a growing concern within the young Christian community after the destruction of Jerusalem. The focus was on the contradictory forces at work within the Church at the end of the first century. The church at Antioch began as a church of Diaspora Jewish Christians following the initial Jerusalem persecution. As an urban church it reflected the ethnic diversity common to large cities. 

They were concerned with how to deal with those who initially seem identical to them but over time were revealed as different in their expression of faith and their actions. The Church on earth has always been a mixed body. Matthew may have been clear that there are only two kinds of people in the world---the wheat and the weeds---but it’s a clarity that escapes most of us today. We have encountered both kinds---in ourselves, in our neighbors, and in the world.
Matthew’s version of the parable is told to the crowds, and another annotated version is told to the disciples. Some scholars have said that Jesus never explained his parables. Those who recorded them couldn’t stand their ambiguity. They felt that they had to interpret them clearly so that no one who heard them later would misunderstand. In this we see Matthew’s discrimination between insiders and outsiders, between those with ears to hear and those without. To the insiders the message is clear: never mind that there seems to be a lot of weeds in the world. When the last day comes, the wheat will be vindicated while the weeds will go up in smoke. 

Parables are mysterious and their mystery has everything to do with their longevity. Explanations are so much easier than mysteries. An explanation lets you know where you stand. Parables behave more like dreams or poems. They speak in images which talk more to our hearts than to our heads. They teach us something different every time we hear them. 

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between good and bad. Appearances can be deceiving. The weeds referred to are bearded darnel. It’s a plant that’s related to wheat. It looks like wheat, but it’s poisonous. If enough of its small black seeds get into the bread dough it can cause hallucinations, blindness, or even death. Its roots surround the roots of good plants making it difficult to separate it out without damaging the crop. Palestinian farmers learn to deal with it early. They uproot it once or twice before harvest so that they don’t have to separate the seeds by hand. To let the wheat and darnel grow together posed an unnecessary risk that this farmer is willing to take. He’s eccentric, even by ancient standards, by refusing to allow his servants to uproot the weeds because it might uproot the wheat. “Leave the weeds and wheat alone. Let them grow together” he says. He does not share our appetite for a pure crop. He lets us know that growth interests him more than perfection.

I don’t know what makes us think that we are any smarter about ourselves or about the other people in our lives. We are so quick to judge, as if we were so sure that we knew the difference between wheat and weeds. Often our lives resemble the farmer’s infested field, with weeds and wheat intertwined in our souls, hearts, and minds. Each of us is some mixture of wheat and weed, of holy and unholy, of potentially fruitful and potentially destructive. In the concern to sort out evil from good, we have only to be reminded of our own fickleness and betrayal, to be aware of how easy it is to rush to judgement. He tells his servants to be patient and wait until the harvest when they can see the difference in the fruit. 

A lack of patience defines our day. In our polarized society, we too question who we can afford to let in and who must remain out, who is accepted by God and who is not.  In the very act of asking such questions, we assume that it is our job to draw up the specifications regarding the wideness of God’s or the Church’s welcome. God’s wisdom is to let all grow together. God makes room for a holy and purposeful ambiguity. The God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with each other. Often in the space created by such patience, it is not just others but we ourselves who are welcomed into a larger reality. It is toward this very God that we are forever moving, individually and collectively. On such a journey, it’s not our job to determine who is within and who is beyond this God’s attention. Our job to imagine everyone as belonging to this God and to endeavor to embrace God’s holy and purposeful ambiguity.

Patience is required in order to hope. Patience is not the same as acquiescence. It’s not satisfied with the present but lives toward a future promised by God. In the Epistle, Paul says hope is rooted in an ability to see what one does not yet see. It creates a contrast between what is hoped for and the present state of affairs. To hope is to have a restless heart and not to escape the suffering of the present time. In fact, the one who hopes may be the only one with the courage to endure the suffering of the present. Like a woman in labor, suffering and hope are not contradictory, but inseparably interwoven. Hope fuels the imagination for the way things ought to be and empowers the one who hopes to confront evil knowing that it’s not final. 

Most Americans are optimistic but not hopeful, clinging not to truth, but to the myth of progress, despite unceasing wars, violence, and injustice. This pandemic invites us to reevaluate our priorities and offers us an opportunity to become aware of the social and spiritual viruses of racism and white supremacy. Based on prejudice and fear, they have remained unnamed and unacknowledged by many, from generation to generation. No doubt, sin is evident in our world. It’s easy to become discouraged. Given our current circumstances, we can identify with the Israelites addressed by Isaiah in our first reading in their exile in Babylon. They endured the loss of everything but life itself. They were strangers in a strange land, seemingly abandoned by their God. They learned to harden themselves against hope. 

The prophet to that marginalized community sang them a new song designed to comfort, liberate, dispel fear, and instill hope. As he reminded them of who they are and whose they are, so he reminds us. The true witness of one’s faith comes alive in the dark moments when it’s difficult to see the blessings of God. Isaiah reminds us that the witnesses that God seeks are those who are faithful regardless of their situation. God’s word through the prophet, “You are my witnesses”, is a clear indication of divine dependency on the voices and actions of God’s people, as an alternative community to the destructive ways of life embraced by the larger culture. 

Under stress we are nostalgic for the old normal. There’s nothing wrong with many of those desires for the old, but if we have learned anything, we will not go back unthinkingly. Looking at it from today’s perspective, the old normal was not so great, not something to be nostalgic about, without also being deeply critical of it. Just as grace is a sheer gift of God, so also is the gift of being open to the possibilities of an unexpected future, trusting that all will be well even when events are out of our control. Isaiah reminds us that God’s mercy is as steady as a heartbeat. God’s faithfulness is as solid as rock. Even as we experience the discomfort of this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal that addresses the weaknesses and problems that were unaddressed. If we’ve learned anything, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward.


Sunday, July 12, 2020

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 10A - July 12, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép Martinez-Cubero, OHC

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 10 A - July 12,.2020

For us U.S. Americans the world seems to be falling apart these days before our very eyes. We’re not used to that. In reality, so many of us are so privileged and so used to being comfortable that our current situation feels like the world is coming to an end, our world, that is, the one that revolves around us. 

It is hard for us U.S. Americans to grasp how much suffering there really is in so much of the rest of the world. Oh yes, many of us are good people. We feel pity; we feel badly; we are sympathetic; we are concerned; and we pray for them. But the suffering in many parts of the world is very far removed from us. It is simply not part of our every day experience. It has taken a pandemic, the isolation from loved ones, the current blatant corruption of our government, the heartbreaking or infuriating systemic racism inequality and violence that now finds new license to act out defiantly in our country for us to have a little taste of the brokenness of this world that so many outside the U.S. experience on a daily basis. 

It is at times like this that the ancient wisdom of the scriptures reminds us that corruption, oppression, and suffering have existed throughout history since the beginning of time- the slavery of the ancient Israelites in Egypt, the Babylonian exile, the times of Jesus when the Judeans lived in an occupied territory, the time of the writer of Matthew’s Gospel when it was a hard time to be a Christian and huge numbers of people had to migrate to other regions due to poverty and persecution. All of these events have repeated themselves in renewed ways from generation to generation throughout history. 

So this week’s lectionary challenges us to let go and let God, even when our soul is full of heaviness and disquieted. We are to put our trust in God who is the help of our countenance and our God. The lectionary this week reminds us that as Christians we are to look at the brokenness of the world with new eyes. Thus, all the scripture texts today are full of hope and abundance and joy! And I don’t know about you but I need to be reminded that in Christ there is always hope. I need to be reminded to embrace abundance and be grateful. I need some joy!
In our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet promises: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” In psalm 65, which is the appointed psalm for today, and here in the monastery we chant every two weeks at Vespers on Saturday, the psalmist conjures paths overflowing with plenty, fields of the wilderness rich for grazing, hills clothed with joy, meadows covered with flocks, valleys cloaked with grain; all of them shouting for joy and singing. Paul tells the Romans that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Talk about a hard thing to fathom! And then we have Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel telling a parable about a sower flinging seeds all over the place in joyful abandon, and those seeds “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” That’s right! “Let anyone with ears listen!”     
Isaiah describes a God who pours rain and snow, watering everything on earth so that what needs to grow will grow: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Prophets, among many things, are to speak a life-giving word of hope when all seems to point to the contrary. So the imagery of rain and snow watering everything on earth would have been quite a powerful metaphor to a people accustomed to arid conditions. The prophet's audience would surely have understood the importance of rain and snow to transform dry land into conditions able to sustain the vegetation. Rain and snow ensured food. Precipitation meant the difference between life and death. In the same way God's word has a transformative effect on the lives of the exiles who have seen their beloved city destroyed, families torn apart, houses demolished, and their country lost. 

So sure is the prophet of what he is saying that he describes a world where the mountains and the hills break out in song and the trees of the fields clap their hands in accompaniment. What awesome imagery! Instead of the thorn and brier that had been used by the prophet as symbols of judgment, shall come up the cypress and myrtle, a powerful symbol for the new life that lies ahead for the exiles after the devastation brought about by the Babylonian exile.

In the text from Matthew’s Gospel, the sower’s seeds fall on the hard path and the birds eat them. Other seeds fall on rocky ground, where they spring up quickly but wither because the sun burns their shallow roots. Other seeds fall among thorns and are choked. Still other seeds fall on good soil, and bring forth abundant grain. These are the various landscapes of the human heart. Jesus is describing our inner geography. 

I can tell you (and some of you know well) that there are days when my soil is hardened, and there are other days when my soil is quite rocky! And then there are those days when I am full of thorns, and yes, there are other days when my soil is really, really good! So I am thankful that this parable is about the nature and character of the Divine Sower, who is clearly not dependant on the quality of my soil on any given day. This parable is about the Divine Sower whose generosity is extravagant when it comes to us, the beloved creation. This parable is about the Divine Sower who is confident that what needs to flourish will flourish, maybe not everywhere and maybe not all at the same time, and that’s okay. This parable is about the Divine Sower who is unconcerned about where the seed falls because there is always enough seed. In a society so addicted to competition, comparison, and judgment, it is hard to comprehend that nothing is wasted in God’s economy. Every kind of soil can benefit from God’s seed. The Divine Sower keeps sowing generously and abundantly, even in the least promising places of our life.

God’s word goes out from God’s mouth and accomplishes God’s purpose, no matter where it lands. God’s word can soften hard ground, clear away rocks, and cut through the most stubborn of thorns to make way for the harvest. And why? Because all terrain is God’s terrain and is sustained by God’s love. We have absolutely no business telling the Creator of all that is what “good soil” looks like?  We have absolutely no business deciding who is worthy and who is not worthy of the sower’s generosity? As Paul tells the Romans and us there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ because to be in Christ is to be part of something far larger than us. It is not about what we do, but what God does for and through us because the Spirit of God dwells in us. 

May we, like the Divine Sower who dwells in us, scatter seeds with generosity. May abundant seeds of love and mercy fall from us on all the brokenness of this world until all its hardened, rocky and sun-scorched corners burst into joyful song and clap their hands! ¡Que así sea en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+