Sunday, March 11, 2018

Living the Truth

Fourth Sunday of Lent

I like to begin with the last sentence from the gospel of this Sunday and then move to the beginning two sentences of the same gospel.   The last sentence reads: ‘Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his or her works may be clearly seen as done in God’ (John 3:21).  Is this not something we all aspire to, to live the truth?  This is what brings meaning to one’s life; this is what makes us free and joyful.  It is what reveals our true face and helps us glimpse the face of God.   But ‘living the truth’ is no small matter.  It involves I think what is said in the first two sentences of the gospel: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son…’ (John 3:14-15).  Jesus offered his life totally and was raised up, and in his raising, he opened for us life, life that is divine and so ‘eternal’.  The image of ‘lifting up’ has a ‘saving effect’.  For us, living the truth involves surrender, dying to all that is not true, and is not giving life.  We die, like the seed falling into the ground, for more life, for more of the truth of God’s life and our lives to be revealed….As we surrender we are lifted up to a more profound level of seeing and believing: we see more the truth of our selves and one another….We are lifted up to see yet again the love God has for us.

The commentators that I read all refer to this gospel as revealing the immense love of God.  Von Balthasar says it the most clearly:  “The Gospel gives us a chance to revise our understanding of divine judgment during a time of repentance.  The decisive point is that whoever scorns God’s love condemns himself.  God is not at all eager to condemn people.  God is nothing but love, love that goes as far as his sacrificing his Son out of love for the world” (Light of the Word, p.177-178).  It seems to me that ‘living the truth’ is possible only so far as we know and receive this love that God has for us…and we know it most concretely through the self-offering of Jesus.  The closer we can come to Christ in his Word and through how he lived, the closer we are to experiencing and receiving God’s love.

The reality that Jesus became fully human says his humanity is bound up with ours, whether we are aware of it or not.  This is how close God’s love is.  To read again from von Balthasar’s commentary: “The whole question is whether we accept God’s love so that it can prove effective and fruitful in us, or whether we cower in our darkness in order to evade the light of love” (p.178).  These are powerful images:  our acceptance of God’s love makes this love ‘effective and fruitful in us’…imagine this!  Or, dear sisters, do we rather ‘cower in our darkness’ fearful of the truth of where we are in any given moment…forgetting that love encompasses any truth.  We are raised up to a deeper and fuller truth by love.

To summarize what I gleaned in my lectio on this gospel:  to live the truth involves dying, surrender, letting go and we will be raised up by love.  To live the truth pivots around our faith: do we accept God’s love for us moment within moment.  Our faith is not static; it needs to be renewed daily.  So we are ushered into the fourth Sunday and week of Lent remembering God’s great gift of love given to us in Jesus.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Transfiguration - Transformed in Love

The gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is always the Transfiguration; it parallels the First Sunday   What immediately precedes the Temptations of Jesus is his baptism in the Jordan.  As Jesus comes up out of the waters he hears the voice of his Abba, ‘You are my beloved Son’.  Michael Casey in his book, Fully Human Fully Divine, translates this phrase with a slight change:   ‘You are my Son, you are loved by me, in you I find my delight’ (Mark 1:11).  Here in changing ‘beloved’ to ‘you are loved by me’ we sense more powerfully that God has poured the fullness of his Love into his Son.  Jesus faces the temptations in and through the experience of knowing the depth and breadth of love from his Father.  Today’s gospel of the Transfiguration of Jesus repeats once again the total Love of the Father towards his Son.  As Jesus is transfigured once again a voice is heard.  And what does it say?  Using Michael Casey’s translation:  ‘This is my Son whom I love.  Listen to him’ (Mark 9:8).  Unconditional love bestowed on Jesus at his baptism and re-affirmed at his Transfiguration as his ministry is taking a final turn, leading him to his death and Resurrection.
of Lent, which always has the gospel of the Temptations.

Unconditional Love:  this is the face we behold at the Transfiguration, this is the One whom we are to become more and more like…this is the One in whom we move, and live and have our being.  Michael Casey writes: “By being instructed to listen to Jesus, the disciples are being informed that he is God’s voice on earth because this man is, in reality, the Son of God’s love” (p.195).  The Son of God’s love, the face of Christ is the face of unconditional Love, the Love that Jesus has received from the Father.  And we see through Jesus’ life how this unconditional Love is incarnated in both word and deed.  The Jesuit scripture scholar Fr. John Donahue comments the following on this gospel: “Such a mystery of total self-giving is rooted in the very nature of God, ‘who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us’(Hearing the Word of God, p.44).  These words I believe give us some idea of what unconditional Love is: total self-giving…The incarnate face of God’s unconditional Love is Christ.  Jesus gave his Self totally for us…at the root of unconditional Love is the gift of Self.

With the memorial Mass that we had for Val McKee I was very moved by the different ways the family saw their mother…grandmother.  She lived…she reflected ‘unconditional love’.  Obviously it was not 100% of the time, but this was what she was growing into; she lived it enough, embodied it enough that this was one of the main memories left in the heart and consciousness of the family.

What precedes the gospel of the Transfiguration in all three synoptic accounts is the first prediction of the passion of Jesus.  Then, right after Jesus’ prediction of his passion he says: if you are to be my disciples you must take up your cross and follow me, for whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever surrenders their life will find it.  There is no following of Jesus, there is no Transfiguration without the cross.  There are no attachments with unconditional Love…it is unrequited…expecting nothing in return….surrender, letting go free us to love without condition.  We live it when we take up our own cross, when we die to our selfish self for greater life and love.  What transforms evil, what transforms those dark, negative pulls into what is not life?  It is only the power of Love…love transforms, love absorbs the darkness and transfigures it into life.  We see this lived fully and completely in Jesus and as his followers this is the work of discipleship that we are called to continue.

What passages in the gospels show us show us Jesus embodying ‘unconditional love’?   What in the writings of St. Paul do we find him speaking of this Love that is stronger than death?  To name a few from the Gospels:  how many times must I forgive?  Jesus says, ‘70 times 7’, that is infinitely.  With the woman caught in adultery from John’s gospel: Jesus says ‘Whoever has not sinned throw the first stone?’  One by one the accusers leave and Jesus goes a step further with the woman:  ‘Woman, I don’t condemn you…go and do not sin again’.    And this saying: ‘If you are struck on one cheek offer the other as well’.  Don’t return hurt for hurt.  And, ‘Love your enemies’.  Loving those who love you is easy…but love your enemies.

If we turn to St. Paul:  the Philippians hymn about Jesus is a hymn of unconditional Love; ‘his state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God…but emptied himself….’  In Romans St. Paul tells us that nothing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ…this is the power of Love. 

The message of today’s gospel is to be transformed in love, that is the love that has no conditions and expects nothing back for its self-offering.  This is the love that is ready to stretch itself in the shape of a cross.  This is the love that Jesus meets us with daily.  To paraphrase Pope Francis from a talk several years ago: ‘stop and contemplate the face of Jesus’…do this in order to transformed in love and to put into practice this love with which we are loved.  With Jesus we can love unconditionally.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

What are you seeking?

‘What are you looking for?’  ‘What are you seeking?’  This is the first question in John’s gospel.  It is God’s question addressed by Jesus to his first would-be disciples and now, in this present moment, this Divine question Jesus addresses to each one of us.

As important as our questions are, what about God’s questions to us?  The interior dynamic shifts, does it not?  Can you sense or feel the difference?  God, addressing us personally, in the form of a question and if we let it in, God’s question speaks to the heart.  ‘What are you looking for?’  Or, as another translation has it, ‘What are you seeking?’  As we let God’s question circulate around our heart and listen, how will we respond, how will we engage this eternal question?  If we truly feel into this question of God, I think we will discover that contained in the question are at least these two things:  first, God desires relationship with us, and second, God is searching out the essence of who we are. 

This whole idea of God’s questions came to me from Sr. Jeremy Hall’s book Silence, Solitude, Simplicity.  She has several chapters on this theme and points out that there are over 350 questions of God in the Bible.  She was a scripture scholar and still it is evident from her writing that she has prayed with God’s questions in her own life.  Listen to what she says:  “If we hear God’s questions in the depth of our hearts, hearing personally as they are personally addressed, they will call us; they will challenge us; they will sometimes unsettle us.  But they can bring us, by God’s grace in the power of those words themselves and in us, to freedom, to more life, to deeper love” (p.126).  So, dear sisters, can we hear Jesus asking us right now: ‘What are you looking for?’  ‘What are you seeking?’

I mentioned at the beginning that this question to us is inviting two things from the side of God:  God is seeking relationship with us and God is searching out the essence of who we are, of who we are becoming.  ‘What are you looking for?’  Am I looking to be right?  Am I looking for this job, this title?  Am I looking to have my way?  Sr. Jeremy says that this question is a momentous one because “what or whom we desire is who we really are” (p.131).  She will go on to place this question in the context of Merton’s distinction of false and true self.   What is striking to me is that each question of God is pregnant with life in its challenge, in the utter truth it is breathing forth.  In the question, God is reaching out to help us find more of our essence, of our truest self…. As we receive God’s question, we will recognize those inner movements of where our pushy or hurt ego extinguishes any hope of the Spirit speaking its wisdom, or where this clamoring ego loses any sense of purity of heart and intention.   The Divine question helps reveal the false movements that come up in our hearts and that come up with a lot of emotional intensity and self-righteousness…Allowing the question of Jesus to be our anchor in the moment can lead us back to our center, to that self which is true and knows to whom and to what it longs to serve.

At the beginning of John’s gospel we have Jesus asking: ‘What are you looking for?’  Near the end of the gospel Sr. Jeremy points out that when Jesus meets Mary Magdalene at the tomb he asks her ‘Whom are you looking for?’  Is this not a profound movement of the journey, like the stroke of an artist’s paint brush, a stroke that completes the painting.  These two questions of God to us are inextricably linked.   And they can invariably lead us home to our true self and to the God whom we are devoting our lives to and ready to give all at any moment.  ‘What’ are you seeking, and the movement to ‘whom’ are you seeking: intimacy deepens…the relationship to God becomes stronger, more real, more embodied.  Our true self in Christ grows as we allow God to encounter us in these questions, questions that are so full of potential life and love.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Feast of our Cistercian Founders, Sts. Robert, Alberic & Stephen

How do we honor today, in this 21st century, the founders of our Order, Sts. Robert, Alberic & Stephen?  What can we draw out from the sketchy and spare details we have of their beginnings to tell us what their vision was, what the impulse was, what was the force behind their movement to begin a new community, which in a relatively short time developed into a full fledged Order?  If I had to choose two words to capture the essence of what propelled these courageous and dedicated monks they would be these: ‘mystical’ and ‘contemplative’.  Once a monastery and even an Order becomes established, the greatest risk for both is losing sight of what is vital to its way of life.  To renew ourselves we always have to return to the vision, to re-vitalizing what gives monasticism its perduring reality.  And these two words bring us face to face before the essence of monastic life.

‘Mystical’ and ‘contemplative’, words that carry so much history and meaning, words also that have been misused and misunderstood.  We might wonder how we understand them right now in our monastic lives.  ‘Mystical’ is related to ‘mystery’, not an extraordinary reality, rather a reality that one cannot grasp or understand through a mundane or profane consciousness.  Mystery is experienced and apprehended in a non-rational way; we perceive the divine reality with a consciousness that is rooted in the intuitive, poetic, imaginative, inspirational dimension of ourselves.  The ancients used the expression of ‘seeing with the spiritual senses’.   Michael Casey, in an essay titled “Contemplation”, writes: “What monastic life offers is a slow process of purifying the heart so that it can perceive the deep mystery in which we have been immersed” (Strangers To the City, p.158).  And, indeed, one of the beatitudes tells us that ‘the pure of heart will see God’.   The ‘pure of heart’ will see, a heart open to daily conversion ‘sees’ because each moment of conversion roots us in a more encompassing truth, God’s truth and our own.  Michael Casey offers this understanding of ‘mysticism’:  “When we speak of mysticism…we are speaking of our capacity to be drawn sometimes into a zone beyond the familiar world of space and time, a zone in which all our interior faculties come alive.  What transpires during those graced moments is beyond language.  God is a reality that we can never explain or prove” (p.159).  It is this other ‘zone’ that informs a consciousness that is sensitive and open to receiving and perceiving the Spirit’s ever-so subtle promptings and whisperings in our hearts.  In these moments it is so true that our ‘interior faculties come alive’, they expand and root our consciousness so that we truly begin to take on the mind and heart of Christ.

Our founders sought to cultivate this monastic or mystical consciousness both in the inner life and without, in their physical environment.  One may wonder: did they not have this at Mosleme?  Or, did life there become too institutional, too rich, too excessive in its liturgical practices, that the simplicity and essentials of what they sought got buried beneath all this wealth and success?  God is found as much outside of formal prayer times as within them, in nature, in serving one another, in a loving gesture given to us by another.  But how do we perceive these moments throughout the day?  We are not to make a split between finding God in the church and not finding God in our daily work.  It is this mystical consciousness that holds together the sacred and profane, that enables us to see and experience God in our everyday experiences.   Only a mystical consciousness can perceive God’s hand at work in the vulnerability of our sister and in our own vulnerability.  We are imperfect wounded beings.  Do we then see one another with the eye of criticism or do we see with a more encompassing eye, beholding as well the beauty of each one of our sisters and brothers?  ‘I thank you because you have created me so wonderfully’, says the psalmist.  Prayer, meditation and the process of conversion are the main practices we have to cultivate a contemplative, mystical way of seeing and being.  The monastic adage: ‘to pray unceasingly’ is not so much about ‘saying’ prayers as it is about living with our spiritual senses fully awakened and alive.  A mystical, contemplative consciousness has to do with awareness, awareness of entering this other ‘zone’ at different times throughout the day; awareness of when we have fallen into a cut-off consciousness, cut off from our heart center, cut off from our God.

Surely we honor our founders by growing into the consciousness that will enable us to perceive the face of Christ, the reality of God’s life present in these ordinary experiences.