Getting through it

Life seems to be going haywire. No, not life, exactly, but the world. Sometimes I wonder whether I am just getting older. Maybe the world seems to be going off the rails to me just as it has done to every previous generation as they get older, and the next generation rises. Still, it seems very unhealthy to me, unsustainably so. There cannot be such extensive, almost limitless, uncertainty, so much speed and pressure. Who can live like this?

I asked my students, a few weeks ago, how many of them knew someone (or had themselves) suffered from mental illness. Nearly everyone. That’s worrying. If mental illness is so prevalent, maybe we ought to be spending as much time seeking causes and preventing it as we do devising new therapies–especially drug therapies. And I say this as someone who has taken medication for depression for nearly two decades. Maybe, just maybe, something out there is making us sick.

Having said that, though, I worry about the medicalisation of everything. So little deviation from the norm of health and well-being is allowed now, very little suffering is permitted. Not that suffering is a good thing–it’s just that it is an essential and inescapable feature of human life. We have begun to regard suffering as unnatural, an unwelcome intrusion into our life of health and happiness.

The trouble is that health and happiness are never guaranteed. in the world there is beauty and joy and wonder. At the same time, there is poverty, pain, disaster and loss, and sickness and blight. And sometimes the only way out of suffering is through it. In such situations, patience, it seems to me, is the only way forward. Patience and humility seem to be the central lost traits in our human life. Where do we learn patience and humility, and grow in them, in a world that is driven by efficiency and achievement?

We have forgotten how the world changes: little by little, one small act of kindness at a time. Very few are the big acts that do obvious good. And the people to whom the tasks of Big Change fall are not necessarily to be envied. Frodo Baggins did manage–with lots of help–to get the One Ring to Mount Doom, and by luck it ended up in the fire. But the achievement broke Frodo, changed him, so that he no longer ‘fit’ in his world. ‘We saved the Shire,’ said Sam. ‘But not for me,’ said Frodo. Not for me. And so it is, sometimes, that people to whom the world-saving falls do somehow find themselves no longer fit for the world made different.



Maybe I am wrong. But I think that more and more people are being taught to desire the Big Things, when what we need, and what the world really needs are people who faithfully do the small things. That’s really the way forward: patience and humility. And Frodo Baggins is not, in the final analysis, the hero of the tale. The hero of the story is the patient and humble Samwise Gamgee, who carried Frodo when he could go no farther. Sam carried on, when Frodo could not. And so the world was saved, not by the wise elves or the powerful wizard, or even the servant-healer-king, though these each had their part to play. the world was saved by the smallest and least of all, and the burden borne in large part by the lowliest of all, who received it as a privilege and a gift.

The world seems very short of Samwise Gamgees today. Everyone wants to be Aragon, or Gandalf, or perhaps Elrond or Galadriel. Maybe even Frodo Baggins. But Sam Gamgee? The servant? Less so, it seems to me, less so. Patience and humility look so small and dull in the world of bright, shining achievements. ‘Nice guys,’ so the saying goes, ‘finish last.’ Maybe so, maybe so. But it has also been said that many who are first shall be last, and the last first. Let it be so.

Deo gratias.

NB This post is dedicated to Bishop Daniel E. Flores, Amigo de Frodo.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Though I thought that I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
Yet my reward is with the Lord: my recompense is with my God…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
                                                                        Isaiah 49: 3-6
A hermit was asked by a brother, “How do I find God? With fasts or labour, or vigils, or works of mercy?” He replied, “ you will find him in all those, and lso in discretion. I tell you many have been very stern with their bodies,  but have gained nother by it because they did it without discretion. Even if our mouths stink from fasting, and we have learnt all the Scriptures, and memorized the whole psalter, we may still lack what God wants, humility and love.”
                                                                        (DF 111)
.                .               .
Isn’t it the measure of humility to think we have not achieved anything? Isaiah reflects on precisely this predicament: ‘I thought that I had toiled in vain’; that all was for nought. But it is in the acknowledgement that all he can do is work ‘uselessly’ that he finds the truth: recompence is with God. Because it is God’s will that God’s salvation reach the ends of the earth, God makes something of out otherwise useless toil. So, as the hermit says, all the fasting and prayer avail us nothing without the marks of true participation in the Spirit—humility and love. And what a good and timely word for this, the last week in Lent. We have fasted and abstained, we have spent time in Scripture and in prayer, we have done works of mercy. But what do we gain by it all? Nothing, so long as we expect the work to get us somewhere. The object of all the Lenten discipline we choose to bear is nothing more or less than the deepening of humility and the widening of our love.
Humility and love should point us towards the cross, where Christ’s humility is displayed in the utmost submission, and his love is extended even in his suffering: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Humility and love: forgiving before the repentance, before the acknowledgement of sin. Jesus shows us pure forgiveness, which is the way of humility and love. And so I find myself coming around again to forgiveness, although it appears nowhere in the lectionary readings for today; it is nevertheless what the Lenten season is all about: humility and love.

Friday of the fifth week of Lent

In my distress I called upon the Lord,
and cried out to my God;
from his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
Psalm 18 [17]: 7
Jesus said… “…the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” Then they tried again to arrest him, but he escaped from their power.
John 10
. . .
This is, perhaps, the most difficult of all aspects of asceticism: calling on God in the face of temptation. We want to overcome it easily, on our own, or to give in. To look temptation in the face and say, as Jeremiah does, “the Lord is with me like a mighty champion,” and to call on God for help, is slightly less attractive as an option. We then can claim no special achievement, as Amma Sarah testifies: “It is not I who overcame [lust], but the Lord Jesus”—nor can we enjoy the pleasure of succumbing to the temptation, however fleeting.
No, it is decidedly unheroic, unromantic, simply to say “help!” and find ourselves, like the monk in one of the sayings of the desert fathers, on the road back to the monastery. There are no brave stories then for us to tell our sisters and brothers. We can say no more than the psalmist who writes, “In my distress, I called upon the Lord…and my cry to him reached his ears.”
In theory—that is, in the moments in which we are not beset by temptation, this appears to be the best way. Praise God alone, of course, because the victory belongs to God and not to us. We know that it is God who protects us, God who assures us in the valley of the shadow of death, God who makes our way blameless, God who makes us rise up on wings like eagles. All this we know and we celebrate it. That is, after all, what the Mass is about: the victory of God in Christ over sin and death, closing the unbridgeable gap between God and God’s created image, humanity. We know that we did not, cannot, achieve victory over sin.
But when it confronts us, in all the small ways it confronts us in our daily lives, we forget to turn to the One who made us, in whom we live and move and have out beings and say, perhaps, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ Help me to resist this sin; help me to cling to Jesus; help me to walk in those good works you have prepared for me. For the Lord is with us like a mighty champion; our persecutors will stumble; they will not triumph.

Friday of the third week of Lent

What has Ephraim to do with idols any more when it is I who hear his prayer and care for him? I am like a cypress ever green; all your fruitfulness comes from me.
                                                                                                                               Hosea 14
[Abba Apollo said] No one can endure the enemy’s clever attacks, nor quench, nor control the leaping fire natural to the body, unless God’s grace preserves us in our weakness. In all our prayers we should as for his mercy to save us, so that he may turn aside this scourge that is aimed even at you. For he makes a man to grieve, and then lifts him up to salvation; he strikes, and his hand heals; he humbles and exalts; he gives death and then life; he leads to hell and brings back from hell (1 Sam 2:6). So Apollo prayed again, and the hermit was set free from his inner war. Apollo urged him to ask God to give him a wise heart, in order to know how best to speak.
*          *          *
It is somewhat troubling to think that God strikes, humbles, gives death, and the like, even though Abba Apollo assures us that God also gives life and heals, and exalts. It istroubling, but less so when we are reminded that God was willing to undergo the same cycles of humility and exaltation, death and life, and the journey to hell and back again. There is nothing that we experience in the whole of our human life that God’s Word did not take upon himself in his own humanity. Our fruitfulness does indeed come from the one who has made the way for us from death to life.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches: we, the branches, cannot bear any fruit without being connected to, and nourished by, the vine. All the contrition and humility of Lent draws us closer to the vine. It is not that we accomplish anything merely by our self-denial, byt that we attend more closely to God, and simplify our lives to make that attention possible. What fruit our practice brings comes not from us, but from God.

Friday of the second week in Lent

Judah said to his brothers, “What is to be gained by killing our brother and concealing his blood? Rather, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, instead of doing away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother and our own flesh. His brothers agreed. They sold Joseph to the Ishamaelites for twenty pieces of sliver.
                                                                        Genesis 37
 Abba John (the Dwarf) said, “Who sold Joseph?” A brother replied, “It was his brethren.” The old man said to him, “No, it was his humility which sold him, because he could have said, ‘I am their brother’ and have objected, but because he kept silence, he sold himself by his humility. It is also his humility which set him up as chief in Egypt.”
*       *       *
We know that Ruben’s plan to go back and rescue Joseph is foiled by Judah’s suggestion. What we cannot see at this point is how God’s purpose is brought to fulfillment in Joseph by this very action; Israel is saved (again) by a bit of treachery. The question might also be asked (therefore), “How was Israel preserved through the great drought?” By Joseph’s humility, perhaps.
Joseph’s “humility,” as Abba John calls it, flies in the face of contemporary attitudes about the self. We are not taught to allow such things to happen to us. Rather, we tend to learn to stand up for ourselves and, hopefully, for others; we are trained to advocate and agitate, to protest. Protesting is precisely what Joseph did notdo. We don’t hear his thought, either. We know about his dreams; we know how dearly his father loved him. We know what Joseph’s brothers thought about him; we know nothing (at this point) of what Joesph thought about them. Did he expect foul play? Why didn’t he protest? Was he worried they would kill him? The author of Genesis does not let us into Joseph’s inner life at all during these events.

Turns out it is a good thing Joseph didn’t protest. The whole history of Israel would have unfolded differently if he had. Joseph’s story (so far) sets us a question: how willing are we to let go of our plans and even our freedom when that’s what God calls us to do?

Saturday of the first week in Lent

And the Lord has today declared you to be his people, a treasured possession, as he promised you, and you should keep all his commandments.
                                                                           Deuteronomy 26: 18
But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
                                                                            Matthew 5
Abba Poemen said, “A monk does not complain of his lot, a monk does not return evil for evil, a monk is not angry.”
*        *        *
The Jerusalem Bible refers to Israel, at the making of the covenant, as a people “peculiarly” God’s own. Such ambiguity in the options for translation is astounding: “treasured possession” or “peculiarly [God’s own]”?
I think each possible rendering offers us some insight into the relationship between God and God’s people. The idea of a treasured possession points to God’s unfailing love for God’s people. As the reading from yesterday so clearly testified, God’s extravagant forgiveness meets each of us on the road home from the far country. As the people grafted not Abraham’s family tree, we are God’s “treasured possession.” the idea of a people “peculiarly [God’s] own” points to the identity of the people of God in the world. Israel follows a different set of customs and obeys different laws from those of the Gentiles. So also, Jesus suggests, Christians operate differently in the world. Doing good to those who do good to you is the norm; doing good to those who do you harm or seek to do you harm runs counter to all expectation. But being God’s peculiar people involves practices of humility and love that mirror God rather than copying the world.

To be perfect is to love as God loves, to allow God’s way of seeing “enemies” and God’s way of responding to evil to become our own.

Wednesday of the 27th week in ordinary time

Happy indeed is the one
     who follows not the counsel of the wicked;
nor lingers in the way of sinners
     nor sits in the company of scorners,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord
     and who ponders his law day and night.

She is like a tree that is planted
     beside the flowing waters,
that yields its fruit in season
     and whose leaves shall never fade;
     and all that he does shall prosper.*

                                              Psalm 1

.          .          .

Nobody hangs out in the company of sinners, at least not ‘sinners’ as the psalmist imagines them. We can admit that we are all sinners, all fallen short of the glory of God. But the active, really-bad-stuff-doers are rarely our regular dinner companions. Maybe they should be.

But scorn? Is that really as bad as the real-bad-stuff (whatever you or I imagine that to be)? My mind stuck on that word this morning, probably partly because I had just read a blog post that included a bit of advice about gossip: don’t do it. (Shock and dismay! Reading facebook updates and blog posts before the Holy Scripture! Provdential, I call it.) I thought about the numerous ways in which I am complicit with scorners, even when I am not actively scornful.

I know I am guilty of this. As deeply as I want to be gentle and encouraging, I know that I am easily amused by a derisive remark. I find contemptible all sorts of things and situations, whether or not I say so. And I am dismissive, too dismissive, of that which I regard as unworthy of my notice. I do not just sit in the company of scorners–I should be numbered among them.

And it really is as bad, just as bad, as the content we give to the (really reprehensible) sinners. I miss things I should see and hear, I avoid that which deserves my attention, just because it doesn’t come in the package in which I expect to find it. All those things that are said to be ‘trite but…’ Never mind: I stopped listening at ‘trite’.

Half of me still protests: you’re not that bad; really this is not such a big deal; you’re making something out of nothing. That may be so, but only because too often I make nothing out of something. Or, worse, I make nobody out of somebody–somebody who deserves my attention, not because she’s pretty or intelligent, not because he’s clever or spiritually astute.

I saw this on facebook this morning and smiled. Shared it. Seeing Jesus behind the hat, playing the accordion, raising money to go to Africa, selling the Big Issue–done. But there are a whole lot more places I ought to see Jesus, and don’t: in the head teacher, the driver in front (or behind), the neighbor who shouted at me, the person who just said something I thought was obvious, obnoxious, silly, self-promoting.

Fortunately, Jesus lingered in the way of sinners, and did not shun the company of scorners (though they seem not to have sought his company much)–even this one.

Deo gratias.

*Yes, I played with the translation a bit: ‘the man’ became ‘one’; the first ‘he’ became ‘she’, and I left the last ‘he’ on purpose.

St Christopher Magallanes and companions, martyrs

Be sincere of heart, be steadfast,
  and do not be alarmed when disaster comes.
Cling to him and do not leave him,
  so that you may be honoured at the end of your days.
Whatever happens to you, accept it,
  and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient,
since gold is tested in the fire,
  and chosen men in the furnace of humiliation.
                                                                 Ecclesiasticus 2
.          .         . 
It was the words ‘humble state’ that caught my attention. Humility is the most highly-praised virtue in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers, and in the theology of St Augustine and many others. But it is a slippery virtue to develop. By what standard might we measure our own humility? 
The very idea of a measurement seems somehow incongruous. Humility is more like flying, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: you’ll never fly by intending to fly. The only way to take off is to aim for the ground and miss. And the only way to stay in the air is not to call attention to yourself. One of my very favorite lines in the flying scene consists of the immortal words (every letter capitalized): do not wave at anybody. 
Flying, like humility, is a matter of the right sort of attention. Concentrate on the flying, and you’ll fall; try to become humble, and you’ll never achieve it. How then, do we do it? “Cling to him and do not leave him…Whatever happens to you, accept it.” The attention is all important: attend to Jesus, and not to ourselves; amid the uncertainties and upsets of life, do not wave at anybody. Look to Jesus, and forget about the laws of gravity. 
The Mexican priests we remember today did that, and we honor them for their humility, for counting nothing so precious as the body and blood of Christ. For them, and for all those who have walked faithfully the path of discipleship, lighting the way for others to follow, I am grateful. 
Deo gratias.