Saturday of the fourth week in Lent

A brother, being tempted by a demon, went to a hermit and said, “those two monks over there live together sinfully.” But the hermit knew that a demon was deceiving him. So he called the brothers to him. In the evening he put out a mat for them, and covered them with a single blanket, and said, “they are sons of God, and holy persons.” But he said to his disciple, “Shut this slandering brother up in a cell by himself; he is suffering from the passion of which he accuses them.” 
Nicodemus, on of [the members of the Pharisees] who had gone to [Jesus] earlier, said to them, “Does out law condemn a man before it first hears him, and finds out what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee also, are you? Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” Then each went to his own house. (John 7:  52-53)
.             .          .
There is an entire section of the topical collection of the sayings of the desert fathers devoted to ‘non-judgment’—and that is in addition to the groups of sayings on ‘nothing done for show’ and ‘humility.’ The desert ascetics—and the fathers have more to say about this than the mothers—insisted on humility as the defining characteristic of the monastic life. To accuse another brother or sister of a sin, and to complain of it to one’s superior, was a sure sign that something was lacking in the accuser rather than the accused. Certainly there are a great many cases of monks falling into sin and doing penance, but in those instances the monk is convicted of his sin, often by the humility and charity of his fellows, or of his superior.
It is much easier to be like the Pharisees, and rest easy in the certainty that we know where prophets come from, and we know not to trust someone who comes from some other quarter. Jesus’s authenticity as a prophet was ruled out before he was even given a hearing: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Apparently not: Galilee had never produced any prophet, and the Pharisees were sure that the Scripture said nothing about a prophet to come out of Galilee. Nicodemus, while hesitant, demonstrates a kind of openness and discernment that the desert ascetics would probably have welcomes. Listen and evaluate, he suggests; let’s not jump to conclusions without any evidence.

What we think we ‘know’ can be so deceptive—like the “slandering brother” in the saying, we are quicker to accuse than to confess. Lent offers us a chance to turn that critical gaze toward our own souls, and look carefully; to examine our consciences and see whether we ought to confess our own sins, rather than accuse our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Friday of the fourth week in Lent

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
for no one has been known to return from Hades.’
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions…
Let us test him with insult and torture,
that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.
Wisdom 2: 1, 12, 19-20

The Lord is near to the broken hearted,
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 33 [34]:18
 
Hyperichus said, “The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually: but if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls down God from heaven to have mercy.
 
* * *
 
I have long believed that there is the seed of another kind of preferential option here: as Jesus said, he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And Psalm 51 (set for morning prayer today) reminds us that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; God will not despise a broken and contrite heart. The passage from wisdom connects the broken spirit with Jesus, as it prophesies the passion of Christ. His spirit and body were broken: he took on our sorrows and our infirmities. God knows our suffering.
 
It is interesting that in Psalm 34, the favored of the Lord are not, as in lots of other passages, the materially poor, but the “crushed in spirit.” The recognition of our spiritual poverty, which reveals the brokenness of our hearts, makes way for contrition and reorients our desire. When we are “crushed in spirit” we cannot avoid seeing our need for God. We come to understand that we cannot depend on ourselves for fullness in spirit or lightness of heart. But seeing this helps us to identify with Jesus as he identified with us: in suffering. In our brokenness and spiritual destitution, in our sorrow and desolation, we can cry out with our Saviour, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in sharing the prayer he prayed on the cross, we may share in the hope of the resurrection that was his.
 
The movement from desolation to hope is marked by the shift from our sorrow, which is the path to God, to a sense of joy in God’s presence. Only after calling out to God in utter desperation, do we learn to “delight [ourselves] in the Lord,” who will give us the desires of our heart. To be truly contrite, to experience without reserve the brokenness that is the meaning of sin, and which the separation from God entails, is to begin to long for the One who alone is worthy of our desire. The sorrow of Lenten discipline prepares us to receive joyfully the hope that Easter brings.
 

Tuesday of the fourth week in Lent

Cease striving, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
                                           Psalm 46 [45]: 10-11

.        .        .

I admit that these two verses are not among those set for the reading of this psalm today at Mass. But they strike me as particularly apt for this point in Lent. “Cease striving,” the psalmist says (many translations have “be still”). Yet I don’t think about Lent as a time of rest. What place does rest have in a penitential season? Here I am, giving up and taking on (and not doing a stellar job of either, truth be told). Is the psalmist telling me to stop it?

Somehow I don’t think so. I think, rather, that the psalmist is reminding me (in these two verses and those to be read in Mass today) that all the abstinence and action that make up my Lenten observance aim for this end precisely: rest in God. To give up something I enjoy has a double effect: a certain suffering that comes from a want left unsatisfied, and the possibility for refreshment from another source, from God. And what have I taken on, but more time for reflection, more frequent attendance at daily Mass? This is a recipe for resting in God for me.

Because that is, after all, what God desires of us. Cease striving, says the Lord: I am God, I will be God, and I will be exalted. You can sit back and enjoy my strength; you can rely on my saving help. We see our need for that strength and saving help better, perhaps, when our Lenten discipline makes us want. How much more ready, then, will we be to enjoy the good things that God gives us–and to recognise their source–come Easter?

Deo gratias.

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.

Wednesday of the third week in Lent

Take care, and be earnestly on your guard not to forget
    the things your own eyes have seen,
    nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.
                                     Deuteronomy 4:9
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
                                    Matthew 5:17
Abba Agathon said, “Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a monk cannot make progress, even in a single virtue.”
*     *     *    *

How on earth are we to keep the commandments? How does remembering help? What does Jesus do that fulfills the law and the prophets? The psalmist reminds us that the law is specially given to Israel: God has not given the law to any other nation. And God’s promise to Abraham was that he and his descendants (innumerable as they were to be) would be a blessing to the nations. Israel’s chosenness was to be for the restoration of the whole world. Memory helps by keeping God’s people in view of God’s promises as well as God’s law, and of the purpose for which God called Abraham and the whole particular people of Israel. A people’s identity (perhaps even more than an individual’s) is bound to their memory, to their ability to narrate the story of God’s wonderful works and God’s saving acts.
Testimony does just that: the witnesses to the Gospel, both in Jesus and the apostles’ days and in our own, serve an important function in preserving the memory of the people. In the earliest days of Christianity, many of those people testified with their lives and are numbered with the saints. The martyrs reveal the path of discipleship in a particular way. Following Christ means having always in mind the whole of his life: his life of love and ministry and preaching the gospel and healing, his agony and passion, his ignominious death on the cross, and his resurrection. Somehow, it is in following that we keep the commandments of God and so make progress in virtue.

Matthew’s gospel suggests that this narrative, this life, death and resurrection story, tells us what it means to satisfy the law and to heed the prophets. For in this One all that God desired for Israel is fulfilled, so that Paul can say of Christ, “All the promises of God find their yes in him.” God keeps his promises through Jesus. Lent is a time of imitatio Christi in which our focus is on the humility, the self-emptying of God in Christ; we obey the tradition and keep days of fasting and abstinence, we pray, we do works of charity, we give. We also, in the midst of all this, hope joyfully as we look forward to Easter. Having put the sinful self to death by our Lenten discipline, we look forward to rising with Christ on the judgement morning. We taste that joy at Easter as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ whom we follow, through suffering and even death, to be raised to life eternal. 

Monday of the third week in Lent

Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
2 Kings 5:12, 13
 
. . .

Exactly. Naaman expected something dramatic. If a miraculous cure is sought, the healing ought to amaze. But there isn’t anything too exciting about taking a dip in the river.

This is a great story for me, for Lent–or anytime, really. A suitably astounding miracle (I’m thinking Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al) would go down well, especially if some intense engagement were required on my part. Extreme Christianity: ascetic achievement; big, bold miracles.

Nope. I think it is Abba Sisoes who, when asked for a word, says, ‘go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ Say your prayers, do the things you are supposed to do, and you will do well. It isn’t the grand gesture, once-in-a-lifetime, but the little things done every day, that mark the path to holiness.

So says St Therese of Lisieux; so also said Mother Teresa. It’s the little things. Being drawn to Benedictine spirituality, I tend to think in terms of the daily office: praying the appointed psalms at the appointed times. Work and pray, rest, repeat.

Simple. Not easy, but simple. And miraculous: this simple rhythm of work and prayer is possible only by grace.

Deo gratias.

Saturday of the second week in Lent

Who is a god like you, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act
of the remnant of his possession?
He does not retain his anger forever,
Because he delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Micah 7: 18-19
 
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him
and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him
and kissed him.
Luke 15: 20
 
. . .
 
Here we are in Lent, ‘still a long way off’; Easter is weeks away, and the penitential season stretches further ahead of us than behind. Lent has only just begun, it seems, and I have not been wholly faithful to the discipline I set for myself.
 
Yet even while we are yet a long way off, the Father sets out to meet us on the road. If the transfiguration shines some resurrection light in the midst of Lent, the parable of the prodigal son is an eruption of mercy in the midst of our examination of conscience. Before I have even recognized my sins fully, God is on the way to meet me in my contrition, to ‘tread [my] iniquities underfoot.’
 
More could certainly be said about these texts, and about the prevenient grace of God (Calvin was right about that, but he certainly didn’t discover it!); but the only thing that really needs to be said is: Deo gratias.