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.
 

Tuesday of the second week in Lent

You do this, and I should keep silence?
    Do you think that I am like you?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me,
   and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.
                                            Psalm 49 [50]: 21, 23

.        .       .

‘Do you think that I am like you?’ Too often, yes, I do think exactly that–that God is like me, like a human being. I mistake God for a finite being, whose love has limits, who can be offended in a way that makes forgiveness difficult. But God isn’t like that. As one translation of the Benedictus has it, ‘through the bottomless mercy of our God / one born on high will visit us’.

I like that. God isn’t like us. God’s mercy is ‘bottomless’–an inexhaustible reservoir of love and forgiveness. In my finitude, I run out. I run out of patience; my will to forgive fails. Bitterness creeps in, and resentment, too. But God has none of that: only love, and mercy, and patience, and compassion. I bring my failings and disappointments to God, and receive in return grace, and delight, and joy.

That doesn’t sound very Lenten. But all the penitential practices of Lent aim precisely at this goal: to make space for that joy and delight that should fill our hearts at Easter.

Monday of the second week in Lent

But yours, O Lord, are compassion and forgiveness.
Deuteronomy 9
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Stop judging, and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you,
a good measure, packed together, shaken down,
and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.
Luke 6
Abba Hyperichus said, ‘It is better to eat meat and drink wine and not to eat the flesh of one’s brothers through slander.’
    .          .         .  
All the Lenten discipline in the world is nothing if by it we do not become more merciful, forgiving and compassionate. Our penitential practices have an aim: imitatio Christi. By the fasting and almsgiving, devotion to prayer, and the like, we do not merely satisfy a requirement of Christian faith. It isn’t about what we give up, but who we become in the process. To be more like Christ is the object of all we do during Lent; we model our own lives after the life of the one who, dying, said, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ We open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit, who was given to the disciples (according to John’s gospel) by the breath of the risen Lord. What power comes from the Spirit? Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
            So very important—forgiveness is so important that it is the one thing Jesus speaks about when he breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. It is so important that we commit oursevles to it every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, however unthinkingly: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We imitate Christ by forgiving, and plead for the Father’s forgiveness. I like to think of God’s forgiveness as always preceeding, and I believe that in a very real sense it always is. But the Lord’s prayer reminds us that receiving God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged. By becoming forgivers, we become part of the answer to our prayer, ‘thy kingdom come’. For he is the Forgiving King who reigns in love and compassion, who is love and compassion, and who lives in us. Lenten discipline is about breaking the chains that bind us to anger and resentment, that limit the flow of forgiveness from the Lord through us to those He came to save.

Our Father…

Friday of the first week in Lent

I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait,
   And in His word do I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
   More than the watchmen for the morning;
   Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord;
   For with the Lord there is lovingkindness,
And with Him is abundant redemption.
   And He will redeem Israel
   From all his iniquities. (Psalms 130:5-8 NASB)

.        .      .

Today, a challenge: can I be quiet enough in the midst of a crowded airport to reflect properly on the Scripture? The last few days have not been especially Lenten: a trip to Rome for my birthday and to see a friend. Gelato was involved.

Also, though, lots of visits to churches. Although I am a terrible tourist, and hate seeing ‘the sights’, I love visiting churches. I especially love those churches whose long years have seen many, many penitents and worshippers on their knees before God. Rome is full of those–churches where for centuries people have waited on the Lord.

But none of those churches is as dear to my heart as the beautiful and unassuming Santa Maria in Trastevere. Turing the corner yesterday evening, and finding myself in the piazza in front of the church was pure joy. And entering the church, hoping for a moment of quiet prayer, to find Mass beginning…was whatever is more wonderful than pure joy. It was the thing I had most desired, perhaps, as I thought about this trip to Rome. But I had not said so.

As I visited other churches in Rome over the past couple of days, I sometimes wondered about all the grandeur, and all those who had gone before, hoping in the resurrection. Eschatology has never been my strong suit. But there, in Santa Maria in Trastevere, I knew the lovingkindess of God. So, back to the usual tension between knowing God, and wondering how it all fits together. God is good, and yet…things can be hard, I can be uncertain.

So this psalm is for me, and for all who find the way difficult: ‘hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is lovingkindess and abundant redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.’

Deo gratias.

First Monday in Lent

Be holy, for I, the Lord am holy.

                                                           Leviticus 19:2 

Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
                                                            Matthew 25: 34-40

.         .         . 


I confess I still tend to associate holiness with piety. But the rest of the passage from Leviticus, and the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel suggest otherwise. God says, ‘be holy’; what follows is not an order for prayer and worship, but instructions in dealing with our neighbours. To live charitably–that is holiness.

So Jesus identifies with the needy: I was hungry, I was naked, I was thirsty, I was in prison. 
Jesus changes everything. We expect to find God in holy places; he comes to us in a stable. We encounter God in the Eucharist; we also meet God in the person of the hungry, homeless stranger. Jesus is the image of the invisible God; in him the fullness of the deity was pleased to dwell. And he says he dwells among us still–in our hearts by the Holy Spirit; in his holy church, his body and his bride; and in those who hunger and thirst, those who are sick or in prison. 


If I cannot love my brother or sister, whom I can see, then how can I say I love God, whom I cannot see? And how can I profess love for God while failing to love his image in the world, in every person? Holiness is as horizontal as it is vertical. And I am not very good at either loving God or loving neighbor, I realise. I need that new heart, that heart of flesh, that God wants to create in me, the heart fit to receive his love and to pour it our lavishly on others. 

Lord in your mercy…

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger,
      and speaking of wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness,
And your gloom will become like midday.
And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water
       whose waters do not fail.
                                                       Isaiah 58:9-11 (NASB)

Incline your ear, O Lord,
     and answer me;
For I am afflicted and needy.
Do preserve my soul,
     for I am a godly man;
O my God, save your servant
     who trusts in you.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
For to you I cry all day long.
Make glad the soul of your servant,
For to you O Lord,
      I lift up my soul.
                                                      Psalm 86: 1- 4 (NASB)

.          .         .

Isaiah 58 is so beautiful that I almost want just to type it over again, and more of it. What can I possibly say in addition to ‘the mouth of the Lord’? Or I might just add the passage from Matthew’s gospel that tells of the calling of Levi, and concludes with Jesus’ explanation that he came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Today’s Mass readings are rich, and in some ways quite straightforward: God calls us to receive his mercy. Sinners need it, and the psalmist prays for it. God also calls us to be merciful. So Isaiah reminds us, in the loveliest prose.

That might, though, leave us thinking that we receive mercy and then give it. Maybe (I am sure sometimes this is my unconscious supposition) we should be full before we give–satisfied by God’s mercy, we show that mercy to others. But Isaiah suggests that it doesn’t work that way. Isaiah calls us to ‘satisfy the desire of the afflicted’ from the discomfort of our ‘scorched places’ and in the frailty of our weak bones. The ‘spring of water’ is not what we are before we attend to the needy, but is what God makes in us as we do.

I find this a very hard saying. With four young children–including a toddler and a girl with Down Syndrome who’s just about to enter adolescence–and a challenging job as a lecturer in a theological college, I often feel stretched pretty thin. Usually I feel more like an empty pail than a spring of water. Can I refuse to meditate on my emptiness, and look for the ‘hungry’ and the ‘afflicted’ (‘look out … for the interests of others’ says Philippians 2.4!)? Maybe. Maybe that is what it is, concretely, to ‘lift up my soul’ to the Lord, to trust in God for my help, my strength, and my satisfaction.

Whether I find myself able or not, it seems like Lent is a good time to try.

Deo gratias.