Thursday of the first week in Lent

On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.
Psalm 137 [136]
 
. . .
 
Indeed. Strength of soul is what we require, what we seek, during Lent. Queen Esther sought it: her prayer for herself, in the passage set for Mass today, is for courage. She plans to intercede with the king on behalf or her people, but she trusts not in herself or even in the king. Her hope is in God alone; she implores God to save God’s people, to change the king’s heart. She offers herself as the means by which God might choose to do that.
 
And he does. God increases her strength of soul, God changes the king’s heart, and thereby saves his people.
 
So the deprecation of God that Jesus offers in the gospel reading for today describes the God who answered Esther’s prayer and awed the psalmist with constancy of his love and saving help. We can be of good hope that when we seek him–as we do during Lent–he will be found by us, and will give us what we most need: strength of soul, so that we can follow Jesus ever more nearly, and be formed ever more closely to his likeness.
 
And that is good news indeed.
 
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…

St Martin of Tours

…that which holds all things together knows every word that is said.
                                                          Wisdom 1: 7

Before ever a word is on my tongue,
   you know it, O Lord, through and through…
Too wonderful for me, this knowledge,
   too high, beyond my reach.
                                                         Psalm 139: 4, 6

.        .        .

I spend a lot of time thinking about what to say. Maybe I really should spend more time praying. The one who holds all things together (which Colossians 1: 7 echoes) holds all my words already, and knows what I ought to say.

Enough said.

St Martin, pray for us.

Wednesday in ordinary time

I give him thanks in the land of my captivity, 
     and I show his power and majesty to a nation of sinners.
                                                                           Tobit 13: 6

.          .         . 
There is a video that has been making its way around the internet: “Scientists discover one of the greatest contributing factors to happiness.” I was curious about the thing that increases happiness (despite the slightly awkwardly-placed modifier)–who wouldn’t want to find out what she could do to be happier? Laughter, I thought, maybe.
I was surprised to find that (in case you haven’t seen the video) what increases happiness (between 4 and 19%, according to the guy in the lab coat) is expressing gratitude. Immediately, I thought of a verse from one of my favorite psalms:
I know all the birds of the air,
    and all that moves in the field is mine.
 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you;

    for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,

    or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
   and pay your vows to the Most High;
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
   I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
                                               Psalm 49 [50]: 11-15

So the ‘science’ reminded me of something I already knew: giving thanks is a balm for the heart. And Tobit seems to have known it, too. He doesn’t say, “I give thanks because God has rescued me from captivity”; he gives thanks in the land of captivity. Some days I get stuck between the joys and duties of motherhood and the joys and duties of my life as a (sort of) academic theologian. I love what I do in both roles. I am living two dreams, really, doing what I always wanted to do. So on those days when the tension between motherhood and career seems like captivity, I know what to do: give thanks. 

Deo gratias, Deo gratias. 

St Augustine Zhao Rong and companions, martyrs

But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity;
Redeem me, and be gracious to me.
My foot stands in a level place;
In the congregations I shall bless the Lord.
                                                             Psalm 26[25]: 11-12

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. and behold, there arose a great storm in the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves; but he himself was asleep. And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you timid, you men of little faith? Then he arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm.
                                                              Matthew 8: 23-26

.        .       .

Maybe this is one of those days when the readings just happen to fall on the same day, without an inherent connection (as is usually the case for Sundays). The first reading was from Genesis, about the fate of Lot’s wife, and of Sodom and Gomorrah. Don’t look back! Then the psalmist speaks confidently of stability and security before God–or does he? I am fascinated by the prayer for mercy in the midst of assurance. It is as if to say that all that we do is not what redeems us: God’s grace is what redeems us. Integrity and right worship might contribute to our hope that God will redeem us by his grace; our practice, however faithful, is not sufficient.

And grace–there he is, God’s grace come to dwell among us, asleep in the boat while the storm rages. That’s a confidence beyond that of the psalmist, I think. I love this passage, I confess. It is short, but to the point: here is the one who calms the storm. My storms tend to be of a different kind, but just as dark and sometimes just as violent. Yet here he is, if I can just remember he’s on board, ready to calm the storm, ready to redeem, and to bring me to a level place.

Deo gratias.

St Romauld

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:12-14
 
 
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.
Psalms 131[130] :1-3.
 
 
‘I have calmed and quieted my soul’? Maybe so, for St Romauld. Not so for me. Nor would I fare better with the readings for week 11 of the year: happy the one who fears the Lord, because it will go well for her. No, I am not feeling especially triumphant today, not like one who has mastered my fretful soul.
 
There is something that intrigues me, though, about the combination of readings for St Romauld. The first reading is from Philippians, and it includes Gregory of Nyssa’s favorite phrase: ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal…’ The psalm says ‘rest’; Philippians says, ‘get on with it!’
 
Maybe resting is getting on with it. That seems to have been the case with St Romauld. He became a Benedictine, then a hermit. He wanted to be alone with God; he sought a prayerful solitude. To attend to the presence of God in his cell and to be quiet was active spiritual engagement.
 
I like that, but I am not entirely sure how it helps. Time alone is rare, and silence is hard to find. Everywhere I go there are things that insist on being done. At home there are more domestic chores than hours in the week; at work there is always something else waiting after each task is completed. Even walking to work, errands interrupt the quiet–whether I do them immediately or not, I am reminded of what is to be done. My soul catches the unsettledness of the house, the daily timetable, the office. And my activity is far from spiritual engagement.
 
I cannot do it: I need more grace.
 
St Romauld, pray for us.