I’ve got your back

At least that’s what I thought she said. I hadn’t really expected anyone to speak to me just then, as I was leaving the chapel after Mass. So I only just picked up on the fact that someone was talking to me towards the end of the sentence. I apologized to Sr Johanna, who repeated, ‘It’s nice to have you back.’

It was nice to be back at the Abbey, particularly as I was able to be there for vigils, lauds and Mass on the feast of St Benedict. Lucky me! I giggled a bit to myself later, thinking how incongruous it would have been for Sr Johanna to say ‘I’ve got your back.’ But it wouldn’t have been untrue. At least that’s what I think about monastic life. Wherever I happen to be, whether or not I am able to join in, I know that the nuns are praying, seven times a day, for all of us.

I’m grateful for my regular visits; the time I spend in the abbey is a precious gift. I am also grateful, for the abbey–maybe more grateful–when I am not there. When I am not there, especially immediately after a visit, I find myself noticing when it’s time for lauds, or none, or compline. I am always happy if I manage to say compline with the children at 7:50–that’s when compline happens at the abbey.

Still, sometimes life gets busy, and I forget that the office is being sung. Even then–perhaps especially then–those praying have ‘got my back.’

Deo gratias.

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.
 

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.

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.

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.

Thursday after Epiphany

We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.
 

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith.

1 John 4:19-5:1-4 NASB
 
 
I included the whole passage because I find it puzzling. At first, I thought I would just reflect on the first verses. These, to me, have a clear application. And their application fits nicely with the things I am thinking about at the moment, to do with the Church and the kind of love that marks the Church as the body of Christ. See? Here it is: the love for brothers and sisters in Christ (at least) is what identifies us as Christians. The verses in 1 John don’t offer any provisos that would allow us to choose which brothers and sisters to love–only those who love us, or think like we do; or only those who are able-bodied, or of sound mind. The only possible qualification is that we love the ones we see. But I am not sure that counts, exactly.
 
I like this, because I am writing about the Christian calling to love the poor and the weak. I would like to say that the measure of the Church’s love and holiness is the way she receives those who suffer and are in need, those who the world says have nothing to offer. That’s because the world doesn’t understand that Christ offers himself to us in the broken and the desperate, that we might receive Him. We cannot see God, but God has made us in his image, and in Christ God has shown himself truly and fully. God came to us poor, and still comes to us poor: we are to receive him with love.
 
But what about this business about the commandments? I would have thought that we would be able to tell that we love the children of God pretty straightforwardly. Isn’t it obvious that we can tell that we love by our demonstrations of that love? Apparently not. I suspect that there is a lot more to this passage than I yet realize, and it is worth a great deal of unpacking, so I will make just one observation (which is also related to the Church). Loving the children of God is not not about those actions that show love. It is about more than those actions. If I am grasping this accurately, keeping the commandments is also about integrity and holiness. Loving the children of God and living in sin are incommensurate, maybe even mutually exclusive. There is no ‘private’ sin, sin that only affects us. When one member suffers, the whole body suffers. That’s a mystery; that is, we don’t know how the sort of sin that seems just to be between ourselves and God affects the whole body. How does such sin impair our love for the children of God? (Maybe all sin has a horizontal dimension?)
 
However such seemingly private sin weakens the whole body, it is a sobering thought, and one that makes me more eager for the sacrament of reconciliation and the renewing of the Holy Spirit. For though it is hard and serious news, it is still, after all, good news: Christ came to save sinners.
 
Deo gratias.