Thursday, December 30, 2010

25th Anniversary - The Order of Julian of Norwich

The Order of Julian of Norwich was founded on December 30, 1985, by Fr. John-Julian Swanson. The contemplative Order follows the medieval custom of including both men and women under vows as Members Regular, living in community. The motherhouse is located in Waukesha, Wisconsin, outside Milwaukee.

Beside the Members Regular, there are professed Oblate Members, as well as Associate Members (married or single, clergy or lay), who affiliate themselves with the Order by prayer and financial support as they live the contemplative life in the world.

The Order’s four-fold vows are poverty, chastity, obedience, and prayer. The Members Regular live in semi-enclosed community and fully observe the traditional vows. The Oblates, seriously committed to the spiritual and contemplative life in the world, make profession to live under an adaptation of the Regular vows after a significant period of probation. The Associates, desiring a spiritual bond with the Community in its prayer and work, follow a less stringent Rule of Life.

The Order looks first to the worship of God, secondly, to the support and strength of the wider community of the Order -- its Oblates and Associates -- and thirdly, to the service of others. The overall goal of the Order of Julian is the spiritual renewal of clergy, parishes, and individuals in the classical Christian traditions of contemplative spirituality and mysticism, and the revival of those traditions in the life of the contemporary Church and of the contemporary Christian.

Currently there are Members Regular (5 women/3 men), 1 Novice (female); 78 Oblates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu; 9 Oblate Probationers; and 133 Associates, representing some 35 states in the United States, as well as other countries: Canada, England, Germany, Scotland, and South Africa.


In June, 1982, Fr. John Douglas Swanson, then Rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Norwich, CT, made a pilgrimage to the Julian Shrine in Norwich, England. At the time he began the pilgrimage, he had no intention of founding a monastic order, nor of becoming a contemplative monk. In fact, at his age, well over 40, he would probably not have been accepted into a monastic order. During a prayerful time in Norwich, however, he came to the realization that, in his words, “This isn’t enough! There must be something more!” Midway over the Atlantic, as he was returning to the U.S., he conceived the idea of restoring the medieval practice of a mixed monastery of men and women devoted to Julian of Norwich.

Predating the founding of the Order in 1982, groups of people in England had formed, as early as 1973, ecumenical gatherings, “Julian Meetings”, as they were called, of devotees of Julian, mainly to support one another in a life of still prayer. Ten years later, similar but separate groups, called “Julian Gatherings”, began to be formed here in the U.S.

Fr. Swanson began living the Rule which he wrote in 1982. Fr. Bill Melnyk became the first Oblate on January 19, 1984. Several Associates were also admitted, and Sister Scholastica Marie Burton, later the beloved second Guardian of the Order, became the first postulant seeking to become a Member Regular. The Order’s official founding day was December 30, 1985 in the Diocese of Connecticut. Fr. Swanson professed Life Vows that day, taking the name Fr. John-Julian.

The Order moved from Connecticut to the DeKoven Retreat Center in Racine, WI, in the Diocese of Milwaukee, in 1987, and then to Waukesha in January, 1991.

Fr. John-Julian, founder and first Guardian, retired in August, 1995, and several years ago was granted permission to live as a solitary. Sister Scholastica Marie was elected, then installed as the second Guardian in September, 1995. She resigned in April, 2003, suffering from cancer, and died six months later, on October 18, 2003. Her successor, Fr. Gregory Fruewirth, became the third Guardian on April 22, 2003, and served until he resigned in April, 2010. Mother Hilary Crupi took up leadership of the Order as the fourth Guardian on April 30, 2010.

O Lord Jesus Christ, guide and sanctify us and our brothers and sisters
whom you have called to follow you in poverty, chastity, obedience, and prayer
in the spirit of Blessed Mother Julian; protect us from danger and want,
and grant that by our prayer and service we may enrich your Church,
and by our life and worship we may glorify your Name; for you reign
with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Simeon: Man of Hope

Luke 2:22-35 speaks of a man of hope: Simeon. There’s nothing in the text to confirm it, but Simeon may have been an older man. Indeed, the Nunc dimittis, the song he voiced at seeing Jesus, and which we use in the office of Compline, suggests it. Artists have depicted him as a venerable, white-haired elder, with clear, alert, sparkling eyes: indicating his waiting and watching.

Simeon makes only the briefest appearance in Luke’s Gospel. His name appears to come from shama Yahweh = Yahweh has heard. He was in Jerusalem, presumably a resident. Luke describes him as “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel”, and he says the Holy Spirit was upon him. Simeon had apparently been given God’s assurance that he would see the Anointed One, the Messiah some time before he died. On this day, at this time, when Mary and Joseph were bringing the newborn Jesus to the Temple to fulfill their duty as observant Jews, Simeon had felt the Spirit’s urging to go there also.

It isn’t clear how he finally recognized them, but when he did, he took the baby in his arms and blessed God: “O God, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior...” In the midst of their consternation and amazement, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, then speaks to Mary those cryptic words about Jesus’ destiny, and about the suffering she’ll endure. And that’s it! We don’t ever hear of Simeon again.

The message here is as simple and unassuming as Simeon himself was:

- Because you and I have accepted Jesus as Lord in our baptismal covenant, we no longer have to prove anything to anyone. Our value, as one who is “in Christ”, is in being who and what our baptismal commitment calls us to be: viz., righteous, i.e., right with God, our neighbor, and our self; and devout, from the Greek word meaning to receive well, be circumspect and aware, to catch on well.

- Simeon helps us appreciate the importance of the unseen, the unclear, that there’s always something more to see and learn in the depths of people and situations in our lives. God is a God of surprises, popping up in the most unexpected places, people, and events, where we ourselves might never bother to look.

- Through the Holy Spirit, Simeon saw God’s presence everywhere, all-pervasive. Simeon is for us a sort of preview of Pentecost. And because of the Spirit’s presence in his life, Simeon was filled with hope. How must it have felt for him to await what God had promised him? Can you imagine how he faced every morning? “Perhaps today is the day!

In our Baptism, you and I, too, have been in-spired, breathed-into, by the Holy Spirit who unveils for us the promises of God. In the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Hebrews, in the New Testament, the promise is always the same: “...I will never leave you or forsake you.

Simeon received and lived for the promise of which God had assured him. He prayed, watched, and hoped. And what happened? An old man got to hold a baby, which is a big thing in families, as you know. Everyone grabs a camera and has to have a picture. But there weren’t any cameras that day in the Temple. Just an ordinary couple, Mary and Joseph, and this old man, Simeon, holding an extraordinary baby, Jeshua = The One who saves.

As he was for Simeon, so for each of us, too, Jesus is salvation. May we take him to our hearts and lives, sustained by the hope of God’s promises. May we daily share him and his Holy Spirit, visible through our words and actions, with one another.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

St. Gaspar de Bufalo ( Jan. 6, 1786-Dec. 28, 1837)

St. Gaspar del Bufalo - Apostle of the Precious Blood of Christ

January 6, 1786
Born in Rome

July 31, 1808
Ordained priest

December 8, 1808
Founding of the Confraternity of the Most Precious Blood
at San Nicola in Carcere, Rome

June 13, 1810
Gaspar refuses to take the oath of loyalty to Napoleon

July 15, 1810
Exiled to Piacenza
December, 1810
Transferred to Bologna

October 20, 1811
Death of Gaspar's mother,
Annunziata Quartieroni

January 12, 1813
Transferred to the prison of Imola
 May 16, 1814
Transferred to Rocca di Lugo

February 1814
Gaspar returns to Rome

August 15, 1815
Foundation of the Congregation of the Most Precious Blood
at San Felice, Giano dell'Umbria

December 27, 1817
Gaspar appointed director of the missions of
the Archconfraternity of the Most Precious Blood

mid-May, 1830
Gaspar meets Maria de Mattias,
future founder of the Sisters Adorers of the Most Precious Blood

October 31, 1831
Death of Gaspar's father,
Antonio del Bufalo

March 4, 1834
Foundation of the Adorers of the Most Precious Blood
in Acuto

December 28, 1837
Gaspar dies in Rome

January 3, 1838
Gaspar buried in the Church of St. Paul,
Albano Laziale

Gaspar' body transferred to the
Church of Santa Maria in Trivio, Rome

December 18, 1904
Gaspar declared Blessed by Pius X

June 12, 1954
Gaspar canonized a Saint by Pius XII

January 4, 1963
John XXIII visits the tomb of St. Gaspar
at Santa Maria in Trivio, Rome

O God, our Father, you made Gaspar del Bufalo
a priest and outstanding apostle of the Precious Blood
of your Son. Through his intercession, grant that we may
experience the abundant fruits of the price of our redemption.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who
lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,  for ever and ever.

The Holy Children

Had he lived in our times, King Herod ("the Great": hardly descriptive of him except for a few building projects) would've been at the top of Keith Olbermann's list of "Worst Person In the World"!

Herod gave "cold" and "ruthless" a whole different meaning. Out of 9 sons he had three of them eliminated; his 5 daughters apparently fared better. That's not counting all the other people, of high or low degree, for whose death he was responsible. Understandably, his poll ratings weren't real high among his subjects. Even as he approached death, he commandeered sons from noble families into custody and instructed his lackeys to slaughter them all when he died, so that the nation's inevitable mourning would seem to be for him!

The familiar story of the Holy Innocents (Western Church) or Holy Children (Eastern Church) is recounted only in Matthew's Gospel: "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud
lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.'"
Though the incident isn't corraborated in any other historical documents, it isn't hard to imagine a man like Herod doing something like this, as insecure and threatened as he was by the Eastern sages' news that "the king of the Jews" was to be born in Bethlehem. One can imagine Herod's rage when the sages, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, "left for their own country by another road." So he ordered the brutal murder of all children, two years old and under. In reality, in such a small, obscure village, there were probably "only" between 6 to 20 children massacred. Even one would have been too many!

In reading of The Holy Children in Fr. John Julian's wonderful collection, Stars In A Dark World, I learned something fascinating that I'd not known before. He says: "In medieval England the feast of Holy Innocents often involved the reign of the “Boy Bishop” who had been elected from among the cathedral choristers and vested as a bishop. It is said that the practice was suggested by the appearance of the boy Jesus in the Temple, discussing with the elders. The tradition had it that at First Vespers (i.e., on the eve) of Holy Innocents during the singing of the phrase in the Magnificat – 'he hath put down the mighty from their thrones' the real bishop symbolically stepped down from his throne and took a place in choir, and on the phrase 'and hath exalted the humble and meek' the chosen boy bishop rose and took the bishop’s seat. The boy bishop then ruled the Cathedral for twenty-four hours: he censed all the altars, performed all the Divine Offices, and preached. He processed around the city, giving his blessing and gift tokens to all. There is every evidence that this was not an instance for horseplay or the ridiculing of clergy, but was treated rather in good spirits and was widely popular. Henry VIII abolished the custom in 1542, but Queen Mary revived it in 1552, and it was finally eradicated by Elizabeth I – but it has been revived in several Anglican cathedrals in England and America in the 20th century." What fun that would be today in this country, given the fact that we also have women bishops!

I leave you with this poem by Louise Darcy, originally published many years ago in Home Life:


To understand a child is to begin
A journey through a land of mystery.
To help another being to unfold,
And yet to leave its seeking spirit free.
Impatience is a detour on the path
And loss of temper is a desert place
Where understanding for a while is gone
Until there is an honest search for grace.
There must be putting of the self aside,
A deep humility that ever waits
To guard and guide, to stop and listen well,
A mother love that never hesitates
To show itself no matter what the hour,
That gains its inner strength from God's own power.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Jesus' BFF

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker, in her 365 Saints, speaks of how we put our friends "in echelons": 1st tier - "the people we love and who love us no matter what we do". 2nd tier - close friends. 3rd tier - "friendly acquaintances".

The Scriptures seem to point to John the Apostle/Evangelist as belonging to the first group of Jesus' friends. In modern lingo we'd call him a BFF ("best friend forever") of Jesus. John is often called "the beloved disciple" or "the disciple whom Jesus loved".  Even Simon Peter, the head honcho among the Twelve, motions to John at the Last Supper to ask Jesus who's going to betray Jesus.

John's Gospel relates that at that Last Supper Jesus said: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends...I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father..." Take a minute to think about the implications of that statement for you and me. We already know, as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story". Jesus indeed did lay down his life, shedding his very life's blood, for all of us. Seems to me that that qualifies each and every one of us as definite BFF's of Jesus! So much so, that if he, for one second, stopped loving us we'd vanish into nothingness.

Thanks be to God, in this Christmastide especially, for our friendship with Emmanuel, God with us!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Christmas Story -- Get It?!

Most of us, as children, have had the experience of someone telling a joke or a story, ending with the words: “Get it?!” The fact is that sometimes people don’t “get it”, the punch line or the point of the story, for any number of reasons. We simply may not understand, and need a moment to think about it. Perhaps we weren’t really paying much attention. We may even have been unreceptive. Maybe the person telling the joke or story didn’t communicate it clearly. Sometimes the joke or story needs to be repeated.

How much more does this all apply to the Christmas story: the message which we call the Incarnation, the good news about God’s Son coming among us as a human being. Do you and I “get it”? The Church, at least, seems sensitive to the fact that we might not. Have you noticed how she repeats the Prologue to John’s Gospel both in the third liturgy for Christmas Day and again on the First Sunday after Christmas (though not in the RCL)? Sometimes a story needs to be repeated so that it becomes part of us.

This Christmas story, in which Jesus is the main character, teaches us three things: 1) to praise and glorify the Father, giving us reasons why we should; 2) to learn, to receive the light-giving and life-giving Word and Wisdom who is Jesus; and 3) to bring, to convey, the reality of this story to others in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Put more simply, the Christmas story teaches us to worship, to learn, and to serve. These are simple tasks, available to and within the capability of each of us who make up the Church. The reason we gather here each week is to share this story and ours, and to become skilled in how to worship, to learn, and to serve. The Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Christmas 1 acknowledges that God has “poured upon us the new light” of the Incarnate Word, and it prays that “this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives…

In Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 Paul reminds the Galatians that, prior to Jesus’ coming, they were bound up, “imprisoned”, in slavery, “subject to a disciplinarian”, i.e., the Mosaic Law. In taking on our humanity, Jesus released them, set them free, enabled them to set their hearts on Jesus and to “receive adoption as [God’s] children”. Through Jesus the Father sends the Spirit to us who enables us to cry out: “Abba!”, the approximate literal meaning of which is “Daddy!”, and all that that implies. It’s a grateful exclamation, full of thanks and gratitude for our Father’s completely undeserved grace. Our weekly sharing of the Eucharist is simply an outward, communal continuation of our daily personal outpourings of appreciation for all of our releases from “slavery” during the week, and for all our continual graces.

John’s moving and majestic Prologue to the Gospel (1:1-18) is a rich theological statement which the Church seems hardly able to restrain herself from repeating over and over. John’s words impress on us the reality of God’s Son who is both divine and human, the Source of life and light, yet one of us. “Of his fullness”, it says, we’ve received a sort of cascading flow of “grace upon grace”, countless times in our lives. It acknowledges that “grace and truth” come only through Jesus the Christ, God’s Anointed One, and it emphasizes the urgency of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. As the Father makes Jesus known to us (the story), so you and I are to make Jesus known (HISstory and ours).

And as with stories generally, mentioned above, we shouldn’t be surprised that some people are unreceptive or unwilling to accept it, that some don’t understand it, are confused or challenged by it, that some don’t “get it”. Yet others do: “ all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” Our job as bearers of his story is not necessarily to succeed, but only to be faithful, to make sure that we know the story, that we’ve learned it well, and to communicate it as clearly and as simply as we know how.

The nature and reality of what Jesus taught us by his words and example is such that it simply has to express itself by being shared, by being given, in service, to others. Take Isaiah 61:10-62:3, for example, and notice the “action” words which Isaiah uses:

- “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations
- “...I will not keep silent.
- “...her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
- “...The nations shall see your vindication…

The fire of God’s Holy Spirit within us makes us fairly explode in crying out “Abba, Father!” in praise, and enlightens our hearts and teaches us, leads us into all truth. That same Spirit refashions and renews us from within, sending us out to share the fruits of grace with others who are so desperately needy for it.

To worship, to learn, to serve: that’s the essence of the Christmas story. It puts our entire church life into true perspective. To worship: we realize, isn’t just ceremony and ritual. It leads us to ask how do we praise and glorify God? Are our music, words, gestures, etc. genuine vehicles of praise? Do we prepare well for praising God? Are we able to cultivate inward silence as an aid to our worship?

To learn: Are our Bible studies, quiet days, and our other ways of exploring the Word just “programs”, something which nice church folks are supposed to do? What motivates us to learn? Or do we run on “empty” most of the time? Are we courageous enough to ask hard questions of ourselves, of God, and of the Church? Are we then willing to find ways to resolve them?

To serve: Are we knowledgeable enough and excited enough about Jesus‘ story to share it with someone else? You don’t have to answer this, but how many people, in the past year, have you and I at least invited to hear and know more about Jesus? Do we have any sort of plan in order to address the needs of others?

He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God...And the Word was made flesh and lived among us...full of grace and truth...we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son...From his fullness we have all received…

The story of Christmas. The story of the Church. Your story and my story.

Get it?!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Nativity of Our Savior Jesus Christ

Hymn at Lauds
"A solis ortus cardine" ("From lands that see the sun arise")
  by Coelius Sedulius (5th century)

A solis ortus cardine is part of a venerable musical tradition. The earliest Christian hymns date from the fourth century AD. St. Augustine tell us that his friend, St. Ambrose, began composing metrical Latin songs as a tool in dealing with the Arian heresy and to reinforce orthodox doctrine in the liturgy.  Coelius Sedulius (d. c. 450) composed A solis ortus cardine a generation after Ambrose. The hymn is a well-fashioned example of poetry in Ambrosian style. Despite this classic form, however, Sedulius' text also uses a clever literary idea. Called Paean alphabeticus de Christo by Sedulius, A solis ortus cardine contains an acrostic. First letters of each stanza take successive letters of the alphabet. The use of acrostics was well known in Old Testament Hebrew: for example, the rather long Psalm 119). Musically, an elegantly arched melody in the solemn Phrygian mode sets Sedulius' hymn text, which celebrates the mysteries of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. Roman Rite churches, as well as those following the Mozarabic (Iberian) rite, quickly adopted A solis ortus cardine into the liturgy. Sedulius' hymn, expressed through Gregorian chant, has now survived for over 15 centuries.

From the lands that see the sun arise
To earth’s remotest boundaries,
The Virgin-born to-day we sing,
The Son of Mary, Christ the King.

 Blest Author of this earthly frame,
To take a servant’s form He came,
That, liberating flesh by flesh,
Whom He had made might live afresh.

 In that chaste parent’s holy womb
Celestial grace hath found its home;
And she, as earthly bride unknown,
Yet calls that Offspring blest her own.

 The mansion of the modest breast
Becomes a shrine where God shall rest:
The pure and undefiled one
Conceived in her womb the Son.

 That Son, that Royal Son she bore,
Whom Gabriel’s voice had told afore;
Whom, in His mother yet concealed,
The infant Baptist had revealed.

 The manger and the straw He bore,
The cradle did He not abhor;
By milk in infant portions fed,
Who gives e’en fowls their daily bread.

 The heavenly chorus filled the sky,
The Angels sang to God on high,
What time to shepherds, watching lone,
They made creation’s Shepherd known.

 All honor, laud, and glory be,
O Jesu, Virgin-born to Thee:
All glory, as is ever meet,
To Father and to Paraclete.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Eve of Christmas

From Sermon XXI, "On the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ", by Pope St. Leo the Great

"My friends, this is the day our Savior was born: let us rejoice and give thanks. This is no season for sadness, this, the birthday of Life. Life removes all fear of death, giving birth to the joy of immortality.

No one is a stranger to this happiness. The same cause for joy is common to us all. No one of us was free from guilt when the Savior removed our chains. His salvation from sin and death was offered to all without exception. Let the saint rejoice who hastens towards heaven; let the sinner rejoice for pardon has been won; let those who feel excluded too rejoice at this untrammelled call to life and freedom.
When the fullness of time had come, chosen in God's inscrutable wisdom, the only Son of God became himself a human being, to realign us with God's plan...

My friends, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, whose tender compassion so overwhelms us, that in giving life to Christ they gave us life too, making a new creation out of our humanity...
Let us leave behind us the self we used to be, with all that held us back or held us down. As newborn sharers in the life of Christ let us break with our former way of life and live with him.

O Christian, be aware of your nobility: you now share in God's own nature. Do not fall back into your former way of life. Remember the Head, remember the Body to which you now belong. Remember that you have been removed from the threshold of darkness and made welcome in a household of light and of love.
Through the waters of baptism the Holy Spirit has made of you a temple. Do not forfeit your freedom by turning yourself once more into a slave. Remember that you were ransomed at the price of Christ's Blood."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sharing a Treasure

 This line from Isaiah in the Morning Office was a real gift to me, and I share it with you as we await the celebration of Christ's birth:  "The meek shall obtain fresh joy from the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel..."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Obedience In Faith

Matthew's Gospel (1:18-25) today seems a bit peculiar. It says: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way..." Yet it doesn't seem to address that issue, except in five brief words later: "...until she had borne a son..." Matthew devotes the rest of the story to Joseph and the "bind" in which he found himself.

To state the problem succinctly: "...When...Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child..." Betrothal, in those times, was as firm an obligation as marriage, though Joseph hadn't taken Mary home as yet. Divorce, dismissing her, as Joseph saw it, "quietly", that is, seemed the kinder way of dealing with Mary and would save her from public disgrace, and so he had resolved. Then, when he fell asleep, he dreamt, receiving a message from the Most High which explained this expected child's origins and his destiny.

"...You are to name him Jesus..." Yeshua = he saves. He will really be born. He'll be one of us:"God with us". Those words would've conjured up for Joseph all the saving promises of Jewish history of the Messiah. The bottom line, literally, was: "he took her as his wife"/she bore a son/"he named him Jesus". Joseph obeyed, as his wife, Mary, had done, in faith.

It's significant that Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7, from which today's first reading (7:10-16) is taken. In its original context, King Ahaz of Judah is afraid to do God's will regarding his nation. He lacks faith. Isaiah the prophet confronts Ahaz and tells him that God will offer him a sign, any sign he desires, as long as he acts in faith. Ahaz demurs, out of false piety, in order to cover up his unbelief. Isaiah cries out in frustration: "Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?..." I thought about this line at the place where I worshipped this morning, as water from the recent rain dripped down incessantly from the roof outside. Drip...drip...drip. It occurred to me that all our human whining and complaining and moaning about our situations must at times weary God just a bit like that! Our dissatisfactions are like a constant drip, drip, drip. Yet, for all that, we're still God's beloved, each and every one, unconditionally, and God always seems to relent. "...the Lord himself will give you a sign...", a sign of salvation to give assurance: to Ahaz and his nation, and to us. The sign is that a young woman will bear a son in the future. He will be a king and will bring the blessing of "God with us". Immediately, of course, this refers to Hezekiah, who will later reign as a good, faithful servant of God. In its fullness, the text refers to Hezekiah's descendant, Jesus, who will be the faithful Servant, par excellence.

In the second reading from the Letter to the Romans (1:1-7), Paul tells the community that they are "called to belong to Jesus Christ." He hints that we come to belong to Christ by "the obedience of faith". This is how the birthing of Jesus the Christ takes place in us. Each of us struggles in her/his own way to bring Jesus to live in our lives, even as Joseph and Paul did. "The obedience of faith" is a constant challenge. It's uncertain. It's painful. And this side of death, we never quite have the assurance that our choices are valid, that we're making any noticeable progress in letting Jesus truly live in our lives. But we choose to go on, to obey in faith.

During these last few days before Christmas, we wait in prayer and in the spirit of Mary who bore Jesus into her life and into the world. "Let it be to me according to your word."  

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Advent 4

Last week we lit the candle of joy. We light it and the candles of hope and of peace again as we remember that Christ will come again and bring us everlasting peace and joy. We might think of the fourth candle of Advent as the candle of love. Its light is meant to remind us of the love which God has for us. Jesus embodies God's perfect love for us. He is God's love in human form. The Scripture says that "God so loved the world that he gave God's only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Love is patient, love is kind, and envies no one. Love is never boastful or conceited, rude or selfish. Love isn't quick to take offense; it keeps no record of wrongs; it doesn't gloat over other people's troubles, but rejoices in the right, the good, and the true. There's nothing which love cannot face. There's no limit to its faith, hope, and endurance. Love persists and is unending. We light this candle today to remind us of how God's perfect love is found in Jesus the Christ.

Loving God, we thank you for your gift of love shown to us perfectly
in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Help us prepare our hearts to receive him.
Bless our worship. Help us to hear and to do your word. We as it in 
the name of the One born in Bethlehem. Amen. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"The Church's Safest Mystical Theologian"

The title above was the tag given by Thomas Merton to Juan de Yepes Alvarez (1542-1591), or as we know him, St. John of the Cross. St. John had a profound influence on Merton's life. Michael Mott, in his The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, notes that: "No writer and no religious authority meant more to Merton in the 1940's than St. John of the Cross, and St. John of the Cross had told those who read his work to darken their memories. Merton wrote the passage down: he could not follow it. His sense of duty to history was too strong, too urgent..."

Though he never lost his love for St. John, and quoted him often in his writings, within 20 years Merton had broadened the list of spiritual writers and mystics whom he most admired. In fact, by the early 1960's Merton looked for guidance to Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich, among others. Merton observes, in a letter to his friend, Sister Madeleva at St. Mary's College, Notre Dame: "Julian...gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St. John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle..." [Seeds of Destruction, pp. 274-275]  I only include this, of course, as a way of crowing a bit about "our" Julian! But I also think it's important for all of us to realize that the effect of certain saints, their writings, and our devotion to them may change at various phases of our life, and there's nothing wrong with that. God, I believe, "sends" them to us at certain times to help accomplish what God has in mind for the direction of our spiritual lives.

I'll confess, unabashedly, that in my seminary days I avoided John of the Cross like the plague! His message, I supposed, as conveyed by well-meaning instructors, was of no interest to me. It became even worse when we had a semester's course on the mystics in our later years just before ordination. That class, because of its utterly boring presentation, killed any vestige of curiosity I might have had for St. John. I loved St. Teresa of Avila, whom I pictured as this very joyful, happy, but serious lover of God: a lively woman who enjoyed reading books, joking around during recreation, singing, and who loved water, particularly, among so many other things.  I remember standing at Niagara Falls one year with my parents, on vacation, gazing at the breathtaking sight in front of me and thinking to myself: "How St. Teresa would have loved this!" I was also hooked on St. Thérèse of Lisieux early on, as well as Teresia Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein] through a collection of her writings, given to me as a Christmas gift from my spiritual director in 1956. But St. John of the way!

It wasn't until 2005 that, for the first time, I picked up and read St. John's The Spiritual Canticle. That was followed by reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul during Lent, 2006. Reflecting on the experience in a letter at that time to my Oblate director, I wrote: "Lent was very ordinary this year, but there was a curious sense of being generously fed...Part was from [a] wonderful Chapter Talk series relating to John of the Cross and Cassian; part was due to my reading St. Edith Stein's Science of the Cross [her last work before she was exterminated in the Holocaust, the manuscript of which I was privileged to actually hold in my hands when I visited the Carmelites at Echt, The Netherlands, in 1998]. Both spurred me to take up reading John of the Cross, which I've pretty much avoided through the years...It amazed me how simply he presents the real purpose of our lives, to be free from everything on this earth and to seek to be one with God, something I've heard spoken of many times. Unfortunately, I was frustrated because John never did finish the commentary he set out to write..." That latter statement highlights the importance of reading things like St. Edith Stein's The Science of the Cross, her take on what John of the Cross was trying to say, or other works, like the writings of Ruth Burrows, another Carmelite, on the mystical life.

Now that in recent years I've picked up a little Spanish, by simply reading St. John's poems in that language one can get just a small taste for how masterful a poet he was, perhaps the greatest which Spain has ever produced. If I've learned one thing from my experiences regarding John of the Cross, it's this: don't be afraid of him! Throw yourself into his poetry and other writings, and you'll love it! You may not understand it -- but, trust me, you'll love it!

A few selections:

"Where have you hidden, 
Beloved, and left me moaning?
¿Adonde te escondiste,
Amado, y me dejaste con gemido?..."

"She lived in solitude,
and now in solitude has built her nest;
and in solitude he guides her,
he alone, who also bears
in solitude the wound of love.

Let us rejoice, Beloved, 
and let us go forth to behold
ourselves in your beauty...
"En soledad vivía,
y en soledad ha puesto ya su nido, 
y en soledad la guía
a solas su querido,
también en soledad de amor herido.

Gocémonos, Amado,
y vámonos a ver en tu hermosura..."
(From The Spiritual Canticle)

"A deeper enlightenment and wider experience than mine [!!] is necessary to explain the dark night through which a soul journeys toward that divine light of perfect union with God that is achieved, insofar as possible in this life, through love. The darknesses and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won't be able to describe it..." (Prologue, The Ascent of Mount Carmel)

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Saint of Light

"When a martyr lives and dies in Sicily, has a world-famous song written about her which is still sung 1500 years after her death [Santa Lucia], has her name included in the Canon of the Roman Mass, is listed in the oldest Christian Sacramentaries, has two churches dedicated to her in pagan England before the 8th century, is the most popular saint in Sweden and Norway, had her biography written by a member of the Saxon royal family, and a poem about her by John Donne, and whose feast day was originally the date of the winter solstice, she has to have been some remarkable lady!

And such a person is Saint Lucy – the ever-popular Santa Lucia."

In those few words, Fr. John Julian, OJN, in his wonderful collection of stories of the saints, captures the popularity of St. Lucy of Sicily, Virgin and Martyr (d. c. 304) The details of Lucy's life are quite obscure and, understandably, many legends and traditions have arisen to fill the gaps. Lucy was martyred at Syracuse, Sicily, in the reign of Diocletian. One can argue the details that have been reported surrounding the event, but the important thing is that Lucy is one of the most important saints in the Church's history, and had a following in Rome in the early 500's as one of the most beloved of all the virgin martyrs. She is remembered for her purity of life and the gentleness of her spirit. Her name, Lucy or Lucia = light, occasioned her being looked upon as the patron of people with eye trouble. She's often depicted, especially in medieval art, holding her eyes on a dish. This was probably a cultic transfer of the representation of a pagan goddess, Lucina, shown with a tray holding two tiny cakes, looking very much like eyes.

In popular piety, Lucy is honored on December 13, which, for many centuries, was the shortest day of the year. Later calendar changes by Gregory VIII shifted the shortest day to December 21/22, depending on the year. A traditional aphorism, popular in England, marks Lucy Day as the winter solstice:
Lucy holy, Lucy light:
Shortest day and longest night.

In Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, there has long been a festival celebration of light, both ecclesiastically and domestically. In the domestic Lucia-fest, a young girl in the family dresses in pure white and a red sash, symbolizing Lucy's faith, purity, and martyrdom, and wears a crown of lighted candles on her head with a wreath of lingonberry greens, a sign that light is returning on this day. She then, preceded and followed in procession by her brothers, "star boys", serves her parents a tray of coffee and saffron yeast buns, called Lussikattor = Lucy's cats. This latter is connected to the legend of the Norse mother-goddess, Freya, from which we get our word "Friday". Freya was said to drive an amber chariot of the sun through the skies, drawn by a pair of giant grey forest-cats.

After several transfers of St. Lucy's remains from the original site in Syracuse, her relics finally rest in the Church of SS. Geremia and Lucia in Venice. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Encouragement In the Midst of Our Irrationalities

Today we celebrate Gaudete or Rejoicing Sunday: a sort of “breather” in the middle of Advent. In Roman Catholic parishes, and in some Episcopal churches, festive rose-colored vestments are worn, just as some Advent wreaths have a third, pink, candle. This touch of the festive, in mid-Advent, is a symbolic encouragement to us as we journey through these four weeks, and, indeed, through life: facing challenges, suffering, questioning, and irrationalities every day. At this halfway point in the waiting season our eager sense of anticipation of Christ’s coming anew is heightened by the liturgy’s words of encouragement and hope.

The passion of Advent’s final days finds further expression, beginning on December 17, next Friday, as the Church reflects in the Evening Office on the eight ancient “O Antiphons” for Vespers, the words of which are found in the Advent hymn, O Come, o come, Emmanuel: “O Wisdom”, “O Lord of Lords”, “O Root of Jesse”, etc.

On this Third Sunday of Advent, we want to spend a few minutes reflecting on the Gospel reading (Matthew 11:2-11): specifically, about the irrationality of John the Baptizer, the irrationality of Jesus’ hearers, and our own irrationality. We can best do this against the background of Matthew’s 3rd-4th chapters.

John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. The Spirit then directly leads Jesus into the desert. When Jesus emerges, he leaves his hometown, Nazareth, goes up to Galilee, lives at Capernaum in the northeast, and there he begins to preach: “Change your hearts, for the reign of heaven is at hand.” For the next seven chapters in Matthew, Jesus exercises a ministry of preaching and doing, which sounds good enough, except that he stirs up what can be called irrationalities in his cousin, John the Baptizer, in his followers, and he often does the same even to us.

The beginning of today’s Gospel passage makes it obvious that a good bit of time has passed since the events of Chapters 3 and 4. Jesus is still on the road, but John is now in prison. In prison John is growing tired and confused. He seems to have lost some of the confidence with which he first bore witness. He keeps hearing about what Jesus is doing, even as he’d been aware of Jesus’ earlier deeds. But Jesus hadn’t seem to measure up to John’s expectations. For example: Jesus ate with the very people of whom John demanded repentance. Jesus didn’t fit the traditionally expected role or exert the visible Messianic power which John assumed he would have. Matthew’s Gospel points out at least three previous times when John and his disciples have misunderstood Jesus and what he was doing: in Mt 3, where John mistakenly interprets Jesus’ ministry in terms of the refining fire of Messianic judgment; again in Chapter 9, where they challenge Jesus and his disciples for not fasting; and now, in Chapter 11 where John’s disciples give voice to his unspoken doubts: “Are you the One who is to come...or should we begin looking for another?” John has seen and now hears from prison what Jesus is doing; but he doesn’t seem to really connect the deeds with the message of the words. You might say that John the Baptizer was having a crisis of faith, becoming irrational, beginning to doubt if Jesus was really the Promised One for whom John had been preparing the way.

Leo Rosten, in his book The Power of Positive Nonsense, says: “The only force I fear more than human irrationality is irrationality armed with passion.” John had such passion, such deep feelings. It was John who leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the mere voice of Jesus’ mother’s greeting. It was John who was overwhelmed that his cousin should come to him for baptism. It was John who’d said: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin.” It was John who’d heard the voice from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” It was John who proclaimed: “He must increase, but I must decrease.

Yet, though he saw, John didn’t understand. He doubted, and he needed reassurance. The restless, irrational prophet who’d done the grunt work of preparing the way for others to know Jesus, has become the seeker, the searcher, desiring with all the passion in him to know for sure, so that, in any case, he can get on with making some sense of his present situation. Jesus, quoting, among other texts, the very moving passage from Isaiah in the first reading today (35:1-10), sends back a coded message: “Go and tell John what you hear and see” Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully paraphrases Jesus’ words: “People who were blind to the love loose in the world have received sight; people who were paralyzed with fear are limber with hope; people who were deaf from want of good news are singing...And best of all, tell John that this is not the work of one lonely Messiah but the work of God, carried out by all who believe, and that there is no end in sight!

All the signs of the Messiah are evident. The coming reign of God also now is. Jesus is clearly the One who not only promises God’s reign, but who initiates here, now; who embodies God’s purpose and plan in his words and deeds. And it’s to and in this mission and ministry that Jesus calls John, and his hearers, and us to participate: here, now; not just in the future. But Jesus hints that God’s reign, God’s way, will continually meet with resistance and rejection for all who participate, just as it will in Jesus’ life.Yet he calls all of them and us to this costly faithfulness of discipleship, to walk the way of the Cross, to face and embrace our fears and doubts and irrationalities in solidarity with him.

The second half of the Gospel passage intimates that John’s followers also continued to share John’s misgivings, his irrationality and questioning. John was an immensely popular man of God: even after he and Jesus were gone we see references to John’s disciples at Ephesus, for example, in Acts 19, 3. John recognized his call as forerunner of the longed-for Messiah. Just as John, his followers wanted to believe that; they felt deeply, passionately about the coming Savior/Messiah. But as Jesus goes about working his wonders for others, John lays wasting away in a prison. If deliverance is really the heart of the Good News which Jesus preaches, then why is all this happening to John and to them? “Our dreams have turned to nightmares; our plans have gone up in smoke. We see blind eyes opened, true, and the deaf now hearing, and the lame walking...but what about our situation, where everything seems to be crumbling? Are you really the One…?” Jesus can only respond: “Go and tell John what you hear and see, and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

The New Covenant, the time of fulfillment, Jesus says, is now, with us who are among “the least in the reign of heaven”. Deliverance is evident to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. But that doesn’t automatically free us from our inner and outer prisons, from our own doubting and irrationality. The plain fact is that, within God’s reign, not every human situation gets better, on the personal, the communal, or the world level; healing and curing aren’t the same and don’t always happen together.

Despite the passion with which each of us has come (or will come) to an authentic encounter with the Living One; despite centuries of witness by patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and saints; despite all the
nurturing of the Church through her sacramental life, we, too, so often succumb to our fears, doubts, and irrationalities, just as John and the others did. Almost daily we find ourselves, or those we love, in situations which seem impossible, which challenge us to our limits, which threaten to break us. “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?

We must come to realize that the heart of faith and hope within God’s reign is finally coming to understand that God’s power can heal us even when no cure is possible. “My grace is sufficient for power is made perfect in weakness.” The Acts of the Apostles constantly repeats what’s required to belong to the reign of God: 1) Repent: that is to say, turn your heart around; 2) Be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Immerse yourself in the Covenant of the Love of God and your neighbor, as in a refreshing stream; 3) Confess that Jesus is Lord. Act and live as Jesus did. So simple. So uncomplicated. But never easy!

The Church calendar commemorated the noted Trappist monk and writer, Blessed Thomas Merton on Friday, December 10: the day of his tragic death by accidental electrocution in 1968. As you and I walk through the remainder of this Advent season of waiting, even in the midst of our own fears, doubts, and irrationalities, may we pray with and for one another in the spirit of this prayer of Merton’s:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain
where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
qctually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that
I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that
desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the
right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I
will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the
shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.
- Thoughts in Solitude, p. 79

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 3

We light the candle of hope and of peace, and along with them this week the candle of joy. What joy Mary must have felt when the angel Gabriel told her that a special child would be born to her, a child who would save and deliver the people. God wants us all to have joy. The angel who announced to the shepherds that Jesus had been born told them: "Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of a great joy for all the people -- for to you is born this day, in the City of David, a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." We light this third candle to remember that Christ brings the promise of a new life, in which the blind receive sight, the lame walk again, and prisoners are set free. He is the bearer of true and everlasting joy.

Loving God, we thank you for the joy you bring us.
Help us to prepare our hearts for this gift.
Bless our worship. Help us to hear and to do your Word.
We ask this in the name of the One born in Bethlehem. Amen. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Blessed Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis, OCSO) - 1915-1968

"What I wear is pants.  What I do is live.  How I pray is breathe."
(From Day of a Stranger)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Celebrating the Conception of Mary, the Theotokos

O Mother of God
we take refuge
in your loving care.
Let not our plea to you pass unheeded
in the trials that beset us,
but deliver us from danger,
for you alone
are truly pure,
you alone
are truly blessed.

According to Roman Catholic tradition, today's feast is called the "Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin". It refers to the the Virgin Mary's being conceived by her mother, St. Anne, without any stain (macula) of original sin. It is one of the four official dogmas in Roman Catholic theological understanding of Mary. The teaching of the Roman Church states that, from the first moment of her existence, Mary was preserved by God from the original sin of Adam and Eve, and filled with sanctifying grace that would normally come to a human being through baptism after birth. Catholics also believe that Mary was free from any personal or hereditary sin. It's important not to confuse Mary's immaculate conception with the conception, the incarnation, of her son, Jesus. Jesus' conception is celebrated as the announcing to Mary (Annunciation) that she would become the Theotokos = the God-bearer.

From early on in the history of the Catholic Church, the writings of numerous Church Fathers are cited as places where this belief is implicitly stated. For many centuries there have been regional and local liturgical celebrations of a feast day in honor of Mary. To sum up a rather complicated subject in a few words, the Roman Catholic Church has used as its theological basis for this belief the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, great 4th century Western Father of the Church. It wasn't until December 8, 1854, relatively recently, that the Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as an official teaching and matter of faith of the Church by Pope Pius IX.

Orthodox Christianity has seen all this from a very different viewpoint. It views the teaching of the "Immaculate" Conception of Mary as a response to a situation created by the Roman Catholic dogma of original sin. Following Augustine, Rome teaches that man inherits from Adam a "stain" of original sin, primarily manifested in concupiscence, the tendency to sin. So Rome had to provide an explanation of how Christ could be born of a human parent, yet without sin. The teaching of the Immaculate Conception tries to break this chain by making Mary the exception, not Christ.

In the East, Eutyches [c. 380—c. 456, a presbyter and archimandrite at Constantinople, and later condemned as a heretic] had argued that, if Christ had a real human nature, he would also have inherited the stain of sin. Pope Leo the Great countered by making a distinction between the nature, which Christ did indeed assume from Mary, and the guilt which He did not assume, "because His nativity is a miracle". There was never any idea of Mary's own preservation from original sin. In one of Leo's sermons (62,2) we read: "Only the Son of the blessed Virgin is born without transgression; not indeed outside the human race, but a stranger to sin... so that of Adam's offspring, one might exist in whom the devil had no share."

The Orthodox Church's theological basis for understanding Mary's conception is based heavily on the theology of St Athanasius, specifically his treatise On the Incarnation. There Athanasius holds that, when man, in the persons of Adam and Eve who have passed on to us our human nature, first sinned, man became separated from God. This separation from God is what Orthodox Christianity understands as the "original sin", having two consequences. First, separated from the source of all good, man becomes morally corrupt, with an innate tendency to sin. Secondly, separated from the source of all Being, man begins to return to his original state, i.e., to the nothingness from which God created him. Thus, the corruption and death experienced by humankind.

 In other words, "original sin", in the Orthodox understanding, isn't a "stain" but rather an absence. Given that, there's no need to explain how Christ failed to inherit it along with his human nature from Mary, because the Incarnation itself is the end of the separation. From the moment of incarnation, Jesus Christ was both God and man. Therefore, his human Nature never experienced the separation from God which all other humans have experienced since the Fall. Christ does not give us life and righteousness as things apart from himself. He is our life and righteousness.

 The Orthodox Christian view would not say that the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception is wrong per se, but rather that it makes no sense theologically if the understanding of original sin is more from Athanasius than from Augustine.

Even Christ's ancestral lineage wasn't distinguished for holiness. Indeed, the lineage isn't through the favored son, Joseph, but through Judah, whose casual sin with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, was less than edifying. Matthew mentions four women in Christ's genealogy, all of them of questionable reputation. 1) Tamar, who enticed her father-in-law into sleeping with her. 2) Rahab, the prostitute. 3) a former pagan, Ruth. 4) Bathsheba the adulteress. Matthew seems to want his readers to be aware that it's not Christ's ancestry which makes him the Savior.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ambrose of Milan (339-397)

You may have experienced finding yourself in what you think is the wrong place at the wrong time...but as things unfold you're later made to understand that you were just in the right place and time where God wanted you to be. Ambrose, I think, must've had that feeling any number of times in his life.

Born in Trier, Germany, Ambrose's father was the Roman governor of Gaul (current Spain & Britain). Ambrose's family raised him as a Christian, but he was, amazingly, never baptized. Growing up in an aristocratic family, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he'd serve in some exalted political post. Educated in Rome, he became a highly successful attorney.

So it was that Ambrose became governor of northern Italy, with headquarters in Milan, just at a time when heretical Arian Christians were battling with the orthodox Christians over theology, and, wouldn't you know it, at the time when Bishop Auxentius of Milan, an Arian, had died, and a contentious election had begun for a successor. It fell to Governor Ambrose to get himself involved in the process, addressing the unruly opponents so as to keep some semblance of peace during the election. Suddenly, during one of the lulls of quiet in the midst of the infighting, a little child's voice was heard to cry out over and over: "Ambrose! Bishop!...Ambrose! Bishop!" Tentatively, a few people in the crowd began to take up the cry. Soon more and more voices joined in, until a crescendo of both Arians and orthodox Christians were thundering: "Ambrose! Bishop!" Ambrose was flabbergasted, and probably a bit mortified! Definitely wrong place, wrong time! He was still only an unbaptized catechumen.

Ambrose resisted, to the point of fleeing from Milan in the dark of night, with the intention of going to Pavia. In the darkness, however, he lost his way, wandered about, and took a wrong turn. As the sun arose, a weary Ambrose found himself at the city gates...of Milan! Wrong place, wrong time...again! As the old saying goes, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" Realizing in his heart that God had put him in the exactly right place at exactly the right time, Ambrose relented and agreed to be baptized and consecrated as the new Bishop of Milan.

And what a bishop he turned out to be! He became a compelling teacher, a popular preacher, always defending Christ's divinity, the local hot-button theological issue, as central to the Christian faith. Ambrose was the first to introduce hymns into the Western liturgy, and even contributed several theologically rich compositions of his own. With the backing of his whole community, he stood firm against the imperial powers' attempts to interfere in Church affairs and matters of faith.

In 384 a new professor of rhetoric, Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, arrived in Milan. At 30 years of age, he was young, handsome, definitely a ladies-man, and a brilliant and popular teacher. Ambrose, no slouch himself academically, had become aware of the new arrival's presence, mainly through the man's mother, Monica. Monica was, as they say, verklempt with fear for her son's spiritual destiny. He'd lived a raucous life since his adolescence, and was very taken with a bizarre and dangerous philosophical school, Manichaeism, which, Monica knew, had little in common with her own Christian belief. She, of all people, was aware of her son's brilliance and essentially good heart, and she wanted only the best for him. So she approached Bishop Ambrose and plead with him to do something about it. Ambrose, to her astonishment, said "No...but let him be. Only pray to the Lord in his behalf. He will find out by reading what is the character of that error and how great is its impiety."

What Monica didn't know at the time was that Ambrose himself, as a small child, had been given over by his deluded mother to be educated by the Manichees. He not only read all their books, but even copied them out. On his own, Ambrose had concluded that the truth was not there, and that he should flee from it as quickly as possible, which he did. But Monica keep pressuring Ambrose, over and over, shedding copious tears, to talk to her son and set him straight. Finally, Ambrose, probably feeling this was the wrong place, wrong time again, got a bit ticked off, and said to Monica: "Go away from me now. As you live, it is impossible that the son of such tears should perish." Three years later, at Easter in 387, the same year that Monica died, Bishop Ambrose baptized that young man as a Christian, as well as his illegitimate son, Adeodatus, composing for the occasion a great canticle which we now sing at Morning Prayer on major feasts: the Te Deum laudamus = We praise you, O God. We know the young man as Augustine, later Bishop of Hippo, and one of the greatest saints and doctors of the Western Church.

The moral of the story: think twice the next time you find youself in what you think is the wrong place at the wrong time! 

Monday, December 6, 2010

St. Nicholas of Myra (d. c. 342)

Little is factually known about St. Nicholas, who is one of the patron saints of Russia, other than that he was a 4th century bishop, at Myra, in what is now southern Turkey, and was reputed to be a worker of wonders. A 9th century hagiographer expanded on the latter a collection of what could almost be called wonderful hero or adventure stories about St. Nicholas. Many of them recount his love and care for children, his feeding of the hungry, his healing the sick and caring for the oppressed. The photo [shown on the right] depicts Nicholas rescuing three boys in a barrel from possible cannibalism, something reprehensible to our modern ears, but an occasional occurence factually verifiable at that time of great famine in Asia Minor. Another story tells of how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by providing them, at the last minute, with dowries. Thus developed a tradition of bringing gifts to children on St. Nicholas' feastday, a tradition appropriated in later Christmas celebrations.

Fr. John Julian, OJN, in his Stars In A Dark World, makes this interesting observation about the corruption of the St. Nicholas tradition in the United States: "In early New York, 'Saint Nicholas' was recognized by the Dutch Protestant settlers as 'Sint Klaes', and, apparently preferring paganism to popishness, they mixed the saint’s story with the Scandinavian legends of Thor who, as the god of fire, dressed all in red, rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats named Gnasher and Cracker, entered homes through chimneys and hearths, and was worshipped and honored by the burning of a Yule Log. This less than-creditable hybridization produced, of course, the totally secular, uniquely American, and notably un-saintly 'Santa Claus', the greatest symbol of contemporary consumerism. And, sad to say, this perversion of sanctity was advanced considerably by the word of an Episcopal priest and seminary Dean, The Rev. Clement C. Moore, who wrote what became the classic pagan Yuletide poem, 'The Night Before Christmas'." Only in America!

Now that our rampant and insane practices of acquiring and consuming more and more trifling things on a mega-scale has begun to come back and haunt us in the serious recession we're currently experiencing, perhaps this would be a good day for us pause and resolve to remember and begin to emulate the spirit of a man who devoted himself to far nobler human and spiritual ideals: providing for the welfare and future of children, the feeding of the unemployed and the poor, and the selfless easing of others' sufferings and burdens.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Waiting In Hope

Some years ago John Irving published the novel The Hotel New Hampshire, one that has remained a favorite of mine through the years. There's a character in the book named Freud: a Viennese Jew, an entertainer, who drives a motorcycle with a sidecar. The only one allowed to ride in the sidecar is his dancing bear, State o' Maine. Early in the story, Freud and the bear entertain guests at a resort hotel with an act they repeat over and over. It features the bear taking over the motorcycle's controls and driving his master, Freud, around in the sidecar, to the great delight of the audience.

Later in the book, in a letter trying to convince the Berry family to come and manage a hotel in Vienna, old Freud mentions a humorous, yet tragic story:

"But Viennese answer is better: we say, 'I keep passing the open windows.'
This is an old joke. There was a street clown called King of the Mice: he trained
rodents, he did horoscopes, he could impersonate Napoleon, he could make dogs fart 
on command. One night he jumped out of his window with all his pets in a box.
Written on the box was this: 'Life is serious but art is fun!' I hear his funeral was a party.
A street artist had killed himself. Nobody had supported him but now everybody missed him.
Now who would make the dogs make music and the mice pant? The bear knows this, too:
it is hard work and great art to make life not so serious."

The beginning of the Church's year, Advent, is a time of waiting for the coming of the One promised. But this time of year, just before the holidays, is just as traditionally a time of increased depression and sadness for many people. The ghosts of loneliness and fear and frustration appear in many people's lives for a whole variety of reasons. Some, unfortunately, pushed to the edge of despair, end it all in suicide. Suicide: just reading or saying that word makes one uncomfortable. It faces us with an alternative which we'd rather not think about.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has written: 'Man, unlike the beasts, does not carry his life as a compulsion which he cannot throw off. He is free either to accept his life or to destroy it.' In our freedom to die, we're each given a unique power which we can easily abuse. Suicide is the ultimate and extreme self-justification of a human being as human. From a purely human standpoint, it is, in a certain sense, 'even the self-accomplished expiation for a life that has failed.' It's a person's attempt to give final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless.

We consider suicide wrongful and as exhibiting a lack of faith because God is a living God. Lack of faith isn't a moral fault, for it's compatible with both good and bad motives and actions. But in both good and evil, lack of faith takes no account of the living God, and that is the sin. It's for God alone to justify a life or to cast it away. Before God, self-justification is quite simply sin, and suicide, at least objectively, is therefore also sin. God, the Creator and Lord of Life, alone exercises the right over life.

Taking one's physical life isn't the only form of suicide. Most of us probably would find it abhorrent to exercise the final option in this way. But there are other ways to kill oneself: by the inward violence done to one's human spirit, by losing faith through negelct, by letting one's heart atrophy towards others, by allowing life's possibilities to go unrealized. Like the street clown called King of the Mice, many times we inwardly jump out of the window. "It is hard work and great art to make life not so serious."

The trick is, as old Freud observed, to "keep passing the open windows". The liturgical Scripture readings for this Second Sunday of Advent call it hope. Isaiah (11:1-10) describes the ideal Messianic king, a descendant in the line of Jesse and David, who would stand in the presence of the wise, understanding, knowing, and awesome God. He would so embody God's righteousness and faithfulness that he would be immune to flattery, special pleading, sentimentality, and the false mercy of permissiveness. He would govern the good and bad alike with even-handed justice and true mercy. Upon his coming he would restore a complete harmony of humanity with nature and of nature with itself. Such an "ensign to the peoples" rekindles in a dying people the spirit of hope.

Paul's formula (Romans 15:4-13) for the Roman Christians to "keep passing the open windows" is steadfastness and encouragement of the Scriptures. Paul tells the community at Rome that the God of hope wishes them to work toward that integration and harmony between themselves and others, and between themselves and Jesus, which, though not yet "Paradise regained", will be brought to completion through the long-awaited One, the Messiah, the Christ. The assurance of their hope is Jesus, the now Risen Lord, who is living proof of God's fidelity, God's promise, in his becoming a servant even unto death. New life in the Father is now accessible to the people of the Covenant for whom Jesus confirmed the ancient promise, as well as to the Gentiles to whom he now extends the promise. If Paul's hearers can accept this in faith, the power of the Spirit, of whom Isaiah spoke, will make them "abound in hope".  

Then there is John the Baptizer (Matthew 3:1-12), the herald of hope. Matthew describes him as the one foretold by Isaiah, who would prepare the way for the Lord's coming. In the spirit of the great prophet Elijah, this cousin of Jesus takes his vocation seriously and disciplines himself ascetically. John is thus the faithful example of hope in the coming One.

John's message is one of repentance in preparation. The preaching of John and Jesus both begin with the Greek command Metanoiete! = Repent! Literally, it means that a person needs to undergo a positive change of mind, of disposition: a conversion which leads to decisive action. Simply being sorry or regretful for past wrong-doing isn't enough. Such a radical change or conversion isn't only a preparation for the coming of God's reign. In a real way it's the beginning of God's reign, the taking hold of the individual person. It implies resuming one's Covenant commitments. Such inward change and conversion is an expression of hope that life can be different. That hope is rooted in Jesus who brings us the cleansing and purifying Spirit of hope.

During Advent you and I enter into and make our own the longing, the dreaming, the hoping which we feel deeply in our hearts. But how do we cope with the longing in our lives, with personal dreams and visions which are so often shattered and go unfulfilled, with hopes that are so often dashed to the ground that we're tempted to despair and to jump out the open window, symbolically or actually?

John Irving concludes his book thus: "...we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone's older brother, and someone's older sister -- they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear...and our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them. That's what happens, like it or not. And because that's what happens, this is what we need: we need a good, smart bear...skilled at keeping sorrow at bay.

In an entirely symbolic sense, Jesus is the "dancing bear" of our lives. The "hard work" of his coming and being one of us, his dying and rising for us; and the "great art" of his sending his life-giving Spirit among us, to bring us into all truth, is what makes "life not so serious." Jesus has taught us how to "keep passing the open windows", how to hope. "...This is the will of the One who sent me, that I should lose none of those who have been given to me...For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6:39-40)

As we wait in Advent hope, we make our own the ancient prayer of the Church: Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus! 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent 2

Last week we spoke of the first candle in the Advent Wreath as the candle of hope. We light it again as we remember that Christ will come again to fulfill all of God's promises to us.

We might think of the second candle of Advent as the candle of peace. It's sometimes called the Bethlehem Candle, to remind us of the place in which preparations were made to receive and cradle the Christ Child. Peace is a gift which we must be prepared for. God gives us the gift of peace when we turn to him in faith. The prophet Isaiah speaks of "the Prince of Peace". Through John the Baptizer and all the other prophets, God asks us to prepare our hearts so that God may come in. Our hope is in God and in God's Son, Jesus Christ. Our peace is found in Jesus. We light this candle today to remind us that he brings peace to all who trust in him.

Loving God, thank you for the peace you give us through Jesus.
Help us prepare our hearts to receive Him. Bless our worship.
Guide us in all that we say and do. We ask it in the name of the One
born in Bethlehem. Amen.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"St. Nicholas" Ferrar

During my 13 years in the seminary, a number of the young men were tagged as "saints", sometimes out of genuine admiration by others, sometimes because others felt they spent too much time in chapel or were overly scrupulous about using "bad language", etc. Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637), according to the great Anglican divine, George Herbert, had the reputation of being called "St. Nicholas" from the age of six!

Ferrar, born in London, attended college at Clare Hall, later Clare College, at Cambridge (also Thomas Merton's school), becoming a Fellow there in 1610. [The photo at the left is the window at Clare College Chapel, commemorating Nicholas Ferrar]. For some 10 years he travelled in Europe working as a businessman, then as a parliamentarian after he returned to England. In 1625 Nicholas moved to Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. I can tell you from our pilgrimage there in 2007 that it's a rather remote place. Our tour bus could barely get down the lane leading to the chapel!

Ferrar was joined at Little Gidding by his mother, his brother and sister, and their families. They formed and followed a community life devoted to prayer and to charitable service in the local area. Archbishop William Laud ordained Nicholas Ferrar a deacon in 1626. Nicholas, writing to his niece in 1631, says: "I purpose and hope by God's grace to be to you not as a master but as a partner and fellow student."

Nine years after Ferrar died in 1637, the Puritans, fearful of anything smacking of "Papist Roman" practices, insisted on breaking up the Little Gidding community, of which they were suspicious and which they called "the Arminian Nunnery", destroying all of Ferrar's manuscripts in the process. So typical of small-minded, ignorant and uninformed fundamentalist bigots of any ilk, secular or religious!

The great British poet, T. S. Eliot, immortalized the Little Gidding community in his Four Quartets:

"If you came this way, 
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment 
Is England and nowhere. Never and always..."

I found Little Gidding to be a very sacred place -- it's almost palpable when you stand in St. John's Chapel -- what the Celtics call a "thin place". Little Gidding is a site where one feels, in Eliot's words, "the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling" to "A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)"..."And all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well/When the tongues of flame are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/And the fire and the rose are one.