On Being a Blessing for All

BenedictChurchStatue1Abraham’s call to leave his country and kindred has been a monastic trope ever since there was a monastic presence in Christianity. Entering the monastic life does entail leaving behind the life one had been leading up to that time. It is also a venture into the unknown. Reading books on monasticism or even visiting monasteries do not fully prepare one for life after actually entering. The author of Hebrews said that Abraham did not know where he was going and lived “as in a foreign land.” (Heb. 11: 9) The author of Hebrews was not writing for monastics but for a Christian community under pressure. For this author, all Christians have “no lasting city. (Heb. 13: 14) Abraham did not simply turn his back on his family and his culture. God told him that he would “be a blessing” and through whom all families would be blest. (Gen. 12: 3) This would include being a blessing for the family he had left behind. Monks, for that matter remain involved with their families of origin and offer help when it is needed. Benedict himself had left the Roman culture of his time in which we was well-placed socially to enter a new life in which he became a pioneer for many sons and daughters in the millennium and a half since his life.

St. Paul’s prayer that we “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3: 18) is fitting for the monastic quest as we seek to know God deeply through prayer in the Divine Office, in the Eucharist, and in our hearts. It is significant that this deep prayer, even when done individually, is communal as Paul is praying that the whole Ephesian congregation will seek this depth in prayer. Benedict wanted his monastics to prefer nothing to the Work of God. He also wanted his monastics to “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

The closeness to God gained in prayer is imaged in the vine and the branches in John 15. As a branch clings to the vine, so should we cling to Jesus, keep the Abba’s commandments, and “abide in his love.” (Jn. 15: 10) This image of the vine and the branches is communal as the vine connects us deeply to each of the branches. Indeed, Jesus goes on to admonish us to love each other as we have been loved by Jesus and His heavenly Abba. It is through this love and not from intellectual study, that everything made known to Jesus by his Abba is also made known to us. The comprehending of the breadth and length and height and depth of God is a comprehension, partial to be sure, that comes from the same love that would lead us to lay down our lives for our friends if that should be required of us. In his Rule, Benedict would have his monastics serve one another. This applies to serving at tables, serving the sick, and in general tending to the needs of others.

Although we may be pilgrims and wanderers we, like Abraham, remain rooted in the hope for the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11: 10) even as, like St. Benedict, we tend to the community we are called to serve in this life so that we may be blessings for all people.

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My reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict are available in my books Tools for Peace

 

On Being Lifted up for Us

crosswButterfliesAs we draw near to Holy Week, the lections focus on Jesus’ anticipation of his Passion. Jesus’ famous response to the Greeks about the grain dying in the ground in order to bear fruit suggests a good deal of serenity on Jesus’ part. But one can imagine personifying a grain suddenly experiencing the pain of being ripped apart from within and panicking that it is dying before blossoming out into a new life beyond imagining. If somebody had quoted Jesus’ words to the grain before it happened, would the grain have been serene about what was to come? A brief reflection on our own nervous state about such an occurrence probably gives us the answer to that question.

Jesus seems less serene when he says that his soul is troubled and raises the question if he should ask his Father to save him from this hour. But Jesus’ resolution returns in the very next verse: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “ (Jn. 12: 27) The clear echo of Jesus’ anguished prayer at Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels comes to mind here. Luke is particularly dramatic with the drops of blood dropping to the ground. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses Jesus’ anxiety more than the Gospels: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Heb. 5: 7) It is significant that, although Jesus was not saved from death, his prayer was heard. Or was Jesus saved from death?

After his Gethsemane-like words in John, Jesus says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John goes on to say: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (Jn. 12: 32-33) I agree with the many scholars who take this verse and similar ones in John as conflating the cross and resurrection. John abounds in word plays and here John gives us a double meaning to “lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross and he was lifted up in the resurrection. This conflation has the danger of minimizing the reality of Jesus’ death, making it a quick and easy passage to the resurrected life. However, I see a strong tension in the way that John makes the expression “lifted up” do double duty. After being lifted up on the cross, the crucifixion remains an enduring reality even after Jesus is lifted in the resurrection. That is, it is not only the Resurrection but the crucifixion that draws people to Jesus. John gives a powerful stress on the victimization of Jesus as the focal point when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (Jn. 12: 31) The crucifixion judges the persecutors and the resurrection drives out the persecutory mechanism that has ruled the world. It is because, as the author of Hebrews said, Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb. 5: 8) that he has the power to draw us to him. That is the say, the conflation can work both ways. It seems to dilute the experience of Jesus’ death but it also retains the painful death in the glory of the resurrection. This conflation shows how vital both elements are. Jesus was raised up on the cross as a victim of grave social injustice. God raised Jesus to vindicate Jesus and to demonstrate that the crucifixion, a disgrace in the eyes of the persecutors, was in truth the glory of God. (The Greek word doxa is another double entendre as it means both disgrace and honor.)

We can speculate on how Jesus himself actually experienced his approaching death but can arrive at no definitive answers. Even the New Testament writers who dealt with it give us varying portrayals. It stands to reason that Jesus’ own emotions were at least as complex as the sum of depictions in the New Testament. But, as the author of Hebrews said many times, Jesus is the forerunner into persecution and death to give us the courage to face both ourselves.

Foreigners and Strangers

statueoflibertyI’m not going to brag about how great a country the United States of America is, but I’m not going to condemn it either. The lections assigned for this celebration tell us how to celebrate this day and that is how I’m going to do it.

In Deuteronomy (10:17-21), Yahweh claims to be the God of Gods. That is God is God of all nations, not just Israel and certainly not just of the United States. Yahweh goes on to remind the Israelites of their humble origins as escaped slaves and commands them to lend the same compassion to other foreigners. It is easy for us to forget that all of us here are descended from foreigners, even the Native Americans, although they go way back. Yahweh, who defends the poor and the fatherless, embraces the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free. As descendants of tired and poor teeming masses yearning to breathe free, we should open this country to those whom Yahweh loves and not just to the energetic, rich people who breathe easily. In order for a country to practice such radical hospitality, it is necessary to practice the same hospitality to all who already live here so that others may wish to come.

When we gather in any way, whether as a family, a community, or a nation, we need to be sure that our bonding is not at the expense of others. That is, we should not need enemies to know who we are or who we think we are. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, which amounts to not considering anyone our enemies, even if they think that of us. Jesus says that pagans greet those who are of “their sort.” Jesus asks much more of us than that. If God gives rain to all, then we should give peace to all. That is, we should treat those of other countries the way we treat our own, provided we treat our own as the passage from Deuteronomy teaches us.

The author of Hebrews (11:816) reminds us that our country, any country, is not ultimate, is not our final dwelling place. Even the most supposedly settled of us were nomads once and fundamentally we still are. We all should be looking for a “better country—a heavenly one” while we live as foreigners and strangers here. If we all live as foreigners, we will not be strangers to each other and we will be surprised at how pleasant our stopping place is on the Way to the better Home.

Human Swords, God’s Peace

vocationersAtTable1Jesus’ words that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matthew) or division (Luke) are startling, coming from a man who is commonly referred to as “the Prince of Peace.” Does this mean that Jesus is a war-god of some sort after all? Since Jesus never used a sword and rebuked Peter from using one at Gethsemane, and died rather than call on legions of angels to defend him and beat up his enemies, and approached his disciples and even the persecutor Paul with forgiveness after rising from the dead, it is fair to assume that Jesus is not in the least encouraging swords and divisions, but is warning us that we will have both as long as we experience the world in terms of us vs. them.

The approach to scripture inspired by René Girard and colleagues such as Raymund Schwager and James Alison is strongly committed to an unequivocally loving God who seeks only peace as opposed to any two-faced Janus-like deity who is capriciously loving one moment and wrathful the next. This approach tends to interpret “wrath” associated with God as human projections that distort the truth of God’s unconditional love. Basic to Girard’s thinking is the conviction that humans tend to unify conflictive societies through scapegoating vulnerable victims with collective violence. Society has regained peace—for a time—but at a cost to at least one person. This sort of a peace simply has to be disrupted once and for all by a God who is unequivocally loving and who wishes that not even one person be lost. According to Girard, this is precisely what Jesus did by dying on the cross and exposing the reality of collective violence for what it is.

As a result, we now have a world where there is an ever heightening awareness of victims, but a serious lack of anywhere near a corresponding awareness of the need for forgiveness. Without forgiveness, awareness of victims increases resentment and escalated conflict. Since the awareness of victims does not allow collective violence to bring peace to a society, there is nothing to stop the escalation of violence. As resentment grows rampant, it infects every level of society including the family so that family counselors are in great demand to try and talk people into giving up their resentment against those closest to them. They often fail as much as conflict mediators in political hotspots and for the same reason. Resentment becomes a defining factor of many lives and defining factors are not easily given up. So it is that the coming of Jesus the forgiving victim has brought swords and divisions.

The offer of peace and forgiveness, for all of the divine love behind it, inevitably causes division between those who accept it and those who don’t. There are two possible reactions to such a choice and a unanimous conversion to God’s peace wasn’t in the cards then any more than it is today. (Of course we humans stack the deck heavily against peace.) For those of us who seriously try to choose peace, it is tempting to think we are on the “peaceful” side of this division but we need to realize that the Word, the forgiving victim, is a divisive two-edged sword “piercing to the division of soul and spirit” and “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” as the author of Hebrews puts it. That is, the pure forgiveness of the divine victim shows up the least bit of resentment we allow ourselves to harbor in the farthest, darkest, corners of our souls.

The escalation of violence occurring right at the time of this writing is a sure cause of discouragement. What we can do is take hope, primarily for ourselves, but also for our personal relationships and for humanity as a whole that the offer of peace from the forgiving victim remains open to all of us at every time of day and night and this offer will never end no matter what we do with our swords and divisions.